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Viktor E. Frankl

Jewish psychiatrist and author who developed the discipline of logotherapy.

Born March 26, 1905, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (present-day Austria); died September 2, 1997, in Vienna,

Viktor Frankl (DIZ Munchen GmbH. Reproduced with permission.)

Austria, of heart failure. Viktor E. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and author, drew on his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust (Nazi Germany's campaign to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe during World War II) to develop the discipline of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy that, by stressing the need to find meaning even in the most tragic circumstances, offered solace to millions of readers of his classic work, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.

Frankl grew up in Vienna, the birthplace of modern psychiatry and home of the renowned psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. A brilliant student, Frankl became interested in psychiatry in his teens. At age 16 he began writing to Freud, and on one occasion sent him a short paper, which Freud regarded so highly that he passed it on to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, where it was published three years later. Frankl earned a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1930 and was put in charge of a Vienna hospital ward for the treatment of females who had attempted suicide. When Germany seized control of Austria eight years later, the Nazis made Frankl head of the Rothschild Hospital, the only Jewish hospital that was allowed to remain open in Vienna.

After taking power in Austria, the Nazis began removing the Jews of Vienna to the death camps that had been set up in Eastern Europe. Frankl was deported to the Theresienstadt camp near Prague in January 1942, one month after marrying Mathilde Grosser. He was later sent to the Auschwitz camp in Poland, where the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, was supervising the division of the incoming prisoners into two lines. Those in the line moving left were to go to the gas chambers, while those in the line moving right were to be spared. Frankl was directed to join the line moving left, but managed to save his life by slipping into the other line without being noticed. Other members of his family were not so fortunate, however, and by war's end Frankl had lost his pregnant wife, his parents, and a brother.

Before the war Frankl had begun to develop a theory that psychological health depends on finding meaning in one's life. The death camps, he wrote, confirmed his initial insights in a fashion he could never have anticipated. In the camps one lost everything, he once commented as quoted by Holcomb B. Noble in the New York Times, except "the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Prisoners who allowed themselves to be over-whelmed by despair, who gave up their freedom to choose, often descended into paralytic apathy and depression. The key to helping such people was to show them how they could find meaning even in the face of unimaginable horror. Meaning might consist of holding onto pleasant memories, or helping other prisoners turn away from suicide. Every prisoner had a moral choice to make: to surrender one's inner self to the Nazis, or to find the meaning in one's life that would give one the strength to go on.

On returning to Vienna after Germany's defeat in 1945, Frankl, who had secretly been keeping a record of his observations in the camps on scraps of paper taken from the Nazis, published a book in German setting out his ideas on logotherapy (a term derived from the Greek word for "meaning"). This was translated into English in 1959, and in a revised and enlarged edition appeared as Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy in 1963. By the time of his death, Frankl's book had been translated into 24 languages and reprinted 73 times and had long been used as a standard text in high school and university courses in psychology, philosophy, and theology. According to the Los Angeles Times, Frankl's theory of a psychotherapy that emphasized "the will to meaning" was described as "the Third Vienna School of Psychotherapy," the first being Freud's, which emphasized "the will to pleasure," and the second being Adler's, which emphasized "the will to power." It exerted an important influence on psychiatrists of varying theoretical perspectives, who often recommended Frankl's book to despairing patients who could find no value in their lives.

In 1947, after confirming that his first wife had died in the camps, Frankl married Eleonore Schwindt, who survived him, as did a daughter, Dr. Gabrielle Frankl-Vesely. Frankl's postwar career was spent as a professor of neurology and psychiatry in Vienna, where he taught until he was 85. He was also chief of neurology at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital for 25 years. Frankl received numerous honorary doctorates, wrote over 30 books, became the first non-American to be awarded the American Psychiatric Association's prestigious Oskar Pfister Prize, and was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford, and other universities. His hobbies included mountain climbing, and at 67 he obtained his pilot's license.

Frankl's message that "man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable," as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, resonated with people around the world. In a 1991 survey of general-interest readers conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, Man's Search for Meaning was ranked among the ten books that had most influenced the respondents. For them, and for millions of others, Frankl's writings were an inspiration and a reminder that it is "essential to keep practicing the art of living," as quoted by Noble, even when life seems most hopeless.

Howard Baker

Further Reading

Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicago.tribune.com (September 4, 1997)

Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com (September 4, 1997)

New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com (September 4, 1997)

Times (London), http://www.the-times.co.uk (September 30, 1997).

"Viktor E(mil)Frankl," Contemporary Authors, http://galenet.gale.com (November 10, 1997) Washington Post, September 4, 1997, p. B06.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists