Discover more from Political Ponerology
Psychopathy at Nuremberg
Taking a look at a forgotten classic of ponerology
If psychopaths are responsible for most of the biggest political evils, why isn’t this common knowledge? Why don’t we learn about it as children, or see the ideas in movies and TV shows? Why isn’t academia devoting courses to it? Why is such a basic concept so seemingly secret and revolutionary? The answer is actually in the question: it is revolutionary.
Not only are most actual revolutions are either caused, influenced, or hijacked by psychopaths; common knowledge of the psychopathic state of political affairs could have revolutionary implications. As in, many current elites may find themselves circulated right out of a job.
So both revolutionaries looking to change the political order, and operatives within the political order itself could be said to have a vested interest in this not becoming common knowledge. Coincidentally or not (Lobaczewski thinks not), “abuse of psychiatry” is closely related to pathological politics.
A normal person’s actions and reactions, his ideas and moral criteria, all strike an abnormal individual as abnormal. If a psychopath, for instance, considers himself and others like him normal—which is of course significantly easier if he and his friends are in power—then he would consider a normal person different and therefore abnormal.
That explains why, when psychopaths do rise to power, their institutions—including education and psychiatry—tend to treat dissidents—or potential dissidents—as “mentally abnormal.” As Lobaczewski wrote, “a normal person strikes a psychopath as a naive, smart-alecky believer in barely comprehensible theories; calling him ‘crazy’ is not all that far away” (PP, p. 282).
Naturally, psychology and psychiatry under a pathocracy will tend to adopt that model. The truth about psychopathy is degraded and marginalized to prevent it from jeopardizing the system itself, and this very practice is then used as an expedient tool in the hands of the pathological authorities. Anyone who is too knowledgeable about psychopathy will be accused of anything that can be trumped up against them, including psychological abnormality. They’re “crazy,” “paranoid,” “mentally unstable,” and “dangerous.”
Psychopaths have a particular way of seeing the world. They know they’re different and they view normal people with contempt. They’re the “enlightened,” we’re the rabble; they’re the worthy, we’re the useless eaters. And they know that if those contemptible others were to see them for what they are, they’d be locked up or worse. That “injustice” and “oppression”—living in a world that would limit their “freedom” to prey on others—is what goads them on to create a nightmare world for the rest of us, with all the injustice of Orwell’s vision and all the dead-end absurdity of Kafka’s allegories. And once they have power, they intend to keep it. Objective science is thus a dangerous thing to political psychopaths.
On the flip side of the coin, political psychopaths benefit from the efforts of well-meaning individuals unaware of the psychological factors at play, who are nevertheless invested in their own theories as to the causes of the problems they see plaguing the world. So these are the ideas they promote. “Know your enemy,” but also fund him and make him think he’s a special genius. It’s fairly easy to spot these theories, because there are so many of them. They tend to focus exclusively on a particular ideology or single issue (e.g. capitalism, socialism, religion, Islamism, Jews, climate change, racism).
Until very recently, psychopathy researchers have left politics to the political scientists and historians, perhaps making passing references to political implications and leaving it at that. In recent years, research in the the political psychology of the Dark Triad/Tetrad has made some headway, and last year saw the first major paper looking at the connection between psychopathy proper and crimes against humanity. (I covered it in my second Substack post.) Robert Hare and colleagues gained access to over 100 members of Pinochet’s armed forces convicted and incarcerated for crimes against humanity and were able to test them using psychopathy measures.
Such access is rare. There was perhaps only one previous such opportunity when pathocrats could be studied up close and personal: at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. After the Allies won World War II, a selection of Hitler’s top officials were held to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Lobaczewski saw the execution of many of the accused as a scientific injustice, robbing future generations of much that could have been learned about pathocratic psychology. Luckily, while the defendants were still living, a few American psychologists were able to glean what they could in a short amount of time, and one of them—Nuremberg prison psychologist Gustave M. Gilbert—wrote a book, The Psychology of Dictatorship, which could have been the foundation of a new political science of psychopathology.
But that is not what happened. The book was never reprinted and, conveniently, only the most dubious of its data (the Rorschach protocolsGilbert conducted) have been looked at or talked about since (in Miale & Selzer’s The Nuremberg Mind, for example). Those who find references to Gilbert’s work will unfairly conclude that there is little value in his work. Ironically, Gilbert hardly mentions his Rorschach tests in the book, and yet this is where all attention has been focused when anyone talks or writes about the psychology of the Nuremberg war criminals. So, what did Gilbert really say?
The Psychology of Dictatorship
The book was published in 1950, nine years after Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity first hit the shelves in 1941. Then as now, it was common for historians to downplay the role of individuals in the shaping of history. As one textbook of the time stated: “With some striking exceptions, the individual counts for little in the social scheme of things … [A leader’s] success will depend mainly on his happening to lead them [social circumstances] in the direction in which they happen to be going.”As if social circumstances were some nebulous force completely divorced of human motivations.
