Psychologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is one of those great scientists of the last century who had to go through a terrible experience – war and a concentration camp. In this regard, his fate is somewhat similar to the fate of our great compatriot Nikolai Vavilov, but with the fundamental difference that Viktor Frankl, fortunately, managed to survive in prison, while Nikolai Vavilov died.

In 1942, Viktor Frankl, who was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Vienna, became a prisoner of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, from where he was transferred first to Auschwitz in 1944, and then to one of the Dachau camps. In conditions where violence, physical and moral, reaches its maximum degree, where it is almost impossible to save one’s life and it is the task of survival that requires the full dedication of all forces, Viktor Frankl managed to remain a scientist and doctor. During the entire time of his stay in the camp, secretly from the guards, he provided psychological assistance to the prisoners. First of all, those who have completely lost the will to live and were on the verge of suicide. Viktor Frankl described his own experience of being in concentration camps, as well as observing other prisoners, in the book “Say Yes to Life: A Psychologist in a Concentration Camp,” written in 1945 based on short notes made in custody. This book, on the one hand, gives an idea of ​​the crushing and ferocious power of man-made evil, and on the other hand, about what happens to the psyche of a person who encounters such evil.

The work of Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor who helped others survive, contains a very powerful charge of hope, but it is nevertheless a very difficult read. The trajectory of the narrative corresponds to the trajectory of the transformation experienced by the camp prisoners: from a state of relative and naive confidence to the most hopeless and complete despair. The description of this desperate state and the timid search for at least a weak inner support in a separate human soul forms the core of the book.

As a psychologist and psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl confronted three defining circumstances of almost irresistible force at once.

The first of these is human nature itself. From the very beginning, Viktor Frankl states the fact that in extreme conditions, when it comes to physical survival, the biological component of human nature, the instinct of self-preservation and the law of natural selection are in sharp contradiction with the moral component and, of course, turn out to be stronger: “… Those who, in the struggle for existence, had finally cast aside all concept of conscience, who did not stop at violence, or even at stealing the latter from their comrade, had the greatest chances of staying alive. And someone managed to survive simply thanks to a thousand or thousands of happy accidents or simply by the grace of God – you can call it differently. But we who have returned know and can say with full confidence: the best did not return!”

The second circumstance is the extreme cruelty that the Nazis showed towards the prisoners of the camps. That is, one person in relation to another. Viktor Frankl consistently describes three main phases of the psychological reaction of prisoners to a new camp reality for them: arrival at the camp, stay in it and release. In general, this is a chronicle compiled with scientific accuracy of how the prisoners were deliberately and irrevocably crippled psychically with the help of the crudest instruments: “… we all had to, second by second, step by step, enter into great horror, get used to it.” It all started with an “arrival shock”, caused mainly by a radical mismatch between expected and actual. At first, people could not believe that now they would have to see murders on a daily basis, constantly be in the neighborhood of gas furnaces and a crematorium, to the constant threat of death and, which was especially hard to endure, to depersonalization of themselves and permanent humiliation of human dignity. The natural reaction of the human psyche to terrible stress and shock is despair, the fading of feelings, the desire to withdraw into oneself and the loss of the will to live: consider it the most necessary protective armor, with the help of which the soul tried to protect itself from heavy damage. The last stage is the loss of subjectivity, merging with a common helpless and weak-willed mass and a feeling of complete dependence on external forces: “A person … begins to feel like a part of some large mass, his being descends to the level of herd existence. After all, people, regardless of their own thoughts and desires, are driven here and there, singly or all together, like a herd of sheep. To the right and to the left, in front and behind you are driven by a small but powerful gang of sadists.

The third circumstance was that Viktor Frankl himself was in the same conditions as the other prisoners, subjected to all the same trials and abuse. In other words, he fought for other people’s lives while fighting for his own. In addition, his situation was seriously aggravated by the fact that his wife and parents were deported to the concentration camp with him. Experiencing the horrors of camp life, Viktor Frankl constantly thought that people close to him were subjected to the same torment.

To the nightmare that literally surrounded him on all sides, Viktor Frankl countered the idea that the most unbearable existence can be given meaning. The meaningfulness of existence and the presence of some clear purpose protect the psyche from destruction. His therapeutic method is based on this thought. The theory was based on the concept of human dignity and the thesis that “internally a person can be stronger than his external circumstances” and in any conditions is able to maintain his inner freedom.

Viktor Frankl’s book is evidence of human achievement. She says that even at the moment of its triumph, evil is still not total and absolute. A person may try to resist him. But this is possible only under a favorable, if such a word is used in this context, confluence of numerous circumstances, for the most part independent of the person himself, and also if this person has very great, almost incredible fortitude. The experience of the author himself is unique, there are only a few people who were able to survive in the concentration camp, retaining their humanity. There are very few hopes for salvation in times when evil triumphs, they are almost non-existent. The mental trauma inflicted on people in the concentration camp is devastating and practically incurable. Within their society, people are able to normalize any lawlessness, and there is no such crime that people could not commit against each other. The violent system itself is merciless to everyone, including the most outstanding people, capable of moving humanity forward along the path of progress. The feat of Viktor Frankl and his contribution to the humanization of human society are absolutely priceless. But, unfortunately, his book provides no less material for extremely pessimistic conclusions than for optimistic conclusions.

Viktor Frankl. To say “Yes!” to life: a psychologist in a concentration camp / Per. with him. 9th edition. – M. : Alpina non-fiction, 2022. – 239 p.