Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and author of the hugely influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, died seventeen years ago this week.
Frankl had already begun to establish himself as a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna—heir to the legacies of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. For a time, Frankl was able to maintain his practice as the anti-Semitic climate continued to grow in Austria. But in September 1942, he and his wife and parents were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” and concentration camp where Frankl’s father would later perish. That would begin a tragic odyssey for Frankl, who was transferred with his wife and mother to Auschwitz in 1944. Only Frankl would survive.
Originally intending to publish his book anonymously, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in just nine days shortly after his liberation. In it, he details the initial psychological responses the prisoners experienced upon entering the camp—shock, apathy, and depersonalization—and for those that survived, their readjustment to the world combined with deep-seated bitterness and disillusionment. Yet Frankl argues that life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. “Frankl’s survival,” writes William J. Winslade in the book’s afterword, was a “combined result of his will to live, his instinct for self-preservation, some generous acts of human kindness, and shrewdness.”
The book was an immediate success, and a triumph for Beacon Press, who published the first English-language edition in 1959. Man’s Search for Meaning has since sold more than 12 million copies in over twenty-four different languages, and the Library of Congress has heralded it as “one of the ten most influential books in America.” Now, a gift edition coming in October promises to bring new appreciation for this enduring classic, and fitting remembrance for a remarkable man. This hardcover edition will feature previously unpublished letters, speeches, and essays (some translated here in English for the first time), as well as an eight-page insert showing rare photographs from Frankl’s personal and professional life.
From a heartbreaking letter Frankl wrote his friends in 1945 upon his release from the camps detailing his anguish over the death of his wife and parents, to a memorial speech he delivered in Vienna to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler’s invasion in 1988, the new materials provide an even greater understanding of the man who wrote that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”
For Viktor Frankl, “life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths,” but even more than that, it revealed to him that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”