In the twentieth century, Nazi Germany attempted to destroy the most important element of human life: purpose, when it committed the most heinous crimes against humanity. The Schutzstaffel sent millions of Jews to extermination camps, where they were either immediately suffocated with gas or forced into performing intensive labor under grave conditions. Those fortunate enough to end up on a working party were stripped down to a very primitive level of existence. What is most interesting about this type of enslavement is not how the prisoners were treated, but the way many of them were able to survive. One survivor, a psychiatrist named Viktor E. Frankl, has written his experiences, giving readers a unique perspective based on his background in psychology. In the first part of his two-part book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl offers insight into how he overcame the horrific events of the holocaust, and in so doing provides hope to those prone to despair. Unlike other accounts of the events of this time, Frankl does not try to describe every horrible detail of his experience but rather explains his observations of the average prisoner’s reaction to everyday camp life. Frankl viewed his holocaust experience as an opportunity to reinforce his psychological theory of human life’s natural desire to find meaning as a primary motivation for living, especially in harsh situations. He later attributes his survival and that of some of his companions to his therapeutic system, called logo-therapy, which he defines in the second part of his book.
Frankl’s memoir is short, only 150 pages, with no chapters and written in simple language. These basic elements reflect Frankl’s genuine interest in helping people. The book’s small size allows readers to carry it around and refer back to it as a source of courage, inspiration, and guidance. In three years of being a prisoner, Frankl could have belabored the reader with a ton of stories regarding camp life. Instead, Frankl chose to provide only those details and examples necessary to make his point, enabling readers to feel more confident about the prospect of surviving their dilemma. The lack of multiple chapters simply means the story ends and not to mention with a favorable outcome: he survived. Frankl’s use of simple language helped him connect on a more personal level with his readers by eliminating the impression of being talked down to with overly complicated theoretical and scientific jargon. The simplicity of Frankl’s prose also symbolizes potential to the reader in terms of defeating despair.
Part one of Frankl’s book begins with a break down of camp life into three phases: admission, camp routine, release and liberation. This break down establishes a foundation for an understanding of how anyone was able to survive the holocaust and asserts that the holocaust was a test of one’s mental strength. It also gives the reader a better sense of the psychological process of despair and suggests it is possible to overcome even the most extreme circumstances. Categorizing the different phases of camp life, Frankl has introduced a more objective way of viewing despair to facilitate human life’s search for meaning. Admission into despair consists of one’s initial thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Routine is the everyday entrenchment, and the attitude one develops with being held captive for an unknown period of time. Finally, release and liberation is the after affect of despair and how one chooses to be influenced by his or her experience. An understanding of these three phases undoubtedly becomes the most fundamental piece to comprehending almost any complex situation to develop human life’s search for meaning.
At the different stages of camp life, Frankl described the feelings he observed and even experienced. Revealing these emotions displayed Frankl’s integrity in giving his readers an honest account of the normal reactions they are likely to encounter during despair. Frankl also proved human life’s inherent craving: purpose, through his examples of the various mental states exposed in camp life, as well as its effect on one’s exploration of significance. His illustrations challenged the reader to identify negativity, and to make attitude adjustments crucial for survival. Frankl, again, emphasized his goal for writing by clearly defining each sentiment.
The second half of Frankl’s book is devoted to a more in depth discussion of his logo-therapy concept, which stemmed from his idea of human life’s basic source of inspiration: meaning. Prior to camp life, Frankl created a therapeutic system to trigger this motivation in depressed human life and took advantage of his struggle to practice his approach. Frankl’s belief of human life’s primary motivation is evident through the logo-therapy technique he used in camp life. A thorough explanation of the system in Frankl’s memoir places those prone to despair in full control of their plight, empowering readers to follow the method Frankl devised to conquer their circumstance. Frankl also tries to answer commonly asked questions concerning the meaning of specific events: life, suffering, existence, and love. His responses lay the basis for readers to use his method and not give up.
Frankl originally intended to anonymously publish his memoir. After realizing the book would probably lose half its value, Frankl decided to include his name just before it was published. Although Frankl was not seeking literary fame when he wrote this book, it still turned out to be a huge success when it sold over a million copies worldwide. The major factor of his success in writing this book was his ability to stay true to his purpose: to help people. Frankl’s most essential goal was to enlighten his readers and provide an unorthodox view of the holocaust, which effectively promised an encouraging outcome to any hopeless situation. This unconventional outlook was interestingly positive and speaks to his creditability because not only did he live to tell his story but after reading one is left with optimism, not sorrow or more despondent as other memoirs from holocaust survivors have largely done; the “Diary of Anne Frank”, for example, although not written with the intention of being circulated.
The two most prominent themes of Frankl’s book are spiritual and self-help. A spiritual person may appreciate Frankl’s memoir because most religions are deeply rooted in a search for meaning, and they attempt to address this issue for humankind by making it possible for them to discover or have hope. The self-help aspect of this book enables the reader to take a holistic view of life and realize that it is our innate desire to continuously search for a purpose. Through this book, Frankl teaches us that no mater how horrible the situation, even when we think everything has been stripped from us, there is still meaning. It is when we decide to push through our initial reactions to despair and change our attitudes we can seek out meaning, have hope, and discover a reason to keep living.