Revisiting Preempting the Holocaust: Frankl versus Levi

How I came to develop a phenomenology of Holocaust survival.

Posted Dec 18, 2017

In the fall of 2001, I was a visiting assistant professor at my alma mater Colorado College. I had submitted my manuscript on Frankl to Cornell University Press and although the reader’s reports were positive, one report felt I should be more critical of Frankl, especially his flirtation with fascism. I was hesitant and therefore, when I was approached by my good friend Siegfried “Sigi” Mattl about translating the manuscript into German and publishing it in Austria, I jumped at the idea. After all, it was an Austrian story and I figured whatever criticism I received I could include in the English version. However, the manuscript was truncated because the chapter on Frankl and Heidegger, and Frankl in America were left out. 

In the fall of 2001, I was also teaching a course on the Holocaust when the events of 9/11 occurred. The course was structured around perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. Under any circumstances, Holocaust education is a challenge emotionally and spiritually for students and instructor’s alike, but as the shock of 9/11 resonated amongst us, the course took on a new level of intensity. I channeled my energy into an article that compares Frankl’s version of survival with Primo Levi. 

When thinking about Holocaust testimony and “versions of survival,” almost all Holocaust scholars of my generation were deeply influenced by Lawrence Langer. This was especially true for me in the case of Frankl. In 1982, Langer had leveled a powerful criticism of Frankl's heroic version of survival in the face of the apocalyptic destruction that was Auschwitz. Langer criticized Frankl for failing to recognize that Auschwitz represented a rupture in the values of Western civilization. He also described how Frankl relied upon Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and others "to transform his ordeal in Auschwitz into a renewed encounter with the literary and philosophical giants" and thus to preserve "the intellectual and spiritual traditions they championed, and his own legacy as an heir to their minds." 

According to Langer, Frankl's testimony "avoids the difficulty of altering the reader's consciousness so that it can contend with the moral uncertainties of the Holocaust," while Frankl's notion of meaningful suffering lessened the horror by making the Holocaust seem survivable. Finally, when reflecting on the pervasive Christian vocabulary in Frankl's testimony and the concluding affirmation of God, Langer suggested that "Frankl secretly yearned for a transfiguration of Auschwitz into nothing more than a test of the religious sensibility." The testimony does read like a modern passion of Christ.

However, what struck me most about Langer’s reading of Frankl was his critique recognized the fascistic language and tenor of Frankl’s testimony. For example, on Frankl's claim that everyone needs a specific mission Langer argued “so nonsensically unspecific is this universal principle of being that one can imagine Heinrich Himmler announcing it to his SS men, or Joseph Goebbels sardonically applying it to the genocide of the Jews!" In a similar fashion, Langer also criticized Frankl's claim that attitudinal adjustment could turn tragedy into triumph claiming "if this doctrine had been more succinctly worded, the Nazis might have substituted it for the cruel mockery of Arbeit Macht Frei." Langer recognized the close connection between Frankl's claims and the cynicism of Nazi ideology but what impressed me is that Langer had no idea that Frankl had embraced the key ideas of the Nazi psychotherapy movement (will and responsibility) as a form of therapy in the 1930s. When I first spoke with “Larry” Langer in the late 1990s on the phone and explained the details of Frankl’s biography, he was shocked. When I told him that Frankl was in Auschwitz for only three days, there was a pause on the end of the line and then “Oh, that makes sense.” At the time, I was somewhat in awe over Langer’s brilliance and use of the English language, but it was also the moment I began to realize that his literary approach to testimony was very different from my socio-historical approach.

In the spring of 2000, Langer published "Preempting the Holocaust" which is his succinct statement on how to read Holocaust testimony. So what exactly did Langer mean by preempting and why did he feel it was the way to read testimony? In his words: “When I speak of preempting the Holocaust, I mean using, and perhaps abusing, its grim details to fortify a prior commitment to an ideal of moral reality, community responsibility, or religious belief that leaves us with space to retain faith in their pristine value in a post-Holocaust world.” Langer’s conviction is a repetition of his earlier critique of Frankl. But Frankl’s version of survival looms over Langer’s concept of preemption in another way.

Clearly Langer’s focus on Holocaust preemption is not only an attempt to stay honest and truthful in the face of the extreme experience and the cultural rupture that is the Holocaust, but is also grounded, or perhaps fully developed is a better way to frame it, in a critical rejection of Tztevan Todorov’s facing the extreme: moral life in the concentration camps. When reading the work of Todorov I can easily see why Langer was aghast. Todorov “wants” to read morality and human dignity into Holocaust experience and this contrasts with what we know about the vast majority of Holocaust victims. It is also clear that Todorov’s peculiar take on Holocaust survival is deeply indebted to Frankl. For example, Todorov’s prologue concludes with a reference to Frankl “an Auschwitz survivor” and Frankl’s contention that “of the prisoners, only a few kept their inner liberty” …but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.” Following Frankl, Todorov then argues “it is therefore possible—and this book rests on the wager that it is—to take the extreme experience of the camps as a basis from which to reflect on moral life, not because moral life was superior in the camps but because it was more visible and thus more telling there.” Along with basing his contention about moral life in concentration camps on Frankl’s testimony, Todorov cites Frankl throughout the book. Therefore it is not surprising Langer’s criticism of Todorov mirrors his earlier critique of Frankl. In Langer’s words “What one faces when one faces the "extreme" of genocide is less important to Todorov than the assurance that moral life was still possible in the camps for both victims and murderers in spite of what went on there. He is not much interested in the specific agonies of the victims or the precise brutalities of their killers. He prefers instead to rescue both from the precincts of extremity and return them to the landscape of what he calls ordinary situations.”

