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Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor FranklTeachers’ Guide: Man’s Search for Meaning


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About This Book

Man’s Search for Meaning (hereafter MSFM) is an autobiographical account of Viktor Frankl’s application of his trademark theory, which he called “Logotherapy.” He began formulating this theory, which posits that the search for meaning and purpose in life is the key to personal happiness and well-being, in Vienna, Austria, before the dawn of Nazi aggression. Later, while imprisoned for three years in first a Nazi ghetto and then Nazi concentration camps, he applied his theory to his own immediate situation, to console himself and his fellow prisoners.

Because he was Jewish, Frankl was arrested by Nazi German authorities in September 1942, along with his pregnant wife, his parents, and his brother. They were deported from their beloved Vienna and transported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, where Frankl’s father died. Frankl and his remaining family members were next transported to Auschwitz in Poland, where all of them, except Frankl, died.

At the time of his arrest, Frankl was a well-regarded psychologist. He had already begun developing his theory of Logotherapy (literally, “meaning therapy”). Frankl carried his manuscript outlining his theory, titled The Doctor and the Soul, with him to Auschwitz. (It was slipped into a pocket sewed between the lining and the outer fabric of his overcoat.) At Auschwitz, in short order, Frankl was separated from his family and stripped of his clothing (including his overcoat, which contained his manuscript). The Nazis even shaved all of his body hair off. Of this experience, Frankl wrote, “most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives” (p. 16).

In the “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” section of MSFM, Frankl writes about consciously commanding his mind to detach from his immediate physical circumstances in order to apply the central tenet of Logotherapy—namely, that life holds meaning regardless of one’s circumstances—to his own situation. The depiction of this concentration camp experience is followed in MSFM by a poignant argument in favor of all aspects of Logotherapy.

In spite of the loss of his family, his professional manuscript, and his dignity, Frankl pressed on to “live” as fully as possible. In essence, MSFM provides a living example of Logotherapy in practice, as Frankl writes about how he survived his experience in the Nazi concentration camp, before moving on to an in-depth account of the theory itself. The first section of his book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” provides an overview of his time in the camp, while the second section, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell (Abridged),” provides the overview of the theory. These two main sections of the book are followed by an Afterword. The Young Adult Edition also includes a section titled “Selected Writings,” a Glossary, and a “Chronology of Viktor Frankl’s Life and of the Holocaust.”

MSFM was first translated into English in 1959. As a result, teachers should be aware that Frankl’s work contains words and phrases that may be anachronistic or confusing to modern young readers. For example, Frankl uses the term ‘moslem’ (p. 19). The Young Adult edition of MSFM provides a footnote to explain that the term was a “disparagement used by the SS men in the camps.” In fact, “moslem” is an abbreviated version of the German word “musselman,” a term Nazis used for prisoners who have lost the will to live. (For more on Nazi Holocaust terminology, go to

About the Author

Viktor Frankl was born in 1905 in Vienna and died in 1997. His life, therefore, spanned most of the twentieth century. As a young child, Frankl would meditate on the meaning of life—“Particularly about the meaning of the coming day and its meaning for me” (p. 126). As a teen he was fascinated by philosophy, psychology, and psychoanalysis—the latter of which was theorized and popularized by Sigmund Freud. As a young adult, he supplemented his high school studies with adult education courses. He also began a correspondence with Freud. At eighteen, he wrote a psychoanalytic essay titled “On the Mimic Movements of the Affirmation and Negation,” and sent it to Freud, who eventually submitted Frankl’s work for publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. While in college, he worked for the psychotherapeutic department of the Psychiatric University Clinic. Frankl earned a Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Vienna in 1925. From 1940 to 1942, he was director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital (a hospital for Jewish patients). During this time, Frankl began writing his manuscript The Doctor and the Soul, which was the forerunner of MSFM. After his release from the Türkheim concentration camp, Frankl returned to Vienna and became director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic. In 1946, he published A Psychologist’s Experiences in the Concentration Camp, which was later republished as Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The book was finally translated into English in 1959 as Man’s Search for Meaning. In 1948, Frankl received a PhD in Philosophy, and he was eventually named professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School. Throughout his career, Frankl was in high demand on the lecture circuit. He also held guest professorships at several American colleges and universities, including Harvard University and Duquesne University.

Frankl wrote several more books, including The Will to Meaning, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, The Unconscious God, Psychotherapy and Existentialism, and Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.

