It all started when...
120 years ago, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was born in Dobrianychi (Lviv Oblast) near Peremyshliany (Ukraine). Reich’s family presumably were descendants from Austrian colonists who were sent in the thousands to Galician villages by the end of the 18th century. The so-called Josephine colonization was a state-funded settlement campaign for promoting German culture and education as well as developing the economic and military strength of the region. It attracted settlers of all confessions from distant regions of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly from the Palatinate (Pfalz) and the Saarland. According to Wilhelm Reich his grandfather and father were wealthy tenants of agricultural estates. But the Reichs were more than just farmers—they were well-educated, secularized Jews who identified with the German enlightenment. Wilhelm Reich and his brother Robert had a personal teacher and were not allowed to speak any other language but German. While the family was respected by the local ethnicities, young Wilhelm was forbidden to play with the children of Galician Jews (who spoke Jiddish) or Ruthenians (i.e. Ukrainians). The backside of father Leon’s photograph states: “His ideal was the German Kaiser”—Hence, it may not surprise that he called his first son Wilhelm and provided him with a stern and civil upbringing.
Mother Cecilia was born in Brody. In 1895 she married Leon Reich in Lviv, where she had lived with her mother Josephine Roniger (Spitalgasse 2). According to Wilhelm his “mother’s kindness and gentleness captured hearts wherever she went”, however, “she suffered indescribably” from Leon’s “sudden tempers and jealousy”. Maybe the biggest catastrophe in Wilhelm’s life was, when he found out about his mother’s love affair with his private tutor—and told his father about it! Wilhelm was 11 ½ or 12 years old at that time. The event unleashed irreconcilable anger and contempt in his father. His constant beatings and mistreatments eventually drove Cecilia into suicide. She tried to poison herself several times and eventually succeeded in 1911 with Lysol, a household disinfectant. In the upcoming years, her husband wasted himself physically and emotionally out of guilt and despair. Wilhelm organised a stay at a South-Tyrolean sanatorium for him, but he eventually died of pneumonia and tuberculosis and was buried in Vienna central cemetery.
An orphan at the age of 17, before completing his final school exams at Chernivtsi gymnasium, Wilhelm Reich took over his father’s estate as a tenant. In July 1914 Wilhelm and his brother were in the midst of harvesting, when the First World War broke out. Wilhelm sent his brother to relatives and stayed behind to protect the family estate, when the Russian soldiers arrived. In 1916 Reich received command of an infantry battalion and later fought as a lieutenant in the devastating Isonzo battles. He returned as one of the sole survivors. All family assets being lost through the war, Wilhelm Reich arrived in post-war Vienna 1918. By Sigmund Freud’s support, Wilhelm Reich became the youngest member of the psychoanalytic association in 1920. In 1922 he finished his doctorate in medicine and worked in a psychoanalytic ambulatory.
The later course of Reich’s life was characterized by radical ideas and insurgence. He became a member of socialist and communist parties in Austria and Germany and opened the first centre for sexual counselling and research in Vienna. Contrary to Freud, Reich advocated not the sublimation of sexuality and its control within the limits of society, but its free expression. Hence Wilhelm Reich claimed that he coined the term “sexual revolution”, that was later picked up by the hippie movement in the 1960ies. As an inspired socialist Reich offered his counselling services free of charge to working class people. In his writings, this appears like an echo of gratitude to those who had once made him understand the benefits of a fulfilling and purposeful sex life: the Ukrainian peasants and workers on his father’s farm.
Reich’s relatedness to his rural upbringing in Habsburg Galicia and Bukovina might also explain, why he did not stay long in a big city like New York, after he was forced to emigrated to the United States of America in 1939. It is as if he returned to the gentle landscapes of Galicia and Bukovina again, when he eventually settled in Rangeley, Maine (USA). According to Philip Bennett, Reich’s choice of the Rangeley area also “had to do with the typical absence of high humidity”. Wilhelm Reich acquired a large estate of land there and built his research centre “Orgonon”. The center was dedicated to investigating the cosmic orgone energy, Reich claimed to have discovered as an “unknown source of life”. At first Wilhelm Reich worked there only during the summer months, while he spent winter in New York. According to Philip Bennett, however Reich started working more frequently at Orgonon in 1952. There he experimented with orgone accumulators to heal diseases like cancer or infertility, but also constructed his famous cloud buster—a machine that used orgone energy for making rain. In retrospect, these activities are deemed revolutionary by some and deranged by others; in any case we can openly discuss Reich’s work today. In 1950ies America, however, the state administration perceived Reich’s unscholarly approach to “mainstream natural sciences” (combined with his communist past) as a hostile attack on the American society. Reich caught the attention of the FBI and the merciless U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The public agency ordered him to destroy his apparatus and writings. As Reich did not comply to the full extent, he was sentenced to two years of prison for contempt of court. On Nov., 3 1957 Wilhelm Reich died in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. What remains of Wilhelm Reich are such great works as the “Character Analysis” and the “Mass psychology of Fascism”. But more than that—looking back 120 years from now—his life also stands out as a remarkable document of someone who not only travelled the time, but also the space of the Habsburg world, that once united people of different origins, religions and cultures.
This text was the selected for the following grant applications (project “Wilhelm Reich on Stage” in cooperation between Art Center Agov, Theater Les Kurbas, Lviv and Sigmund Freud University Vienna):