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!