Viktor Frankl and Excusing Evil

Viktor Frankl, a Viennese Jewish psychiatrist, who survived the holocaust to found a school of psychotherapy called “logotherapy” was born in Vienna in 1905, and died in 1997. I was recently alerted by a comment of Thomas Szasz, that Frankl talked about doing lobotomies in the camp, and ECT when he returned to the practice of psychiatry in Vienna after the war. I wondered how somebody who had seen so much suffering could then impose it in the form of these two brain-disabling “therapies” (more like torture in my view). So I decided to re-read his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is about his experiences during the war in various concentration camps. The book was originally published in German (in 1946!) and called then Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, (In Spite of All [that happened] Say Yes to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.)

Frankl was taken in 1942 to Theresienstadt and was there for two years until he was taken to Auschwitz in 1944, where he spent 5 days, then to Dachau where the Americans liberated him in 1945.

The book is probably the single most read book about the concentration camps (the Book of the Month Club claims it as one of the ten most influential books in America). At the time of the author’s death, it had sold some 10 million copies in 24 languages. Frankl himself was awarded 29 honorary doctorates.

I am not going to use this blog to rant against therapy or psychiatry, much as I would like to. Instead, I want to raise an issue that has been troubling me for some time, and that is how common it seems for some people to claim that we are all the same in our proclivity to evil (or good). It would seem that for some, acts almost don’t matter. I find this appalling. Frankl is guilty of this tendency, in two passages in his book, one that struck me as dead wrong, and the other as horrendous.

Here is the first (considered the essence of the book, and one of his most famous passages):

“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing.”

Frankl goes on to say that he knew nice guards and awful prisoners and vice versa. What a strange comment. Knowing that a person was a Nazi concentration camp guard tells you nothing about him?? How could anyone believe such a foolish thing? Nobody was forced to be a guard. It was a choice. Even in the Third Reich. Most were sadistic, which is undoubtedly why they chose to be there. The few that were not, well, how do we actually know who they are or even if they were? Very few were reported like this, and mostly at the end of the war, when they sensed they had lost.

But the next passage is far worse, and I don’t think anyone has noticed just how bizarre and awful it truly is:

“Let me cite the case of Dr. J. He was the only man I ever encountered in my whole life that I would dare to call a Mephistophelean being, a satanic figure. At that time he was generally called “the mass murderer of Steinhof” (the large mental hospital in Vienna). When the Nazis started their euthanasia program, he held all the strings in his hands and was so fanatic in the job assigned to him that he tried not to let one single psychotic individual escape the gas chamber. After the war, when I came back to Vienna, I asked what had happened to Dr. J. “He had been imprisoned by the Russians in one of the isolations cells at Steinhof,” they told me. “The next day however, the door of his cell stood open and Dr. J. was never seen again.” Later I was convinced that, like others, he had with the help of his comrades made his way to South America. More recently, however, I was consulted by a former Austrian diplomat who had been imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain for many years, first in Siberia and then in the famous Lubianka prison in Moscow. While I was examining him neurologically, he suddenly asked me whether I happened to know Dr. J. After my affirmative reply he continued: “I made his acquaintance in Lubianka. There he died, at about the age of forty, from cancer of the urinary bladder. Before he died, however, he showed himself to be the best comrade you can imagine! He gave consolation to everybody. He lived up to the highest conceivable moral standard. He was the best friend I ever met during my long years in Prison!”

Frankl comments: “This is the story of Dr.J., “the mass murderer of Steinhof.” How can we dare to predict the behavior of man?”

What an extraordinary comment! (We should bear in mind that Frankl was a psychiatrist at this very hospital in 1938). A man who kills 789 children is somehow rehabilitated in Frankl’s mind (? I think that is his point), because an Austrian diplomat, also in prison in Russia at the same time (I would imagine because of his Nazi past), tells him that he was a good man (good Nazi?), and Frankl takes this as fact, and balances it against the killing of thousands of innocent people! It boggles the mind. (Another fact to bear in mind: Frankl after the war was very eager for reconciliation – so this diplomat may well have been a Nazi, whom Frankl was eager to forgive).

The psychiatrist in question is Erwin Jekelius (1905-1952), who was once engaged to Hitler’s sister, Paula. Why Frankl uses only his initials I do not know. He was responsible for the death of at least 4,000 patients at his hospital, INCLUDING children as young as 4! In 2005 the Russians released statements he made at his interrogation in prison, which includes this extraordinary confession: 1941, “after the arrival of Dr. Gross, we started in our clinic with the destruction of children […] my assistant Dr. Gross had completed a practical course for the killing of children. Every month we killed 6 to 10 children … Dr. Gross was working under my supervision.”

