A psychologist in the concentration camp – book review by Viktor Frankl

A psychologist in the concentration camp – book review by Viktor Frankl

There are sufferings that are impossible to avoid, but it is possible to choose what our attitude towards them will be. At the International Day of Remembrance for Holocaust Victims, check out the book review Viktor Frankl,

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jew, psychiatrist and neurologist, who lived at the time of World War II and, captured by the Nazi police, the SS, was taken to concentration camps – including the famous and cruel death camp. Auschwitz.

auschwitz concentration camp

Frankl, who lost his entire family and had all his works, articles and intellectual wealth consumed by fire, felt the horrors of concentration camps on his skin and survived to tell his story and his theory about the meaning of life.

In Search of Meaning

In his book “In search of meaning”, Frankl recounts some of the hard trials that he and other prisoners went through in concentration camps.

The extreme cold, hunger, exhausting work, illnesses, homesickness, poor housing conditions, sanitation, cleanliness and daily living with the death of companions were just some of the problems faced in the camps.

Although his objective was not to go into the details of the horrors experienced there, because according to him, many other authors had already done so, Viktor Frankl does not hide from the reader how difficult his days in prison were, and how he found meaning to continue to live.

A psychologist in the concentration camp

In search of meaning viktor Frankl

In an environment of total helplessness and chaos, fed with thin soup and a small portion of bread a day, doing heavy jobs, far from his medical profession, Viktor Frankl was creating devices to try to stay healthy.

He chose to face that harsh reality head on. Although his body was trapped, no one could take away his ‘freedom of spirit’. Frankl says that in the concentration camp, he and his companions were deprived of much, less the freedom to choose how to react to those circumstances.

Given everything he saw and the experiences he was a spectator, Viktor Frankl found that the human being can decide to surrender to the sufferings of life, or maintain a positive attitude. He realized that when a person has no hope or purpose for life, he gives up and dies.

For example, in concentration camps, when a prisoner refused to get up to work or even to eat, lying in his own feces and urine, and smoking his last cigarettes, that prisoner no longer saw any sense in life, he did not believe in more nothing and so, surrendered.

“Who has a why, supports almost any how”

In medical terms, even his immune system was weakened, giving way to fatal diseases. Within days, that prisoner died. Quoting Nietzsche, Frankl states that “whoever has a why, supports almost any how”.

This means that when someone has a strong cause to live for, whatever it may be, they can face almost any adversity in life.

Nietzsche’s quote is confirmed when we read the account of prisoners who had some purpose outside those camps – a dream, a book to finish writing, someone to find again, a family to form – in short, those who had a reason to stay alive, they did not give up, they endured everything with more determination.

In this way, Viktor Frankl realized that logotherapy, a therapy he started to study before being arrested, made a lot of sense, and so he evolved his ideas and built arguments for his theory.


Logotherapy aims to search for meaning, based on the idea that the meaning of life is the main motivating force of human beings. “Logo”, in Greek, means “sense”, “reason”. For logotherapy, it is possible to find meaning in life in three ways: the first, through work or in the practice of a satisfactory act.

A professional project, a career that brings recognition and growth, can bring purpose to life. Second, by experiencing something (kindness, beauty or nature), or meeting someone (a loved one, a son or a dear friend, for example).

And the third is the attitude taken towards suffering that cannot be avoided. When suffering is avoidable, the meaning is to end it, make it non-existent. There would be no point in suffering, knowing that it is possible to exterminate suffering. That would be masochism.

In the case of an inevitable suffering, such as an incurable disease, the patient may choose to enjoy his days with loved ones, or even transcend his own self, by bringing messages of love and peace to people who have the same disease.

Tragic optimism

In the last part of the book, Viktor Frankl addresses the concept of ‘tragic optimism’. He says that an individual, even in the worst situations, can choose life and not give up. Tragic optimism has absolutely nothing to do with faith or willpower.

It is more than that, or maybe all of it together. Tragic optimism is one of the aspects necessary to achieve meaning through suffering. Faced with an inevitable suffering, the human being changes and faces this pain through the reframing of his own being.

In concentration camps, Frankl realized that having a purpose for the future is very important for staying healthy. When there is no reason to continue living, the result is an advance of death. For Viktor Frankl, the purpose of life is to do what you love and to live a meaningful life, living fulfilled even in complicated times.

It is possible to choose what will be our attitude towards suffering

In the book “In search of meaning“, Viktor Frankl teaches us that there are sufferings impossible to avoid, but that it is possible to choose how we will deal with them.

Frankl witnessed the worst of humanity in Nazi concentration camps, but he also saw that people who have a meaning in life change not only themselves, but also transform the world around them.

The author leaves us with a reflection: “Live as if you were already living the second time and as if the first time you had acted as wrong as you are about to act now”.

The way we act in the face of life’s situations is closely linked to the meaning of life. We have the power to transform a tragedy into a victory, to make suffering an achievement.

Today, even though we are not in a concentration camp, we live in difficult times, in which problems multiply in different shapes and sizes. Even when everything seems to be lost, it is in the search for meaning that we can overcome difficulties.

Thus, it is essential to have a purpose in life, so that we can be able to deal with any adversity that comes along the way. This purpose can vary according to the stages of life. Your life goal today will not be the same in a few days, months or years. Life is like that. And that’s how it makes sense.