I can appreciate a good structural theory when I see one, but there comes a point when downplaying the role of the individual becomes a bit too convenient. “I didn’t do it, Officer Krupke. It was them structural, economic, and social forces!” With these assumptions guiding the historian’s hand, any relevant characteristics of the individuals comprising that structure, and giving it force and meaning, are equally dismissed offhand. Thus, any patterns to be noticed in key positions of power fade into the background. By downplaying the features of the single individual (e.g. Hitler), the theory is willfully blind to the results caused by a network of similar-minded individuals (i.e. the psychopaths within the whole Nazi network), and how those features can change the ‘structure.
Nuremberg defendant Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel related to Gilbert: “He [Hitler] stood for a complete reversal of [the Wermacht’s] values: brutality and injustice became virtues of ‘hardness’; decency and honor became contemptible weakness.”When Gilbert asked Rudolf Höss, commandant at Auschwitz, if he had ever considered whether his victims deserved their fate, “he tried patiently to explain that there was something unrealistic about such questions, because he had been living in an entirely different world.” In this world, the leaders possessed the qualities of “uncompromising hardness and brutality, nationalism with a paranoid tinge, in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Deceit, treachery, persecution, and murder could be condoned in this militant, ethnocentric frame of reference, and the leader was the one who excelled in these virtues.” Keitel and Höss are describing a paramoralistic transformation of values.
As Gilbert later wrote, the post-war trials led to “widespread speculation concerning the sanity or lack of it on the part of the whole Nazi leadership.”Predictably, academic opinions quickly polarized between two extreme and equally untenable conclusions. Either the Nazis were totally psychotic (think Norman Bates’ character in Psycho) or normal people “just following orders”. This speculation on the part of the public was simple common sense, but wrong. It wasn’t a lack of sanity (psychosis) or business as usual. It was psychopathy.
As I argued in the introduction to the new edition of Political Ponerology, the competing options are not mutually exclusive. As historian of ideas José Brunner notes, “one can notice a surprisingly broad area of underlying agreement” between the opposing opinions of Nazi leaders as “sane or psychopaths.”In Gilbert’s work (and later, Lobaczewski’s), an understanding of psychopathy, psychopathology in general, and normal social influences helped place the discussion in a more realistic and empirical middle ground. “Anomalies” like Nazism involve a complex network of psychopathic individuals who inspire the system as a whole, individuals with various other mental pathologies, and normal people who get caught up under their collective spellbinding influence. While leaders can and do play a crucial role in history, Gilbert writes:
... that does not imply by any means that leaders create history single-handedly. ... socioeconomic, political, and historical forces ... do not exist as pure abstractions, but become manifest only through the behavior of human beings ... [the] interplay of personalities and social processes ... cultural mores help to determine the nature of political leadership, and the latter in turn influences the development of the cultural pattern.
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.”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 Nuremberg provided the first opportunity for psychologists and psychiatrists to study key members of such a political regime.
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.”Psychopathy, occupying that nebulous territory between sanity and madness, thus flew under the radar of Kelley’s inquiring eye. In short, he was perhaps duped by the collective mask of sanity.
While Kelley missed the diagnosis of psychopathy, 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—behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, racketeers.
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.”
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.
Interestingly, Kelley established a strong rapport with Göring, the creator of the Gestapo, 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.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 manipulative psychopath.
Gilbert, on the other hand, called a spade a spade. He diagnosed Göring as an “amiable” and “narcissistic” psychopath.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.
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.”
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”.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 high IQ score of 138: “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.”
As a young man, he naturally joined the military, and 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.” 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 that “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!”
In short, Göring exploited the ideology and structure of Nazism for his own personal ambition, greed, and sadistic need for power. And yet, he still gave seemingly blind support to Hitler. Why? This is a question that puzzles many psychopathy researchers and even causes them to doubt the possibility that psychopaths could ever maintain a stable position in any political or corporate system. After all, psychopaths are notoriously self-serving and impulsive. They are loyal to no one and quick to turn on their so-called “associates” and “friends.” But for intelligent psychopaths like Göring, subservience to superiors is not loyalty per se. It is mere lip service that allows them to reap the benefits of their environment. Just as psychopaths will often abide by prison rules to secure parole or lighter sentences, even feigning religious conversion, they will work within a political structure like Nazism because they have an interest in doing so. Whereas in a normal society psychopaths are persecuted by non-psychopaths because of their antisocial attitudes and behaviors, in a society with no higher authority than themselves, they have an interest in maintaining it, even if that means sucking up to a delusional fanatic.
