Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna into a Jewish family on 26th March, 1905. His father held a government job administering children's aid. His mother was described as a "kindhearted and deeply pious woman." His father tended to be hot-tempered. "In a fit of anger he once broke an alpine walking stick as he hit me with it. Despite this, to me he was always the personification of justice. And he always provided us with a sense of security." (1)

As a teenager he did brilliantly in his studies, which included a course in psychology that prompted him at the age of 16 to write to Sigmund Freud. A correspondence ensued, and in one letter he included a two-page paper he had written. Freud loved it, sent it promptly to the editor of his International Journal of Psychoanalysis and wrote the boy, '"I hope you don't object.'" (2)

Victor Frankl became a socialist and joined the Social Democratic Party of Austria and in 1924 he became the president of its youth organization. Later that year he entered the University of Vienna to study medicine and over this period he specialized in neurology and psychiatry, concentrating on the topics of depression and suicide. His early development was influenced by the work of Alfred Adler. (3) However, later he began to feel that Adler erred in denying that people had the freedom of choice and willpower to overcome their problems. (3a)

In the summer of 1927, three members of an Austrian right-wing paramilitary group accused of murdering an eight-year-old boy and elderly war veteran were acquitted by a conservative judge. In Vienna there were strikes and riots in protest. The police were ordered to shoot directly into the crowd and as a result 89 people died and hundreds were wounded. Frankl who was one of those who treated the injured, was radicalized by these events. When Wilhelm Reich asked Sigmund Freud for his opinion on the "civil war", his mentor replied that he was fundamentally unsympathetic to the "primal horde". (4)

Between 1928 and 1930, while still a medical student, he organized and offered a special program to counsel high school students free of charge. The program involved the participation of psychologists such as Charlotte Bühler, and it paid special attention to students at the time when they received their report cards. It was reported that in 1931, not a single Viennese student committed suicide. (5)

Freikorps soldiers in Berlin
Viktor Frankl (c. 1930)

Reich began associating with left-leaning therapists such as Karen Horney, Ernst Simmel, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Edith Jacobson, Helene Deutsch, Frieda Reichmann, Edith Weigert and Otto Fenichel who began to take into consideration the social and political impact on the clinical situation. Together they explored ways of "finding a bridge between Marx and Freud". Elizabeth Ann Danto, described the group as being interested in providing "a challenge to conventional political codes, a social mission more than a medical discipline." (6)

In 1937, Frankl established his own private practice in neurology and psychiatry at Alser Strasse in Vienna. He also acted out his socialist beliefs and "did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor." (7) After the invasion of Austria by the German Army in 1938, Frankl was thereby prohibited from treating "Aryan" patients due to his Jewish identity and due to the Anschluss from owning and operating his prior business/practice. (8)

In 1940, becomes director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, a clinic for Jewish patients. This hospital was the only one in Vienna to which Jews were still admitted. In spite of the danger to his own life he sabotages Nazi procedures by making false diagnoses to prevent the euthanasia of mentally ill patients. Frankl obtained an immigration visa to America but does not use it because he does not want to desert his old parents. In 1941 Frankl married Tilly Grosser. (9)

Freikorps soldiers in Berlin
Tilly and Viktor Frankl (1941)

The next month his entire family, except for a sister who had left the country, was arrested in a general roundup of Jews. The family had expected the roundup, as Tilly Frankl's wife sewed the manuscript of the book he was writing on his developing theories of psychotherapy into the lining of his coat. After their arrival at Auschwitz, Frankl was separated from his family. His own clothes were replaced with prison clothes, and the manuscript was lost. (10)

Concentration camps were controlled by the SS, but day-to-day organization was supplemented by the system of prisoners, Kapos, a second hierarchy that made it easier for the Nazis to control the camps. These prisoners made it possible for the camps to function with the minimum number of German soldiers, who were needed to fight on the front-line. The Kapos often did this work for extra food, cigarettes, alcohol or other privileges as well as being protected from being executed. (11)

