Viktor Frankl Biography: A Search for Meaning



Viktor Frankl was put through some of the
most horrific struggles a human being could imagine. But he never lost hope, and used his experiences
to continue his work helping other people find meaning in their lives. Frankl’s story is one of strength, of hope,
and of a man who made an impact on the world. Let’s dive into it… Early Life In 1905, Viktor Frankl was born the middle
child of a Jewish family in Vienna. His parents were government employees, and
the family was comfortable. Then World War I hit. Like so many other families of that time,
the Frankls had to contend with bitter poverty. He and his siblings even had to go from farm
to farm begging for food as the war progressed. As a young child, Frankl showed interest and
aptitude in the medical profession.At only three years old he wanted to be a doctor. Then, at four years old he had the realization
every human has to go through – that one day, he would die. Still a toddler, Frankl’s life work had
already started to take shape. By the time he was in high school, Frankl
was already studying psychology and philosophy. 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, what else would he write it on but the psychology of philosophical thought? By the time he turned twenty, he had already
been in touch with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Frankl wrote Freud a letter and included a
copy of one of his own papers in it. More impressively, the famous doctor then
requested that Frankl allow him to publish one of the papers Frankl had written. Later, recalling the incident, Frankl still
sounded like he still couldn’t believe the incident even after decades of building up
his own career. “Can you imagine? Would a 16-year-old mind if Sigmund Freud
asked to have a paper he wrote published?” Nearly three years after that correspondence,
Frankl was walking in a park in Vienna and encountered a man who looked familiar. Frankl went up to him, and asked if he was
Sigmund Freud…he was. And when Frankl began to introduce himself…Freud
recited Frankl’s address to him. Freud had been so impressed by Frankl that
even as the years passed, he never forgot the letter he received from the young man. Apart from psychology, Frankl also spent his
high school years immersed in politics. He began his involvement with the Young Socialist
Workers as a teen, and even rose to become President of the organization in 1924. With a string of accomplishments in the field
of psychology already achieved during his teen years, Frankl headed to the University
of Vienna to formally study his chosen fields of neurology and psychiatry. Initially, he based his studies in the theories
and ideas that Sigmund Freud had advanced, but over time he began moving more towards
Alfred Adler’s ideas. Even after moving from Freud’s ideas, Frankl
kept a bust of the preeminent Viennese psychoanalyst in his office. Freud developed psychoanalysis, Adler added
to that with the development of the inferiority complex, and Frankl become the third of these
giants of psychology in Vienna as he developed a search for meaning called logotherapy as
a key part of the study of the human psyche. But before he became a world-renowned psychiatrist,
Frankl was making a difference much closer to home. As a student he began actively putting into
practice what he was learning and the theories he was developing. Moving beyond just academic interest in the
human psyche, Frankl was able to literally save lives. During his time as a medical student, 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 spearheaded an initiative to provide
free counseling to students, with an emphasis on helping them at the end of the school term. 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. With proven success in suicide prevention,
Frankl moved on to become head of the Vienna Psychiatric Hospital’s female suicide prevention
program. From 1933 to 1937, he worked with thousands
of women who were in danger of committing suicide. Then, in 1937 he opened his own private practice. But a year later, Frankl’s world was uprooted. World War II In 1938, Germany invaded Austria. Frankl was Jewish, and under the Nazi regime
he was not permitted to treat Aryan patients. The Rothschild Hospital in Vienna was the
only place where Jewish patients could be treated, and so Frankl was called upon to
use his talents there as head of the neurological department. While working at Rothschild, Frankl was also
waiting to hear news that could lift him out of the terrifying situation that so many European
Jews were in. He had applied for a visa to the United States,
and just needed his lottery number to be called. He was one of the lucky ones…his lottery
number came up before Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into the war. But Frankl’s decision to leave Austria wasn’t
easy. The visa, it applied only to Frankl, and not
to any other members of his family. His parents and siblings would be left behind
in an ever-scarier environment, and Frankl knew their fate was likely to end in a concentration
camp. Frankl knew he had a choice to make, and he
opted to depend on a higher power than himself to guide him in the right direction. When he came across a fragment of a stone
in his parents house, he knew he had found the answer he was looking for. The stone wasn’t just any old stone – it
was a piece of the Ten Commandments that had once stood in a local synagogue. Burned down by the Nazis, the Synagogue was
reduced to rubble and Frankl’s father had picked up a piece of the stone for the family
to have. And the piece he just happened to pick up? It depicted a portion of the commandment “Honor
Thy Father and Mother.” To Frankl, this meant his decision was clear. He would stay in Austria with his family and
be right alongside them as they dealt with the horrors the Nazis brought upon them. And Frankl well knew the horrors the Nazis
were capable of. He and his wife Tilly were married in 1941,
and the two of them wanted to have children. But Jewish couples were not allowed to have
children. Frankl’s wife conceived, but she was not
allowed to give birth. She 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. They were initially sent to Theresienstadt,
a camp in Czechoslovakia. There, 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. Frankl, his wife, and his mother survived
Theresienstadt, but his father did not. He died after only six months in the camp. In 1944, Frankl was ordered to Auschwitz. His mother was also ordered to go, but his
wife was not. But Tilly wasn’t going to be without her
husband. She volunteered to be moved to Auschwitz. The two ended up separated in the end, however. After arriving at Auschwitz, Tilly was pushed
onward to Bergen-Belsen, while Frankl and his mother were both kept at Auschwitz. At first, they and fifteen hundred others
were kept in a shed meant to hold only 1/6th that many people. The ground was bare, and the prisoners were
forced to squat for days while they subsisted on only a small piece of bread. From here, the prisoners were directed into
