‘… a man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus, suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.’
Biography of Viktor Frankl and Viktor Frankl Institute
A Conversation with Viktor Frankl and MD, PhD Patricia Starck on Logotherapy (1985)
Viktor Frankl: Self-Actualisation is not the goal
Rare Interview with Viktor Frankl in 1977
Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (1946)
Viktor E Frankl
In Summary

The need for meaning is more fundamental than the need for food or shelter. If a person has meaning, then they can endure any trial or tribulation – even the Holocaust.


Once a husband, he now shared his bed with countless others. Once an aspiring author, he now had something worth writing about but no ink or paper with which to write it. Once a doctor and psychiatrist, he was now a grave digger, latrine cleaner, fence builder and brick layer. Once a son, he was now an orphan, though he had no way of knowing. Once a healthy adult male, his shirt now dangled around his chest, ribs jutting out like staircases. Once a human, he was now an animal. His name was 119104, though once, not too long before, it was Viktor E Frankl.

After enduring three years in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – Viktor Frankl wasted no time in exposing the murderers of his wife, mother, father and brother, composing Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945. Yet the primary goal of his work was not to condemn but to inspire; to convey the ways in which he found meaning amid despair. He expounds upon not only his experiences but the psychiatric system he enlisted to get through them (which he calls ‘Logotherapy’), providing a horrifying, gritty, honest yet hopeful picture of what the world is and what it could be.


The first stage of Frankl’s experience in the camps was ‘shock’. After days of standing shoulder to shoulder, Frankl and others collapsed out of the train cars and huddled into lines. An officer directed Frankl to the baths on the right, where some seemed unusually relieved when water dripped from the shower heads. Stripped and searched, they were then given a ‘uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison.’ Some still assumed they would be allowed to keep a ‘wedding ring, a medal or a good-luck piece. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.’ Anyone still clinging to an uncomprehending hope was soon beaten – by guards or often by other prisoners – and thus ‘the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.’ Upon inquiring what happened to those who were sent to the left – which included one of Frankl’s personal friends – an older inmate responded by merely nodding towards the rising smoke in the distance.

The second stage of ‘apathy’ soon took hold, as people settled into the routine horrors and scheduled emasculations of the camp in a kind of ‘emotional death’. Reality ‘dimmed’ as suffering and massacre became commonplace. Frankl recalls a time when a corpse stared up at him with ‘glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup.’ All other concerns were soon subjugated to the next meal. When the ‘last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves.’ Eventually even this hunger gave way to apathy; you knew someone had given up when they traded their food for cigarettes, taking a final breath of sedative smoke. Those who survived entered the third and final stage, returning to families that no longer existed. The anti-climax of liberation, the apathy that followed you beyond the barbed gates, the contrast between the surrounding celebrations and your personal, portable hell – such demons were not easily exorcised, returning sevenfold.

Yet according to Frankl, a few chose to subvert this threefold cycle. A man who has ‘nothing left in this world may still know bliss’ through contemplating his distant beloved, enjoying the beauty of nature or crying out to God. Everything can be ‘taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ The experiences of ‘camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.’ In the camps, one could turn ‘life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.’ Contrary to Freud’s thinking, individual differences did not disappear in the mass struggle for survival; rather, ‘people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.’ While many gave up, for they felt cheated by God, man and life, it ‘did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.’

At the heart of these statements is Frankl’s system of ‘logotherapy’; that is, our most fundamental need and motivation (thus ‘Logotherapy’, named after the Greek term logos, which translates as ‘meaning’). As such, the apathy of the camp prisoners was not inevitable, for humans are not merely a product of the bodily pain and struggle of their circumstances but can choose to rise above in pursuit of a higher purpose. As the author repeatedly quotes, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’ He believes it was precisely this sense of a higher meaning which provided some of them with the strength to survive or at least die with a sense of dignity. While all of the prisoners were treated like animals, some refused to be tamed, bucking against the inhumanity and apathy with which they were fed.


Contemporary culture was deeply impacted by Frankl’s insights about the centrality of meaning, helping spawn various offshoots based upon his principles, such as the positive psychology movement. While he was criticised by some who felt he was using the Holocaust to promote his own theories, and for ‘blaming the victims’ of the camps for not ‘thinking positively’, others consider his work to be one of the most profound and lasting creations of the age – an age in desperate need of hope.

While it may appear foolish to compare our commonplace sufferings to the Holocaust, it is perhaps less so to derive lessons from its sufferers. Frankl’s story encourages positivity, challenges our apathy, dignifies human suffering, embraces beauty and returns us to those liberties that cannot be fenced in, gassed or buried. He reminds us not only of the grimness of reality but the possibilities of transcending it, ending his book with these final words: ‘Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’

Further Reading By This Author

While Frankl’s name is almost synonymous with Man’s Search for Meaning, he also published Yes to Life, The Will to Meaning, Recollections: An Autobiography, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, and The Doctor and the Soul, amongst dozens of other works exploring his experiences and psychological method.

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