Is It OK to Criticize a Saint? On Humanizing Viktor Frankl

A Reply to My Critics

Posted Mar 31, 2017

Is It OK to Criticize a Saint?: A Response to My Critics

In a strange bit of synchronicity, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Viktor Frankl all died within in six days of each other in the late summer of 1997. At the time I was still working on my book on Frankl that I began in 1993 at NYU. When he passed away in 1997 Viktor Frankl was world renowned. His obituary in the NYTs captured his acclaim and highlighted his survival of Auschwitz. At the time I had already discovered that Frankl was only in Auschwitz for three days based on train records. Later in my research I learned Frankl had only been held in depot at Auschwitz before being transferred to Dachau where he was numbered and shaved. I contacted Holcomb Noble at the New York Times, who had written the obit for Frankl, to see if he was interested in correcting that error and a few others in his piece, but was rebuffed. It was an early signal that I was going to have a difficult time setting the record straight about Viktor Frankl.

I also wondered if I was doing the right thing criticizing and thus humanizing the saintly persona of Frankl. I had little professional status as an adjunct professor at The Cooper Union in New York and had only recently passed my comprehensive exams at New York University. On the other hand given the academic job market I had already began to realize my dream of a tenure track job was highly unlikely, so I wasn’t concerned about the professional implications of taking on someone of Frankl’s stature. I also recall meeting the famous historian Fritz Ringer in Houston at the German Studies Association in the Fall of 2000 on a bus to the airport.  I shared my research with him and sent a draft of an article I was working on.  His email reply was short and to the point, “you are going to have friends you don’t want and enemies you don’t need.” I already knew as much, but despite the obvious pitfalls I had become convinced Frankl’s life was a fascinating story worthy of being told. I still contend his continuous focus on the question of human meaning and his particular response offers an excellent introduction to the main themes in 20th Century European Intellectual history. The Library Journal gave it a starred review and described it fairly in my opinion as “Intellectually demanding, this is a scholarly, commendable biography and intellectual history. Lay readers will be challenged; psychologists and historians will be grateful.” Certainly not all psychologists and historians have been grateful.

Early on I also took solace in the support of many good advisors and in particular my friend the late Lawrence Birken who was teaching at Ball State University.   “Larry” was the person who originally suggested I might look at Frankl as a way to think through some of the more philosophical issues I was asking.  And, after my initial research and my discovery of the more controversial aspects of Frankl’s biography it was also “Larry” who tongue in cheek said my taking on Frankl was very similar to Christopher Hitchens’s bombastic criticism of Mother Teresa titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Then with his wry smile and wit Larry said the only difference is Hitchens is smarter and writes better.

In my 2015 revised biography of Viktor Frankl published by Berghahn Press I did my utmost to provide an accurate portrait of the life of Viktor Frankl. I spent over 20 years on the book and due to a number of circumstances both personal and professional there was a ten year gap between the publication of the German version of the book and the English.  Most significantly Alexander Batthyany the director of the Viktor Frankl Archive in Vienna wrote a short book in response to mine in 2008.  That led to a number of meetings between Alex and I going over our differences in 2010. I did my best to include his suggestions and the exchange made for a better book. However his interest in the therapeutic usefulness of Logotherapy and my focus on Frankl’s purported solution to the question of human meaning and issues 20th Century European History left a chasm between us on a number of issues. 

Nevertheless, I would be the first to admit there is a significant difference of tone between the 2005 German version and the more recent English version. When I first penned the biography of Frankl it was one part research and one part lawyerly brief. In hindsight I was undoubtedly channeling some of my angry young man oedipal rage at Frankl and also felt I “needed” to make the case against Frankl given his saintly renown. But I was also deeply, deeply disturbed by Frankl’s misrepresentation of his time in Auschwitz and the medical experiments he conducted during the war. I therefore concluded the 2005 book with the following justification of my criticisms which I defensively and sardonically titled Everyone needs a Hero Don’t They? I quote in full.

“I have tried to provide an accurate portrait of the life of Viktor Frankl. In doing so, I have presented Frankl’s journey through the 20th century as a profoundly Austrian story. From his youthful socialism in Red Vienna, to his conservative turn in the thirties, to his ambiguous activities during the war, and finally his willingness to reconcile and bury the past after the war, he is peculiarly Austrian. After such a fascinating life, he gained renown based mainly on his survival of Auschwitz. I also tried to revise his quasi-saintly public persona with a more balanced, more human-all-too-human account. That led me to focus on Frankl’s questionable wartime activities and subsequent choice to return to Vienna after the war and reconcile.  Frankl’s life story exemplifies the experience of many Austrians whose response to Nazism was some mixture of resistance, accommodation and collaboration, and after the war, denial and burial of the past.

