Nazis in Therapy One of history's greatest criminals reclines on the clinician's couch

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the end of WWII

Jack El-Hai (Public Affairs Books, 2013), 304 pages including index

What we have here is a distinctly eye-opening journey through a period in recent US and world history that fewer and fewer of us consider contemporary. It thus serves a fine historical purpose of educating those generations who were born too late about the intriguing but more pedestrian wrinkles that attend momentous historic events. The opening half of this book introduces us to both the personalities and clinical diagnoses of many of the infamous Nazis who were rounded up at the conclusion of World War II hostilities, then housed, tried and sentenced at a Nuremberg prison.

Most of us of a certain age are familiar with Hermann Göring and I suspect even GenXers have heard his name, know the term “Nazi,” and are inevitably familiar with the Holocaust. Accordingly, Jack El-Hai’s portrait of Göring and his fellows in detention at Nuremberg is factually interesting, and provides a more human picture of them. On the other hand, very few readers will have heard of Dr. Kelley, so the author can choose rather freely in dramatizing his life. (Its melodramatic turns and climax prove fascinating.)

In the book’s opening pages, El-Hai gives a rather cursory sketch of the better-known Göring and a dozen of the twenty-some other detainees, but he more than compensates with his thorough exposition of Dr. Douglas Kelley’s family background. Lucky for both author and readers, Kelley came from an interesting line of Californians. Some of them are sufficiently eccentric to make for entertaining reading; others have a direct connection to the infamous Donner Party who had to resort to cannibalism on their disastrous trek to California. He briefly and unobtrusively mentions Kelley’s alcoholic father, who died young, and his controlling mother who had a fervent devotion to family tradition. These early pages set the stage; the book’s conclusion paints the painful consequences.

El-Hai has done excellent leg-work on the Nazi prisoners, and it shows in the good details he provides on their court-room activities—and at times antics—during the ten-month trial. One is naturally drawn (as to a car crash) to the portraits of Herr Göring and his various unappealing National Socialist confederates. Kelley takes a suitably subordinate role while the book focuses on the Nuremberg trial and its lead-up. There Kelley superintends the incarceration and investigation of the Nazis—a continual but mainly professional, functional role. El-Hai takes pains to sketch Kelley’s special duties at the prison, the primary one being the mental health of the prisoners. That was a not entirely altruistic impulse: The Allied Powers wanted the men on trial to appear at their healthiest and not draw observers’ pity. But in the process of evaluating the prisoners, Kelley, uniquely, took particular pains to analyze their motives. While “nobody in Nuremberg wanted to know what made these human beings in high Nazi positions commit such nefarious acts,” Kelley did. It was his peculiar bailiwick. “The men he visited … represented isolates of the concentrate of the disease [Nazism] that could yield protective inoculation.” For him, “the trial had served as fascinating laboratories for the study of group dynamics, criminal motivation … and the response of deviant personalities to the judicial process.” In short, “Without official sanction, Kelley was developing a plan to explore the psychological recesses of the brains of the captive Nazi leaders.”

The book pulls no punches in regard to the crimes with which Göring and his fellow prisoners were charged. But El-Hai makes it clear that Kelley came to appreciate Göring, perhaps as a doctor strives not to pass judgment on a patient, and succeeds in allowing the patient to honestly reveal himself. His sympathetic ear perhaps led Kelley to regard his subjects with a more sympathetic eye.

The eagerness of the prisoners for a sympathetic ear made these interviews “among the easiest” Kelley ever conducted. Perhaps as a result of his curiosity, Kelley was a better listener than the other investigators. And he was for the most part admired and respected by the prisoners. “The prisoners realized that Kelley wanted to understand their thinking and motivations without casting them as monsters,” El-Hai writes. We find that Göring above all admired him. He was especially grateful for Kelley’s efforts to get letters to his temporarily incarcerated wife Emmy and to reunite her with their child Edda. Göring wept at Kelley’s departure. Nor was he the only appreciative prisoner. Alfred Rosenberg, formerly a Nazi propagandist, wrote him a gracious note: “I regret your departure…I thank you for your humane behavior and also for your attempt to understand our reasons.”

These humane interactions may help account for the perhaps frustrating insight Kelley proclaimed after the trials, namely that the Nazi chiefs were no different in psychological make-up, nor were they compelled by more mental disease, than any normal human beings. With one exception, “There wasn’t an insane Joe in the crowd… Their personality patterns indicate that, while they are not socially desirable individuals, their like could very easily be found in America.” Kelley’s prolonged experience with the former German officials “haunted” him after his return to the States. “He wanted to make personal and professional sense…of experiences that countless other psychiatrists, psychologists and academics would have done anything to have shared.” He strongly reiterated his assessment of the prisoners, taking issue with the alluring post-War party-line that these men were uniquely evil. He made the case, on the American lecture circuit, that “the Nazis, even the most elite and powerful among them, were not monsters, evildoing machines or automata.”

