Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning (original title in German “Ja zum Leben sagen Trotzdem. Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager” ) is a book written by psychiatrist Austrian Viktor Emil Frankl , published in Germany in 1946 . In English it was published with the titles From Death-Camp to Existentialism in 1959 and Man’s Search for Meaning in 1962 .


The first edition of the book became sufficiently successful, that immediately published a second edition; However, the second edition did not have all the expected success. Immediately Frankl spoke to his publisher , Deuticke , about his frustration over that failure. After the disappointment in front of the German publication, the book was translated into English as From Death-Camp to Existentialism and in Spanish as From the Field of Death to Existentialism “, between 1955 and 1959, and sold somewhat better The book was cataloged as an unhealthy book, which is understood within the editorial context as a book that will not have a massive audience, But later on, and with the request of Professor Gordon Allport, in 1961, the Beacon Press considered editing the book on one condition, Frankl had to add an autobiographical account in which he showed the basic notions of logotherapy and The book was once again marketed under the title Man’s Searching for Meaning and in English as The Man in Search of Sense . The success was absolute and shocking, the sum of copies sold in the United States exceeded the figure Of nine million copies. One hundred and forty-nine editions were later translated into more than 20 languages. It came to be considered an exemplary and paradoxical story, and also as one of the ten most influential books in America.

Its importance is such that the Library of Congress in Washington has declared it as one of the ten most influential books in the United States . 1


The man in search of meaning relates personal experiences, the history of a concentration camp seen from within. The book is divided into two parts, in the first the author is based on 3 parts known as: first, second and third phase, trying to answer the question: How affects the day to day in a concentration camp to the mind And the psychology of the average prisoner? In the book it is mentioned that all the described events took place in small fields, where the extermination really took place; And not in the extensive and famous fields that everyone has heard of.

First phase: Internment in the field. References

Start by telling what happened when you talked about “moving to another field,” although everyone knew that the destination was the gas chamber.

“There was no time for moral or ethical considerations, nor the desire to do them.” One thought encouraged the prisoners: to keep alive to return with the family that awaited them at home and save their friends; A moment in arranging things for another prisoner, another “number” to occupy his position on the expedition, using brute force, robbery, treason or anything to survive. “Those of us who have returned from there, thanks A multitude of random happenings or miracles – as everyone prefers to call them – we know well: the best of us did not return. ”

(Frankl, 1946)

The system that characterizes the first phase is shock. 1500 people had been traveling for several days, in wagons of 80, only with a vent, and believing that they were being driven to an ammunition factory where they should work, until someone sees through the window a sign, Auschwitz.

“His name alone evoked all that is horrible in the world: gas chambers, crematorium ovens, indiscriminate massacres.”

(Frankl, 1946)

In short horror, a horror that step by step prisoners became accustomed, however difficult that may seem. The first selection – if they put you in the row on the left or the one on the right – meant death or forced labor, at least survival. It was a verdict on existence or non-existence. 90 percent were executed in the following hours. Frankl asks for a friend who had been assigned to the tail on the left and someone points out a cloud of smoke ascending. That was what was left of his friend.

Prisoners have to undress completely, they can only keep their shoes. Frankl tries to hide a manuscript containing the work of his whole life, but it is useless. His only possession is naked existence. It tells the reactions that are somehow common: a strange kind of humor, a little macabre and curiosity, for example of how much they could endure naked in the open, in a field trodden, followed by the surprise of verifying that none had been cold. Other surprises confirm the phrase:

“Man is a being that can be used for anything.”

(Dostoevsky, sf)

The desperation of the situation made them think of the majority in “throwing themselves against the fence,” the most popular suicide method. But some thought that it had no purpose to commit suicide, since for all prisoners life expectancies considered objectively and applying the calculation of probabilities were very scarce. But “in the first phase of the shock the prisoner of Auschwitz did not fear death.”

