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Biographical outline of August Aichhorn

K.R. Eissler

When August Aichhorn approached his seventieth birthday I wrote a Biographical Outline. At that time, not one of us thought that August Aichhorn’s life span was ending and that he would soon be taken from us. In preparing this outline for the new edition of his Wayward Youth, it is a grief to me to have to change to the past that present tense which sounded so friendly and hopeful when he was seventy.

August Aichhorn was born in Vienna the 27th of July, 1878. At the age of twenty, the year his twin brother died, he became a teacher in one of the grade schools of the City of Vienna. The course of his career seemed to be set from the start. He was a member of a conservative, well-established family; he lived in a feudal city and chose a profession which, like all professions in those days, was guild-like in character. At that time, once a teacher one remained a teacher and waited for two or three decades until he could retire on a government pension. But it was not Aichhorn’s style to follow a routine and to wait for retirement. When in 1907 military settlements for boys were introduced in Vienna, he led a successful fight against that institution. In the following year he became the chairman of a new board which was officially assigned the duty of organizing boys’ settlements. Thus he had prevented the penetration of the military spirit into the educational system. Aichhorn had devoted ten years to that task when he was given an unique opportunity. With a group of idealistic followers, he organized the institution for delinquent boys in Oberhollabrunn, Austria.

Out of the shambles of a refugee camp arose one of the most touching experiments in humanity. At a time when the Austrian monarchy fell apart and the fruits of a cultural tradition were ground to pieces between revolution and inflation, Aichhorn submerged himself in constructive work and created an entirely new method of curing an age-old scourge for whose cure many a device had been tried in vain. Crime and delinquency had taken their course without hindrance. Punishment, segregation, flogging, and execution were recommended by some; love, humaneness, understanding, mercy and charity by others. Neither approach satisfied Aichhorn. In Oberhollabrunn he had occasion to study a vast clinical material and to test his methods of treatment. Part of the exciting experience of these days was laid down in his book, Wayward Youth, the full impact of which only future generations will know.

Aichhorn became interested in delinquents when he started his work as a teacher. He groped around for a science which could help him in the understanding of his observations. Following the fashion of the day he studied neuropathology. But its contribution to the explanation of delinquency was inadequate and could not quench his thirst for knowledge. Next he tried experimental psychology and steeped himself into Wundt and Meumann, but again he felt frustrated. However, as soon as he came into contact with psycho-analysis he knew that he had found a key to the maze of his puzzling observations.

In Aichhorn’s hands, Freud’s technique, devised for the treatment of neurotics, seemingly became a new instrument so much did it differ from the original. Although still authentically analytic in its method, it yet was adapted to the requirements of the delinquent’s personality structure which is so different from that of the neurotic. It was fortunate that a psychologist and clinician of Aichhorn’s stature came upon psychoanalysis and made it his tool. Following the remarkable experiment in Oberhollabrunn which was mentioned with praise in the English Parliament he organized and conducted for the City Administration child guidance clinics throughout Vienna. After his retirement from the municipal service he was made chairman of the child guidance clinic of the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society. He soon became one of the foremost teachers of the Viennese Society and when Germany occupied Austria he remained at his post. He, his wife and their two sons miraculously survived, although one of the sons was sent to a concentration camp. Again surrounded by a holocaust he remained undaunted, and tried to preserve the little of Freud’s work that could be rescued during those dreadful years. After the liberation he was elected president of the society.

It would be futile to attempt to compress the scope of Aichhorn’s personality into a few sentences but a few words must be devoted to the teacher, the clinician and the man.He possessed certain features that made him an unique teacher. It was his attitude of being ‘ignorant’ about the subject-matter to which he had devoted his life work, his belief in always beginning anew, in being eternally a student and pupil, not a teacher, which made him a truly great one. He always acted as the ‘servant’ of his pupils and met their queries for guidance not in the customary teacher-student fashion but sensed in every problem raised the underlying individual conflict which reality had imposed upon the questioner.

His lectures were not the dissertations of an instructor, but rather the talks of a man speaking about life as though reporting on a country he had visited. Even when presenting his theories, they seemed accurate descriptions of reality.

His intuition was uncanny. As the archeologist can visualize the entire temple from a half-broken column, so could Aichhorn reconstruct the whole of a human I personality from a few meagre details which seemed only trifling superficialities to the unintuitive. This amazing gift he had acquired by hard work. He was a true psychologist, who could spend hours in the trolley car watching people and making guesses from what he saw. From the way a man held his newspaper, he guessed at the way he would leave his seat and walk to the exit. Until the passenger reached his destination Aichhorn would wait patiently to test his prediction, oblivious of the fact that by so doing he got farther and farther away from where he wanted to go.

