The Inspirational Life of Dr. Viktor Frankl

By William Hansen in Inspiration on July 26th, 2008 / 3 Comments

In order to begin to understand the extent to which his life and work stand today as symbols of strength and unwavering determination in the face of unimaginable suffering, one might first try, as much as it is possible, to imagine what life must have been like for Viktor Frankl living in Vienna in the months and weeks leading up to his internment in a Nazi concentration camp.

In 1942, at the age of thirty-seven, less than one year after being married, Frankl was granted a visa from the United States Consulate in Vienna. Emigration to the United States would allow the gifted doctor to escape the pervasive Anti-Semitism by which he was surrounded in his daily life as well as imminent imprisonment by the Gestapo. The visa, for which Frankl had waited years, also meant that he would be able to continue his very important psychiatric work in a relatively free and unabated intellectual environment.

The one thing that emigration would not allow him to do, however, was to help his family. He would have to leave them to fend for themselves in Vienna.

As the story goes, finding himself at this crucial impasse, Frankl spent hours walking around the city in deep thought. When he arrived at home, he saw that his father had recovered a piece of wreckage from the local synagogue, which had recently been desecrated and burned by the Nazis. As it happened, the piece of debris that Viktor’s father had recovered contained an inscription of one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor thy father and mother.” The moment he saw the inscription, Frankl knew exactly what he had to do.

Within a few short months, he and his family were deported to the camps.

Founding Principles
Viktor Frankl was one of those rare individuals who had the power to change a person’s entire outlook on life using only a few insightful words. During the three years he spent interned in the concentration camps, Frankl was able to provide countless of his fellow prisoners with something that would otherwise be completely improbable while living under such conditions: a belief in the meaning of their lives and their suffering. Upon being liberated, he would use his experiences in the camps to help innumerable others over the course of the next fifty years, until his death in 1997.

The experiences of the first thirty-five years of Frankl’s life would come to play an integral role in honing the skills that he would put to use in order to maintain for himself and others the kind of psychological strength needed to survive in the camps. Born in Vienna in 1905, Frankl’s early interests in psychology and philosophy eventually led him to the University of Vienna, where he spent a number of years studying medicine, psychiatry, and neurology. In 1933, at the age of twenty-eight, Frankl came to the General Hospital in Vienna, where he presided over what was known as the “suicide pavilion”—a job that involved him, on a daily basis, with patients who could no longer find meaning in their lives and who had thus lost the will to live.

During his four years at this hospital, Frankl has stated that nearly 12,000 patients were under his care, each of whom could not be released without his authorization. To deal with this “tremendous responsibility,” as he called it, he developed a series of questions that he claimed could determine the condition of the patient’s mental state in only five minutes. In patients who were asked why they thought they were ready to be released, Frankl would observe two distinct responses: the first type would “sink into the chair, unable to …look me in the eye,” and would simply say in a “toneless voice” that they would not commit suicide; the other type would “immediately state that he had a duty …some meaning to fulfill,” such as something related to their family or their work or their religion, something outside of themselves that gave them a reason to live.

As would soon become the founding principle of logotherapy—the school of psychology Frankl was to introduce to the world a number of years later—it became clear to the doctor early on that, regardless of the specific circumstances of a person’s life, there are three distinct ways in which everyone goes about discovering meaning: by creating something or doing a good deed; by experiencing a profound connection with another person; or by taking a strong stance against and thus remaining spiritually impervious to suffering.

It is through precisely these kinds of meaningful acts that man detaches himself from suffering and creates the two distinct manifestations of such a detachment: heroism and humor. In other words, Frankl was discovering that there are distinct ways in which we discover meaning, and the results of our discoveries invariably reveal a desire to help others and a willingness to approach personal problems with a sense of humor.

Frankl spent his time in Vienna’s General Hospital imparting on his patients the philosophy of a “will to meaning.” This is to say that he believed a person’s struggle to find meaning, their will to meaning, is implicit in the very existence of that meaning. To put it another way: if life is always meaningful, than a person who truly believed their life was meaningless would simply not be alive. Every treatment offered by Frankl rested fundamentally on this belief: that life is always endowed with meaning, no matter what, and that each of us is faced with the task of discovering what form our meaningfulness takes regardless of our circumstances.

Thus, Frankl believed in a more passive role for the psychiatrist, in a sense that it was his or her job only to guide patients through their own self-discovery. At the time, these ideas were something of a departure from customary approaches to therapy, such as those of psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis, a patient’s past plays a very significant role; neuroses are caused by traumatic events, and the therapist actively interprets behavior in order to isolate the root of neuroses and thus eliminate their effects. In logotherapy, a patient’s past is essentially insignificant; the logotherapist’s task is to focus a patient towards the future, towards goals that transcend their own self-interests, towards the people who rely on them.

