Extreme Experience, Psychological Insight and the Holocaust

Bettelheim and Frankl on "Working Through" Holocaust Survival

Posted Dec 14, 2018

As I mentioned in the conclusion of my last post when I attended the Silbermann seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial in 2006 I had an epiphany that led me to overcome my need to find a heroic or “correct” version of Holocaust survival.  It was a rather long paper that compared Bruno Bettelheim and Viktor Frankl on surviving the Holocaust and was eventually published in Psychoanalytic Psychology under the title of this post. What follows summarizes my six main points. 

I Bruno Bettelheim and Viktor Frankl are perhaps the most recognized Holocaust survivors that derive psychological theories based on their camp experience.  In this essay I contend that their claims for psychological insight based on their survival are questionable at best, and are perhaps better understood as personal attempts to work-through and over their experiences. By this I mean they didn’t repress the traumatic experience but rather struggled to render the experience in such a way that they could restore their humanity and attempt to heal their damaged psyches.  As we shall see, the process of working through and over then is the application of their intellectual armament, in Frankl’s case his spiritualized height psychology and in Bettelheim’s case his neo-Freudian model of development and regression, to configure their extreme experience into a “healthy” or “functional” memory of survival.  That these versions are self-serving psychologically, and useful professionally is not all that surprising.   In addition, when investigating this ground of a comparative restoration of human dignity through working through we are led to ask a series of tough questions; What is the relationship between their camp experience, their personal psychological needs and their general claims about both survival and psychotherapy?  How much truth can we derive for ourselves from psychotherapy born in such conditions? What insight do we derive about life experience in a concentration camp?  Does their differing forms psychotherapy suggest one or the other was more spiritually broken by his experience? Was either healed by their working through and over by developing their own therapy?  Is it possible to be fully healed?”

II Since both Bettelheim and Frankl eventually develop their own peculiar brand of psychotherapy based upon their concentration camp experience it is important to reflect on the theoretical positions they held on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938.  It is apparent that Bettelheim’s perspective was more humanistic and cultured.  Bettelheim’s world-view was subsequently deeply influenced by Freudianism, much more than Frankl’s, because Frankl’s 1937 article reveal he had followed an intellectual trajectory that was anchored in an existentialist critique of Freud.  As a medical doctor Frankl was interested in psychiatric issues, and especially suicide.  His vision of psychotherapy had moved from Freudian depth psychology to a focus on issues of will, responsibility and what he considered the spiritual dimension of man.  Although the question remains open over how deep Freud’s influence was on Bettelheim and for that matter, how profound his grasp of Freudianism was, he certainly understood the basic tenets and would develop much of his psychological insight into his concentration camp experience by relying of the Freudian model.   As we shall see, in a similar fashion, Frankl relied on his “height psychology” which is essentially a “spiritualized existentialism” to come to terms with his camp experience.”      

III Oppression and degradation are difficult to quantify.  However, unlike Bettelheim, Frankl lost nearly his entire family.  His father starved to death in Theresienstadt, his mother and brother was gassed at Auschwitz, his wife died in Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war, and only his sister survived by immigrating to Australia.  It is hard to imagine the psychological impact of such a profound loss. In addition, although he endured only half the amount of time as Bettelheim in concentration camps, he did so near the end of the war when conditions were worse and after spending two years in Thereseinstadt. He also had the profound experience of being transferred to Auschwitz.    Frankl also engaged in forms of accommodation that bordered on collaboration with the Nazis.  At worst Bettelheim’s strategy of feigning of blindness in Buchenwald to get indoor work is obsequious.  Nevertheless, both survived by luck and the ability to get into positions of privilege and protection.  Also, both were assimilated, educated and spoke German. The fact that Frankl was a medical doctor certainly helped his prospects of survival. Also, they both relied on their understanding of psychology to objectify their experience. Therefore they could distance themselves from the absurdity and chaos of the moment and analyze their situations. With these caveats in my mind, we come the realization that Bettelheim and Frankl offer only fragmentary glimpses into a “moderate form” of extreme experience in concentration camps. 

IV Beyond the initial experience of detachment, there is very little in common between Bettelheim’s and Frankl’s depictions of the psychological impact of concentration camps. Partially this explicable by their actual camp experience.  However, the best explanation for this divergence is that they rely on radically different world-views that predated their confinement to come to terms with experience.  Most significantly, their radically divergent versions of the psychological impact of the concentration camps - when the extreme experience was at least somewhat similar – further supports my contention that they are working through their victimization in order to recover some sense dignity. 

V The criticisms of the Holocaust specialists Terence Des Pres and Lawrence Langer substantiate that both Bettelheim and Frankl circumvented the nihilistic evil of the Holocaust through their expedient versions of survival. Thus, the Holocaust became a personal story of heroic survival that proved their theories. For example they both suggested that their backgrounds in psychology gave them the edge to survive better than other prisoners. No doubt there is an element of truth in such claims, but it seems that their training in psychology was more useful for rendering a functional version of survival than for providing any insight into the extreme experience in the concentration camps. From this perspective their testimonies have more to do with their own psychological “health” than the reality of concentration camps.

