March 2017 - Dr Stephen Potts, Chair of the RCPsych in Scotland Liaison Faculty
09 March, 2017
This month we are delighted to welcome guest blogger Dr Stephen Potts, Chair of the Liaison Faculty in Scotland. Dr Potts is a liaison psychiatrist who has also worked part time for many years to pursue a parallel career as a writer, initially as an author of adventure fiction for children, and latterly as a screenwriter specialising in historically set adaptations. He has written eight feature films and one TV drama. He is now acting as an independent writer/producer to make a feature film based on the book Anatomy of Malice by Professor Dimsdale. We were lucky enough to have Dr Potts speak at the recent RCPsychiS Winter Meeting in January this year. The theme for the meeting was "Fear and Psyche" and Dr Potts presented on "Anatomy of Malice: A psychologist and psychiatrist compete to understand the minds of Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg". In this month's blog Dr Potts provides us with an overview of this fascinating project.
For more than 20 years I have worked part time in psychiatry to pursue a parallel career as a writer, latterly of screenplays. These worlds did not intersect until I went to a medical meeting in Nuremberg, then sweltering in a July heatwave.
I knew of Nuremberg’s notorious pre-war history as a centre of Nazism, the setting for huge rallies, and I wandered round the Zeppelin fields where they were held, which still felt sinister and forbidding.
I also knew about the post-war Nuremberg trials, where leading Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes by the victorious allies. But I did not know about the part played by mental health specialists in the first and best known of these trials, in which the surviving political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were held to account.
A very eminent American psychiatrist, Professor Joel Dimsdale, of the University of
California in San Diego, has been researching this subject for some years, and he presented his findings at a keynote address which opened the conference — and which was held in the very building where the Nuremberg trials took place 70 years earlier.
He recounted the story of Dr Douglas Kelley, a US Army psychiatrist assigned to the trial, and Dr Gustave Gilbert, who translated for him and acted as the prison psychologist. Together and separately they assess all the leading Nazi defendants, with repeated interviews over an extended period.
They were assigned several roles: to prevent the defendants committing suicide; to advise on any use of the insanity defence; and to guide the tribunal (ie the prosecution) in the conduct of the proceedings. They had unique access to the men responsible for the war and some of the worst atrocities committed in it. They saw an opportunity, indeed a duty, to understand, and then explain to the world, the workings of that they called “the Nazi mind.”
They began by co-operating, and planned a jointly authored book, but tensions soon emerged, and they fell out spectacularly. Kelley left the trial early, with Gilbert alleging he had taken some of his records. Each then published their own books, delayed by arguments about intellectual property and threatened lawsuits. The work they did together did not feature prominently in either publication.
As to their roles: one of the defendants (Robert Ley) killed himself before Gilbert took up his role but after Kelley had warned of the risks in his particular case. Another, the most senior, Hermann Göring, took cyanide the night before he was scheduled to be hanged. In just one case, that of Rudolf Hess, a special hearing was held to determine his fitness to plead, in view of very obvious memory problems. Before the Tribunal came to a decision, Hess, who had been warned by Gilbert he might be found unfit, shocked the world by announcing he had been feigning amnesia. He was judged fit, along with all the other defendants. Gilbert’s recommendation that Göring be separated from the other defendants successfully undermined his attempt to rally them — and a defeated Germany — behind him as he mocked and browbeat the lead prosecutor.
The conflict between Kelley and Gilbert may have been intensified by the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Nuremberg, where the trial was closely followed by the world media. There were many elements to it: but in some ways the most interesting is the apparent contradiction between their professional disciplines and their understanding of the ideology of Nazism.
Gilbert, the psychologist, placed the Nazi leaders in a separate category, distinguished from the rest of the population by extreme abnormalities of personality. Kelley, the psychiatrist, took a different view, arguing that they displayed personality characteristics which could be found throughout the public, and especially among those in positions of power and responsibility. Kelley’s message was unpalatable at the time, but it might find greater acceptance these days.
I was fascinated to hear this, and it immediately struck me as a story crying out to be dramatised. After trying to make myself memorable to him at the conference dinner by donning a kilt in 100 degree heat, I asked Professor Dimsdale if I could review in advance the manuscript of the book he was about to publish. He kindly agreed, and when it came, I read it in a single sitting. (I recommend it highly.)
Having then optioned the screen rights to the book, I began writing the screenplay. Before it was complete I pitched the project at the American Film Market in LA, where I hooked up with a producer. I finished the script at the turn of the year, and the producer likes it enough to want to make the film! All we need now is $15 million…
Dr Stephen Potts, Chair of the RCPsych in Scotland Liaison Faculty