An American doctor trying to plumb the depths of evil found a strange kinship instead.
In August 1945, an ambitious U.S. Army psychiatrist, Douglas M. Kelley, received a plum assignment: a rendezvous with the men widely regarded as the worst criminals of the century. His task was to maintain the mental fitness of the top Nazi captives, held at a military interrogation center in Mondorf-les-Bains, Luxembourg, until their fates could be determined, and later—at a prison at Nuremberg, Germany—evaluate the mental fitness of the 22 men to face justice in the trial to come. Kelley, 33, arrived eager to probe the prisoners for signs of a characteristic common to Nazi leaders: the willingness to do evil. Did they share a mental disorder or a psychiatric cause for that behavior? Was there a “Nazi personality” that accounted for their heinous misdeeds? Kelley intended to find out.
The ruggedly handsome California-born physician later claimed to have devoted at least 80 hours to each of the 22 defendants—probably an exaggeration, because that would have left him no time to do anything else at Mondorf and Nuremberg. But out of scientific obligation and by preference, Kelley spent the most time with Hermann Göring.
Kelley formed immediate impressions of the former World War I ace, Luftwaffe chief, and highest-ranking official of the Third Reich left alive. From his interactions with the other Nazi prisoners, Kelley recognized that Göring “was undoubtedly the most outstanding personality in the jail because he was intelligent,” as the psychiatrist wrote in his medical notes. “He was well developed mentally—well rounded—a huge, powerful sort of body when he was covered up with his cape and you couldn’t see the fat jiggle as he walked, a good looking individual from a distance, a very powerful dynamic individual.”
But having lightly touched on politics, the war, and the rise of Nazism during their initial cell-bound conversations, Kelley was not blind to Göring’s dark side. The ex-Reichsmarschall displayed ruthlessness, narcissism, and coldhearted disregard for anyone beyond family and friends. Yet Göring was also a gregarious man, starved for social stimulation. He craved attention to improve his mood, the open ear of an intelligent conversational partner who could help establish his historical legacy, and the occasional favor. This combination of characteristics—the admirable and the sinister—heightened Kelley’s interest in Göring. Only such an attractive, capable, and smart man, who had smashed and snuffed out the lives of so many people, could point Kelley toward the regions of the human soul that he urgently wanted to explore.
In Göring’s spare cell—with letters and framed photos of his wife, Emmy, and their young daughter, Edda, on his table along with packets of K ration sugar and a deck of American Legion playing cards, and sometimes bundles of laundry on the bed— the men built a rapport and courted each other with mutual fascination. Each understood what the other said and how he felt, realized that he could more or less be himself when they were together, and enjoyed the other’s company.
As Kelley could see, Göring had embraced Nazism to satisfy his personal designs and craving for power. His loyalty to the party was not about Hitler, not about Germany, and least of all about preserving a supposed Aryan race. Göring wanted to advance Hermann Göring, and he had joined the Nazis to lead a rising party. His self-interest was notable even compared with other narcissists. The Nazi leader possessed the most undiluted self-centeredness Kelley had ever experienced.
The psychiatrist understood the tragedy of Göring’s fate, at least as the Reichsmarschall saw it. Until the confusion and treacheries of the final days of the war, Göring, as Hitler’s official successor, had nearly attained his dream of ascending to the supreme leadership of Germany to become the second Führer. By the time Hitler killed himself, however, the cause was lost. “He reached his goal too late,” Kelley noted. “At Nuremberg he was a Führer without a country, a marshal without an army, a prisoner accused of waging aggressive war against peaceful peoples and of the deliberate murder of millions.”
On the other hand, Göring wanted Kelley to know that he was not Hitler’s stooge. He said that as the war went on, he had increasingly recognized Hitler’s miscalculations and faulty judgments, and claimed to be one of the few Nazi leaders who had called them to the Führer’s attention. Alone among the prisoners at Nuremberg, Göring said, he had argued with Hitler. But he also knew his limits. Mischievously, Kelley replied that Americans generally regarded all top Nazis, Göring included, as Hitler’s yes men. “That may well be,” Göring said, “but please show me a ‘no man’ in Germany who is not six feet underground today.”
If Kelley had been familiar with the work of Hervey Cleckley, the American psychiatrist who formulated the seminal definition of the psychopath in his book The Mask of Sanity in 1941, he might have applied that label to Göring. Psychopaths are characterized as individuals who carry on normally in public, seeming to conform to social norms while they conceal savage impulses and a dearth of empathy that appears only in private. But there is no evidence that Kelley had read Cleckley’s book. Kelley never used the term psychopath to characterize Göring or any other Nazi prisoner, but his notes of his conversations with Göring describe classic psychopathic behavior.
