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At the end of the second world war, the allies indited 24 top, surviving Nazi leaders, and put them on trial in Nuremberg, Germany.
With these high-ranking Nazi officials incarcerated, psychologists saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the men responsible for some of the most heinous crimes in human history.
What made them tick and why did they do what they did?
Learn more about the Nuremberg Personality Tests and what they discovered about Nazi leaders, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Second World War didn’t end like other wars in the past. Previously, a conquered ruler might have been exiled like Napoleon, or summarily executed if there was a conflicting claim to a territory.
At the end of the first world war, the Kaiser lived the rest of his life in seclusion in the Netherlands. Leading German military officers were simply out of a job and found alternative employment.
World War II, however, didn’t end like the first world war. It wasn’t decided by a treaty, it was decided by total unconditional surrender and occupation.
When the war was over, the question amongst the allies was, ‘what do we do with these Nazi officials?’
No one wanted them to get off scot-free, yet there was no precedent in military history or in international law for prosecuting people for crimes conducted during a war.
The British wanted summary executions. The Soviets wanted a show trial. The Americans, however, wanted due process.
The allies eventually determined that high-ranking Nazi officials who were responsible for the conduct of the war, including civilians, were to be tried as criminals.
To this end, they wrote the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. This would serve as the basis for trying officials for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Instead of a judge and a jury, a tribunal of judges from each allied country would serve judgment and sentencing on those found guilty.
There were several trials that were conducted over the course of several years, but for the purpose of this episode, I’m going to focus on the first trial which received most of the attention, which was the International Military Tribunal itself, which had 24 of the highest-ranking surviving Nazi defendants.
Top German leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels had all committed suicide. One of the 24 indited Nazis, Martin Borman, had gone missing. His remains were discovered in 1972 and were positively identified via DNA analysis in 1998.
Those who were captured were still very high up in the German command structure. The biggest fish was the head of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring. Others included foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, leading generals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, and head of the Kriegsmarine, Karl Dönitz.
All 24 men were accused of at least two of the four following crimes:
- Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace
- Planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace
- Participating in war crimes
- Crimes against humanity
The tribunal lasted almost a year, from November 1945 to October 1946.
This episode isn’t about the tribunal per se.
During the trial, the prisoners were given to doctors, dentists, chaplains, and, what is relevant to this episode, psychiatrists.
In particular, an American psychiatrist by the name of Douglas Kelley.
Kelley was a researcher at the Rorschach Institute and volunteered for the army right after Pearl Harbor. At the end of the war, he was the chief psychologist for the entire European Theater.
His initial assignment was to determine if the defendants were mentally competent to stand trial.
Kelley recruited as his assistant another American officer Gustave Gilbert, who in addition to being a social psychologist, also spoke German.
They had ample access to all of the accused prisoners, and he actually found that they were more than willing to talk. Most of them were bored and wanted to brag about their achievements. Kelley said they were the easiest group of patients he ever had to interview.
Both Kelley and Gilbert knew that they were sitting on a psychological gold mine. They had a limited amount of time to interview and study men who were responsible for some of the greatest crimes in history.
There were three clinical tests that were administered to the prisoners.
The first was the Thematic Apperception Test or TAT. The TAT is a projection test where the patient is given an image and they then have to construct a story telling the events which led up to the image, and the backstory of the characters.
The second test was the classic Rorschach Test. The Rorschach test, as you might be familiar with, is a series of ink blots that have no particular meaning or shape. The patient then has to interpret the ink blots as to what they look like.
The final test which was administered was the Wechsler-Bellevue intelligence test to measure IQ.
The only part of Kelley and Gilbert’s research that was part of the tribunal was that all of the men were competent to stand trial. None of them had any significant mental impairment which prevented them from being tried.
Many of the tests which they administered were never officially approved. They just went ahead and did it given that they had the opportunity.
Their findings were not what they expected, and probably not what most of you would probably expect.
They assumed that these men would be found to be monsters and psychopaths. That is not what they found. They found them to be wholly normal.
The results of the Rorschach were extremely average. There was no fundamental difference between the results of the Nazi prisoners and of an average of Americans who took the test.
30 years after the tests were administered, a psychologist by the name of Molly Harrower conducted a double-blind test to compare the Nazi results with a group of members of the clergy, and hospital patients. She found no difference between the groups.