I have tried to be accurate, but lest any simple-minded person should think I have it in for the Austrians – or even more crudely, Jews — I would like to take the opportunity to describe how I came to my critical view.  For anyone who has written a doctoral dissertation it will come as no surprise that the questions I was asking that drew me to study Viktor Frankl, and the subsequent intellectual production, are somewhat remote. Originally I was interested in the theoretical issues of nihilism, the popularization of existentialism, the association of existentialism with the origins of thanatology and the phenomenon of mass death in the twentieth century. In the simplest terms I was trying to write a history that began with Freud’s positing of the death instinct and concluded with Kervorkian and the science of thanatology.  Given Frankl’s moral renown, and journey from an early influence by Freud, to existentialism and the Holocaust and critical comments on Kevorkian, I thought his life might provide a case study to help think through these issues.  Although there are remnants of these interests in the present work, these theoretical concerns are more or less remote, and the focus is on the intersection of Frankl’s intellectual interests, his professional choices and Austrian history. 

The genesis of my critical approach to Viktor Frankl occurred when I found he had experimented on people during the war. My discovery occurred in the summer 1994, when I spent a month researching the life of Frankl at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As I reflected on the research, I kept replaying his 1981 interview with the Canadian filmmaker Tom Corrigan, where he hesitantly described the experimental brain surgery he performed on suicidal Jewish patients from 1940 to 1942. These activities were so out of character for the morally renowned Holocaust survivor. Obviously something seemed strangely amiss.  What was the context of these experiments? Why had there been no discussion of his efforts in the literature about him? Was Frankl hiding something?  It seemed that he was – since on the tape he told Corrigan he was describing details of his life “scarcely known to anyone.” Frankl also told Corrigan that these details were “only for you and Joseph Fabry” and “can’t be used without special permission,” and then added “even though these details can’t be of use … but might be of interest.” At that moment a gap opened up between Frankl’s public persona and the reality of his activities as a man. The gap became a chasm as I pursued my research, but I never set out to criticize him or attack his integrity, although I did maintain a certain critical distance that I consider objective.  That fall, when I questioned the curator of the Frankl archive Robert Leslie (also a disciple of Frankl) if he knew anything about the experiments he said “he never heard of them.” I should add his response seemed quite genuine.

When I first came to Vienna in 1995, I attended Frankl’s ninetieth birthday celebration. At the jubilee I discovered he had updated and reissued his biographical sketch from 1973. In Was nicht in meinen Büchern steht (What is not Said in My Books) I was stunned to read his rendition of the medical experiments as heroic efforts to save lives. At the time – and maybe it is just because of my intense American individualism – I held the opposite opinion. I was outraged and felt these experiments to be an offense against humanity. I was also struck how different the version Frankl was presenting to the public than the secretive, almost ashamed description he gave to Corrigan. It was this outrage and a bit of disgust at his brazenness that led me to decide not to interview him. I was convinced Frankl had come to believe in his own mythical status and we had little to say or gain from each other. 

I readily admit that this decision not to interview him has opened me up to the criticism that I did not know the man and that I am also biased. On the first issue, given his ambiguous past, the subsequent way he cultivated his fame and conducted himself in public, I am not being facetious when I say I am glad not to have know him personally. Even now, when I reread Man’s Search for Meaning, and then think back to my first reading, I feel as though I was hoodwinked. Based on this feeling, perhaps in a way I am biased. I think most intellectually honest people understand my reaction. Nevertheless, I have done my best to give an honest, objective interpretation despite my admitted, and I believe justified, disdain. In the end though the reader must decide whether I have captured adequately the ambiguity in Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s official biography has recently appeared in English. The disciple and logotherapist, Haddon Klingberg describes his book When Life Calls Out to Us:  The Love and Life Work of Viktor and Elly Frankl as “an unabashedly sympathetic rendering of their story.” Still Klingberg does attempt to confront some of the controversy surrounding Frankl. Although he doesn’t cite any of my writings, Klingberg did interview me once and I am sure he has me in mind when he writes: “I found other ‘scholars’ who were really crusaders – screening their sources and slanting them to manufacture one case or another, scarcely able to conceal their political and personal motivations.” I have laid bare my biases above, but since much of his chapter “Controversy, Conflict, and Criticism” attempts to apologize for the more scandalous aspects of Frankl’s life I discovered, he certainly screened his sources. Nevertheless, Klingberg’s apologetics are hardly convincing.  The relationship between Frankl and his mentor Otto Pötzl is described as a “unique and enduring professional and personal association” in which “Viktor thought Pötzl an absolute genius, and the professor admired Viktor for his creativity and quickness.”  Pötzl’s Nazi membership is passed off with the claim that “Pötzl was among many other decent people who had joined the National Socialists” and “Pötzl was, in Viktor’s enduring estimation, ‘no Nazi’ – not in sympathy, not in behavior.”  Frankl’s questionable public and social relations with Kurt Waldheim and Jörg Haider - that many in the Austrian Jewish community found deeply troubling – are covered in a very cursory and apologetic manner. For example, on the issue of Frankl signing a book “to my friend Jörg Haider” Klingberg claims; “Frankl across the years had autographed thousands of books for admirers, often using the word ‘friend’ even for people he did not know well.” Not surprisingly, there is no mention of Frankl’s participation in the Göring Institute, nor any mention of the experimental brain surgery (even though this was the central subject of Klingberg’s interview with me).

