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.”