two lines…one to the gas chamber and one to years of labor and misery, but survival…at
least initially. Frankl’s mother was executed in the gas
chambers, and Frankl himself barely escaped that fate. Frankl was ordered to get into the left line,
but defied the order and stepped into the other group. As he only discovered later, the left line
was the line towards the gas chamber and certain death. He was one of the few to survive Auschwitz. 1.3 million people were sent through the gates
of Auschwitz…and 1.1 million of them died. Those who didn’t die right away in the gas
chamber suffered through deaths caused by starvation and disease, exhaustion from forced
labor, and even medical experiments. Though Auschwitz was the site of a huge number
of atrocities, many others suffered in other camps throughout Europe. Frankl’s wife was one of those who met their
fate in a different camp from her husband. Tilly perished at the hands of the Nazis at
the camp known as Bergen-Belsen, and Frankl did not learn she had died until the war ended
and he was liberated in 1945. Throughout his time suffering in the camps,
not knowing Tilly’s fate, he was able to find meaning and a level of comfort in the
knowledge of love. He thought of her throughout his ordeal in
the concentration camps, and recognizing how that helped him he started to theorize about
what love meant for human life. He later set out his thinking this way, in
his famous work “Man’s Search for Meaning,” “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.” When he was in the concentration camps, Frankl
had to distract himself from the reality of what he was going through. He saw death and suffering up close, he was
forced into cattle cars, forced to march, contracted typhoid fever, and was separated
from his most beloved family members. So what was one way he pushed himself forward
to survive? As he explains, “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.” Frankl also made a point of finding a lesson
in goodness and survival in the suffering he endured and the suffering he witnessed. These themes 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.” Post WWII In April of 1945, Frankl had a welcome sight
– American soldiers. They had come to liberate the concentration
camps, meaning Frankl was once again a free man. He did not have family left, save for a sister
who had escaped to Australia. He was essentially starting new in the world
– but he had his ideas, his education, and his professional experience. So he put his ideas into writing. In only nine days during the summer of 1945
Frankl dictated a full manuscript. The result was “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 Frankl that men are most driven by a search for meaning. By 1946, he was fully back into his professional
world, running the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology. By 1948, he had earned a pHD in Philosophy. He began teaching at the University of Vienna,
where he would remain as a professor until 1990. After he was released from the concentration
camp, Frankl also remarried. In 1947, he married Eleonore Schwint, and
the two had a daughter together. As an adult, Frankl’s daughter followed
in her famous father’s footsteps and became a child psychiatrist. Though he was teaching at the University of
Vienna, 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 needing meaning in his life
became the third. By the mid 1950s Frankl was being invited
to speak at universities around the world. He had also created the Austrian Medical Society
for Psychotherapy, and headed up the organization. In 1955, the University of Vienna made him
a full professor, and by 1961 he was serving as a visiting professor at Harvard and his
ideas were being cemented in the minds of those studying psychotherapy in the United
States. His academic career continued to grow, as
he lectured at over 200 universities and was awarded an astonishing 29 honorary degrees. Though Man’s Search For Meaning was by far
his best known work, Frankl also wrote and published 39 other books during his lifetime. In 1970, he was honored by his peers when
they created the “Viktor Frankl Insitute.” Among his academic work, Frankl still worked
with patients. One of his methods was to ask the most depressed
patients he encountered a seemingly simple six word question… ''Why do you not commit suicide?'' From here, Frankl would discover what it was
that the patient actually found joy in, what made their life worth living … in other
words, what the meaning was in their life. Once that discovery was made, he could start
helping them to improve their mental health and to move away from thoughts of suicide. As the 20th century progressed, Frankl shared
his ideas in media beyond print. He appeared on television to discuss his ideas,
bringing them to an entirely new audience. In one of his most famous television appearances
he expounded on his idea that in the search for life’s meaning one must have a balance
of freedom and responsibility. During the discussion, he advocated for the
United States to have a partner monument for the Statue of Liberty. The country should be bookended with a statue
of responsibility on the West Coast, he argued. “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half
of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the
whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating
into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of
Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West
Coast” Answering letters and doing interviews, Frankl
continued to share his message and teach the world about his theories of psychoanalysis
right up until his death in 1992. In one of his last interviews, Frankl made
the poignant observation that even looking back decades later, he could still find value
in his suffering at the concentration camps. As he saw it, the suffering gave him a valuable
perspective on what real trouble is, making him more appreciative of the life he could
live freely from 1946 onward. “What I would have given then if I could
have had no greater problem than I face today,” he said in 1995. Legacy When he was in the concentration camps, Viktor
Frankl lived out the idea that he later imparted to the world in Man’s Search For Meaning: “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.” While he was in the concentration camps, Viktor
Frankl opted to think of his wife, to think of his profession, to theorize about how he
could use his experience with suffering to impact others’ lives. He stole paper from the camp offices to jot
down his ideas, and knew that he had two reasons to make it out alive – love, and a responsibility
to help people find meaning and avoid what he called the “existential stress” of
living without meaning. From the time he was a student, Frankl was
helping to save lives. Though he couldn’t save the lives of his
closest family, he was able to persevere through unimaginable horrors and spend the next five
decades making a positive impact on the world. 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 new psychotherapists
who will spend their lives helping people. Viktor Frankl…a life lived with meaning,
indeed.

