Logotherapy and the Holocaust: Uniting Human Experience in Extremity and Normality

By Ryan A. Piccirillo
2010, Vol. 2 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

The Holocaust created a new type of person en masse: survivors. Those who survived were forced to cope with a first-hand encounter with the human capacity for evil. For the Holocaust survivor, the struggle to live continued long after liberation. The extreme nature of their experiences separated them from the rest of the “normal” world; those who did not endure the camps could not seriously comprehend the pain of those who had.

For this reason, conventional psychological therapy can’t begin to wash away their emotional damage. Survivors are trailblazers of human coping, forced into a world of people with a separate psychological nature whose attempts to understand are fruitless. A common reply from former camp prisoners in response to inquiries about their experiences exemplifies this divide: “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now” (Frankl 24).

For Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, the struggle which relates all men is man’s search for meaning, a notion ratified for him following his Holocaust experiences. For the Holocaust survivor, this meaning was buried beneath horror unrealized by those living in normality. As a man who experienced adult life as a psychiatrist both before and after his concentration camp experiences, Dr. Frankl was a unique authority in survival psychology who attempted to bridge this gap and unite all men in relative struggles to find meaning in life.

Viktor Frankl

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl outlines his distinctive experiences which helped him to develop his existential psychotherapy known as logotherapy. In studying the key concepts behind logotherapy and assessing their validity, application, and consequences, those living in normality can attempt relation with those who have endured extremity.

A Brief Overview of Logotherapy

By the time he was deported with his wife from Vienna to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, Dr. Viktor Frankl was already an accomplished doctor and therapist. His expertise served as a unique lens through which he viewed the suffering in the camp. What he experienced affirmed his belief in the Nietzschean theory that, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” (Frankl 97).

In other words, the quintessential human struggle is the search for meaning in life, a reason to live, to which all other actions and experiences are secondary. According to Dr. Frankl, “ logotherapy […] focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning” (Frankl 121). He outlines the tenets of logotherapy through a subjective narrative of his Holocaust experiences and a causally related technical description of the theory.

During the Holocaust, Dr. Frankl witnessed extremes of human suffering. He watched men tackle fear, fear destroy men, and prisoners develop tricks to retain their humanity and hold onto hope. His psychological background compelled him to psychoanalyze not only his fellow prisoners, but himself as well. Of his most important observations, his assertion that “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” (Frankl 38), is instrumental in helping the outsider understand concentration camp behavior. He explains that, “it is very difficult for an outsider to grasp how very little value was placed on human life in the camp” (Frankl 73).

He nevertheless uses anecdotal evidence to help the reader attempt empathy. Of Dr. Frankl’s more controversial claims is a belief that survival is linked to free will: “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” (Frankl 86). Dr. Frankl observed that mental autonomy persisted within the camp. He ends his psychologically charged account with a description of how the camps “tore open the human soul and exposed its depths” (Frankl 108). This nude view of the human soul allowed Dr. Frankl an intimate look at how the good and evil in all humans affects their behavior in the most abysmal circumstances.

Logotherapy is based on theories Dr. Frankl formulated early in his life that were affirmed by what he witnessed during the Holocaust. It is a departure from traditional psychoanalysis which relies heavily on introspection and retrospection. Logotherapy instead asks the patient to look towards his/her future circumstances. “In logotherapy the patient is actually confronted and reoriented towards the meaning of his life” (Frankl 120). The central principle of logotherapy is what Dr. Frankl calls “the will to meaning;” accordingly, “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives” (Frankl 121).

The patient is helped not only by analyzing facts about his/her psyche, but also by helping him/her to grasp life’s meaning, it’s “existential realities” (Frankl 125). One of the most important aspects of logotherapy is its subjective adaptability; it doesn’t seek to provide universal truths for all humans, but as Dr. Frankl states, seeks to conclude what is “the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment” (Frankl 131).