The Viktor Frankl Institute was founded in Vienna in 1992. For more information on the prolific life and works of Frankl, consult the Afterword in MSFM by William J. Winslade (p. 125), and the Viktor Frankl Institute.

Note to Teachers

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning provides a vivid account of an individual’s experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The book focuses on love, hope, responsibility, inner freedom, and the beauty to be found in both nature and art as means that help one endure and overcome harrowing experiences. As noted above, Frankl had begun developing meaning therapy (Logotherapy) before he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. Thus, he was able to apply his theory to help himself and other prisoners, as Frankl states, in a psychohygienic manner (“psychohygiene” is a term that Frankl uses to explain the prevention of mental disease through the application of clear thought processes—that is, through the application of Logotherapy).

Viktor Frankl’s MSFM would fit well in Language Arts, History, Social Sciences, Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion courses. The Young Adult edition contains unique structural formatting and is reworded and abridged in the “Logotherapy” section, which makes it especially appropriate for junior- or senior-level high school courses. In addition, the Young Adult edition includes a section with images of Frankl at various stages in his life, images of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, and a map. These images deepen comprehension and provide context for young readers. The Young Adult edition also includes a postwar letter that Frankl wrote to a life-long friend and two of Frankl’s speeches. The letter and speeches provide the reader with a view of Dr. Frankl’s progressive application of his theory of Logotherapy.

The prompts in the following “Examining Content Using Common Core State Standards” section of this guide provide for a critical analysis of MSFM using the Common Core State Standards for Informational Text for grades 11 and 12. The prompts are organized according to the standards they primarily support. In addition, at the end of some of the standards sections, a classroom activity is provided that can further enhance analysis of the text (for a complete listing of the Standards, click here.)
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Examining Content Using Common Core State Standards

CCSS ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Key Ideas and Details

    1. The etymology of the term “concentration” translates literally as “the action of bringing to a center.” As you read Frankl’s account of being a prisoner in German concentration camps during World War II, think about what those in power were trying to bring to the center: were they more interested in physical human beings or abstract human ideas? Support your response using examples from the book.

    2. Describe the command hierarchy of German concentration camps. Pay special attention to those prisoners who were selected to supervise camp activities. How does Frankl describe these selected individuals? Support your answer with evidence from the book.

    3. On p. 5, Frankl states that World War II gave us “the war of nerves and it gave us the concentration camp.” As you read through this book, note the mental anguish of prisoners in the camps. By what psychological methods did they survive—or not?

    4. In what ways could a prisoner obtain sufficient sustenance? What is Frankl’s observation of this process?

    5. Why would politics and religion play a vital role in concentration camps (p. 34)? Support your answer using MSFM and other reputable sources.

    6. In MSFM, Frankl observes that the “intensification of inner life” helped prisoners cope with their dire situation. He then uses examples drawn from his own interior life that helped him cope with his own prisoner experience: a vivid memory of observing the mountains of Salzburg; a strong connection to a watercolor painting of the Bavarian woods by Albrecht Dürer; and a poignant reflection on his wife as a bird alights on a mound of dirt which the prisoner Frankl has just dug. In what ways did Frankl’s inner life help him maintain his will to live in this seemingly meaningless world (pp. 40–42)?

    7. Think carefully about those prisoners who clung to a desire to live (p. 41), as opposed to those who succumbed to death. By what psychological methods did the survivors manage to survive? Support your answers with examples from MSFM, especially from Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell.”

    8. Frankl states that “freedom is in danger of degeneration . . . unless it lives in terms of responsibleness” (p. 122). He then posits that the United States should have a “Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” After reading MSFM, what do you think he means by these statements? Do you agree? Why or why not?

    9. Analyze “The Psychiatric Credo” in MSFM (p. 122) using both what you have learned about Frankl’s concentration camp experiences and other reputable sources.

Classroom Activity

CCSS ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2 Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis: provide an objective summary of the text.
    1. View Albrecht Dürer’s Pond in the Woods, the watercolor that Frankl may have been referring to on p. 4. Frankl was an avid reader, and he had an intense appreciation for the fine arts. These qualities, at times, helped him transcend the atrocities of the concentration camps. Discuss as a class the role of education as a coping mechanism. Choose your own favorite great work of art, music, or literature and write an essay that supports how it could help you endure a dire situation.

