Victor Emil Frankl - biography
Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., Ph.D. (March 26, 1905, Czerningasse 6, Leopoldstadt, Vienna – September 2, 1997, Vienna) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, which is a form of Existential Analysis, the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy". His 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), chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists.
Life before 1945
Frankl was born in Vienna into a Jewish family of civil servants (Beamtenfamilie). His interest in psychology surfaced early. For the final exam (Matura) in Gymnasium, he wrote a paper on the psychology of philosophical thinking. After graduating from Gymnasium in 1923, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna and later specialized in neurology and psychiatry, concentrating on the topics of depression and suicide. His early development was influenced by his contacts with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, although he would later diverge from their teachings.
In 1924 he became the president of the Sozialistische Mittelschüler Österreich. In this position he offered a special program to counsel students during the time they were to receive their grades (Zeugnis). During his tenure, not a single Viennese student committed suicide. The success of this program grabbed the attention of the likes of Wilhelm Reich who invited him to Berlin.
From 1933-1937 he headed the so-called Selbstmörderpavillon, or "suicide pavilion", of the General Hospital in Vienna. Here, he treated over 30,000 women prone to suicide. Yet, starting from the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he was prohibited from treating "Aryan" patients due to his Jewish identity. He moved into private practice until starting work in 1940 at the Rothschild Hospital, where he headed its neurological department, and practiced as a brain surgeon. This hospital, at the time, was the only one in Vienna in which Jews were still admitted. Several times, his medical opinions saved patients from being euthanised via the Nazi euthanasia program. In December 1941 he married Tilly Grosser.
On September 25, 1942 he, along with his wife, and his parents were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There Frankl worked as a general practitioner in a clinic until his skill in psychiatry was noticed, when he was asked to establish a special unit to help newcomers to the camp overcome shock and grief. He later set up a suicide watch unit, and all intimations of suicide were reported to him. To maintain his own feeling of being worthy of his sufferings in the dismal conditions, he would frequently march outside and deliver a lecture to an imaginary audience about "Psychotherapeutic Experiences in a Concentration Camp". He believed that by fully experiencing the suffering objectively, he would thereby end it. Though assigned to ordinary labor details until the last few weeks of the war, Frankl (assisted by Dr. Leo Baeck and Regina Jonas among others) tried to cure fellow prisoners from despondency and prevent suicide. He worked in the psychiatric care ward, headed the neurological clinic in block B IV, and established and maintained a camp service of psychic hygiene and mental care for sick and those who were weary of life. Frankl at Theresienstadt also gave lectures on topics like Sleep and Its Disturbances, Body and Soul, Medical Care of Soul, Psychology of Mountaineering, Rax and Schneeberg, How I keep my nerves healthy, Existential Problems in Psychotherapy, and Social Psychotherapy. On July 29, 1943, he organized a closed event of the Scientific Society. Then, on October 19, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was processed and spent a number of days and then was moved to Türkheim, another Nazi concentration camp affiliated with Dachau, where he arrived the 25th of October 1944, and was to spend 6 months and 2 days working as a slave-labourer. Meanwhile, his wife had been transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she was murdered; his father passed away of pulmonary edema and pneumonia in Theresienstadt camp, and his mother was sent to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt and was murdered there as well.
On April 27, 1945, Frankl was liberated by the Americans. Among his immediate relatives, the only survivor was his sister, who had escaped by emigrating to Australia.
It was due to his and others' suffering in these camps that he came to his hallmark conclusion 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 strong basis for Frankl's logotherapy. An example of Frankl's idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:
... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: 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. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...."
Another important conclusion for Frankl was: If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life– an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.
Frankl's concentration camp experiences thus 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 and unprincipled ones. These were to be found in all classes, ethnicities, and groups. Following this line of thinking, he once recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East coast of the US be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West coast, and there are reportedly plans to construct such a statue.
Frankl's approach is often considered to be amongst the broad category that comprises existentialists. Frankl, "who has devoted his career to a study of an existential approach to therapy, has apparently concluded that the lack of meaning is the paramount existential stress. To him, existential neurosis is synonymous with a crisis of meaninglessness".
He is thought to have coined the term Sunday Neurosis referring to a form of depression resulting from an awareness in some people of the emptiness of their lives once the working week is over. This arises from an existential vacuum, which Frankl distinguished from existential neurosis.
The existential vacuum - or, as he sometimes terms it, "existential frustration" - is a common phenomenon and is characterised by the subjective state of boredom, apathy, and emptiness. One feels cynical, lacks direction and questions the point of most of life's activities. Some complain of a void and a vague discontent when the busy week is over (the "Sunday neurosis").
Life after 1945
Liberated after three years of life in concentration camps, he returned to Vienna. During 1945 he wrote his world-famous book titled ...trotzdem ja zum Leben sagen (Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager) (translated: "...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. In this book, he described the life of an ordinary concentration camp inmate from the objective perspective of a psychiatrist.
Shortly after the war he voiced the opinion of reconciliation. In 1946 he was appointed to run the Vienna Policlinic of Neurology. He remained there until 1971. In 1947 he married his second wife Eleonore Katharina Schwindt. She was a practicing Catholic and the couple respected each other's religious backgrounds, going to both church and synagogue, and celebrating Christmas and Hanukah. They had one daughter, Gabriele, who went on to become a child psychologist. In 1955 he was awarded a professorship of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna, and as visiting professor, he resided at Harvard University.
In the post-war years, Frankl published more than 32 books (many were translated into 10 to 20 languages) and is most notable as the founder of logotherapy. (Logos, λόγος, is Greek for word, reason, principle; therapy, Θεραπεύω, means I heal.).
He lectured and taught seminars all over the world and received 29 honorary doctorate degrees.
Frankl died on September 2, 1997, of heart failure. He is survived by his wife Eleonore, his daughter Dr. Gabriele Frankl-Vesely, his grandchildren Katharina and Alexander, and his great-granddaughter Anna Viktoria.
- Man's Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Logotherapy, Boston: Beacon, ISBN 0-8070-1426-5; and Random House / Rider, London 2004, ISBN 1-84413-239-0; also: *Washington Square Press; ISBN 0-671-02337-3 (Softcover, December 1997)
- On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders. An Introduction to Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, Translated by James M. DuBois. Brunner-Routledge, London-New York 2004. ISBN 0-415-95029-5
- Psychotherapy and Existentialism. Selected Papers on Logotherapy, New York: Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-671-20056-9
- The Will to Meaning. Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: New American Library, ISBN 0-452-01034-9
- Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. (A revised and extended edition of The Unconscious God; with a Foreword by Swanee Hunt). Perseus Book Publishing, New York, 1997; ISBN 0-306-45620-6. Paperback edition: Perseus Book Group; New York, July 2000; ISBN 0-7382-0354-8.