Viktor Frankl’s Disturbing Book: Man’s Search For Meaning

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 his 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 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 did I just read”?

I am not the only one to find Frankl’s book disturbing. Apparently, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington refused to sell Man’s Search for Meaning in the gift shop 1.

Frankl’s book describes the horrors of the concentration camp as a sort of spiritual renewal that one could find meaning from. He denigrates those who failed to find meaning from their inhuman suffering.

Furthermore, Frankl looks down on Jews in the concentration camp who decided to use the last bit of autonomy they had left to commit suicide. 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 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 in 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 Jews who, rather than being taken prisoners by the Nazis, attempted suicide. Frankl kept the suicidal “patients” alive so that they could instead be “treated”. Some of Frankl’s treatments were especially gruesome 4.

Frankl describes one of his sordid procedures in a 1969 magazine interview with 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 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 plain English, non-consensual sex is rape. Non-consensual medical “treatment” is rape by a physician. If you do not consent to a physician’s so-called treatment, you are being raped by the physician to satisfy his own gratification. Yet Frankl considers non-consensual “treatment” as morally good, so long as it is carried out with a good “spirit”.

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, Frankl 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.

 In a 1991 interview with the American minister Robert Schuller, Frankl confessed: “I was in Auschwitz only three or four days…. I was sent to a barracks and we were all transported to a camp in Bavaria.” 4

Frankl’s short time in Auschwitz is documented by the prisoner log from the subcamp of Dachau, Kaufering III, which listed his arrival on October 25, 1944, six days after his deportation from Theresienstadt. 4 The trip to Auschwitz usually took two days. However, Frankl depicted a journey of “several days and nights.”

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 what 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 Nazis.

Whatever his reasons for writing, Frankl’s book is disturbing, dehumanizing, and disingenuous.

  1. 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. 
  2. Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 18). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. 
  3. Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 78-79). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Redeeming the Unredeemable: Auschwitz and Man’s Search for Meaning
    Timothy E. Pytell; 
  5. As quoted in: Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Locations 655-658). Kindle Edition. 
  6. As quoted in: Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Locations 666-668). Kindle Edition. 
  7. Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 120). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. 
  8. Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 17). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. 
  9. Thomas Szasz. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine (Kindle Location 671). Kindle Edition. 

One thought on “Viktor Frankl’s Disturbing Book: Man’s Search For Meaning

  1. Usually the notion of meaning in life is a self esteem trap for perfectionists, so I disregarded the work, having read it many years ago and forgot it. Nice to see it taken apart like this.
    The purpose of life is satisfaction, that way we always have free will and power of choice.

    Liked by 1 person

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