Many wars of the 20th Century were caused by leaders aiming to create a so-called Master Race. As a result many millions of soldiers and civilians were killed in conflict. Adolf Hitler, the German Fuehrer, decided that one group of people in particular needed to be eradicated: The Jew. He set up concentration camps and tried to round up all of Europe’s Jews to create “the final solution”. The Jews were either forced to work slave labor, or face extermination if they were too week or unwilling. One survivor of this Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, wrote a work of psychology, Man’s Search For Meaning, that described the horrific conditions of camp life. Frankl explains that there were three psychological stages of prisoners in a concentration camp: shock, apathy, and disillusionment.
The prisoners suffered from shock on entry to the camp. They saw many alarming sights when riding on the train: “long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; water towers; searchlights; and long columns of ragged human figures” (9). None of the soon-to-be prisoners were prepared mentally for the predicament they now found themselves in. Furthermore, on arriving at camp the prisoners felt a “delusion of reprieve”. They saw how some of the prisoners looked healthy but, “little did we know then that they formed a specially chosen elite, who for years had been the receiving squad for new transports as they rolled into the station day after day” (10). The prisoners soon realized that unless they became Capos, they would join the ranks of the emaciated and beaten inmates. Finally, the prisoners had all of their possessions taken away from them, were stripped naked, and shaven for all body hair. Any prisoner caught trying to hide their possessions would be hung by the senior prisoners. “What else remained for us as a material link with our former lives?” (15). The prisoners were also stripped of their names; the Nazi’s had assigned them with numbers instead.
After the initial shock, the prisoners soon became apathetic with being entrenched in camp life. Frankl describes how the prisoners became desensitized to the atrocities going on around them: “Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel anymore” (22). They regularly saw beatings and people starving that nothing surprised them anymore. In order to stave off starvation the prisoners didn’t think twice about pillaging the recently deceased: “After one of them had just died, I watched without any emotional upset the scene that followed…the prisoners grabbing the remains of a messy meal of potatoes…wooden shoes…genuine string” (22). The prisoners only cared about surviving from now on. In addition, the prisoners lost interest in their own names, their fates, and their history. They became “numbers” and “the life of a “number” was irrelevant” (53). On occasion, being known only by “numbers”, saved their lives as they were able to swap identities with the already dead. The SS would turn a blind eye just as long as they had enough dead bodies to meet their daily quotas.
The final psychological stage that a prisoner went through was their disillusionment of life once they were released. After being cooped up in squalor and surrounded by torture for four years, the prisoners couldn’t grasp the concept of their own freedom: “Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours” (88). They had looked forward to it so much that when it came it was almost like an anti-climax. The freed prisoners also had a strong desire for retribution: “They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences” (90). Frankl went onto refute this by saying, “that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them” (91). Moreover, the prisoners had kept positive in the camps by thinking that they will see their loved ones upon release. Sadly, for many they found that “the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again” (92). To these people Frankl imposed the idea that even suffering has a meaning in life; that it is the individual’s responsibility to overcome it and keep fighting on until their last breath. Ultimately, “there is nothing he need fear anymore-except his God” (93).
Shock, apathy, and disillusionment were three psychological stages that the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps experienced. Ironically, it took an event of such tragedy and destruction to enable us to learn more about how the human mind responds to certain situations. Frankl’s methods for remaining positive can be used by every human being to give them a meaning in their lives regardless of what predicament or mental state they are in – it is in many ways like a phoenix risen from the ashes.