Viktor E. Frankl was born in Vienna / Austria on March 26, 1905.
Already as a young child, Frankl showed interest in the medical profession and by the time he was in high school, Frankl was already studying psychology and philosophy, especially the “Nature Philosophers”. He even gave a speech called “On the Meaning of Life” in 1921, two years before his graduation. And when he had to write a final paper for graduation in 1923, this was the title: “On the psychology of philosophical thought” (a psychoanalytically oriented study on Arthur Schopenhauer).”
By the time he turned twenty, Frankl had already been in touch with Dr. Sigmund Freud. He once had written Freud a letter and included a copy of one of his own papers in it. The famous doctor then requested that Frankl allow him to publish one of the papers Frankl had written. He also became more and more involved with Alfred Adler.
Frankl always strove to explore the frontier between psychotherapy and philosophy, focusing on the fundamental question of meaning and values – a topic that became the leitmotif of his life work.
In 1926 Frankl presented public lectures on congresses in Duesseldorf, Frankfurt and Berlin and for the first time he used the word LOGOTHERAPY.
1927 Frankl’s relationship with Adler was declining and against his intention he was excluded from the Adler circle, though some important Adlerians kept up friendly relations with him.
Between 1928 and 1929 Frankl organized youth counselling centers in Vienna and in six other European cities where adolescents in need could obtain advice and help free of cost.
Already as a student he began to actively putting into practice what he was learning and the theories he was developing. Frankl noticed a disturbing trend among students in Austrian high schools: when grades were reported at the end of the school term, there was a spike in suicides. Frankl introduced an initiative for free counselling to students. Incredibly, the first year that Frankl’s program was implemented was also the first time in recent memory that there were no student suicides in Vienna.
Between 1930 and 1932 Frankl gained international attention. He was invited to Berlin by Wilhelm Reich and lectured at the universities of Prague and Budapest. He presented a course on psychological hygiene, was promoted “assistant” after his doctorate and obtained a training in neurology.
From 1933 to 1937 Frankl was head of the “Female Suicidals Pavilion” at the Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, with some 3000 patients annually passing through his hands and in 1937 he opened a practice as Doctor of Neurology and Psychiatry.
Then his life was turned upside down.
In 1938, Germany invaded Austria and Frankl, being Jewish was not permitted to treat Aryan patients.
He became director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, a clinic for Jewish patients. In spite of the danger to his own life he sabotaged Nazi procedures by making false diagnoses to prevent the euthanasia of mentally ill patients. He published several articles in Swiss medical journals, and started writing the first version of his book “AERZTLICHE SEELSORGE” (The Doctor and the Soul).
Frankl obtained a visa to the United States. However the visa did not apply for his parents and his siblings and so Frankl decided to stay.
In 1941 he married his first wife Tilly and soon they expected a child. But Jewish couples were not allowed to have children and Tilly was forced to have an abortion.
Then, in 1942, what Frankl had feared would happen, came true. He, his wife, and his parents were arrested and sent to Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia where his father died. In this camp Frankl did what he could to help others, running a clinic, helping new prisoners cope with the drastic shock of entry into the camp, and establishing a suicide watch.
In 1944, Frankl and Tilly, and shortly later his 65 year old mother, were transported to the extinction camp Auschwitz. His mother was immediately murdered in the gas chamber, and Tilly was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she was to die at the age of 24. Frankl did not learn she had died until the war ended and he was liberated in 1945.
In cattle cars Viktor Frankl was transported, via Vienna, to Kaufering and Türkheim (subsidiary camps of Dachau). Even under the extreme conditions of the camps Frankl found his theses about fate and freedom corroborated.
In 1945 he came down with typhoid fever in the last camp. To avoid fatal collapse during the nights he kept himself awake by reconstructing his book manuscript on slips of paper stolen from the camp office.
While he suffered in the camps, without knowledge about his wife’s fate, Frankl was able to find meaning and a certain comfort in the knowledge of love. He thought of Tilly and recognizing how that helped him he started to theorize about what love meant for human life.
In his famous work “Man’s Search for Meaning,” we read: “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so 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 I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” (*)
In the concentration camps, Frankl experienced death and suffering, he was forced into cattle cars, forced to march, contracted typhoid fever, and was separated from his most beloved family members. How did he push himself forward to survive?