During one talk, for example, while recounting his early years in the Nazi Party, Göring mentioned his 1920s collaboration with Ernst Röhm in establishing the SA, the party’s army of brown-shirted storm troopers. Kelley saw that this difficult work, vital to the organization’s survival, had bonded Göring and Röhm in friendship. Then, without making much of it, Göring related how he and Röhm later started competing for Hitler’s attention. The rivalry ended tidily in 1934 when Göring pressed Hitler to have Röhm murdered during the bloody purge known as the Night of the Long Knives. Story over; Göring made it plain to Kelley that he was ready to move on to a new topic.
“But how could you bring yourself to order your old friend killed?” Kelley blurted. Göring sat silent and fixed his eyes on the American with a look of bewilderment, impatience, and pity. It was as if Göring were thinking, “Dr. Kelley, I must have underestimated you. Are you an idiot?” Years later, Kelley had not forgotten what Göring did next: “Then he shrugged his great shoulders, turned up his palms and said slowly, in simple, one-syllable words: ‘But he was in my way….’”
The shrug signified Göring’s release from the responsibility of considering his comrade’s welfare and interests. What else could a man like Göring do? He had other concerns. Kelley sometimes let pass this sociopathic thinking, which seemed to bespeak neither sanity nor insanity, but a twilight region of social and cultural derangement. Psychopaths as we now know them, with their lack of interest in others and focus on advancing their own narcissistic goals, were not on Kelley’s radar.
At other times, however, Kelley challenged Göring. When the Reichsmarschall declared that obedience to orders, even illegal ones, was justifiable to preserve social order and military discipline, Kelley countered, “To hell with military discipline. With civilization hanging in the balance, we’ve got to put an end to militarism once and for all, and expend every effort to avoid another war, for the next one will spell the doom of mankind.” The former Luftwaffe chief took that in stride. “Yes, that’s what I thought after the last war,” he said. “But as long as every nation has its selfish interests, you have to be practical. Anyway, I’m convinced that there is a higher power which pushes men around in spite of all their efforts to control their destiny.” The exchange inspired Kelley to take note of Göring’s cynicism and “mystic fatalism.”
In similar fashion, Göring eventually shook off the discomforts of prison, informing Kelley that he felt relatively well behind bars because of the quiet environment. He also quoted scripture, a passage from Psalms 78:26 (“He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven, and by his power he brought in the south wind”), in which God miraculously provides food for the wandering Israelites. He wanted the psychiatrist to know that he was a survivor.
Göring, Kelley was learning, determinedly lived in the present. A realist, he adapted magnificently to change. He focused on responsibilities and pursuits that furthered his goals, and awoke each morning convinced that the day offered “the rosy dawn of an always better future,” Kelley observed.
That optimism enabled Göring to discover humor in confinement and become the cell block’s champion jokester. Kelley rarely found the jokes funny, but Göring, eyes sparkling, enjoyed them if nobody else did. Kelley was fascinated “not by the tale, but by the teller,” as when Göring delivered this routine:
“If you have one German, you have a fine man; if you have two Germans, you have a Bund; three Germans together result in a war. On the other hand, if you have one Englishman, you have an idiot; two Englishmen immediately form a club; and when three Englishmen get together you have an empire. One Italian is always a tenor; two Italians make a duet; when you get three Italians, then you have a retreat. One Japanese is a mystery; two Japanese are a mystery. But three Japanese? They are a mystery, too!”
Heaving with laughter, Göring could barely deliver the punch lines. He also enjoyed quoting from a notebook he kept of “underground” jokes mocking his foibles and those of Hitler and other Nazi leaders.
There was a purpose to Göring’s acceptance of his condition. He had work to do. Although he strenuously denied the Allies had any right to try him and his colleagues for war crimes, he accepted the inevitability of the victors exacting punishment on the vanquished, and saw his trial as an opportunity. With the world watching, he could defend Nazi policies and resurrect his reputation. Those ends reduced his personal complaints and inconveniences as a prisoner to insignificance.
“He spends all his time trying to discredit all the other party men, even Hitler, so that the history books will remember only him,” Kelley told an interviewer a few months later. “Like the rest, he shies away from any involvement with the atrocities— he is completely innocent, according to him, even though it has been proven that atrocities did take place in the early days of the concentration camps from 1933 to 1935, when Göring was in command of them. Of course, the wholesale slaughter and murder did not develop until later, under Himmler.”
Göring only complained to Kelley and other members of the Nuremberg jail staff when he found fault with the treatment of his family. He told Kelley that when he had surrendered to the Americans, the one consideration he sought was good care for Emmy and Edda. Göring devoted much of his epistolary energies to his wife and daughter, and he asked Kelley and Kelley’s translator, John Dolibois, an army intelligence officer fluent in German, to track them down and deliver his letters to them.
The Reichsmarschall unleashed frustrations and expressed confidence in Kelley in a letter to Emmy in the first weeks of October 1945:
For three months I have been writing to you without receiving an answer…. Today I can send you a letter direct: Major Kelley, the doctor who is treating me and who has my fullest confidence, is bringing it to you. You can also talk to him freely. The greatest torment of my soul was and is the fact that, up until now, I have not known where all of you were and how you were get ting along. You can send me an answer through Major Kelley, and you will understand how I long for it…. I don’t need to tell you what I am going through here. The hard fate of our fatherland and the tormenting worry about you and your future are the most difficult burdens for my soul. My dearest wife, I am so sincerely thankful to you, for all the happiness that you always gave to me, for your love and for everything. How is little Edda taking it all?… Give Eddalein a kiss from her Pappi and greet everyone for me. You are embraced and kissed in sincerest love and longing by your Hermann.
Although Emmy Göring avoided contact with most Americans, she readily agreed to see Kelley. When she accepted her husband’s letter from Kelley, she feared reading what she thought would be a final farewell. She passed the correspondence unread to her niece, who explained that it contained better news. Then Emmy read it. When she finished, she spoke with Kelley, whom she judged “an honest and very humane man.” She asked, “How is my husband?” Kelley replied, “He’s behaving like a rock in a stormy sea.”
On the spot Emmy wrote out a response that Kelley carried back to her husband:
Finally, finally a letter from you. I can’t tell you how happy I am. My love and my thoughts are with you every second. We are fine, we have food to eat and we have wood…. My only thought, my prayer every night is that you may be with us once more. Stay in good health. Thank God, Edda is still too young to share our worries…. Hermann, I love you above all, keep faith and God will lead us together again. Everybody sends his love and we all embrace you. I send you all the kisses which I have given you in the past and which I want to give you in the years to come. I love you, always yours, Emmy
To which their daughter added a line: “My dearest daddy, come back to me soon. I am longing for you so much. Many thousand kisses, your Edda.”
Göring received Emmy’s letter with joy, but he also expressed stoicism and regret in his reply:
You can well imagine how inexpressibly happy I was over your dear letter. It was the first ray of light in this dark period…. You will already know from the newspapers that my trial as so-called war criminal will begin on 20 November. We must be prepared for the worst. Nevertheless I hope by the Almighty that we can still meet again. I pray everyday that I may keep the strength to uphold our dignity—for it would be better to come to the end with dignity than to live on without honor I think only of you and only the worry over your welfare tortures me now. I have always known and felt how much I love you, but now the true depth of our love has been revealed to me for the first time. I thank you eternally for the great happiness that your love gave me. You must know how great my longing and homesickness is for you and Edda. Sometimes I actually think I will die of it. Why did it have to turn out this way? If we had even suspected this development, we would certainly have gone another way. Now we leave everything to God’s will…. Never let Edda away from you.
On the back of this letter Göring added a postscript: “Major Dr. Kelley, who is bringing this letter to you, is really an extraordinary gentleman. First Lieutenant [Dolibois], who accompanies him, is very warm and human and I have known both gentlemen for several months. You can trust them completely.”
Göring later wrote again to Emmy: “To see [Edda’s] beloved handwriting, to know that your dear hands have rested on this very paper—all that and the contents itself has moved me most deeply, and yet made me most happy…. Sometimes I think that my heart will break with love and longing for you. That would be a beautiful death.”
Göring didn’t get his “beautiful death.” On October 1, 1946, the court sentenced him to death by hanging, which he saw as an indignity. Göring asked Allied authorities to allow him instead to face a firing squad. When that request was denied, he killed himself by biting on a glass ampule of potassium cyanide he had secreted or obtained in prison.
By then Kelley had left for California, feeling that his research was complete. But he hadn’t found the answers he was looking for. The psychiatrist had hoped that his scientific study of these men’s minds could identify a telling factor useful in preventing future Nazi-like regimes. But, with very few exceptions, Kelley found the Nazis “were not special types,” he wrote. “Their personality patterns indicate that, while they are not socially desirable individuals, their like could very easily be found in America” or elsewhere. Consequently, he feared that psychologically similar personalities could commit other holocausts and crimes against humanity. That somber revelation haunted Kelley until his death—by cyanide capsule—on January 1, 1958.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.