Frankl begins by telling the reader that his book is a compilation of his experiences and observations rather than an objective history. Instead of generally describing what happened at concentration camps, Frankl wants to tell the reader about the everyday problems he and his fellow prisoners faced while living within them. His ultimate goal is to explain how the prisoners’ minds were affected by these experiences.
This book is a memoir in that it is based on Frankl’s personal experiences. Frankl’s goal in writing the book, however, is not just to tell the story of what happened to him. Instead, he forgoes a linear narrative to focus on presenting his experiences as evidence for his practice of logotherapy.
Further, instead of writing about heroes in the camps, Frankl focuses on the common prisoner, and on his enormous sacrifice and struggle. He notes that it is impossible for those who were not in the camps themselves to understand the relentless struggle he and his fellow prison mates undertook just to survive.
Frankl’s primary interest is in the everyday suffering that everyone must face. Most of his readers will not be able to relate to the level of suffering he experienced, but he is also focused on explaining how normal people deal with pain.
Frankl uses a story about gas chambers to illustrate this struggle. Often, when camps announced lists of prisoners to be transported to other camps, the prisoners on the list ended up being taken to gas chambers instead. Camp rules required that the number of prisoners listed equal the number of prisoners rounded up for “transport”—however, the guards did not care if the prisoners they collected were actually the prisoners whose names were listed. Frankl observed that in this situation, every prisoner fought to keep himself and his friends from being taken, even though everyone knew that for every person kept off the transport convoy, another human had to take his place.
Although this book is intended to help people who were not in concentration camps themselves, Frankl still provides an example of how different his experience was from that any average person might face in life. Within the horrifying world of the concentration camps, the inmates’ morals adapted and changed. Their exposure to horrible situations and cruelty was incessant, and as a result, they often stopped caring about how their actions would affect others, and focused only on their own survival.
Frankl notes that generally, the prisoners able to survive were the ones who were willing to do anything, no matter how savage, to hold onto life. The cruelest prisoners were chosen to be Capos, or prisoners appointed to be guards. Brutality was so necessary in the camps that Frankl says everyone who survived a camp knows that “the best of us did not return.”
Unlike the Capos, Frankl himself did not result to cruelty to survive, and he certainly does not advocate being cruel to others. Here he simply discourages a psychological leap that many readers might subconsciously make—thinking that those who survived the camps were somehow “better” or “deserved” life more than those who died.
Frankl then sets out two goals for his book: to explain to camp survivors what happened to them psychologically, and to explain to others the psychological difficulties of returning to life after surviving the camps. Frankl questions whether he achieved the detachment necessary to conduct accurate observations of camp prisoners while he was a prisoner himself, but tells the reader that in this situation, someone truly detached could never fully understand what was going on.
Frankl intends his book to be for everyone: those who shared his suffering and those who will never experience anything like it. He is aware that he may not be able to provide as objective an analysis as the standards of psychological research require, but he feels compelled to write his explanation nonetheless—and for the average reader, his lived experience makes his conclusions much more compelling.
Frankl continues by noting that while he originally intended to write his book anonymously, he realized that an anonymous book would seem cowardly, so he decided to publish the book under his name. He dislikes revealing intimate details of his life to the general public, but feels it is necessary for him to do so. Frankl clarifies that he only served as a true doctor at the camps for a few weeks. For most of his time there, he was a common prisoner and was made to lay railroad tracks and perform manual labor.
Frankl makes it clear to the reader that even though he is a doctor and author, he was treated as a commoner within the camps. As a result, he is able to better assess the common prisoner’s state because he has experienced similar treatment himself.
According to Frankl, the prisoners who were ultimately liberated passed through three phases during their time in the camps: the arrival at camp, the absorption into camp routine, and the release from camp. The first of these phases is associated with shock.
The first section of Frankl’s book is more like a memoir than a text on psychology, but he gives the section a psychological underpinning by defining the mental stages through which inmates passed.
Frankl gives a personal example of the shock that he felt by telling the reader about his own arrival at the concentration camp. He and fifteen hundred other people rode for many days in extremely cramped train cars. When they neared a sign for Auschwitz, they panicked, because the camp was already known for torture and executions. But the next day, having noticed that the prisoners welcoming them seemed to be in good shape and healthy, the new arrivals all felt a sense of relief.
Frankl and his fellow prisoners were in such shock over what was happening to them that they were unable to process the reality of it. They deluded themselves into believing that perhaps Auschwitz would not be as bad as it was rumored to be. The average person knows that horrifying things happen in the world all the time, but we never think anything that bad will happen to us.
Frankl attributes this relief to a phenomenon known as “delusion of reprieve.” A man sentenced to die, for example, becomes convinced that he might be set free just before his execution. Unfortunately for the newly arrived prisoners, their welcoming squad turned out to be a carefully selected group who were in much better health than the common prisoner. But as they were stripped of their clothing and belongings, Frankl and his travel mates remained convinced that their situation was not doomed.
Even in the face of much evidence to the contrary, the prisoners continued to believe that they would be spared from the horrors awaiting them. Frankl defines these feelings as a distinct psychological phase of the inmates’ experience. At this point, they still are hopeful about the future, and essentially in denial. The reality of their situation is too much to process all at once.
Each of the new prisoners was made to pass in front of a guard who sorted the prisoner to the right or the left. At the time, they did not know what was going on, but they would later learn that everyone sent to the left—about 95% of them—were immediately executed in a crematorium. The SS guards tricked these prisoners by giving them each a bar of soap, walking them to a building labeled “bath,” and then gassing them to death.
Unlike most other books written by concentration camp survivors, Man’s Search for Meaning does not provide much detail about some of the most horrific aspects of camp life. Instead, Frankl almost skims over them, and then goes into depth exploring how the inmates responded to these situations.