At this same hearing he admitted to killing “thousands” of patients.

It is fascinating that when this document became available in 2005, the man Jekelius named as his assistant, Heinrich Gross, was one of Vienna’s highest paid forensic physician and “a leading expert in the pathology of mental illness” with an international reputation. He was given Austria’s highest award for services to science and art, the Honorary Cross, first class! Children who were murdered there included those suffering from stutter, harelips, or who had learning problems. Gross was finally put on trial, but died in 2005 before it could commence.

I don’t suppose that any amount of knowledge about what Jekelius did as a psychiatrist would make the slightest difference to Frankl’s judgment. What I find most frightening is that many people must agree with him. I know, though, that I am not alone in feeling dismay at this thought. You might wonder why I am paying so much attention to an old book at this time? It is because too many people at this moment feel we must always be ready to forgive and forget. Neither, is my motto!


About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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20 Responses to Viktor Frankl and Excusing Evil

  1. Pamela (Lady Luz) says:

    My, you really get me going to revisit books I’ve read and long put aside, Viktor Frankl among them. I find Szasz’s theories very interesting and would love to know where to find his comment about Frankl’s horrendous work.
    On the plus and joyous side, I am just looking again at Maslow’s “Motivation and Personality” where he asserts ….”There are no perfect human beings” and “to avoid dissillusionment with human nature, we must first give up our illusions about it”. It’s very sad that his work in later life was cut off by his death before he could say more about the antithesis of self-actualising, life enhancing people, those who could be described as death- enhancing.

    • Yes. But Robin Island was not an extermination camp. I have yet to read that the concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany were ashamed of their day jobs.

      • Patty Bowers says:

        Also, NONE of us really know how desperate things were during that awful war and what people were FORCED to do or die, perhaps taking a job like that or being shot, or having their family starve to death. From my readings it was a truly horrible time, heavy darkness prevailed and people were put into the worst of depravity and suffering….. None of us know what we woulld do when forced into a position like that, even though we think we would rather die……. it’s a different thing when you have mouths to feed or a life to be surrendered……Thank God none of us are in that position now, will never need to know how we would react and are so abundantly blessed in our joyous lives…. Thoughts worthy of reflection and gratitude for the prosperity and happiness we Do have!

  2. egreendc says:

    I hear ya. Jeff. But just to play devil’s advocate, didn’t Nelson Mandela find some guards at Robin Island prison to be fairly decent and at least slightly ashamed of their day jobs?

  3. Patty Bowers says:

    Horrendous. Are there no limits on the cruelty and sickness of mind of men ( & women too probably.)? Not only to the people in this article, but to the animals on the planet.
    To forgive is for ourselves, so we do not carry around negativity doing damage to our bodies and souls. Forget? I don’t think so. It’s important to REMEMBER so these individuals are never to be really trusted again, nor their actions, so hopefully they won’t be committed again. Maybe wanting to forget is a way of staying in the present so our minds are not focused on the evil and negativity of the past…. Bringing myself back to the present moment is the only way i can help myself from desparing when I see and think about what is done to animals every day……
    All the Best,
    Patty Bowers
    Montana, USA

  4. cl says:

    I’m grateful for your post. Murder and abuse are not to be minimized in any way, and yet that seems to happen nearly every day with no remedial action, or even significant discussion. People need to be accountable for their behavior.

    I don’t know what Victor Frankl had in mind when he wrote those passages, but two things come to mind.

    The Stanford Prison Experiment showed that seemingly decent people can become sadists within 48 hours, after very little provocation.

    And I thought of this passage in The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

  5. Patty Bowers says:

    I hate to be the “devil’s Advocate” but who can say WHAT we would do when faced with those choices or being shot or tortured to death, or having your whole family killed in front of you? There is NO way I can see myself EVER doing those things but until I am placed in that position I don’t know, I think the Survivors Instinct may be stronger than anything, although personally, I think it may be easier to die….. Anyone who had a conscience and did those things would probably wind up killing themselves in the long run anyway, so die now or die later……Perhaps dying now would be easier than having to live with the guilt and horror of doing those things…… I just don’t know. And who knows, maybe the brain and psche have some kind of horrendous chemical, physiological switch that happens so one can do those things when under such unspeakable conditions, stress, malnutrition, torture…..
    It is easier to switch my consciousness back to the present and GRATEFULNESS for the life i have and the good things I can do for people and animals NOW…….

