Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in German in 1946, just one year after the end of the Second World War and the liberation of its author, psychologist Viktor Emil Frankl, from a Nazi concentration camp. With its exhortation to each individual to find the meaning in his or her life, Frankl’s combined memoir and psychological treatise—first translated into English in 1959—has become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.
Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”
“Experiences in a Concentration Camp” is structured around Frankl’s observations of three distinct phases of the average prisoner’s psychological response to life in the concentration camps, each with its particular symptoms: the phase immediately following arrival at the camp, the phase when prisoners are entrenched in camp life, and the phase following their liberation.
The first phase is characterized by the symptom of shock. Frankl recounts his arrival by train at the infamous Auschwitz, when he and his fellow prisoners’ initial shock and horror quickly gave way to the condition known as the “delusion of reprieve”—the conviction that they would be saved at the last moment, that things could not be as terrible as they seemed. Frankl describes how, not for the last time, he waited for fate to take its course as the prisoners took their turns standing in front of an SS officer who casually pointed them to the right, which meant they looked physically fit enough for manual labor, or the left, which meant they would be sent to the gas chambers.
For Frankl, the culmination of this first phase came when the prisoners were taken to the showers and all their clothes and possessions were taken from them. Desperate to keep the manuscript of his first book, which he had in his coat pocket, he tried to enlist the help of an older prisoner. The prisoner grinned at Frankl, then cursed at him. At this moment, Frankl says, he realized he would have to “strike out [his] whole former life.” After this incident, shaved and stripped of everything but their “naked existence,” the prisoners were overtaken by a grim sense of humor, a cold curiosity about their situation, and an ongoing surprise at how much they were able to endure. Still, many considered committing suicide by running into the electrified barbed wire that surrounded the camp. His first night there, Frankl promised himself he would not do the same. A colleague who had been imprisoned weeks before advised him and his fellow new arrivals to shave daily, stand up straight, and avoid looking weak in any way. Men who looked worn out or sick—men who looked like they could no longer work—were called “Moslems” and were inevitably sent to the gas chambers.
After a few days, inmates entered the second phase, which was characterized by apathy, detachment, and what Frankl terms an “emotional death.” Faced with so much daily suffering, prisoners’ initial feelings of disgust, horror, and pity were deadened. This apathy was a necessary defense mechanism, as all a prisoner’s emotions were concentrated on ensuring his own survival and the survival of those closest to him. Frankl illustrates this deadening of emotion by recalling how he calmly watched the body of a man who had just died of typhus be dragged from their hut into the snow, telling readers that he would not have even remembered this incident if his own lack of emotion had not interested him from a psychological standpoint.
Prisoners suffered frequent beatings from guards and foremen, edema from working in the ice and snow in worn-out shoes, and outbreaks of typhus. They were also all severely undernourished, receiving only a small portion of bread and watery soup every day. Many starved. Frankl writes that the inmates largely “regressed” to a more primitive level due to the conditions of camp life, and the need for food was the “primitive drive” on which their desires centered. There was no room for the desire for anything not directly related to survival. In Frankl’s view, however, the desire for meaning was more directly related to a prisoner’s survival than anything. He quotes Nietzsche: “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Having something to live for, Frankl says, was the only reason anyone survived in such conditions. For him, it was the thought of seeing his wife again, returning to his work, and reconstructing his lost manuscript, which he began to rewrite on tiny scraps of paper in an attempt to stave off delirium when ill with typhus.
Frankl explains that people who were able to find meaning in their rich inner lives had better chances not only of surviving the camps but of lessening the damage to their inner selves. He illustrates with a moving passage on the loving thoughts about his wife that sustained him while he dug ditches in the dead of winter. As he worked, Frankl carried on a conversation with his wife in his mind, not knowing if she was alive or dead but feeling that he was in real communion with her either way. During this spiritual experience, Frankl concluded that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire” and that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” Even in the most desolate situation, when there is no possibility of taking significant action to change one’s circumstances, meaning can be found in love. This conviction would become part of Frankl’s logotherapeutic theory.
