David Mikics is a professor of English in Houston, Texas; he is the author of the biography of Stanley Kubrick in the scholarly Jewish Lives series of Yale University Press. On 9 September 2020 he published an article, “The Lie of Viktor Frankl”, in the American Jewish on-line magazine Tablet. The occasion was the recent publication by the Beacon Press in Boston of Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything: this is series of lectures the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl delivered in German in his native Vienna just a year after the end of the war, now available for the first time in English.
“The Lie of Viktor Frankl” is the sensational, attention-grabbing title of an article that attacks the integrity of Frankl as a doctor, writer, public figure, and human being. The article is sensational— and disturbing— because Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is venerated as a classic survivor memoir of the Holocaust. The book is also a very famous and influential work of psychology that has helped countless people to survive crises during which their lives seemed meaningless, to find meaning and dignity within themselves, and to resolve to carry on. It is no exaggeration to say the book has saved lives.
But Prof. Mikics is not out to “cancel” yet another dead cultural icon on kangaroo court charges of white privilege or toxic masculinity. His article is not another lamentable screed of the witch hunting fascist-left, but is careful and thoughtful, and makes some good points.
I first read Man’s Search for Meaning at the recommendation of a friend while slowly and painfully recovering from a motorcycle accident. My left leg had been badly broken in several places, and a Spring term sabbatical that was supposed to have been a happy and productive sojourn at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, hopefully the first step in Aliyah (repatriation to the Land of Israel), had been shattered. One’s hopes for the future were in ruins, too, and for months the unrelenting, agonizing pain deprived one of the respite of sleep. There were days and nights when one searched for meaning in the pointless, random, stupid accident but couldn’t find it. It made no sense. In the end, the patient care and unstinting love of my Israeli family and friends, and hard work with a remarkable physical therapist, kept me going and got me through six months of convalescence. Every day people go through much worse; but this was one’s own experience.
I bought Frankl’s paperback at an English-language bookshop in the wealthy American enclave of Emek Refa’im in Jerusalem. It was close to a charming little café. Israelis like to sit at cafes, eat brunch with their family and friends, talk too loud for my taste (part of life in Israel is adjusting to the Middle Eastern decibel level), and drink coffee, especially a kind of cappuccino called hafukh in Hebrew. (They did then, anyhow: the country is in lockdown as I write, so who knows whether bookshop or café has survived.) The walls of the café near the bookshop were papered with old covers of The New Yorker, and the languages of choice were Upper West Side New Yorkish and Brooklynese, not the resurrected guttural Hebrew speech of the Bible. Israelis generally make up for the lack of facilities for the disabled in kindness and helpfulness, but it was still hard to maneuver on crutches through the café. I tried to read a few pages there, then managed more of the book at home. After that I threw it away from my bed. I thought, and think now, that it is a crock of shit. Although I nurture unpopular opinions the way eccentric old ladies collect cats, it turns out I’m not alone in my opinion.
Frankl worked before the war as a neurologist in Vienna. Jews predominated in law, medicine, education, the arts, and the media in the Austrian capital, and that added the fury of envy to the prevailing endemic, ubiquitous anti-Semitism. The locals welcomed the Anschluss in 1938 with ecstasy and set about attacking their Jewish fellow-citizens and plundering their homes and businesses with a kind of festive ferocity surpassing anything in Nazi Germany itself. Like Lithuania, Austria was to camouflage itself after the war as a victim of Hitler, rather than a co-conspirator: the Austrian Nazi and war criminal Kurt Waldheim enjoyed a brilliant career culminating in a stint as UN Secretary General. The venomous hostility to Israel of Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s Jewish-born Chancellor, was unrivaled outside the Middle East and the Soviet bloc.
