The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII

Jack El-Hai


I came to this book at the recommendation of a friend, and it's one of the best I've read recently.

The book tells the story of the meeting of psychiatrist Douglas Kelley with Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Nuremberg gaol where the latter was on trial. It's mainly a book about Kelley, Goering's personality having been dissected enough in other works (not least Kelley's own 22 cells in nuremberg, which is itself well worth reading for eyewitness value). It follows Kelley from his childhood as the driven and over-achieving child of a famous, eccentric, Californian family; through his committed treatment of shell-shocked soldiers and his appointment to oversee the mental health of the Nuremberg inmates; to his later career and eventual suicide. The fascination of his suicide is that Kelley chooses the same method as Goering himself -- cyanide -- in a dramatic and public gesture that seems to lack any real motive.

Kelley's commitment to traumatised soldiers notwithstanding, he was not an attractive personality. His psychiatric certainty is alarming, especially given his reliance on Rorschach blot tests and truth drugs that would not nowadays be well thought of. The author does a good job of highlighting the controversy that Rorschach interpretation engendered, even though the consensus now favours Kelley's view that there was no "Nazi personality" or particular criminal characteristic that set the Nuremberg prisoners apart.

This really is an excellent read, and the only reason for giving it only four stars instead of five is this (which may be an unfair criticism anyway): the author never really nails the interaction between Kelley and Goering, in the sense of how the experience affected Kelley's personality. The doctor comes across as self-absorbed, opinionated, and controlling. He steps into the limelight whenever possible, offering his opinions with a quite hair-raising certainty, and one can't quite escape the suspicion that his certainly could easily have abetted miscarriages of justice in his later career. He tries to shape his eldest son in a particular image, is withdrawn and self-absorbed, and kills himself in what almost seems like a fit of pique.

But despite the book's title, the core question remains unanswered: to what extent was Kelley shaped by Nuremberg, and by Goering in particular? Did the experience of the prison change him from confident to arrogant, or was that transition inevitable and perhaps just slightly reinforced? He clearly always had a yearning for fame, and yet received his most famous assignment largely by chance. Was the experience formative for him (as wartime experiences were for so many), or did it simply provide a lever by which to accomplish pre-existing goals? I suspect Nuremberg affected Kelley less than one might imagine, his self-absorption protecting him while allowing him to function. In that sense he was the perfect choice for Nuremberg psychiatrist.

Finished on Fri, 07 Mar 2014 01:49:39 -0800.   Rating 4/5.