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 "Antomy of Malice: A
psychologist and psychiatrist compete to understand the minds of
Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg". In this months
blog Dr Potts provides us with an overview of this fascinating
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
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
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
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
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
Dr Stephen Potts, Chair of the RCPsych in
Scotland Liaison Faculty