Karl Abraham

From New World Encyclopedia

Karl Abraham (May 3, 1877 – December 25, 1925) was an early German psychoanalyst, and a student and colleague of Sigmund Freud. He made substantial contributions to the world of psychoanalysis. His work on dreams enriched the understanding of myths and symbols, and he was a pioneer of the study of war neuroses. Abraham was fascinated by the various stages of psychosexual development, suggesting greater differentiation in libido development and postulating the connection between disturbance in psychosexual development and psychosis, which was later worked out by Freud. Freud regarded Karl Abraham as his 'best pupil' and eventually became his close friend and confidante.

Although Karl Abraham was included in Freud's "inner circle" and remained loyal to him throughout his life, he left Vienna to found the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute due to disagreement with Carl Jung. This institute proved significant in the expansion of psychoanalysis not only in Germany, but through his analysands, students, and colleagues there, among whom were included Melanie Klein and Karen Horney, he contributed to the successful expansion of psychoanalysis to Great Britain and the United States. Karl Abraham's loyalty to Freud was admirable and unusual since Freud's unwillingness to allow intellectual disagreement among his followers (including Jung, Alfred Adler, and Sándor Ferenczi) led to the breakdown in relationship between them and Freud. Had Abraham been able to maintain better relationships with them perhaps he could have served as a bridge between their work and Freud's, to the benefit of all.


Karl Abraham was born in Bremen, Germany on May 3, 1877, into a well-to-do, highly cultured, and well established Jewish family. Karl's father, Nathan Abraham, used to be a teacher of Hebrew religion, but he gave this up for economic reasons, becoming a businessman. As a result, Karl abandoned the Jewish faith early. His writings also reflect no interest in religion, this being in marked contrast to his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud.

Abraham became deeply interested in philology and linguistics, and he learned to speak five languages, read several others, and even analyzed and psychoanalyzed some patients in English. Following the standard German preparatory education, Karl Abraham received his medical degree from the University of Freiburg in 1901. He married his cousin, Hedwig Burgner in 1906 and they had two children; his daughter was the well-known psychoanalyst Hilda Abraham.

His first position was at Burgholzi Mental Hospital in Zurich. Abraham became an assistant to Eugene Bleuler and studied with Carl Jung, who in 1907 introduced him to Sigmund Freud. In that same year, Karl Abraham published his first paper, which began with the phrase "according to Freud." It was a prophetic beginning. Karl Abraham among all Freud's disciples, never deviated from personal loyalty to Freud or from the classical principles of psychoanalysis.

Abraham was soon alienated by Jung's personality and by what he saw as Jung's threats to the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Despite Freud's pleadings the two men were never reconciled, and Abraham soon left Zurich to establish a practice in Berlin, opening the Berlin Institute of Psychoanalysis. This practice flourished, and among his analysands (psychoanalyzed persons) were several who became respected analysts (psychoanalysts), including Sandor Rado and Helen Deutsch.

During World War I Abraham was mobilized as chief physician in a psychiatric unit. At that time he became interested in the study of war neuroses.

During 1924-1925, Abraham was the analyst of Melanie Klein and of a number of other British psychoanalysts, including Alix Strachey, Edward Glover, and James Glover, the latter subsequently becoming physicians in the United States. Abraham was also a mentor for an influential group of German psychoanalysts, including Karen Horney and Franz Alexander.

He died on December 25, 1925, in Berlin at the age of 48. Karl Abraham brought to the fledgling psychoanalytic movement considerable prestige, and his contributions have lasted far beyond his own brief life.


According to verified sources, Karl Abraham's total literary output was about 700 pages, consisting of four short books and forty-nine papers, all but eight of which dealt with the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, Karl Abraham made important contributions to the psychology of sexuality, character development, psychological understanding of myths, psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams, symbolism, and folk psychology.

Abraham was a pioneer in the study of war neuroses. Together with Sandor Ferenczi he developed the first psychoanalytical research on these problems.

Abraham made original contributions to the study of libido, introducing a differentiation in the phase of libido development based on the separate oral activities of sucking and biting. Based on this, he proposed two different modes in which infants relate to objects: incorporation (through sucking) and destruction (through biting), which gives infants their first experience of conflict. This led him to postulate a model of disturbance in ego development based on the ambivalence generated by the experience of conflict during libidinal development.

Abraham was the first to research psychosis from the psychoanalytical perspective. In his early research he discovered that disturbances of ego functions are secondary with respect to disturbances in libido. Thus, he was able to apply his theories of libido development to dementia praecox (schizophrenia).

Karl Abraham also collaborated with Sigmund Freud on the understanding of manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder), leading to Freud's paper on Mourning and Melancholia in 1917.


Karl Abraham is mainly remembered for two things—that he was a pioneer of German psychoanalysis and that he founded the Berlin Society of Psychoanalysis.

One of Karl Abraham's key ideas is expressed in his description of psychological defense, "A considerable number of persons are able to protect themselves against the outbreak of serious neurotic phenomena only through intense work." This idea has become aphorismic in psychoanalytical understanding of ego defense.

For the last 30 years of his life, Sigmund Freud was in search of inheritors, younger, talented, and energetic persons—preferably men—who could devote themselves to him and to psychoanalysis and carry on his psychoanalytic legacy. So Freud began to gather round him talented younger thinkers like Karl Abraham, Sandor Ferenczi, and Carl Jung. He seated them at a table with himself at the head, like a monarch surrounded by his knights. In time Freud gave some of them rings to seal the fellowship. He called them his sons. Over time, though, it became clear that Freud could not bear much of any intellectual disagreement from his followers. Among these, Abraham remained loyal and unquestioning. Many years later, when Freud was asked by John Dorsey who was his best pupil, he promptly replied Karl Abraham.

In his work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Sigmund Freud wrote: "The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love." In other words, it can be referred to Eros and Anank or "Love and Necessity," which constitute the foundations of any society. This Freudian sentimental idea is appropriate to apply to Abraham's life and work and legacy. Karl Abraham truly lived a life of loving and working; and his life is a legacy for loving and for working.


  • Abraham, Karl. [1909] 2006. Dreams And Myths: A Study In Race Psychology. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1428637740
  • Abraham, Karl. 1966. On Character and Libido Development: Six Essays. Basic Books.
  • Abraham, Karl. 1988. Clinical Papers and Essays on Psycho-Analysis. Karnac Books. ISBN 978-0946439591
  • Abraham, Karl. 1997. Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis. Karnac Books. ISBN 0950164771
  • Ferenczi, Sandor and Karl Abraham. 2007. Psychoanalysis And The War Neuroses. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1432511524
  • Freud, Sigmund., and Karl Abraham. 2002. The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham 1907-1925. Karnac Books. ISBN 978-1855750517

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