Thinking of loved ones, recalling the past, exercising a sense of dark humor, and experiencing brief glimpses of the beauty of art and nature were all methods of survival in the camps. Prisoners created an improvised cabaret from time to time that was so effective in helping them temporarily forget their suffering that many men missed receiving their ration of food to attend.
The “meager pleasures of camp life,” Frankl says, “provided a kind of negative happiness—‘freedom from suffering’ as Schopenhauer put it.” Frankl describes the happiness of being transported to a camp without a “chimney” or crematorium, the small mercy of being able to delouse before bed or go back to camp before dying of exhaustion in the cold, and the good luck of being able to work indoors in a factory or rest in the sick hut. Real pleasures were very few.
Frankl’s main concern is how the dehumanizing effects of the camps threatened to cause prisoners to lose their values and “inner freedom”: if they didn’t struggle to maintain their self-respect and individuality, if they didn’t have a meaning to live for, they could descend to an animal level. Though “do not be conspicuous” was one of the rules of survival, Frankl also managed to find a few moments of sustaining solitude, in one case by crouching on the lid of a water shaft near a tent housing dead bodies at a rest camp where he was treating typhus patients.
In the camps, the feeling of being totally at the mercy of fate was inescapable. Frankl illustrates this, along with the lack of value placed on human lives, through a description of the sick convoys. When ill patients were rounded up and taken away in trucks, “one literally became a number.” One of Frankl’s rules for himself was that he would answer all questions truthfully but not say more than was asked. Another was that he “let fate take its course,” as when he didn’t take his name off the list of men to be sent to a “rest camp” many suspected was actually just the gas chambers. This turned out to be the right decision, as Frankl really was transferred to a rest camp and later learned that famine and cannibalism had broken out at the previous camp just after he had left. Since fate seemed to be in control, however, making decisions could be tortuous. Near the end of the war, Frankl planned to escape with a friend but decided to stay and comfort the patients he was treating instead. Later, he again tried to escape with a friend, but the Red Cross arrived first. Frankl and his friend had to stay behind while others left the camp on trucks, supposedly bound for freedom; they were instead burned in the huts of a nearby camp while Frankl and his friend were liberated.
The apathy and irritability prisoners experienced resulted from lack of sleep (partially due to the vermin that infested the huts), hunger, and lack of nicotine and caffeine, as well as from the inferiority complexes most prisoners suffered. This worsened when the “degraded majority and the promoted minority” (Capos and other prisoners given prominent positions) clashed, or when irritability was faced with others’ apathy along with impending danger (as when Frankl tended apathetic sick patients while facing inspections by guards).
Still, Frankl posits that people are more than just the result of their environment or conditions. He emphasizes that everyone can choose, under any circumstances, what “will become of him—mentally and spiritually.” He argues that what kind of person you are is a result of an “inner decision” rather than your situation, and that bearing your suffering with dignity is a real achievement. “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and personal.”
Frankl regards suffering as an opportunity to make meaning out of life. Even if the normal routes to meaning (a creative life or a life of enjoyment) are closed, people can still find deep meaning in their lives through the way they handle their suffering—with bravery, dignity, selflessness, and morality, rather than by becoming “no more than an animal.” Suffering and dying are, much as we might wish it otherwise, part of a complete life.
The most depressing influence of the camps was the total uncertainty as to how long one would be there—living a “provisional existence of unknown limit.” Many prisoners felt unable to live for the future or have a goal because they had no idea when or if they would be released. For prisoners who chose to live totally in the past, shutting out the reality of their lives in the camp and overlooking opportunities to make something positive of their experiences, life became pointless and meaningless.
Frankl states that prisoners—and all people—must have a future goal to look forward to. “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future—sub specie aeternitatis.” He himself combated the disgust at the “trivial things” he was forced to think of in the camp (matters of survival in horrible conditions) by imagining himself lecturing on the psychology of the camps in the future. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed.” These men lost their “spiritual hold” and gave up on living, refusing to move, sometimes smoking a last...
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