Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year confounded Ukrainians. They should read Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning."
After Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s occupation of Austria in 1938 and shortly before the United States entered World War II three years later, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist, noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at his parents’ home in Vienna.
His father explained that he had rescued the artifact from the rubble after Nazi thugs had torched Vienna’s largest synagogue in a conflagration of antisemitic hate.
The marble bit, the elder Frankl said, was part of the synagogue’s Ten Commandments tablet, a chunk of a particular commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.”
Frankl, who would become one of the world’s most beloved writers with his disarmingly thin but profound memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), later said he viewed this incident as a “hint from heaven.”
He interpreted the inert piece of stone as a sign that instead of escaping the looming war and Nazi persecution of Jews throughout Europe by emigrating to America, as he had planned, he should honor his parents by remaining with them in Austria.
But by war’s end, Frankl’s parents, his wife, Tilly, and his brother were dead. His father succumbed to “exhaustion” after a year in a wartime Jewish ghetto in Vienna, but the others died in Nazi extermination camps, where Frankl also ended up but survived. His sister, who earlier had emigrated to Australia, was the only other member of Frankl’s family to survive the Holocaust.
Frankl’s experiences in the “death camps” deeply informed his view that when evil creates circumstances overwhelmingly awful, morality recedes almost to the vanishing point. But despite extremities of moral depravity and suffering, as he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, life has intrinsic value and is worth embracing to the bitter end.
The book is part memoir of concentration-camp life and part philosophical primer on Frankl’s theory of “logotherapy,” a form of psychotherapy he synthesized that is focused on the future and on the human capacity “to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose.”
The website VeryWellMind explains that
Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a “will to meaning,” which is the desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.
Frankl developed this theory in wartime Nazi camps and before the war as a psychiatric specialist in suicide prevention.
Describing the rampant amorality of death-camp existence that caused inmates to behave selfishly and callously, Frankl wrote in Meaning:
It is easy for the outsider to get the wrong conception of camp life, a conception mingled with sentiment and pity. Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners. This was an unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend. …
There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. …
On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles—whatever one may choose to call them—we know: the best of us did not return.
Nowhere, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, was the “banality of evil” more evident than when death-camp inmates first arrived at their destination. Nazi officials would casually separate the newcomers into two lines—one leading to instantaneous death in a nearby crematorium and the other to slow, almost inevitable death at hard labor with meager sustenance.
Ninety percent of the arrivistes were turned toward the gas chambers.
As he stood anxiously in the demoralized crowd, Frankl described the expressionless Nazi officer making the selections the day he arrived at the infamous Auschwitz camp:
His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left. None of us had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man’s finger, pointing now to the right and now to the left, but far more frequently to the left.
It was my turn. Somebody whispered to me that to be sent to the right side would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work, who would be sent to a special camp. I just waited for things to take their course, the first of many such times to come. … I tried very hard to look smart.
Such horrors are not necessarily done and gone. As Mark Twain once mused, “History may never repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”
The current “special military operation” (a.k.a., war) by Russia against Ukraine rhymes with the specter of Nazi troops marching into Austria in 1938, the beginning of one of the darkest, most brutal chapters in world history. A racist, white nationalist, authoritarian regime is again trying to conquer an independent sovereign nation ostensibly to “protect” a few of the invader’s ethnic brethren who reside therein.
There are even camps in Russia for warehousing, “re-educating” and abusing Ukrainian captives. In the meantime, the Russian military is ramping up its indiscriminate, criminal bombing, shelling, rocketing, and droning of civilians in Ukrainian cities and towns.
It’s unlikely Ukrainians are finding much time to comprehend meaning in their current suffering except in a grinding sense of unfathomable injustice and a blinding rage.
But, as Frankl might advise Ukraine: Hang in there. Fight. Choose life.
That, in the end, there’s essential life-affirming meaning to be discovered within misery.