man sitting with barbed wire in the background with a beautiful cloud-filled blue sky inside of his head

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl
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Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” Summary

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Last Updated on October 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2402

“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.

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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.

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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 cigarette, then falling ill and dying. This often happened when hopes of being released at a certain time were extinguished.

To establish his guiding motto for psychotherapeutic work with prisoners, Frankl again quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” People must have a purpose to fulfill. There is no general, overarching meaning inherent in life: every person must find their meaning, and that meaning could change from moment to moment depending on the unique situation a person finds himself or herself in—including situations in which suffering is unavoidable. Frankl sees life as the concrete reality we find ourselves in, not a vague idea; therefore we must find meaning here, in our specific, real circumstances and our attitude toward them. Rather than questioning the meaning of life, people must realize that they are the ones from whom life is asking something, and that they can only answer by being responsible for their own irreplaceable lives.

Frankl recounts a time when he was called on to give advice to his fellow prisoners as they lay fasting in their hut (rather than give up the identity of a man who had stolen potatoes). He helped them find a meaning in their lives by talking about the future and the reasons to hope in spite of the fact their chances of survival were about one in twenty. He discussed the past and how all they had experienced could never be taken from them. He told them that meaning could be found even in hopeless situations, because life has an “infinite meaning” that never ceases to be. He said that they should suffer with dignity and that their sacrifice, on a spiritual level, would not be for nothing. Frankl’s words succeeded in inspiring hope in his listeners.

Lastly, Frankl discusses the psychology of the period following a prisoner’s release and liberation. In this section he first discusses the psychology of the guards: there were some sadists, but mostly there were guards who were hardened by their experiences and did not carry out—but did not prevent—sadistic actions by the minority. There were also some who took pity on the prisoners, such as a foreman who gave Frankl a piece of his bread, moving him with his humanity as he did so. Frankl draws the conclusion from his experiences of human behavior in the camps that “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man.” For Frankl, this applies to all of society equally, guards and prisoners alike.

For prisoners, the period following liberation is characterized first by the symptom of “depersonalization”: prisoners who had been liberated could not immediately grasp the reality of their freedom. Then their bodies took over and they ate ravenously; then they talked and talked, and after many days returned to feeling and life.

Just-liberated prisoners were still in need of “spiritual care” due to the dangers posed by what Frankl characterizes as the sudden release of a huge amount of mental pressure. Some people with more “primitive” natures reacted by becoming instigators of brutality and injustice, which they justified by how they had been treated. Frankl, however, emphasizes his belief that doing wrong is never justified. Other symptoms included bitterness and disillusionment. Prisoners found that people in their hometowns could not understand their pain and perhaps didn’t want to, or returned to find that their loved ones were dead; after all they had suffered—seemingly as much as was humanly possible—there was still more suffering in store. Still, Frankl writes, “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his God.”

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Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” Summary