Review of Jack El-Hai's "The Nazi and the Psychiatrist"

tags: World War II, Nazis



Murray Polner is a regular HNN book reviewer.

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Goring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
by Jack El-Hai
PublicAffairs, 2013

Since the 1930s scholars, scientists, journalists and ordinary folk have wondered why the Nazis could have committed so many ghastly crimes against innocent people and children.  At times a few helpful insights arise from the killers themselves. One that comes to mind emerges from Gitta Sereny’s mesmerizing interviews with Franz Stangl, the Treblinka and Sobibor commandant, in her 1974 book Into That Darkness. Stangl was responsible for 900,000 deaths. Sereny came away thinking of him as a run of the mill  bureaucratic careerist who saw  victims as “cargo,” while doing personally fulfilling work that  brought him prestige and promotions. After Germany’s defeat he escaped to Brazil where he was caught in 1967, extradited to West Germany, given a life sentence, and finally died of a heart attack in 19i71.

More recently, Thomas Harding’s impressive Hanns and Rudolf deals with Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess [spelled Hoss with an umlaut in German]. When tried for his crimes he told the court that he and others like him were not merely following orders, as most captured Nazis claimed, but instead their initiative was highly valued by their superiors and, he chillingly continued, he and his colleagues took great pride in their work. He was hung on the grounds of  Auschwitz.

Jack El-Hai, who wrote the well-received The Lobotomist, offers yet another perspective in this forceful and absorbing book, The Nazi and The Psychiatrist: Hermann Goring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fateful Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (PublicAffairs).

To find out if fifty-two elite imprisoned Nazi prisoners were fit for trial as war criminals, the U.S. Army assigned Capt. Douglas M. Kelley, a psychiatrist, to examine the prisoners, a posting he came to view as an extraordinary  gift as he developed professional relationships with a few, but especially with Hermann Goering [spelled Goring with an umlaut in German], Reichmarschall, Luftwaffe chief and number three in Hitler’s circle.  Among the more prominent Nazis held were Hans Frank, governor-general of Poland; Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy Fuhrer who had flown to England in May 1941 in a quixotic effort to being “peace” between the two nations; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, SS;  Robert Ley, who ran labor affair; Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister; Julius Streicher, editor of the pornographic anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer; Arthur Rosenberg, the party’s racial “philosopher”; Generals Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel; and Wilhelm Frick, Goebbels’ man.

All this is well known. What is new in El-Hai’s book is how much Kelley learned about some of them, especially Goering, who he diagnosed as narcissistic, clever, dangerous and sly but also personable. Surprisingly, Goering had an anti-Nazi brother and unsurprisingly was apparently a loving husband and father. Julius Streicher, repugnant and degenerate, despised Goering for his pretensions and arrogance as did several other jailed Nazis, though they were probably surprised when he committed suicide in a Nuremberg cell with a cyanide capsule.

El-Hai was able to locate and study the extensive notes and records Kelley took home with him after his discharge. His portraits of his other patients included the lesser known Swiss-born Dr. Leonardo Conti, M.D., who developed the euthanasia program to exterminate the aged and disabled and who encouraged experiments on concentration camp prisoners. He escaped the hangman’s noose by strangling himself, leaving behind a note expressing remorse for not having bid farewell to his family.

Kaltenbrunner, the highest ranking SS official in custody was, wrote Kelly, a coward, “a typical bully, tough and arrogant when in power, a cheap craven in defeat,  unable to even stand the pressure of prison life.” Robert Ley, who Kelley believed to be certifiably mad, also committed suicide in his cell. When Kelley’s military time was up he was replaced by another psychiatrist Gustave Gilbert, who had some different ideas about his patient-prisoners, viewing them from a greater emotional and medical distance. Still, both men tried to unravel the mystery of what made Nazi leaders do what they did and why.

El-Hai’s chapter on “The Nazi Mind” summarizes the various theories they held and forms the centerpiece of the book. To Kelley, there was no single Nazi personality. Amoral and self-absorbed, they spent their working days “behind big desks, deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, and racketeers.” Conducting Third Reich affairs. Following orders. Innovating. Getting the job done. Being rewarded. Even so, since Kelley could offer no serious psychiatric confirmation of a common “Nazi Mind” he retreated into the German past to understand what if anything was unique to Germany that allowed such creatures to capture and rule the nation. Otherwise, the prisoners were “normal men” who worked very hard, and then returned home to their wives and kids. If they had a common mantra it was that ends not means mattered. Other than Ley, "there wasn’t an insane Joe in the crowd,” Kelley once told The New Yorker. You could find their types everywhere, even in America, he repeatedly warned, worried that even America was capable of breeding similar brutes.

As if in confirmation, Gilbert’s 1947 Nuremberg Diary quotes Goering telling him during the Nuremberg trial, “people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger, It works the same way in any country,” a belief Kelley  grew to share. “It can happen here,” he repeated over and again, even fearing the possible  rise of a totalitarian state.  In 1947 he told an Anti - Defamation League audience that he wished all politicians and statesmen could be psychologically examined before assuming office, pointing especially to southern bigoted politicians.

While the prisoners sat in their cells, questions arose among outsiders about the best reading of the Rorschach tests the two psychiatrists had administered them. There were those who approved of Kelley’s conclusion that no distinguishing “Nazi mind” existed. None of the prisoners were moral, he argued, but were instead psychopaths, with treacherous characteristics, much like Goering’s. Gilbert and others believed the Nazi leaders shared commonalities of mental disease but saw the Nazis having flourished in a distinctive political environment and historical past to win a key election in 1933 and then crush all opposition and retain absolute power for twelve years.

Both men wrote books (Kelley’s was 22 Cells in Nuremberg) arguing their cases. El-Hai speculates that the crucial difference between the two “was that Gilbert’s offered an explanation that self-righteous and victorious Americans wanted to hear. It caught the mood.” El-Hai’s makes sense when he explains that “Until someone else refutes it, the latest study suggests that the Nazi personality that eluded Kelley, seduced Gilbert, and tempted so many other researchers is a myth. 

In Nuremberg, the defendants sought to assert their innocence.  Exasperated and outraged, Chief Justice Robert Jackson finally had heard enough and spoke out to the defendants and their lawyers: “If you were to say of these men that they were not guilty, it would be as though to say there has been no war, there were no slain, there has been no crime.”

After 218 days three defendants were acquitted, seven given prison sentences and Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Arthur Rosenberg, Julius Streicher, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Arthur Seyss-Inquart and Fritz Sauckel (the lesser known head of the slave workers empire) were hanged, their bodies taken to the Dachau ovens and their remains dumped into a nearby river to prevent future neo-Nazi memorials and parades.

In an anti-climax El-Hai relates Kelley’s stormy and intellectually restless postwar life, which ended up by his taking a leaf from Goering and


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