Find meaning in life, no matter what

A book that is somehow twice as impactful when you have actually seen a concentration camp with your own eyes.

Book Man’s search for meaning

Author Viktor Frankl

Shelves philosophy lifestyle non-fiction

Publisher Ebury Digital, 2013

There are two things that made my reading of Viktor Frankl’s book different from some others’. First, having read about Frankl I was fully aware of his previous work such as performing forced lobotomies on Jews despite his not being a trained surgeon; his membership with the Fascist ‘Fatherland Front’ organisation; and the fact that Frankl himself was promoted to Capo (a fact he casually fails to mention in this book despite speaking unfavourably of Jewish prisoners who cosied up with the SS to become Capos themselves). Second, having visited a concentration camp, certain concrete structures were embedded in my mind so deeply that this entire book played out on a stage set by those memories, making things ever more effective.

If at this point one wonders whether the legitimacy of Frankl’s book had disappeared in my eyes, that would be a fair question. But no such thing happened: as a reader of fiction, I have learnt not to devalue the lessons a work can teach me even if that story is fictitious. Moreover, Frankl was undoubtedly a survivor of concentration camps—of that there are no doubts—even if his stories cannot in any way be corroborated. Finally, who a man is need not always dilute what a man has to say. All-in-all then there is a lot of meaning to everything in this book that one can pick up on if they are open enough to learn and reasonable enough to place their doubts about the writer himself aside for the time being.

Kaufering, Dachau—not Auschwitz

An honest reading of this book makes it appear that Frankl spent a long time at the dreaded Auschwitz KZ while in fact he spent only four days there. He darts from a description of Auschwitz to prisoner numbers giving readers the impression that he got his prisoner number there as well, but in fact he was never registered at Auschwitz. Frankl’s time was almost entirely spent at the much milder—but nonetheless despicable and shameful—Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, the journey to which he only mentioned in the latter half of his description of his days at the camp.

There are three reasons why I mention this: one, this book has no literary merit whatsoever, which is why its storytelling feels like it was pieced together at random; two, this mild-mannered misrepresentation has been a prime reason for the popular criticism of Frankl’s book by many a scholar as ‘misleading’, which is perhaps true; three, I would like this review to be fair in all sense to a reader and would like to clarify assumptions regarding the reliability of the facts in this book before I get to the good bits. When you read this book, focus on the people and the characters and take historic facts with a pound of salt.

The salvation of man is through love and in love ... a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss ... in the contemplation of his beloved.

Do that and Man’s search for meaning will easily rank among the best books you have read in a while. Frankl had a professional advantage on his side in that he could understand what he and his comrades were feeling from a more objective standpoint than most. It is such an insight that birthed this book—which was supposedly intended to be published under his prisoner number—as well as the ideas of logotherapy (about which I will not speak much as I am nobody in psychology) that follow the narrative occupying the first two-thirds of this book.

My whole reason for reading this book despite knowing everything about Frankl and his likely Nazi associations is clarified at the start of the foreword by Harold Kushner: ‘Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves.’ Speaking of the foreword, another interesting sentence deserves mention: ‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.’ I find this timely because of the references made to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, the two other main schools of Viennese psychology besides Frankl’s logotherapy.

The book feels like a casual narration, as if Frankl is seated before you, fiddling with his glasses, arms thrown across his chair, holding his words back pensively while he retells you his memories of the war as they come. But what surprised me was how light-hearted this book was. Perhaps the reason for that, as Frankl himself says towards the end of his narrative, is because long after liberation ‘the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.’ A nightmare you have gotten so used to that you can now laugh it off.

Dachau had a chimney

A curious observation Frankl makes about Dachau is that there was no building with a chimney there, i.e. no gas chamber. However, I remember quite vividly that there is one—the infamous Baracke X—where there are a handful of crematoriums and one gas chamber with several gas inlets along with fake shower heads to mislead prisoners into thinking they were being led in there for a bath. However, Frankl is right insofar as suggesting that the gas chamber was never actually used, the popular theory being that it served as a training ground for SS officers who would use the chambers for mass homicide in other camps. It Is likely he was not shown this building as a prisoner because the chimney would, as he says, strike fear in their hearts and they would know it was a death camp.

An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.

Another fleeting phrase that proved to be incredibly thought-provoking to me comes early on in the book when Frankl says of his time in a concentration camp, ‘This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed)…’ It was quite a shock to actually see it in writing despite knowing it already: disbelievers have always existed. The disbelievers in vaccination and climate change we have today are simply the descendant of the disbelievers in concentration camps of yore. Unintentionally, Frankl’s book gave me hope in realising that the great weights pulling our society down today have always been with us but never quite fully stopped us from rising. A second example of the same sort: ‘Textbooks tell lies!’—an indication that fascists have been fighting textbooks since forever.

