Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning documents his experiences in concentration camps during Nazi occupation. During this time, Frankl lost his wife, his brother and parents in concentration camps. The first half of the book is a disturbing tale about how Jews should find meaning through Nazi dehumanization, while the second half of the book entitled, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, is a sales pitch for Frankl’s pseudo-religious therapy called, Logotherapy.
The Disturbing Nature of Frankl’s Book
It seems that Victor Frankl is a sort of patron saint of the self-improvement community. I often read his words being quoted on self-improvement websites. I had high hopes for Frankl’s book. But, as I read Frankl’s book, I couldn’t help but be dismayed by the text. When I finished reading his book, I thought to myself: “What the fuck did I just read”?
Parts of Frankl’s book describe the horrors of the concentration camp as a sort of spiritual renewal that one could find meaning from. Frankl seemed to denigrate those who failed to find meaning from their suffering. Furthermore, he looks down on Jews in the concentration camp who decide to use the last bit of autonomy left by committing suicide. For example, he writes:
“There was little point in committing suicide, since, for the average inmate, life expectation, calculating objectively and counting all likely chances, was very poor. He could not with any assurance expect to be among the small percentage of men who survived all the selections. The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days—after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide.” 2
Parts of the book read as if it were Nazi propaganda. At times, it seemed as if Frankl was implying that the Nazis were giving the Jews a chance to experience some sordid spiritual transformation from their suffering. For example, Frankl writes:
“As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before….Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!” (How much suffering there is to get through!). Rilke spoke of “getting through suffering” as others would talk of “getting through work.” There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering…3”
Frankl the Coercive Psychiatrist
I was alerted to Frankl’s disturbing career as a coercive psychiatrist by Thomas Szasz’s book, Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine. Apparently, Frankl specialized involuntary psychiatric treatment in Vienna prior to the Nazi occupation.
After the Nazis took over in Vienna, Frankl was appointed the head of the neurological department at a Jewish hospital called Rothchild Hospital. At Rothchild Hospital he would continue his involuntary treatment of those who attempted suicide. Frankl kept the suicidal “patients” alive so that they could instead be “treated” by the Nazis. Some of Frankl’s treatments were especially gruesome 4.
Frankl describes one of his sordid procedures in a 1969 magazine, Encounter:
“In my department at the Vienna Poliklinik [specializing in suicide prevention], we use drugs, and use electroconvulsive treatment. I have signed authorizations for lobotomies without having cause to regret it. In a few cases, I have even carried out transorbital lobotomy…. What matters is not the technique or therapeutic approach as such, be it drug treatment or shock treatment, but the spirit in which it is being carried out”. 5
According to Frankl, it did not matter that he was not a trained as a surgeon, or whether the patient consented to such treatment, the only thing that mattered was the “spirit” in which the treatment was conducted.
In Frankl’s autobiography, he admits that he did not have training in surgery, yet he had no problem describing the gruesome experiments he conducted to keep Jews alive who had decided to kill themselves with sleeping pills rather than be subjected to torture by the Nazis. He writes:
“….some injections intravenously … and if this didn’t work I gave them injections into the brain … into the Cisterna Magna. And if that did not work I made a trepanation, opened the skull … inserted drugs into the ventricle and made a drainage so the drug went into the Aquaeductus Sylvii…. People whose breathing had stopped suddenly started breathing again.”6
Not only did Frankl specialize in psychosurgery for which he was not trained to perform, he also seemed to specialize in giving sordid advice about finding meaning in life, no matter how asinine the meaning is. For example, when a depressed Rabbi told him that he was sad because he had lost his six children and wife at Auschwitz, Frankly responded:
“Is it not conceivable, Rabbi, that precisely this was the meaning of your surviving your children: that you may be purified through these years of suffering, so that finally you, too, though not innocent like your children, may become worthy of joining them in Heaven?7
Frankl’s Time in Auschwitz
Reading Frankl’s book, I assumed that he had spent months, if not years in Auschwitz. Passages of the book seem to imply as much: “We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts.”8 I was surprised to find out that Frankl confessed in an interview in 1991 that he was, in fact, only in Auschwitz for 3 or 4 days.
Why Did Frankl Write This Book?
After finishing Frankl’s book, I was left wondering: “Why did he write this book”? Did Frankly really believe in the things he wrote? Thomas Szasz argues that Frankl wrote his book to function as a type of “visa” in post-war anti-semitic Austria9. The book might have allowed him to live freely and be seen as a Jew who forgave the Nazi’s.
Whatever his reasons for writing, Frankl’s book is disturbing, dehumanizing, and disingenuous.
- Pytell, Timothy (2015-10-29T23:58:59). Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning: An Emblematic 20th-Century Life (Making Sense of History) (Kindle Locations 337-339). Berghahn Books. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 18). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 78-79). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
Redeeming the Unredeemable: Auschwitz and Man’s Search for Meaning
Timothy E. Pytell; http://muse.jhu.edu/article/43137 ↩
- As quoted in: Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Locations 655-658). Kindle Edition. ↩
- As quoted in: Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Locations 666-668). Kindle Edition. ↩
- Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 120). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 17). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Location 671). Kindle Edition. ↩