Those sent to the right, including Frankl, then had their possessions looted or destroyed by the guards. Frankl tried to save his scientific manuscript that he was carrying with him, but was forced to surrender it. This proved to be a psychological turning point in his life.
At this point Frankl did not know how important his lost manuscript would be to his mental state in the camp. He is ultimately able to find meaning in his life by trying to live long enough to rewrite his manuscript.
After giving up their belongings, the prisoners were then shaved from head to toe. Frankl notes that at this point, all they owned was their own “naked existence.” And yet, he and the other prisoners tried to make light of the situation, and Frankl found himself to be incredibly curious about what awaited him. This curiosity characterized the prisoners’ first few days in camp. They were constantly curious about what would happen if they went without sleep or stood for hours in the cold, and constantly surprised that they were able to do so many things they once believed to be impossible. Frankl writes that there is much truth in Dostoyevsky’s definition of a human as a being able to grow accustomed to anything.
The attitudes and behaviors of the inmates in their first few days is remarkably different from how they will behave and feel once they’ve become accustomed to camp life. The newly arrived prisoners were often astonished by their ability to withstand such conditions and punishments—in modern life we are almost never left alone with just our “naked existence,” so we have few real tests of just what the human body can endure and still survive.
As the reality of their situation set in, Frankl and his prison mates all considered committing suicide, even if only for a short time. This was done by running into the electrical wire surrounding the camp, but Frankl promised himself that he would never commit such an act. He decided that since his chances of surviving were so low that there wasn’t much point in killing himself. Frankl observes that the newly arrived prisoner is so shocked that he does not fear death.
As the prisoners begin to process their situation, they look for ways to escape from it. The decision to commit suicide would be a way of trying to take control over one’s fate, even if in the most desperate way possible. Frankl considers this, but ultimately decides to try and find meaning and agency through surviving.
Later in life, Frankl’s friends told him that they were shocked when he was able to smile on his first full day in camp. He tells the reader that his smile was due to a visit from an old friend, and now fellow camper. This friend gave Frankl and his prison mates important advice about how to keep from being sent to the crematorium: always shave and never walk with a limp. Essentially, he told them to avoid looking like a “Moslem”—someone who is sick and can no longer do manual labor. If they maintained their appearance, they wouldn’t be gassed. The friend then joked to the other inmates that Frankl was the only one with anything to worry about—a joke that made Frankl smile.
Frankl could have despaired because he was weaker than the other prisoners, but instead, he decides to make light of the situation. Even this early in his time in the camps, Frankl is practicing logotherapeutic techniques that help him stay alive. Here, Frankl chooses to react to a situation in a positive way.
Frankl says that psychologists consider an unusual reaction to be normal in an unusual situation. As a result, while the concentration camp prisoner’s state of mind was far from normal in the context of everyday life, under the circumstances it could be considered normal, or even typical. After the initial shock of arriving at camp, prisoners passed into a new mental state of indifference and “emotional death.”
Frankl moves from describing the first stage of the prisoner’s emotional development, shock and curiosity, to the second and most prolonged stage of apathy. Most of the book is dedicated to describing and explaining this stage, especially as it is so difficult to find meaning when one feels hopeless and apathetic.
Frankl notes that in addition to shock, the new prisoner also felt extreme grief over the loss of their family and freedom and horror at the cruelty of the camps. Initially, prisoners looked away when their fellow inmates were beaten, or recoiled when excrement was splashed in their faces. Prisoners in the second stage, however, no longer displayed any sort of emotional reaction to these events. Instead, they became completely numb to feeling “disgust, horror, and pity.”
As the prisoners get used to their situation, the difference between right and wrong stops mattering to them. They feel that there is no point in trying to save themselves or anyone else from bad treatment, because being treated badly is inevitable. This essentially means giving up the idea of “freedom” (the freedom of how to react to any situation, no matter how horrible it is) and thus losing any real meaning for one’s experiences.
Frankl himself became numb to the horrible situation around him. When he was working as a doctor for inmates with typhoid at the end of his time in the camps, he was completely unfazed by the dead bodies that surrounded him, and felt nothing even at the sound of a corpse’s head bumping down the stairs as a “nurse” dragged it to another part of camp. The man had died only two hours before. Frankl says he only remembers the event because he was shocked at his own emotional detachment—not because of the actual horror of the situation.
Despite the fact that Frankl practiced his logotherapeutic techniques during his time in the camps, even he could not escape this numbness. He did not just study his fellow inmates for their psychological reactions to the camps—he also studied himself.
Frankl’s prison mates grew to be so apathetic that they did not even react to the guards’ frequent beatings. Frankl recalls that in his own experience, he was often hurt more by the injustice of the beatings than the physical pain they caused. While he did not react to many of the guard’s blows and taunts, from time to time they treated him so inhumanely that he could not stop himself from reacting. For example, after a guard called him a “pig” and accused him of never having done work, Frankl could not resist telling him that he had spent most of his life as a doctor for impoverished patients. He was severely punished for this comment.
Later in the book, Frankl discusses at length the idea that humans can retain their dignity in any situation if they find a “will to meaning.” Here, Frankl asserts his own will to meaning—helping others—in response to the guard’s demeaning comment.
Frankl was lucky to be in the unit of a slightly less brutal Capo. The Capo liked Frankl because he gave him advice on his marriage problems, and in return, the Capo helped Frankl avoid doing some of the worst and hardest labor. The Capo also held Frankl a spot at the front of the line to walk to the worksite, which saved Frankl a great deal of pain. Since all of the prisoners suffered from edema (swelling in their tissues), walking was difficult, and inmates frequently fell down on the way to work. Those standing behind a fallen man would then need to run to catch up to the rest of the line once the man was back on his feet. Running was extremely painful, but in the front of the line, Frankl never had to do it. He credits this Capo with saving his life.
