Viktor Emil Frankl

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1933

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.

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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 that they “not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning.” He also attempted to restore their inner strength by showing them some future goal. His idea was that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

In the concentration camp, Frankl re-created his book, writing notes on pilfered paper with a pencil stub given by a fellow prisoner as a present for his fortieth birthday. Released in 1945, Frankl wrote about his death-camp experiences and his logotherapeutic system from those notes. The resulting book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was published in 1946. At the urging of friends, Frankl reluctantly agreed at the last minute to include his name on the title page, having originally planned to publish it anonymously. At the time of his death, it had been reprinted seventy-three times, translated into twenty-four languages, and used as a text in high schools and universities, and it had sold more than 10 million copies. In a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, people who regarded themselves as lifetime general-interest readers rated it as one of the ten most influential books they had ever read.

In 1947, after the Red Cross verified that his first wife had indeed been killed in the camp, Frankl married Eleanor Schwindt, with whom he would have a daughter. In 1949, he earned a Ph.D. in psychiatry, having returned to the University of Vienna as head of the Department of Neurology, a position he held for twenty-five years. In 1970, he started working at U.S. International University, a position he held until his retirement, although he took several visiting professorships throughout these years.

Despite the broad popularity of his book, the application of his theories into a distinct school of psychotherapy was slow in coming. Perhaps one reason was the wartime interruption and the lingering effects of anti-Semitism in Vienna at a critical point in his career. Perhaps another reason was that Frankl concentrated more on writing and lecturing than in developing followers among his therapist contemporaries. Interest in his approach to therapy increased after fellow concentration camp prisoner Joseph B. Fabry, who moved to the United States and became a successful lawyer, founded the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Berkeley, California, in 1977. Logotherapy societies have been established in twenty-two countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa.

In the postwar years, Frankl wrote thirty-three other books on his theories of theoretical and clinical psychology. He also wrote on a variety of religious and spiritual issues as well as on other topics related to people, including love, sex, depression, and hunger in the Third World. Toward the end of his life, he voiced an opposition to physician-assisted suicide. He believed that the physician should act as an agent of the sick person’s will to live and as supporter of the patient’s right to live. This duty, Frankl believed, remains binding, even when the physician confronts a patient who has attempted suicide and whose life now hangs by a thread.

Frankl was a visiting professor at Harvard University, Stanford University, Southern Methodist University, and Duquesne University. He lectured at more than one hundred colleges and universities in the United States, Australia, and Africa. He was recognized by many organizations in many countries for his life’s work. He received more than twenty-five honorary doctorates, and other honors including the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Association of Psychiatrists, the John F. Kennedy Star, the Albert Schweitzer Medal, and the City of Vienna Prize for Science.

Frankl’s logotherapy is often referred to as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, Freud’s psychoanalysis being the first and Adler’s individual psychology being the second. Logotherapy represents a major change from the strictures of Freud and Adler, who attributed neuroses to, respectively, sexual repression and unconscious conflicts and unfilled desires for power and feelings of inferiority. To Frankl, behavior is driven by a need for meaning. Also in contrast to many other schools of psychotherapy, which focus on patients’ inner lives or drives, logotherapy requires the patient to make connections with the outside world in order to find fulfillment. In addition, logotherapy differs from many other systems of psychotherapy in its belief that individuals have the power to control their own actions and reactions and are not at the mercy of unconscious forces or environmental contingencies.

Additional Reading

Belkin, Gary S. Contemporary Psychotherapies. 2d ed. Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1987. This text presents the current major systems of psychotherapy and offers, through clinical case studies, realistic examples of each. Landmark cases are presented by well-known therapists, including Viktor Frankl. This book is directed to the introductory student or clinical trainee who is interested in understanding the nomenclature, major theoretical constructs, and day-to-day workings in contemporary psychotherapy.

Drapela, Victor J. A Review of Personality Theories. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1987. This text explores the major theories of personality, including Frankl’s. Each chapter contains a study guide to review the salient points of the personality theory discussed and suggestions to apply these concepts to professional counseling practice. Explanatory drawings used throughout the text lend a degree of concreteness to the abstract ideas.

Fabry, Joseph B. The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy, and Life. New York: Pocket Books, 1968. Rev. ed. Foreword by Viktor E. Frankl. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. Fabry, a fellow concentration camp survivor and founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Berkeley, California, writes cogently about Frankl’s life and work.

Gould, William Blair. Viktor E. Frankl: Life with Meaning. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1993. An important treatment of Frankl’s contributions to philosophy.

Hoeller, Keith, ed. Readings in Existential Psychology and Psychiatry. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1992. The volume begins with basic theoretical considerations and proceeds immediately to the practice of psychotherapy. The chapters deal with major issues raised by existential psychology and are arranged in alphabetical order from “Anxiety” to “Will.” It is meant to serve both as an introduction to the field and as a refresher for the expert.

Lantz, James E. Existential Family Therapy: Using the Concepts of Viktor Frankl. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1993. This volume consists of twelve revised classic papers on existential family therapy, Franklian family therapy, and family logotherapy that were published in the fifteen years before the book’s publication. The book is intended for mental health practitioners who wish to help families discover the meaning of life as a primary part of the treatment process.

Meier, Levi, ed. Jewish Values in Bioethics. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986. In this insightful volume, the dilemmas posed by medical ethics are thoroughly explored by leading physicians, clinicians, ethicists, and clergy. Edited by a noted rabbi-psychotherapist, these essays integrate the advances of modern medicine with the wisdom of traditional Jewish ethics and scholarship. This book is directed toward physicians, bioethicists, attorneys, rabbis, and mental health professionals as well as laypersons.

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