Viktor E. Frankl

A Jewish psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl developed the discipline of logotherapy.

Viktor E. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and author, drew on his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany's campaign to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe during World War II to develop the discipline of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy that, by stressing the need to find meaning even in the most tragic circumstances, offered solace to millions of readers in his classic work, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.

Frankl, born March 26, 1905, in Vienna, AustriaHungary (present-day Austria), was the second of three children. His mother, Elsa Lion Frankl came from Prague, and his father, Gabriel Frankl, came from Southern Moravia. Frankl grew up in Vienna, the birthplace of modern psychiatry and home of the renowned psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Alfred Adler (1870–1937). During World War I, Frankl's family went through times of extreme hardship, which included forcing the children to beg for food from farmers. Even with this hardship, Frankl was a brilliant student, attending lectures on applied psychology where he was first exposed to psychoanalysis. At age 16, Frankl began to write to Freud, and on one occasion he sent Freud a short paper, which Freud regarded so highly that he passed it on to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, where it was published three years later. Around this same time, Frankl delivered his first public lecture, “On the Meaning of Life.”

Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl.
(©DIZMunchen GmbH)

After graduating from high school in 1923, Frankl enrolled in the University of Vienna to study medicine. During his studies, he had multiple papers published, and in 1925 he met Freud in person. Also during his medical studies, Frankl organized youth counseling centers in seven European cities, including Vienna. Other well-known psychologists, such as Charlotte Buehler (1893–1974) and Erwin Wexberg (1889–1957), joined Frankl's cause to provide free advice and help to adolescents in need. In 1930, Frankl earned his medical degree and was promoted to assistant in the Psychotherapeutic Department of the Psychiatric University Clinic. In 1933, Frankl was put in charge of a Vienna hospital ward for the treatment of females who had attempted suicide. He remained there until 1937 when he left to open his own practice. After Germany seized control of Austria, the Nazis made Frankl head of the Rothschild Hospital, the only Jewish hospital that was allowed to remain open in Vienna. Frankl held this position from 1940 to 1942.

After taking power in Austria, the Nazis began removing the Jews of Vienna and sending them to death camps that had been set up in Eastern Europe. Frankl was deported to the Theresienstadt camp near Prague in January 1942, one month after marrying Mathilde “Tilly” Grosser. He was later sent to Auschwitz in Poland, where the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, was supervising the division of the incoming prisoners into two lines. Those in the line moving left were to go to the gas chambers whereas those in the line moving right were to be spared. Frankl was directed to join the line moving left but managed to save his life by slipping into the other line without being noticed. Other members of his family were not so fortunate, and by the end of the war, Frankl had lost his wife, his parents, and a brother.

Before the war Frankl had begun to develop a theory that psychological health depends on finding meaning in one's life. The death camps, he wrote, confirmed his initial insights in a fashion he could never have anticipated. In the camps one lost everything, he once commented to Holcomb B. Noble of the New York Times, except “the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” Prisoners who allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by despair, who gave up their freedom to choose, often descended into paralytic apathy and depression. The key to helping such people was to show them how they could find meaning even in the face of unimaginable horror. Meaning might consist of holding onto pleasant memories or helping other prisoners turn away from suicide. He believed that every prisoner had a moral choice to make: to surrender one's inner self to the Nazis or to find the meaning in one's life that would give one the strength to go on.

On returning to Vienna after Germany's defeat in 1945, Frankl, who had secretly been keeping a record of his observations in the camps on scraps of paper stolen from the Nazis, published a book in German setting out his ideas on logotherapy (a term derived from the Greek word for “meaning” ). Frankl's first use of the term logotherapy dated back to 1926. This book was translated into English in 1959, and in a revised and enlarged edition appeared as Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy in 1963. By the time of his death in 1997, Frankl's book had been translated into 24 languages, reprinted 73 times, and had long been used as a standard text in high school and university courses in psychology, philosophy, and theology. Frankl's theory of a psychotherapy that emphasized “the will to meaning” was described as “the Third Vienna School of Psychotherapy,” the first being Freud's, which emphasized “the will to pleasure,” and the second being Adler's, which emphasized “the will to power.” Frankl's views exerted an important influence on psychiatrists of varying theoretical perspectives, who often recommended his book to despairing patients who could find no value in their lives.

In 1947, after confirming that his first wife had died in the camps, Frankl married Eleonore Schwindt, who survived him, as did a daughter, Dr. Gabrielle Frankl-Vesely. Frankl's postwar career was spent as a professor of neurology and psychiatry in Vienna, where he taught until he was 85. He was also chief of neurology at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital for 25 years. Frankl received numerous honorary doctorates, wrote over 30 books, became the first non-American to be awarded the American Psychiatric Association's prestigious Oskar Pfister Prize, and he was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford, and other universities. His hobbies included mountain climbing, and at 67 he obtained his pilot's license.

Frankl's message that man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable resonated with people around the world. In a 1991 survey of general-interest readers conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, Man's Search for Meaning was ranked among the ten books that had most influenced the respondents. For them, and for millions of others, Frankl's writings were an inspiration and a reminder that it is essential to keep practicing the art of living, even when life seems most hopeless. Frankl died on September 2, 1997, in Vienna, Austria, of heart failure, five years after the foundation of the Victor Frankl Institute and two years after his biography, Was nicht in Meinen Büchern Steht (What Is Not in My Books) was published. Frankl's final book, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning, was published the same year of his death.



Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy, Translate by Ilse Lasch. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Pytel, Timothy. Viktor Frankl's Search for Meaning: An Emblematic 20th-Century Life, 1st ed. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005.

Sadigh, Michah R. Existential Journey: Viktor Frankl & Leo Tolstoy on Suffering, Death, and the Search for Meaning. Lima, OH: Wyndham Hall Press, 2013.

Wong, Paul T. P. “Viktor Frankl's Meaning-Seeking Model and Positive Psychology.” In Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology. New York: Springer, 2014:149–84.


Lützén, Kim, and Béatrice Ewalds-Kvist. “Moral Distress and Its Interconnection with Moral Sensitivity and Moral Resilience: Viewed from the Philosophy of Viktor E. Frankl.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10, no. 3 (2013): 317–24.


Noetic Films. “Biography of Viktor-Frankl.” (accessed July 3, 2015).

Viktor Frankl Institute. “Life and Work.” (accessed July 24, 2015).


Victor Frankl Institut, Prinz Eugen-Strasse 18/12, Vienna, Austria, A 1040, 43 1 (505) 2339, secretary@viktor, .