Frankl provides evidence for his idea, which he reveals later in the book, that good people and bad people exist everywhere. He writes that even some of the prison guards were good men. Frankl believes that no one’s character is predetermined—instead, each of us has the opportunity to decide how we will behave in any given moment. Here, the Capo chooses to be kind to Frankl even though he is also one of Frankl’s guards.
Frankl observes that to a certain degree, the prisoners needed to become apathetic to their situation, as this apathy helped them stay alive. But by pushing away all of their emotions, the prisoners also “regressed” to a more “primitive” state, in which they constantly dreamed of good food and warm baths. Frankl wonders if this dreaming was good for them, since every morning they would wake up and have to again face reality. Frankl once heard a fellow inmate having a terrible nightmare and went to wake him up. Just before he touched the man, however, he decided to let him sleep, because he was sure any nightmare was better than the reality in which they lived.
This incident speaks to the intensity of the inmates’ suffering in the camps. In the normal world, nightmares are nightmares because they are worse than reality. But within the concentration camps, the prisoners’ lives are so bad that their nightmares are preferable to their reality. Overcoming this suffering and finding meaning in it would have been enormously difficult, and the fact that Frankl was able to do so gives his ideas about psychology special weight.
While other inmates spoke frequently of the food they wished to eat, Frankl felt that detailed descriptions of delicious food were harmful to the prisoners’ spirits. Everyone in the camps was extremely malnourished—they lived on nothing but a piece of bread, thin soup, and maybe a small bit of cheese or butter each day. It was easy to calculate how long a prisoner would survive by how much fat remained on their bones. Frankl argues that the prisoners wanted good food so badly not because they cared deeply about eating good food, but because the second they had food, they would be able to stop thinking about it and dreaming off it.
Once again, Frankl is more upset by the humiliation he feels in the concentration camps than the physical pain he experiences there. While Frankl is certainly hungry, he is even more frustrated by the fact that his mind is consumed by thoughts of food all day long. He is humiliated by how trivial and animalistic his life has become.
Frankl tells the reader that anyone who has not starved him- or herself cannot possibly understand the mental agony brought on by intense hunger. The prisoners spent much time debating whether it was best to eat their rations all at once and feel fine for a little while, or try to stretch them out for as long as possible but be hungry all day. The worst part of each day, Frankl says, was waking up and facing everything that lay ahead of them. He found that saving a small piece of bread from the night before to have in the morning brought him some comfort.
Frankl’s experience in the camps is so different from his experience in the normal world that something as insignificant as a small piece of bread can provide relief from his terrible life. While Frankl writes much about the apathy of his fellow inmates, the fact that they bothered to debate when to eat their bread suggests that they had not entirely lost interest in living, and sought different ways to maintain hope.
Frankl notes that the intense hunger from which everyone suffered likely accounted for the lack of sexual urges among the men. In fact, the prisoners rarely even dreamed about sex or women. Because staying alive was so difficult, the prisoners were no longer able to appreciate anything that did not serve that purpose. For example, when Frankl was being transferred from Auschwitz to a camp affiliated with Dachau, the train passed the street on which he grew up. He begged the inmates standing near the window of his train car to let him look out as they passed, but they refused to help him.
Frankl observes that survival takes over the minds of the prisoners—so much so that they are unable to think of anything else. Indeed, just as the prisoners became apathetic to seeing evil and cruel things occur, they also became unwilling to do anything good or helpful for anyone else. In this example, the prisoners refuse Frankl a glimpse of his former home for no reason whatsoever other than that they don’t feel like helping.
Frankl also notes that there was what he calls a “cultural hibernation” at camp. The only cultural topics that were discussed were religion and politics. While the political talk was mostly based on rumors, the religious beliefs of many of the prisoners were genuine and intense. People often prayed in the corners of cells and train carts.
The conditions in the camps were so terrible that they completely stripped the inmates of any possibility for engagement with man-made beauty. Those who were religious, however, often grew more so, perhaps in response to their suffering.
A typhoid outbreak struck the camp in the winter and spring of 1945, and many succumbed to delirium brought on by the disease. Frankl’s close friend deliriously imagined that he was on the brink of death, and he badly wanted to pray, but he was so sick that he was unable to think of the words to do so. Frankl tried to keep his own mind busy and active by trying to rewrite his manuscript on scraps of paper.
Over and over again, Frankl’s manuscript helped him find the will to live despite such suffering. In this instance, focusing on his manuscript helps him keep his mind sharp and distracts him from the horrible things happening around him.
The religious fervor of some prisoners was so intense that Frankl was once invited to attend a séance. During the séance, a man was given a pencil but agreed he would not use it to write anything. Nevertheless, he ended up writing “VAE V.” Since this man did not know Latin and had never heard the phrase vae victis, or “woe to the vanquished,” the attendees felt that a spirit must have moved him to write these letters, which they chose to interpret as a sign that the end of the war was near.
Frankl writes that many of the prisoners lost hope, but that does not mean that they never tried to find a reason to live. Here, a man subconsciously writes a message that suggests the end of the war is near. At this point, the people participating in the séance still have dreams for the future.
According to Frankl, those accustomed to a life of the mind before coming to camp fared poorly physically, as they were accustomed to reading and writing all day, but they often fared better spiritually and emotionally. Frankl suggests that prisoners who used to be professors or rabbis were better able to retreat into their own imaginary world, and thus were able to tolerate the camps more easily.
