The Max Brahn Story

William F. Brewer's Academic Family Tree

[A letter to Bill Brewer's ex-students. 1/12/97]

It all started in 1992 with a phone call from Dick Harris, one of my earliest students. He had been asked by a student (as part of a class assignment in a history of psychology course) who his intellectual ancestors were. Dick didn't know so he called me. I didn't know the full answer, but I was soon unable to resist trying to find out. By end of 1992 I had succeeded in working out all of the links except for Max Brahn. The results were delightful. You are William James' academic great, great, great, great, great, grandchild and Wilhelm Wundt's great, great, great, grandchild!

My son, John, helped me turn all the information into electrons so I could have a poster. There was simply no information about Max Brahn in the English language literature on the history of psychology so the poster included his name, birthdate, and an empty frame. As you may remember I have a real problem with accepting that I cannot run down some bit of information. I did not like the empty frame. In the last year with considerable hard work and a bit of good luck I now know the story about Max Brahn--it is, unfortunately, a sad story.

Max Brahn, your intellectual great, great, great grandfather was born on June 15, 1873. [I have obtained much of my information on Max Brahn from the from: Gundlach, H. (1995) Max Brahn (1873-1944). In Memoriam. Psychologie und Geschichte, 6 (3/4), 223-232.] Brahn originally studied medicine then shifted to psychology and philosophy graduating with a Ph.D. from Heidelberg in 1895. His thesis was on the philosophy of Kant. He went to the University of Leipzig to do postdoctoral work in experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt. In 1901 he became a lecturer (Privatdozent) at Leipzig. His main area of interest was what we would now call educational psychology. In 1909 he was passed over for promotion to associate professor (ausserordentlicher Professor). He edited several journals of pedagogical psychology and was in charge of a laboratory for experimental pedagogy. In 1913 Wundt recommended his promotion, but the promotion was rejected by the University of Leipzig faculty.

In 1914 Brahn made a major error in German academic politics. In 1912 the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall had written a book, Founders of Modern Psychology NY: Appleton. Hall had been Wundt's first American student, but as Hall became a major figure in American psychology his ego inflated and he began to look down on his former teacher. In the Founders he included some (probably untrue) gossip about Wundt. For example, he reported that the great physicist/psychologist Helmholtz removed Wundt from his position as his assistant because Wundt didn't know enough math (p. 311) He also included a number of disparaging comments such as saying (probably correctly) that Wundt's prose style was heavy and difficult to read and that he did not have an "original...mind" (p. 451). Brahn's mistake was to decide to translate Hall's book into German and to write the Introduction. The German translation came out in 1914. In 1915 Wundt wrote a scathing critique of Hall's book--calling it fiction, not biography. From this point on Brahn must have found himself in the bad graces of the founder of psychology and the major figure of German academic psychology. [The feud between Hall and Wundt is well described in: Bringmann, N. J. & Bringmann, W. G. (1980). Wilhelm Wundt and his first American student. In W. G. Bringmann and R. D. Tweney (Eds.) Wundt studies: A centennial collection (pp. 176-192) Toronto: Hogrefe]

Another very strange episode in Brahn's life involves the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. After Nietzsche became insane his sister, Elisabeth Forster Nietzsche, took complete control of his literary estate. Elisabeth was a very unpleasant lady. [cf. H. F. Peters (1977) Zarathustra's sister NY: Crown.] In 1886 (sic) Elisabeth left Germany for Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Forster, to found an Aryan colony free of Jews. When she was editing Nietzsche's papers and she found a very complementary letter from Nietzsche to someone she would simply substitute her name and publish it as if it had been from Nietzsche to her! As one might imagine from this brief sketch Elisabeth became a fan of Hitler (and vice versa) when he appeared on the scene late in her life. For example, in 1933 she wrote "Our wonderful Chancellor Adolf Hitler is such a splendid gift from heaven that Germany cannot be grateful enough" (p. 193, in Macintyre, B. (1992) Forgotten fatherland. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux). The relevance of all this to our story is that in 1917 Brahn edited an edition of Nietzsche's Will to power. Since Elisabeth was in complete control of Nietzsche's papers, why did an anti-Semite like Elisabeth allow Brahn (who had a Jewish background) to edit some of Nietzsche's papers? The answer would seem to be that intellectual consistency was not one of Elisabeth's strong points. When it served her purposes she was quite willing to override her anti-Semitic prejudice. For example, she was more than willing to accept large amounts of financial aid from a wealthy Swedish businessman of Jewish extraction (cf. Macintyre, p. 167; Peters, p. 188). It is not completely clear to me why a psychologist like Brahn was editing Nietzsche's philosophical works--presumably he was attracted to some aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy.

During WWI Brahn carried out research to help the German war effort, such as developing an aptitude test for pilots. After the war he held a number of positions in the Reich's Employment Ministry. In 1920 the Ministry of Culture wanted to create a chair for Brahn at the University of Leipzig. Wundt and a number of other German psychologists opposed this and Brahn once again was denied the opportunity to become an associate professor. In 1926 the University of Leipzig withdrew Brahn's venia legendi (thus he could not even function as a lecturer). After this Brahn held a number of positions in the government as a wage arbitrator. As the Nazi race laws went into effect Brahn was forced out of his government job and eventually fled to the Netherlands. After the Germans overran the Netherlands he was eventually transported back to Germany and exterminated at Auschwitz in 1944.

So as you can see, the story of Brahn's life is not a happy one. However, we do now have a real person to fill in the missing link in our intellectual family tree. And, in fact, through the kindness of Dr. Horst Gundlach I have obtained a picture of Max Brahn from his daughter (biological generations are much longer than academic ones). Therefore you also now have a face to attach to the Brahn story.

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Last updated November 29, 1999 by EFB