November 23, 2022

Freud, Slovenia, and the Origins of Right-Wing Populism

Mladen Dolar

Škocjan Caves, Slovenia

Let me begin with an anecdote that connects Freud and Slovenia. It has often been asked why psychoanalysis experienced such a boom in Slovenia of all places. There is no simple answer to this question, but there is a wonderful and well-documented story about the origin of this relationship, which, in addition to local relevance, also has the quality of a historical parable or spectacular allegory: in the same breath, it combines the felicity of total contingency and the venerability of historical necessity.

The anecdote is about Freud’s visit to Slovenia in the spring of 1898. Freud likely traveled through Slovenia several times, mostly on his way to Italy, but this was probably his only proper stop and visit. We must not forget that at this point, Freud was a fellow citizen of Slovenians, as he spent most of his life as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; at the time of its disintegration (and the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) after the First World War, he was sixty-two years old. In the beginning of April 1898, during the Easter holidays, Freud went with his brother Alexander on a trip to the northern Adriatic (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). They visited Grado, Gorizia, and Aquileia, and on the way back, they stopped in the Slovenian Karst to see the famous Škocjan Caves, which were already a great tourist attraction (and which would later be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986). First, they visited Rudolf’s Cave (now called the Divača Cave), which presented the occasion for Freud’s first (and probably only) meeting with a Slovenian. He reported on this immediately after his return in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, dated April 14, 1898:

[The cave was] was full of all sorts of strange stalactite formations—giant horsetail, pyramid cakes, tusks growing upward, curtains, corncobs, richly folded tents, hams and poultry hanging from above. Strangest of all was our guide, in a deep alcoholic stupor, but completely surefooted, and full of humor. He was the discoverer of the cave, obviously a genius gone wrong; constantly spoke of his death, his conflicts with the priests, and his conquests in these subterranean realms. When he said that he had already been in thirty-six “holes” in the Carso, I realized he was a neurotic and his conquistador exploits were an erotic equivalent. A few minutes later he confirmed this, because when Alex asked him how far one could penetrate into the cave, he answered, “It’s like with a virgin; the farther you get, the more beautiful it is.”1

During this meeting, the Slovene—in his drunken, obscene state—appears as a greater attraction than all the cave’s splendor, and the scene begins to look like a comedy. Freud’s instant analytical remark (and its obscene confirmation) seems like a true caricature of psychoanalysis. Twenty years later, in 1910, Freud wrote the well-known text “Observations on ‘Wild’ Psychoanalysis,” where he thoroughly criticized the exact type of approach he was practicing here—namely, an approach that immediately interprets symbols and symptoms, and that upholds the layman’s attempt to look for, and find, sex everywhere (without posing the question of its problematic and paradoxical status—in short, without realizing that for psychoanalysis, sex is not a universal answer, but a universal question).2 It is as if, when confronted with a Slovene, Freud himself perfectly embodied the caricature of “wild analysis.”3 His report of this encounter continues: “The man’s dream is one day to come to Vienna, so as to gather ideas in the museums for naming his stalactites. I overtipped the ‘biggest blackguard in Divača,’ as he called himself, with a few guilders, so that he can drink his life away faster.”4

So here is the figure of a Slovene: a drunken, failed genius who nonetheless showed enough spirit to fascinate Freud; a bum with the ambitions of a conquistador (a significant word, as Freud also used this term to describe his own ambitions and habitus5); a surrogate erotomaniac with the rather dubious substitute symptom of descending into “holes,” which are certainly not lacking in that part of Slovenia; a local weirdo who earned the sympathy of Freud.