Second phase: Life in the field

The second phase is characterized by apathy, a kind of emotional death. When they arrived at the camp they experienced a boundless longing for the house and the family, followed by a repugnance for all the ugliness around them, ice, mud, excrement.

Then the feelings were dull:

“Disgust, pity and horror were emotions that our viewer could no longer sense.”

(Frankl, 1946)

The apathy, the numbness of emotions and the feeling that one would never care about anything was the necessary defense mechanism against pain, injustice, cruelty and irrationality, in the face of daily, almost continuous blows. Given the high degree of malnutrition they ate, they ate only once: a small piece of bread and soup water, which was more blatant than having to do hard jobs, the desire to get food was the most primitive instinct. That explains why sexual desire shines through his absence, and against what psychoanalysis claims did not even manifest in dreams. There was a devaluation of everything that did not result in the preservation of one’s own life. But there were prisoners who felt a deep religious uneasiness, and who were able to improvise a corner in the barracon, or in a cattle truck, to do prayer. In spite of the primitivism that prevailed to the force, in the field it was possible to develop a spiritual life. The people who were capable of this were better able to resist in the countryside, isolating themselves from the environment and going back to their former life, their intellectual wealth and their spiritual freedom. When all is lost, love remains. Dr. Frankl and other prisoners clung to the image of their wives, or of a son, or of the person they loved the most. That is why he can say: “The truth is that love is the ultimate and highest goal that man can aspire to” and “The salvation of man is in love and through love,” a love that goes beyond The motherhood of the loved one-Francok did not know whether his young wife, who was 23 years old, was still alive or, as he later learned, had died-but he goes on to say:

“Love transcends the physical person of the beloved and finds its deeper meaning in his own spirit, in his inner self.”

(Frankl, 1946)

There was life inside the prisoners, sometimes very intense, that made them appreciate the beauty of art or nature as never before.

“If anyone had seen our faces when, on Auschwitz’s journey to a Bavarian camp, we gazed at the mountains of Salzburg with their glittering peaks at sunset, leaning against the grating windows of the cell car, I would never have believed them to be the faces Of men with no hope of living or being free. ”

(Frankl, 1946)

In the countryside there was also a sense of humor, though it was in its lighter expression and only for a few mutual ones. Also in a concentration camp it is possible to practice the art of living, even if suffering is omnipresent. Not having positive pleasures were thanked very much to the smallest negative pleasures, that someone help you to despiojarte, for example. He longed for loneliness, the impossible intimacy. Another common feeling in the field was irritability. Since the prisoner watched daily scenes of blows, his impulse towards the violence had increased:

“At times, it was necessary to make hasty decisions which, however, could mean life or death. The prisoner would have preferred to let fate choose for him.”

(Frankl, 1946)

But that choice made him feel free, they gave him a human attribute. The experience of life in a field shows that man has the ability to choose.

“Those of us who were in concentration camps reminded the men who went from barracks to houses, consoling the rest, giving them the last piece of bread they had left.” They may have been few in number, but they provided sufficient evidence that the man was It can snatch everything but one thing, the last of human freedoms, the choice of personal attitude before a set of circumstances, to decide its own way. ”

(Frankl, 1946)

Even in a concentration camp he can preserve his human dignity. He quotes Dostoyevsky: “I only fear one thing: not being worthy of my sufferings”. These people were worthy.

“It is that spiritual freedom that can not be taken away, which makes life have meaning and purpose.”

(Frankl, 1946)

Suffering is an aspect of life that can not be eradicated, as destiny or death can not be separated. Without them life would not be complete.

“Does all this suffering make sense, all these deaths?”