Although the prisoners needed to be strong enough to do physical labor and withstand the guards’ beatings, Frankl says that those whose minds were engaged survived more easily than those who were physically strong. Frankl believes that having a will to meaning is far more important than being able to physically endure.
One day, while walking to a worksite, another inmate said to Frankl that he wished his wife could see him working so hard, and he hoped that she was doing better than he was. At that moment, Frankl was overcome by a vision of his own wife looking more beautiful than ever, and he writes that he realized then “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” He says that he finally understood the secret lesson of poetry and art: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
This vision is an important turning point during Frankl’s time in the camps. According to logotherapy, love is one of the ways one can create meaning in one’s life, and in this moment, Frankl finds meaning through his love for his wife. Tragically, Frankl’s wife died in the camps while they were separated.
Frankl discovered that he could still experience bliss, even in the worst possible situation. While he did not even know if his wife was still alive, he felt he could converse with her, and he learned that “love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.” He loved his wife’s inner spirit so much that it ultimately did not matter if she was still alive. He tells the reader that had he known she was dead, her image would have inspired him just as much, and he quotes a Bible verse that reads, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart… love is as strong as death.”
Frankl’s experience in this moment is evidence for his belief that the freedom to choose one’s attitude can never be taken away from someone, no matter how horrible his or her situation may be. Frankl is so inspired by his love for his wife that he is able to feel real joy and happiness. His love for her gives him something for which to live.
Frankl writes that memories of the past offered a refuge for the prisoners, and they often escaped into their own minds and memories of their previous lives. He notes that the stronger the prisoner’s “inner life” became, the more beautiful art and nature seemed. These men came to appreciate the beauty of the sunsets they saw on their deadly marches to work each morning. For Frankl, this beauty was evidence that life has “an ultimate purpose.”
Frankl and many of his inmates retreated to a world inside their minds when their physical reality became too much to bear. By remembering the past, the prisoners relearned how to appreciate beautiful things and experiences. Frankl believes that the existence of beauty in such a bleak setting is proof of the “super-meaning” of life.
While there was little art in the camps, there was an occasional performance. Many prisoners attended these shows with the hope of laughing a little, despite the fact that they had to miss their meal to do so. Frankl says that these performances only came close to being true art in the contrast they provided to the inmates’ terrible realities. Once, when Frankl heard a beautiful piece of music, he wept not for the music’s beauty, but for his wife, who turned twenty-four that day.
Frankl seems to define art as a beautiful, man-made creation that provokes emotion in those who regard it. While the cabaret is only beautiful in comparison to the horribleness of the inmates’ lives, the classical music he hears is so inspiring and emotion-provoking that he cries not just over the music, but also for everything beautiful and good that it reminds him of, like his wife.
Frankl imagines that the reader must be surprised to hear that there was any art at all in the concentration camps, but he assures the reader it was possible to find comedy as well. Frankl sees humor as a tool for self-preservation because it enables people to “rise above any situation.” He and a surgeon friend filled their time by imagining what it would be like if the friend returned to his practice and brought some of the habits from camp with him.
Frankl also finds comfort in humor. He argues that humor helps man detach himself from a situation and gain perspective on it. By being able to laugh at what was happening to him, Frankl was able to give himself a few moments of reprieve from his horrific life.
Frankl says that trying to see the humor in things is a necessary part of “the art of living.” He argues to the reader that it was possible to practice this art in a concentration camp, despite the suffering the practitioner was surrounded by. While most people will never experience pain like the prisoners in concentration camps did, Frankl believes that pain is like a gas. A gas will completely fill any room, no matter how big the room is, just as pain completely takes over a human, no matter how big or small his or her injury might be.
Here, Frankl begins to translate his experiences into ideas that are useful to the average reader. Although he repeatedly says that only people who experienced it themselves will be able to understand the horrors of the concentration camps, Frankl believes that everyone experiences pain and must suffer at some point in his or her life. The amount of pain one feels cannot be compared with the pain of anyone else—we can only account for our own experiences and feelings.
While a small amount of pain can consume a person, a trivial thing can also spark true joy in someone, even in a terrible situation. For example, when Frankl was taken from Auschwitz to the camp affiliated with Dauchau, he and his inmates became increasingly worried they were being taken to Mauthausen, a camp with a reputation for being particularly brutal. When the train passed Mauthausen, they danced with joy and were relieved to arrive at the Dauchau camp.
One thing Frankl learned in the camps is that very small things could provoke a disproportionate amount of happiness. His point with this anecdote is that humans are very adaptable, and experience a similar range of emotions no matter their situation. At this point in Frankl’s life, being sent to a less deadly concentration camp was cause for celebration, whereas a few years earlier he would have been crushed by this news.
Frankl and the other inmates were further relieved—even elated—when they learned that this camp did not have a gas chamber, so Moslems were not taken straight there, and instead waited for a sick transport. Despite being made to stand outside, soaking wet and freezing, for the entire night, they were thrilled to be out of Auschwitz. The prisoners envied those assigned to good jobs—jobs that were still so horrible, they never would have dreamed of doing them before coming to a camp—and considered themselves lucky that they were not in a worse camp.
Within the camps, the prisoners’ priorities shift dramatically. Jobs that they once would never have deigned to do now seem enormously appealing. The concentration camps fundamentally changed the inmates’ outlook on life. Even though they became immune to watching cruelty, they also learned to find happiness in even the smallest relief or comfort.
Frankl describes the relief that even the most trivial things brought as “negative happiness.” While the prisoners were not truly happy, they were happy that something worse was not happening. Frankl once made a list of the truly happy moments he experienced at camp and discovered there had only been two. One such moment was when he received soup from a prisoner-cook who distributed the potatoes and peas in the soup fairly among the prisoners instead of saving it for his friends. Frankl writes that he did not judge the other cooks who were not impartial, because he might have done the same thing in their position.
