Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 'Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.'

Today’s pages (p91-96) address the psychology of the camp guard, and the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation from a concentration camp.

With regards to the guards, Frankl makes four observations:

  1. Some of the guards were pure sadists.
  2. These sadists were always chosen when severe treatment was ordered.
  3. The majority of guards were ‘morally and mentally hardened men’ who refused to take active part in sadistic torture, but did not prevent others from such behaviour.
  4. There were some guards who took pity on the prisoners and took active steps to ameliorate conditions for them. ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’

This fourth category contrasts especially sharply with the occasional prisoner who was abusive towards his fellow inmates.

Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible.

These observations lead Frankl to divide humanity into two halves.

[T]here are two races of men in this world, but only these two- the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.

When the camps were finally liberated, the extreme stress of imprisonment was replaced by ‘total relaxation’. ‘But,’ Frankl writes, ‘it would be quite wrong to think that we went mad with joy.’

As the prisoners took their first steps outside the camp as free men, Frankl writes that ‘[e]verything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream’.

“Freedom” – we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it has lost its meaning.

At the end of that first day of freedom, the prisoners asked one another whether they felt pleased at their release.

[T]he other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know that we all felt similarly, “Truthfully, no!” We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.

Frankl calls this dreamlike mental state ‘depersonalisation’ and is summed up by the inability for the prisoners to trust their reality: ‘[N]ow the dream had come true. But could we truly believe in it?’

In contrast, the body wasted no such time in disbelief: ‘It began to eat ravenously, for hours and days, even half the night.’ The prisoners’ eating was soon accompanied by a similar appetite to tell their story.

The pressure which had been on his mind for years was released at last. Hearing him talk, one got the impression that he had to talk, that his desire to speak was irresistible.

And, finally, after so much talking, the mind was slowly released from its prison.

Many days passed, until not only the tongue was loosened, but something within oneself as well; then feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it.

All the Days

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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