Recently, I was discussing film with my good friend Laurie Baron (Emeritus Professor of History at San Diego State University and a specialist on Holocaust film) and he claimed the film "Son of Saul" had a Franklesque conclusion in contrast to Leviesque. I smiled because, in my opinion, Laurie is correct that there is an almost binary opposition in Holocaust scholarship on survival between Franklesque redeeming versions, versus Levi’s vision that it was an atrocity beyond words and Meaning. The same could be said about the differences between Todorov and Langer. But the conversation with Laurie took me right back to the time when I had finished the Frankl biography and was teaching at Colorado College and crafted my first post-book article titled "A Typology of Gray Flowers: Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl on Auschwitz." At the time, I was formulating a typology of Holocaust survival, and following Langer, wanted to set the record straight about Frankl’s misrepresentation of Auschwitz survival by comparing him to Levi. Key to the comparison (as Laurie Baron recognized) is the binary opposition between them on the issue of meaning in the camps. According to Levi the first lesson in Auschwitz was "there is no why here." In contrast, Frankl maintained that Nietzsche was correct "as long as a why remained you could find a how." This radical contrast reflects the gap between Frankl and Levi. When I wrote the article I had no idea that Frankl was only held in depot at Auschwitz and numbered at Dachau. But I was attempting to distinguish how much Levi’s 11 months in Auschwitz differed from Frankl’s three days. I was suggesting their actual camp experience was central to understanding their different versions of survival. For another example, Frankl came out of his camp experience a believer in God and having a continuing sense of a mission in life. While Levi was more or less the polar opposite on the issue of god and meaning.

In order to ground my argument in their camp experience, I turned to compare how they had different experiences of “dreaming” in the camps. In the camps, Frankl had a daydream about how his experience would be received, while Levi had a reoccurring nightmare. First Frankl. Frankl maintained that one element of survival was sustaining a vision of the future. One way he did this was to imagine himself lecturing about his camp experiences. Thus, when Frankl found himself reflecting upon “the trivial things” of daily survival he described how:

“I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psycho-scientific study undertaken by myself.”

For his part, Levi had a very different conception of how his experiences would be received. In recounting a reoccurring dream to his friend Alberto in Auschwitz Levi describes how when he wants to tell of his experiences his audience is “completely indifferent: They speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me gets up goes away without a word.” (Ironically when Levi returned he actually found a receptive audience, which gave him the confidence to write). Although Frankl is daydreaming and Levi literally dreaming, the contrast between the dreams and expectations reflects a number of issues. First, Frankl was confident he could expect an audience. But unlike Levi, he has no concern that people would not understand him. Arguably, Levi’s experience was of such horrifying intensity that he recognizes no one will be able to fully understand him. Frankl is not beset with such a concern and his daydream is grandiose – his experiences are fodder for his professional development and are self-congratulatory. Although the motivation for the daydream is to escape the trying circumstances – one would be hard pressed to claim that Frankl’s anguish is comparable to the fever pitch of Levi’s. Frankl’s level of suffering is such that he has no worries that he would be understood or even listened too. Levi, on the other hand, is beset with fear that no one will be able, much less want, to understand. This contrast also reflects their distinctive characters. Levi was shy and prone to introspection, while Frankl was self-promoting and an extrovert.

After writing the article it was slowly dawning on me that the socio-historical questions I was asking, and the repercussions, were very different from the canonical works on Holocaust testimony of Langer and Terence des Pres since they were both literary scholars. This became fully clear to me in 2003 when a critical discussion of my article on Frankl published by Holocaust and Genocide Studies (still available online) occurred on H-net and I tried to articulate my position. In response to criticisms I replied: 

“It seems to me that the focus on whether I have no right to, or more simply I am passing judgment on Viktor Frankl misses the point. Like any honest intellectual, I am after clarity and understanding. I think I have proven that there is a gap between the reality of Frankl's experience and his rendition. I would be very interested to hear whether my explanation, that guilt and a personal search for redemptive meaning is a convincing explanation for Frankl's version. I readily admit that is my interpretation.

I view my work as positioned between Lawrence Langer's literary (and thus more easily critical) reading and Primo Levi's final and groundbreaking work on the grey zone. To complement these perspectives, I bring the view of a historian and an "untrained" psychologist. I wrote the article over three years ago (it was very difficult to get published) and since then have come to a series of new questions. The most difficult is to what degree we can make generalizations about the differences between surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. Jean Amery claimed as much when he argued Dachau had a "tradition" while Auschwitz was a day to day "improvisation." But Amery also claimed that Frankl was, for years, a ditch-digger in Auschwitz. It seems to me apparent that survivors can only be refracted mirrors (some clearer than others) to the reality of concentration camp experience. Finally, it seems obvious that the length of time of imprisonment, the character of the prisoner, and the type of deprivation are key to our quest for more clarity.”

Timothy Pytell

Vienna, July 1, 2003

In sum, my vision for a typology of survival was coming into view. In a following post in the 2003 H-net exchange, I suggested pursuing the following themes. “We need a solid grasp of the actual experience of the survivor (which camps, how long, under what conditions). An empathetic feeling for the character of the survivor (culture, education, mileau) connected to a keen and well-honed critical eye capable of objective comparison we can gain more clarity and insight. Some may argue that this is an impossible task because only the survivor truly knows fully, or complete comprehension will elude is or even there are unending contingent elements. But I disagree.”

In order to pursue my emerging scholarly agenda, I turned to compare different Austrian survivors of the Holocaust. When I presented an initial draft of the paper at the Cornell History of Psychiatry Seminar it was George Makari who offered the insight that what I was attempting is not really a typology but a phenomenology of survival. He was correct and how I came to that realization is the subject of my next post.