After Anschluss, Jewish physicians were permitted to treat only Jewish patients, and many of those— about ten a day by 1941, as Mikics notes— were committing suicide. Frankl believed life is worth living no matter what. In his view, his co-religionists had no right to end their lives, no matter what the Nazis might have in store for them, and he resuscitated them by boring holes in their skulls and injecting amphetamines. He had no experience in such surgery, the introduction of such drugs directly into the brain was considered medically unethical, and his revived patients lived one day in utter agony before expiring. It is important to note here that the law of the Third Reich forbade Jews to commit suicide: Hitler wanted to work them to death or kill them in ways that stripped them of dignity.
Frankl could have got out of Austria. He had an exit visa but did not want to abandon his relatives, who did not. He and his family were arrested by the Nazis in 1942 and deported to concentration camps: his father died in Terezin; his mother, in the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau; and his wife, in Bergen-Belsen. Frankl, the only one who survived, was sent to Auschwitz but spent only a few days there: spared selection for immediate murder, he was sent to do hard labor at another camp, though the setting of Man’s Search for Meaning is the iconic Auschwitz alone and he does not mention another camp. In captivity, Frankl further developed and preached his therapeutic creed that one must find meaning and dignity within oneself, cherish the world, and hold fast to the conviction that life is worth living no matter what. This is the message of his book, though as Mikics points out, survivors who had known Frankl in the camps said the reality was somewhat different and he was wont to complain of not having escaped Nazi Europe when he had the chance. Who can blame him.
After the war, Frankl rebuilt his life and career. He not only stomached the idea of living in Austria, but burnished his celebrity status there by consorting with Kreisky and Waldheim. It was not coincidence that he associated with anti-Semites: towards the end of his life he also befriended the neo-Nazi Austrian politician Jörg Haider. Apparently the imperative, not just to live, but to indulge a selfish enjoyment in doing so, justified his creating for himself a cozy bell jar of fantasy and pumping the air out of it. The seeker of meaning in the human predicament spent the years after the Holocaust in a moral vacuum.
Frankl and his followers paid the price of compromising morality and history for their comfortable life of wishful thinking. Frankl imagined people in their last moments in the gas chamber saying the Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Jewish Shema‘ (“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One only!”), and in that order: Christians first, Jews second. It is not the alphabet that concerned Frankl. He was insinuating that the Holocaust might be ameliorated as a general tragedy that affected many people of different creeds, with the Jews just one group midway through the list. This is a fundamental distortion of the truth. The Holocaust was not an unspecific incident of man’s inhumanity to man. It was the culmination of a Jew hatred that is hard-wired into Christian Europe. Far from diminishing over time, this hatred grew from the largely religious prejudice of earlier ages into the modern pseudo-science of “race”. In the Middle Ages, a Jew might convert to Christianity and have done with it; in recent times, Judaism came to regarded as a deleterious physical characteristic, a subhuman virus. Modern anti-Semitism spread from Europe to poison Islam, whose attitude towards Jews has been historically far more moderate. The Holocaust was aimed, first and last, at the Jews: that was its raison d’etre, its driving force. Jews alone, of all the peoples under Nazi tyranny, were slated for total extermination. Had it been otherwise, the Allies might have tried to stop it. They did not, because it was about Jews, not gentiles, and therefore they did not care. That makes the world several shades darker than Frankl would like.
This is not a minor failing of the Frankl school, but a defining aspect: Mikics quotes Daniel Goleman’s introduction to Yes to Life: the Swedish diplomat in Budapest Raoul Wallenberg issued “passports for thousands of desperate Hungarians”. That’s the same kind of dishonest mitigation. The desperate people Wallenberg saved on the eve of the Red Army’s entry into Budapest were all Jews whom their compatriots in the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross party were murdering in the capital. Adolf Eichmann, who had been in charge of the persecution of the Austrian Jews, masterminded the Holocaust in the rest of Hungary: in the summer of 1944, thanks to the excellent railway network and the full operation of the death factory at Auschwitz-Birkenau, nearly a million Hungarian Jews were murdered. The Allies had known all about it for at least two years and in 1944 American reconnaissance planes took pictures of the lines on the railway platform for “selection” and the chimneys of the crematoria belching smoke. American planes bombed the industrial plant at Auschwitz-Monowitz but left the machinery of death in nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau intact. When I was sixteen, and fully engaged in man’s search for meaning as teenagers are, a Jew who flew a bomber for the US Army Air Force told me he and his crew volunteered to bomb the railway tracks, gas chambers, and crematoria. The response: If they brought up the matter again they would be court-martialed. What was the meaning, for Hitler’s Jewish victims, of World War II?
