'The Nazi and the Psychiatrist' author Jack El-Hai discusses a fascinating and appalling 'meeting of minds'

El-Hai's book centers on Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, an American psychiatrist, and Nazi leader Hermann Göring. As the Nuremberg Trials loomed, Kelley tried to understand what had made Göring who he was.

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    'The Nazi and the Psychiatrist' is by Jack El-Hai.
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For an American psychiatrist named Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, captured Nazi leader Hermann Göring was both a patient and a project. Kelley wanted to probe the mind of Hermann Göring, to understand what makes a man become so destructive, so heinous, so inhumane.

But Kelley didn't have much time. World War II had ended, the Nuremberg Trials were around the corner, and a ghastly club of disgraced Nazi leaders had only weeks to live. Göring, above them all, faced certain execution. Yet he retained the bizarre mix of charm and brutality that turned him into Hitler's right-hand man.

In his new book, author and journalist Jack El-Hai takes readers into a detention center in Luxembourg as the victors in the war try to understand the psyches of the vanquished before the verdicts come.

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Readers will be both fascinated and appalled by The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII.

The Nazi leaders seem to share little in common – they're variously lively, spiteful, frightened, and quite possibly insane. But they all played a part in promoting evil and their captors hoped to find the threads that bound them together.

I know El-Hai through our volunteer work for the American Society of Journalists & Authors. I asked him to explore the mystery of Göring's personality, explain what the psychiatrist came to believe, and ponder the lessons we can learn from these men about the nature of evil.
 
Q: What was Dr. Kelley's job, and what did he hope to accomplish?
 
A: The Nuremberg tribunal needed someone to certify that the top 22 Nazis were mentally fit to stand trial. That was [Kelley's] assignment once he got there, and he was also supposed to keep them in good health.

Kelley wanted to make much more of his opportunity, though. He realized that he was in the daily presence of these men who were widely thought to be the criminals of the century, and he believed he should make sense of that chance.

He decided to study them and give them psychological tests to see if he could find common traits to help explain their behavior. Maybe the traits could be used to identify future war criminals, future perpetrators.
 
Q: How did Hermann Göring fit into the picture?
 
A: He was the top-ranking German in custody and Kelley was immediately drawn to him.

The two needed each other in a way. Göring wanted somebody to perpetuate his reputation, he wanted intellectual company and stimulation, and he wanted help communicating with his family. Kelley needed Göring to accomplish this study that he was interested in.

The two were so fit for each other. Both were master manipulators, and they manipulated each other freely.
 
Q: There were others who assisted Kelley, including a Jewish psychologist and a Jewish translator who hid his religion from the Nazi prisoners. You're Jewish yourself. What was your reaction to learning about these men?
 
A: I found myself trying to put myself in those positions.

The translator really had to distance himself from that ugliness. I don't know if I would have been able to. I think I would have been just tied up in knots.
 
Q: One of the most amazing details of your book is how Göring traveled to custody with suitcases full of luxury items, even including hand cream that would become important in your story. Why was this allowed?
 
A: It all went back to before the Nuremberg tribunal had even been decided upon when there were discussions about how these Nazis should be treated.

The Russians and British were in favor of putting them up against a wall and shooting them, but the Americans didn't want that. They persuaded the others that there should be a real trial for the future: They should be treated like real defendants with no presumption of guilt. Up to a limit, they should have the rights of a normal prisoner.

As for Göring, he was one of the few who'd surrendered. He had packed bags, and a lot of them, and had gone out to meet the US with drugs, medals, pocket watches, and everything else he had with him.
 
Q: What was he thinking by surrendering with all his lavish accoutrements? Was he delusional?
 
A: I don't know if I'd call it a delusion. I'd say it was a misapprehension. He believed he wouldn't be treated as a war criminal, that he'd be treated as a conquered leader who might get a chance to lead Germany.

Once he saw what was coming, he accepted that as something the victors had the right to do. But he did not agree with the indictments against him. He thought the allies had committed crimes too.
 
Q: As you write, Göring was charming. Tell me more about that. How did he come across to his captors?
 
A: One of the things that really drew Kelley close to Göring was this mix of charming qualities with atrocious qualities.

They connected on one level. They were good intellectual matches, and they even disagreed well. But Kelley saw that Göring had this vicious streak that Kelley couldn't explain.

He was smart, charming, had a sense of humor, was a loving family man. Yet he ordered friends and colleagues put to death and was responsible for horrendous war crimes. Kelley could never reconcile that and I think he saw a bit of himself in that mix of good and bad qualities.
 
Q: How did Göring address the charges against him?
 
A: He was in a bit of denial. He claimed to have not to have known about the Holocaust, and that was obviously not true. As for as war crimes – military strategy, breaking treaties – he had no remorse whatsoever.
 
Q: What about the other Nazi leaders?
 
A: Very few of them admitted guilt or even acknowledged that they played a big role in terrible crimes. One tactic was simply that it couldn't have happened, they knew nothing about it, they never meant for these things to happen.
 
Q: What did Kelley think about the possibility that these men were mentally ill?
 
He concluded that by and large, these men were not mentally ill. He would have called them neurotic, but not disablingly so and not seriously.

When we've had to chance to look at other people who have committed crimes since this we often see that they don't meet the definition of insanity or mental illness. They are like the rest of us, but they've taken advantage of an opportunity to climb to power and commit terrible crimes.
 
Q: Is there a lesson to be learned from what Kelley discovered about the normality – at least from a mental health perspective – of these men?
 
A: You cannot pigeonhole people who do these things as monsters or subhumans or people separate from us.

It's a human trait to have the capacity to commit these crimes. I think that means it's foolish to try and look for people who are capable of committing crimes like this. It might be wiser to look for situations in which people can seize the opportunity and become horrible leaders.
 
Q: What can give us hope about preventing leaders from turning against humanity?
 
A: If they're a lot like the rest of us, that means they can respond in good ways, too. So you must remove situations that will lead them down the evil road.

In almost of all of the genocides that have happened after the Third Reich, there's a pattern of stages. First comes identifying other people as less than human, than comes marking people as being different.

Now that we know what the early stages are like, it's possible to intervene. Now that we can see the signs, I'm in favor of the international community stepping in before things get too far.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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