Still, there were relatively few times when Frankl experienced true joy at camp. Much of his happiness was actually relief that something worse wasn’t happening. But seeing a cook distribute soup evenly instead of saving the best scoops for his friends made Frankl truly happy. Perhaps Frankl felt this way because the act suggested that the man was not regressing and was still able to see his fellow inmates as human beings who deserved to be treated fairly—there was a moment of shared humanity and meaning between the cook and the other inmates.
Frankl recalls seeing a photograph many years later of concentration camp prisoners staring up at the photographer from their bunks. The person who showed the picture to him was horrified by it, but Frankl could not understand her reaction. Instead of provoking horror, the picture made him think of one of the better times in camp during which he was sick and thus was relieved from a few days of work in the cold. He explained his reaction to the person with the picture, who then understood that the people in the photo might not have been nearly as unhappy as she believed them to be.
This incident is a testament to how difficult it is for the reader of this book to truly understand Frankl’s experiences in camp. Indeed, even though Frankl says the reader cannot imagine the horrors of the camp, we are also unable to imagine the small joys the prisoners felt there. This woman believes that the people in the picture must have been deeply unhappy, while Frankl thinks the picture captures a moment of relative peace.
Frankl says that when he was asked to volunteer as a doctor in the sick unit, his friends strongly warned him against doing so because the position would increase his exposure to disease. But Frankl was certain he would die if he continued to do hard labor in the cold, so he decided he would rather in the sick tent where he could do meaningful work.
Although Frankl was not a doctor for most of his time in the camps, the time he did spend as a doctor helped him retain his will to meaning. He knew his chances of survival were slim no matter what, and he didn’t want to die a meaningless death, so he took a riskier job in order to live meaningfully.
Frankl writes that it was easy for the prisoners to lose their sense of self and value as an individual while in the camp. They were often herded around like sheep and made to feel as inhuman and insignificant as possible. Frankl observes that prisoners desperately wanted a moment of solitude or privacy, which Frankl was able to find only once he was taken to a “rest camp.” Every so often, he was able to duck into a small tent for a few moments and be alone with his thoughts. This was a peaceful moment for Frankl, despite the fact that the tent in which he was “alone” was filled with insect-ridden corpses.
Part of the suffering Frankl and his fellow prison mates endured was the utter lack of privacy in the camps—this wasn’t just something uncomfortable, but it also had a dehumanizing effect, as people felt themselves no different from all the other prisoners they were always surrounded by. This moment also shows how much the camp changed Frankl, and how necessary a certain degree of numbness was to being able to survive.
Frankl explains that those who did not experience the camps cannot understand how little human life was valued there. Sick people were literally thrown onto carts and dragged through snowstorms to new camps, and all of the inmates were treated as nothing more than numbers. The prisoners felt as though they had no control over their lives and were nothing more than “the playthings of fate.”
The prisoners did not care about what happened to the people around them because they felt that caring was meaningless. They lost any sense of control over their lives and no longer felt like individuals with a purpose. In logotherapeutic terms, they lost their “will to meaning.”
Frankl tells the reader about his nerve-racking transport to the rest camp, where he was sent to attend to the sick. Many in the camp thought that the convoy was actually going to take the sick patients straight to a gas chamber, or to a new worksite to get a few more day’s labor out of them. A guard offered to have Frankl’s name removed from the list, but Frankl insisted on following fate’s course. Before leaving, he made his friend Otto memorize his will: first, to tell his wife he talked about her everyday; second, to tell her that he loved her; and third, to tell her that even though their marriage was short, it was far more significant for him than the time he spent in camps.
Frankl’s decision to go with the convoy should not be interpreted as sign of apathy. While others may have apathetically boarded the convoy, Frankl does so because he has decided that he can make his suffering meaningful by accepting and embracing it. He refuses to let his pain terrify him. Further, this is not an example of Frankl seeking suffering or failing to avoid it. Instead, he knows he will suffer no matter where he is, so he decides not to fight fate’s path.
Frankl and the patients were taken to a true rest camp, and a few months later, they learned that their previous camp had suffered a famine and that some prisoners had turned to cannibalism. Frankl compares this situation with the story of “Death in Tehran,” in which a servant tells his wealthy Persian master that he has just run into Death. The master gives the servant a horse so that he can flee from Death and ride to Tehran. The master himself then meets Death and asks him why he scared his servant. Death replies, “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Tehran.”
The parable of Death in Tehran demonstrates the necessity of accepting one’s suffering. Logotherapists teach their patients to embrace their struggles instead of fighting against them or denying them. Once a patient has accepted the reality of his or her situation, he or she can start finding meaning in it. For Frankl, finding meaning in suffering is the only path out of suffering.
While Frankl often let fate guide his actions, he also considered taking control of his situation and trying to escape from camp. Often, the opportunity for escape presented itself for only a few moments, so Frankl and his fellow inmates had to make this important decision very quickly. When Frankl’s opportunity appeared, he hurried to collect some provisions and gather his manuscript scraps before fleeing. He made the rounds with his patients for a final time, but in doing so, he encountered a fellow Austrian who had lost all hope. Frankl was then overcome with unhappiness, and Frankl told his friend with whom he was planning to flee that he needed to stay in the camp. This decision brought Frankl more peace than he had ever experienced before.
Frankl doesn’t explain exactly why he decided to remain in camp, but perhaps it was to help this friend who had lost his hope for the future. Once again, however, Frankl chooses to embrace the pain fate has doled out for him instead of turning away from it. By being willing to suffer, Frankl is able to help his fellow inmates, and consequently, he can find meaning in his pain.