It has been pointed out: "The perfidy of the Nazi regime was in forcing the Jewish victims to be instruments of their own destruction. Jews were at the bottom of the hierarchy in the Nazi concentration camps, with the lowest food rations and selected for the most brutal labour. Jewish kapos were just one rung above the miserable existence of the ordinary Jewish prisoners... and increased a Jewish kapo's likelihood of survival tenfold." According to Lisa Yavnai becoming a Jewish kapo often meant choosing between the possibility of life and almost certain death. (12)

Frankl suffered from cruel Kapos: "While these ordinary prisoners had little or nothing to eat, the Kapos were never hungry; in fact many of the Kapos fared better in the camp than they had in their entire lives. Often they were harder on the prisoners than were the guards, and beat them more cruelly than the SS men did. These Kapos, of course, were chosen only from those prisoners whose characters promised to make them suitable for such procedures, and if they did not comply with what was expected of them, they were immediately demoted. They soon became much like the SS men and the camp wardens and may be judged on a similar psychological basis." (13)

Frankl described on one occasion why he was badly beaten by a Kapo: "Then he began: 'You pig, I have been watching you the whole time! I teach you to work, yet! Wait till you dig dirt with your teeth - you'll die like an animal! In two days I'll finish you off! You've never done a stroke of work in your life. What were you swine? A businessman?'. I was past caring. But I had to take his threat of killing me seriously, so I straightened up and looked him directly in the eye. 'I was a doctor - a specialist.' 'What? A doctor? I bet you got a lot of money out of people.' 'As it happens, I did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor.' But, now, I had said too much. He threw himself on me and knocked me down, shouting like a madman. I can no longer remember what he shouted." (14)

However, Frankl was able to use his skills as a psychologist to gain the support of a senior Kapo: "Fortunately the Kapo in my working party was obligated to me; he had taken a liking to me because I listened to his love stories and matrimonial troubles, which he poured out during the long marches to our work site. I had made an impression on him with my diagnosis of his character and with my psychotherapeutic advice. After that he was grateful, and this had already been of value to me.... As long as my Kapo felt the need of pouring out his heart, this could not happen to me (being taken away to be executed). I had a guaranteed place of honour next to him... As an additional payment for my services, I could be sure that as long as soup was being dealt out at lunchtime at our work site, he would, when my turn came, dip the ladle right to the bottom of the vat and fish out a few peas." (15)

His academic education also helped him survive: "In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature." (16)

Frankl also pointed out: "Humour was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humour. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after liberation." (17)

In December 1944 Frankel had the opportunity to escape: "As the battle-front drew nearer, I had the opportunity to escape. A colleague of mine who had to visit huts outside the camp in the course of his medical duties wanted to escape and take me with him... Outside the camp, a member of a foreign resistance movement was to supply us with uniforms and documents... I made a quick last round of my patients, who were lying huddled on the rotten planks of wood on either side of the huts. I came to my only countryman, who was almost dying, and whose life it had been my ambition to save in spite of his condition. I had to keep my intention to escape to myself, but my comrade seemed to guess that something was wrong (perhaps I showed a little nervousness). In a tired voice he asked me, 'You, too, are getting out?' I denied it, but I found it difficult to avoid his sad look. After my round I returned to him. Again a hopeless look greeted me and somehow I felt it to be an accusation. The unpleasant feeling that had gripped me as soon as I had told my friend I would escape with him became more intense. Suddenly I decided to take fate into my own hands for once. I ran out of the hut and told my friend that I could not go with him. As soon as I had told him with finality that I had made up my mind to stay with my patients, the unhappy feeling left me. I did not know what the following days would bring, but I had gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before." (18)

Auschwitz was liberated on 27th January, 1945: "Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called 'depersonalization'. Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream. We could not believe it was true. How often in the past years had we been deceived by dreams! We dreamt that the day of liberation had come, that we had been set free, had returned home, greeted our friends, embraced our wives, sat down at the table and started to tell of all the things we had gone through - even of how we had often seen the day of liberation in our dreams." (19)

Viktor Frankel died on 2nd September, 1997

Primary Sources

 

(1) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs, nor is it about the prominent Kapos - prisoners who acted as trustees, having special privileges - or well-known prisoners. Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. It was these common prisoners, who bore no distinguishing marks on their sleeves, whom the Kapos really despised. While these ordinary prisoners had little or nothing to eat, the Kapos were never hungry; in fact many of the Kapos fared better in the camp than they had in their entire lives. Often they were harder on the prisoners than were the guards, and beat them more cruelly than the SS men did. These Kapos, of course, were chosen only from those prisoners whose characters promised to make them suitable for such procedures, and if they did not comply with what was expected of them, they were immediately demoted. They soon became much like the SS men and the camp wardens and may be judged on a similar psychological basis.

