Viktor Frankl bio – Dr Stephen Costello

Frankl, Viktor

Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997): Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, philosopher, and founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, which is a meaning-centred existential/philosophical form of therapy.

Viktor Frankl was born March 26th, 1905 in Vienna, the second of three children. His mother, Elsa Frankl, née Lion, hailed from Prague while his father, Gabriel Frankl, Director in the Ministry of Social Service, came from Southern Moravia. During the First World War (1914-18) the family experienced bitter deprivation; sometimes the children went begging to farmers. In his high school years (1915-23) Frankl eagerly read the ‘Nature Philosophers’ and attended public lectures in Applied Psychology. He was also well read in psychoanalysis. In 1921, Frankl gave his first public lecture: ‘On the Meaning of Life’. He becomes a functionary of the Young Socialist Workers. In 1923, his high school graduation essay is entitled: ‘On the Psychology of Philosophical Thought’, which is a psychoanalytically oriented study of Arthur Schopenhauer. This was succeeded by some early publications in the youth section of a daily newspaper and intensive correspondence with Sigmund Freud ensued.

Frankl studies medicine and continues to act as spokesman for the Austrian Socialist High School Students’ Association. A year later he meets Freud in person, but becomes more and more involved with Alfred Adler and his school of Individual Psychology.

In 1925 Frankl’s article ‘Psychotherapy and Weltanschauung’ is published in the International Journal of Individual Psychology. In this paper he explores the frontier between psychotherapy and philosophy, focusing on the fundamental question of meaning and values – a topic that will become the leitmotif of his life work.

In 1926 Frankl presents public lectures to congresses in Duesseldorf, Frankfurt, Berlin; in the same year, for the very first time, he uses the word ‘logotherapy’.

A year later, Frankl’s personal and professional relationship with Alfred Adler deteriorates and Frankl becomes involved with Rudolf Allers and Oswald Schwarz (the founder of psychosomatic medicine). He is enthusiastic about Max Scheler’s book Formalism in Ethics and Non-formal Ethics of Values. Against his intention he is expelled from the Adler circle. But Adler’s daughter Alexandra, Rudolf Dreikurs and other important Adlerians maintain friendly relations with him.

Between 1928 and 1929 Frankl organises youth counselling centres in Vienna and in six other European cities where adolescents in need may obtain advice and help free of cost. Individual psychologists join Frankl’s project.

In 1930 Frankl organises a special counselling program at the end of the school term, whereupon, for the first time in years, no student suicide occurs in Vienna. Frankl gains international attention for this work: Wilhelm Reich invites him to Berlin, the universities of Prague and Budapest issue an invitation to lecture. At the Adult Education Centre he presents a course on psychological hygiene. Shortly before earning his M.D. he starts to work at the Psychotherapeutic Department of the Psychiatric University Clinic; after his doctorate he is promoted to ‘Assistant’.

From 1931-32 Frankl obtains training in neurology and works at the ‘Maria Theresien Schloessl’ in Vienna. Between 1933-37, Frankl becomes chief of the ‘Female Suicide Pavilion’ at the Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, with some 3000 patients annually passing through his hands for help. In 1937, Frankl opens a practice as a Doctor of Neurology and Psychiatry. The following year sees the outbreak of the Second World War and the invasion of Austria by the Hitler troops – the ‘Anschluss’.

In his 1939 paper, ‘Philosophy and Psychotherapy: On the Foundation of an Existential Analysis’, Frankl coins the expression ‘Existential Analysis’. He obtains an immigration visa to America but lets it pass unused, not wanting to desert his elderly parents.

The years 1940-42 see Frankl become director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, a clinic for Jewish patients. In spite of the danger to his own life he sabotages Nazi procedures by making false diagnoses to prevent the euthanasia of mentally ill patients. He publishes several articles in Swiss medical journals, and starts writing the first version of his book Aerztiliche Seelsorge (The Doctor and the Soul). In 1941 Frankl marries his first wife, Tilly Grosser.

In 1942 the Nazis force the young couple to have their child aborted. In September Viktor and Tilly Frankl are arrested and together with his parents are deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, north of Prague. His sister Stella had managed, shortly before, to escape to Australia; his brother Walter and his wife attempted unsuccessfully to escape via Italy. After half a year in Theresienstadt his father dies of exhaustion.

In 1944 Frankl and Tilly, and a short while later his 65 year old mother, are transported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz. His mother is immediately murdered in the gas chamber, and Tilly is moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she dies at the age of 24. Frankl, for his part, is transported in cattle cars Viktor Frankl, via Vienna, to Kaufering and Türkheim (subsidiary camps of Dachau). Even under the extreme conditions of the camps Frankl finds his theses about fate and freedom confirmed.

In 1945, Frankl comes down with typhoid fever. To avoid fatal collapse during the nights he keeps himself awake by reconstructing his manuscript on slips of paper stolen from the camp office. On April 27 the camp is liberated by U.S. troops. In August Frankl returns to Vienna, where he learns, within a span of a few days, about the death of his wife, his mother and his brother who has been murdered in Auschwitz together with his wife.

In 1946 Frankl overcomes his despair; he becomes director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic, a position he holds for 25 years. With his reconstructed book, The Doctor and the Soul, he obtains his ‘Habilitation’, or teaching appointment, at the University of Vienna Medical School. He dictates, within nine days, the book Ein Psycholog Erlebt Das Konzentrationslager, which is later translated into English and published as Man’s Search for Meaning. By 1997 more than 9 million copies of this book had been sold and it is later voted by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books ever written.

In 1947 Frankl marries Eleonore Schwindt; in December their daughter Gabriele is born. Frankl publishes his most practice-oriented book, Psychotherapie In Der Praxis.  In addition, the books Zeit Und Verantwortung and Die Existenzanalyse Und Die Probleme Der are published. A year later Frankl obtains his Ph.D. in philosophy with a dissertation on ‘The Unconscious God’, which is subsequently published. The years 1948-49 see Frankl promoted to ‘Privatdozent’ (Associate Professor) of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna; he presents his ‘Metaclinical Lectures’ which are published under the title Der Unbedingte Mensch (Unconditional Man).

In 1950 Frankl creates the ‘Austrian Medical Society for Psychotherapy’ and becomes its first president. On the basis of a lecture series he writes the book, Homo Patiens: Versuch Einer Pathodizee, with its central theme of how to give support and comfort to suffering people. At the ‘Salzburger Hochschulwochen’ Frankl expounds his ‘Ten Theses on the Human Person’. The following year Frankl completes the anthropological foundation of logotherapy in his Logos Und Existenz. In 1954 universities in London, Holland and Argentina invite Frankl to give lectures. In the USA, Gordon Allport promotes Frankl and the publication of his books. In 1955 Frankl is promoted to Professor at the University of Vienna and also begins guest professorships at overseas universities.

In 1956 the theoretical and practical aspects of neuroses from the viewpoint of logotherapy are treated in his book On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders and in 1959 a systematic treatment of logotherapy and existential analysis appears as the book chapter: ‘Grundriss Der Existenzanalyse Und Logotherapie’, edited by Frankl, Gebsattel and Schultz. In 1961 he becomes a visiting professor at Harvard University in the US. In 1966 he obtains another visiting professorship, this time at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Based on his lecture manuscripts Frankl publishes The Will to Meaning, which he regards as his most comprehensive book in English. In 1970 the United States International University installs a Chair of Logotherapy in California. In 1972 Frankl becomes a visiting professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

In 1988 at the Memorial Day commemorating the 50th anniversary of the invasion by Hitler’s troops, Frankl presents a celebrated public address at the Vienna ‘Rathausplatz’, where he maintains there are only two races of men – the decent and the indecent.

In 1992 The ‘Viktor Frankl Institute’ is founded in Vienna by a number of academic friends and family members. In 1995 his autobiography Was Nicht in Meinern Büchern Steht (What Is Not in My Books) is published. The English translation is published in 1997 as Viktor FranklRecollections.  In 1997 Frankl’s last book is published, with the appropriate title, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. On September 2nd of that year Viktor Frankl dies of heart failure.

Viktor Frankl always regarded himself as a dwarf standing on the shoulder of the giants who preceded him, such as Freud and Adler and the many philosophers whom he met and whom influenced his work but, as he said himself, it just so happens that the dwarf can see further than the giant himself. Frankl endured the horrors of the Holocaust and found that meaning was not wanting, just waiting. His words inspire, his life uplifts, his vision compels.

Further Readings:

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Rider, London-Sydney-Auckland-Johannesburg, 2004 (1946).

Frankl, Viktor. The Doctor and the Soul. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Souvenir Press, London, 2009.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. Basic Books, New York, 2000.

Frankl, Viktor. The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. A MeridianBook, USA, 1988.

Frankl, Viktor. On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders: An Introduction to Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Trans. James Dubois. Brunner-Routledge, New York and Hove, 2004.

Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers in Logotherapy. Washington SquarePress, New York, 1985.

Frankl, Viktor. The Feeling of Meaninglessness: A Challenge to Psychotherapy and Philosophy. Ed., Alexander Batthyány. Marquette University Press, Wisconsin, 2010.

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