But back to Wallenberg in Hungary. Anti-Semitism seems inseparable from Hungarian identity: the present neo-fascist party in control of the government of that country, despite its strategic friendship with Israel, has advocated the compulsory separate registration of all Jews in Hungary with the authorities, as well as the compulsory teaching of Christianity in public schools— making children of Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian faiths know they are unwelcome and inferior. The EU doesn’t quite know what to do about Hungary and Poland, with their fascist and racist rulers and policies. If only Brussels and Strasbourg had attics in which to keep undesirable relations. There is a memorial in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles to Raoul Wallenberg: earlier this summer our homegrown BLM/Antifa Nazis defaced it with anti-Semitic slogans during their pogrom. They didn’t do it because the Swedish hero had helped “Hungarians”.
Mikics asks with justified sarcasm, “Should life and death in a Nazi camp become the material for retail self-help manuals?” The answer is no, and not just because of the cheapness and vulgarity of such an undertaking. Frankl’s enterprise, and that of his continuators, is disingenuous: it purchases its validation of life at the price of falsification of history and the mitigation of evil. The Holocaust was about the Jews. Anti-Semitism is dangerous, persistent, and ubiquitous. It is now a tool of left and right extremism, and in that sense is worse than before the war, where it was a vice only of the right. In the United States, it has grown enormously in recent years, and has destroyed many lives— far more than in postwar Austria or Hungary. It has become not just a problem for some grade school in Szekesfehervar or Debrecen, Salzburg or Graz, but a pervasive element of American higher education.
There is nothing redemptive about Auschwitz-Birkenau. The dehumanization and murder of millions of innocent people was not the occasion for anything good. And if it enabled one man to advance a selfish therapy, that does not matter. More to the point, it cannot have any meaning. A fellow congregant in my synagogue here in Fresno once suggested brightly at Shabbat lunch that the Jews in Europe were being punished by God for the sin of assimilation. That is one attempt to find meaning in the meaningless; but for thinking people the argument of theodicy has failed. Others have proposed that the Holocaust was a sort of Divine trial, like individual martyrdom, just on a bigger— let us say, industrial— scale. That doesn’t work wither: martyrs are called that because they are witnesses to the offer of a reprieve that they refuse. Martyrs prefer death to apostasy and the betrayal of their faith. Their deaths have meaning because they make a choice and die in vivid demonstration to others of their commitment to an idea. Nobody the Nazis murdered was offered a choice, it did not matter to anyone what their obiter dicta were in the gas chamber, and their assembly-line deaths were shrouded in silence. Though the Orthodox regard every Jew the Nazis killed as having died al Kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of God’s Name, that’s a retrospective judgment. The mechanism of Divine justice— has been a knotty problem since Creation and maybe before. Arbitrary evil may have some mysterious purpose known only to Heaven.
Those who died in the Holocaust did not have a choice. Their murder is particularly horrible because it does not have a meaning. But the Austrian Jews whom Frankl with incompetent and selfish cruelty tried to “save” before they could be put on the trains to the camps, had made a free and sane choice that Frankl sadistically frustrated out of his own self-centered motives. Mikics notes, and I have already stressed this, that the Nazis had made suicide illegal for Jews: Hitler wanted to use them before killing them, and then to kill them in the most dehumanizing way. The world could not care less, and most of the Jews of Vienna— the gentle, civilized community of Freud and Wittgenstein— had no way out, just two kinds of death. They chose the kind with dignity, and made their suicide an act of defiance.
