For more than seven decades, we've been trying to understand the nature of the Nazi mind. Was there something uniquely psychopathic about them, or could their horrors be wreaked by any country's leaders and citizens?
One of the first people to get an opportunity to try to answer this question was Captain Douglas M. Kelley, a 32-year-old psychiatrist in the U.S. Army medical service, who was assigned to attend to the 22 top Nazi defendants being held in Nüremberg, Germany, in the months before their trial began for crimes against humanity. Kelley spent long hours talking to the defendants and administering what were then relatively new psychiatric tests, like Rorschach ink blot testing and Thematic Apperception Tests.
Among the Nazi bigwigs Kelley was responsible for, the top patient was Hermann Göring, former head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's one-time designated successor. Göring's huge personality and appetites were like a tractor beam for Kelley. He was charming, intelligent and quick-witted, but it soon became clear that he had no regard for anyone outside his small circle of family and close friends.
As the book description tells us, Göring managed to kill himself with a cyanide capsule in his cell the night before he was scheduled to be hanged. Twelve years later, Kelley also killed himself with cyanide, after a long slide into emotional illness and alcoholism. The book description concludes that Kelley's suicide shows "the insidious impact of the Göring-Kelley relationship, providing a cautionary tale about the dangers of coming too close to evil."
I think the book description is misleading. Author Jack El-Hai does not try to make an argument that Kelley's exposure to Göring and the other Nazis somehow tainted him and led to his suicide. He does argue that there are some similarities between Göring's and Kelley's motivations for suicide and for choosing cyanide as a method, but that's the extent of it.
The value of this book is not in some sensationalistic link between Göring and Kelley. Instead, the real value is the inside look at the minds of these Nazi leaders and how they revealed themselves to Kelley, whom many of them came to trust. El-Hai writes a great deal about Göring, but there is also extensive and valuable discussion of Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Robert Ley, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Julius Streicher and others. This should be of interest to many history readers, especially those who enjoyed books like Anthony Read's The Devil's Disciples: Hitler's Inner Circle.
Secondarily, El-Hai gives us an insightful look at the early days of criminal psychology and psychiatric testing. Kelley was active in both fields, including in the years after Nüremberg, when he lectured and consulted, was a professor of psychiatry at Wake Forest University and, in 1949, became the first head of the newly-established department of criminology at the University of California at Berkeley. Many of the concepts we take for granted today were in their infancy during this period, and El-Hai provides a clear and interesting view of what the field was like at that time.
Finally, El-Hai provides a fascinating description of various analysts' views of Kelley's records of the psychoanalytic tests of the Nazi defendants, and their debates about what they revealed about the Nazi psyche.
Rights to The Nazi and the Psychiatrist have been optioned to turn it into both a film and a stage play. I suspect in both cases, the hook will be the same sensationalistic one as in the book description. While that may make a good selling strategy, I hope people will read and appreciate the book for its actual content.