  6. Viktor Frankl’s writings, along with buddhist and hindu scriptures, were profoundly liberating, not to say life-saving, for me as a psychiatrized person, who up until the time I discovered them, at the age of twenty eight, had been too self-crippled to be able to seek alternative views to conventional psychiatry, which had only ever confirmed me in my sense of helplessness, and had indeed to a large extent created my so-called mental illness. I really don’t know what to say to the news that Frankl contained evil as well as good: perhaps only that it is not news, nor should it be to anyone who has been a sensitive observer of the human race, starting with himself. It is absurd to think that you have to completely write off anyone who has committed evil in the course of his life (and as vegans, none of whom have been so since the beginning, and who thus all have blood on our hands, we should be a little sensitive to this truth); and in fact, people only condemn outright those whose virtues do not personally interest them, and for this reason may even be invisible to them. But you have been a psychoanalyst, and a champion of the psychiatrically oppressed: you’re friends with us nuts, right, and simply must have known a few of us, over the decades, who have benefited from Frankl’s thought? So don’t you take some personal interest in the good the man did, and the lives he saved? “How can we dare to predict the behaviour of man?” It was philosophy like this, ancient and modern, eastern and western, that helped this man writing now to save himself from a self-regenerating history of suffering nourished by precisely the kind of rigid conception of static selfhood that you here espouse. What kind of therapy, what kind of redemption, ever came out of that?

  7. John Salmond says:

    “This is the story of Dr.J., “the mass murderer of Steinhof.” How can we dare to predict the behavior of man?”
    I suppose the issue here is, what did Frankl mean by this summation of his story?
    You say “A man who kills 789 children is somehow rehabilitated in Frankl’s mind (? I think that is his point)”
    On the whole I agree with you very strongly, both that Frankl is somehow rehabilitating DrJ, and that this is not acceptable. There are some things that happen to OTHERS that WE can’t forgive. Frankl can forgive those who harmed him, but no-one can forgive on behalf of those hundreds of children. And even if he forgives, he must surely require that the wrongs that were done him, even if forgiven in HIS heart, must not be forgotten, and must in fact be punished or otherwise dealt with by society in general.
    The precise point Frankl makes can be accepted (I think) . . . even the person who has done supremely evil things may later do good things. But Frankl in stating that fact, must not leave us in any doubt that the evil was done, or suggest in any way that it is balanced by later good acts.
    One commenter says you espouse “static selfhood”, but I don’t agree that this is implied; but no matter how we change, we cannot deny what we were, we cannot refuse to face what we did. How are we a person if our own past is nothing to us, “that wasn’t me, I am someone else now”?
    Frankl makes a big mistake by in any way allowing the evil this man did to be remotely diminished by anything he later did.
    The victims, always, are all-important, — helpless victims of state power cannot be forgotten, their suffering cannot be lost in the march of events, the realpolitik of today — Dr J was given the chance to go on and, apparently, do good things; his victims have lost all such opportunities, and we must not kill them again by forgetting, by diminishing, that terrible loss.
    This is an issue that is alive and relevant every day in our world – the crimes that are committed by the powerful against the weak cannot be forgotten just because the powerful go on with their ordinary lives amongst us, doing many ‘normal’ and even good things, looking just like ‘normal, good people’ – as for example, retired Presidents and Prime Ministers. Their crimes must be remembered and held against them.

  8. Ingrid Maria Chenoweth says:

    Well said John Salmond, especially the last two paragraphs. I am British. I’m a Cornish girl (aged 46! [girl?!!!!]), born to an Austrian mother and still living in Cornwall where I was born. My innocent Grandmother (who was suffering from a nervous breakdown) was one of the thousands gassed unforgivably by Erwin Jekelius, leaving two young innocent children without a mum in Vienna, which is nothing short of cruel and shameful. My mother, who lives in the same village as me, and has done so since the 1950’s, spoke to me earlier this evening obviously still feeling raw. She is still, now aged 76, unable to come to terms with her terrible loss and I am sure she has remembered and missed her mother every day of her life; a person who became (understandably) temporarily weak, someone who would have recovered, there is no doubt in my mind, but did not stand a chance at the hands of Dr. J. I will always hold the shameful death crime against him (them) and I will never forgive or forget.

    I realise you have broadly researched this atrocity. If you happen to know of any death records existing for these crimes in the form of an actual list of names for all those killed at Steinhof hospital, I would be most grateful to hear from you, or anyone else that might know? Thank you.

    • I do not know of any records of the names of the victims. But that does not mean one does not exist. I would check with the Austrian authorities: there is a good museum of the resistance in Vienna, and they may know. I am grateful for your first-hand account.

