Book Review: Anatomy of Malice
The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals
by Joel E. Dimsdale
Yale University Press, 2016
The first epigraph of Joel Dimsdale’s fantastic, arresting new book Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals has a biting complexity that the entire rest of the book works to explore. The quote is from Machiavelli’s The Prince: “Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature” – and the complexity springs from the insinuation of complicity. If the Nazi criminals brought to the dock at Nuremberg were exemplified by their vicious natures, did not every person in the courtroom run the risk of indictment? If mere power is all that’s needed to loose the evil in men (a point on which Tacitus and Justinian would have agreed with Machiavelli), then the worst of the Nazi masterminds on trial, the men at the heart of Dimsdale’s book – Robert Ley, Julius Streicher, Rudolf Hess, and Hermann Goring – when presented with nearly limitless power over peoples and nations were guilty mainly of not being strong enough to resist the inclinations the Florentine philosopher stated with certainty reside in everybody.
The panicky search is for some dark exceptionalism in these men, some common pathology that set them apart from their accusers and their victims, which might be why Dimsdale refers to his book as “more of a meditation on diagnoses than motivations.” The worst of the Nazi villains – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler – were all dead by their own hands; when the worst of the rest were brought to trial at Nuremberg, brought along with them were men tasked by the Allies with attempting to analyze the nature of Nazi evil itself.
These men were New York-born psychologist Gustave Gilbert, psychiatrist Douglas Kelley, and the man who replaced him in 1946, Leon Goldensohn, and they all faced the same chorus of rationalizations. Dimsdale summarizes it cleanly: “Ten months of testimony had repeating themes: it was terrible that all these things happened, but we didn’t know, or if we did know, we didn’t know the extent of the killing, or if we opposed the killings, Hitler would have ordered us shot, or all we did was fill out forms.”
The stories of the personalities on both sides of the Nuremberg proceedings are full of petty (and disturbingly congruent) conflicts that Dimsdale dramatizes with fast-paced flair, but the book’s central narrative never strays far from those meditations on diagnoses that preoccupy its beginnings. The questions here involve capacity as much as they involve culpability, and just as the Nazis were obsessed with the physical pathologies of the people they conquered, so too the Nuremberg victors and their client scientists were fascinated to know if the evil of the men on trial had biological origins. When Robert Ley hanged himself in his cell in October of 1945, those scientists jumped at the chance to search for hidden devils:
Ley’s death presented an opportunity to literally get one’s hands on a Nazi leader’s brain; at least, that is the way the popular press portrayed it. Indeed, his brain was the only Nuremberg brain available for scrutiny. The brain was removed from Ley’s body a few hours after his suicide and was shipped to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC. Eminent neuropathologist Webb Haymaker examined the brain. His initial report, recorded in pencil on yellow lined paper noted brain atrophy, suggested by widened folds (sulci) on the brain’s surface and thickened membranes (meninges) on the brain’s surface, which could have resulted from a long ago head injury.
Dimsdale writes his account of the Nuremberg trials (and their underlying implications) in a series of almost staccato chapters of sharp, incisive prose leavened with a personal tone that’s always controlled enough to avoid distracting the reader. He has a healthy aversion to the kinds of sweeping moral summations the subject tends to bring out in writers of all kinds, although he finds himself in guarded agreement with the most famous of those writers:
Hannah Arendt was an observer of human nature rather than an experimentalist. She was a self-assured, confrontational woman who made some missteps in her analysis of Eichmann. Her accounts about Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” are overstated, given his hatreds, but her image that evil is like a fungus is brilliant. A fungus oozes and spreads and destroys even if it doesn’t have the intention to wreak havoc.
Anatomy of Malice offers no epic conclusions – in the classic storytelling model, its narrative darts everywhere but stalls and deepens rather than closes. But thanks to Dimsdale’s agile, inquisitive approach, such irresolution seems almost the wiser course. The four criminals at the center of his story were exceptionally vile men: untrustworthy, violent, deceitful, and bigoted. And they also did vile things. The “anatomical” linkage between those two, so masterfully probed in this slim book, is as clear as it is uncomforting.