Joel Dimsdale on the Anatomy of Malice

A Psychiatrist’s Examination of the Nazi Mind

Were the Nazi leaders despicable mass murderers with no empathy for other humans? Amoral and weak men who became mere tools of the Nazi bureaucratic machinery? Or, were they normal men who felt ambivalence about their actions, but were victims of circumstance, compelled to carry out orders? On April 3, Dr. Joel Dimsdale, a UC San Diego professor emeritus of psychiatry, delivered a chilling yet fascinating talk about the psychology of the Nazi leadership and the efforts made by psychiatrists to understand what motivated them to commit such atrocities. Dimsdale’s presentation, Anatomy of Malice: Rorschach Results from Nuremberg War Criminals, was part of the Holocaust Living History Workshop series, a collaboration of the UC San Diego Library and the Judaic Studies Program. The program will appear on UCSD-TV on Monday, June 10 at 8 p.m. (repeating June 11 at 10 p.m. and June 14 at 6 p.m.) http://ucsd.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=24993

Image from the Rorschach Test

Image from the Rorschach Test

Dimsdale traces his interest in this topic to the mid-1970s, when he was researching Nazi concentration camp survivors and the coping strategies they used to survive. He was focused on the nature of stress and the psychological repercussions of the extreme anguish and trauma the survivors experienced. He decided to expand his purview after an unexpected visit from a man who had served as one of the executioners at the Nuremberg trials, who executed some of Nazi Germany’s most notorious leaders. While his visitor felt no remorse, he was haunted by questions about motives, and what really drove these men to commit and authorize such heinous crimes. Were they pathological murderers or simply men who were victims of circumstance? The executioner encouraged Dimsdale to examine the psyche of the Nazi war criminals to uncover their thinking and what motivated them.

“The Nazi hierarchy was responsible for an unbelievable amount of suffering and carnage,” said Dimsdale.  “At the end of the war, 75% of Holocaust survivors were the sole survivors in their families.  What drove these men to commit crimes of this magnitude and what were their psychological states? That is a complicated and perplexing question, and one I thought worth examining.”

After concluding his studies on how survivors coped with severe stress and trauma, Dimsdale decided to take the executioner’s advice, and began researching the Nazi perpetrators, eventually writing a book exploring these topics and the attempts to understand the psychology of the Nazi leaders. During his presentation, Dimsdale discussed his 1980 book, Survivors, Victims and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust, and the findings of the psychiatrists who examined the Nazi leaders before and during the Nuremberg trials.  

In 1945, two U.S. military officers—psychiatrist Major Douglas Kelley and psychologist Lt. Gustave Gilbert were asked to complete psychological assessments of the 22 Nazi prisoners standing trial at Nuremberg. The most notable method they used to make their assessments was the Rorschach test, which was a commonly used personality assessment tool at the time. The test, developed by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, consists of a series of abstract ink blots, which the test-taker is asked to interpret. The responses are then analyzed and scanned for response patterns that reflect certain personality traits and/or mental disorders.

Image from the Rorschach Test

Image from the Rorschach Test

“The Rorschach tests revealed that the Nazi leadership was a pretty diverse, heterogeneous group,” said Dimsdale. “There was no single personality type that was uniform among the defendants at Nuremberg.  The testing found that while some of the Nazis were emotionally unstable and some exhibited longstanding degenerative mental processes, many of them were not psychopaths or criminally insane.”

According to Dimsdale, Kelley and Gilbert did not agree on the personality assessments and, in fact, held opposing views.

“Kelley believed that Nazism was a sociocultural disease,” said Dimsdale. “He thought that, while the Nazis were egocentric, aggressive, and exhibited a lack of conscience, they were largely normal men. In Kelley’s words, “similar to many top executives”—whose behavior was shaped by their environment.  In contrast, Dimsdale said, “Gilbert had a more intense hatred for the Nazis, and thought they were ruthless, narcissistic psychopaths.”

When all was said and done, the Rorschach assessments were never introduced as evidence in the trials. A few years after the Nuremberg trials, Molly Harrower, a Rorschach expert attempted to resurrect the tests to have them analyzed again by some of the world’s leading psychologists, all of whom declined to participate.  The tests were largely ignored until 1975, when Harrower asked another panel of experts to review the Nuremberg test results.  This time, the individual patients were not identified and the test results of the Nazi leaders were commingled with contemporary test results for mental patients and members of the clergy.  The experts could not differentiate the test results for the Nazis from those of the clergy.  Their conclusion:  no discernible or single personality type could be identified which would explain the Nazi’s behavior.

“While many of us would find it more comforting if we were able to conclude, definitively, that the Nazis were just monsters—different from you and me,” Dimsdale concluded, “Nothing in the tests proved that to be the case.  The results suggest, rather, that most people are capable of committing evil, violent acts under certain circumstances.”

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Dolores Davies

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