Viktor Emil Frankl Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Frankl turned his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps into an enduring work of survival literature and originated logotherapy, a existential system of psychological treatment emphasizing that the search for meaning in life is the key to psychological health.

Early Life

Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Emil Frankl was the middle child of Gabriel Frankl, a high-ranking civil servant, and Elsa Lion, a descendant of Jewish religious leaders. Frankl described his family, religiously observant middle-class Jews, as close and warm. In an autobiography, he described his early life as safe and secure, even amid the upheaval caused by World War I, which broke out when he was nine years old.

As early as age three, Frankl decided to become a physician. As a teenager, he did brilliantly in his studies, including a course in Freudian theory that prompted him to write to Sigmund Freud. A correspondence ensued, and in one letter, he included a two-page letter on mimicry that Freud forwarded to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, which published it three years later. At age nineteen, Frankl was walking through a Viennese park when he saw a man with an old hat, a torn coat, a silver-handled walking stick, and a face he recognized from photographs. It was none other than Freud himself. Frankl began to introduce himself but was interrupted when the man stated Frankl’s exact address. The founder of psychoanalysis had remembered the young man’s name and address from their earlier correspondence.

Frankl studied medicine at the University of Vienna, where he broke from his initial attraction to Freudian theory and began studying psychoanalysis under Alfred Adler. However, he came to disagree with Adler’s position that people do not have the freedom of choice and willpower to overcome their problems. In 1927, a schism in the Society for Individual Psychology, an association of Adlerians, led to the breakdown of Frankl’s relationship with Adler and to his expulsion from the group.

Life’s Work

Frankl began working as a psychotherapist even before he graduated in 1930 and continued to work at the University of Vienna for two years before going on staff at the Am Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, where he worked with suicidal female patients. While there, he developed his theory that behavior is driven by a subconscious and conscious need to find meaning and purpose. In 1937, he went into private practice and began writing articles on this theory.

At this time, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe. After the invasion of Austria in 1938, Frankl, like other Jewish professionals, tried desperately to obtain a visa that would enable him to work in the United States. Finally, in 1941, he was offered the visa, but with the provision that only he would be allowed to leave. His elderly parents would have to stay behind. Frankl knew that his parents would be sent to a concentration camp if he left, so he risked his life by letting his visa lapse.

In 1940, Frankl began working at the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, at that time Austria’s only hospital still employing Jewish staff. While there, he managed to save numerous psychiatric patients from euthanasia by falsifying diagnoses (for example, labeling schizophrenia as aphasia or depression as fever-induced delirium) and thus certifying the patients as eligible for nursing home care.

For a time, Frankl’s work at Rothschild kept him from being sent to a concentration camp and permitted him to keep his parents with him. In December, 1941, Frankl married Mathilde Frosser, a nurse. They were among the last couples allowed to wed at the National Office for Jewish Marriage, a bureau set up by the Nazis. One month later, in 1942, Frankl was arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. Around this time, his entire family, except one sister who had already left the country, was deported to concentration camps. Expecting the roundup, his wife had sewn the book that he had written on his theory into the lining of his coat. The Nazis destroyed it along with all his other possessions. They also separated him from his family and killed his pregnant wife, his brother, and both parents. Frankl spent a total of three years at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other camps.

While imprisoned, Frankl noticed that some prisoners seemed to will themselves to die, while others suffering equally from brutality, disease, and starvation struggled to survive. He helped save many prisoners from dangerous despair, doing his best to reassure them that human life is meaningful under any circumstances. He urged...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)