Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is best known forhis book Man’s Search for Meaning, about his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps. The book focuses on how the extreme suffering of life in the camps affected Frankl and his fellow prisoners, as well as the psychological factors that influenced their survival. Frankl eventually used the insights that he gained to develop the psychotherapeutic technique of existential logotherapy.
Frankl tells his story in two parts. The first part, called "Experiences in a Concentration Camp," provides straightforward descriptions of account of Frankl's experiences in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. By the winter of 1944, as prisoner number 119,104, Frankl had been a prisoner for more than two years. Conditions were brutal, but Frankl noticed that despite Nazi attempts to dehumanize them, some prisoners responded differently to suffering. Certain psychological factors contributed to their survival. Frankl concluded that while everything can be taken away from an individual, there is always one last form of freedom—the freedom to choose how one will respond to a situation. Individuals always have a choice about how to respond, even in the most desperate times. Frankl later recalled that prisoners usually passed through three mental stages: shock upon arrival, apathy and "emotional death" after accepting imprisonment and possible annihilation, and if they survived, difficulty in enjoying life after the war’s end.
The ability to feel love and assume personal responsibility for the response to suffering are key. Frankl began to apply this idea while still in the camps, as he helped fellow prisoners to survive. This insight became a central theme and later formed the basis for Frankl's psychotherapy, known as Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (Langle & Sykes, 2009).
The second part of the book, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell," discusses logotherapy. Frankl knew Freud personally but proposed that meaning was most important in helping an individual find strength to go on living. He disagreed with Freud’s theory that the central human drive was toward pleasure, or Adler’s assertion that power was the main driver of behavior. Instead, Frankl focused on the search for meaning as the primary human need. According to Frankl, the need for meaning never leaves us. It is always present, and we can find meaning in every moment, even in the face of intense suffering.
Frankl developed this idea long before imprisonment in the concentration camps. Prior to the war, as a young medical student, Frankl volunteered to organize free counseling centers for suicidal teenagers. The centers eventually covered seven different cities. Later, as a doctor, he supervised a mental health ward for depressed women, many of whom were suicidal. During these years, he began to develop his theory that a human being could survive almost anything as long as they could find meaning in life.
Frankl tells the reader that he was able to use his concentration camp experiences as opportunities for transformation. According to Frankl, meaning can be found in three ways: By working, by loving, and by suffering. While suffering in the camps, he motivated himself by planning the work that he would do after the war and drawing strength from memories of his wife’s love. Frankl and his wife had been newlyweds when they were arrested and taken to the camps (Boeree, 2002). He often visualized her smile while doing harsh labor outdoors in winter. “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved” (1963, p. 59).
Frankl survived the camps only to learn that his wife, parents and brother had perished. Frankl ends the book by saying that while humans invented the gas chambers, many humans have a conscience, a type of unconscious spirituality. Humans are also beings who entered the gas chambers walking upright with a prayer on their lips. They have the capacity for both. This belief is the basis for Frankl’s optimism in the face of tragedy, since saying “yes” to life provides a path to meaning despite everything that appears to show that there is none.
Boeree, C. G. (2002). Viktor Frankl: Personality theories. https://bempsiunisba.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/pt_frankl.pdf
Devoe, D. (2012). Viktor Frankl's logotherapy: The search for purpose and meaning. Inquiries Journal, 4(07). http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/660/2/viktor-frankls-logotherapy-the-search-for-purpose-and-meaning
Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1963.
Frankl, V. E. (2008). Recollections: an autobiography. Basic Books.
Krasovska, N., & Mayer, C. H. (2021). A Psychobiography of Viktor E. Frankl: Using Adversity for Life Transformation. Springer International Publishing.
Längle, A., & Sykes, B. M. (2006). Viktor Frankl—Advocate for humanity: On his 100th birthday. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 46(1), 36-47.
Redsand, A. S. (2006). Viktor Frankl: A life worth living. Clarion Books.
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