The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist; Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the end of WWII by Jack El-Hai. Public Affairs, 2013.

The title of Jack El-Hai’s book is misleading. It begins with Douglas Kelley’s work on the International War Crimes Tribunal at the end of World War II, but the final portion of the book is about Kelley’s life as a psychiatrist after his leaving the army in 1946 and Herman Göring’s suicide that same year. During the war years Kelley had been the chief psychiatrist in the European theater where he had developed treatments for what was called “battle neurosis,” better known as “shell-shock.” He and his colleagues were able to help soldiers return to active duty. Unable to use talk therapy because of the time involved, their results were achieved with the use of drug therapy.

At the end of the War, Kelley applied for and got the assignment to examine the twenty-two National Socialist bigwigs about to be tried by the Tribunal. Kelley’s job as the examining psychiatrist was to see that the defendants were in sufficient mental health to stand trial, complicated by the fact that the prosecution would not allow any insanity peas. All defendants were determined by Kelley to be sane, they were tried, and found guilty. Their sentences varied from years in prison to execution by hanging.

Kelley was intrigued by the idea of the “criminal mind.” These men were criminals, for sure, but were they criminally insane? Were there personality traits common to all twenty-two top Nazis? Douglas Kelley’s involvement – and Jack El-Hai’s book – ends part-way through the first round of trials. Ultimately there were around 200 National Socialist officials tried at Nuremberg by subsequent tribunals and an additional 1600 by military courts.

Kelley had extensive interviews with all twenty-two, including Hermann Göring. The interviews were also part of a suicide watch. The commandant of the prison where the twenty-two were kept, Burton Andrus, was determined not to let suicide cheat the gallows. None of the defendants were allowed family visits because Andrus worried about their smuggling in the where-with-all to comment suicide.

Andrus was also unwilling to allow the prisoners to take drugs that might relieve some of the stress they were under but that might also be addictive. This was a particular problem for Göring who had battled addiction for much of his life. He was currently addicted to a synthetic drug called paracodene. It was a harmless suppressant, but in the last year of the war, he had consumed 160 pills a day.

A psychiatrist working in the 1940s, Kelley was enamored with the new Rorschach inkblot test, and so all twenty-two were given the test. (They were also given intelligence tests, and Göring had one of the highest IQs in a not very intelligent crowd – if you trust the results of IQ tests.) The Rorschach results did not reveal anything like a common deviant personality. The traits they had in common could be found widely in the general population – weak ethics, and patriotic zeal. Most had devoted considerable energy to their war work; they were workaholics! More insidious, they were focused on the goals of their labor, rather than troubling themselves about the morality of the means to those ends.

Adolf Hitler had already committed suicide as had Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels. It was easy for the defendants to claim that their dead bosses were responsible for the sins of the Nazi regime. They, the ‘lieutenant class’, were merely following orders.

However, Jack El-Hai – following Douglas Kelley – raises questions about the attribution of guilt for the atrocities committed during World War II. Perhaps there is some truth in the argument that the German leadership did not know about the extent of the killing perpetrated by their subordinates, and that the sins of the Nazi regime must be borne by the many.

Recently two books have suggested a broad participation by Germans in the killing of Jews and Poles during the war: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners; Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and more recently Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men; Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland suggest that the killing involved the energy and enthusiasm of thousands of Germans, civilians and military.

Like most G.I.s, Kelley was anxious to return home to civilian life. He got a successful book out of his experience at the trial, Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg, published in 1947 and reprinted in 1961. He had a moderately successful academic career. Later in his life he also had problems with addiction. He committed suicide in front of his family by taking a potassium cyanide pill, a duplication of the route taken by Hermann Göring and other Nazis.


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