The Life of Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl, 1929

With a lifetime that spanned most of the 20th Century, Viktor Emil Frankl (March 26, 1905 –September 2, 1997) was witness to a transformative period in world history. He is most known for being a Holocaust survivor, but in reality, this represented a short period in his long life. By the time he entered the concentration camps at 37 years old, he had already spent much of his adult life as a psychiatrist and neurologist, specializing in the treatment of suicidal patients. He had also developed his own psychology theory called Logotherapy (Greek for “healing through meaning”). His lasting contribution has been to the field of psychology, with his recognition of meaning as a factor in mental health and his advocacy that the psychologist’s role was to help their patients find meaning. 

Frankl was so interested in psychology that he began taking adult night classes when he was in junior high school. He was an honor student prior to beginning his self-directed education and his grades subsequently dropped. He studied philosophy and learned hypnosis at the age of 15. Frankl had his first article published when he was 18 and by 22, he was lecturing on the meaning of life.

In 1930, at the age of 25, he organized free youth counseling centers in Vienna that successfully combated the epidemic of teen suicides occurring around the time of report cards. Within a year, suicides dropped to zero. 

His views about meaning brought him into conflict with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, the founders of modern psychology. As a teenager, he corresponded with Freud and then joined Adler’s school for a time. Both published his writings on psychology. While still in his early 20s, he not only understood the principles of the new science of psychology, he sought to improve upon the ideas of Freud and Adler. Although he acknowledged the importance of their work, he went on to establish his own theory, Logotherapy, which is often referred to as the Third School of Viennese Psychology. 

Prior to the war, Frankl gained extensive experience at Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital where he was in charge of the “pavilion for suicidal women”.  Over a four-year period (1933 — 1937), he treated no less than 3,000 patients each year. In 1937, he began his private practice, but with the Nazi invasion, his ability to treat patients became limited. In 1940, he joined Rothschild Hospital as head of the neurology department. It was the only hospital in Vienna still admitting Jews. Frankl not only sought to help his patients, but he also valued how much he learned from them. 

While at Rothschild Hospital, he met a nurse, Tilly Grosser, and they married in 1941. Frankl had gained such professional recognition that he had the opportunity to escape Vienna and was even issued a visa. He and Tilly were expecting a child and the idea of emigrating was appealing, but he was torn about leaving his mother and father. On a visit to his parent’s home, his father showed him some marble carvings that he rescued from a destroyed synagogue. When Frankl looked at the inscription, it was one of the Ten Commandments, “Honor thy mother and father.” He let his visa expire. 

A short time later, Frankl and his family were forced to move to the Terezin Ghetto, also known as Theresienstadt concentration camp. Even when they were all living in the ghetto with restricted freedoms, he worked with suicidal patients. He organized a suicide prevention group to serve as “shock absorbers” for new detainees arriving at the train station.

Frankl spent a total of three years in four camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering III, and Türkheim. He lost his father in the Terezín Ghetto, his brother and mother at Auschwitz, and his wife in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His sister, Stella, escaped to Australia. He was devastated when he returned to Vienna and found nothing left of the life he once knew and the people he loved. He focused on reconstructing his manuscript about Logotherapy, which had been taken from him at the first camp. He only devoted a single chapter to his time in the concentration camps, but his publisher requested that he expand on his experiences.

Over a nine-day period, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. He wanted to express himself freely so he decided to publish it as an anonymous author. The book, originally titled, “A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp” was released in German in 1946. The first edition cover does not identify who wrote it. Finally, after friends persuaded him, Frankl decided to accept responsibility for being the author. He was surprised that out of the 39 books he wrote, the one that he wanted to publish anonymously became his most popular.

The English translation of Man’s Search for Meaning was published in 1959 and became an international bestseller. He saw this not so much as a personal achievement, but as a symptom of the mass neurosis of modern times since its title promised to deal with the question of life’s meaningfulness. 

In 1991, Man’s Search for Meaning was listed as “one of the ten most influential books in the U.S.” by the Library of Congress. Still today, decades later, it shows up consistently on Amazon’s Top 100 Books list and is recommended as one of Amazon’s Top 100 Books to Read In a Lifetime.

After the war, Frankl was a professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Vienna and received a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1948. He also taught throughout the U.S. and held visiting professorships at Harvard, Stanford, Southern Methodist University (SMU), and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. 

Frankl often commented on the American obsession with the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence. He saw it as a self-defeating goal. He believed that even the role of psychotherapy was not to make people happy but to enable them to deal with real life and it’s unavoidable hassles. According to Frankl, freedom needs responsibility; otherwise, life threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness.

He cautioned about the trend he saw in modern psychotherapy with its tendency to reduce an individual to nothing more than a victim of influences of nature or nurture. This, he felt, stripped people from any freedom of choice or responsibility. He saw psychotherapy evolving to promise wellbeing via ready-made formulas rather than as a vehicle that could encourage the patient toward their deeply personal meaning. Calling for a re-humanization of psychotherapy, he emphasized the importance of reconnecting people with personal responsibility in order to overcome feelings of meaninglessness and despair.

Frankl coined the term “existential vacuum” to describe the void of meaninglessness that was being experienced by so many people, especially students. He warned that this void would produce anxiety, depression, addiction, and even suicide. He believed that the ‘mechanistic’ institutional systems developed in the 20th century (governments, schools, corporations) contributed to the existential vacuum. The turning over of personal responsibility to these systems, which focus on external outputs and devalue humanness, had helped produce mass neurosis.

In numerous lecture tours to all parts of the world, Frankl expounded his ideas to professionals and laypersons alike. Inspired by his ideas, Logotherapy Institutes were created around the globe, offering training, therapy, and research in meaning-centered psychotherapy.

Frankl was an avid mountain climber his entire life. This continued well into his later years at which time he also took up flying lessons. He and his second wife, Eleonore “Elly”, worked together on his 39 books. They have one daughter Gabriele, married to Franz Vesely, and two grandchildren Katharina and Alexander. 

Viktor & Elly