On Humanizing Viktor Frankl: A Reply to My Critics Part Two

This is in reply to Michael Bloom who took the time to comment on my previous post (see comment section). 

It is true that Michael Bloom and I had a short email exchange after he introduced himself as a fellow NYU alumni and Bioethicist.  I hoped he could shed some light on the ethical issues plaguing the experimental brain surgeries Frankl performed on Jews that had committed suicide in the extreme circumstances of Vienna circa 1940-42.  As I describe in my book many Jews chose the “Masada” solution after being called up for deportation, especially the elderly.  Mr. Bloom offered the “Belmont report” circa 1978 as the agreed upon controlling ethical principles for medical experimentation.  The report requires consent by the subject or a responsible guardian.  It also requires the experiments will not do more harm than good, and be based on reasonable well considered procedures.  I had similar standards in mind when I researched, and then thought through Frankl efforts.  I came to the conclusion that under the circumstances I wouldn’t want the procedures performed on myself or a loved one.  As I point out in my book other doctors in Berlin under similar circumstances took the polar opposite stance of Frankl’s, and debated whether to assist suicide.  Also it was apparent that Frankl had little training and no experience to perform such experiments.  On the other hand the experiments were supported by the Nazis “for possible wartime use.”  Since the Belmont report was produced in the 1970s, long after Frankl’s experimental procedures (although in response to the revelations about the Tuskegee experiments) Mr. Bloom claimed Jewish “pro-life sentiments” would be the controlling ethical principles in the 1940s.  He then concluded he didn’t “see any conflict with Frankl using novel methods on patients suffering from life-threatening depression, to try and keep them alive; or resuscitate them. They were likely not at their end-of-life, such as a very elderly person.”  Since Mr. Bloom’s reply made it clear he hadn’t fully digested the discussion in my book (egs. the Masada solution was quite common in the circumstances, they weren’t depressed but rather angry, most of those choosing suicide were elderly, and Frankl’s lack of professional training) I asked if he had read the pertinent chapter.  His reply was yes he had but then meandered into all doctors are authoritarian and just because he voted for Trump doesn’t mean he is a collaborator with Manfort et al.  Then he added “I just am not convinced you aren't magnifying the episode with a bit of sensationalism. I'm not sure how much any of it really matters. The adherents to Logotherapy and Viktor Frankl appear to be very very small.”  I more or left the exchange at that replying “I think you are right.  It matters very little.”

So I was a bit surprised when Mr. Bloom posted on my Psychology Today blog criticizing me for not interviewing Viktor Frankl. Actually he called me a bullshitter which reminded me of an English friend from the east end of London who often tried to shut down a discussion with the loud cockney accented “Don’t try to Bullshit a Bullshitter”.   It always aroused a chuckle but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to think deeply about things.  In a similar vein Mr. Bloom appears to prefer to keep things on the surface.  His surface summary of my efforts in his post is also factually wrong because Frankl was no longer connected to the Goering Institute when he performed the experimental surgeries.  The details matter for understanding the context.  He also bases his summary on my posting the conclusion to my 2005 book in German – which I wrote in 2001.  As I describe in the post I shared that conclusion so I could detail in my forthcoming posts my journey beyond that position.  

Be that as it may, Mr. Bloom’s criticisms made me revisit the circumstances of my decision to not seek an interview with Viktor Frankl. What I am trying to do in these posts is impart my experience as a scholar of the Holocaust and the journey it entailed.  It might be of interest for some and I thank Michael for prodding me to describe in more detail the context of my “decision” not to pursue an interview with Frankl.

Initially I was following the advice of a mentor not to get “taken in” by Frankl’s stature, keep a critical distance and not create a hagiography.  Since I was engaged in an intellectual biography that focused on Frankl’s search for meaning in turbulent 20th century, and not a traditional biography, I thought I had all the material I needed. So interviewing him was not really my focus or concern.  When I attended the World Congress of Logotherapy in 1996 where Frankl was interviewed as the keynote I purchased a copy of his just published Was nicht in meinen Buechern steht (What is not said in my books) from his family members selling the book after his interview. I couldn’t be sure but they seemed less than friendly and I felt they recognized me as the young historian asking critical and probing questions about their Grandfather. I had queried the nominal director of the Viktor Frankl Archive and Memorablia center in Berkeley, California Robert Leslie over a year earlier about the experiments.   Although he had collected a copious amount of material on Frankl in his archive, and also written a book on Frankl, he had no knowledge of the experiments.  Be that as it may, I was stunned to read Frankl’s description of the experiments as “heroic efforts” as well as his description of his transfer from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz that suggested he spent significant time in Auschwitz in his updated biography.  