Freud’s letter provides enough details that the Slovene in question can be unequivocally identified. His name was Gregor Žiberna (1855–1929). He was from Divača and he was roughly the same age as Freud. In his younger years, he and his brother had opened a café and delicatessen in the middle of Trieste, but they appear to have quickly run into trouble on account of their Slovene national pride. Afterwards, Žiberna settled down in Divača, where he devoted most of his time to exploring caves, and eventually became the caves’ first tour guide. He discovered several caves; in addition to the aforementioned Rudolf’s Cave, he also discovered the extremely deep Snake Cave, among others, and he ingeniously designed and built wooden structures with stairs and platforms that allowed visitors to experience the caves. All of this made him a pioneer of caving not only in Slovenia, but also throughout the world. Despite his lack of formal education, he became one of the trailblazers of speleology, and the caving society in Divača still bears his name. So, the anecdote about his and Freud’s meeting could also be interpreted in the following way: one explorer of depths encountered another explorer of depths, and they were both, as it were, the vanguard of their fields.6

Yet the true meaning of this meeting only appears later, during their afternoon visit to the nearby Škocjan Caves:

The Škocjan Caves, which we saw in the afternoon, are a gruesome miracle of nature, a subterranean river running through magnificent vaults, waterfalls, stalactite formations, pitch darkness, and slippery paths secured with iron railings. It was Tartarus itself. If Dante saw anything like this, he needed no great effort of imagination for his inferno.7

The excursion begins in a light, humorous mood—the description of the meeting with the Slovene is almost farcical—but suddenly it turns into something like a metaphysical journey, a descent into the abyss, a journey to hell, to Tartarus, to Dante’s Inferno.8 The Slovenian guide thus retroactively transforms into the figure of Charon, the ferryman who transported the dead across the Styx to the underworld. And just as Charon had to be tipped (the Greeks placed a coin under the tongues of the dead for this purpose), so Freud tipped Žiberna. And it is also worth noting that the timing of this trip was extremely significant; it was about a year and a half before the publication of Freud’s inaugural book, The Interpretation of Dreams (which appeared in November of 1899, with a publication date of 1900). That is to say, it was during the period of intensive writing of this revolutionary work, which Freud begins with an epigraph that was a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VII, 312): Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo—“If I cannot bend the higher gods, I will move the underworld.”9 The literal descent into hell, and a Slovenian hell at that, seems to foretell the epigraph of The Interpretation of Dreams, and it is not an entirely improbable guess that Freud might have gotten the idea for it right there, at the Škocjan Caves.10

And what did Freud find at the end of this descent, at the bottom of the Slovenian hell? His letter to Fliess continues: “At the same time the master of Vienna, Herr Dr. Karl Lueger, was with us in the cave, which after three and a half hours spewed us all out into the light again.”11 This laconic sentence is of utmost importance. At the bottom of hell, Freud met the mayor of Vienna, the “Master of Vienna,” one of the most influential politicians in that part of the world at the time. For the Easter holidays, Viennese residents often went on trips to the provinces, and so it was that in April of 1898, in the Škocjan Caves, Freud met Lueger, a person he would never have met with in Vienna. It was their only meeting.

Dr. Karl Lueger (1844–1910) was the mayor of Vienna from 1897 until his death, the leader of the Christian Social Party, a very popular and populistic leader, notorious for his blatant anti-Semitism.12 Perhaps the best key to Lueger, and his significance, comes from Hitler in Mein Kampf. During the years 1907–12, the young Hitler completed an apprenticeship in Vienna, and wandered the same streets as some of the greatest minds of the time (Mahler, Schönberg, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Kokoschka, Musil …). In Mein Kampf, we learn that Hitler found a grand ideal, a role model, and a source of inspiration in “the greatest German mayor of all time”—that he was “a real mayoral genius” and a “great and brilliant reformer” who offered a model of anti-Semitic propaganda. It was Lueger who supposedly opened Hitler’s eyes to the “true nature of Judaism” and who taught him the foundations of anti-Semitic propaganda. Above all, Hitler admired his ability to stir up the emotions of the masses and to gain direct mass support by invoking the “corrupt party system” and deceitful parliamentary politics.