To distinguish between the psychoanalyst and the logotherapist, Frankl would later use the metaphor of the difference between a painter and an eye specialist: “A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is.” This illustrates quite clearly the distinction between a more active/internal form of therapy such as psychoanalysis and a more passive/external form such as logotherapy.

Frankl carried this innovative approach to psychiatry into a private practice that he began in 1937, and then in 1940 to the Rothschild Hospital—at the time, the only remaining hospital in Vienna that would admit Jews. It was in the midst of this environment of extreme hostility and discrimination that Frankl would make the most courageous decision of his life by sacrificing himself to the painful uncertainty of imprisonment.

Strength of Conviction
Separated from his wife and their unborn child, from his father and mother, as well as from his brother, once imprisoned Frankl and every one of his fellow prisoners came face to face with the same extraordinary challenge met by so many of Frankl’s former patients: summoning a desire to preserve an existence that, for all intents and purposes, had been completely drained of any semblance of meaning. Powerless to help his family, with nowhere else to turn, Frankl managed to help as many of his fellow prisoners as possible and to write about many of his experiences and feelings while still in captivity.

In Auschwitz, he would be demoralized by the loss of a very significant manuscript, only later to rekindle his need to record his experiences by doing so on small scraps of paper. These notes would survive with him, and eventually come to provide a good deal of the material for what was to become one of the most inspirational books ever written, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Perhaps the most profound example that Frankl sets for his readers amidst the pages of this book is that of his phenomenal strength of conviction. On his first night in camp, the doctor made a decision not unlike the one he had made only months earlier upon seeing the inscription of one of the Ten Commandments; lying in his bed after an unspeakably brutal trip from his home to the camp, Frankl made a vow that, no matter what, he would simply never allow himself to reach the point at which he would want to commit suicide. “From personal convictions,” he writes, “I made myself a promise, on my first evening in camp, that I would not ‘run into the wire.’”

Frankl’s struggle to preserve his own life went hand in hand with his struggle to help preserve the lives of others, and his struggle to preserve a record of his thoughts and emotions on those tiny scraps of paper. Those efforts the doctor made that transcended his own efforts to stay alive were the ones that gave him hope, that leant meaning to his life, that “pointed out to him a future goal to which he could look forward,” and that transformed “a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

“In spite of all of the physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible,” Frankl teaches, “for spiritual life to deepen.” Among the more physically demanding requirements placed upon the prisoners was their early morning march from their camp to their worksite. On one such morning, a fellow prisoner managed to mutter to Frankl under his breathe something about how he wondered how their wives were faring, and that he hoped they were getting along better than the men.

In the cold darkness, through all of the shouting and the prodding from the butts of the guard’s rifles and the sore feet and overall anguishing discomfort, Frankl thought of his wife and experienced an epiphany unlike any other in his life up to that moment. He was overcome by the realization that “a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” This inspiring moment was made possible by the very fact that “love goes far beyond the physical person of the beloved.

It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present,” Frankl continues, “whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.” Despite knowing nothing of the fate of his wife or their unborn child, Frankl reached a state of complete spiritual fulfillment in that one ephemeral moment of joy, a moment powerful enough to propel him through all of the days of uncertainty that remained ahead.

“Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself,” Frankl writes. This is a result of the fact that everything can be taken from a person except what Frankl calls “the last of the human freedoms”—the ability to choose how we approach any situation in which we find ourselves. Though external circumstances certainly play a very significant role in determining a person’s mental state, what Frankl teaches us is that we still have the power to alter our perception of reality regardless of how extreme those circumstances may be.

Thus, it is faith—whether in a higher power, in the self, or simply in the future—that becomes the single most important element of survival. As we stated before, when an individual’s faith in or hope for the future is gone, when the mind’s desire to stay alive is exhausted, the body simply has no way of enduring. “The sudden loss of hope and courage,” Frankl writes, “can have a deadly effect.”

A man in the camps who related a dream to Frankl illustrated this fact most clearly. In this man’s dream, he heard a voice tell him that all he needed to do was to say what he wanted to know and that he would be given the answer. As would be expected from a prisoner in a camp, the man asked the voice to tell him when he would be released. The voice, as he told Frankl, responded with a specific date, about one month in the future.

As the date grew closer and as it became increasingly obvious that they would not be released on that date, Frankl watched as the man grew increasingly ill. Within a three-day period about a week after this date had passed, the man ran a fever, lost consciousness, and then passed away. He had put his faith in the voice from his dream, and when he could no longer have faith in it, he simply died.

