Books: Evil innate

What did psychologists who studied the worst Nazis find in their psyches?

Rudolf hess speaks to a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rudolf hess speaks to a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Scientists love studying the best or the worst of anyone or anything, since it gives them a baseline, a starting point from which to compare other viruses or planets or economies – or Israeli prime ministers, for that matter.
So we can only imagine how psychiatrists and psychologists were drooling at the prospect of getting their investigative hands on the 23 Nazi officials on trial in Nuremberg in 1945-46. These men were the practitioners of the greatest evil in human history: conceiving and carrying out the mass murder of millions of civilians, running slave-labor camps and planning and executing the most destructive war ever fought by our most destructive species.
Were the men who originated and executed such diabolical schemes insane, as was and is widely believed? On the face of it, to use an expression not yet scientifically accepted, they were bonkers. But would a board of psychiatrists have committed them to a mental hospital if they had lived in a sane country? Two scientists – psychiatrist Douglas Kelley and psychologist Gustave Gilbert – interviewed these men at length and performed psychological tests on them to make that determination.
In Anatomy of Malice, author Joel E.
Dimsdale looks at the evidence – some of which has been hidden for 60 years – with the eyes of a 21st-century psychiatrist.
Dimsdale concentrates on four of the defendants. Why those four? “Two of them [Rudolf Hess and Julius Streicher] raised so many psychiatric flags that the tribunal formally requested their psychiatric evaluation,” he writes. “Robert Ley killed himself in prison, and after examining his brain, researchers theorized that his malice was driven by brain pathology. Hermann Göring was, quite simply, the principal defendant and highest- ranking Nazi official.”
Ley was head of the German Labor Front. He ordered the murder of anti-Nazi labor leaders and set up slave-labor factories in Germany. Streicher was founder and publisher of Der Stürmer, a viciously anti-Semitic newspaper: “For sheer nastiness, unalloyed with any saving graces, we need to turn to Julius Streicher,” writes Dimsdale.
The author noted: “Sex and violence were his abiding interests.... He enjoyed beating people and found that he could work off his tensions by whipping prisoners.”
Even for a Nazi, Streicher’s behavior was off the charts, he writes. While all the Nazis were anti-Semitic, for him hating Jews was “more central to his being. It was his North Star, so to speak – a beacon that guided his actions.”
Göring, founder of the Gestapo, commander of the German air force and No.
2 to Hitler, “cultivated a jovial persona, but behind that was a three-dimensional complexity that was at once attractive and repellent,” according to the author.
“Göring was larger than life – a dissolute man with a taste for luxury and larceny.”
To Gilbert, Göring was a “bully with a cowardly core,” writes Dimsdale, while Kelley saw him as a “rogue” like many other people.
Of all the defendants, Hess, who was deputy führer from 1933 until he flew to Scotland in 1941 to negotiate with the British and became a prisoner of war, seemed to be the most insane – to the point that many people at the trial, including his American army interrogator, thought that he was faking the symptoms.
He told Kelley that his chronic stomach problems were improving due to the “homeopathic effect of the minute doses of poison which ‘have been placed in my food.’” He also was saving small pieces of marmalade on paper, which he sealed with red wax to be inspected for brain poison.
In his final statement to the court, Hess complained about people “with glassy strange eyes” who were around him and noted that at the Moscow show trials, the defendants also had “glazed and dreamy eyes.”
Dimsdale quotes Kelley as writing in his book, 22 Cells in Nuremberg: “Diagrammatically, if one considers the street as sanity and the sidewalk as insanity, then Hess spent the greater part of his time on the curb.”
So, were the four subjects of this book and the other defendants insane? Dimsdale notes ironically that at the Nuremberg trial, people believed the question would be answered if psychiatrists and psychologists were permitted to interview the defendants. But instead, the process produced “diagnoses, but they were hardly revelatory about the origins of malice.”
What about the two professionals who interviewed the defendants at length? Gilbert saw the Nazi leaders’ behavior as evidence of a psychiatric disorder (“narcissistic psychopaths”) while Kelley viewed the Nazis as examples of “profound moral failing,” according to this book’s author.
Dimsdale ends his book by deciding not to decide.
“Kelley found some darkness in every person. Gilbert found a unique darkness in some. They were both right.”
Clever, but not very satisfying.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.