Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 'Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.'

In this section (p31-37), Viktor Frankl moves onto the second phase of the psychological response to incarceration: apathy, a ‘kind of emotional death’.

As he says, such an ‘abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’.

This ‘mortification of normal reactions was hastened’ by the punishments meted out by the camp officials:

It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.

If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo.

This learned apathy developed to such an extent that inmates would stand unmoved while a twelve-year-old boy had his gangrenous frostbitten toes plucked off one-by-one with tweezers.

Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.

This apathy was actually a ‘very necessary protective shell’ against the injustices and despair of camp life.

Apathy protected Frankl and other inmates against the psychological torment of ‘daily and hourly beatings’ that occurred ‘on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all’.

In these cases, Frankl says that ‘it is not the physical pain which hurts most … it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all’. As he writes later: ‘The most painful part of beatings is the insult which they imply.’

Frankl recalls an incident in which he was spotted pausing to catch his breath while working hard on a railway track in a snowstorm.

That guard did not think it worth his while to say anything, not even a swear word, to the ragged, emaciated figure standing before him, which probably reminded him only vaguely of a human form. Instead, he playfully picked up a stone and threw it at me.

That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it.

The abnormality of apathy was, in this situation, not only a normal reaction, but essential self-preservation.

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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