The IQ test results were shocking and weren’t made public for years. Of the 21 prisoners tested, they scored an average of 128, which was the cut-off level for “very superior” or genius-level, on the test.
Many of the Nazis were excited to take the test and were quite pleased with the results. Wilhelm Keitel noted how much better the tests were than the “silly nonsense that German psychologists resorted to.” It was later discovered that he banned intelligence tests from the German military when his son failed one to become an officer.
The highest-scoring German was Hjalmar Schacht who scored a 143. He was actually one of the only accused to be totally acquitted. He was formerly head of the Reichsbank but spent almost the entire war in a concentration camp because of his objections to Hitler. He was surprised to have been arrested given his imprisonment during the war and his work with various Hitler assassination plots.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the chancellor of the Netherlands and person responsible for the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps, scored a 141.
Both head of the navy Karl Dönitz, and the head of the air force Herman Göring, scored 138.
The lowest score by a decent margin, yet still above average, was Julius Streicher. Streicher was the Nazi that other Nazis thought was crazy and feel free to replay that again to let it sink in just how crazy that statement is.
Streicher was the editor of the main Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, and was a true believer. He was a virulent antisemite and considered by many Nazis to be the most anti-semitic of them all, which again is really saying something.
The tests were not the only things gleaned from the Nazis. Much of what was learned came from conversations with the men over a period of months.
One American who had access was a translator by the name of Howard Triest. Triest was a German-born jew who managed to escape Germany when he was a child, but most of his family didn’t. He was responsible for censoring mail for the prisoners and got to know several of them quite well.
Streicher, the virulent anti-semite, took a liking to Triest because he seemed like a strong Ayrian….not realizing that he was actually Jewish.
The Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess took pride in having killed so many Jews, and in fact, having gone well beyond his quota.
On October 16, 1946, 10 of the convicted Nazis were executed by hanging. Goering killed himself with a cyanide capsule just hours before. One prisoner, Robert Ley, killed himself before the trial began, and it was believed he had advanced dementia. Three were acquitted, and the rest were sentenced to imprisonment varying from 10 years to life.
Even after the trial was over, the interpretation of the psychological data was just beginning.
Both Kelley and Gilbert later released books that gave their theories on the Germans they studied. They had very different interpretations.
Gilbert’s book was titled The Psychology of the Dictatorship which was released in 1950. He felt that the Nazi leaders did what they did because they grew up in an atmosphere of absolute submission to authority. Intelligence and morality took a backseat to loyalty and an ability to follow orders.
Kelley’s book was titled Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg.
Kelley’s take was what happened was the result of what he called a ‘socio-cultural disease”.
He was hoping to find that there was some sort of Nazi personality type that future researchers could look for as some sort of early warning sign.
He couldn’t find one. He found that the defendants were essentially sane.
He wrote a paper in 1946 before the trial was even over in which he said he felt “not only that such personalities are not unique or insane, but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.”
Despite the above-average intelligence of the men on trial, Kelley thought that they were truly nothing special. They were “were not spectacular types, not personalities such as appear only once in a century.” They were men who displayed “overweening ambition, (and) low ethical standards”.
The narrative after the war was that the Nazis had to be individual monsters because that was the only thing that made sense of what happened.
He wrote 75 years ago, “I am quite certain that there are people even in America who would willingly climb over the corpses of half of the American public if they could gain control of the other half.”
Douglas Kelley died on New Year’s Day in front of his family when he mimicked the suicide of Herman Goering by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
Several years later, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt explained this phenomenon during the trial of Adolf Eichman by coining the phrase “the banality of evil”. What she found in Eichman, and what Kelley found at the tribunal were men who weren’t psychopaths, although some certainly were and not even fanatics. Rather, they were people who didn’t think for themselves and were willing to put morality aside for personal advancement.
The debate about the psychology of Nazis hasn’t ended and it probably never will. The work done by Gilbert and Kelley, despite being the only work of its kind, has been both criticized and supported.
In many respects, the interpretation of Douglas Kelley and Hannah Arendt is more frightening thinking the Nazi leaders were all psychopaths. Because if the people who did such heinous things, or allowed them to happen, were somewhat normal and not necessarily sadistic psychopaths, it implied that, if the conditions were right, it could happen anywhere.