Probing the minds of Nazi war criminals

Dr. Joel E. Dimsdale is a psychiatrist who has long specialized in the “coping behavior” of concentration camp survivors.
April 27, 2016

Dr. Joel E. Dimsdale is a psychiatrist who has long specialized in the “coping behavior” of concentration camp survivors. One day, a man knocked on his office door and introduced himself as the official hangman who carried out the death sentences of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. “I was the Nuremberg executioner,” the stranger said. “They were scum, Dimsdale, and you need to be studying them, not the survivors.”

Thus begins “Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals” (Yale University Press), an extraordinary book that seeks to understand and explain the perpetrators of the Holocaust by revisiting the clinical notes of two doctors, psychiatrist Douglas Kelley and psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who examined the Nazi defendants in order to assess their competency to stand trial.

“Were they criminally insane, delusional, psychopaths, sadists?” Dimsdale wonders aloud. “The Nuremberg doctors left cryptic and contradictory notes about their observations of the Nazi leaders. I have tried to decipher their records and to examine them anew from the vantage point for the 21st century.”

Dimsdale selected four of the Nuremberg defendants for psychiatric study: Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s designated successor until very near the end of the Third Reich; Rudolf Hess, a confidant of Hitler who forfeited the trust of his boss by stealing a fighter plane and flying to England in a demented attempt to broker a separate peace; Julius Streicher, Nazi propagandist and “Jew Baiter Number One”; and Robert Ley, who started as a Nazi street hooligan and rose to serve as chief of the so-called German Labor Front.

The book is full of fascinating lore. Göring, for example, surrendered himself in the expectation that he would be treated as a head of state, showing up at the prison gate with 16 pieces of matched and monogrammed luggage, a red hatbox, a valet and 20,000 paracodeine pills to feed his lifelong drug habit. Ley was an alcoholic whose excesses disgusted even his fellow defendants. Streicher boasted of his sexual prowess and told his jailers that “if [they] wanted to see how strong he was, they should make a woman available to him in prison.” Hess was convinced that a kitchen worker, “acting for international Jewry,” was trying to poison him, and he sometimes insisted on swapping plates with his guards or demanded that “the psychiatrist tasted his food first.”

Dimsdale is plainly uncomfortable with the conflicted role the doctors played. They administered intelligence tests — Streicher ranked the lowest — and Rorschach tests, which “enchanted” several of the defendants, including Göring. But they also reported on their conversations with the defendants to the prison authorities and the prosecution, and Kelley was suspected of leaking information to the reporters covering the trial. Some of the advice they dispensed to the defendants raises a question about what they were really trying to accomplish; Göring weighed 280 pounds when he was arrested and dropped 80 pounds before trial, and Kelley “claimed that he had helped Göring lose weight by appealing to his narcissism, telling him that he ‘would make a better appearance in court should he lose some weight.’ ”

Dimsdale, above all, seeks to revisit and revise the diagnoses the doctors reached at the time of the Nuremberg trial. He points out that the tools, techniques and even the vocabulary of psychiatry and psychology have changed fundamentally since then, and he is mindful of the dangers of trying to psychoanalyze a dead man across the distance of seven decades. Still, he holds Gilbert and Kelley to account, as when he describes how Gilbert interpreted a gesture that Göring made during the Rorschach test: Göring, according to Gilbert, thought a red spot on one of the cards was blood and tried to wipe it away. “Lady Macbeth’s night was hardly more obvious in betraying her anxiety to rub out the ‘damned spot,’ ” Gilbert insisted.

“This was quite an interpretation, but I think it reveals Gilbert’s difficulties in navigating his various roles at the trial,” Dimsdale argues. “Gilbert, no longer the interpreter nor the prison psychologist, could now be come the avenger.” Yet Dimsdale seems to approve of Gilbert’s final diagnosis of Göring as an “aggressive psychopath with an insatiable lust for power, titles, wealth, food and ostentatious display, ready to murder, steal or stage frame-ups to gain his ends.”

The subtext of “Anatomy of Malice” is a basic but consequential question — were these four Nazi war criminals suffering from some kind of mental illness, or were they merely evil?  Dimsdale concludes that Ley and Göring were not “demons, but very complicated amalgams of vision and malice.” Of the sex-obsessed Streicher, he concludes: “Repugnant beliefs and actions reflect moral failings but not necessarily psychiatric disorders.” Hess, whom Göring himself dismissed as “completely crazy,” baffled the psychiatric experts who examined him, and Dimsdale concludes that “I’m not so sure that today’s clinicians and researchers would do much better at diagnosing Hess than our colleagues who saw him from 1941 to 1946.”

Which leaves us with the most perplexing question of all. “Kelley and Gilbert agreed that the defendants, perhaps with the exception of Hess, were neither legally insane, nor psychotic,” Dimsdale writes. “If the defendants weren’t psychotic, what were they?”

His answer is deeply well informed, drawing expertly on both science and the arts, but it is neither simple nor assured. Dimsdale aspires only to reach “the general vicinity of historical truth,” and he embraces a kind of moral and psychiatric uncertainty principle. “Kelley found some darkness in every person. Gilbert found a unique darkness in some. They were both right.”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is an author whose most recent book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”

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