On what would turn out to be Frankl’s last night in camp, he again had the opportunity to escape. The moment he was getting ready to leave, however, a Red Cross truck broke through the camp gates. Frankl felt safe, so he remained in camp, but later that night, an SS guard brought an order to take some inmates to Switzerland to be exchanged for prisoners of war. The guards were friendly, and Frankl and his friend were annoyed to be left out of the trip. The next morning, a white flag was hung over the camp. Frankl learned later that everyone who went with the friendly SS guards was taken to a new camp and burned to death. Once again, Frankl remembered Death in Tehran.
Once again, Frankl is saved by his decision not to interfere with “fate,” and this decision is also perhaps derived in his belief in a “super-meaning” of life. While Frankl does not discuss his religious beliefs in this book, he does believe that there is some sort of higher power who has knowledge of the ultimate meaning of suffering. Frankl firmly believes that his experiences have a purpose, and as a result, he trusts the path fate (or God) lays out for him.
Frankl writes that while apathy amongst the prisoners was a defense mechanism, it had other causes as well. A lack of sleep and food contributed to this apathy, as did an “inferiority complex” from which most of the prisoners suffered. While the prisoners had felt important in their previous lives, they were now nothing more than a number. Frankl notes, however, that prisoners who were promoted to being cooks or Capos did not feel degraded—instead, they felt fortunate and important. There was a great deal of tension between these two groups.
Frankl’s description reveals that many of the prisoners became apathetic precisely because they lost their will to meaning. They once found meaning through work, and without that purpose, they did not know what to live for. The loss of the will to meaning can be very dangerous, and even deadly, especially in such harsh survival conditions.
While serving as a doctor, Frankl was in charge of making sure that the sick hut passed an inspection for cleanliness. The cleanliness required, however, was not so much the type of cleanliness that would have actually benefitted the patients, but the type that required endless amounts of straightening and rearranging to make everything look tidy. Frankl felt that this inspection was a form of torture, as it certainly was not designed to improve the patients’ wellbeing. Often, patients in the hut were so apathetic about their life and surroundings that Frankl had to scream at them to keep their areas neat.
Frankl hated inspections because they were designed to seem as if they were for the benefit of the prisoners, when in reality, they were just a meaningless exercise in appearances and order. All of the effort he put into tidying the medical hut did not have a purpose or “meaning,” and thus it became very frustrating for Frankl.
Frankl tells the reader that his description of the mental state of concentration camp inmates may have led the reader to believe that that human beings are completely determined by their surroundings. He asks a number of rhetorical questions about whether humans have free will, and then tells the reader that man does have control over his own life. Even in the most horrible circumstances possible, man can exercise a small amount of freedom. The one thing that cannot be taken away from a man is his ability to choose how he reacts to any given situation.
One of Frankl’s fundamental beliefs is that man, in every situation, maintains some level of freedom. And while Frankl allows fate to determine his path in the concentration camps, he is actively choosing to follow fate rather than passively and apathetically going along with it. He always has the freedom to choose how he responds to any given event, no matter how terrible that event may be.
Frankl writes that in the camps, every moment offered the chance to choose whether or not one would follow the path of the normal inmate and become apathetic. Frankl argues that while the prisoner’s circumstances certainly affected his character, who he was and how he behaved was ultimately the product of “an inner decision.” Frankl says than in every possible situation, man has the power to control his mental and spiritual fate.
While Frankl’s surroundings certainly affected his mental state, he did not allow them to change his character. Instead (he claims), his character was determined by his own decisions. Here, Frankl argues against the belief (a common one in modern philosophy) that man cannot determine his own destiny.
While in the camps, Frankl thought frequently of a Dostoyevsky quote that reads, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my suffering.” Frankl became determined to make his suffering worthwhile by seeing it as an opportunity to exercise his last remaining freedom. When viewed this way, suffering became an “achievement” instead of something forced upon him. Frankl writes that it is this freedom that makes our lives valuable and meaningful.
Frankl found a will to meaning by deciding to embrace the opportunity with which his immense suffering provided him. He saw this as an opportunity to challenge himself, as well as to enact his logotherapeutic ideas. When reframed as a challenge rather than a burden, suffering becomes much more bearable.
According to Frankl, there is meaning in creating and appreciating the creations of others, but meaning can also exist in a place devoid of beautiful creations. He writes, “If there is meaning in life, there must be meaning in suffering.” To Frankl, suffering is an important—even fundamental—part of the human experience. Each time man chooses how to bear his suffering, he makes his life more meaningful. A man’s reaction to suffering determines whether he is worthy of his suffering or not.
Frankl believes there is value in situations that otherwise might appear to be valueless, because he sees each situation as an opportunity to exercise his freedom and make his life more meaningful. The decision man makes determines whether he is worthy of the opportunities with which life has presented him.
Frankl tells the reader that because everyone suffers, everyone has the opportunity to make a meaningful life. His philosophy applies to people in everyday situations as much as it does to prisoners in concentration camps. He says, for example, that those with terminal illnesses have a similar opportunity to choose how they will respond to their own death.
As Frankl has said many times before, this book applies to everyone because suffering is universal. It is a condition of life and our ability to choose our response to it makes us human.
When Frankl was still in a concentration camp, he encountered a woman who knew she was going to die in a matter of days. She told Frankl she was grateful for what had happened to her because in her life before the camp, she did not value spiritual growth. The woman pointed to the tree outside her window and told Frankl that this was her only friend in the world. She spoke to it often, and the tree responded to her, “I am here—I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.”
Frankl provides an example of a woman who used her suffering to make her life better and more meaningful. Her experiences in the camp helped her find religion, and even when she was on her deathbed, she felt that she was not alone. By making the best of her situation and learning from it, the woman found peace.