(2) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

Then he (a Kapo) began: "You pig, I have been watching you the whole time! I teach you to work, yet! Wait till you dig dirt with your teeth - you'll die like an animal! In two days I'll finish you off! You've never done a stroke of work in your life. What were you swine? A businessman?"

I was past caring. But I had to take his threat of killing me seriously, so I straightened up and looked him directly in the eye. "I was a doctor - a specialist."

"What? A doctor? I bet you got a lot of money out of people."

"As it happens, I did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor." But, now, I had said too much. He threw himself on me and knocked me down, shouting like a madman. I can no longer remember what he shouted.

(3) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

Fortunately the Kapo in my working party was obligated to me; he had taken a liking to me because I listened to his love stories and matrimonial troubles, which he poured out during the long marches to our work site. I had made an impression on him with my diagnosis of his character and with my psychotherapeutic advice. After that he was grateful, and this had already been of value to me.... As long as my Kapo felt the need of pouring out his heart, this could not happen to me (being taken away to be executed). I had a guaranteed place of honour next to him... As an additional payment for my services, I could be sure that as long as soup was being dealt out at lunchtime at our work site, he would, when my turn came, dip the ladle right to the bottom of the vat and fish out a few peas.

(4) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

(5) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

Humour was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humour. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after liberation.

(6) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946)

As the battle-front drew nearer, I had the opportunity to escape. A colleague of mine who had to visit huts outside the camp in the course of his medical duties wanted to escape and take me with him... Outside the camp, a member of a foreign resistance movement was to supply us with uniforms and documents...

I made a quick last round of my patients, who were lying huddled on the rotten planks of wood on either side of the huts. I came to my only countryman, who was almost dying, and whose life it had been my ambition to save in spite of his condition. I had to keep my intention to escape to myself, but my comrade seemed to guess that something was wrong (perhaps I showed a little nervousness). In a tired voice he asked me, "You, too, are getting out?" I denied it, but I found it difficult to avoid his sad look. After my round I returned to him. Again a hopeless look greeted me and somehow I felt it to be an accusation.

The unpleasant feeling that had gripped me as soon as I had told my friend I would escape with him became more intense. Suddenly I decided to take fate into my own hands for once. I ran out of the hut and told my friend that I could not go with him. As soon as I had told him with finality that I had made up my mind to stay with my patients, the unhappy feeling left me. I did not know what the following days would bring, but I had gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before.

(6) Holcomb B. Noble, The New York Times (4th September, 1997)

Viktor E. Frankl, who used his experiences as a prisoner in German concentration camps in World War II to write Man's Search for Meaning, an enduring work of survival literature, and to open new avenues for modern psychotherapy, died on Tuesday in Vienna. He was 92 and was considered to be one of the last of the great Viennese psychiatrists.

He died of heart failure, the International Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy said yesterday.

Viktor Frankl's mother, father, brother and pregnant wife were all killed in the camps. He lost everything, he said, that could be taken from a prisoner, except one thing: "the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Every day in the camps, he said, prisoners had moral choices to make about whether to submit internally to those in power who threatened to rob them of their inner self and their freedom. It was the way a prisoner resolved those choices, he said, that made the difference.

In Man's Search for Meaning Dr. Frankl related that even at Auschwitz some prisoners were able to discover meaning in their lives - if only in helping one another through the day - and that those discoveries were what gave them the will and strength to endure.

Dr. Herbert E. Sacks, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said Dr. Frankl's contributions shifted the direction of the field, especially in existential psychiatry, adding: "His interest in theory galvanized a generation of young psychiarists."

Dr. Frankl completed the book in 1946, and it eventually reached an enormous general readership around the world. At the time of his death, more than a half-century later, it had been reprinted 73 times, translated into 24 languages, sold more than 10 million copies and was still being used as a text in high schools and universities.