There is not one abstract meaning of life which can be applied to all, but rather unique situations. Though this meaning is always changing from moment to moment, person to person, it is ever-present; there is always some meaning in a life. The patient, Dr. Frankl argues, is responsible for his/her own decisions, conclusions, and conscience. Furthermore, s/he is responsible for discovering his/her life’s meaning. Dr. Frankl offers three methods by which patients can make this discovery: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 133).

According to Dr. Frankl, the “only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality” (Frankl 134) is through love. The word here doesn’t have the romantic and sexual connotation it typically carries; it is intended to characterize a full understanding of another individual, by a realization of the potential within the beloved person, thereby allowing that person to “actualize these potentialities” (Frankl 134). Dr. Frankl’s discussion of “the meaning of suffering” is the most important aspect of logotherapy when considering the Holocaust. It is a clear demonstration of the method and attitude which helped him to survive his concentration camp nightmare. Dr. Frankl asserts the human ability to channel suffering into potential for achievement:

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in the life even when confronted with a hopeless situation. When facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. (Frankl 135)

This brave conclusion embodies an instinctive drive to survive which, when considered by the outsider, can lend itself to an understanding of what it means to have survived the Holocaust.

The Validity of Logotherapy

Caution is appropriate when applying psychological theories to the Holocaust, for it was an abnormal situation. However, Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is mistaken in claiming that “no theory holds when it comes to the Holocaust.” Logotherapy is unique and not easily dismissible. The fact that it was crafted by a Holocaust survivor whose horrific experiences confirmed his beliefs lends it credibility.

His aim was to assess how life in the concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner and this assessment confirmed the theories he posits. It is from his first hand experiences and his study of his fellow prisoners, not as objects but as patients, that he concludes that when he is stripped to his very core, man’s primal purpose is a search for meaning in life. To dismiss this simply because it is a “theory” is a mistake, as Dr. Frankl is not a third-party observer but a first-hand witness who himself is evidence for his theory.

The fact that people of strong moral character and unbreakable will perished in the atrocities is a possible counterexample; however Dr. Frankl never claimed that the will to survive will necessarily lead to survival, only that “the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision” (Frankl 87). This inner decision is only related to survival insofar as the person isn’t murdered or otherwise physically inhibited. Dr. Frankl understood how luck sometimes determined one’s survival.

He remarks that one’s life retains meaning up until the final moments: “In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 137). This accounts for the many anomalous victims who, despite strong moral resolve, perished.

Some may object to psychological theories being applied to the Holocaust because most are developed to explain the “normal” world. However, the universality of its principle assertion does not lessen logotherapy’s credibility. Dr. Frankl admits that though each life has meaning, that meaning is relative to each person. He understood that the meaning of the life of a condemned concentration camp inmate is different from that of a free man.

The inmate has limited resources and opportunities, unlike the autonomous free man. According to Dr. Frankl, “everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it” (Frankl 131). He later asserts that life’s meaning can even be found in suffering, a stipulation of great importance for Holocaust application.

Dr. Frankl built the credibility and universality of his theory by examining the naked core of human nature he witnessed in the concentration camps. Unlike traditional psychoanalytical methods, he did not rely on outside experience to explain what he witnessed. The latter would have been a mistake, but the former lends validity to logotherapy in application to extremity and the Holocaust.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Equivalent parts biographical and theoretical, this paper provides a discussion of the main historical events and contributions of Viktor Frankl. Frankl's intellectual development began with a brief immersion in Freud and Alder’s teachings in the early 1920s. He began to formalize the tenets of his theory and therapy, logotherapy, while assisting unemployed Viennese in the Great Depression. Logotherapy maintains that a human’s principal... MORE»
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Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a conscious mix of genres and themes combined to present an engaging story. Subconsciously, the focus of this piece is the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust. The entire work is a commentary on the Holocaust, with clear allegorical representations... MORE»
An artist, especially one who works with the visual media, is bound to come across obstacles in his creation of a work that represents or recollects images of the Shoah (i.e., the Holocaust). Precisely how does one represent... MORE»
Between 1941 and 1944, Romania was responsible for exterminating approximately 300,000 Jews, giving it the sinister distinction of ranking second only to Germany in terms of the number of Jews murdered during the Second... MORE»
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