Skip to comments.The Lie of Viktor Frankl
Posted on 09/10/2020 5:14:19 PM PDT by robowombat
The Lie of Viktor Frankl The author of the strangely misleading Mans Search for Meaning, repackaged as a psychotropic New Age guru, in the newly translated Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything BY DAVID MIKICS SEPTEMBER 09, 2020
In 1941 Dr. Viktor Frankl was director of neurology at the Rothschild Hospital for Jews in Vienna. Austrian Jews were killing themselves at the rate of about 10 a day, and Frankl was determined to save them. Frankl tried to bring the suicidal patients back by injecting them with amphetamines, but it didnt work.
And so, Frankl bored holes in the skulls of his Jewish patients, who had taken overdoses of pills in the hope of escaping their Nazi tormentors, and jolted their brains with Pervitin, an amphetamine popular in the Third Reich.
The suicidal patients revived, but only for 24 hours. One wonders what agonies they went through in their last day of life, with Frankls amphetamines coursing through their trepanned heads.
Frankl had next to no experience with brain surgery, though he routinely performed lobotomies. He had taught himself the surgery by reading the renowned brain surgeon Walter Dandy, but he missed Dandys warning that there was no drug sufficiently harmless to justify its insertion into the central nervous system.
Frankl confessed his shocking experiments only many decades later, long after he had become celebrated as a healer and sage for his book Mans Search for Meaning (1946; first American edition, 1959). In that book Frankl wrote, When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. The suicidal Jews had not borne their burden properly. If they lived they could still stake a claim to their suffering as a unique opportunity, Frankl believed.
What Frankl failed to see was that Austrian Jews were making a political statement by killing themselves, sometimes at the Gestapos deportation office. As Frankls biographer Timothy Pytell points out, their Masada tactic was an act of protest.
The Nazis in fact shared Frankls goal of preventing Jews from killing themselves, since they had decreed Jewish suicide to be illegal. Jews belonged to the Reich, to be disposed of as the Germans saw fit.
Frankl had a different motive. He clung to the hope that Jews could have a life worth living in a Europe ruled by the Nazis. Even after the war began, Frankl stubbornly refused to believe that Hitlers regime was a death sentence for Jews like him. In November 1941 Frankl received a visa to emigrate to the United States from Austria, but he decided to stay: He was about to marry Tilly Gosser, a nurse at the Rothschild Hospital. His parents, along with his patients, were close by in Vienna. He could not imagine being a well-to-do Jewish doctor in Manhattan, he wrote after the war, at the cost of abandoning the people he loved.
An expert mountain climber, Frankl said once that for him the three breathtaking things were a first ascent, gambling at a casino, and a brain operation. In 1942 he hid his yellow star so that he could climb and breathe the free air of the Alps. But later that year the Nazis deported Frankl, his wife, and his parents to Theresienstadt. His father died there. Frankls mother was murdered in Auschwitz, and his wife, Tilly, died near the end of the war in Bergen-Belsen.
Frankls suffering was unimaginable. As Pytell reminds us, he was an innocent victim, not a collaborator with the Nazis. But his use of the Shoah to provide life lessons for the rest of us remains questionable, as Pytell and Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer point out.
Frankl insisted that surviving a Nazi slave labor camp could strengthen the human spirit. Such positive thinking has always been popular, especially in America, where Mans Search for Meaning is a perennial bestseller and books by and about Frankl continue to appear regularly. Beacon Press has just published, for the first time in English, the lectures that Frankl gave in Vienna in 1946, under the title Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything. For a book produced in the rubble of postwar Vienna, it has a conspicuously New Age aura.
Yes to Life, like Mans Search for Meaning, markets Frankls logotherapy, the brand of treatment which he proudly billed as the third Viennese school, following Freud and Alfred Adler, who invented the inferiority complex. Frankls central idea was to guide his patients toward finding meaning, the most necessary thing in life. Instead of simply helping patients adjust to their situations, he would show them why life is worth living. They would become enlightened, rather than merely more ready to make their peace with common unhappiness, which was Freuds more modest goal.
