Time Capsule

It's true: Hermann Goering, among others, took inkblot tests in Nuremberg prison. What's less certain is what the results of these tests mean.

In the aftermath of World War II, Allied forces captured and detained many of the remaining Nazi leaders, including Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer. The Allied leaders in charge of the Nuremberg trials sought psychological profiles of the Nazis and asked psychologist Gustave Gilbert, PhD, and psychiatrist Douglas Kelley, MD, both Americans, to collect the data using psychological tools such as the Thematic Apperception Test, Rorschach Inkblot Test and the German translation of the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Test. Even though the tests played little role in the trials, the scientists were searching for answers to a question that still lingers today: Were the Nazis evil men or merely ordinary people who did horrific deeds because they were ordered to do so?

Both Kelley and Gilbert claimed that all of the war criminals were legally sane. Nonetheless they interpreted the data on these men differently and eventually published separate books to argue for the validity of their disparate analyses. In his book, "The Psychology of Dictatorship" (unknown binding, 1950), Gilbert concluded that there were three different personality types in the group that could all be classified under a psychopathic personality: schizoid, narcissistic and paranoid types, and thus their pathology led them to engage in their horrific actions. Gilbert was attuned to the socio-cultural context of the Nazi leadership. He claimed that the Nazis were raised in a culture that had a primary value of deference to authority to which all other reason and intelligence took a backseat. He concluded that democratic leaders should be trained as critical thinkers to prevent that same kind of blind obedience.

In his 1947 book, "Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg" (unknown publisher), Kelley wrote that although some of the Nazi prisoners showed some pathology of personality during the examinations, he did not believe they were mentally ill. Kelley cautioned that a Nazi-style government would be possible even in America because it was a "socio-cultural disease" and not a product of insane leaders. (Kelley was particularly fascinated with Goering's mind. Interestingly, in 1958, Kelley committed suicide via cyanide capsule, just as Goering had done while in prison.)

While Gilbert and Kelley were publishing their findings, Molly Harrower, PhD, (1901–99), a clinical psychologist and noted Rorschach authority, sought to get 10 independent experts to weigh in on the evidence. She thought this would be another effort to understand the Nazi Rorschach results, but none of the experts was willing to do so. After seeing the atrocities of the Third Reich, not many people wanted to consider the possibility that these men were not pathological.

Thirty years later, Harrower believed the political environment had changed enough to allow for an objective evaluation of the results. She used a double-blind procedure to have 10 Rorschach experts interpret the Nazis' results and matched control responses from clergy and hospital patients. Harrower arranged four groups of reports, two with all Nazis, one with clergy and the last with patients. The responses of the experts noted no similarities in the Nazi protocols nor signs of mental disturbance, indicating that Nazi leaders were seemingly no different from average Americans.

But Harrower's results were by no means definitive. Other authorities have examined the Nazi Rorschachs in different ways, recognizing for example that there were methodological problems in the tests' administration, as well as language difficulties and the inherent power dynamic between the examiners as victors and test subjects as prisoners. The results continue to be reanalyzed and examined. The Archives of the History of American Psychology holds Harrower's papers (www3.uakron.edu/ahap/harrower_m.htm). One of her final publications on the subject was the collaborative book "The Quest for the Nazi Personality" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995). More than 60 years after V-E Day, the Nazi personality still is a subject of debate among students of human behavior.

Nick Joyce is with the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. Ludy T. Benjamin Jr., PhD, of Texas A&M University, is the historical editor for "Time Capsule."

Further reading

  • Brunner, J. (2001). "Oh those crazy cards again": A history of the debate on the Nazi Rorschachs, 1946-2001. Political Psychology, 22, 233–261.

  • Gilbert, G.M. (1950). The psychology of dictatorship; based on an examination of the leaders of Nazi Germany. New York, NY: Ronald Press Co.

  • Harrower, M. (1976). Rorschach records of the Nazi war criminals: An experimental study after thirty years. Journal of Personality Assessment, 40, 341–351.

  • Kelley, D.M. (1947). Twenty-two cells in Nuremberg: A psychiatrist examines the Nazi war criminals. New York: Greenberg.

  • Zillmer, E.A., Harrower, M., Ritzler, B.A., & Archer, R.P. (1995). The quest for the Nazi personality: A psychological investigation of Nazi war criminals. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.