I am reading a little book written by Viktor E. Frankl and first published in 1959 (Beacon Press). Small it may be, but it packs a big punch.
Dr. Viktor E. Frankl was living in Austria when Nazi Germany persecuted Jews and conquered some of Europe. He was a Jew who became a psychiatrist after experiencing the horrors of the Auschwitz prison camp. He reflects on people's responses to extreme suffering, exploring his own experience as a case in point. Endeavouring to find something positive in one of the worst kinds of experiences, he contemplates how a person may be able to rise above severe suffering by discovering meaning.
Dr. Frankl had already begun his career by the second World War, developing a concept of a practice he labeled "logotherapy." He possessed the manuscript and research materials at the time of his capture and detention.
He could have escaped the Jewish "holocaust" by accepting a visa to emigrate, but he did not want to abandon his parents. That is the first lesson he takes. He got caught up in the terror because of a feeling of love and a sense of filial duty.
Somehow, Dr. Frankl was not chosen to be executed and tossed into the mass graves once he got to the prison camp. He describes how the Nazi officers used to select prisoners for extermination at random much of the time or as a reaction to some gesture, facial demeanor or word displayed by a captive filing by.
The author does not leave the dreadful conditions of the camps to our imagination so we can avoid exposure to the brutally honest details and guess what kind of suffering the survivors endured. To be precise about how he defines harsh suffering and to lay bear the facts, he details the daily life at the camp excruciatingly. The reader must be prepared for this blunt and jolting reality check.
Dr. Frankl, like some of his prison mates, felt grateful for having survived one day, then another, and another, while others found the conditions too difficult to endure. He along with others noticed, with gratitude, that lack of hygienic care such as teeth brushing, and arduous sleeping arrangements in which nine men were crammed together on one mattress to be chewed on by vermin, they coped better than expected.
Another factor this author highlights, one which many writers pass over, I think, is the competition for survival among inmates. Some prisoners chose aggression against their mates as a tactic of survival, so they complied with the Nazi overseers' orders to strike, humiliate and deprive their peers. They were dubbed the "Capos."
I have heard of Jews among the merchant and business classes living in the USA or other countries who ignored the plight of their compatriots or fellow Jews languishing at the bloody hands of the Nazis. Some refused outright to give aid or make efforts to rescue them, not wishing to disturb their comfortable life and prosperity. I believe that history has figured that more non-Jews than Jews were involved in rescuing Jews in Nazi-held or Nazi-ally held territories.
Dr. Frankl quotes Nietzsche. This is interesting since many readers have found Nietzsche to hold fascist views on many questions. Anyway, he cites this: "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." The typical response to abject suffering is to lose courage and hope, claims Frankl. A person with such a negative outlook gives up and perishes sooner or decides to join in the terror and, vengeful, lash out at people and life.
Observing the responses of the prisoners around him and his own response, Dr. Frankl came up with a definition of meaning. To him, it is the tasks that daily life requires. Seeing what has to be done to exist, the person who adopts this outlook takes on the responsibility of living. By contrast, the apathetic among them believed he could expect nothing, so he would not give anything himself.
Avoiding apathy is not easy in extreme circumstances ill-health and fatigue caused by poor nutrition and lack of sleep, for example, fogs the brain, dulls the senses and retards body motion. Therefore, it is the assertive mentality that can hang on, maintain control and stay active and in touch with the necessity of living that has the best potential.
We can thus see that Frankl is both an existentialist and a materialist. This bases his philosophy in science. Life is less an abstraction than concrete action and sensations of the body, which exists in motion in the context of things around him.