In The Doctor and the Soul, written soon after his release from the camps, Frankl argues that Freud was reductive and low-minded, a common charge among those who, like Frankl, call themselves existential humanists. They prefer to talk about the soaring human spirit, unlike Freud with his grubby interest in fetishes, perversions, and the like. But Freud is a permanent wisdom writer, who sways us with even his wrongheaded ideas. Freud can teach you something about almost any human subject: love, death, culture, war, religion, growing up. Whenever you reread him, you come away with a new insight.
Should life and death in a Nazi camp become the material for retail self-help manuals?
Frankl, by contrast, was a clichémonger, given to mouthing platitudes about true love, higher meaning, and the eternal soul. Faced with such starry-eyed idealism, Frankls reader suspects that he is merely trying to paper over the myriad possibilities for human disaster.
Mans Search for Meaning bases its authority on Frankls concentration camp experience. Yet he misrepresented that experience in a strange way. Frankl spent only two or three days at Auschwitz before he was sent to Kaufering III, a subcamp of Dachau, where he had the wretched task of digging ditches and tunnels and laying railway lines. Near starvation, Frankl barely survived. Kaufering, where Frankl spent five months, and Theresienstadt, where he lived for two years, are never mentioned in Mans Search for Meaning, while the name Auschwitz appears repeatedly.
Most readers of Mans Search for Meaning assume that Frankl spent months at Auschwitz, not a few days. He writes that the prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horror for him after a few days. This seems doubtful, and in any case Frankl had no chance to test its truth.
There are other oddities in Mans Search for Meaning. Frankl never mentions that the vast majority of the prisoners in the death camps were Jewish. At the end of the book he writes, Man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lords Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. By citing the Christian prayer before the Jewish one, Frankl redefines the Holocaust as more than merely a Jewish catastrophe. Some of Frankls acolytes seem to share his wish to minimize signs of Jewishness. Daniel Goleman, in his introduction to Yes to Life, writes that Raoul Wallenberg issued Swedish passports for thousands of desperate Hungarians. They were desperate not because they were Hungarians, but because they were Jews.
Coming back to Vienna at the end of the war, Frankl reached a low point. When he heard the familiar phrases, We did not know about it and We, too, have suffered, Frankl asked himself, have they really nothing better to say to me? He added, in Mans Search for Meaning, that his ex-neighbors superficiality and lack of feeling was so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more. Yet a mere two pages later Frankl recovers from his misanthropic bitterness and announces, The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any moreexcept his God. Frankl wipes away his pessimism, bringing God onstage to make the survivors return into something wonderful.
Frankl downplayed the guilt of Austrian Nazis, even many decades after the war had ended. Stressing that there were good men among the SS, he absolved Austria of any responsibility for Nazi war crimes. In 1988 he accepted an award from Kurt Waldheim, who had been elected president of Austria in the face of a scandal: Waldheim had concealed his service in a Wehrmacht unit that massacred Serbian civilians. Along with Bruno Kreisky, Austrias Jewish ex-chancellor, Frankl helped Waldheim rehabilitate his image. In the 1990s Frankl became close to Jörg Haider, the radical right-wing head of the FPÖ party, who liked to remind people that Hitlers regime had done some good things, too.
Not all meanings are created equal. Patients recovering from a trauma may attach themselves to an authority figure, perhaps the leader of a radical right- or left-wing political movement. They might become conspiracy theorists, which is surely a way of filling life with significance. Frankl is uninterested in the transference that patients make to figures of authority, including the therapist. By contrast, Freuds method is based on using transference and resistance, his two key terms.
Frankl peppered his writings with anecdotes showing how successful his logotherapy could be at helping people find meaning in their lives. But easy cases make bad law. Frankl never described how patients might show resistance to his techniques, and so we have no idea how he used their resistance. Instead, he implied that logotherapy is a magic cure-all.
Frankls work raises an enormous question: Should life and death in a Nazi camp become the material for retail self-help manuals? Frankl uses the Holocaust as an object lesson, showing how one can make meaning even in adversity. But he is also forced to admit that what prisoners went through in the camps was radically unlike what most people know.
How we longed for proper human suffering at that time, real human problems, real human conflicts, instead of these degrading questions of eating or starving, freezing or sleeping, toiling or being beaten, Frankl says in Yes to Life. We thought back to the time when we still had our human sufferings, problems and conflicts and not the suffering and perils of an animal. Yet later on in Yes to Life he remarks that there are many cases in which inmates made inner progress, growing beyond themselves and achieving true human greatness, even in the concentration camp and precisely through their experience of the concentration camp.