    2. Frankl writes, “we know: the best of us did not return” (p. 4). Survival is a key theme in MSFM. Examine why Frankl states that the best did not physically survive the concentration camps. By what methods did those who lived manage to survive (examples: humor, detachment, hope, luck, etc.)? Support your answer using examples from MSFM.

    3. Psychohygiene is a central idea in MSFM. What does Frankl mean by that term? How does it affect a concentration camp prisoner’s experience and outcome? Describe examples in which Frankl helped his fellow prisoners via psychohygienic methods. Then describe examples in which others helped Frankl through similar methods.

    4. Analyze the role Frankl’s family—especially his parents and wife—played in helping him decide that he wanted to live.

    5. Refer to question 3 above and substitute the central idea of “family” with that of “profession.”

    6. In MSFM, Frankl describes prisoners in the second reactional phase, which he calls “apathy,” as focused solely on self-preservation and the preservation of fellow prisoners. Why would people subjected to such inhuman conditions pause to consider the well-being of others in the same predicament? Support your answer using examples from MSFM.

    7. In what ways did Frankl and other prisoners of Nazi concentration camps achieve “freedom from suffering” (p. 49)?

    8. Do you agree with Frankl that we retain the right to choose, even in the face of cruel detainment? Support your answer using MSFM and other reputable sources.

    9. Investigate the roles of optimism, humor, psychological detachment, solitude, and resolve in surviving the concentration camp experience, using examples from MSFM.

Classroom Activity

CCSS ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.
    1. Conduct a “Story Corps”-type interview with students in your classroom or with members of your community based on the central ideas listed above. For help with setting up this activity, visit the “Story Corps” website.

    2. Draw a picture of something or someone that you love. Frame it in barbed wire. In the classroom, discuss how the barbed wire affects your feelings about the loved thing or person you have drawn (p. 53).

    3. Some say that survival is 80 percent mental (maintaining a positive attitude), 10 percent skill (knowledge), and 10 percent equipment (specialized resources). After losing his family and literally being stripped of everything except his glasses and his belt (p. 14), Frankl not only survives the Nazi concentration camps, but thrives in his post-camp life, embarking on a renowned career and living until age ninety-two. Discuss the importance of a positive attitude, and access to knowledge and resources, in Frankl’s experiences. Frankl’s difficulties in the concentration camp can be compared to attempting to survive in the wilderness. Conduct a problem-solving survival scenario using groups of four or five, using the Montclair State University Survival Lesson Plan. See also “Three Things Required for Survival in Any Situation.”

    4. In the preface to the 1992 edition, Frankl describes his thought processes during a series of events that led to his decision to remain in Austria. Do you agree with his decision? Further, how did his decision support his theory about success and happiness? Bear in mind his assertion that, “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue” (p. xvii).

    5. Frankl describes the sequence of events that led to the loss of the manuscript which he had sewn behind the lining of his coat. In the section “The Meaning of Suffering” in Part II of MSFM, Frankl recounts the event again (pp. 113–114). In this recounting, the reader discovers that Frankl found in the pocket of his “new” coat the prayer Shema Yisrael. After reading the prayer, he decides to live his thoughts, rather than merely put them on paper. As you read through MSFM, determine whether Frankl succeeds in living his thoughts (which is the essence of Logotherapy). Read the Shema Yisrael.

    6. In MSFM, Frankl uses his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps to test and support his Logotherapy theory. In Part II, Frankl contends that Logotherapy can be used to relieve psychoses such as phobias and obsessive-compulsive behavior more effectively than traditional psychoanalysis can. Support or refute his stance using MSFM and other reputable sources.

    7. Examine the critically ill woman’s conversations with the chestnut tree (p. 72). Does nature speak to you? Support your answer using events from MSFM and from your own experiences. Create a position paper that includes other reputable sources.

Classroom Activity

    1. Frankl quotes or references several accomplished philosophers, writers, and painters in MSFM, including Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Baruch Spinoza, Gotthold Lessing, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albrecht Dürer, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Albert Camus. Assign each student one of the masters referenced by Frankl in MSFM. Have each student research that thinker’s or artist’s concept of the meaning of life. Either have your students write a research paper on their chosen figure, or have them debate the issue of life’s meaning from their assigned individual’s perspective. Conduct mock interviews with each author; students will be the actors.

