Only two races: the anti-racist philosophy of Viktor Frankl
While a student at a Jesuit University, I took a philosophy class entitled “Human Thought and Action.” One of the required readings was an autobiography by Dr. Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria, during the rise of the Third Reich, including when the Nazis forcefully annexed Austria. During that time many Jews tried to leave Austria to find refuge in other countries. Among the more notable Jews living in Vienna at the time was Sigmund Freud who, in 1938, was given permission by the Nazis to emigrate to England.
Viktor Frankl waited for years until his request to emigrate to the United States was approved. Finally, shortly before the United States entered WWII, the American Consulate gave him a visa, but the visa applied only to him. Knowing that his parents would certainly be arrested, Frankl had a choice to make: whether or not to leave his parents behind. After having received what he referred to as a “hint from heaven,” Frankl chose to stay in Vienna with his parents. Shortly thereafter, Frankl, along with his wife whom he had recently wed, and his parents were incarcerated and sent to Theresenstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. His parents were sent immediately to the gas chamber, along with his pregnant wife. She might have even been forced to give up her fetus before entry because, at this time, the National Socialist Party forbade Jews to have babies. Upon entry to the camp, Frankl survived the initial screening process and spent the next three plus years in various concentration camps.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes about his experiences in the prison camps. Seeking to answer the question, “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner,” he recounts not merely the horrors of the concentration camps, but also the psychological reaction of its prisoners. Frankl’s concentration camp experiences serve as a group case study of the different psychological stages and reactions the typical prisoner experienced during his incarceration. In addition to the pathology of camp life, Frankl describes the therapeutic methods by which he helped prisoners survive the nightmare. Frankl’s approach, which he develops both before he had been incarcerated and during his incarceration, becomes known as Logotherapy.
Based upon his experiences and observations, Frankl outlines three psychological stages the average prisoner goes through. The first psychological reaction is shock, reflecting the initial reaction to the horrors of the concentration camp. Each prisoner experiences the total loss of their whole former life: family, friends, occupation, personal freedom, everything. “We really had nothing left...except our bare bodies--even minus hair; all we possessed, literally was our naked existence.” Apathy characterizes the second psychological stage wherein the prisoner suppresses normal emotional responses to the surrounding horrors as a form of psychological defense. Lastly, upon liberation from the camps, a prisoner literally has to learn “how to be human again,” to resurrect normal human emotional responses. In the aftermath of his concentration camp experience, Frankl observes two opposing attitudes among the prisoners. “No one has the right to do wrong even if wrong has been done to them” versus “May this hand be cut off if I don’t stain it with blood on the day I return.” Frankl embraces the first attitude and tries to influence the latter positively.
The experience in the concentration camp “…tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil.” Furthermore, Frankl observes how the polarity of good and evil characterizes each individual. As the Genesis story reveals, through Adam and Eve, all humanity has eaten the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Frankl observes this polarity in the prisoners, the prison guards, the SS officers, and anyone else associated with the trauma of the concentration camps. Thus, “...the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”
What else did Frankl discover about the human psyche which had been lain bare by camp life? He identifies three immutable qualities which constitute the core of each human being. First, each life is meaningful, even in the most dire circumstances. Second, each human remains innately free to choose his own attitude, to choose his own way. Third, each person possesses the need to discover his unique meaning embedded in every moment of life. If this need and resultant drive for meaning is ignored, frustrated, or unfulfilled, the substance of life withers away.
Frankl's attitude that decency of character exists in an array of persons, transcending race and nationality, brought him much criticism from a variety of individuals and groups. Frankl even claims that decent persons existed among his Nazi captors. After all the horrors and atrocities wrought upon the prisoners by the Nazis, Frankl’s attitude was a tough sell. Furthermore, In the aftermath of WWII, a debate raged over whether or not the average German citizen knew what was happening in the concentration camps and whether or not the German population as a whole was culpable. In response to these volatile questions, Frankl claimed,
If there were a decent individual, should he really be held accountable for the offenses of others, even if the person belongs to the same race, or nation for that matter. Would not the establishment of a collective guilt be a relapse into exactly that worldview that we want to combat? That worldview that declares an individual guilty because others from the same group to which he happens to belong have actually or allegedly committed some kind of offense? Holding someone to account because of their nationality, native language, or place of birth must seem as ridiculous to us today as making them responsible for their own height.
Frankl does not allow himself to be caught in the moral trap of castigating a person for belonging to a group that another group judges to be indecent. By stressing individual responsibility and character, Frankl transcends prevailing group biases. From all his experiences we learn that “... there 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. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race.’”
I am indelibly and profoundly affected by Frankl’s experience and ensuing perceptions of life. As a school counselor and mental health therapist, I incorporated his psychotherapeutic insights and methods into my interactions with students and clients. As a teacher of Theology, I incorporated Frankl’s philosophy of human nature and life, complementing Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Beginning with my first class in 1977 and in each class I taught for the next forty-one years, I would set aside time to introduce and outline Frankl’s life and teachings for my students.
Individual responsibility and transcendency of character lie at the heart of Franklian psychology and Christianity. Jesus' use of the parable of the good Samaritan underscores this truth. In it Jesus instructs,
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
In order to understand and appreciate the profound meaning of this parable, one needs to understand that for centuries the Jews and Samaritans had a strongly contentious relationship. For myriad reasons based upon their mutual history, Jews considered Samaritans a mixed race, ethnically and religiously, and thus did not trust them. The feeling was mutual. This attitude is also reflected in Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. So, the fact that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, extolled a Samaritan who went out of his way to be helpful, as opposed to Jewish leaders who refused to help, emphasizes the transcendent message of human decency. As also experienced by Frankl, neither race nor nationality nor social status have anything to do with being a decent or indecent person.
Sadly, however, the commonplace truth of individual responsibility, self-transcendence, and kindness is under assault. I adhere to the message of Martin Luther King, Jr., and find the current basic premise of systemic racism regressive. This regression pulls us back into the pre-civil rights realities of racism and segregation. We are being propagandized with the regressive and divisive ideas that race and color of skin are more important than character, while also assigning individuals either to groups of victims or groups of oppressors. To the extent that group identity dominates our perceptions, individuals become objects of projection, stereotyping, ethnocentrism, biologism, and scapegoating. Individual freedom, responsibility, and dignity are lost.
Throughout my forty-one years of teaching and counseling students in the Jesuit tradition, the foundational principles of the Gospels and the Society of Jesus remain: See God in all things and become men and women for others. I taught these principles to thousands of young men and women who came from all walks of life. In addition, these students were provided opportunities to put into practice the values and principles they were taught. The crowning experience for the vast majority of these students was the sense of fulfillment and meaning from becoming personally responsible and self-transcendent.