Here Frankls wishful thinking turns a devastating reality into a spiritual triumph. His need for such a victory is heartbreaking. It is also morally dubious, since the truly agonizing and destructive effects of the Shoah on its victims are whitewashed away.
Lawrence Langer comments that Frankl was torn between how it really was and how, retrospectively, he would like it to have been. A prisoner at one Nazi camp remembered that Frankl spent much time lamenting that he had turned down the chance to emigrate. Yet he depicts himself in Mans Search for Meaning giving a heartening lecture to his fellow inmates in which he persuades them that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. They thank him with tears in their eyes.
The lecture probably did really take place. But Frankls memory is also clearly quite selective. For him, the moments of optimism are the real point of the camp experience. The prisoners despair, numbness, and degradation become mere background for his cathartic sense of moral uplift.
Frankl avoided the many painful cases of Holocaust survivors who were unable to reconcile themselves to their past torment. He focused only on those who achieved an optimistic, forward-looking life, people like himself, who could be inspirational examples for the rest of humanity. But Frankls tragic optimism, as he called it, turned away from the true pain of the Holocaust, which is the fact that it cannot be made into a source of moral inspiration. The horrors of the Shoah demand our attention, unsettling everything we thought we knew about human beings. Such a reality can never be a source of satisfying life lessons.
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering, Frankl writes in Mans Search for Meaning. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. Frankl sees the agonies we endure as what the Talmud calls yisurin shel ahava, the punishments of love, tests imposed by God to bring us closer to righteousness. And so the human being has what Frankl calls the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.
But even the Talmud has its doubts. Some torments are not edifying, and are not sent by God. As R. Yochanan interjects in Berakhot 5b, Leprosy and [the death of ones] children are not punishments of love.
Viktor Frankl saw his own extreme suffering as a punishment of love, and in some ways he was a heroic example. But the Holocaust was not about heroism. Instead, the wicked swallowed the righteous, and evil prevailed over innocence. Not even a skilled therapist can heal such a wound.
I first read Frankl’s “Mans Search for Meaning” in one of the mandatory philosophy classes (Phil 1 thru 4) in college between 1965-69. It is the only one of the books we read and discuss, including Aristotle and Plato, that I have re-read over the years since. And introduced it to my daughters when they were college age.
Thanks for posting.
Ah yes, critics who never achieved a fraction of their subject critiquing (tearing down) a person who endured much and inspired millions.
Still? Hmmm. Don’t Americans prefer Skinnerism?
It seems a fact of human nature that somebody will try to ascend in life by destroying the achievements and heroism of others, the cancellation of inspiring figures. I never dreamed Frankl would be the victim of such an attempt. I doubt VF was perfect, and I never got the impression he tried to portray himself as such.
Man’s Search for Meaning changed my life the first time I read it. I read it again every few years to remind myself that my ultimate freedomto control the way I choose to respond to life’s setbackscan never be denied me. That a sense of humor is indispensable in times of trial. That a will to live can overcome the worst despair. That a meaningful life is worth many times more than a mere existence.
If this author has something worthwhile to say about life, something that surpasses the lessons of Frankl, by all means say it. But to disparage the man while saying it? Don’t diminish yourself with the effort.
This seems more like a hit piece.
The author has trouble making a point.
Besides just slinging mud at Frankls character, he says that the horrors of the holocaust are not suitable for a book about finding meaning in a broken world - which is nonsense.
Fascinating and disturbing information on a figure who is one of the top authors studied in both psych and philosophy courses.
Knowing what we do now of history and it’s manipulation, these revelations put Frankel’s elevation into new perspectives.
I need some time to digest it.
There are events that make no sense, have no logical purpose other than destructionThis is harder for western man to confront than putting a positive spin on the Holocaust or the Purge Culture or the Khmer Rouge. Much of life is just brutal absurdity with no, repeat no, redeeming value.
So you are saying this guy was really good at Virtue Signaling?
Shocking about his very brief stay in Auschwitz. Who would have thought anyone would pimp that?
We tend to, yes. Or at least I do.
“Frankl had next to no experience with brain surgery, though he routinely performed lobotomies.”
Most readers of Mans Search for Meaning assume that Frankl spent months at Auschwitz, not a few days.
