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Listening to Stories from Nazis

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Psychiatrist Douglas Kelley used a new psychological test to draw stories from the top Nazi defendants at Nuremberg, and what he heard changed his life.

“]Douglas M. Kelley teaching, circa 1955 [Reprinted with permission of Kelley's family]

Douglas M. Kelley teaching, circa 1955 [Reprinted with permission of Kelley's family

On October 8, 1945, Douglas M. Kelley, a U.S. Army psychiatrist assigned to appraise the mental health of the top Nazi leaders held in the Nuremberg jail for later trial, sat down with his most intriguing patient. During the previous two months, Kelley and Hermann Göring — the highest-ranking Nazi in Allied hands — had spent dozens of hours discussing the events of World War II, the policies of the Nazi regime, and the prospects of its captured officials. Kelley had scrutinized Göring’s motivations and probed his state of mind. Now the psychiatrist asked his subject, who had long been in line to succeed Adolf Hitler as Führer of the Third Reich, to look at a series of pictures and write down stories about them.

One of the pictures showed a man harvesting in the field as one woman looked on and another woman, holding an armload of books, strode away. From this image, Göring spun a narrative rich with detail:

“There is a man, a farmer, deeply devoted to his work and a lover of nature. His fate is revolving around two women, one pregnant woman leaning against a tree, undoubtedly a woman from the country, and the other one, a young girl mentally more alert and from the city. The man is impressed by the younger girl. A conflict arises in the man’s mind, but due to the expected child and his devotion to the soil, he will return to his wife, and the young girl will go back to the city and go her own way.”

A layperson might speculate that Göring, subconsciously projecting his own experience into the picture, was describing the claims that his two wives, the deceased Carin von Kantzow and the living Emmy Sonnemann Göring, made on his loyalty. Although Kelley’s trained interpretation of Göring’s tale is unknown, the psychiatrist took seriously this exercise in storytelling. It was part of a recently developed psychological assessment called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and Kelley, a 33-year-old graduate of the medical school of the University of California and holder of a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia, had great faith in the power of such tests to open a window into the minds of the Nazi captives.

The TAT was the invention of psychologist Henry A. Murray and psychoanalyst Christiana D. Morgan, both Americans. They developed it throughout the 1930s and ‘40s under the principle that subjects telling stories from pictures will unknowingly reveal aspects of their fantasies, personality, and psychology. Murray and Morgan adapted dozens of pictures from magazine illustrations and evocative paintings. The picture from which Göring developed his story, for instance, was closely modeled on Morning on the Cape, a painting by the New York artist Leon Abraham Kroll.

Kelley, assigned the mundane task of assessing the Nazis’ mental fitness to stand trial, had fashioned a much more ambitious personal plan for his months at Nuremberg. He wanted to use psychological testing and in-depth interviewing of the prisoners to identify character traits or mental disorders that they held in common — a “Nazi personality” that could help pinpoint future malefactors. The TAT was one of Kelley’s tools.

Hermann Göring gave this inscribed portrait of himself to Douglas Kelley in Nuremberg jail, 1945.

Hermann Göring gave this inscribed portrait of himself to Douglas Kelley in Nuremberg jail, 1945.

He gave pictures to several other top Nazis and took in their stories. Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories and bogus scholar whose philosophical tracts had sought to legitimize racism and extoll Aryan supremacy, studied a picture of a man climbing a rope and produced a story that sorely lacked Göring’s verve. He told of an acrobat overwhelmed by the difficulty of his routine who realizes that he cannot go on. “Thus depressed,” Rosenberg ended his story, “he climbs down again, and refuses to perform any stunts that day.” From this and other assessments, Kelley concluded that Rosenberg was intellectually lazy and stunted in his imagination.

Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer who had flown to Britain during the war with a confused plan to broker a truce, approached the TAT differently. Possibly paranoiac, possibly faking amnesia, Hess professed to see nothing in the pictures and refused to tell any tales. Urged on by Kelley, Hess gave responses that followed a pattern: “I can’t tell. My power of concentration is exhausted,” “I can’t make a story out of it even if I try,” “I don’t know what the purpose is,” “It only makes me sleepy looking at it,” etc.

In addition to the TAT, Kelley made heavy use of the Rorschach inkblot test to assess his Nazi subjects. His overall conclusion that the German leaders were sane and that there was no identifiable Nazi personality rattled him, causing him to switch fields to criminology and making him ponder his own capacity for evil. Increasingly workaholic, alcoholic, and angry, he spiraled downward to suicide in 1958. He swallowed the same poison, cyanide, that Göring had taken to end his life. The psychological assessments he aimed at the Nazis had inadvertently illuminated fault lines in Kelley’s own personality.

Jack El-Hai About the Author: Jack El-Hai is the author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (PublicAffairs Books). He previously published The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (Wiley). A writer on the history of medicine and science, he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Augsburg College. Follow on Twitter @Jack_ElHai.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. dbtinc 10:38 am 09/19/2013

    So I can take away from this that most people put into the Nazi environment would behave in an increasing bad manner. When the social norms and pressures are removed, are base instincts rise to the surface. We’ve seen this time and time again in more modern conflicts.

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  2. 2. plswinford 3:11 pm 09/19/2013

    Psychiatry is nonsense. However, history is informative. The Southern half of the United States abused enslaved kidnap victims for 200 years. The Roman coliseum was in business for centuries. Yes, Homo Sapiens can at times be brutal.

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  3. 3. Postman1 1:47 pm 09/21/2013

    @plswinford
    A better example would be the myriad tribes in certain African countries who continue to capture, enslave, and sell members of neighboring tribes. Slavery is alive and thriving in central parts of the continent.

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