He had a supreme faculty of identifying with the patient and of knowing his needs. It was a touching experience to hear him argue with a schizophrenic adolescent about the interpretation of some obscure passage in the Bible and to witness from week to week the patient’s gradual recovery at a time when official psychiatry still maintained the dogma of the incurability of schizophrenia. Or who else would be able to spend six months of daily interviews with a patient who believed that Aichhorn would like to be instructed in the patient’s vocation? But in this half-year, the foundation was laid for a transference which permitted him to achieve one of his brilliant therapeutic successes. His clinical stature was indicated in his statement that he who feels that he is being ‘patient’ with the delinquent whom he is treating will by that feeling alone be deprived of the fruits of his good intentions.

Aichhorn may be called an impassioned psychologist. Wherever he went or in whatever he did he found problems of human nature to stimulate his quest for knowledge. The world became a huge stage crowded with innumerable dramas so that there was no difference to him between his office, the movie or the trolley car. Everywhere he detected problems of the human mind and puzzling questions demanding an answer. He succeeded in totally disengaging the problem of crime and delinquency from any religious, ethical or moral implications, thus approaching it as a question of nature exclusively. The result was his conception of delinquency not only as a problem of deviate behaviour but more profoundly as a manifestation of deficient internal growth.

As a great artist has supreme command over his instrument, be it a flute or a harp, so could Aichhorn play his instrument, the human personality. In the shortest time he could turn a squanderer into a miser, a thief into a scrupulously honest fellow, a blackmailer into a defender of law and order. But such metamorphoses of a deviation into its opposite were meaningless to him and he never considered such stupendous changes of behaviour a success. He was an enraged enemy of bigotry and conformity and knew that the new miser the scrupulous fellow the protagonist of law and order, were merely acting under the impact of a new compulsion. To him such changes only signalized the opportunity of starting his real work, namely to lead the patient to internal freedom and the integration of values. His amazing command over the human personality resulted in a technique enviable and uniquely effective. It was a rare pleasure to witness one of his interviews. It usually proceeded with a casualness which made it seem uneventful and a apparently merely flowing easily, yet at every moment it was expertly related to the dynamism of the total situation as subsequent checking would ascertain. He rarely made a frontal attack, and was skilful in avoiding the precipitation of resistances, but he could implant a message in the unconscious of his subject with unfailing certainty and by means of indirections and innuendo. It would be difficult to find his peer in the great art of asking the well-timed question which gives reassurance and the feeling of being understood. There were no routine questions in his repertoire interviewing, but a single question became a meaningful part of the comprehensive plan of his interview.

His questions were directed to provoke and create certain preconscious associations in his subject’s mind as part of his strategy. By so doing he had forged an exquisite therapeutic tool out of a procedure which was usually merely a matter of routine and of gaining information.

A follow-up among the families who had sought his advice revealed that in a surprisingly high percentage of instances, a single interview had had a significant effect on the family equilibrium an effect which persisted years after the interview had taken place.

Yet in spite of his command of the art of asking questions, Aichhorn could also level a magnificent frontal attack. Then narcissistic defenses crumbled under his assault, the arrogantly smiling delinquent would leave the room in tears, a vengeful father become subdued and a nagging mother turned meek.

Yet to those who had the privilege of working with him, the most fascinating experience remains the personality of Aichhorn himself. He had achieved an enviable degree of mastery and harmony without losing the capacity for immersing himself in constructive conflict. The man who often spent sixteen or seventeen hours a day with patients could say that he never had the feeling of working. To him work and play coincided. Despite his dedication to the treatment of delinquents he had never lost his capacity to enjoy the adventure of crime nor his understanding of how sweet to the criminal is the violating of a rule to which the community bows. His faculty for enjoyment was unlimited. A therapeutic success, a well-written mystery story, a ride in a car, a game of cards – for him everything could be an enticing adventure.

I ended the above outline with what I thought to be a description of the rare happiness of which I was convinced he had obtained a fair share:

"Thus he is truly young, but spared the hardship of youth, and truly happy because oblivious of his own genius."

Montaigne warns us not to evaluate a human life before it has taken its full course and I know now that this last sentence has lost its truth in view of the dreadfulness with which his last few months were replete. He passed away in his sleep on the 13th of October, 1949, but in the preceding months he fought a titanic and bitter struggle. He felt cheated when ill fate struck him because he had so much more to say than he had put in his writings. But as the magnificent fighter he had always been, death did not vanquish him easily.

This article is reprinted from the preface of the 1951 edition of Wayward Youth by August Aichhorn. London: Imago Publishing Co.

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