‘Anatomy of Malice,’ by Joel E. Dimsdale
The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals
Are evildoers monstrous psychopaths, or is the capacity for wickedness inherent in every human being? The question never ceases to fascinate, and despite the myriad horrors of our time, the Nazis continue to provide its touchstone. In the latest attempt at an answer, the psychiatrist Joel E. Dimsdale revisits contemporary psychological evaluations of the defendants at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. In “Anatomy of Malice,” he provides a meandering, thoughtful, yet ultimately inconclusive overview, for the layman, of the minds of Nazi leaders, the differing views of the doctors who examined them, and psychology’s possible contribution to explicating the causes of evil.
Dimsdale first became interested in the Nazi perpetrators after meeting one of the Nuremberg executioners in 1974. This, and his surprise at discovering that the Nuremberg defendants had been given Rorschach inkblot tests, ultimately led him to the tribunal’s archives and the story of the doctors who observed the prisoners and attempted diagnoses. At the time, he points out, “a sense of common purpose” existed between government and academics that would be “unimaginable today.” Psychology attracted the interest of the O.S.S., precursor to the C.I.A. In the shadow of the war’s horrors, scientists were eager to examine the prisoners; some even petitioned to have them killed in such a way as to preserve their brains for study. It was in this context that the psychologist Gustave Gilbert and the psychiatrist Douglas Kelley were given full access to the defendants and spent hours listening to and testing them, later publishing some of their results.
Dimsdale focuses on four of the Nazi leaders: the German Labor Front head Robert Ley, an alcoholic whose brain, injured in an earlier accident, was in fact removed for study after he committed suicide; the propagandist Julius Streicher, sex-obsessed and despised even by his fellow Nazis; the paranoid and amnesiac Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, whose apparent madness some thought to be feigned; and the brutal and manipulative Hermann Göring, an “amiable psychopath.” Dimsdale reviews the findings of the two doctors and tries to apply modern psychological understandings to the subjects, while admitting the difficulty of definitive diagnoses.
Diagnosis on its own, in any case, could not have answered the larger questions raised by the Nazi crimes. The heart of Dimsdale’s narrative concerns the personal and professional conflict between Kelley and Gilbert, which centered on their differing interpretations of those diagnoses and, by extension, of the defendants’ fundamental natures. Echoing the age-old dichotomy, Gilbert saw them as “a unique category of psychopathology,” while Kelley argued that they were essentially ordinary men whose counterparts could be found anywhere. To provide scholarly context for these two approaches, Dimsdale briefly explains developments in neuropsychology and psychopathology (for which malice is “categorically different”) and skims through the usual suspects in social psychology (which views malice as part of “a continuum”): Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil, Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s experiments on obedience, Kitty Genovese and studies of bystander apathy (controversies surrounding some of these are relegated to endnotes). The Rorschach tests that originally piqued his interest, rediscovered in their entirety only in the 1990s, proved as ambiguous as other methods of diagnosis; despite the conclusions of some early evaluators, when contrasted with a cross section of the population, the war criminals’ tests turned out to reveal no significant abnormalities.
Dimsdale wonders whether this type of research will continue, now that the mix of factors at Nuremberg that encouraged the intense study of war criminals’ psyches has long passed. But he also recognizes the limits of such study, and his equivocal conclusion seems warranted: “Kelley found some darkness in every person. Gilbert found a unique darkness in some. They were both right.”
© 2016, The New York Times
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