On my revelation that Frankl was in Auschwitz three days, Klingberg claims “when he referred occasionally … to the three years he spent in Auschwitz and Dachau … he used these names as the ones his audience likely would recognize.” He then adds, “in every instance his point ‘in context’ was something other than naming or chronicling camps.” Klingberg’s defense of Frankl’s mendaciousness is a fallacy, and the issue of why Frankl never fully disclosed his actual camp experience remains. 

I have argued that this dishonesty by Frankl opens him up to the criticism that he exploited his survival of Auschwitz. On the issue that Frankl has used his survival of Auschwitz to promote his meaning centered psychotherapy Klingberg defends Frankl with the claim “that what he was saying is: all other things being equal, the attitude one took and the meaning one found could make the difference between life and death.” But it bears repeating, in the inferno of Auschwitz, attitude mattered little to nothing for survival. At Auschwitz 1.3 million were killed, very few survived. Frankl survived because he quickly got out. In a strangely telling passage Klingberg describes how on his transport out of Auschwitz Frankl was “thrilled … to be heading ‘only’ for Dachau” and not the horrifying work camp Mauthausen.” Klingberg’s inability to think seriously about the issues surrounding Frankl’s survival, and instead offer justifications and rationalizations is understandable based on his sympathy for his subject. But once again, such arguments just further reflect the appeal of Frankl’s heroic vision of survival and serve to distort our understanding of the reality of Auschwitz. 

Klingberg’s attempt to sustain Frankl’s saintly persona despite my factually based critical revision is a reflection of the quasi-religious intensity of his disciples and followers. Subsequently I do not expect my revelations and reflections will go very far in disabusing them of their idolatry. My hope is that they will at least recognize that Frankl was certainly a much more ambiguous figure than his public image belied.

At the heart of the controversy over Frankl is the issue of memory. In recent years historians have come to realize that memory often has a mythical quality somewhat removed from fact and reality. We have also come to recognize that memory has a multitude of levels (personal, public, local and national) where particular events take on different significance. In addition, the function memory plays in stabilizing different identities has become a central concern. I believe that I have successfully proven that Frankl’s personal memory as put down in his autobiography Was nicht in meinen Büchern steht and Man’s Search for Meaning omitted important details and falsified certain realities in order to promote a lionized and mythical image. On a more general cultural level I also believe that Frankl’s public statements and appearances both supported the burial of the ambiguous past in Austria and profoundly exemplified the Austrian problem with public memory. What the rationalizations and justifications from Klingberg and other followers suggest is that the institutional structure of logotherapy that depends on a lionized image of the founder, now has a problem with memory. Whether this book serves to further raise consciousness about the ambiguous past in Austria will be seen. Finally, I argue that in a way I am more objective because I am both an American and I don’t have a professional stake in the sanctity of Frankl’s memory. If the reader nevertheless still finds my critique too zealous I will make one more confession. As a historian I have long been troubled by the moral and cultural implications of the Holocaust.  The fact that Frankl played and continues to play a significant role in how Auschwitz is memorialized motivates my critical reflection on his life.”

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I wrote that conclusion some 15 years ago. I was defensive knowing I was criticizing a saint and many Austrians (and a few Americans i.e. Klingberg) were outraged by my revelations about Frankl. I find it odd that similar to Klingberg the two recent reviews of my English book make no mention of the medical experiments Frankl conducted in 1940-42 on suicidal Viennese Jews that I find so troubling.  The renowned Allan Janik in his review goes so far to claim Frankl was “internationally celebrated for suicide prevention.”  Clearly Janik is a Frankl admirer but since the experiments were supported by the Nazis for possible wartime use I have to ask is this the international celebration Janik is referring to?  

Frankl lived a fascinating 20th century life by not only surviving “Auschwitz” but also by continuously asking “what it all means.” I can also honestly say I no longer have disdain for Frankl and I think that is evident in the tone of the English biography.  This is because in the early 2000s I had an epiphany about Holocaust survival while researching that led me to rethink my position. I will describe my journey to that epiphany in my forthcoming posts. But in conclusion, although I don’t see Frankl as a “saint,” I realize that, like Mother Teresa, he remains one for many. So yes you can criticize a saint but for those who need saints, once a saint always a saint.