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Crime and Medicine in “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist”

Alex Constantine - July 24, 2013

Photo: Hermann Goering in his prime

Local author Jack El-Hai’s new work of nonfiction “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” exposes an unexpected patient-doctor bond.

In October of 1946, Hermann Goering committed suicide. Inside his prison cell, the Nazi war criminal swallowed a vial of cyanide.

Following the end of World War II, the remaining leadership of Nazi Germany was prosecuted throughout the Nuremberg trials. A new book follows an American doctor’s unique role in the military tribunals.

In “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist,” author Jack El-Hai uncovers the bizarre relationship between Goering and psychiatrist Douglas Kelley. El-Hai first became interested in the two after writing “The Lobotomist,” a biography of Walter Freeman, M.D., who specialized in administering lobotomies to treat psychiatric patients.

“But one of Dr. Freeman’s side interests was the study of psychiatrists who had taken their own lives,” El-Hai said.

Freeman’s notes led El-Hai to Kelley’s tragic story. Twelve years after Goering’s death, the doctor killed himself. El-Hai wanted to understand why — so he decided to track down the psychiatrist’s son.

“As it turned out, he had 15 boxes of his father’s personal and professional papers sitting in the basement,” El-Hai said.

Medical records of Kelley’s long discussions with the incarcerated Goering and interpretations of Rorschach inkblot tests filled the stacks. Kelley’s initial obsession soon became clear.

“He had expected and hoped to find some common disorder that ran through all of the Nazis,” El-Hai said.

When Kelley found no evidence of a “Nazi personality,” he gave up his career with the U.S. Army. He eventually left, disillusioned with the field, to pursue criminology.

To El-Hai, Goering had a lasting impact on the psychiatrist-turned-professor. Kelley spent long hours conducting various psychiatric evaluations inside Goering’s cell and the two grew close.

“Not as buddies, but two men who had a strong professional respect for one another,” El-Hai said.

Even through a German translator at each session, Kelley found Goering charming. The psychiatrist had to cope with this odd mental dissonance of seeing a war criminal as a likeable human being — at one point, Goering wanted Kelley to adopt his daughter.

When Kelley learned the Nazi prisoner committed suicide on the night he was scheduled to hang, he noted how even in death Goering remained in control. The former deputy of Adolf Hitler convinced a guard to smuggle in the poison-filled capsule.

“Had he been hanged, it would have been an ignominious moment — a moment of disgrace,” El-Hai said. “Instead, Goering had managed to engineer a more glorious death for himself.”

El-Hai paints both parties in “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” as parallel to one another, a revealing juxtaposition. As two men with career aspirations that would consume their lives, the author reveals dark truths among Nazis, but also psychiatrists.

“It’s often people who have inner conflicts of their own,” El-Hai said.

“The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Goering, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII” will be released on September 10th.


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