Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) gained international renown with the publication of Man's Search for Meaning. Told through the lens of Frankl's experiences in a Nazi death camp, the book explores the personal triumph of the human spirit through the quest to find meaning. Man's Search for Meaning laid the foundations for logotherapy, Frankl's groundbreaking psychotherapeutic theory, which holds that humans have an innate drive to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Viktor Emil Frankl was born March 26, 1905, in Vienna, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Frankl's father, Gabriel Frankl, had been born in Pohrlitz (Pohorelice), Czechoslovakia, and he completed several years of medical school in Vienna before dropping out for financial reasons. Instead of becoming a doctor, the elder Frankl took a job as a government stenographer. Frankl's mother, Elsa Lion Frankl, hailed from Prague and was part of a devout Jewish family with a long history of rabbis in the lineage.
Frankl grew up in Leopoldstadt, a mostly Jewish district in Vienna. He had an older brother, Walter, and a younger sister, Stella. Early on, he spoke of becoming a doctor and was known to ask questions of a philosophical nature. In his autobiography Recollections, Frankl recalled that he spent many of his childhood mornings in quiet contemplation. “I would think for some minutes about the meaning of life,” he noted. “Particularly about the meaning of the coming day, and specifically its meaning for me.” Some days, Frankl's contemplations involved finding enough to eat. During World War I, civil servants like his father suffered from the economic strains of the war. Desperate for a meal, Frankl and his siblings begged area farmers for food and sometimes stole corn from the fields.
Frankl attended the Sperlgymnasium for his secondary schooling; his father was a graduate of the school, as was the noted German psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). During adolescence, Frankl became consumed with the study of philosophy and psychology. He was particularly disturbed by a teacher who described life as nothing more than a combustion process. As the young man sought answers to bigger existential questions, he attended adult education classes and lectures in the evenings. In this way, he learned about psychoanalysis and Freud, whose clinical practice was based in Vienna. Intrigued, Frankl began writing to Freud, and the two struck up a correspondence.
Freud developed psychoanalysis, a method for treating mental-health disorders by probing the unconscious mind through intensive “analysis.” These analysis sessions were aimed at helping patients uncover the unconscious motivations behind their behaviors. When Frankl was 17, he wrote an article on the “mimic movements of affirmation and negation.” In other words, an article on gestures like head-nodding or shaking that are used in communication. His discourse impressed Freud so much that he sent the article to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, where it was published in 1924.
Frankl entered the Medical University of Vienna in 1924. He requested permission to join the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society but was told to finish medical school and complete several months of psychoanalysis first. Disillusioned, he began questioning the tenets of psychoanalysis. For starters, he could not find a way to scientifically study Freud's foundational principles and thereby to examine their integrity. In addition, he started questioning Freud's notion that human beings were driven exclusively by their unconscious mind. Frankl believed humans were more complex.
After leaving psychoanalysis behind, Frankl dove into the work of Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler. Adler had been a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and an ally of Freud before parting ways to forge his own pathway into understanding the human mind and its impulses. Adler came to believe that social influences had a greater impact on human behavior than unconscious desires and he developed a new discipline called individual or social psychology—sometimes referred to as Adlerian psychology.
Adlerian psychology held that individuals were motivated by their desires to gain mastery over their world and accrue accomplishments to overcome feelings of inferiority. Under this model, a therapist would help patients examine their feelings of inferiority, thus allowing them to move beyond their destructive “compensating” behaviors and become constructive members of society. It was Adler who introduced the idea of the inferiority complex.
Frankl served as editor of Der Mensch im Alltag (“The Person in Daily Living”), a publication devoted to individual psychology. As a rising star in the social psychology movement, he gave the keynote address at the 1926 International Congress for Individual Psychology in Düsseldorf, Germany, along with lectures in Frankfurt and Berlin. During the lectures, Frankl offered hints of his emerging theoretical shifts, laying the foundations for logotherapy. Logotherapy is based on the belief that people's actions are influenced by their existential need to find meaning in life. Frankl continued his explorations into the spiritual and existential dimensions of psychology and soon found himself expelled from the Society for Individual Psychology for straying too far from its belief system.
As he studied psychology, Frankl took an interest in suicide prevention. Responding to the high rate of adolescent suicide in Vienna, Frankl set up youth counseling centers. He enlisted the help of volunteer physicians and clergy to offer free, drop-in sessions. As the city saw a reduction in teen suicide, other European cities contacted Frankl, hoping to replicate the program.
In 1930, Frankl graduated from medical school but continued studying depression and suicide through a series of internships and residencies in neurology and psychiatry. In 1933, he began treating suicidal women at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna. The experience allowed him the opportunity to interview hundreds of women and learn more about the human spirit and its motivation for living. This, in turn, influenced Frankl's development of logotherapy.
Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany, and in 1938, Nazi troops annexed Austria. Over the next several months, life in Vienna became increasingly hostile for Frankl and other Jewish citizens. Forced to close his private practice, he took a job in 1940 as chief of neurology at the Rothschild Hospital, which served the Jewish population of the city. There, he met Tilly Grosser, a 21-year-old nurse whom he married in 1941. The Frankls were one of the last Jewish couples in Vienna to receive a marriage license before the Jewish registrar's office was abolished. Tilly Frankl became pregnant but was forced to abort the child because Jews were banned from having babies and adding to the Jewish population.