Frankl explains that in psychological terms, life in the camps could be referred to as a “provisional existence of unknown limit.” This meant that the prisoners had no idea how long they needed to survive or when the war would be over, and thus it was difficult for them to hold on to hope. Further, because there was no end in sight, it was extremely difficult for the inmates to set goals for themselves.
At this point in the book, Frankl is still describing the second mental stage of a prisoner’s experience. Because the prisoners had no idea if and when their suffering would end, they struggled to have hope for the future, and consequently became apathetic.
Those who were not able to hold on to a dream for the future often occupied their time with nostalgic thoughts of the past. In some cases, as discussed previously, thinking about the past helped the inmates escape from their horrible present lives. Frankl argues, however, that those who spent too much time dwelling in the past lost sight of the present, and thus missed opportunities to exercise their freedom to choose a meaningful life. In believing that the best things in life were behind them, these men missed the chance to better their mental and spiritual selves.
While thinking about the past helped the inmates see beauty in their present, the prisoners who spent too much time living in the past lost the ability to experience reality in a meaningful way. They stopped exercising their fundamental freedoms because they lost hope. Everything became an attempt to escape reality, rather than find meaning in reality.
Frankl tells the reader that any attempt to counteract the effects of the camps had to revolve around giving the inmates a sense of the future. He remembers being at camp and feeling fed up with thinking about things as trivial as how he was going to tie his shoes, when suddenly he felt as if here transported into a lecture room with a large audience. Frankl then realized that all of his experiences could benefit science, and that he wanted to deliver lectures on psychology within concentration camps. Once he had this goal, he could more easily cope with his situation.
Frankl, too, experienced times in which he was not hopeful, but in those moments, he turned his thoughts toward potential responsibilities he might fulfill and meanings he might be able to find in the future. Frankl decided to use his time in the camps as an opportunity for research, and this decision made his situation much more bearable.
Frankl tells the story of a fellow inmate who dreamed that he was granted one wish, and he wished to know when he would be free. The voice in his dream told him that his suffering would end on March 30, 1945. When the camp did not seem like it was going to be liberated on March 29, the man fell ill, and then died the next day. While death ultimately fulfilled his dream and brought his suffering to an end, Frankl suspects that his crushed hopes brought about his death. The man no longer felt he could hope for the future. Frankl notes that the death rates in the camps between Christmas and New Years were higher than at any other time of year, likely because people hoped to be home for the holidays and gave up when they realized they would not be.
This example demonstrates how dangerous it could be to lose hope within a concentration camp. In this situation, hope does not just make people happier—it is powerful enough to keep them alive.
Frankl quotes Nietzsche to the reader to explain the prisoners’ situation: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Frankl came to understand that he needed to stop expecting something better from life, and instead ask himself “what life expected from us.” In other words, he believed that he owed it to life—to the fact that he had born and was still on the Earth—to make himself the best person possible. He writes that the ultimate meaning of life can be found by taking responsibility for one’s actions and making use of opportunities to better oneself.
Frankl believes that life presents us with a series of possibilities and that we must spend our lives trying to live up to the opportunities life gives us. Fulfilling one’s responsibilities is an essential element to living well. As Nietzsche says, when we don’t feel responsible for anything or anyone, it becomes very difficult to endure suffering.
According to Frankl, every person has a unique destiny, and it is impossible to compare one person’s destiny with another’s. Further, each situation in which an individual finds himself is unique and calls for a new and different response. In some cases, man must act, while in others, he must contemplate his life or accept his fate and suffering. Frankl is certain that in every situation, there is “only one right answer” to any given problem.
While many of the prisoners in the concentration camps ceased to feel like individuals, Frankl says that maintaining one’s individuality is extremely important. Each person has a responsibility which only he or she can meet. This means that part of finding “meaning” (for Frankl) involves placing oneself as the “protagonist” in the story of life.
The unique task of the prisoners was to accept their suffering. Those who were able to see that their task was to suffer could then embrace this task—instead of distracting themselves from their suffering, they turned to face it bravely. Twice, Frankl was able to talk men out of committing suicide by helping them find something external for which to suffer. In one case, this external reason was the man’s daughter, while in the other, it was his unfinished series of scientific publications. Both men felt important and valuable when they realized that only they could accomplish these tasks. Frankl writes that love can help one bear suffering because when one is in love, one is responsible to someone other than oneself.
Finding one’s responsibility can help one find a will to meaning. It is vital for each person to feel like he has a specific and unique purpose, as without that, he will fall into despair. In this example, one man felt a responsibility to his work, while another felt responsible to his daughter whom he loved.
At one point, the senior warden, a promoted prisoner, asked Frankl to give his fellow inmates some therapy and advice. He told the prisoners that theirs was not the worst possible situation, and that most of them had not suffered too many truly irreplaceable losses. He said that since everyone there had survived so much, they absolutely had reason to hope for the future. Frankl’s fortune changed so many times in camp that he told them they could not predict what might lay just an hour or day ahead of them. Thus, they needed to maintain hope and live for that moment.
Frankl uses logotherapeutic techniques to help his fellow inmates reorient themselves toward their future. Instead of seeing fate as the reason they are suffering, he encourages them to view fate as a reason to hope they might escape. Indeed, since they survived this long, there was good reason to believe that they might continue surviving.
Finally, he told the prisoners that “the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning.” Frankl knew many of them would die before they were liberated, but he also believed that those deaths would be meaningful. He told the prisoners that someone in the world, whether it be God or their wife or children, hoped that they were “suffering proudly” instead of giving in to apathy. He encouraged them to see their deaths as sacrifices in which they could find value.