The suggestion to interview Viktor Frankl came in the summer of 1997 from a young student who was working in the university medical archive and apparently knew Frankl.  I think his name was Joachim Wieder.  I met with him and my good friend Karl Fallend in the café Blau Stern to discuss the idea.  Both Karl and Joachim thought I should pursue the idea and we discussed a strategy and possible questions.  I wasn’t excited by the strategy of pandering to the great man of stature in order to entrap him to be honest about his decisions during the war.  So I decided not to pursue it.  I knew at the time I may later regret it – but I went with my gut instincts so to speak. 

I also had another key experience in the archives that summer.  The previous three years I had visited the archive of the Austrian Resistance.  My contact was Elisabeth Klamper and each year she proved more helpful, which I attributed to her surprise at my patient persistence.  Also a significant change seemed to come when I showed her a picture of Frankl and Waldheim at the height of the so-called Waldheim affair I describe in my book. Through chance I had obtained the photograph from the Freedom party archive. In the summer of 1997 was also the first time I was able to meet the director of the archive Wolfgang Neugebauer.  Wolfgang was an old friend of my mentor Andy Rabinbach and I introduced myself as Andy’s student.  I was very excited because Wolfgang was also the leading expert on euthanasia in Austria and I wanted his opinion on Frankl’s claim he and Otto Poetzl had sabotaged euthanasia efforts.  The interview was short but I had one straightforward, but rather accusatory question I wanted answered.  I asked “Frankl claims he and Poetzl sabotaged euthanasia which means he knew who was asking for patients and the circumstances of the request and therefore had pertinent information.  Why didn’t he give testimony in the “peoples trials” after the war?  That makes him morally culpable, no?   I still recall looking into Wolfgang’s steely blue gray eyes as he calmly sat behind his desk in the back of the archive.  His answer was short, “Frankl didn’t sabotage any euthanasia.”  The interview ended shortly after that but I left wondering if Frankl hadn’t sabotaged euthanasia – why did he say he did? 

It seems likely that Frankl invented the story of sabotage to help protect Poetzl who was being investigated in the de-nazification process after the war.  Actually Frankl first describes the sabotage in his written testimony in support of Poetzl in his de-nazification file.  I recall Else Pappenheim who worked under Poetzl at the university before she fled Vienna that Poetzl was quite delighted by the Anschluss and came to work with a Nazi pin in his collar.  He was also both a Nazi party member and had argued publically in favor of sterilization of the mentally ill on the grounds “it is indispensable for the future of the people.”  Perhaps Frankl concocted the story of sabotage in order to protect Poetzl.  Frankl even cryptically suggests that is the case in his autobiography when he describes how after a postwar visit with Poetzl, Poetzl took Frankl’s umbrella, then both umbrella’s, and finally left with only his own umbrella.

Looking back with the hindsight of twenty years this is clearly the question I should have asked Frankl in 1997; What is the significance of the story of the two umbrellas?  Why did you write that particular story?

Finally, although I didn’t know at the time Wolfgang and Elisabeth had already interviewed Frankl in 1993.  As they probed Frankl about the medical experiments towards the end of the interview Frankl finally admitted the experiments seem “nazi-esque” and then added “that was the atmosphere of the time.” As I argue in my book “it seems Frankl had absorbed enough of the ‘atmosphere’ that even he recognized his activities were bordering on collaboration.”  In contrast to Mr. Bloom I don’t see this as an attempt to sensationalize things – but rather sound, thoughtful judgment. Perhaps if I had interviewed Frankl at the time he would have admitted to me as well the experiments were more nazi-esque than heroic efforts to save lives.  Perhaps that would have led to questions about the experiments, and why the Nazis were interested in them and how he was able to publish an article on them. And to what degree he undertook the experiments on his own initiative or to appease the Nazis.  Those questions remain unanswered but I imagine someday another young historian will write a history of the Rothchilds hospital in Vienna during the war and we will have more clarity and perhaps answers to those questions.

You are reading

On Authoritarian Therapy

Criticizing a Saint Part 2

A reply to Micheal Bloom

Is There a Fascist Impulse in All of Us?

Insights from a Viktor Frankl biographer