Lueger’s later legacy, then, is very drastic and can be grasped retroactively, after all the catastrophes for which he provided inspiration. But even in the beginning of his career, Lueger’s anti-Semitism was so notorious that when he was first elected in 1895, Emperor Franz Joseph I refused to confirm his appointment—Freud says somewhere that he honored the occasion by having an extra cigar. Afterwards, the emperor refused to appoint Lueger three more times, until he finally yielded to the “democratic will of the people” (only after a forceful intervention from Pope Leo XIII). Why did the emperor refuse to name him four times? He must have been guided by conservative reasons—that he wanted Vienna to be ruled by a decent representative of the nobility, not a parvenu and agitator, who would just create trouble and incite excessive zeal and disunity amongst the people. In so doing, the emperor was guided by an instinct (no doubt conservative, but also something other than that) to oppose a politics that so blatantly abandoned all decency, politesse, manners, decorum—all that which Hegel (among others) grouped under the rubric of Sittlichkeit, or ethical life. He resisted a politics that would violate a long series of unwritten laws and rules and succeed precisely on the basis of that violation—given that unwritten laws form the very fabric of society and its ethical foundation. Every populism starts right at this point, with breaking the unwritten rules. Of course, this constellation has something emblematic about it: Franz Joseph I was the last emperor, the last figure of the ruler as the Father—he was the Father of the Nation, in his entire habitus, the paradigmatic Father. He ruled for sixty-seven (almost sixty-eight) years, for three quarters of Freud’s life—only Louis XIV and Elizabeth II exceeded him in length of service. The last model of the old authority—the authority of the Father—was here directly confronted with one of the first models of a new type of leader, and with someone who would directly serve as an example and inspiration for the rise of a catastrophic new type of authority. Franz Joseph I, the embodiment of old authority and stability, did what he could to prevent this rise—and in this historical moment we can glimpse something like the swan song of old authority.

Furthermore, it is significant that the word “populism” was applied to Lueger even back then. In fact, the term entered the general lexicon at exactly that time, mainly in connection with the rise of the People’s Party in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century, but also in a broader sense.13 Of course, it was long preceded by the concept of demagoguery, which has shadowed democracy since its inception. Yet the emergence of populism as a political concept and political logic occurs at precisely this moment, and it seems as if it extends directly from this time to ours.

So, Freud’s meeting with Lueger in the Slovene Inferno has, as I alluded to earlier, the quality of a parable. Here the new anti-Semitic master, the Herr, and the “godless Jew” (as Freud described himself) come face to face in the Slovene underworld—it is an image that inaugurates the twentieth century, that carries within it a premonition of all that the century will bring. At the bottom of the Škocjan Caves, Freud unknowingly saw the budding of a terrible future. Yet at the same time, this scene can also serve as the inaugural image of psychoanalysis and of its political mission, which could be briefly defined as a confrontation with authority after the fall of the old authorities. Psychoanalysis was born at exactly the historical moment of the rise of new authorities, and from the very beginning, its mission demanded their dismantling. It still does.

Freud himself was not very interested in politics; his more direct contacts with politics were seemingly anecdotal14 up until politics placed his own life in danger. And there is certainly something emblematic about the fact that, almost exactly forty years after meeting Lueger in the Slovenian underworld, Freud had to flee Vienna to save his life after Lueger’s pupil annexed Austria in 1938. The confrontation with new type of authorities had been with psychoanalysis since its infancy; it arose with the break in the conception of sovereignty and the political, which marked the turn of the century—the same historical moment that coincided with the rise of modernism. Many theorists have conceptualized this break with different vocabularies, but for now let me propose only this: perhaps nothing embodies the coincidence of the two sides of this break as precisely as the entire work of Franz Kafka, Freud’s alter ego in so many ways.

