Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Professor Bernhardi, a play by Arthur Schnitzler, M.D.

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Tug-of-war, like the events in Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler
Tug-of-war. Photo by KamPraProductions for Foreign Affairs’s production of Professor Bernhardi. Used with permission.


“A spiteful something has been fabricated out of an innocent nothing.”
— Dr. Löwenstein in Professor Bernhardi    


Professor Bernhardi: A Comedy in Five Acts (1912) is one of seventeen plays written by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), a Viennese physician who also published two novels and twelve short stories or novellas. He belonged to a non-observant Jewish, medical family. His maternal grandfather was a physician, his father was a renowned otolaryngologist and professor at the University of Vienna, his younger brother became a surgeon, and his brother-in-law was also a physician. Most of his works deal with human emotions and are an exploration of relations between the sexes that cut across class boundaries. He also wrote about the prevalent, open antisemitism of Viennese society. 

Vienna at the turn of the century was administered by Mayor Karl Leuger, a member of the Christian Social Party. He was an outspoken (and therefore popular) antisemite. He was supported by Catholic conservatives who wanted to “re-Catholicize” Austrian society and to place all education, including university instruction, under the direct supervision of the Church. Darwin’s theory of evolution was perceived as a new and significant threat. 

The play takes place in 1900 Vienna at a private, charitably funded teaching hospital, the Elizabeth Institute. Professor Bernhardi, chief of the division of internal medicine, is also the hospital director. There is a young, unmarried woman on the ward dying of septicemia from a botched illegal abortion. She is unaware of her terminal condition. She is conscious, thinks she is recovering, and is “euphoric.” Her excited state may be the result of the camphor injection she received. A priest has been summoned by the nurse. He wants to hear her confession since she is obviously a “sinner.” Dr. Bernhardi does not want the priest to “shake her out of her delirium” and wants her to die “happy.” The priest, Father Reder, learns from Dr. Bernhardi that his presence will not change the woman’s medical condition, but Dr. Bernhardi does not want the woman to realize that she is dying.

Father Reder insists that she needs absolution because her “end is near.” Dr. Bernhardi insists that she does not know she is dying and is not contrite. As the patient’s doctor, Bernhardi forbids Father Reder to see her, but the nurse tells the patient that the priest is here. She becomes distressed and dies. Father Reder tells Dr. Bernhardi that the woman died a “sinner without the consolation of religion.” 

Later, some of the hospital department heads tell Dr. Bernhardi that he was wrong to oppose the priest’s visit. Word of this incident “gets out.” The hospital board members, which include a bishop and an archduke, resign.

A simultaneous problem is also occurring. A replacement is quickly needed for an outgoing professor and there are two candidates. Dr. Wenger is the current professor’s assistant. He is a talented researcher; his work is “revelatory.” He is also a Jew. The other candidate is Dr. Hell (in German, “hell” means bright, brilliant), who has published “one or two tolerable articles” and did not impress those he worked with. He is “an ass.” He is a Christian.

The ward discussion between Dr. Bernhardi and Father Reder is now an “incident” and described in an exaggerated way in the press. There is talk of parliament considering the situation. Apparently, the play is considered a “comedy” because a brief disagreement between two men, each attempting to do what he considers his duty, is co-opted by self-serving factions and made into a cause célèbre that gets national attention.

Dr. Bernhardi learns that some underhanded maneuvering has produced a “solution” for him. If he votes for the less qualified Christian candidate for the professorship, there will be no repercussions from his “anti-Catholic” interaction with Father Reder. It is known in advance that Dr. Bernhardi will be casting the tie-breaking vote. He votes for the better qualified candidate. The situation escalates and parliament charges him with “religious agitation.” (In the original text, Professor Bernhardi is charged with Religionsstörning, “obstructing religious observance.”) He is tried and found guilty, mainly because of lying witnesses. He is sentenced to two months imprisonment and the permanent revocation of his license to practice medicine. 

Professor Bernhardi was banned in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and could not be performed there until 1918. Its first performance was in Berlin in 1912. 

The play is not a simple, dichotomous tale of Christian versus Jew, nor science versus religion, nor liberalism versus clericalism. It is all of these, plus careerism, political intrigue, and illegal use of influence. 

The play is riddled with antisemitic ideas and utterances: 

– When Bernhardi made a pre-mortem diagnosis that was confirmed at autopsy: “Great celebrations in Israel, hmn?”
– “I’m an antisemite, I suppose? Even though I’ve always had at least two Jewish assistants? There’s no antisemitism toward decent Jews.”
– “the Jewification of the university”
– “All this persecution talk is maniacal…sniffing out antisemitism right, left, and center.”
– “…a Jew has no honor, a Jew is subhuman, a Jew can’t be insulted, so can’t demand satisfaction for an insult.” 

Nine months after Schnitzler’s death in 1931, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany received 37% of the votes in the Reichstag election. On 30 January 1933, Hitler was named chancellor. Schnitzler’s works were among those later burned by the Nazis. 



  1. Arthur Schnitzler. Professor Bernhardi: A Comedy in Five Acts. A new version by Samuel Adamson. London: Oberon Books Ltd, 2005. 
  2. Judith Beniston. “Doctors talking to doctors in Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi,” ND. https://dicovery.ac.uk/id/eprint/10069086/1/Benison_Doctors%20talking%20to%20doctors.pdf” https://dicovery.ac.uk/id/eprint/10069086/1/Benison_Doctors%20talking%20to%20doctors.pdf.
  3. Karl Lueger. Wikipedia.
  4. Judith Beniston. “Professor Bernhardi: Schnitzler and the place of tendentious drama,” ND. https:// discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10095443/3/Beniston_Schnitzler %20and%20the %20place%20of%20Tendentious%20Drama_AAM.pdf. 
  5. Camphor. Wikipedia.
  6. Carl Lindgren. Läkare med penna och patos. Stockholm: Carlsson Bokförlag, 2021.



HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.


Winter 2022   |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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