    2. Research the work of Dr. Jerry Long, a staunch supporter of Frankl and his theory. Begin your research by viewing Lecture 1 of a series by Dr. Long. In a position paper, analyze his support of Frankl’s Logotherapy.

    3. Create a flow chart of Frankl’s concentration camp experiences. Research statistics on the Theresienstadt Ghetto and the concentration camps where he was held, as well as the concentration camp he most feared entering, Mauthausen (p. 34). For more information, see the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

    4. As a class, discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Apply those needs to MSFM as you read the book. See more information on Maslow’s theory.

    5. Write a position paper that analyzes Frankl’s theories in comparison to those of his early mentors, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler.

Craft and Structure

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings: analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
    1. Frankl expands upon Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s observation that man is a being that can get used to anything, adding, “but do not ask us how” (p. 17). Cite examples from the book of both physical and mental acuity that could possibly answer the “how.”

    2. In Part II of MSFM, Frankl introduces his Logotherapy theory by describing the difference between it and psychoanalysis. Defend or refute his theory using examples of his life in a concentration camp, as well as the examples he gives from his life both before and after the camp.

    3. In the section “The Importance of Tension” (p. 104), Frankl argues that the presence of tension is a prerequisite for mental health. How does he support this view in MSFM? Do you agree? Support your answers using the book and other reputable survival accounts.

    4. How does Frankl define existentialism? Based on that definition, what does Frankl mean by the “Existential Vacuum”? Do you agree? Support your answer using examples from MSFM and/or other reputable sources.

    5. React to Frankl’s statement, “to life he can only respond by being responsible” (p. 108). Support your reaction with examples from MSFM as well as your own personal experiences.

    6. Describe Frankl’s intentions regarding “The Essence of Existence” and “The Meaning of Love” (pp. 108–11).

    7. In Part II, in the section “The Meaning of Suffering,” Frankl discusses the importance of attitude by citing a patient example. Reflect on Frankl’s remarks using other examples from MSFM and your own experiences.

    8. Define “Logodrama.” In the “Logodrama” section of MSFM, how does Frankl help the mother give meaning to her life? For comparison (or contrast), read Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Listen to Dylan Thomas recite the poem. Support your opinion of Frankl’s assistance to this mother, using MSFM, Dylan Thomas’s poem, and other reputable sources.

    9. In “The Super-Meaning” (p. 116), Frankl states that his existential view differs from that of other existential philosophers. Formulate an argument regarding unconditional meaningfulness using MSFM and other reputable sources.

    10. In “Life’s Transitoriness” (p. 118), Frankl argues that the only transitory aspects of life are “potentialities.” Support or refute his observation using MSFM and other reputable sources.

    11. In Frankl’s section on “Freedom and Responsibility,” he argues that traditional psychoanalysis “disregards [Man’s] capacity to take a stand toward any conditions whatsoever,” and “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (p. 120). Frankl then recounts his understanding of the actions of Dr. Erwin Jekelius, “the mass murderer of Steinhof,” who was a doctor in a Viennese mental hospital. According to Frankl, “Dr. J” eventually redeems himself. Research this account using reputable sources and support an argument for or against Frankl’s assertion. Is man capable of deciding “what his existence will be” from moment to moment? Support your answers using reputable sources.

Classroom Activity

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
    1. Draw or find images that suggest or represent peace or inner tranquility. Create a collage of these images and draw a barbed-wire frame around them—or, if you prefer, another kind of framing imagery that has negative connotations. How does this activity help you understand why Frankl included the Bavarian Hills imagery in MSFM (p. 53)?

    2. Research other examples of forced containment besides the Holocaust. Develop a research paper comparing Frankl’s experience with other forced-containment events. Present your findings to the class.

    3. In MSFM, Frankl describes his experiences in a concentration camp before he makes an argument in favor of his trademark theory of Logotherapy (p. 101). Defend or refute this structure using textual examples from both the “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” and the “Logotherapy” sections of MSFM.

    4. The YA edition of MSFM includes a number of images of Frankl at various stages of his professional and personal lives. How does the inclusion of these photos enhance the reader’s comprehension and deepen appreciation of the text?

    5. In the YA edition, the publisher printed barbed-wire images and bird images on the cover and between Parts I and II. Why? Does it enhance your reading and comprehension of the autobiography? Explain using examples from the book.