Which brings us to a larger point.  The problem with both Langer, Des Pres’s and many specialists on Holocaust testimony is that they ask questions that only partially illuminate issues and subsequently limits our understanding of Holocaust survival.  Part of their limited perspective stems from the fact that their literary approach (or psychological) isn’t deeply grounded in the actual experience and consciousness of each survivor.  To suggest either Bettelheim or Frankl somehow accurately or inaccurately captured Holocaust experience is an unfair burden to place on them – much less any survivor. Despite the claims of Frankl and Bettelheim that they provide a scientific understanding human behavior in concentration camps, their Holocaust testimonies are more accurately read as tragic tales that tell us more about the psychological needs of the survivor than any general historical event termed the Holocaust.    Specialists would generate more clarity not by taking author intent and their proclaimed authority at face value.  Both Des Pres and Langer express outrage that Bettelheim and Frankl get the psychological impact, or the actual reality, or the historical significance of Holocaust experience wrong.  (I too have taken this path.)  The real question is why would we expect them to get it right? We can gain greater clarity about Holocaust experience by placing these testimonies in the historical context and reading them as the psychological armour of a victim working through a traumatic experience.  This process of working through is deeply determined by their life experience both before and in the camps.  Literary analysis devoid of social historical understanding provides only a limited amount of clarity, and the criticism keeps us one-step removed us from comprehending the profoundly tragic lives of Bettelheim and Frankl.  From this point of view we can also recognize, there is little in the way of “scientific” or even “therapeutic” psychological insight to be derived from these renditions of extreme experience.    In making this leap of faith, that Holocaust survivors have some kind of special understanding of the human condition we have skewed our understanding of both survivors and the Holocaust. 

The fact that Bettelheim and Frankl were able to fashion their personal resolutions of humiliating traumatic experience into forms of psychotherapy, and received world-wide recognition in the process, is very problematic and deeply troubling. Obviously our awe at their suffering and subsequent survival led many to turn to them for psychological insight.  Most of their contemporaries accepted Nietzsche’s platitude “Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger” and therefore these men were somehow “better” for their experiences.  Both of them used the deference of their contemporaries to their advantage.  But in assessing the totality of their lives, we see tragic, embattled and alienated lives of victims.  And, in order to “overcome” their victimization it is evident that when they narrated their past, both of them lived a lie.

VI Buttressed by the authority of survival and the subsequent awe of their peers at the horrendous suffering and loss of European Jewry, both Frankl and Bettelheim were able to turn their concentration camp experiences into forms of psychotherapy.  These therapies were diametrically opposed in perspective because Frankl developed the quasi-religious and meaning oriented logotherapy in contrast to Bettelheim’s neo-Freudian milieu therapy practiced at the Orthogenic School for autistic children.  Each form of therapy has been given uneven reviews. Bettelheim apparently did help a few emotionally disturbed children recover and lead normal lives, but his claims that autism was attributable to poor mothering led to a backlash of criticism.  Also his exaggerations about the successes of the Orthogenic School and authoritarian manner he ran it, which have been well documented by Richard Pollak’s biography of Bettelheim bring into question both milieu therapy and Bettelheim’s character. On the other hand Frankl’s logotherapy has found a wide body of support amongst pastoral psychologists and ministers.  However, due to the quasi-religious orientation of his meaning oriented therapy mainstream therapists have mainly dismissed logotherapy.     

But the American fascination with the Holocaust – which continues unabated – led us to lionize these survivors.  Therefore we are surprised and a bit outraged by the human all too human aspects of their lives.  The most disturbing and profoundly tragic aspect of both Frankl’s and Bettelheim’s professional lives concerns physical violence.  Despite our initial expectation to see in Bettelheim and Frankl’s therapeutic practice heroic healers of mythical and saintly status the reality was a life of ambivalence.  As much as they healed - with limited success - their victimization continued to haunt them and took form as un-empathetic aggressive behavior. 
According to Pollak, Bettelheim was prone to use corporeal punishment on the children in his care at the Orthogenic School.  On the other hand, the German historian of Psychoanalysis, Regine Lockot has criticized Frankl for lobotomizing patients and claiming these procedures did not impact the “spiritual person.” What is important to note is that both Frankl and Bettelheim could be less than sensitive to the suffering of others.  One cannot but suspect this insensitivity is deeply tied to their victimization.

In conclusion, it seems we do a disservice to Holocaust survivors (and ourselves) by turning to them expecting superior guidance in psychotherapeutic healing.  Instead, we should look to them with empathy and understanding in order to comprehend the true tragedy of their experience.  This approach will help us gain clarity about the Holocaust, victims of Nazi persecution, and deeper insight into the tragedy they represent. Also, we won’t be so surprised when our heroes come up short.   

I received a number of emails after the publication some praising my courage others upset by my claims.  But for me, after struggling with issues of Holocaust survival that I was first confronted with as an undergraduate at Colorado College when Elie Wiesel hauntingly told his audience to “please remember” I felt a deep resolution.  What perhaps the greatest psychologist of all Nietzsche described as “peace of soul.”  I quote in full:

 “In many cases, to be sure, "peace of soul" is merely a misunderstanding — something else, which lacks only a more honest name. Without further ado or prejudice, a few examples. "Peace of soul" can be, for one, the gentle radiation of a rich animality into the moral (or religious) sphere. Or the beginning of weariness, the first shadow of evening, of any kind of evening. Or a sign that the air is humid, that south winds are approaching. Or unrecognized gratitude for a good digestion (sometimes called "love of man"). Or the attainment of calm by a convalescent who feels a new relish in all things and waits. Or the state which follows a thorough satisfaction of our dominant passion, the well-being of a rare repletion. Or the senile weakness of our will, our cravings, our vices. Or laziness, persuaded by vanity to give itself moral airs. Or the emergence of certainty, even a dreadful certainty, after long tension and torture by uncertainty. Or the expression of maturity and mastery in the midst of doing, creating, working, and willing — calm breathing, attained "freedom of the will." Twilight of the Idols — who knows? perhaps also only a kind of "peace of soul."     

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