Dr. Frankl said he had no idea the book would reach such a wide audience: ''I simply thought it might be helpful for people prone to despair.''

But among those whose attention it caught was Gordon W. Allport, the influential psychologist at Harvard, who invited him to teach at Harvard as a visiting professor. Professor Allport said the work helped broaden postwar thinking and exploration in psychology.

Decades later, psychiatrists across various schools of therapy were still recommending it to their patients, especially those who complained about emptiness or the meaninglessness of their lives. It also is used by teachers of ethics and philosophy.

And in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, people who regarded themselves as lifetime general-interest readers called ''Man's Search for Meaning'' one of the 10 most influential books they had ever read.

Dr. Frankl's writings, lectures and teaching, along with the work of Rollo May, Carl Rogers and others, were an important force in forming the modern concept that many factors may be implicated in mental illness and in opening the door to the wide variety of psychotherapies that now exist.

This was a major change from the strictures of Freud and Adler, who attributed what they called neurosis to single causes: sexual repression and conflicts in the subconscious in Freud's case, or unfilled desires for power and feelings of inferiority in Adler's. To Dr. Frankl, behavior was driven more by a subconscious and a conscious need to find meaning and purpose.

After graduating from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930, Dr. Frankl evolved the theory, while he was serving as chief of the university's neurology and psychiatric clinic, that the search for value and meaning in the circumstances of one's life was the key to psychological well-being. He devoted much of his life in the years before the war to developing this theory and writing a book about it.

But the three years he spent in Auschwitz and Dachau, from 1942 to 1945, reinforced his thinking, he said, more dramatically than he could have imagined.

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905. His father held a government job administering children's aid. As a teenager he did brilliantly in his studies, which included a course in Freudian theory that prompted him to write the master himself.

A correspondence ensued, and in one letter he included a two-page paper he had written. Freud loved it, sent it promptly to the editor of his International Journal of Psychoanalysis and wrote the boy, ''I hope you don't object.''

''Can you imagine?'' Dr. Frankl recalled in an interview before his death. ''Would a 16-year-old mind if Sigmund Freud asked to have a paper he wrote published?''

The paper appeared in the journal three years later. But shortly before its publication, Dr. Frankl said, he was walking in a Viennese park when he saw a man with an old hat, a torn coat, a silver-handled walking stick and a face he recognized from photographs.

''Have I the honor of meeting Sigmund Freud?'' he asked and began to introduce himself, whereupon the man interrupted: ''You mean the Victor Frankl at Czernin Gasse, No. 6, Door Number 25, Second District of Vienna?'' The founder of psychoanalysis had remembered the name and address from their correspondence.

At the University of Vienna Medical School, the young Frankl began attending seminars with Alfred Adler, who had broken with Freud earlier. Together with two other students, he began to feel that Adler erred in denying that people had the freedom of choice and willpower to overcome their problems.

Adler demanded to know whether he had the courage to stand and defend his position.

Dr. Frankl recalled that he rose and spoke for 20 minutes, after which Adler sat slouched in his chair ''terrifyingly still'' and then exploded. ''What sort of heroes are you?'' he shouted at the three dissenters and never invited them back to his meetings.

After receiving his medical degree in 1930, Dr. Frankl headed a neurology and psychiatry clinic in Vienna. But anti-Semitism continued to rise in Austria.

In December 1941 he and Tilly Grosser were among the last couples allowed to be wed at the National Office for Jewish Marriages, a bureau set up for a time by the Nazis. The next month his entire family, except for a sister who had left the country, was arrested in a general roundup of Jews.

The family had expected the roundup, and Dr. Frankl's wife sewed the manuscript of the book he was writing on his developing theories of psychotherapy into the lining of his coat.

After their arrival at Auschwitz, they and 1,500 others were put into a shed built for 200 and made to squat on bare ground, each given one four-ounce piece of bread to last them four days. On his first day, Dr. Frankl was separated from his family; later he and a friend marched in line, and he was directed to the right and his friend was directed to he left -- to a crematory.

He took an older prisoner into his confidence and told him about the hidden manuscript: ''Look, this is a scientific book. I must keep it at all costs.''

He said the prisoner cursed him for his naivete. They were stripped and sent to showers, and then a work detail. Their own clothes were replaced with prison clothes, and the manuscript was never returned.

