After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races:

From all this we may 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.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press, 1959 orig. ed., 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Of course, today’s discussions about race and ethnicity are much more complicated. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Especially here in the U.S., these are among the most challenging issues of the day. That said, I think it’s important to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a much simpler way.

I understand how some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life described how people who lived good, moral lives before life in concentration camps could be driven to self-preserving behaviors that hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors such as the Holocaust. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too. In toxic work situations, otherwise “decent” people can participate or be silently complicit in bullying, mobbing, and harassment that impact  lives and livelihoods.

Also, for those targeted by these forms of mistreatment, the basic tenets of logotherapy may be relevant, namely a focus on looking toward the future, while minimizing the vicious cycle and negative feedback loops that can be so sabotaging of one’s well being.


This post was revised in August 2019.

6 responses

  1. my thought are some where between that of Franki
    I some the actions today by some of the most powerful people either in the work place or political world as three categories RIGHT WRONG AND LEGAL there has become in our society an acceptance that as long as it is LEGAL no matter who is harmed or to what degree it is all OK.

  2. Frankl’s division of people into categories of “decent” and “indecent” rings experientially true to this survivor of workplace mobbing. Having had several years to reflect on that experience however, I suspect that it is more accurate and probably more productive to focus on behaviours than on people- labelling, judging, and sorting those leaves some room to accommodate the complexity and ambivalence that are pretty universal to human beings. That perspective is admittedly inadequate to the task of addressing injustice, but works pretty well for gaining understanding.

    I read an article this morning that fleshes out some of the nuances that seem relevant to me.

    For now I think I’ll refer to people as behaving in a “mature” or “immature” manner. That leaves room for hope that personal growth will naturally extinguish some damaging behaviours, and also acknowledges that we humans are prone to regression to earlier stages of development when stressed (as so often happens to most people in toxic work environments). The article certainly struck me as relevant to the struggles we see in so many issues and contexts around us today, workplace relationships included.

  3. Man’s Search is one of my all-time favorite, life-changing books! Great snapshot you’ve chosen here, and a topic of Frankl that is not commonly explored. I think in context of the rest of the text, he sees this division as fluid. And I feel like the term ‘decency’ should be interpreted through his lens of the time and place when this was written (there are a few labels that mean something quite different now). Within the text, ‘decency’ regards more than good vs.bad to include the person’s perspective of others and baggage within (and treatment of) the self.

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s hard to isolate Frankl in a snapshot! There are so many remarkable quotes in the book, yet I realize that it’s very easy for us to cherry pick them for the meanings they bring to our own lives. I’m sure I’ll be reading it again.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this decent/indecent dichotomy and it really has merit. Both groups obviously form a scale of goodness/evil, but yet there is some kind of moral baseline that the decent group won’t break.

    I wonder, though, where is this line, though? What’s that characteristic of a person that qualifies him to one group?

    Perhaps an unwillingness to take advantage of someone else even if the risk is 0?

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