On another occasion closer to the time when Frankl and his fellow prisoners would be liberated, the doctor found himself in a situation in which it would be possible to escape the camps, and in which he once again learned the power of the mind over the body. The prisoners were all aware of the fact that the front lines were growing closer, but this in no way guaranteed their safety or increased their chances of survival. In Frankl’s case, being a doctor put him into situations where escape became more and more of a possibility.

At one time, he was stationed in a hut in which he was in charge of taking care of certain prisoners who had fallen ill or who were nearing death. On an occasion where Frankl was fully intending to escape with a friend of his, he came to his own hut to make one final inspection. What he was most struck by, however, passing by his patients one final time, was the realization that he had promised himself that he would do everything in his power to save one of these patients, the only of whom was his fellow countryman.

The feelings of despair brought on by this recollection only increased when this patient guessed that his doctor’s nervousness was a result of the fact that he was attempting to leave. After deep contemplation, in Frankl’s words, “I suddenly decided to take fate into my own hands… and told my friend that I could not go with him.” As with his decision to stay and help his family in the time before their imprisonment, the moment he made the decision not to escape, all of his feelings of distress left him. “I did not know what the following days would bring,” he writes, “but I had gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before.”

A short time later, on April 27, 1945, Frankl and those other few who had survived the camps along with him were liberated.

Upon being liberated, Frankl returned to Vienna and began his long and illustrious career as a professor, a psychiatrist, and a writer. Though he would publish more than thirty books over the course of his life, none had as much of a profound effect on so many people as Man’s Search for Meaning—ironically enough, a book he initially intended to publish anonymously. In addition to describing his experiences in the camps, Man’s Search for Meaning laid the groundwork for logotherapy, the theory and practice of which today remain as influential as they were in the years immediately following the war.

The underlying reason why this book and Frankl’s teachings in general continue to affect so many people is precisely because their truths are universal and can be applied to all of our daily lives. The solutions provided by logotherapy apply even to the most trifling of psychological disorders, as seen, for example, in the case of the sweating doctor.

As told by Frankl, in the presence of one of his superiors this doctor would sweat excessively, to the point at which it would be quite uncontrollable and would cause him great discomfort. Upon being advised by a logotherapist, however, he approached the situation with a sense of humor, in effect putting his fear on display by actually trying to sweat as much as possible so as to show his superior how ridiculous the situation was.

By facing his fears in this way, upon their next encounter the doctor found himself entirely free of his problem. As in many such cases, the mind’s power of the body was revealed to be absolute; the solution to this physical problem came from a simple alteration of the patient’s psychological orientation.

“A man’s suffering,” Frankl writes, “is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber… no matter how big [it is]… Therefore, the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.” Thus, whether or not we are pushed to such extremes as those present in a concentration camp, the substantial value of the lessons we learn from the experiences of people like Viktor Frankl is simply without comparison.

By applying Frankl’s philosophies to our daily life and through living by his example, we allow for the possibility of self-transcendence even in light of those circumstances that seem to render us powerless and that deprive us of hope. Frankl’s ultimate goal was to illustrate this kind of relativity to each of his patients, and in doing so to demonstrate the mind’s capacity to detach itself and to thus transform any suffering into triumph.

Life, he taught, comes with the responsibility to choose how we live it. We all have the power to choose the path that we take and, perhaps more importantly, to choose the path that is unselfish and that brings responsibilities that we are fully willing to take on. This is precisely what Frankl did when he chose to stay behind and protect his family, when he chose to set no limit on how hard he would fight for his life in the camps, and when he chose to forego freedom to help a man he had promised to save.

In fact, Frankl offers us a rule that he often invoked during those situations in which he feared making the choice to stand up for what he believed in—a rule that, in terms of inspirational value, is entirely without equal: “Live as if you were living already for the second time,” he writes, “and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

What better way to take action and make a courageous, meaningful change in our lives than to acknowledge that we can change the past simply by making the past our present?

First published in the magazine ‘Pure Inspiration‘ Spring 2007.

About the author:
William Hansen is a freelance writer, musician, and editor based in New Jersey. He welcomes any questions and comments by email at [email protected] He urges all readers to experience firsthand the inspirational work of Dr. Viktor Frankl, especially those books that serve as primary sources for this article: Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, third edition published by Simon & Schuster, ©1984; and The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, expanded edition published by Meridian, ©1988. The author is also obliged to site Frankl’s 1994 address to the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in Hamburg, Germany.

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3 Responses to “The Inspirational Life of Dr. Viktor Frankl”

  1. Jess Says:

    This article is great! It has helped me to understand Viktor and what he has done to help the world. Thank you.

  2. Lydia Says:

    Just read Man’s Search for Meaning and stumbled across this whilst searching for information for a school project. Thanks for the nice summary! (Also, I didn’t realize Tilly was pregnant??)

  3. Augustine Says:

    What a wonderful man and what an inspiring sharing of his life with us.

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