January 5, 2011
Encounters behind bars between Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering and an American doctor 65 years ago raise questions about responsibility, allegiance and the nature of evil
In the early summer of 1945 a 52-year-old prisoner arrived at Mondorf-les-Bains, a town in Luxembourg that included an American detention center for suspected war criminals. The prisoner, dragging 49 suitcases, gem-encrusted jewelry, gold cigarette cases, precious watches and nearly the entire world’s supply of the narcotic paracodeine, had surrendered to Allied officials several weeks earlier. After a dozen years in which he held nearly unchecked power and could demand anything he desired, he now occupied a small cell furnished only with a toilet, bed, chair and table. The bloody collapse of the Third Reich, whose Nazi government he now represented as the highest-ranking captive, had left him a leader without followers, a commander without fighters, anda prisoner accused of murdering millions and committing other crimes against humanity. He acknowledged the right of the victors of World War II to punish the Nazi leadership, but he planned a vigorous defense of his actions at his forthcoming war crimes trial.
This was the situation of Hermann Goering, formerly deputy of Adolf Hitler, president of the Reichstag, commander in chief of the German air force, member of the Secret Cabinet Council and Reich Marshal (along with a slew of other official titles), when a 32-year-old American psychiatrist named Douglas M. Kelley entered his cell for the first of many meetings. Kelley was among the few people—along with other medical personnel, lawyers and guards—allowed access to Goering. During the next six months the prisoner and the psychiatrist would hash over the outcome of the war, the fate of Goering’s family and the Reich Marshal’s legacy.
For the prisoner, this talk relieved the stress of incarceration. For Kelley, a major in the U.S. Medical Corps from northern California and chief psychiatrist in the U.S. Army’s European Theater of Operations, the stakes were higher. The meetings offered an incomparable look into the mind of one of history’s most infamous criminals and an opportunity to analyze the personalities of the high-ranking Nazis being held at Mondorf-les-Bains. After the horror of the war, Kelley wrote, “the near destruction of modern culture will have gone for naught if we do not draw the right conclusions about the forces that produced such chaos. We must learn the why of the Nazi success so we can take steps to prevent the recurrence of such evil.” In addition, Goering was the last man standing after the rest of the top echelon of Nazis—Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels—had committed suicide. Kelley hoped to use the information he gathered to break new ground in the study of criminal motivation and the use of the Rorschach inkblot test—a psychological tool he had long championed.
Kelley’s personal papers and the medical records he kept, which his family has never previously opened to examination before making them available for this article, show how the psychiatrist doggedly followed his ambitions in Goering’s cell as he crossed the boundaries between working as physician, serving as confidante, informing on the prisoner to prosecutors, and developing sobering conclusions on the nature of the Nazi mind. By the time of the trial, Kelley was experiencing the odd mental dissonance that many people who work with criminals report feeling today: despite abhorring the atrocities that Goering committed and commanded, Kelley grew to see him as a captivating—even likable—human being.
In his quest to make sense of Goering’s personality, Kelley pioneered the psychiatric evaluation of war criminals. His missteps and blurred boundaries foreshadowed the ethical conflicts that military psychiatrists and psychologists continued to face during the cold war and, more recently, in the wars that spawned the military prisons at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Questions of allegiance, as well as the confounding dissonance between a prisoner’s alleged crimes and the attractions of his personality, still haunt psychological specialists who aid in the interrogation of detainees from the battlefield.
The Good Doctor
Kelley’s official role at Mondorf-les-Bains and at the prison in Nuremberg, Germany, that later held Goering and the 21 other top Nazi leaders for judgment before an unprecedented international tribunal was to tend to the medical needs of prisoners as he evaluated their mental fitness to stand trial. Born in the rugged mountain town of Truckee in the Sierra Nevadas, Kelley by the age of 30 had risen through psychiatry’s ranks to a position of responsibility as director of the San Francisco County Psychopathic Hospital. He joined the army and served in the European theater of the war as chief psychiatrist for the 30th General Hospital. That put him in the right place at the right time for the historic trial planned for the war’s end in Nuremberg. Although he did not speak German, his ambition, brains and burning curiosity compelled him to take advantage of this unique chance to scrutinize the Nazi leaders.
Kelley’s initial impressions of his most notorious subject were memorable. “Each day when I came to his cell on my rounds,” Kelley wrote, “he would jump up from his chair, greet me with a broad smile and outstretched hand, escort me to his cot and pat its middle with his great paw. ‘Good morning, Doctor. I am so glad you have come to see me. Please sit down, Doctor. Sit here.’ Then he would ease his own great body … down beside me, ready to answer my questions.” Even through a translator, Kelley found him charming (when Goering chose to be so), smart, eloquent and imaginative. Goering had a childish enthusiasm for showing off the wartime loot he was able to keep with him in prison: huge rings, one set with a massive platinum-mounted ruby, others with emeralds and blue diamonds, as well as an enormous unset emerald.