The several mentions of how prisoners elevated to the rank of Capo were often harsher on prisoners than the guards themselves brought to mind for some reason the Stanford prison experiment. But this is hardly the only profound look at human relationships in a camp that feel like simply heightened versions of what one feels in everyday life to this day. This simply proves the validity of Frankl’s book today too—it can surpass time.

The three phases

In describing spending life at a camp Frankl talks of three phases prisoners would go through in his opinion: shock and denial upon entering a camp; apathy as one gets used to life in a camp; and depersonalisation upon being liberated from a camp. The main purpose of the narrative deals with understanding these three phases and how understanding the why to life would answer how one could go through these phases without breaking apart. In doing this Frankl invokes Nietzsche directly and Stoicism indirectly (more on this presently).

Despite the importance of all this, my personal favourite portions of this book were those in which Frankl talked of love (referring to his wife whom he would find dead soon after his liberation)—

The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved…

…into the night a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away, and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife.

On a similar vein he talks of how even the tiniest glimpse of beauty, in art or nature, was like light shining in darkness—Et lux in tenebris lucet—citing examples of the beautiful mountains of Salzburg. Concentration camp or not, these are emotions we can all connect with, a further example of how this book can surpass not only time but also space.

Something that did not sit well with me was the feeling that Frankl survived the camp because he knew how to manipulate his way into favour. His own descriptions show he wielded some position—above a common prisoner—and that he was on good terms with the Capos and not necessarily because he served as an assistant to the camp doctor. For instance at one point he says—

I was forced to keep straightening blankets, picking up bits of straw which fell from the bunks, and shouting at the poor devils who tossed in their beds and threatened to upset all my efforts at tidiness and cleanliness. Apathy was particularly increased among the feverish patients, so that they did not react at all unless they were shouted at. Even this failed at times, and then it took tremendous self-control not to strike them.

Now there is a sentence that seems almost Capo-like coming from Frankl himself. However, I will heed to the author’s own words: ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’

On Stoicism

As I turned page after page of this book one thing was strikingly clear to me: Frankl makes grasps at Stoicism over and over and over again. In fact, logotherapy and Stoicism are remarkably common in nature as I will discuss in a moment.

To me, the pinnacle of the narrative in this book is encapsulated in one sentence: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances’. This echoes precisely the words of the Stoic philosopher and former Roman slave Epictetus: ‘We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.’

The comparison does not end there. Equally remarkable, Frankl continues, ‘And there were choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision,’ talking about life as a series of decisions that would make a difference between you having a hold over your life or being tossed around by circumstance. How can this not bring to mind the beautiful Stoic idea of choice? ‘For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice’. Every moment in life is a choice and you are not the circumstances you have been in but the choices you have made.

This is my second tryst with logotherapy. I had previously read briefly the parallels between logotherapy and Stoicism in the excellent book ‘logotherapy in action’ by Joseph B. Fabry, Reuven P. Bulka and William S. Sahakian. In it Sahakian writes—

Logotherapy and stoicism share a number of ideas, for instance the existence of attitudinal values and the nonexistence of purposeless evil … Frankl’s attitudinal value theory is unquestionably stoic in character. When a situation cannot be changed, a person still can alter his attitude toward his problem. This recommendation is paramount both in Stoicism and logotherapy. ‘The essence of good and evil,’ wrote Epictetus, ‘lies in the attitude of the will’. ‘Where we can no longer control our fate and reshape it,’ advises Frankl, ‘we must be able to accept it.’ … Paralleling these stoic ideas of Epictetus, Frankl has written, ‘Whether any circumstances, be they inner or outer ones, have an influence on a given individual or not, and in which direction this influence takes its way—all that depends on the individual’s free choice. The conditions do not determine me but I determine whether I yield to them or brave them.’

There is a lot to unpack in such a comparison and I fear it may take much away from a reader’s own appreciation of Frankl’s book. For this reason and more, I will cut my discussion on logotherapy short and leave you with a sombre reminder that Frankl and so many other survivors of the holocaust give: ‘No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.’ Put aside Frankl’s own questionable wartime work so you are not robbed of the opportunity to read a wonderful book such as this and pick it up and give it two days—you will not regret it.

Select quotes from this book

  • Illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humour. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.
  • An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.
  • I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
  • The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
  • If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.
  • To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humour there as well.
  • No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
  • Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
  • Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
  • They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.
  • No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
  • We were not hoping for happiness—it was not that which gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices and our dying. And yet we were not prepared for unhappiness.
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