He explains “I repeatedly tried to distance myself from the misery that surrounded me by externalizing 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 someday it was to be my good fortune to actually give such a lecture.” (*)
Whatever he suffered, endured and witnessed became themes that informed his life’s work.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.” (*)
In April of 1945 the camp was liberated by U.S. troops and in August Frankl returns to Vienna, where he learns about the death of his wife, his mother and his brother who has been murdered in Auschwitz together with his wife.
He did not have family left, save for a sister who had escaped to Australia, but what he had were his ideas, his education, and his professional experience.
In 1946 Frankl overcame his despair; he became director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic, a position he held for 25 years. With his reconstructed book “ÄRZTLICHE SEELSORGE” (The Doctor and the Soul) he attained his “Habilitation”, or teaching appointment, at the University of Vienna Medical School. Within 9 days, he dictated the book “EIN PSYCHOLOG ERLEBT DAS KONZENTRATIONSLAGER”, which is later translated into English and published as “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a description of what life was like in the concentration camps and the coinciding realizations Frankl had during his time as a prisoner about the need for meaning in human life and the role of suffering in the world. The book served as the basic outline for ‘Logotherapy,’ the idea posited by him that men are most driven by a search for meaning. By 1997 more than 9 million copies of this book had been sold.
Frankl also remarried in 1947 and the two had a daughter together who followed in her father’s footsteps and became a child psychiatrist. In this year Frankl also published 3 books “Psychotherapy in practice”, “Time and responsibility” and “Existential Analysis and the problems of time”.
In 1948 Frankl obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy with a dissertation on “The Unconscious God”.
1948 – 1949 Frankl was promoted to “Privatdozent” (Associate Professor) of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna; he presented his “Metaclinical Lectures” which were published under the title “DER UNBEDINGTE MENSCH” (Unconditional Man).
Frankl’s teachings soon began to make a worldwide impact. With Freud and Adler as his predecessors, Vienna had already established itself as a center of psychological and psychiatric study. Freud and Adler were the first and second schools of Viennese Psychotherapy, and Frankl’s ideas about man searching for meaning in his life became the third.
In 1950 Frankl created the “Austrian Medical Society for Psychotherapy” and headed up the organization. On the basis of a lecture series he wrote the book, “Homo patiens. Attempt of a pathodicee”, with its central theme of how to give support and comfort to suffering people. At the “Salzburger Hochschulwochen” Frankl expounded his “10 Theses on the Human Person”.
In 1951 Frankl completed the anthropological foundation of Logotherapy in his book “LOGOS UND EXISTENZ”) (“Logos and existence”)
In 1954 Universities in London, Holland and Argentina invited Frankl to give lectures. In the USA, Gordon Allport promoted Frankl and the publication of his books.
In 1955 Frankl was promoted Professor at the University of Vienna and he began guest professorships at overseas universities.
In 1956 the theoretical and practical aspects of neuroses from the viewpoint of Logotherapy were treated in the book “THEORIE UND THERAPIE DER NEUROSEN” (“Theory and therapy of neuroses”).
In 1959 a very systematic treatment of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis appeared as the book chapter: “GRUNDRISS DER EXISTENZANALYSE UND LOGOTHERAPIE” in “HANDBUCH DER NEUROSENLEHRE UND PSYCHOTHERAPIE”, edited by Frankl, Gebsattel and Schultz.
In 1961 Frankl was guest professor at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts and in 1966 he held a guest professorship at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Based on his lecture manuscripts there Frankl published “The will to meaning“, which he regarded as his most systematic book in English.
In 1970 the United States International University in San Diego, California, installed a Chair for Logotherapy and in 1972 Frankl held a guest professorship at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.
In 1992 the “Viktor Frankl Institute” was founded in Vienna by a number of academic friends and family members and in 1995 Frankl published his autobiography “WAS NICHT IN MEINEN BÜCHERN STEHT” (“What is not written in my books”). The English translation was published in 1997 as “VIKTOR FRANKL – RECOLLECTIONS”.
In 1997 Frankl’s last book was published: “MAN’S SEARCH FOR ULTIMATE MEANING”.
Frankl has lectured at over 200 universities and was awarded 29 honorary degrees.
Viktor Frankl could have given up, he could have died, or he could have lived the rest of his life bitter from what he had gone through. No one would have blamed him. But instead, his life has touched millions, his book has been translated into 74 languages, and he’s impacted generations of people in helping professions.
Viktor E. Frankl died on September 2nd 1997 after a long meaningful life.
(*) Quotations from “Mans search for meaning”, Viktor E. Frankl