The fact that a tribunal was held in the first place is ample testimony to the horror about which the armed forces of the United Nations in the war’s final months learned first by hearsay and ultimately on-site at Dachau. One reason for the choice of Nuremberg is that it had been the site for a series of anti-Semitic rulings by German courts that had put Jews and other hated minorities in what the Nazi vision considered their proper—inferior—place.

El-Hai does a good job of reminding us of the necessity of getting all four Allied Powers to agree to the trial’s fact and scope. The Soviets, with their inveterate ruthless efficiency, wanted quick trials, verdicts and executions. In contrast, we are allowed to witness America’s gradual assumption of global authority as perhaps the last Power standing. At the war’s conclusion, under Harry Truman, the US accepted its global responsibilities and made a concerted, thoughtful and conscientious effort to assume that new role and in the process to organize the Nuremberg procedures. El-Hai shows us Judge Robert Jackson, whom Truman would later nominate as a Supreme Court justice, guiding the long, complex and delicate proceedings thoroughly and exactingly.

The book inevitably resurrects issues that have haunted America and Europe in the seven decades since the war and the genocidal atrocities it spawned. In tracing Kelley’s determination to get to the roots of the prisoners’ profiles, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist does offer some mitigating insights into the behavior and reputation of these rightly accused and rightfully convicted men. Purely at a personal level, for example, it is fair to point out the bond Kelley formed with the deeply intelligent and naturally genial Göring and to announce the respect the psychiatrist developed for the man he came to know in prison. He found the man a narcissist, with “the most undiluted self-centeredness Kelley had ever experienced.” Still, having administered the new Rorschach “ink blot” tests to the Nazi, the psychiatrist “read power, imagination and boldness” into his responses. Crucially, El-Hai announces, “In such qualities as self-confidence, stubbornness, dedication to work and focus on one’s self, the two men were alike… Without knowing it, Kelley identified with Göring.” That bond plays out, tragically, at the book’s conclusion.

Beyond these particular biographical details, a dispassionate and thoughtful observer should want to see the Nazi phenomenon in its historical context. Kelley saw that the Nazis came to power “partly because of their nation’s cultural training.” He recognized “barbaric tendencies” in their culture. The Nazis “did not have to invent… the Führer principle,” they “simply tapped into what was already present in the national atmosphere.” Thanks to his intimate interactions with the men he studied, Kelley rejected Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the tragedy as “the banality of evil” and her view that those leaders simply took orders “and thought of their own actions as unremarkable.” No, said the doctor, the men he studied “[saw] their own part in it as special, favored by the course of human evolution.”

In the book’s final 60 pages we discover, as suggested earlier, that El-Hai has in fact written two books. He recognized that his second main character, Kelley, had two sides. These pages are undeniably riveting; they focus on the increasingly eccentric Kelley after his return to the States. El-Hai provides details about his wife and his son (who was scarred for life by his father’s extreme expectations and demanding regimens). These would appear to be the psychic consequences of Kelley’s driven mother and absent father. We learn here the full extent of the doctor’s growing sense of unfulfilled purpose, as well as some fascinating and troubling things about his deportment, his marital relations and, indeed, his personal and professional obsessions. We watch him turn into something of a monster, as morally exaggerated and grandly self-justifying as Göring himself.

Indeed, we do begin to see here a real parallel between the doctor’s moving but obsessive behavior and ideals, and Göring’s. The book’s shocking climax paints that parallel unforgettably. It supplies at long last the evidence for the book’s subtitle—that “Fatal meeting of Minds.” Aside from the mutual respect the men developed, there is a further bond: cyanide. Once his request to be shot instead of hanged had been denied, Göring took that way out, carefully keeping his pill secret and slipping it into his mouth out of the guards’ line of sight, who were especially charged to prevent Göring from doing this. (His suicide note absolved them of responsibility. One can charge Göring with pride or arrogance for the detail with which he accounts for his success in hiding the pill from the prison Commandant. But his absolving the guards from guilt is testimony to the genuine regard Göring seemed to have formed for them. This long note constituted literally his dying words, so they do have some claim to honesty.) El-Hai takes pains to show Kelley’s high opinion of Goring’s last act. He “did not see his suicide as cowardly. On the contrary, ‘it demonstrates how ingeniously clever he was.’ … It matched Goring’s ideals and image. ”

Dr. Kelley’s messy, alcoholic, workaholic final years show him unable to subdue whatever demons possessed him. But his final moments reveal his lasting regard for Göring’s end, which apparently served him as a model. In painting the scene, El-Hai pulls out all the melodramatic stops. “The Old Man marches out of his study, … descends to the landing and faces his wife, father and son like an orator: ‘I’m going to take this potassium cyanide and I’ll die in thirty seconds.’” El-Hai notes that Kelley had guns at hand to go as Ernest Hemingway did. He insists that the psychiatrist’s way of dying “was a deliberate evocation of Göring’s defiant suicide [and his] pose of a hero backed into a corner.” Kelley’s end is tragic, and surely more pitiful than that of his former German patient whom, it would seem, became a perverse source of inspiration.