Meanwhile, at Rothschild, Frankl treated many suicidal patients; suicide among the Jewish population had risen exponentially since the German takeover of Austria due to daily persecution and threats of deportation. He treated as many as ten suicidal patients a day. He also developed brain surgery techniques to inject stimulants directly into the brains of unresponsive patients in an attempt to revive them.
At Rothschild, Frankl also used his authority to keep mentally ill Jews from becoming victims of Hitler's euthanasia program. After learning that Jewish citizens with mental disorders were being put to death, he began falsifying medical documents. For example, instead of labeling a patient as a schizophrenic, Frankl would diagnose the patient with aphasia—an inability to communicate. This “alternative” diagnosis allowed the patient to be transferred to a Jewish nursing home.
As the situation in Vienna worsened, Frankl applied for and was granted a U.S. visa. Instead of fleeing, however, he decided to stay in Vienna to care for his parents. From 1940 to 1942, Frankl wrote furiously in an attempt to flesh out his ideas for logotherapy. At the time of his deportation, he took his manuscript with him, having sewn it into his overcoat. In the latter months of 1942, Frankl, Tilly, and his parents were transported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, where his father died of pneumonia on February 13, 1943. In 1944, the Frankls were taken to Auschwitz, and Frankl's mother was sent to the gas chamber. At Auschwitz, Frankl spent his days digging dirt and laying railroad tracks and struggling to survive on the once-a-day watery soup ration.
His time at Auschwitz provided Frankl with a means to test his psychology theories. He observed that those who contemplated the future—envisioning an unfulfilled destiny or purpose for their lives—had a greater chance of survival. His love for his wife and the desire to publish his book on logotherapy drove him to fight for his life. As Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed.” He went on to note that those who quit looking toward a better future suffered “mental and physical decay” and did not last long. He also came to realize that those who were physically the strongest did not necessarily survive the longest, which led him to conclude that inner strength helped people survive trying times.
Besides Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Frankl spent time at the Kaufering III camp and at Türkheim, where he nearly died of typhus. Frankl had lost his manuscript at Auschwitz when he was forced to strip from his clothing. To stay alive in his darkest hours struggling with typhus, he kept himself going by scribbling what he could recall of his book on scraps of paper he had found. Keeping the manuscript alive kept Frankl alive as well: he was liberated from Türkheim on April 27, 1945. After returning to Vienna, he learned that his beloved Tilly had died at the Bergen-Belsen camp. He discovered that his sister Stella had survived the war because she and her husband had fled to Australia. His brother Walter had not survived.
After the war, Frankl became a professor of psychiatry at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital. He worked feverishly to put his thoughts on logotherapy and psychology into book form. In his first year after liberation, he wrote Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (“A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”), which was published in English translation as Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl also wrote Ärztliche Seelsorge (“The Doctor and the Soul”) during his first months of freedom.
Man's Search for Meaning struck a chord with audiences around the globe. In the book, Frankl described how he survived the Nazi death camps by finding personal meaning in the experience, thus gaining the resolve to struggle through and survive. As he wrote in the book's preface: “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.” Highly popular, the book had sold more than 12 million copies by 2014 and was translated into multiple languages.
Man's Search for Meaning stood the test of time. Seven decades later, the book remained a psychiatric lit classic and a favorite among casual readers and business gurus alike. “Frankl's wisdom rings so true today,” Whole Foods Market co-CEO John Mackey told Investor's Business Daily reporter Scott Smith. “He advised us to discover meaning and purpose in life by doing what matters, by loving others unconditionally and by finding meaning in suffering.”
Frankl spent the remainder of his life lecturing and spreading logotherapy around the globe. He wrote dozens of books, including Psychotherapy and Existentialism (1967), The Will to Meaning (1988), and Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning (1997). In the 1960s, he was a guest professor at Harvard University, and he spent 20 years as a visiting professor in the United States, bringing logotherapy to a wider audience.
Logotherapy is derived from the Greek terms logos (which translates to meaning) and therapeia (therapy). Logotherapy is based on the premise that a person's search for meaning serves as the primary motivational force behind their behavior. The logotherapist helps patients deal with their pain by finding meaning in their lives, no matter how dismal the circumstances appear. Frankl believed people could find meaning through deeds (such as creating something or doing something), experiences (like love), and suffering. He also believed that people who lacked meaning tended to act out in an effort to fill the void. He also found them more prone to depression.
Logotherapy later gave rise to the “human potential movement” because of its basis on finding meaning and purpose in life. Frankl's theory on human psychology took a wide arc away from Freud and Adler, who believed humans were driven by their flaws. Frankl, on the other hand, believed humans were motivated by their ability to discover the possibilities open to them. Logotherapy is often called the “third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”—after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology.
Frankl died September 2, 1997, in Vienna. He left behind his second wife, Eleonore Schwindt, whom he met at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital and married in 1947. They had one daughter, Gabriele, who followed in her father's footsteps by becoming a child psychologist.
Frankl, Viktor E., Man's Search for Meaning, Beacon Press, 1992.
Frankl, Viktor E., Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography, translated by Joseph and Judith Fabry, Basic Books, 2000.
America, March 18, 1995, Edward Hoffman, “Viktor Frankl at 90: A Voice for Life,” pp. 17–22.
Economist, September 20, 1997.
Investor's Business Daily, April 21, 2014, Scott S. Smith, “Viktor Frankl Saw Light in Man's Darkest Hour,” p. A4.
Viktor Frankl Institute website, http://www.viktorfrankl.org/ (January 19, 2017).❑