    • Rainer says:

      Dear Mrs. Chenoweth,
      theres is a dokumentation online about the names of the victims of the “Hospital Steinhof”. I Would be glad to get an Email from you for further informations.
      I work as the director of Administration in the Otto Wagner Hospital in Vienna, that is situated on the ground of the the former “Clinic Steinhof”

  9. Roger says:

    I’m just reading Mans Search for Meaning. The only thing I took from his story about Dr. J is that a person who is one way today is free to make his own choice to be a different way tomorrow. I think his point is people have the freedom to make a choice to change who they are going forward. Changing who I am tomorrow doesn’t erase what I did yesterday and doesn’t mean I should be given forgiveness for what I did yesterday nor does it mean I should escape the consequences of what I did yesterday. I didn’t see that he said anything about excusing or forgiving what Dr. J did. Maybe Frankl did forgive him but I didn’t see that he commented on forgiveness for Dr. J in the passage..

  10. Ingrid Maria Chenoweth says:

    Hi Jeffrey, just wanted to thank you for your very instant reply… I forgot to do that when I first read your message the following day. I researched your comments and found the museum to be called Judenplatz. I am hoping to accompany my mum back to Vienna one day in the not too distant future and will definitely follow up the possibility of records and further information being held there, especially as I realise how important it is to my mother. It will be interesting to go there. Thanks again for your help and advice :0).

  11. Franz Kurz says:

    For better understanding, let me explain it from my life’s experience. After World War II German Nazis disappeared from one day to the other, left the scene and worked on backstage. At Nuremberg Court the come off as winners celebrated justice for some outstanding few who really did wrong. The many others who overcome at home (!) battled ongoing for their further career and were found not only at first to be Chancellor Adenauer’s Secretary but on all administration levels. They took off the known needle with the swastika and other symbols and remained inside mind just as before. It took nearly a full generation and the 68’ terror crises to get rid of inadequate laws and little turn in mind. Even in 07’ the present fed state governor praised at funeral speech Hans Georg Filbinger who had to resign as minister president and party chairman after allegations about his role as a navy lawyer and judge in the Second World War. Mind, in 2007, 62 years after the war ended!
    Then you are invited reading Prison and the Character of Nations.

  12. NPHule says:

    Viktor Frankl never said he forgave anybody or that he did not want them punished. He has called Dr. J a satanic figure. Neither has he said that if a person changes for the better, he/she should not be accountable for his past actions or that he or she must not be punished (for a crime) incase if they change. What he was trying to say is that you cannot predict for sure how a person will behave in future based on his current actions.

  13. wildwoman728 says:

    No solo esta atrocidad inasimilable,observa también la liviandad con la que se ha referido-en el mismo libro que citas-al “tratamiento” que realizó a una mujer abusada sexualmente por su padre:lejos de considerar importante el trauma y los sentimientos asociados al mismo,Frankl planteó que el problema era que la paciente leyó a Freud y pensaba demasiado en eso…en tres sesiones le “hizo comprender”que el pasado no era importante,sino que debía dejar en blanco su mente al respecto,y voilà! ya pudo funcionar sexualmente “cómo debería”,ya que esta mujer “estaba pensando demasiado en sí misma”…lo más terrible son los 29 honoris causa ,y que sigue siendo considerado en el mundo entero como el paladín del humanismo… si éstos son los humanistas que fácil darse cuenta porqué estamos como estamos…saludos Jeffrey!!

    • Thank you for your wonderful response. I had no idea that Viktor Frankl tells a woman sexually abused to stop thinking about it so much! I am so glad you pointed this out. It makes me dislike him even more! But I am afraid we are a club of two!

      • John says:

        It sounds to me like you’re deliberately trying to misconstrue Frankl on two counts – first that he said good deeds excuse previous bad deeds and second that he harmed a woman by telling her to ignore her previous traumatic experience.

        Frankl never said good deeds excuse or erase previous bad deeds, in fact he states that every deed we do becomes irrevocably stored in the past; that is, it cannot be undone. He said this as an encouragement – the things we have accomplished can never be taken away from us – but on the flip side, this also affirms that the bad things we have done can never undone. That would include the deeds of Dr. J.

        As for the woman who was sexually abused, she suffered from a sexual neurosis which left her unable to achieve orgasm. However, “it was not the traumatic experience which had eventuated her neurosis [rather], through reading popular psychoanalytic literature, she lived constantly with the fearful expectation of the toll which her traumatic experience would someday take.” Frankl helped her refocus her attention on her partner, thus curing the neuroses and helping her achieve orgasm. That’s a pretty far cry from “telling a sexually abused woman to stop thinking about it so much.”

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