However, while alliances are created and maintained in such a system, there is another motivation at work. Self-promotion and the resulting backstabbing are just as much a part of the game. And Göring was an expert. At Nuremberg, he repeatedly showed a typical ease of yarn spinning and shirking of responsibility, demonstrating the real nature of his so-called “loyalties.” He was caught in several obvious contradictions and lies during his testimony and was quick to denounce his fellow Nazis, shouting frequent outbursts such as the following:
“Roehm! Don’t talk to me about that dirty homosexual swine! That was the real clique of perverted bloody revolutionists! They are the ones who made the Party look like a pack of hoodlums, with their wild orgies and beating up Jews on the street and smashing windows! ... What a gang of perverted bandits that SA was! It is a damn good thing I wiped them out or they would have wiped us out!”
As Gilbert points out, however, “These were, of course, the very same hoodlums whom Göring had trained in street-fighting.”
Gilbert was able to observe Göring’s manipulative “divide and conquer” modus operandi in operation:
It was interesting to compare notes with some of the other officers who were seeing him at this time, to see how he was maligning the psychologist to the psychiatrist, and vice versa, both chaplains to the psychologist and psychiatrist, and vice versa, while fawning on each in turn. In the prisoners’ dock, which was the only place he could meet the others now, he repeated the same process with militarists against civilians, Prussians against Bavarians, Protestants against Catholics, and always vice versa, smiling to each in turn, but soliciting sympathy by scorning him behind his back to members of opposed groups. ... Finally, when Speer made his spectacular denunciation of Hitler and Göring, Göring reacted in typical gangster fashion, threatening to have Speer murdered if he ever got out of the jail alive.
After seeing film evidence of the atrocities of the regime, many of the defendants broke down crying in shame, but Göring had a different reaction.
“It was such a good afternoon too, until they showed that film. They were reading my telephone conversations on the Austrian affair, and everybody was laughing with me. And then they showed that awful film, and it just spoiled everything.”
On April 18, 1946, Göring offered his infamous glimpse behind the psychopathic mask of national socialism to Gilbert. (“All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”) And on an another occasion, he said:
“What do you mean, morality... word-of-honor?” Göring snorted. “Sure, you can talk about word-of-honor when you promise to deliver goods in business.—But when it is the question of the interests of the nation!?—Phooey! Then morality stops. That is what England has done for centuries; America has done it; and Russia is still doing it! ... When a state has a chance to improve its position because of the weakness of a neighbor, do you think it will stop at any squeamish consideration of keeping a promise? It is a statesman’s duty to take advantage of such a situation for the good of his country!”
Göring wholly embraced the psychopathic “dog-eat-dog” worldview. For him, “preventive war, aggressive war, politics, and peace were all just different aspects of the same struggle for supremacy which was in the very nature of things, with the rewards going to the strongest nation and the cleverest leaders.”This is the stark reality behind the political propaganda of “national interests” dished out for public consumption in the world. Gilbert’s most dangerous conclusion was equally blunt:
Psychopathic personalities undoubtedly play an important part in major manifestations of social pathology, particularly when they achieve positions of leadership in social groups and movements. It is all too clear that they played a decisive role in the revolutionary nucleus of the Nazi movement, and thus determined the complexion of the government of Nazi Germany.
If psychologists had focused on this and not Gilbert’s Rorschachs, we may have been in a different place today. Instead we have practically useless ideas like the “authoritarian mind.” There’s no ideologically singular source of evil. Even psychopathy is not the only factor (though it is perhaps the most important). But for all that, you’ll have to read Lobaczewski.
This post was originally written in 2010. I’ve revised it and rewritten it in places, as its previous form displeased me.
Political Ponerology is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Rorschach test is all but completely discredited in today’s fields of experimental psychology and psychiatry, especially when it comes to psychopathy.
Quoted in Gustav Gilbert’s The Psychology of Dictatorship (New York: Ronald, 1950), 298.
Quoted in Miale & Selzer’s The Nuremberg Mind: The Psychology of the Nazi Leaders (New York: New York Times Book Co., 1975), xi.
Jose Brunner, “‘Oh Those Crazy Cards Again’: A History of the Debate on the Nazi Rorschachs, 1946-2001,” Political Psychology 22(2), 2001, 237.
Gilbert, op cit., 303, 4, 5, 7.
D. Kelley, 22 Cells in Nuremberg: A Psychiatrist Examines the Nazi War Criminals (New York: Greenberg, 1947), 12.
Quoted in Brunner, op cit., 240.
Gilbert, op cit., 309.
Brunner, op cit., 242.
McCord and McCord, The Psychopath (New York: D. Van Nostrand., 1964), 34-35.
Gilbert, op cit., 84-88.
Ibid., 109, 88.