Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

I once met a fellow over at Bethany Village who told me an interesting story. Being a WWII veteran, he said that one of his more memorable assignments after the war was as a prison guard at Nuremberg, where many high-level Nazis--including Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, Hitler's second-in-command--were being held for trial. Based on all he'd heard about these criminals, he half-expected some of them to have horns on their heads, and he was quite taken aback by how normal they seemed and how friendly some of them were. He was told these men were monsters, yet to him they seemed anything but, and he had a difficult time reconciling such normal-acting people with the horrific acts they stood accused of committing. Of course, looks, and more importantly, behavior, can be deceiving, and sociopaths can be quite the charmers when they need to be.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a fascinating book by Jack El-Hai, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and A Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWIIDr. Kelley, an officer in the U.S. Army, was assigned to assess and supervise the mental and emotional fitness of the Nazi detainees before and during the first Nuremberg Trial in 1946. Kelley was eager to find out if the Nazi leaders shared a flaw in their psyches that made them overly willing to commit evil acts, and Göring in particular became the focus of his study. However, by the time Kelley finished his duties at Nuremberg, he'd come to the conclusion that there was no such Nazi "germ" that had infected these men. Rather, he believed that society was filled with men like Göring, "unburdened by conscience and driven by narcissism," men who "spent their days 'behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, and racketeers. . . .'" Placed in the right circumstances and given the proper authority, these men had the potential to wreak havoc just as the Nazis had. Indeed, Kelley went as far as to warn, ". . . I am quite certain that there are people even in America who would willingly climb over the corpses of half of the American public if they could gain control of the other half. . . ."

Kelley once said that "the professional life of a psychiatrist was about 15 years--after that he either went crazy, or committed suicide." Sadly, his words were only too prophetic, for he killed himself in 1958 by swallowing, of all things, potassium cyanide. He was a demanding, driven, and complex man, a professional success but also a man who seemed incapable of simply being happy.

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist is a superb addition to the canon of WWII and Holocaust literature. I highly recommend it.  



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