Anato­my of Malice

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Jew­ish lore teach­es us that men and women are inter­nal­ly con­front­ed with the choice of the good incli­na­tion, yet­zer hatov, ver­sus that of the evil intent, yet­zer hara—or what psy­chol­o­gists call mal­ice. The Holo­caust is the his­to­ry of an entire nation, Nazi Ger­many, seized by the evil incli­na­tion. In the after­math of World War II, the Allies con­vened an inter­na­tion­al war crimes tri­al of 22 major Nazi lead­ers. The tri­bunal was not only inter­est­ed in the Nazi crimes against human­i­ty, but also an effort to under­stand their psy­che. In addi­tion to judges, there­fore, the tri­al also includ­ed the expert tes­ti­mo­ny of Dou­glas Kel­ley, a psy­chi­a­trist, and Gus­tave Gilbert, a psy­chol­o­gist, both of whom sought to deter­mine the psy­cho­log­i­cal make­up of the Nazi defen­dants. Mak­ing exten­sive use of Rorschach inkblot tests, Gilbert con­clud­ed that the mal­ice of the Nazi war crim­i­nals stemmed from a depraved psy­chopathol­o­gy, where­as Kel­ley viewed them as ordi­nary men who were prod­ucts of their envi­ron­ment — an echo of Han­nah Arendt’s lat­er the­o­ry of the banal­i­ty of evil.”

Joel Dims­dale, dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus and research pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of psy­chi­a­try at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, has writ­ten an insight­ful book which describes not only the pro­fes­sion­al rival­ry between Kel­ley and Gilbert, but also an analy­sis of the inter­views both men held with four of the Nazi defen­dants: Robert Ley, Her­mann Goer­ing, Julius Stre­ich­er, and Rudolf Hess. Dims­dale con­cludes the book with the most recent find­ings of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal the­o­ry about the nature of mal­ice, thus rais­ing the ques­tion: if the Nurem­berg tri­al were to be held in our own time, would the find­ings of the psy­cho­log­i­cal experts have had the same result?

At Nurem­berg, argues Dims­dale, social sci­en­tists like Kel­ley and Gilbert naive­ly believed that by exam­in­ing the defen­dants, there would be answers to the ques­tion of the ori­gins of mal­ice. Despite their find­ings, in sub­se­quent tri­als of war crim­i­nals like the Eich­mann tri­al, neu­ro law it did not play an impor­tant role in the court’s pro­ceed­ings. Dims­dale con­cludes, Today, there is an Inter­na­tion­al War Crimes Tri­bunal at The Hague. To my knowl­edge, neu­ro-law argu­ments have not been intro­duced… It’s only a mat­ter of time.”

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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