Ponerology 101: Psychopathy at Nuremberg – Part III

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As a German-speaking officer and psychologist responsible for interrogating prisoners of war, Gilbert was given unprecedented and unlimited access to the defendants; as he put it, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove the fascist mind”.8 Facing trial were top-position Nazis such as Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess; Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg; Reichsminister for armaments and munitions, Albert Speer; SS-Colonel and commander of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss; and Reichsfeldmarschall, head of the Luftwaffe, and president of the Reichstag, Hermann Göring. The Nazi war criminals held in Nuremburg provided the first opportunity for psychologists and psychiatrists to study key members of a corrupt and criminal political regime. Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen, it was a short-lived opportunity.

So what were Gilbert’s conclusions, and what was so dangerous about them that they had to be marginalized, destroyed and misrepresented? Before I quote some of the most important ones, it helps to see what others were saying about the Nazis at the time.

Prior to Gilbert’s arrival, chief of psychiatry for the European Theatre of Operations Douglas M. Kelley had access to the prisoners for a brief period of five months and wrote of his experiences and conclusions in his book 22 Cells in Nuremberg, published in 1947. Like Hannah Arendt, who later covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel and coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann’s seeming normality, nonchalance and apathy, Kelley saw the Nazis as basically ordinary people caught up in the machinery of military orders and bureaucracy. Unable to find any signs of obvious pathology in the defendants, he labeled them “sane” and deemed Nazism a strictly “socio-cultural disease”.9 The psychopaths, occupying that nebulous middle ground between sanity and madness, thus flew under the radar of Kelley’s inquiring eye. In short, Kelley was duped by a collective mask of sanity, the mendacity of which he could not fathom.

While Kelley missed the diagnosis of psychopathy (in his view, common now, everyone is just a different degree of “normal”), he did make some prescient observations:

Strong, dominant, aggressive, egocentric personalities like Göring, differing from the normal chiefly in their lack of conscience, are not rare. They can be found anywhere in the country [i.e. the United States] – behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, racketeers.10

Significantly, he also wrote that such personalities “could be duplicated in any country of the world today” and that “there are undoubtedly certain individuals who would willingly climb over the corpses of one half of the people of the United States, if by so doing, they could thereby be given control over the other half”.11 Today, we’re seeing just how true this statement is.

Gilbert was more descriptive:

… by inculcating fear and hostility toward enemy groups and by encouraging the persecution of scapegoats it helps to constrict human empathy and ultimately “desensitizes” an increasing number of individuals to extreme aggression. This constriction of affect, combined with the militaristic “categorical imperative” and the ideological restriction of reality-testing, produces organized irrational hostility which is not only unlimited in its destructive potential but precipitates a self-destructive reaction. … the tendency of such a system is clear: the crippling of human [conscience] and reality-testing, which allow the irrational and psychopathic to become the norm, and the normal individual to become an unthinking member of a society regimented for irrational aggression. 12

Interestingly, Kelley established a strong rapport with Göring, the creator of the Gestapo and concentration camps, taken by his intelligence, charm, “courage”, and image as a family man, in other words, some of the very qualities mistaken by many corporate employers as good “leadership qualities”. Kelley even committed suicide in 1958 using the same method Göring used the day before his scheduled execution – by swallowing a cyanide capsule.13 Cleckley once remarked that his secretaries could always tell which of his patients were psychopaths – they were the only ones who could convince him to lend them money – and it seems that Kelley, too, fell under the sway of a smooth manipulator. This is not to suggest that either Cleckley or Kelley were not insightful enough, but rather sharply emphasizes the abilities of a “good” psychopath!

Gilbert, on the other hand, called a spade a spade. He diagnosed Göring as an “amiable” and “narcissistic” psychopath.14 In his many conversations with Göring, Gilbert was able to make several insightful and often entertaining – although equally disturbing – observations about him, which are recounted in his book. Because the book is rare, I have compiled some of the most telling anecdotes and direct quotes illustrating Göring’s psychopathy.

© USHMM Photo Archives
Herman Göring.
Portrait of a Political Psychopath

Göring presented himself as impulsive, egocentric, aggressive, sensation seeking, unable to tolerate frustration, superficially charming, glib, remorseless, and callous – all the hallmarks of psychopathy. He showed insensitivity to danger, admitting “he just never believed that any harm could really befall him”; and sadistic aggression for which “[his] father’s punishments proved to be of no avail.” His mother allegedly stated, “Hermann will either be a great man or a great criminal!” Göring’s first memory, related to Gilbert, was that of “bashing his mother in the face with both fists when she came to embrace him after a prolonged absence, at the age of three.” As a child playing soldiers with his peers, he would similarly bash the heads of anyone questioning his leadership to “let them know damn quick who was boss.”15

As Gilbert described, Göring had “a ruthlessly aggressive personality”, “an emotional insensitivity and perverted humor which were at once the seeds of outward physical boldness and of moral depravity”.16 However, he “presented a front of utter amiability and good-humored bravado”, i.e. a charming “mask of sanity” which he used whenever it suited his purpose. He received a very high IQ score of 138 and “Being led to believe that he had the highest I.Q. among the Nazi war criminals [at Nuremberg] he praised the excellent discrimination of American psychometric methods. When he [later] heard that Schacht and Seyss-Inquart had outdone him on the I.Q. exam, he scorned the unreliability of the test.” However, Gilbert observed that his intelligence was more characterized by “superficial and pedestrian realism, rather than brilliantly creative intelligence.”17

As a young man, he naturally joined the military, as it provided an outlet for his aggression, tendency to domination, and showmanship. Aware of the nature of the military hierarchy, he was rigidly subservient to his superiors, knowing that “he would some day be able to demand the same from his inferiors.” Just like a modern corporate psychopath, Göring identified those with whom he needed to ingratiate himself (e.g. officer-instructors at the academy) and those he could get away with treating disdainfully (e.g. civilian teachers). “Göring explained quite simply … that the officers could punish you, while the civilians could only threaten you or, what was even sillier, appeal to your moral sense.” The model of a corrupt politician, Göring took bribes for tax-exemption and successfully managed his “business interests” (e.g. arms dealing). Gilbert observed, “during World War I Göring made the dangerous and fateful discovery that war could bring both glory and profit to one who was sufficiently reckless, unscrupulous and amiable.” As Göring himself said to Gilbert, “The idea of democracy was absolutely repulsive to me … I joined the party precisely because it was revolutionary, not because of the ideological stuff. Other parties had made revolutions, so I figured I could get in on one too!”18


  1. Ibid., xii.
  2. D. Kelley, 22 Cells in Nuremberg: A Psychiatrist Examines the Nazi War Criminals (New York: Greenberg, 1947), 12.
  3. Ibid., 171.
  4. Quoted in Brunner, op cit., 240.
  5. Gilbert, op cit., 309.
  6. Brunner, op cit., 242.
  7. McCord and McCord, The Psychopath (New York: D. Van Nostrand., 1964), 34-35.
  8. Gilbert, op cit., 84 – 88.
  9. Ibid., 109, 88.
  10. Ibid., 107-8.
  11. Ibid., 89-93.

We will continue the discussion of psychopathy in our next article in this series!