There is a precedent for this. When the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, about a thousand Jewish rebels and their families made their way to the desert stronghold of Masada, where they held out for three years until the Roman legions constructed a ramp to the mountaintop and broke through. The historian Josephus, a commander in the Jewish revolt, had surrendered to the Romans earlier, in the Galilee. He went on to write Jewish Antiquities, a multi-volume history of the nation of Israel and description of its religious beliefs and practices that is the largest and most valuable text on the subject from the ancient period; and The Jewish War, the meticulous chronicle of the Judean rebellion of 66-73 that made it the best-documented event in ancient history.
In Josephus’ account, the leader of the patriots, the Zealot commander Elazar ben Yair, makes an eloquent speech as the Romans are about to break through, in which he extols freedom and human dignity, and urges the defenders of Masada to kill their families, then themselves, rather than surrender and face the horror and humiliation of crucifixion or slavery. Nearly all willingly did so thereafter; only a handful of frightened women taken captive by the Romans survived to tell the tale. In fact, as Jodi Magness has ably argued in a recent study, there is evidence both of mass suicide and of a last stand by the warriors of Masada. Not all killed themselves: those who could, went down fighting. But long before the latest evidence could be evaluated, Josephus’ scenario of defiant mass suicide had taken hold of the modern Israeli imagination, and IDF recruits would climb Masada in the predawn dark and vow by torchlight Shenit Matsada lo tipol “Masada shall not fall again!”
Did Elazar ben Yair actually deliver his dramatic words? Such speeches were set pieces of ancient historiography and were to some degree fictional, certainly in content if not in spirit: Thucydides puts the stirring funeral oration at Athens in the mouth of Pericles; and Tacitus in the Agricolahas his enemy, the Scots chieftain Calgacus, deliver what is in my view the most stirring defense of freedom in ancient literature. It is the speech in which he says scornfully that the Romans have made a desolation and call it peace. Any school child who learns of the Pax Romana should read that oration with it, as a salutary lesson in the lies of empire. Calgacus’ speech was to be unrivalled in the island kingdom till Shakespeare. It comes alive in Sir Winston Churchill’s Finest Hour speech in Parliament at the onset of the Battle of Britain. (It must be said that Churchill, who was half-American, was to favor undertaking military operations, such as bombing the tracks to Auschwitz, to save the Jews; but the Roosevelt Administration, partly indifferent and partly also fearful of public anti-Semitism, restrained the British Prime Minister.) The homiletic and oratory art is an important political and social tool in cultures that are mainly oral and without mass media, and were there not such orations in reality, Josephus and Tacitus would be straining credibility, not enhancing it, by inserting them into battle scenes. Oratory still has its power, in parliamentary government (and, lamentably, as an instrument of demagogues). Elazar ben Yair probably did exhort his comrades, if not precisely in the words of Josephus; by the same token another contemporary Jew, Jesus Christ, probably did stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee one pleasant day some decades earlier and deliver the Sermon on the Mount, even if it was not exactly as transmitted by the Evangelists Matthew or Luke.
“Chicago Semite Viennese” sneered T.S. Eliot in one of his bigoted poems. “That Viennese witch doctor,” sniffed the far more humane Vladimir Nabokov. Carl Jung, entranced with archetypes, mandalas, and other pleasant mythological games, also came to dislike Dr. Sigmund Freud. Frankl didn’t care for him either, as Mikics points out: all that muck about sex, the id, repression and sublimation, was inconvenient to his relentlessly sunny gospel of a sort of pitiless psychic forced march through the ravaged landscape of suffering into positive affirmation.