The story about Lueger has a later postscript. In 2000, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was won by the neurobiologist Eric Kandel, and this was celebrated by the Austrian press as a Nobel victory for Austria. Kandel, who was indeed born in 1929 in Vienna, immediately replied that this was, if anything, a Jewish-American award, since his family had to flee Austria, just like Freud, because they were Jewish. This sharp remark caused some consternation in Austria, so the Austrian president at the time, Thomas Klestil, decided to call Kandel on the phone and ask him if anything could be done at this point to correct this great injustice. Kandel replied, without hesitation, that Klestil should immediately rename the “Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring”—the part of the Ringstraße, the circular road that surrounds the very center of Vienna, that was indeed named after Lueger. To make matters worse, the University of Vienna was located on exactly this part of the ring road. As a result of this symbolic suggestion, after long discussions and delays, they eventually—quite recently, in 2012— renamed this part of the Ring as “Universitätsring.” But there are still some monuments to Lueger and other things that bear his name, the most glaring of which is Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Platz in Stubenring, in the very center of the city, where there is also a monument of Lueger. (As of 2016, these are now contextualized with explanatory plaques, as is the Wien River bridge named after him.15) Yet streets in Klagenfurt and Graz are still named after him. Thus, 120 years later, Freud’s brief meeting with Lueger has not stopped haunting us, and it raises questions about new structures of domination that stem from this initial encounter.

Let me add that, in the summer of the same year, 1898, Freud undertook another trip to the end of that world, to Dubrovnik, which was then also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it had been since the defeat of Napoleon), the farthest reach of that world. While on the train from Dubrovnik to Herzegovina, another inaugural event for psychoanalysis occurred: in a conversation with a fellow traveler, Freud could not remember the name of the Italian painter Luca Signorelli (the creator of the famous frescoes in Orvieto), although he was very familiar with him. Freud took this trivial shortfall as the occasion for an exemplary analysis of forgetting, an analytical search for the causes of a seemingly insignificant slip. Slips were the subject of his second great book, The Psychopathology of Everyday life (1901), and it was the forgetting of Signorelli’s name, which he placed at the very beginning of that text,16 that served as a model for his analytical approach to parapraxes, and it remains one of the most famous examples of a Freudian slip. But what matters for us in this context is this: the forgotten name of Signorelli was repressed, and its place was taken by a multitude of other substitute signifiers that evoked it (and also evoked repressed thoughts of “death and sexuality,” says Freud). The missing signifier, the signifier in the position of the exception, was not just any odd signifier, but the signifier of the master, Signor (in the name Signorelli), Herr (evoked by the association with Herzegovina as well as other associative links). Here we can see a prime example of what Lacan calls the master signifier, le significant maître, which he designates as “S1” in his algebra, and which is here, so to speak, something self-referential—the repressed signifier is exactly what Herr and Signor suggest, the master signifier, the repressed S1 that keeps others in check.17 This seems like an example that is almost too good, that fits together too well, so to speak. But why can’t we read both travel anecdotes together? The master signifier, which is lacking and repressed in the train ride episode, appears in the (Real) flesh, so to speak, in the Slovenian story—in persona, as the Herr von Wien, the master of Vienna, an indicator of an emerging paradigm of domination that can seemingly no longer be covered by S1, by the classic function of the master signifier. Is this about a form of authority that is no longer reducible to S1? (And which is perhaps not quite reducible to that which Lacan will name the discourse of the master?) It may be that the haphazard juxtaposition of Freud’s two journeys is the most convenient entry point for the defining problem of the century and a quarter that separates us from that moment: what is the new nature of the Master?