37 thoughts on “Viktor Frankl Biography: A Search for Meaning

  1. This presentation is a mix of biography and propaganda. Question everything. Many of the statements in this video are not facts. Do your own investigations into what people are putting forward as truths.

  2. i read man's search after reading about his life in my junior year social sciences class – it truly helped to unlock an understanding of life i needed at the time. frankl was a marvellous human being and i'm surprised i don't see his name more often. thank you so much for sharing his story!

  3. I just finished a book on Buchenwald, a horrible death camp during World War Two. Perhaps you could bring some light to this horrible time in history.

  4. A Statue of Responsibility…a farm couple using hand tools accompanied by their child scattering seeds. I wanted the whole family involved and one of our most basic needs is food.

  5. I wish I had had a psychologist like him when I was a kid instead of one that fed me pills that would ultimately fry my brain. . .

  6. A powerful narrative of a man passing through a senseless system of brutality and death, which murdered many of his relatives and friends along the way, and coming out the other end sane, focused and reaching for the light. A kind of a twentieth century Spinoza.

  7. I've encountered his book (man's search for meaning) by coincidence, the most incredible book i've ever read

  8. Viktor is badass man. I moved to another country to study at a campus. I failed the whole semester because of language barrier, but I stumbled upon his book. His book is the reason why I kept struggling until now, I'm close to graduating! Thanks Viktor, and thanks to you guys who made a research about him and made a video out of it

  9. This guy once had a pig. Viktor Frankl's swine was a minor celebrity due to being so tame and well trained.
    One of two pigs to inspire Lars von Trier into making the 1995 critical and box office smash 'BABE'.

  10. Thanks for this, I heard about this incredible man after reading Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey of Whole Foods.

  11. Dear Simon, Thank you for this enlightening portrait of Victor Frankl. It is a miracle that he survived Auschwitz — particularly without bitterness.

    What an amazing human being! What a beautiful soul!

    I shall have to read (or listen to an audio version) his book.

    Best wishes,

    Dianna

  12. A year ago I was in a hotel in Granby, Quebec and saw a book at their little lending library that caught my eye. I'm not generally not a reader but snapped a photo of the cover just the same. Flash to today as I am watching this video and felt a wave of familiarity. I checked back into my photos and sure enough there the photo was…an identical copy of Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.

  13. Thank you Simon I read his book twice, I love this video the most of all your
    Biographicas. Thank you for this channel. You are a true scholar sir

  14. I was mixing up Viktor Frankl with Joseph Fritzl.
    I don't know who first used 'camp' as a synonym for 'gay' but I'm guessing they never spent time in Auschwitz.
    Violence is wrong except when directed towards Holocaust Deniers.

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