“Man’s search for meaning”: a technical account of the holocaust and a lesson on Hope.

A staggering success?

“Man’s search for meaning” is an all-time best-seller, a classic in the psychology department. Since its publication in 1946, it has sold 16 million copies, expanding its influence in over 24 different languages. In this rather short book (about 220 pages), Dr. Frankl manages to recount his time spent in several Nazi concentration camps denoting from its horrors an objective analysis, a technical report of the human psyche and its apparent requirements for survival, in other words, the importance of hope during harrowing times.
Who was Dr.Frankl?

Born in Austria in 1905, Viktor Emil Frankl developed during his young teenage an interest in psychology and philosophy. He was inspired by the work of Alfred Adler and even reached out to Sigmund Freud himself. Once he earned his medical doctorate at the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930; he began his quest for meaning. It led him towards the precarious field of depression and suicide prevention, with a focus on women and younger children, involving himself with youth counselling centers and related programs. He even began his own practice.

However, as World War 2 came to its climax with the rising Nazi threat and antisemitism, coupled with the consequent annexation of Austria in 1938; Dr Frankl’s work and research was abruptly put to a halt. As a Jewish citizen, he was swiftly captured and deported to a Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, the first of the four he would be in which he would be contained; and where he would sadly lose his father. It was during his time in Auschwitz, where he lost his mother, that he started to gain a deeper understanding of the prisoner’s psyche, through the atrocities he witnessed. His imprisonment in Auschwitz was followed by time in Dachau and finally Türkheim, where he lost his dear wife Bergen-Belsen.

The foundation for “Man’s Search for Meaning” was conceptualized inside the camps, on any scraps of paper the renowned psychotherapist could find and scribble on, as well as a recollection of conclusive mental notes he took from his observations. “Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager”(1946); “A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”, was translated into English as “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
His unfiltered experience in the concentration camps

One of the traits which makes the account so eye-opening is not just the objectivity of his observations, but the raw and authentic insights Frankl gives. He covers details from the strict daily routine and diet to specific moments of crisis such as the Typhoid epidemic which hit Auschwitz in early 1945 and pushed prisoners to feverous delirium, and subsequent death.  

Even seemingly unassuming mundane scenes were painted by the author, exposing the degrading and inhumane way the prisoners were treated, worse than rubbish. For instance, Frankl considers the time during the typhoid breakout where he’d been tasked at pushing a chariot, collecting the emaciated corpse of the ill and exhausted to their end destination; the crematoriums, where they were to be reduced to the nothingness of ashes.

Through all this Frankl realized several patterns between when and if certain people survived; a correlation between humans and their capacity for making choices, their resilience, particularly their hope. Ironically, simply because one had a big strong physique and another a comparatively leaner and weaker one didn’t guarantee longer survival. From watching the prisoners which whom he shared the barracks with, he could put an estimation on how much time some had left to live, from weeks to months, based on their physical health of course but also a great deal in regards to their mental state; from the initial shock they felt to the bitter apathy and consuming hopelessness which would signify their impending death.

Frankl concluded that those who kept hope and clung to long term causes with a deep meaning, as he did, had a higher probability of survival. In order to endure challenging times, he himself thought longingly of embracing his loving wife again in the future once the camps were liberated. As he claims, “striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man”, and that even when life seems at its worse point, we’ll always be in control of one thing; how we react to life, no matter the circumstances, and that has the potential to change any outcome. It’s about making choices. This line of thinking is like a very well-known quote by Nietzsche stating that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” The ensemble of his experiences built the foundations of the field of logotheraphy, innovated by the man himself.
Logotherapy, derived from “logos”, the Greek work for meaning or purpose

Logotherapy covers the second, more technical part of the book, a rational dimension and neuroscientific concepts to the holocaust’s impact on prisoners. It is a field, a kind of psychotherapy that was developed by Frankl which researches and treats patients who most often struggle with depression, addiction, anger, grief and burnout. It answers existential questions.

It aims to unlock the will to find meaning in life. According to the blog PositivePsychology, “logotheraphy offers a deeper connection to the soul and an opportunity to explore that which makes us uniquely human”.  Logotherapy gives human life a meaning, a purpose that keeps us striving, like caring for a loved one or creating something.

Several techniques such as dereflection, paradoxical intention, and Socratic dialogue are used to treat patients. In a nutshell, it signifies shifting your attention away from a problem to another area of focus, overcoming something like fear by confrontation and through dialogue, uncovering new meanings which could lead to a change in attitude.

With the increasing rate of suicide among teenagers these days, Logotherapy has proven to be an effective solution to suffering.

Frankl’s Legacy

Through Logotherapy Viktor Frankl aided countless patients (and readers) in reconsidering their own life through the lens of finding and giving meaning to their life. Many research institutes and universities have been influenced by his work and his approach has been modeled worldwide, from Austria to Israel to the United States. Even after his death in 1997, his theories from his research, Logotherapy and “Man’s Search for Meaning” live on and continue to be impactful and offer guidance.

Mathilde Van Oostrum / S6FRC / EEB1 Uccle

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée.