In August of 1945, Major Douglas Kelley secured the prize assignment for a psychiatrist in post-World War II Europe. The United States Army selected him to evaluate the mental status of the Nazis awaiting war crime trials. These were the highest ranking German commanders who had been captured alive, a coterie who oversaw the worst atrocities in human history.
From a psychiatric viewpoint, the diagnostic possibilities were potentially groundbreaking: never before had such a “select” group been assembled. Did these leaders represent the darkest side of pathology? Was there a “Nazi mindset” that could be identified? Was there an interpersonal clue that could prevent such horrors from being perpetuated again?
Numerous professionals from around the world had sought permission to examine this most evil collection of conspirators, but it was Kelley, owing to his academic training at Columbia plus detailed field experience, who was tasked with the responsibility.
Later, a psychologist, Lieutenant Gustave Gilbert, was added to the elite evaluation team.
Among the captured Nazis were Hermann Goring, second-in-command to Hitler; Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments; Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Foreign Affairs Director; and Rudolph Hess, Commandant of Auschwitz.
Kelley was charged initially with determining if the Nazis were sane enough to stand trial. In short order, the answer was affirmative. Following this early diagnostic work, Kelley was free to perform whatever analysis he preferred: for the next five months, he and Gilbert did just that.
The two used multiple testing instruments to probe the Nazis, but the one which continues to provoke discussion is the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The results of these tests and the contradictory interpretations which followed leave respected experts and historians confounded to this day.
Developed by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in the 1920’s, the test consists of ten inkblots, five in color and five in black and white; the subject is presented these vague images, one-by-one, and is asked to describe what they see.
How to interpret the data gleaned from the inkblots has been an issue since the test was first released. Rorschach was not around to take part in these discussions because a ruptured appendix took his life one year after he published the test.
Originally, the test was designed for schizophrenic patients, but psychologists identified its rich diagnostic potential for general use — the test took on a life of its own with frequent revisions.
By the time Kelley and Gilbert assessed the Nazis, there was no clear standard for Rorschach interpretation. The two scientists drew radically different conclusions.
Kelley disappointed those who expected him to discover a monster “Nazi personality.” He found troubling pathologies and what author Jack El-Hai described as “unbridled ambition, weak ethics, and excessive patriotism that could justify any action of questionable rightness.” Smart, opportunistic, and not unique – as Dr. Stanton Samenow later said “the criminal is rational, calculating, and deliberate in his actions.”
Kelley believed that the Nazis committed and tolerated acts of horror, just as many others were capable of doing in the same set of circumstances.
El-Hai quotes an episode where Kelley told Goring (the two had a close relationship) that the imprisoned Nazis were “Hitler’s yes-men.” Goring responded “please show me a ‘no-man’ in Germany who is not six feet underground today.”
Gilbert vehemently disagreed with Kelley; he labeled the Nazis “demonic psychopaths” who were not burdened by conscience or concern for the suffering they inflicted on others. They exhibited blind obedience to authority, whatever the severity of consequences.
Gilbert’s conclusion was that the Nazis shared a common thread of antisocial malevolence. These were not bureaucrats caught helplessly in Hitler’s web—they were treacherous murderers.
The results of the Nazi inkblot tests have been examined repeatedly and the bulk of opinion favors Kelley’s findings. Questions, however, have risen about the methods Kelley and Gilbert used. In the shadow of the gallows, the context of the test did not lend itself to total authenticity. Language barriers, particularly because Kelley used a translator, also may have influenced the testing.
Yet, the work done by Kelley and Gilbert documented an important historical episode. It is vital to understand how anyone could justify their actions as Rudolph Hess did in his statement: “I am entirely normal…I don’t regret anything, I thought I was doing the right thing. I was obeying orders. I didn’t personally murder anyone. I was just the director of the extermination program at Auschwitz.”
FOOTNOTE: The first Nuremberg Trial began November 20, 1945 and was in session 218 days. Eighteen of the twenty-one defendants were sentenced to death.
Goring committed suicide by ingesting potassium cyanide the night before his execution.
The Nazis were hanged and cremated (some sources indicate that the cremations took place at the Dachau Concentration Camp). Their remains were scattered in the Isar River near Munich.
Interestingly, Kelley committed suicide thirteen years later, also using a potassium cyanide capsule.