Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, surviving Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, the will to meaning, and is most notable for the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning (published under a different title in 1959: From Death-Camp to Existentialism, and originally published in 1946 as Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, meaning Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp). In this book, Frankl described the life of a concentration camp inmate from the objective perspective of a psychiatrist. The book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.
Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.
Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp’s inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner-hold a prisoner has on his spiritual-self relies on having a hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.
Frankl believed that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences.
Surprisingly for me, the Wikipedia article on Frankl has a negative tone, that does not appear in the article on his book Man’s search for meaning. The Frankl’s article on Wikipedia states that there is a level of Nazi accommodation inherent in the ideology of logotherapy, claims that Frankl lied about his memories, and accuse Frankl of being a Nazi collaborator that perform unskilled lobotomy experiments on Jews. However, it is not clear from the article if the lobotomies were performed on dead corpses or live people, and from this ambiguity, it feels like there is a bias against Frankl. The article states that one of Frankl’s main claims in the book is that a positive attitude was essential to surviving the camps, and that the implication is that Holocaust victims were partially responsible for their fate. However, my understanding of Frankl’s proposition is that sometimes external circumstances are beyond one’s control, but that there is always an internal freedom in how to apprehend what is happening, not as a means to escape fate, but rather as a way to find meaning in suffering.
Frankl posed to the disoriented new arrivals at the increasingly overcrowded Ghetto, a repetitive series of queries from “Have you ever considered Suicide”, to “Why didn’t you committed suicide—and why won’t you now?” and variations of the same probing question. Later Frankl states, founding a “suicide watch”, assisted by the first female Rabbi, Regina Jonas. This was Frankl’s way of helping people identify what gives meaning to his life. Meaning being a personal thing that each has to discover by self.
Liberated after several months in concentration camps, Frankl returned to Vienna, where he dictated to stenographer-typists his well-known work, “the flood gates had opened”, completing the book, by 1946. Frankl then published his world-famous book entitled, Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe Erlebt das Konzentrationslager (“Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”), known in English by the title Man’s Search for Meaning (1959 title: From Death-Camp to Existentialism). After enduring the suffering in these camps, Frankl concluded that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. This conclusion served as a basis for his logotherapy and existential analysis, which Frankl had described before World War II. He said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
Frankl’s concentration camp experiences shaped both his therapeutic approach and philosophical outlook, as reflected in his seminal publications.
He often said that even within the narrow boundaries of the concentration camps he found only two races of Men to exist: decent ones and unprincipled ones. These were to be found in all classes, ethnicities, and groups.
Frankl published 39 books, which were translated into as many as 49 languages. He lectured and taught seminars all over the world and received 29 honorary doctoral degrees.
Within the original English edition of Frankl’s most well-known book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the suggestion is made and still largely held that logotherapy was itself derived from his camp experience.
Frankl’s logotherapy and existential analysis is considered the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, among the broad category that comprises existentialists.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search for Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in the United States.”
At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.
Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.
His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization—a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.
The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding by big appetites of eating and wanting more sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as “feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it”.
This begins the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.
Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside—a “superficiality and lack of feeling…so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more” (113). Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those who—like Frankl—returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.
As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he comes to believe that he has nothing left to fear anymore, “except his God”.
In psychotherapy, paradoxical intention is the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought, undertaken in order to identify and remove it.
Used as a counseling technique in which the counselor intensifies the client’s emotional state in order to help the client understand the irrationality of the emotional reaction.
Frankl, Viktor (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning (1984 ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 126. ISBN 0-8070-1426-5.
Wikipedia. (2019, October 19). Man’s Search for Meaning. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27s_Search_for_Meaning
Wikipedia. (2019, October 7). Viktor Frankl. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Frankl