Classroom Activity

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
    1. Have students analyze the events that led up to the Holocaust using Raul Hilberg’s “Six Stages that Led to the Holocaust” (from his book The Destruction of European Jews) and these prompts. Students can also go to the TED Ed site for the video “I’m Still Here,” which is referenced on the above-mentioned Facing History website.

    2. Project a map of Nazi Germany concentration and death camps on your classroom wall. Mark Frankl’s timeline in these camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a map.

    3. As a psychoanalyst and psychohygienist, Frankl determines early on during his forced incarceration to analyze his experience, as well as the experiences of his fellow prisoners, from a professionally objective point of view. How did this approach to his situation strengthen (or weaken, or refute) his Logotherapy theory? Support your answer with details from the book and other authoritative sources.

    4. As you read through MSFM, keep in mind Frankl’s three phases of psychological reaction to internment in a concentration camp: 1) Admission/Shock; 2) Entrenchment in Camp Routine/ Apathy; and 3) Liberation/Disillusionment. How could Logotherapy be applied to each of these phases?

    5. How does Frankl use the “Death in Tehran” story and his ill countryman’s knowledge of Frankl’s imminent escape plans to cultivate inner peace (pp. 58–61)? How does this compare with Frankl’s decision to let his American visa expire?

    6. In MSFM, Frankl argues that when all else is taken away from a human being, there still remains “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude” (p. 69). Support or refute Frankl’s assertion using examples from MSFM and other reputable sources.

    7. Compare Frankl’s account of a woman in the typhus ward who talked to a tree with his description of the senior block warden who confided in Frankl about his liberation dream (p. 72, 78).

    8. Frankl argues that humankind must change its approach to achieving meaning in life: meaning springs from what life expects of human beings, not what human beings expect from life. Analyze this statement using examples from MSFM and other reputable sources.

    9. Analyze the collective psychotherapy session Frankl leads for his fellow prisoners (pp. 85–88).

Classroom Activity

According to Frankl, the “three phases of mental reaction” to life as a prisoner in a concentration camp are Admission/Shock, Entrenchment in Camp Routine/Apathy, and the Period Following Liberation/Disillusionment. Create a classroom chart that allows readers to chart the demonstrations/examples of the three reactionary phases.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    1. Frankl notes the reaction of train passengers as they approached Auschwitz: “There is a sign, Auschwitz!—the very name stood for all that was horrible” (p. 7). Determine how much prior knowledge the inhabitants of Northern Europe had of Hitler’s concentration camps. Consider using the Boycott of 1933 as a starting point for this research.

    2. In this video, Frankl describes living a meaningful life, using flying lessons as an analogy. Apply this analogy to Frankl’s experiences before, during, and after his time in the concentration camp.

    3. In the Afterword, William J. Winslade writes that Frankl had personal relationships with the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel. All of these thinkers offered radical philosophical theories in comparison to Frankl’s Logotherapy. Research these men and their theories. Based on what you have discovered about Frankl, how was he be able to establish and maintain these professional friendships?

    4. The YA edition includes three selected Frankl writings (pp. 139–151).
      1. In the letter to the Börners, Frankl describes his life upon returning to Vienna after the war. How does he not succumb to despair? How does his reasoning support his Logotherapy theory?
      2. In the fortieth-anniversary memorial speech, how does Frankl refute the concept of collective guilt? Support your answer using both the speech and examples from MSFM.
      3. In the fiftieth-anniversary memorial speech, Frankl argues that there are only two races of people in the world: the race of decent people, and the race of not-decent people. Do you agree? Support your answer using MSFM and other reputable sources.
      How do these writings support or refute Frankl’s Logotherapy theory?

Other Works of Interest

    • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne

    • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford

    • The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank

    • Hiroshima, John Hersey

    • Unbroken (Young Adult Edition), Laura Hillenbrand

    • Life in a Jar, Jack Mayer

    • Dear Marcus, Jerry McGill

    • In the Heart of the Sea, Nathanial Philbrick

    • Journey Home, Yoshiko Uchida

    • Night, Eli Wiesel

About the Guide’s Writer

JUDITH TURNER is a longtime educator at Terrace Community Middle School in Tampa, Florida. She has held Subject Area Leader positions in language arts and social studies. She has also served the school as an assistant principal. Ms. Turner received her BA in Literature and Language from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and her MA in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of South Florida-Tampa.

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