The Nazi Mind


On History

How psychiatrists used Rorschach tests to examine Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.

Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring.


By 1945, the word Nazi—for a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—had become shorthand around the world for a cold-blooded sadistic monster beyond the pale of humanity. Six million Jews had been killed. How could any of the Nazis not have known? There was an overwhelming desire to stage the World vs the Nazis, with the defendants all guilty and deserving to die, but there was no clear legal basis for doing so. And the truth was that not all of the Holocaust’s perpetrators were party members, and vice versa. It was impossible, logistically and in principle, to condemn every single party member as a war criminal. The atrocities were unprecedented in human history, but for that very reason it was unclear what laws fit the crime.

The legal issues were resolved by negotiation among the Allies and by fiat. An international military tribunal was created. “Crimes against humanity” were prosecuted for the first time, at the Nuremberg trials, beginning in 1945. Twenty-four prominent Nazis were chosen as the first group of defendants. But the moral quandaries remained. The defendants claimed that they had been following their own country’s laws, which in this case meant whatever Hitler wanted. Could people legally be held to account on the basis of a higher law of common humanity? How deep does cultural relativity go? And if these Nazis really were deranged psychopaths, then weren’t they unfit to stand trial, or even not guilty by reason of insanity? 

The prisoners were held in solitary, on the ground floor of a three-story prison block with cells on both sides of a wide corridor. Each cell was nine by thirteen feet, with a wooden door several inches thick, a high barred window onto a courtyard, a steel cot, and a toilet, with no seat or cover, from which the prisoner’s feet remained visible to the guards. Personal belongings were kept on the floor. A fifteen-inch panel in the middle of the cell door was open at all times, forming a shelf in the cell on which meals were placed and a peephole for guards to look through, one guard per prisoner at all times. The light was always on, dimmer at night but still bright enough to read by, and heads and hands had to be kept visible while the prisoner was in bed, asleep or awake. Aside from harsh corrections when any rules were broken, the guards never spoke to the prisoners, nor did the wardens who brought them their food. They had fifteen minutes a day to walk outside, separate from the other prisoners, and showers once a week, under supervision. Up to four times a week, the prisoner was stripped and the room searched so thoroughly it took four hours to straighten up afterward.

They also had medical care, to keep them healthy for the trial. A staff of doctors weaned Hermann Göring off his morphine addiction, restored some of the use of Hans Frank’s hand after he had slashed his wrist in a suicide attempt, helped reduce Alfred Jodl’s back pain and Joachim von Ribbentrop’s neuralgia. There were dentists, chaplains—one Catholic, one Protestant—and a prison psychiatrist. This was none other than Douglas Kelley, coauthor of Bruno Klopfer’s 1942 manual, The Rorschach Technique.

A Rorschach test.

Kelley had been one of the first members of the Rorschach Institute to volunteer after Pearl Harbor, and by 1944 he was chief of psychiatry for the European Theater of Operations. In 1945 he was in Nuremberg, assigned to help determine whether the defendants were competent to stand trial. He saw them for five months, making the rounds every day and talking to them at length, often sitting on the edge of a prisoner’s cot for three or four hours at a time. The Nazis, alone and bored, were eager to talk. Kelley said he had never had a group of patients so easy to interview. “In addition to careful medical and psychiatric examinations, I subjected the men to a series of psychological tests,” Kelley wrote. “The most important technique employed was the Rorschach Test, a well-known and highly useful method of personality study.”

Kelley needed a translator to administer the tests; another American, the Nuremberg morale officer Gustave Gilbert had little experience in diagnostic testing, having studied social, not clinical, psychology, but he was the only American officer on the prison staff except the chaplains who spoke German. Plus he “could hardly wait to get to work on the Nazis.” Both he and Kelley knew that objective data on the personalities of these world-historical criminals were a gold mine, and both wanted to use the era’s most advanced psychological technique on the captive audience, to discover the secrets of the Nazi mind.

No one at Nuremberg had ordered Rorschachs. The test results were never used in the trial. Kelley and Gilbert simply decided, in the unprecedented, supercharged atmosphere of Nuremberg, to administer it themselves. The Rorschach, never as popular in Germany as in America, had been used under the Nazis but primarily in aptitude testing, or as evaluations to help “weed out disruptive social and ‘racial’ elements.” The Nazis had not generally been interested in psychological insight, except into other countries, to try to develop effective psychological warfare. Now the test would be used to gain insight into the Nazis themselves.

