Were the Nazi leaders literally mad?

In 1945, U.S. Army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley landed "a plum assignment, a rendezvous with the men widely regarded as the worst criminals of the century." In preparation for the Nuremberg Trials, Kelley had to determine the mental fitness of Nazi leaders charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kelley also had a private agenda. He aimed to plumb the prisoners' psychic depths in search of a "Nazi personality" — a diagnosable root to their abominable acts.

"We must learn the why of the Nazi success," he later wrote, "so we can take steps to prevent the recurrence of such evil."

Most prominent among his subjects: Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo, commander of the Luftwaffe and at one time Hitler's heir apparent. In captivity, Goering proved voluble and charming, and Kelley found him an intensely stimulating personality. But he didn't hesitate to declare Goering "an aggressive, narcissistic individual" indifferent to the suffering of others. Ruthless, selfish, preposterously self-aggrandizing. But not mad. And not terribly unlike a common portion of humanity, given the chance.

Kelley went further: "There are people even in America who would willingly climb over the corpses of half of the American public if they could gain control of the other half." He pointed to white supremacists in Congress and governors' mansions in the Deep South who exploited racial myths "in the same fashion as did Hitler and his cohorts." In an era of postwar triumph, his conclusions were not enthusiastically embraced.

But proximity to evil alters people. Kelley's view of human nature grew darker over the years, fueled by his immersion in the field of criminology and his manic professional schedule. In the end (as we're told in the book's opening chapter), Kelley killed himself in the same fashion as his prize subject. Goering swallowed cyanide rather than endure hanging as a common criminal; Kelley poisoned himself in his family home with his wife and children as witnesses.

More evocative than the copious rendering of Kelley's postwar life is the portrait of the Nazis awaiting trial. Rudolph Hess, Hitler's deputy — "hysterically deviant, paranoid, emotionally stunted and deluded in his view of the Third Reich as a heroic regime." Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the highest-ranking SS officer in captivity, who "crumbled into spells of depression and fits of weeping." Julius Streicher, the anti-Semitic propagandist, who "established a cordial relationship with the incognito Jewish translator Howard Triest, whom he characterized as 'the perfect Nordic.' "

"I can smell a Jew a mile away," Streicher assured Triest ­— a wry bit of evidence that one needn't be insane to be a monstrous fool.

Fred Setterberg is the author of "Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel."