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The Nazi Ink Blots

Dusty Sklar
June 27, 2016
by Dusty Sklar Discussed in this essay: Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals, by Joel E. Dimsdale. Yale University Press, 2016, 256 pages. rorschachblot02AFTER WORLD WAR II, the Allies held an international war crimes trial in Nuremberg. In Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals, psychiatry professor emeritus Joel E. Dimsdale reassesses the work of two men who had in-depth interviews with Nazi leaders on trial and arrived at utterly different conclusions. The interviewers were Douglas Kelley, a psychiatrist, and Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist. Gilbert and Kelley both considered the Nazis they interviewed to be legally sane. Yet the two held opposing views on the personality assessments. Gilbert, who was Jewish, served in Nuremberg as a translator for the International Military Tribunal and was appointed the prison psychologist. In that role, he became the confidant of several leading Nazis, including Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, among others. Gilbert also testified in the Nuremberg Trials about the sanity of Rudolf Hess. He generally attributed his subjects’ malice to a depraved psychopathology, had a rather intense hatred for them, and found them ruthless and narcissistic. In 1950, he published The Psychology of Dictatorship, a profile of Adolf Hitler, based on the reports of the Nazis he’d known at Nuremberg. In 1961, he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Kelley was a military intelligence officer and the chief psychiatrist at Nuremberg. He wrote two books about the Nazi war criminals, Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg and The Case of Rudolph Hess. Kelley considered Nazism to be a socio-cultural disease, and believed that while Nazis were morally flawed, egocentric, aggressive, and exhibited a lack of conscience, they were ordinary men, simply creatures of circumstance, “similar to many top executives” whose behavior is shaped by their environment. 
(Interestingly, in 1958, Kelley committed suicide with a cyanide capsule, just as Göring had done in prison.) Out of twenty-two defendants, Joel Dimsdale has chosen four to examine in depth: Robert Ley, Hermann Göring, Julius Streicher and Rudolf Hess. Ley, the leader of the German Labor Front — the Nazi labor organization — was an alcoholic whose brain had been injured in an accident. He committed suicide before the Nuremberg trial, after which his brain was removed for study. Göring, the second most powerful man in the Nazi party, who founded the Gestapo, was alternately charming and brutal. (Incidentally, his younger brother, Albert, had opposed the Nazi party and went out of his way to rescue Jews.) Goring, too, committed suicide, an hour before his scheduled hanging. Streicher, founder and publisher of Der Sturmer, was known as Jew-Baiter Number One and was reviled by the other internees. Hess, deputy führer to Hitler until 1941, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau prison, and in 1987, at 93, he hanged himself there. “I am entirely normal,” Hess told Gilbert. “Even while I was doing the extermination work, I led a normal family life . . . I was obeying orders, and now, of course, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But I don’t know what you mean by being upset about these things because I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination program at Auschwitz. It was Hitler who ordered it through Himmler and it was Eichmann who gave me the orders regarding transports.” THE METHOD that Gilbert and Kelley relied on most was the Rorschach test, a frequently used personality assessment tool in those days. Each subject was asked to give his response to a series of abstract ink blots. The responses were analyzed for patterns that reflected certain personality traits or mental disorders. Gilbert understood German but was new to the Rorschach test; Kelley was an expert on the Rorschach, but relied upon Gilbert as translator to hear his subjects’ responses. According to Dimsdale, the Rorschach tests “found that while some of the Nazis were emotionally unstable and some exhibited longstanding degenerative mental processes, many of them were not psychopaths or criminally insane.” However, he admits, “Who knows what is a strange response in a jailed cabinet minister facing a death sentence?” Moreover, “if you knew the inkblot record came from a Nazi war criminal, could you possibly interpret it dispassionately?” The Rorschach assessments were never presented as evidence at Nuremberg. A few years later, Molly Harrower, a Rorschach authority, tried to have the tests gone over again by world-renowned psychologists, all of whom refused to take part. Not until 1975 did Harrower succeed in rounding up a panel of experts who went over the Nuremberg test results, but without identifying individual patients. The tests of Nazi leaders were commingled with contemporary tests for mental patients and members of the clergy, and the experts could not distinguish the results for the Nazis from those of the clergy. “While many of us would find it more comforting if we were able to recall, definitively, that the Nazis were just monsters -- different from you and me,” Dimsdale concluded, “nothing in the tests proved that difference the case. The results suggest, rather, that most people are capable of committing evil, violent acts under certain circumstances.” 

All the same, Dimsdale believes that despite their differences, jealousies, lawsuits, quarrels and recriminations, the work of Gilbert and Kelley has “shaped how we understand the anatomy of malice today.” Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. She is the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.