Obituary: Viktor Frankl

Morton Schatzman
Friday 05 September 1997 00:02 BST

The Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl is best known for tracing suffering to a failure to find meaning and a sense of responsibility in life. He once said that the meaning of his life was to help others find the meaning in theirs. The Will to Meaning (1969) is the title of one of his books.

He was born in Vienna in 1905. The house he first lived in was diagonally across the street from where the psychotherapist Alfred Adler had lived for a time. Thus, Frankl mused, the "birth" of his logotherapy, the "third Viennese school of psychotherapy", Freud's being the first, took place near that of the "second" Viennese school - Adler's "individual psychology".

Frankl's father worked his way up from parliamentary stenographer to director at the Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs. He was to die in the Theresienstadt concentration camp from starvation and pneumonia. Frankl's mother was descended from a Prague patrician family. Among her ancestors was the 12th-century Jewish Bible and Talmud scholar Rashi, and Rabbi Low of Prague. She was gassed at Auschwitz.

Frankl wrote in his Recollections: an autobiography (1995) that he decided to become a physician at three years old. At about the age of four he was "startled by the unexpected thought" that one day he would have to die. What troubled him then, as it did throughout his life, was not the fear of dying, but the "question of whether the transitory nature of life might destroy its meaning". Eventually he decided that it did not, because "nothing from the past is irretrievably lost . . . Whatever we have done, or created, whatever we have learned and experienced - all of this we have delivered into the past. There is no one, and nothing, that can undo it."

He was still in high school when his childhood wish to become a physician became more focused and, under the influence of psychoanalysis, he became interested in psychiatry. He saw his talent as a psychiatrist as related to a "gift" he had as a cartoonist. As a cartoonist, he said he could "spot the weaknesses" in a person. But as a psychiatrist, or "rather as a psychotherapist", he could see "beyond the actual weaknesses" and "recognise intuitively some possibilities for overcoming those weaknesses". He could see the "potential for discovering a meaning" behind someone's misery, and thus turn "an apparently meaningless suffering into a genuine human achievement". He believed that this was the core of his approach to psychotherapy, which came to be known as logotherapy.

Still in his teens, Frankl became interested in philosophy and started to lecture on the meaning of life. He formed a relationship with Alfred Adler, but fell out with him within a few years. Aside from his medical degree, Frankl also had a doctorate in philosophy. His "dear colleagues in Vienna", he commented, "instead of saying Frankl is twice a doctor", would say "he is only half a physician".

He began his private practice of psychiatry and neurology in 1937, and soon became the chief of neurology at the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna. He waited for years until his quota number to emigrate to the United States came up. Finally, shortly before Pearl Harbor, the American Consulate gave him a visa. He knew his parents were fated to be deported to a concentration camp. The visa applied only to him. Should he leave them behind? He took a walk and awaited a "hint from heaven". At home his father had picked a piece of marble from the rubble of a burnt-down synagogue. On it was chiselled part of the Ten Commandments, in particular a letter that could have come only from the commandment "Honour thy father and thy mother". Frankl decided to let the visa lapse.

While still in Vienna he met his first wife, Tilly Grosser. They were among the last Viennese Jews to get permission from the National Socialist authorities to wed. Jews were forbidden to have children even if they were married, and Tilly had to sacrifice the foetus she was carrying. Frankl's book The Unheard Cry For Meaning (1978) was dedicated to their unborn child.

Nine months after marrying, in 1942, they were at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Tilly had a two-year exemption from transfer to Auschwitz as she was working in a munitions factory, which was important to the war effort. However, Viktor was called up for "Transport East" - which they knew meant Auschwitz. He tried to persuade her not to join his transport. However, without his knowledge she volunteered. She went on the train with him to Auschwitz - and died there.

At Auschwitz, Dr Joseph Mengele selected him for the left queue, headed for the gas chambers. However, Frankl recognised no one in that queue. He saw a few of his young colleagues in the right queue, and switched to it behind Mengele's back. At the time he did not know he had saved his life.

In the camp he survived a typhus infection. He came to believe that those inmates who "were oriented toward the future, toward a meaning waiting to be fulfilled" were more likely to survive. He believed he owed his own survival in part to his resolve to reconstruct a manuscript he had written before Auschwitz, and lost there - a book he later called The Doctor and the Soul (1945).

He spent a total of three years in four camps. At a lecture after the war he said:

I repeatedly tried to distance myself from the misery that surrounded me by externalising it. I remember marching one morning from the camp to the work site, hardly able to bear the hunger, the cold, and pain of my frozen and festering feet, so swollen . . . My situation seemed bleak, even hopeless. Then I imagined that I stood at a lectern in a large, beautiful, warm and bright hall. I was about to give a lecture to an interested audience on "Psychotherapeutic Experiences in a Concentration Camp" (the actual title I later used . . .). In the imaginary lecture I reported the things I am now living through. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, at that moment I could not dare to hope that some day it was to be my good fortune to actually give such a lecture.

As well as losing his parents and wife in the camps, he also lost a brother in Auschwitz. A sister, who had gone to Australia, survived. After the war he served for 25 years as head of a neurology department at the Viennese Polyclinic Hospital.

He dictated his best-known book, Man's Search for Meaning (1945), in nine days, and published it at first anonymously. Translated into 24 languages, it distils Frankl's approach to psychotherapy. He wrote that he had wanted to "convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones". He wished to demonstrate the point in a situation "as extreme as that in a concentration camp". If he wrote down what he had gone through "it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair". He believed that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions.

One of his logotherapeutic maxims is "Live as if you were already living for the second time, and as if you had made the mistakes you are about to make now". This "fictive autobiographical view of one's life" is meant to heighten one's sense of responsibility.

He admonished his students:

Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and it does so only as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of surrender to a person other than oneself . . .

While being forced to march in a concentration camp, a thought "transfixed" him. He "saw the truth as it is set into song by many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire." Then he "grasped the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love".

Viktor Emil Frankl, psychiatrist and psychotherapist: born Vienna 26 March 1905; married 1941 Tilly Grosser (deceased), 1947 Eleonore Schwindt (one daughter); died Vienna 2 September 1997.

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