Scott McLemee
The Nuremberg Interviews
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Newsday, 3 October 2004

THE NUREMBERG INTERVIEWS: An American Psychiatrist's Conversations With the Defendants and Witnesses, by Leon Goldensohn. Edited by Robert Gellately. Knopf, 490 pp.


Efforts to psychoanalyze the Nazis were well under way before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The maverick therapist Wilhelm Reich published The Mass Psychology of Fascism that same year, presenting his interpretation of the movement as an especially morbid symptom of middle-class repression -- in effect, a kind of political sadomasochism. The theorists of the Frankfurt School combined ideas from Marx and Freud to create a model of the "authoritarian personality" that was particularly susceptible to Nazi propaganda. And by the early 1940s, a team of American psychiatrists working for the forerunner of the CIA were dissecting Hitler's personality. The available evidence suggested that the fuhrer's mental health had never been that good. One might reach the same conclusion by studying films of his speeches, with their shrieking paranoia.

It is not clear how effective such analyses were. The cure for Nazism, after all, came only on the battlefield. In his new book, Fascists, sociologist Michael Mann concludes that psychological models are particularly dubious, for they tend to reduce fascism to a cluster of pathologies, rather than dealing with its (perhaps more disturbing) normality as a political movement.

An interesting confirmation of that last point comes in the pages of The Nuremberg Interviews, a collection of psychiatric reports on the 33 defendants and witnesses who appeared in the postwar trial of the surviving Nazi leadership. Most of the men interviewed by Leon Goldensohn (an American psychiatrist who died in 1961) emerge from his clinical write-ups as rather well-adjusted and stable personalities. Evil, yes. Crazy, no.

The subject of the first interview, Karl Doenitz, was the commander in chief of the German navy who was named as Hitler's successor in the fuhrer's last testament. He comes across as smart, hard-working and morally obtuse -- but rather less unhinged than, say, any given political zealot arguing about the day's headlines.

Goldensohn's report on Julius Streicher -- the editor of the lurid hate sheet "Der Stuermer" -- describes how the Nazi propagandist "smiles constantly, the smile something between a grimace and a leer, twisting his large, thin-lipped mouth, screwing up his froggy eyes, a caricature of a lecher posing as a man of wisdom." With his anti-Semitic and pornographic obsessions, the journalist may well be in the grip of a severe personality disorder. But if so, it's nothing more severe than one might encounter at a television studio in downtown Washington, D.C., with some blogger eager to grab his or her 15 minutes of fame on the little screen.

Nothing in the documents themselves reveals whether Goldensohn had any particular theory of the fascist psyche. Nor is it clear from the volume's otherwise informative introduction just what Goldensohn was planning to do with this material at the time of his death, some 15 years after the interviews. Occasional remarks in the reports suggest that Goldensohn was deeply committed to maintaining that blank, bland, nonjudgmental demeanor of the professional -- struggling at times, or so one gathers, to maintain his detachment. Unlike the Hollywood version of the clinical encounter (in which the analyst jumps in, every few sentences, to tie childhood memory and present mood into one tidy package), Goldensohn offers very few interpretations.

That makes it all the more striking how often the prisoners avail themselves of concepts from "the Jewish science," as Nazi ideologists called psychoanalysis. "I think that Hitler was abnormal in his sexual needs," says Hitler's personal lawyer, Hans Frank. "That is, he needed too little from the opposite sex." Frank cites Freud ("the last of the great German psychiatrists," he says) on "the relationship between frustrated love and cruelty. I believe it is what you psychiatrists term sadism. I'm convinced that a man who does not need the love of a woman, and thinks he can forego it, or who does forego it, can turn to cruelty and sadism as a substitute."

Goldensohn records the prisoners' memories and interpretations of Hitler but never treats them as keys to the inner life of the Nazis. Here, I think, his reserve pays off, for he detects something important. Goldensohn spells it out in his report on Joachim von Ribbentrop -- the Nazi foreign minister throughout the war who earned his place in history, and in hell, by negotiating the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Arriving for a session, Goldensohn finds Ribbentrop "writing at his flimsy table," preparing a memoir of his "impressions and attitudes toward Hitler" and ready to launch into a long monologue on the topic. "More and more I get the feeling that this is a calculated attitude on Ribbentrop's part," notes Goldensohn, "that he is assisting the building up of an already well-on-its-way myth of the magnetism of Hitler, the one-man rule, the self-enforced isolation of the man, his human qualities, at the same time the inability of any of his fellow workers to ever get to know the man."

Goldensohn might well have used this insight as the basis of a whole book. Most of the Nazi leaders would soon die by hanging. In talking to the psychiatrist that their captors had assigned to them, these Nazis were not making a confession (whether in the religious or the legal sense). And yet some of them were making a bid, of sorts, for immortality. They wanted their own experience and understanding of the fuhrer to enter history -- using Goldensohn as the medium to transmit it.

It leaves the reader wondering what Goldensohn himself felt, both at the time and later. In the years that followed, how did he come to understand these men? What insight, if any, did he gain into the relationship between history and psychology? And I wonder about the nightmares. There must have been nightmares.