But I like Papa Freud. One of the books I keep by my bedside is Edmund Engelman’s Berggasse 19. It is an album of photographs of the great doctor’s capacious apartment, his famous couch draped with rich Turkish carpets, and his vast collection of ancient Egyptian and Greek statuettes. They stand in cabinets, on shelves, on the polished desk top, a motionless, friendly tiny army. Their shapely bodies and calm faces stare from “the dark backward and abysm of time” at the doctor and his patients, with their own unconscious depths and primordial desires. Engelman took the pictures at risk and in haste, avoiding the watchful Gestapo— shortly afterwards the contents of the flat were crated and Freud departed for England, where he was able to spend the last year of his life in freedom. Woody Allen likes Freud, too: in one of his darker movies there is an old Jewish professor with a Central European accent who discourses on the paradoxes of existence and on Freud’s ultimate therapies: work and love. The film ends without a resolution of the moral dilemmas it raises, and the old professor commits suicide: life may have its “normal misery”, but death is part of that. Woody Allen, an artist who plays with the many facets and ironies of reality, is not ready to commit his characters against their will to the gospel of Yes To Life In Spite Of Everything.
For life in the real world to be viable, one has to make compromises: it is not possible for society to subsist on a diet of martyrs, and angels live up there, not down here. There are compromises, though, that one must not make, and education and experience in ethics, in religion, in association with other people help one to decide where the line must be drawn. It is not possible, on a practical level and in normal times, to sanction suicide: a suicidal person is often so overwhelmed by his situation that he cannot see any way out. He may not be in his right mind and is not capable of making an informed decision. He may not understand how his self-inflicted death would devastate the people who love him. He may feel so alone as not even to be aware that they exist. He needs the compassionate care of family, friends, and, sometimes, even doctors. Books help too. In such cases, and they are many, Viktor Frankl’s book can be, and has been, very helpful. Meaning can be restored to a life that seems a meaningless burden. That can happen mainly where the society around you is humane to begin with. But if it isn’t? If your world is Vienna, 1942?
In that case and in other cases in history, the continuation of life is senseless, such a prolonged life does not have meaning, and maybe is not viable at all. One cannot use the standard of normal times to condemn the concentration camp prisoner who has experienced suffering and loss that you and I cannot imagine, and throws himself upon the electrified barbed wire fence. What meaning is he supposed to find by carrying on? That is where Frankl seems to me not to have an answer that works. Maybe that was why his book struck me as disingenuous and obnoxious, even cruel, nearly a dozen years ago and seven and a half thousand miles away. It reminded me of the forest of crucified men in “The Life of Brian” singing their absurd “Always look on the bright side of life!” But at least that was satire— and where I watched it, with a broken leg, in a bed in my relatives’ home, drinking arak a few miles from Golgotha, it was local humor, it was about the time of a Man who died because He loved us and shares our good laughter and good times, and I laughed till it hurt.
Freud’s ultimate therapies, in a world that can feel sapped of meaning, are these two human activities: Work and Love. They are not pollyannish. They are not exclusively introspective. They require active engagement with the world, with life. Once when I was a romantic youth complaining about something or other having to do with life’s meaning my Dad sent me a clipping of an op-ed from the New York Times. This was a very long time ago, since it was still a newspaper. The op-ed tells this story: A man is all alone and is being chased at night by a ghost across a featureless, dim plain. After a while he comes to a rock and sits down on it for a rest. “That was quite a run,” says the ghost. “Yes,” the man replies, “and just as soon as I’ve caught my breath we’re going to have another.” That’s the Work part. There is, Freud taught, a normal misery in life. Stop wallowing and get on with it.
My sainted Grandpa, may his soul rest in the garden of Eden, was a staunch atheist. I once wrote asking him what he thought the meaning of life was. (I had probably become depressed by reading Manichaean texts on the subject. I was also horny and not getting any. The meaning of life bothered me a lot then.) Grandpa typed a short letter in reply on the stationery of the publishing house he ran in his later years, Oriole Books. Oriole chapbooks were elegantly printed little essays praising the Irish Republican Army, decrying the stupidity of bourgeois morality, ridiculing the fictions of religion, outlining the immediate necessity of Communist revolution, and so on. The letter was very short and I memorized it, never to forget it. It read, “Dear James, The meaning of life is that life has no meaning. But you mean a lot to me. Love, Grandpa.” That’s the Love part. Stop obsessing about yourself and go outside: there are people who need you. There are people who care about you.
