Bruno Bettelheim

1903 (Vienna) - 1990 (Silver Spring)


"It may be that Doomsday is coming tomorrow; in that case we can set aside the work of making a better future, but not before then."

Bruno Bettelheim was born to an assimilated Jewish bourgeois family in Vienna on 25 August 1903. After completing a degree in German studies and art history, he studied philosophy and psychoanalysis. When his father died in 1926, Bruno Bettelheim took over his wood business. In 1929 he began his training analysis, and with his wife he treated an autistic child in their own flat beginning in 1932. He received his doctorate in 1937 with a dissertation entitled Das Problem des Naturschönen und die moderne Ästhetik ("The Problem of the Beautiful in Nature, and Modern Aesthetics").

Following the German invasion of Austria in March 1938, his escape to Czechoslovakia failed and he was handed over to the Vienna SS and taken to Dachau Concentration Camp on 3 June 1938 as a "political Jew". On 23 September 1938, he was taken to Buchenwald. With the help of acquaintances, Bruno Bettelheim was released on 14 April 1939 and had to leave the country with no possessions. On 11 May 1939 he landed in New York.

Old friends from Vienna helped Bettelheim get an assistant position in a research project about art education in American schools at the University of Chicago. In 1943, his first academic publication appeared: an interpretation of his observations on the individual and mass behaviour of inmates in the concentration camps. It was a subject that Bettelheim would take up again and again, modifying his interpretations. In 1944, he was offered the position of director of the Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children, especially those suffering from autism. As a therapist, director and educator for the twenty-five counsellors at the school, he built a one-of-a-kind institution over the course of twenty-seven years, one that gave children much more freedom than comparable institutions. Bettelheim’s numerous books have been published around the world; particularly well-known is The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

Following the death of his second wife (1984), intensive public suspicions around his authoritarian therapeutic practice and a stroke, Bruno Bettelheim took his life in Silver Spring on 13 March 1990.