The Mysterious Career Change of Hugo Klajn

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Hugo Klajn – psychoanalyst, theatre director, lecturer, and literary scholar – is one of the more intriguing characters in Yugoslav medical history.  Born to a Jewish merchant family in Vukovar at the end of the nineteenth century, Klajn went on to study medicine with some of the most famous figures in recent medical history including Julius Wagner-Jauregg and Emil Kraepelin.[1]   Despite the biological approach to mental illness favoured by his instructors, Klajn was seduced by the ideas of psychoanalysis and entrenched himself in the growing Viennese psychoanalytic circle.  While there, he studied under Freud and underwent supervision with Paul Schilder and Victor Tausk.  Eventually, he returned to Yugoslavia and undertook efforts to popularize psychoanalysis in Belgrade, giving public lectures, translating some of Freud’s key works, and applying Freud’s theories in various clinical settings.

In addition to his medical work, Klajn was keenly interested in the cultural application of psychoanalysis. Already an accomplished left-wing theatre critic by the mid-1930s, Klajn soon took on a beautiful young patient named Stana Djuric.   Djuric was a brilliant concert pianist, a budding music reviewer, and was well-known within Belgrade’s cultural circles. The relationship eventually transgressed the boundaries between physician and patient and the two fell in love.

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In a matter of years, the war came to Yugoslavia and, to escape the Germans, Klajn hid in a house belonging to a friend of his new bride’s.  To avoid detection, he began using the pseudonym Uros Kljajic whenever he left the home.  When the violence eventually died down, the new government put him to work at Kovin Hospital where be studied the mystifying psychiatric symptoms exhibited by partisans returning from battle.

Shortly thereafter, however, his career as an active psychiatrist came to an end as he took up a position at the National Theatre.  The exact reasons for this abrupt career change, however, are somewhat shrouded in controversy. 

On the one hand, Klajn may have recognised that his romantic involvement with Djuric was unethical – relationships between analysts and their patients were severely frowned upon – and it’s possible that he simply opted to leave the medical world behind.

 An alternative explanation states that Milovan Djilas (at that time still a member of Tito’s inner circle) approached Klajn with the offer of a position at the National Theatre.  Although keen on the position, he was reluctant to give up his clinical work and Djilas relented by allowing him to split his time between the positions.   Although Klajn continued his work at Kovin hospital, colleagues soon began to complain that he was not fulfilling his clinical duties. Forced to choose between his two passions, he opted for the theatre.

One final possibility concerns the nature of the relationship between Klajn and Stana Djuric. Djuric was actually Djuric-Ribnikar, the wife of Vladislav Slobodan Ribnikar, a member of the famous Ribnikar family and chief director of the newspaper Politika.  Ribnikar has been friendly with the Communists since the 1920s and Tito may have even used his house in a Belgrade suburb for secret meetings. In the post-war period, Ribnikar also filled various important roles in the new government. Although the verity of this event is uncertain, a play about the love affair between Klajn and Djuric posits that Klajn’s medical license was suspended (for “abuse of a patient”) by the Serbian Medical Academy under pressure from Ribnikar.[2]

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When asked directly about the reasons for his career change by a fellow psychiatrist who visited his home in 1961, “with a soft grin on his face, he answered that it simply had to be (like that).”[3]

Klajn went on to enjoy an immense career as a theatre director, poet, musician, lecturer, and expert on Shakespeare. Despite his post-war fame in dramatic circles, Klajn remained dedicated to the ideas and theories of psychoanalysis. He continued to publish translations of Freud as well as psychoanalytic interpretations of Shakespeare, the poet Miroslav Krleza, and novels such as Crime and Punishment.  His wife, meanwhile, would become one of the country’s most eminent musicologists.  

Klajn never returned to medicine in any substantive sense although he did occasionally continue attend meetings of psychoanalytically-minded practitioners. His achievements and contributions to Yugoslav psychiatry, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis were eventually recognised with honorary membership in both the Assembly of Croatian Doctors and Association of Yugoslav Psychotherapists.


[1] Wagner-Jauregg was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1927 for his discovery of malarial fever treatment while Kraepelin was instrumental in developing the modern conception of schizophrenia. 

[2] Tajna Mansarde by the playwright Jelena Popadic.

[3] Klain, E. “Posljedni Susret S Hugom Klajnom.” Psihoterapija 11(2) 1981 11, no. 2 (1981), p. 121.

