Today at the Fertile (Minn.) Library, author Jack El-Hai spoke about his recent book, “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist,” which focused on the relationship between psychiatrist Douglas Kelly and Nazi Hermann Göring formed at Nuremberg. In the audience was Art Olson (above right) of McIntosh, Minn., age 90, who was Göring’s guard at the prison in 1946 and spoke often to the gregarious warlord.
“Want to trade places?” Göring had said to Olson as the American GI brought the Nazi to his chair in the Nuremberg courtroom.
Olson was quiet during the lecture until one slide: a picture of the prison atrium with guards stationed outside of each cell to prevent suicides of the 22 Nazis on trial.
“That’s where we were!” he exclaimed.
To the left of Olson in the picture above is Byron Ness. He and his wife, Marilyn, have been studying the war to find out more of what Byron’s father, Victor, went through in Italy. Victor only recently began to talk about his war experiences, and Byron and Marilyn have been faithfully recording his stories and reading aloud to Victor other accounts of the Italian campaign.
Victor passed away early this morning at Fair Meadow Nursing Home at age 98. Even so, Byron and Marilyn followed through on their promise to bring old Art Olson to hear the lecture on his former prisoner.
Göring knew he was going to be sentenced to death. He was convinced that if Germany had won the war, it would have been Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Churchill on trial, not him. “Luck of the draw,” he shrugged.
Göhring did not want to die by hanging, however. That was the way to kill common criminals. He was a head of state.
So the night before, he popped a cyanide tablet he had smuggled into the prison and died within minutes.
The author of the book, El-Hai, noted that his subject, psychiatrist Kelly, viewed Göring’s suicide as a small triumph for the Nazi. He had foiled the Allies by taking things into his own hands and not allowing himself to be hung.
“Oh, we hung him all right!” Olson exclaimed.
“Really!” the author replied.
Yes, the Americans on guard who found Göring’s body apparently made sure he got his final humiliation. After the symbolic humiliation, the Nazi leader’s body was cremated in a concentration camp oven.
Psychiatrist Kelly was altered by the experience of interviewing the Nazi war criminals. Contrary to his expectations, Kelly’s work revealed that the monsters responsible for the deaths of millions were no less mentally healthy than anybody off the street. The discovery caused him to despair and leave the psychiatric field. Furthermore, he felt a kinship with Goering. He may have expressed that kinship when, with his life in shambles, he killed himself in 1958.
Dark stuff, true. But it was fascinating to see an academic historian interact with a person who lived the history, a GI who had walked the very halls the author studied.
Olson mentioned the films of the concentration camps shown at the trial. He had seem some of the gruesome clips, and he described them. El-Hai said that nobody had seen those films until the trial, and that, in contrast with our violence de-sensitized culture today, they were completely shocking to people back then.
“What effect did they have on you?” the author asked Olson.
Oh, oh, I thought. Here you have an old Scandinavian being asked to describe his emotions. Olson paused. The author waited. Television producers would hope for tears at this point.
“Well! It wasn’t very pleasant!” Olson finally snapped, with the attitude of, “what kind of a stupid question is that?”
I had to cover a laugh because I knew Olson wasn’t going to give in and show emotion. He was just too old school for that. It was just a matter of how he was going to find a way to keep his Norske dignity in the face of invitation to at least quiver a bit.
He pulled it off perfectly.
Eric’s new book, “A Treasury of Old Souls,” is available here.