Before we leave this parochial topic of Freud’s encounters with Slovenia, let me finally mention the example of a Slovenian who was a psychoanalytic patient (an example that has been used several times by Slavoj Žižek). What can psychoanalysis expect from the analysis of a Slovenian? This Slovenian was not analyzed by Freud, but by Edoardo Weiss, a Jewish psychoanalyst from Trieste, who was a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Italy. Weiss was, incidentally, almost certainly the model for the psychoanalyst who appears as a central figure in Italo Svevo’s novel Zeno’s Conscience (La coscienza di Zeno, 1923), which is entirely built around one long psychoanalytic therapy (the main purpose of which is for the analysand to give up smoking), and is one of the highpoints of modern Italian literature.18 Weiss was in constant written contact with Freud and consulted him about his practice. In 1922, he sent him a message about a Slovene patient who was impotent, and at the same time completely immoral, as if he lacked the elementary sense for basic moral principles and social rules. He tried to cheat everyone, and he even came up with a method to profit from psychoanalysis—his father paid for his therapy, but he told his father that the sessions cost far more than they actually did, and he pocketed the difference.19 There is a strange paradox with this wretched Slovene: on the one hand, he was a swindler, a liar, a fraud, beyond the reach of the moral law and the Law of the Father, but on the other hand (despite that?), he was completely impotent. The transgression of all ethical and social laws did not lead to unbridled pleasure, but to its prohibition—the more everything is allowed, the more it is prohibited.20 Freud, faced with this peculiar case (“the Slovenian complex”?) answered Weiss as follows (and this is Freud’s only specific mention of a Slovenian): “[This Slovenian] is obviously a scoundrel who is not worth your trouble. Our analytic art is powerless with these people, nor can our insight penetrate the dominant dynamic conditions of such cases. I do not answer you directly. I assume you will send him away.”21

When faced with a Slovenian, psychoanalysis gives up. Freud can’t think of anything better to say than “don’t waste your time,” “I have no advice.” Welcome to Slovenia! It seems that the Slovenian patient represents the limit of psychoanalysis, so to speak—something unanalyzable, too great of a challenge for analytical treatment, for its concepts and its clinical grasp. Is psychoanalysis too sophisticated to deal with such primitive souls, or is it, on the contrary, not sophisticated enough to unravel something so obscure? So that’s how it started: psychoanalysis immediately gave up on the first encounter with Slovenians, but this just gave the Slovenians more encouragement, we didn’t give up on psychoanalysis. Au contraire.

We started with Slovenia’s claim to be the mythical point of origin of psychoanalysis, especially the origin of its confrontation with the political—not with the politics implied by psychoanalysis, but with the politics one encounters in the Inferno (but can one disentangle the former from the latter?). Back to the roots, but those roots are in hell. At the same time, Slovenia also represents a confrontation with the limits of psychoanalysis, with the unanalyzable and incurable. Both of these were outlined by Freud himself, he sowed these seeds—so it is perhaps not so surprising that psychoanalysis prospered in this tiny country. Slovenia was posited both as a source of psychoanalysis and as its limit—one only had to step into that space and proceed from there.

Translated by Kaitlyn Sorenson, from Mladen Dolar, Od kod prihaja oblast? (Analecta, 2022).


The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904, ed. and trans. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Belknap Press, 1985), 309.


For a closer analysis of this text, see my “Running Wild?,” Stasis 4 no. 1 (2016).


Here I must draw attention to a Danish group of theorists, based in Aarhus, who called themselves the “Institute for Wild Analysis” (Institut for Vild Analyse) and thus reclaimed this Freudian term. Their work is extremely inspiring; more information about their project is available (in Danish) here .


Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904, 309.


As he says in a letter to Fliess dated February 1, 1900: “For I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador—an adventurer, if you want it translated—with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.” Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904, 398.


It is a striking detail that Žiberna went to Vienna in order to find new names for his stalagmites and stalactites. It would seem that he had run out of names for the natural wonders he was discovering. His problem was that there are not enough signifiers to cover all that sprouts from nature; there is an excess of nature over culture.


Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904, 309; translation slightly modified.


There are hundreds of caves in this area, and in my experience, in half a dozen of them the guide will tell you that it was exactly here that Dante got his inspiration for hell.


