The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

Synopsis

In 1945, after his capture at the end of the Second World War, Hermann Göring arrived at an American-run detention center in war-torn Luxembourg, accompanied by sixteen suitcases and a red hatbox. The suitcases contained all manner of paraphernalia: medals, gems, two cigar cutters, silk underwear, a hot water bottle, and the equivalent of 1 million in cash. Hidden in a coffee can, a set of brass vials housed glass capsules containing a clear liquid and a white precipitate: potassium cyanide. Joining Göring in the detention center were the elite of the captured Nazi regime—Grand Admiral Dönitz; armed forces commander Wilhelm Keitel and his deputy Alfred Jodl; the mentally unstable Robert Ley; the suicidal Hans Frank; the pornographic propagandist Julius Streicher—fifty-two senior Nazis in all, of whom the dominant figure was Göring.

To ensure that the villainous captives were fit for trial at Nuremberg, the US army sent an ambitious army psychiatrist, Captain Douglas M. Kelley, to supervise their mental well-being during their detention. Kelley realized he was being offered the professional opportunity of a lifetime: to discover a distinguishing trait among these arch-criminals that would mark them as psychologically different from the rest of humanity. So began a remarkable relationship between Kelley and his captors, told here for the first time with unique access to Kelley’s long-hidden papers and medical records.

Kelley’s was a hazardous quest, dangerous because against all his expectations he began to appreciate and understand some of the Nazi captives, none more so than the former Reichsmarshall, Hermann Göring. Evil had its charms.

__________

Review by Michael Connery

Jack El-Hai’s The Nazi and the Psychiatrist is a detailed, engaging glimpse into the lives and minds of two men on opposite sides of WWII:  Hermann Göring, Hitler’s Reichsmarschall, and Douglas Kelley, the doctor assigned to study him in the lead up to the Nuremberg Trials. El-Hai presents the reader with an in-depth, nuanced character study, not merely of the twenty-two men standing trial for war crimes but of the complex—and later, tormented—man who strove to understand the “Nazi mind.”

Filled with extensive notes, a detailed bibliography, a comprehensive index, a small center collection of photographs, and a list of principle characters, El-Hai’s nonfiction tome is as detailed as it is crisp. The author was granted access to Dr. Kelley’s extensive collection of work detailing his time at Nuremberg through the late psychiatrist’s eldest son. Extensively archived primary source material and firsthand account interviews imbue the work with such authentic detail that the reader is transported to the prison in the aftermath of the global war. The author begins setting the stage with a haunting scene in 1958:  It is the first day of the year, the stunning family home in the hills of California is in turmoil, and the vibrant, flame-eaten patriarch takes his life dramatically and theatrically. Over the following nine chapters, El-Hai scrolls back in time to May of 1945 and works his way forward to that shocking moment.

The strength in El-Hai’s work lies in his depiction of the twenty-two Nuremberg defendants and the American jail staff. Two figures in particular take center stage, though:  Kelley and Göring. Douglas Kelley had made a name for himself treating “combat exhaustion” in the European theatre, and when assigned the task of studying these high-ranking Nazi officials, he was hopeful for answers and dreaming of renown. At a time when the intersection of psychiatry and criminology was a controversial field of study and before psychopaths were on a psychiatrist’s radar, Kelley approached his task with enthusiasm, drive, and curiosity. He wanted to understand the “Nazi mind” and find a common thread tying these individuals together. “Was there a mental flaw common to these prisoners? Did they share a psychiatric disorder that caused them to participate in the monstrous deeds of the Third Reich?” Kelley’s “background in general semantics made him sensitive to their words, able to find significance in the cadences of their talk and the movement of their bodies,” and he used the famed Rorschach inkblot tests to study the minds and intellects of the men under his care. He was particularly drawn to Hermann Göring, a brilliant manipulator, witty and genial conversationalist, devoted family man, and ruthless mastermind of the Third Reich.

El-Hai draws both men in detailed strokes, painting a portrait of two men who were startlingly similar:  confident, charismatic, charming, theatrical, and arrogant to the point of megalomania and naiveté. The meeting of their minds was bound to have a ripple effect as they “courted each other with a mutual fascination.” And the irony of their similarities is glaringly obvious to the reader, though perhaps not to the men themselves.

The book unfolds at an even pace leading from the capture of the Nazi officials to their detainment at Mondorf-les-Bains to their incarceration at Nuremberg to the long trial in the Palace of Justice and the aftermath of the sentencing. Kelley’s intensive psychiatric study left him with a chilling conclusion:  These perpetrators of atrocities that shocked the world were normal men, not insane or deviant or categorically defined. If there was no way to pinpoint a mental state that led to such a mindset, then anyone had the capability of becoming on par with the leaders of the Nazi regime. The findings haunted Kelley for the next twelve years, driving him further into turmoil until that fateful New Year’s Day when he echoed the suicide of the Reichsmarschall with whom he had grown to identify—the agonizing death by cyanide poisoning.

The only weakness of the retelling of the events lies in the author’s grandiloquent summation of the build-up to Kelley’s suicide. Throughout the rest of the book, the author does not interject his opinion into the work and allows history to be its own interpreter. The design aspects of the book are also worth noting as the use of Rorschach inkblots are incorporated into both the tiffs throughout the text and the photographs of the two men on the front cover.

At its heart, El-Hai’s retelling is a study in hubris, in fatal meetings of great and terrible minds, in the normal man’s capacity for both good and evil. The Nazi and the Psychiatrist is a stellar work, compellingly and hauntingly told with surprising slices of sly humor and impeccable insight into the complex nuances of the human mind.

__________

Recommendation

Highly recommended for fans of nonfiction, particularly nonfiction focused on WWII and on the studies of psychiatry and criminology

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