(Frankl, 1946)

It was the question that agonized Frankl. The way in which man accepts his destiny and all the suffering that this entails, adds to his life a deeper meaning. Even under the most difficult circumstances you can retain your courage, your dignity, your generosity. Or he can forget his human dignity and become little more than an animal. It is often an exceptionally difficult external situation that gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. The prisoner who lost faith in the future was condemned, abandoned, declined, and became the subject of physical and mental annihilation. The most difficult is the question for the meaning of life:

“We have to learn by ourselves and then teach the desperate that it does not really matter that we expect nothing from life, but if life expects something from us”

Frankl, 1946)

We have to stop asking questions about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as beings whom life would continually and incessantly inquire of. Our answer should not be in words, but should be a straightforward behavior and situation. Frankl asks professionally and humanly for the psychology of camp guards. How could flesh-and-blood men like others treat their fellow men as they treated them? There were some sadists, in the medical sense of the term, who were selected precisely because they were, as were the most brutal and selfish individuals, the most likely to survive, was a negative selection. But in addition the feelings of most of the guards were dulled by years of brutal methods. They had hardened to unsuspected limits, though there were some, however few, who felt sorry for the prisoners. It tells the story of an SS commander who had bought medicine for some prisoners, spending no small amount on it. The author draws the following consequence:

“There are two races of men in the world and nothing more than two:” race “of decent men and that of the indecent, both of which are found everywhere and in all social strata.We have had the opportunity to meet man Perhaps better than any other generation.What is man really? It is the being that always decides what it is.It is the being that invented the gas chambers, but it is also the being that has entered them with steady pace Whispering a prayer. ”

(Frankl, 1946)

Third phase: After release

At this stage, Dr. Frankl wants to analyze the psychology of the prisoner who has been released. It tells what happened the morning that, after several days of great tension, the white flag was raised to the entrance of the field.

“The previous state of anxiety followed a total relaxation, but it would be wrong for anyone to think that we went crazy with joy.” And he tells us how the prisoners crawled to the gates of the camp, telling themselves without even believing that they were free. They saw the surroundings of the field, the meadows covered with flowers, “but they did not arouse in us any feeling.”

(Frankl, 1946)

And it reproduces the general state of mind when at night, back to the barracks, one man asked another, were you happy today? To which the other replied “to be frank, no”. Frankl explains it by saying that what happened to the liberated prisoners was a “depersonalization.” It all seemed unreal, unlikely, like a dream, and they feared that the awful reality would come to them, as if a prisoner was being asked by a farmer Of the neighborhoods he could spend hours talking.He tells us his particular and touching rebirth, one afternoon while he was walking:

“There was nothing but earth and sky, and the jubilation of the larks, and the freedom of space.” I stopped, looked around, then at the sky, and finally fell on my knees. Or of the world, had only a phrase in his head, always the same: “From my close prison I called my Lord and he answered me from the space released.” ”

(Frankl, 1946)

Many of the prisoners who had experienced brutality in their own flesh only wanted to reproduce it. It was only very slowly that these men could be returned to the plain truth that no one had a right to do wrong, not even though they had done him harm. Apart from a certain moral deformity, two other mental experiences could damage the character of the liberated prisoner, the bitterness and the disappointment that he felt when returning to his old life. Bitterness at the warm reaction of others to their suffering and terrible experience, and the disillusionment towards their own fate.

“The man who for years had believed himself to have reached the absolute limit of suffering was now with no end to suffering and with which he could suffer more and more intensely.”

(Frankl, 1946)

In the field everyone knew that there would be no happiness possible that could compensate them for so much suffering but:

“We were not prepared for the difficult experience, but the day came when the experience in the countryside could be experienced as a nightmare.” The final experience for the man who returns home is the wonderful feeling that afterwards Of all that he has suffered, there is nothing that he has to fear except his god. ”

(Frankl, 1946)

“A man can steal everything, but one thing, the last of the freedoms of the human being, the choice of his own attitude before any kind of circumstances, the choice of his own way.” (Frankl, 1946)


  1. Back to top↑ Tied with four other books in ninth position, so actually the thirteen most influential books, see Fein, Esther B., The New York Times , November 20, 1991 .