Book review: The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

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Like Göring, he swallowed a pill of potassium cyanide

The Nazi is Hermann Göring, the psychiatrist is Californian Douglas Kelley. They met when Göring was captured and Kelley had to assess whether he – and 21 other leading Nazis – was mentally fit to be tried at Nuremburg.

Kelley wanted to find out something else too – whether any of the detainees shared any psychological trait that might explain their actions. American journalist Jack El-Hai’s fascinating story understandably concentrates on Kelley’s relationship with Göring. He was, after all, the only Nazi to hold the rank of Reichsmarshall, and, until the last month of the war, was Hitler’s successor and deputy. But as El-Hai discovers, the two men had a lot more in common than that.

When Göring was arrested, this didn’t seem immediately obvious. Goring was grossly overweight and a drug addict. He had almost all of the world’s supply of addictive paracodeine among the 20,000 tablets he was carrying when he was arrested. He also had $1 million, a remarkable gem collection and a considerable amount of silk underwear.

Kelley got Göring off his drugs addiction and to become physically fit. This and Goring’s hunger for an audience made him confide in Kelley and give him important documents which the psychiatrist eventually took home as the basis for his later writings. Under his care, Göring became again “the confident and shrewd player of power politics”.

Kelley treated all the prisoners with respect and was non-judgmental about their crimes but passed details of their confessions to prosecutors. Of the top Nazis in his care, Göring adjusted best to the humiliation of gaol. Kelley believed he had a “complete lack of moral value’” and an explanation for everything. He dismissed the Nazi treatment of the Jews, for example, as nothing more than “good political propoganda”.

During his time at Nuremberg, Kelley put together profiles of all his patients including Hess, Ribbentrop and Donitz. He collected the books they had published and took signed copies home. He was transferred back to the United States as the trials began in January 1946, missing Goring’s spellbinding testimony and suicide.

On his return, he broke the agreement he had made with his assistant at Nuremberg to work together and published a book about his experience which sold few copies. He was readily available to the press and the lecture circuit, all of which helped his public profile leading to a prestigious post at the University of California.

Kelley continued to agonise over the motivations of the Nazi criminals he had encountered, hoping to find the explanation that would prevent any similar totalitarian regime ever coming to power.

But it wasn’t to be. There was no shared disorder. Hess was the only one of the Nazis who could clearly have been categorised as insane, and of the rest, Kelley concluded that all they shared was “unbridled ambition, weak ethics and excessive patriotism”. All had emotions and responses just like normal family men on the Allied side. German culture emphasised national superiority, he admitted, but he pointed out that right-wing American politicians exploited racial myths in the same way.

One characteristic the leading Nazis shared was that they were all workaholics. So was their psychiatrist. On his return, Kelley’s professional ambition drove him to work too hard and to be domineering at home, using his elder son as a psychiatric experiment. The later chapters give a fascinating and shrewd analysis of Kelley’s nightmares.

Kelley and Göring had even more in common. Both loved being the centre of attention and being in control. Their discussions, he wrote, featured “one highly confident egotist against another”.

Both men were bright – Göring had an IQ of 138 and Kelley had been selected to be part of a US study about whether childhood intelligence was maintained as an adult. As El-Hai shows in this remarkable book, Kelley saved the final similarity right to the end. On New Year’s Day 1958, he committed suicide in front of his wife and children on New Year’s Day 1958. His method? Like Goring. he swallowed a capsule of potassium cyanide.