Kelley initially had to focus on improving Goering’s health by ending his longtime drug dependency. At the time of his capture by the Allies, Goering was taking a large daily dose of paracodeine, a narcotic then produced only in Germany for the treatment of pain. His addiction dated back to dental work of the 1930s. Goering gradually ended his pill-popping with some psychological manipulation from Kelley. “Goering was very proud of his physical prowess and his ability to withstand pain,” the psychiatrist wrote. “Consequently, it was simple to suggest to him that while weaker men … would perhaps require doses of medicine should they ever be withdrawn from a drug habit, he, Goering, being strong and forceful would require nothing.”
With Goering successfully weaned from the narcotic, Kelley turned his attention to his main object: the Nazi’s psychiatric state. Because of his responsibilities to the international tribunal, Kelley had to answer whether Goering was mentally competent to stand trial. Beyond that, he had his own puzzle to solve: What motivated the Nazi and made his personality distinctive? Kelley began by gathering a history of Goering, from his beginnings as a World War I fighter pilot to his friendship with Hitler during the early 1920s and his rise in the Nazi ranks to become commander of the Luftwaffe and the Führer’s heir apparent. From that foundation, Kelley built his psychiatric appraisal.
The Nazi Personality
Kelley believed the Rorschach test, developed by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach after World War I, was crucial to his understanding of Goering and the other prisoners. The test offers 10 abstract images for subjects to describe and spin stories from. Kelley was considered an expert evaluator of subjects’ personalities by this method of focusing on various aspects of their responses to the inkblot images. He weighed such things as whether subjects considered the entire Rorschach picture or just details and the logical sense of their interpretations. (During the 1950s and 1960s Rorschach remained the most popular personality test in use, although today it is largely discredited, and many psychologists do not recommend using it to diagnose mental disorders.) Although his Rorschach results for Goering never made it into court, Kelley was convinced they could reveal the psychological workings of the deposed leader.
By this time Goering had been moved to the Palace of Justice in bombed-out Nuremberg, where he and an assortment of the top Nazis snared by the Allies (including German Army Chief of the General Staff Alfred Jodl, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, Nazi Party philosopher Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler Youth Head Baldur von Schirach) were held in solitary confinement through their trial. The Nuremberg warden, Colonel Burton Andrus, had brought in an American psychologist, Gustave M. Gilbert, to assist Kelley in evaluating the prisoners. Kelley did not welcome Gilbert’s help, and their relationship was often strained. Together, however, they completed the Rorschach testing of nearly all the war crimes defendants.
Kelley found Goering’s results surprising, given the wartime propaganda that the Nazi leaders had to be madmen. Goering’s responses to the Rorschach images demonstrated “normal basic personality,” Kelley wrote, although they also revealed “marked egocentricity and powerful emotional drives.” They showed nothing seriously wrong with Goering’s mind. Nevertheless, Kelley considered the test results a good first step toward gaining insight into Goering’s thinking. He used intelligence testing to assign Goering an IQ of 138, third highest among the incarcerated Nazis. (This score delighted the vain Goering.)
Kelley further noted that the prisoner was “cynical and filled with a mystic fatalism,” which explained why he would not take responsibility for such wartime conduct as his murder of political opponents and complicity in genocide. In his initial neurological and psychiatric report on Goering (a record hidden among Kelley’s personal papers for the past 65 years), the psychiatrist observed Goering’s emotional volatility and narcissistic fixation on what the prisoner perceived as the beauty and strength of his body. Kelley, concerned about the health of Goering’s heart, took advantage of this latter obsession to convince Goering to trim down. “When I pointed out that he would make a better appearance in court should he lose some weight, he agreed and ate abstemiously,” Kelley wrote.
More forbiddingly, Kelley learned that Goering displayed a terrible flip side to the charm and eloquence he showed on first impression. This man who, as Reich Forestry and Hunting Master, had repeatedly condemned cruelty to animals and drafted humane laws to preserve wildlife, also ordered the 1940 bombing of the defenseless city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands that flattened the city center and left 85,000 people homeless. After Goering matter-of-factly recounted the murder of a close associate that he had once set into motion, Kelley asked how he could bring himself to demand his old friend be killed. “Goering stopped talking and stared at me, puzzled, as if I were not quite bright,” Kelley recalled. “Then he shrugged his great shoulders, turned up his palms and said slowly, in simple, one-syllable words: ‘But he was in my way….’ ”
And Kelley’s conclusions from all this? For the international war crimes tribunal, he pronounced the Nazi legally sane, free of psychosis and fit for trial. As part of his private study of Goering’s personality, Kelley declared, “He was undoubtedly the most ruthless human being that I have ever experienced.”