But late at night in his barracks, he began recreating it in on bits of paper stolen for him by a companion. These notes were later used for ''Man's Search for Meaning.'' In it, he wrote that once the prisoners were entrenched in camp routine, they would descend from a denial of their situation into a stage of apathy and the beginning of a kind of emotional death.

As their illusions dropped away and their hopes were crushed, they would watch others die without experiencing any emotion. At first the lack of feeling served as a protective shield. But then, he said, many prisoners plunged with surprising suddenness into depressions so deep that the sufferers could not move, or wash, or leave the barracks to join a forced march; no entreaties, no blows, no threats would have any effect. There was a link, he found, between their loss of faith in the future and this dangerous giving up.

Dr. Frankl said he began to see the implications of his earlier writing as it became apparent that the only meaning in his prison life for him was to try to help his fellow prisoners restore their psychological health.

''We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,'' he wrote. ''We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly.

''Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.''

One specific action, in which he found ''the tender beginnings of a psychotherapy,'' were attempts, by himself and those who were able to fight off depression, to help prevent suicides among others.

The Germans did not allow prisoners to prevent a suicide attempt. No one could cut down a man attempting to hang himself, for example. So the goal was to try to prevent the act before the attempt. The healthy prisoners would remind the despondent that life expected something from them: a child waiting outside prison, work that remained to be completed.

Prisoners taught one another not to talk about food where starvation was a daily threat, to hide a crust of bread in a pocket to stretch out the nourishment. They were urged to joke, sing, take mental photographs of sunsets and, most important, to replay valued thoughts and memories.

Dr. Frankl said it was ''essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp.''

During his later years as a psychotherapist with severely depressed patients, Dr. Frankl said he pointedly asked, ''Why do you not commit suicide?'' The answers he received -- love of one's children, a talent to be used or perhaps only fond memories -- often were the threads he tried to weave back, through psychotherapy, into the pattern of meaning in a troubled life.

After the war, he earned his doctorate in psychiatry, in 1948, and remarried after the Red Cross was able to verify that his first wife was dead. He and his second wife, Eleanore, had a daughter. In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Gabriele Vesely of Vienna, he is survived by two grandchildren.

In the postwar years he wrote 33 other books on his theories of theoretical and clinical psychology, which he called logotherapy after the Greek ''logos'' -- meaning -- and contributed to the development of humanistic psychotherapy and existential philosophy in Europe and the United States.

He was invited to serve as a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford, Southern Methodist and other American universities and lectured in the United States and around the globe.

But the application of his theories in a distinct school of psychotherapy was slow in coming. This was so, colleagues in Vienna and America said, partly because of the wartime interruption and the lingering effects of anti-Semitism in Vienna at a critical point in his career and partly because he concentrated more on writing and lecturing than in developing followers among his therapist contemporaries.

Interest among other therapists increased after a fellow concentration camp prisoner, Joseph B. Fabry, who moved to America and became a successful lawyer, founded the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logography in Berkeley, Calif., in 1977. In 1985 Dr. Frankl became the first non-American to be awarded the prestigious Oskar Pfister Prize by the American Association of Psychiatrists.

References

(1) Viktor Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (2000) page 22

(2) Holcomb B. Noble, The New York Times (4th September, 1997)

(3) Haddon Klingberg, When Life Calls Out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl (2002) page 25

(3a) Holcomb B. Noble, The New York Times (4th September, 1997)

(4) Christopher Turner, The Guardian (1st May, 2013)

(5) Viktor Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (2000) page 22

(6) Elizabeth Ann Danto, Freud's Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice (2005) page 4

(7) Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (2004) page 37

(8) Viktor Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (2000) pages 77-81

(9) Haddon Klingberg, When Life Calls Out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl (2002) pages 102-104

(10) Holcomb B. Noble, The New York Times (4th September, 1997)

(11) The New York Times (5th February, 1988)

(12) Patricia Heberer and Jurgen Matthaus, Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes (2008) pages 195-196

(13) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) pages 17-18

(14) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) page 37

(15) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) page 38

(16) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) page 47

(17) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) page 54

(18) Victor Frankl, From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1946) page 95