Austrian Kurt Waldheim managed to hide the fact that he was a Nazi war criminal long enough to become head of the UN. During the time Waldheim was head of the UN, one third of the extensive UN archives of Holocaust records and interviews with Holocaust survivors disappeared.
Waldheim wrote two autobiographies in which he lied and said he spent WWII in Berlin because of a leg injury.
When it was exposed that that was a lie, Waldheim’s excuses were:
Book #1—He didn’t think anyone would be interested in what he did during the war.
Book #2—It was the fault of the person who wrote the book for him.
Waldheim was asked to explain photographs of him standing between two German officers [both of whom were executed for war crimes after the war] at a landing pad in Serbia during the war. He said he was just the translator and he didn’t listen to the sense of what they saying.
Then papers in Waldheim’s own handwriting and signed by him turned up listing those killed in Serbian villages:
“248 bandits executed. 95 men, 104 women, 49 children.”
and so on.
More such material turned up concerning an island off Greece where papers on similar massacres were written up and signed by Waldheim.
“Frankl downplayed the guilt of Austrian Nazis, even many decades after the war had ended. Stressing that there were good men among the SS, he absolved Austria of any responsibility for Nazi war crimes.
“In 1988 he accepted an award from Kurt Waldheim, who had been elected president of Austria in the face of a scandal: Waldheim had concealed his service in a Wehrmacht unit that massacred Serbian civilians. Along with Bruno Kreisky, Austrias Jewish ex-chancellor, Frankl helped Waldheim rehabilitate his image.”
Is It OK to Criticize a Saint? On Humanizing Viktor Frankl
A Reply to My Critics
Posted Mar 31, 2017
Timothy Pytell Ph.D
I contacted Holcomb Noble at the New York Times, who had written the obit for Frankl, to see if he was interested in correcting that error and a few others in his piece, but was rebuffed.
The genesis of my critical approach to Viktor Frankl occurred when I found he had experimented on people during the war.
My discovery occurred in the summer 1994, when I spent a month researching the life of Frankl at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As I reflected on the research, I kept replaying his 1981 interview with the Canadian filmmaker Tom Corrigan, where he hesitantly described the experimental brain surgery he performed on suicidal Jewish patients from 1940 to 1942. These activities were so out of character for the morally renowned Holocaust survivor.
Obviously something seemed strangely amiss. What was the context of these experiments? Why had there been no discussion of his efforts in the literature about him?
Was Frankl hiding something? It seemed that he was since on the tape he told Corrigan he was describing details of his life scarcely known to anyone. Frankl also told Corrigan that these details were only for you and Joseph Fabry and cant be used without special permission, and then added even though these details cant be of use but might be of interest.
At that moment a gap opened up between Frankls public persona and the reality of his activities as a man. The gap became a chasm as I pursued my research,.
That fall, when I questioned the curator of the Frankl archive Robert Leslie (also a disciple of Frankl) if he knew anything about the experiments he said he never heard of them.
The relationship between Frankl and his mentor Otto Pötzl is described as a unique and enduring professional and personal association in which Viktor thought Pötzl an absolute genius, and the professor admired Viktor for his creativity and quickness. Pötzls Nazi membership is passed off with the claim that Pötzl was among many other decent people who had joined the National Socialists.”
I have argued that this dishonesty by Frankl opens him up to the criticism that he exploited his survival of Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz 1.3 million were killed, very few survived. Frankl survived because he quickly got out. .
[ Biographer ] Klingbergs attempt to sustain Frankls saintly persona despite my factually based critical revision is a reflection of the quasi-religious intensity of his disciples and followers. Subsequently I do not expect my revelations and reflections will go very far in disabusing them of their idolatry. My hope is that they will at least recognize that Frankl was certainly a much more ambiguous figure than his public image belied.
What the rationalizations and justifications from followers suggest is that the institutional structure of logotherapy that depends on a lionized image of the founder.
The renowned Allan Janik in his review goes so far to claim Frankl was internationally celebrated for suicide prevention. Clearly Janik is a Frankl admirer but since the experiments were supported by the Nazis for possible wartime use I have to ask is this the international celebration Janik is referring to?
So yes you can criticize a saint but for those who need saints, once a saint always a saint.
Timothy Pytell Ph.D
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