Frankl encourages the prisoners to believe their lives have meaning by reframing their suffering as sacrifice. He tells them that someone one day will be proud of the way they embraced their suffering, and because of that, they should suffer bravely. Even if we cannot know that there is a “super-meaning” to one’s suffering, that doesn’t make one’s personal choice of meaning any less valuable.
Frankl writes that before analyzing the third and final stage through which the liberated prisoner must pass, he wants to talk briefly about the psychology of the guards and how they were able to be so cruel. He says that some guards were true sadists, and he does not try to explain their behavior. But for many of the guards, their sensitivity to cruelty had been dulled by being exposed to it for such a long time. These men did not participate in sadistic acts themselves, like refusing an inmate the right to warm his hands just to see his disappointment, but they also did not do anything to stop these acts from happening.
Despite everything that he lived through, Frankl does not believe that all of his guards were truly bad people. Instead, he believes that they simply became accustomed to the way things were. Even though most guards watched evil things occur and did nothing to stop them, they did not torment the prisoners simply for their own pleasure. It is a testament to Frankl’s strength of character and objective perspective that he can still see the good in his captors.
Frankl also notes that some guards showed some sympathy for the prisoners. For example, after being liberated, Frankl learned that the commander of his camp had spent a great deal of his own money on getting medicine for his inmates. Frankl writes that there are “two races of men in this world, but only two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man.” There is no “pure” group, and decent and indecent men could be found among the guards and among the prisoners.
Frankl’s use of the word “race” here is particularly important because Hitler’s goal was to “purify” the world into an Aryan “master race.” Frankl criticizes this policy and argues that no group of people can be pure. Further, it is not always easy to tell who is decent and who is indecent—Frankl only learned of his commander’s sacrifice after the war was over—and people can always be changing as well, based on their choices.
Frankl then turns to discussing the final stage of the inmates’ mental development: life after the camps. He says that after hoping for freedom for such a long time, the word had lost its meaning for all of them, and they could not comprehend what was happening when they were being liberated. The prisoners passed a beautiful field on the way out of camp, but none felt anything. They had “literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.”
The final stage of the prisoner’s experience is marked by confusion and disbelief upon being freed. Just as they were unable to process the reality of their situation when they first arrived at the camps, now the inmates are unable to process what it means to be free. They needed to rid themselves of their numbness and relearn how to feel normally.
The psychological term for what was happening to them is “depersonalization,” in which everything seems dreamlike and unreal. The prisoners had confused their dreams with reality so often in the camps that they now could not differentiate the two. While their bodies trusted their new situation—they ate for days on end—their minds had trouble accepting that their new lives were real.
A few days after liberation, Frankl walked through a field and looked up at the sky. He fell to his knees and thought, “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” This moment, Frankl says, marked the beginning of his slow journey towards becoming human again.
This is perhaps the most religious moment in Frankl’s book. For the first time, Frankl not only has hope, but also has the opportunity to act on that hope. He is immensely grateful to God for freeing him from his prison and his suffering.
Frankl warns the reader not to think that once the prisoners accepted their new lives, they could smoothly transition back into them. Instead, he says that the newly liberated prisoner had the psychological equivalent of “the bends” (decompression sickness from coming up to the surface too quickly when diving). In other words, it could be dangerous to be relieved of so much emotional and physical pressure so quickly.
Although liberation seems like it would make the prisoners extremely happy, it did not. Instead, the prisoners had to relearn how to make sense of their lives outside of the camps. This was a slow and gradual process.
When some of the prisoners were freed, they used their horrible experiences as license to do anything they wanted, and they become oppressors themselves. For example, Frankl went on a walk with a friend who went out of his way to stomp on young crops simply because he could. Frankl asserts that “no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.” He did his best to help these men understand that they needed to break out of the cycle of oppression.
Frankl provides an example of what happens when an individual feels free but not responsible to anything or anyone. While their responsibility is to break free from their past, all the men want to focus on is their new ability to do whatever they want. Without responsibility to guide them, they become destructive and even violent.
In addition to this violence, freed prisoners also typically felt bitterness and unhappiness with their new life. The bitterness came from the fact that when these men returned home, they often encountered people who felt that even though they had not been in concentrations camps, they had suffered a great deal during the war, too.
Frankl’s belief that pain and suffering is relative and universal is very different from the ideas of the average prisoner. The inmate feels that what he has been through is exceptional and no one else’s suffering can compare to his.
Frankl says that the liberated prisoners’ disillusionment came from the fact that they felt they had suffered as much as humanly possible, only to be freed and discover that there are no limits to human suffering. Often, the people these men had been determined to live for while in camp were not alive to greet them when they were freed. While none of them expected to be happy after all that they had experienced, they certainly did not expect to be unhappy after being freed. Frankl sees this disillusionment as a challenge that psychologists must help the former prisoners overcome.
The inmates struggled with their liberation because freedom did not meet their expectations. Even worse than suffering in the concentration camp was suffering after one had been freed from it. All of their dreams for the future were crushed when they discovered that they were still unhappy, and the inmates became deeply dissatisfied and frustrated with their lives.
The final transition out of the prisoner’s mindset is the moment when a man thinks back to his time in the camps and cannot understand how he was able to withstand the experience. Just as freedom was nothing but a dream for the inmates, imprisonment eventually comes to seem dreamlike, too. The best part of being freed for any prisoner, Frankl writes, is “the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore—except his God.”
A prisoner’s passage through Frankl’s three stages ends when the prisoner has detached himself enough from the concentration camps that he can no longer make sense of his own experience. At this point, the man knows that he has nothing to fear because he has lived through the greatest suffering imaginable. Only then is the prisoner truly free.