But there’s something missing here, another component of life’s meaning. Yes, that’s it. There are times when Work and Love combine to present an imperative in crisis: to Fight Back. One can discover the meaning of life by work and love in normal times; and in abnormal times, by taking on in active combat the forces of darkness that would deny to living men and women the very sources of meaning. Had more people fought the Nazis, their tyranny would not have lasted as long as it did. If every Jew had grabbed a broken bottle, a tire iron, anything, and taken a German, Ukrainian, Hungarian, or Lithuanian with him or her to the next world, the Holocaust could have stalled. And just imagine if European countries had had constitutions with a Second Amendment, and every citizen was armed?
Who are the Nazis of today? What do they think of Freud’s life-affirming ideas about the therapies of human integrity and dignity? BLM/Antifa are contemptuous of work: their program is forcible “redistribution” of the fruits of the labor of others. In the Ten Commandments that has a name: theft. They despise love, and are animated only by resentment, by a feral hatred that is turning American cities into abattoirs. They refuse the dignity of man, preferring to isolate people, as Hitler did, through the pseudo-science of racial identity and the reactionary nonsense of identity politics. They rely on the complacency and passivity of an American populace numbed by propaganda, terrorized by ideological witch hunts, and coerced by the specter of plague into cowed isolation. Their sanguinary antics are paid for by corporate criminals, and their left-fascist lies are abetted by universities that long ago lost the good of the intellect and joined the ranks of the damned of the Inferno. It’s no use buying a self-help book and trying to feel that I’m okay and you’re okay when our poor world is really not okay at all. Contemplating your navel and singing kumbaya is what the enemy wants you to do. A Frankl paperback is all very well, but as Woody Allen (yes, him again) has a character say, When you’re dealing with Nazis a couple of guys with baseball bats are better than a scathing op-ed in the Times.
I find meaning, I find the affirmation that all lives matter, in Calgacus’ men, hopelessly outnumbered, standing up with their battle cry and charging the Roman legions. In the unconquered heroes of Masada, preferring death to slavery, their example animating Zionism, the national liberation movement of the world’s most hated and derided people, Christ’s people, my people. With the embattled farmer at Concord bridge firing the shot heard ’round the world. At the Alamo, locking and loading with Samuel Colt. Alongside the villagers of Musa Dagh repelling with rocks and muskets the onslaught of the entire Turkish regular army. In the Spitfires climbing over the white cliffs of Dover, with their Polish and Czech airmen racing bravely forward to send the damned niemcy, the krauts, to hell.
The last time I talked to my Grandma, just before she went in for an operation she was not to survive, she must have had a premonition, for she delivered this last piece of advice, which I now pass along: “Darling, cultivate your own garden. But every now and then, go outside and throw a brick!” That’s right. How do you search for and find meaning in life? Not in emasculating New Age doubletalk about self, self, self, me, me, me, money, money, money, and inner personal development, Esalen, Yoga, the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Gaia, and omphaloskepsis. Not a society of collective passivity instead of enterprise, therapy instead of exploration and adventure, moral compromise instead of steadfastness, and prevarication instead of principle, but a society of individual moral responsibility, clarity, manliness, and courage. That is the free society envisaged no less by Papa Freud and my Grandparents, than by the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. The society in which all lives have meaning. In which all lives matter. Freedom. Uncle Sam wants YOU. Stand up. Calgacus and his men are ready. All the blue bonnets are over the border. Do you hear the bagpipes? Give me liberty or give me death! All together now, Charge!
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events