Friday, 8 February 2013

Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
One of my all-time favourite reads is Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl - a true story or rather an account of the hell of the holocaust. Unlike many others it was written down shortly after the author's liberation from the concentration camp Kaufering (an affiliate camp of Dachau) in April 1945. I first read what the psychiatrist Viktor Emil Frankl experienced as a prisoner and slave laborer just before the new millennium, at a time when I was in a crisis and searching for meaning myself. I seldom reread books, but this one I read three or four times because its message is so encouraging and so inspiring.

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, in March 1905. He studied medicine at the University of Vienna and later specialized in neurology and psychiatry with a focus on depression and suicide. He worked as a neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna until 1938, when Austria was annected by Nazi Germany and Jewish doctors were no longer allowed to treat Aryan patients. Between 1940 and his deportation to the Nazi Ghetto Theresienstadt in September 1942, Viktor Frankl was director of the neurological department of the Rothschild Hospital. In Theresienstadt he worked as a general practitioner until October 1944, when he was first deported to Auschwitz together with his wife and then sent to Kaufering. There he worked as a slave laborer for five months, before going to the rest-camp Türkheim where he was allowed to resume work as a doctor and where he was then liberated by US troops. After the war Viktor E. Frankl continued his work as a neurologist and psychiatrist and gained worldwide renown as the founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, thus the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. From 1946 to 1971 he was head of the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology. As from 1955 he was professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna and visiting professor at several other renowned universities, notably in the USA. Viktor E. Frankl died in 1997 aged 92. He published 39 books that were translated into many languages.

Viktor E. Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning within the short period of nine days in autumn 1945, few months after his liberation from Türkheim. The book first came out in 1946 in a small publishing house in Vienna that printed and sold no more than 3,000 copies of the book. The original German title was Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager (English translation: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp). Years later, when the memory of the concentration camps had already started to fade, the main title put in front of the original one became ...trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen (English translation: ...To Say Yes to Life Despite All). The first English edition of the book was published only in 1959 under the title From Death-Camp to Existentialism that was later changed to Man's Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.

The story of Viktor E. Frankl's time - and suffering - in the concentration camp is told from the point of view of a psychiatrist. As he would have done in a research paper, he analysed the situation and identified three psychological stages that every inmate of the concentration camps went through and that Frankl could discern on the basis of obersation of his fellow camp inmates as well as of his own experience. In the initial phase of admission to the camp every inmate was in a state of shock regarding the conditions there and the probable fate of himself as well as of his family and friends. As soon as the prisoners had become used to their miserable existence in the camp, apathy followed and all they still cared about was survival. At this point Viktor E. Frankl noticed that all those who could still find sense in life - through religion or in Frankl's case the day dream of giving a public lecture about his experiences in the concentration camp after liberation -, were more likely to live than the others. The suffering in the concentration camps made him see clearer than ever before that every moment of life was full of meaning that could be found and that it was the attitude of the individual that made the difference. The third psychological stage of the inmates was to be seen only after liberation. Many holocaust survivours were disillusioned, bitter and morally deformed because they couldn't see any meaning in their sufferings. That's where logotherapy came into play.

An impressing and striking conclusion that Viktor E. Frankl drew from his experience in the concentration camps was that there were only two races of men, decent men and indecent. In Man's Search for Meaning he refers to "decent" Nazi guards that he knew and "indecent" prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse fellow prisoners for personal gain. Thus he, unlike other holocoust survivours, always refused to blame Austrians, Germans or Nazis on the whole for the suffering he had gone through and for the loss of most of his family and many friends.

The language of Viktor E. Frankl may sound a bit antiquated today, especially in the original German version, but the message keeps being important, consoling and encouraging. Besides, we can't be reminded too often of the horrors that Adolf Hitler and his terror regime brought over Europe, not just over the Jews, but over all people who were different in some way.  Man's Search for Meaning is a book that I highly recommend to everyone, no matter if you see a meaning in your life or if you don't. The book is worthwhile the time.


  1. A wonderful book which I know very well. It is good to be reminded of it's riches.

    1. Hello Tom! Yes, it's a wonderful book and I wish more people would read it today. There are so many people killing time instead of doing what life asks them to.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.