Kelley gave the Rorschach to eight prisoners and Gilbert to sixteen, five of them previously tested by Kelley. Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess, racial theorist Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, the “Butcher of Poland” Hans Frank, the head of Nazi-occupied Netherlands—each was shown ten inkblots and asked, “What might this be?” Göring had a great time with the Rorschach. He laughed, snapped his fingers in excitement, and expressed “regret,” according to Kelley, “that the Luftwaffe had not had available such excellent testing techniques.”

The prisoners’ results shared a few common elements—a certain lack of introspection, a propensity for chameleonlike flexibility in adapting to orders—but the differences far outweighed the similarities. Some of the defendants seemed paranoid, depressed, or clearly disturbed. Joachim von Ribbentrop was “emotionally barren” and a “markedly disturbed personality” overall; the Butcher of Poland’s results were those of a cynical, antisocial madman. Others were average, and some were “particularly well adjusted.” The cultured Schacht, almost seventy years old, “could call on an inner world of satisfying experiences to stand him in good stead in the stressful months prior to sentencing.” He rated as an “exceptionally well-integrated personality with excellent potential” and would later look back on his Rorschach testing rather fondly: “a game that, if I remember correctly, had been used by Justinus Kerner. Through the process [of spilling ink and folding the paper], many bizarre forms are created which are to be detected. In our case this task was made even more enjoyable since inks of different colors were used on the same card.”

An intelligent madman was one thing; a sane and exceptionally well-adjusted leading Nazi with excellent potential was something else. But those seemed to be the results. Gilbert refused to accept it. In his Nuremberg Diary, published in 1947, he described how Göring, after the guilty verdict,

lay on his cot completely worn out and deflated … like a child holding the torn remnants of a balloon that had burst in its hand. A few days after the verdict he asked me again what those psychological tests had shown about his personality—especially that inkblot test—as if it had been bothering him all the time. This time I told him. “Frankly, they showed that while you have an active, aggressive mind, you lack the guts to really face responsibility. You betrayed yourself with a little gesture on the ink-blot test.” Göring glared apprehensively. “Do you remember the card with the red spot? Well, morbid neurotics often hesitate over that card and then say there’s blood on it. You hesitated, but you didn’t call it blood. You tried to flick it off with your finger, as though you thought you could wipe away the blood with a little gesture. You’ve been doing the same thing all through the trial—taking off your earphones in the courtroom, whenever the evidence of your guilt became too unbearable. And you did the same thing during the war too, drugging the atrocities out of your mind. You didn’t have the courage to face it. That is your guilt … You are a moral coward.” Göring glared at me and was silent for a while. Then he said those psychological tests were meaningless … A few days later he told me that he had given [his lawyer] a statement that anything the psychologist or anybody else in the jail had to say at this time was meaningless and prejudiced … It had struck home.

It was a dramatic moment, a Shakespearean moment. But what did the inkblot test add, beyond confirming what Gilbert already knew from Göring’s behavior and history? No double-blind study would ever prove that flicking the red was a sign of genocidal moral cowardice. Kelley, a far more expert Rorschacher, saw the results differently. As early as 1946, even before the Nuremberg verdicts were handed down, Kelley published a paper stating that the defendants were “essentially sane,” though in some cases abnormal. He didn’t discuss the Rorschachs specifically, but he argued “not only that such personalities are not unique or insane, but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.”

Kelley insisted on going against what the postwar public strongly believed, and even more strongly wanted to believe. The Nazis were, he wrote, “not spectacular types, not personalities such as appear only once in a century,” but simply “strong, dominant, aggressive, egocentric personalities” who had been given “the opportunity to seize power.” Men like Göring “are not rare. They can be found anywhere in the country—behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, and racketeers.”

So much for American leaders. As for followers: “Shocking as it may seem to some of us, we as a people greatly resemble the Germans of two decades ago,” before Hitler’s rise to power. Both share a similar ideological background and rely on emotions rather than the intellect. “Cheap and dangerous” American politicians, Kelley wrote, were using race-baiting and white supremacy for political gain “just one year after the end of the war”—an allusion to Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi and Eugene Talmadge of Georgia; he also referred to “the power politics of Huey Long, who enforced his opinions by police control.” These were “the same racial prejudices that the Nazis preached,” the very “same words that rang through the corridors of Nuremberg Jail.” In short, there was “little in America today which could prevent the establishment of a Nazilike state.”


Adapted from The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. Copyright © 2017 by Damion Searls. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Damion Searls has written for Harper’sn+1, and The Paris Review. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Cullman Center fellowships.