Virgil’s line refers to Acheron, which was one of the four underground rivers. It is worth noting that Freud originally selected an epigraph from Milton’s Paradise Lost—specifically, the words spoken by the devil about consulting “what reinforcement we may gain from hope, if not what resolution from despair.” These verses could be read as a counterpoint to Dante’s famous inscription at the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There has been much speculation as to why Freud changed his mind at the last minute and chose Virgil instead.


A very young Karl Marx alluded to this line from Virgil in his satirical fragmented novel, Scorpion and Felix. He writes: “So define for me which is right and left, and the whole riddle of creation is solved, Acheronta movebo, I shall deduce for you exactly on which side your soul will come to stand.” Karl Marx, Scorpion and Felix, A Humoristic Novel, in Collected Works 1835–1843, vol. 1, trans. Alick West (Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–2005), 622. Determining what is left and what is right—that is all that is needed to move the underworld.


Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887–1904, 309.


For brief historical insight into Lueger, his career, and his background, see Carl E. Schorske, Fin­de­siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Vintage Books, 1980), which I rely on here.


The People’s Party was a left-leaning, predominantly agrarian party that tried to break the American two-party system, but it was short-lived. In fact, this party is the only case where members described themselves as populists, and the party itself was often called the Populist Party—otherwise, it is almost always a term laden with negative connotations, despite attempts to use it in a more positive sense (for example, Laclau, Mouffe, etc.). Starting in the 1960s, the term gradually became more and more common, and has become ubiquitous today.


For more on this point, see my essay “Freud and the Political,” Theory & Event 12, no. 3 (2009).


In 2020 and 2021, demands for the removal of the monuments, and petitions to that effect, escalated, and protest graffiti appeared very often on the monument.


Freud was immediately aware of the far-reaching significance of this forgetting and described this case as soon as he returned home from that trip in September 1898. He immediately published it in the Monatsschrift für Psychiatrie und Neurologie and then included it in a book two years later. What is interesting is this: Freud mentioned the notion of a “slip” for the first time in a letter to Fliess on August 26, 1898, i.e., right before he set off on this trip. Thus the Signorelli case trod right into the freshly prepared place.


In Lacan’s analysis of this example, the repressed signifier (S1) is codependent with repressed thoughts about death and sexuality (as Freud already noted), but ultimately, Lacan claims that this is about the Hegelian “Absolute Master” (“death, the absolute master”) as the limit of discourse (cf. Lacan, “Introduction to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung,’” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton, 2006, 316).


Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz (1861–1928), was a close friend of James Joyce during his long stay in Trieste. It was Joyce who encouraged Svevo to write Zeno’s Conscience, his masterpiece, and there are even strong indications that Joyce modeled Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, upon Svevo.


“A young man who had been discharged from the army after the first World War. He was sexually impotent. He had betrayed many people and had a very immoral ego. One day I learned that he had told his father that my fee was higher than it actually was. His father paid me in cash, handed to me by the patient, and the patient had been keeping the extra money for himself.” Weiss, cited by Paul Roazen, Edoardo Weiss: The House that Freud Built (Routledge, 2005), 98.


Too little is known about this case to say anything more definite, and yet—it appears that in these few meager lines lies a paradox that not only doesn’t evade psychoanalysis, but rather serves as its proper domain. The absence of guilt and conscience associated with the impossibility of enjoyment—doesn’t this example lead us precisely to the point where rule is no longer based on the Law of the Father but rather on the superego? In Lacan’s reading, superego does not forbid pleasure, but commands it, and the subject cannot measure up to this command. Shaking off the prohibition of the Law of the Father led the patient to the impossibility of following the commands of the superego. I guess this thinly sketched story belongs to the same break as the one we see in the passage from the classic figure of the father to the new type of master.


Roazen, Edoardo Weiss: The House that Freud Built, 98.

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Fascism

Mladen Dolar is one of the founders of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis, aka the Ljubljana Lacanian School. The author of more than a dozen books in Slovenian and English, he is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School.


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