‘Experimental Psychosis’ and LSD Research in Communist Czechoslovakia

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These images were produced by experimental subjects taking part in the ‘Experimental Psychosis’ project at the Prague Psychiatric Research Institute in the late 1950s and 1960s. The research programme, headed by psychiatrist Miloš Vojtěchovský, involved EEG monitoring and the analysis of creative graphic output (paintings, charcoal and ink drawings, among others) of healthy individuals under the influence of a variety of psychotropic drugs (including psilocybin, mescaline, adrenaline derivatives, dimethyl- and diethyltryptamine, and perhaps most significantly, LSD). These were then compared to the results of the same tests for experimental subjects with a diagnosis of schizophrenia during psychotic episodes, as a means to examine whether hallucinogens induced a form of ‘model psychosis’.

The subject who painted the faces above reported being unable to record the constantly changing colours quickly enough as the hallucination was happening, and so the resulting black and red images do not capture the full range detail of the images experienced.[i] The gradual distortion of the facial features is reminiscent of the progressive deterioration of Louis Wain’s ‘Kaleidescope Cats’, thought to be a result of his worsening mental illness.

Whilst ultimately the experimenters were doubtful as to whether the parallels between psychosis and drug-induced hallucinations went beyond mere analogy, they argued that inducing ‘model psychosis’ had a very important didactic function for mental health professionals, as it provided a new way for staff to directly experience symptoms of mental illness that they had hitherto only been able to observe in their patients. They hoped that such phenomenological experiences could be integrated into the training of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, to enable a more humane therapeutic relationship.[ii]

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This illustration is accompanied by an explanatory note exploring the word-game that the experimental subject was engaging in during their LSD-induced experience. The comical canine cariacature with its exaggerated genitals is ‘Psychosexopes’, which can be roughly translated into English as ‘Psychosexdog’ It is a visual representation of the experimental subject’s chain of thoughts, which pun on the fact that the plural of the Czech word for pes, meaning dog, is psy. An annotation beneath the image reads,  ‘psyche – higher nervous activity – experiments with dogs, sexuality – psychoanalysis’.[iii]

According to officially endorsed ideology under Communism, psychic phenomena were reducible to the products of ‘higher nervous activity’ in the Pavlovian sense. Experimental work in the Pavlovian tradition often made use of experiments with dogs (psy). The term ‘psy, in tandem with this particular dog’s obvious sexuality, in turn brings the subject’s thoughts back to psychoanalysis. Given that psychoanalysis was technically regarded as a pseudoscience by the regime – with scientists having to have special permission to access the works of Freud which were kept in separate rooms in state libraries – the amalgamation of Pavlov with Freud in this wordplay signifies the bringing together of two ideological opposites, and has a subversive element.

Although the identity of the experimental subject remains undisclosed by the authors of the book, it is perhaps worth noting that at least one of the project’s collaborators, Stanislav Grof, was a trained psychoanalyst, and went on to use LSD to support therapeutic sessions which did draw explicitly from psychoanalytic models. The fact that such work was being carried out during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia is testament to the possibilities for theoretical autonomy in medical research at the time. In spite of the Party’s disapproval of psychoanalysis, the experimental psychosis researchers were, in practice, able to continue to pursue their own interpretations within experimental contexts without much direct state regulation, even before the Prague Spring Reforms of 1968.


[i] See Jiří Roubíček Experimentální psychosy (Prague: Státní zdravotnické nakladatelství, 1961) pp. 216-219

[ii] Ibid., p. 260

[iii] Ibid., p. 194

Further Reading:

Stanislav Grof Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (New York: Viking Press, 1975)

The disappearing act

I came across a thought provoking article in the New Yorker magazine a few days ago by Nicholas Schmidle on the attempts at and problems of proving the Kosovo Liberation Army’s alleged organ theft scheme.

This story encapsulates much of the problems of historical research on bodies in Central and Eastern Europe, calling attention to a broader set of challenges. The last 20, 60, 100 years (take your pick according to the history of the country of your choice) have been tempestuous, to put it mildly, and the political stakes of basically everything we touch in our research is, without exception, high today. So how do you find out about the past of bodies in a region where borders have been moving with a rate that is difficult to keep up with, where neighbors waged battles to the last blood over issues hundreds of years old, and where the ways in which bodies are controlled, abused and destroyed have been so central to every regime that emerged and fell throughout the decades (including current ones)? How and when can memory be used as evidence? Who’s memory to begin with? And more importantly, how much can and should we take into account contemporary political agendas that might influence or even significantly shape how and what kind of memory is accessible to us? Not to mention the problem of physical evidence. Bodies disappear, get dismembered, turn to dust. How to prove undocumented physical violence, torture, medical mistreatment and murder that were committed decades ago? Contemporary examples remind us all too often how problematic bodies are as evidence, from legal procedures of medical malpractice through excessive police brutality to military prison tortures.

With all the unanswerable questions, though, the story of the possible organ harvesting in Kosovo and Albania is a reminder of how important the history of bodies in the region is. These are histories that do matter, without a question.