Winter 2001–2002

Bats and Dancing Bears: An Interview with Eric A. Zillmer

Diagnosing Nazism with the Rorschach test

Sina Najafi and Eric A. Zillmer

The Rorschach test is the most famous example of pareidolia, the technical term for the ability to find specific images among random patterns. Inkblots did not begin with Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922), however. Leonard da Vinci, Botticelli, and Victor Hugo were precursors in the visual arts, and i­n 1857, Justinus Kerner had published Kleksographien, a book of inkblot-inspired poems. Alfred Binet was one of many turn-of-the-century psychologists who investigated the phenomenon as a useful psychological test.

Once the most commonly used psychological personality test, the Rorschach has now been eclipsed by shorter and more convenient testing methods. Despite this, it is still widely used in forensic contexts, Ted Bundy and Theodore Kaczynski being two famous recent test-takers. The most spectacul­ar and controversial tests, however, were those administered to Nazis placed on trial after World War II. Considered an invaluable source for understanding the relationship, if any, between pathology and the emergence of Nazism, the tests were nevertheless not collated until the 1995 publication of Eric A. Zillmer’s The Quest for the Nazi Personality. Eric Zillmer is currently the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Sina Najafi spoke to him by phone.

Cabinet: In 1945, the Rorschach test was administered to the Nazi prisoners awaiting trial in Nuremberg.[1] Were the results used in the trials?

Eric A. Zillmer: No, it wasn’t a forensic evaluation. The prison psychiatrist, Major Douglas Kelley, and the prison psychologist, Lieutenant Gustave Gilbert, administered the Rorschach tests on the side, believe it or not, because they wanted to later publish works on the Nazi personality. The tests were never ordered in the court, and they were never used. That’s why they never became part of the official court recordings.

A personal vendetta between Kelley and Gilbert kept these records from being published. But Gilbert, who really didn’t know the Rorschach test, tried to recruit ten other psychologists to interpret the tests for him. That’s how I got the records for our book: They ended up in some of the other psychologists’ archives.­

­How many Nazis were ultimately given the Rorschach test?

There were 21 tested at Nuremberg and 209 at the Copenhagen War Crime Trial. The Copenhagen trial was mostly of rank-and-file Nazis and of Danish collaborators. Adolf Eichmann was also tested in 1961, before his trial in Jerusalem, by the Israeli psychiatrist Kulcsar. His results, however, have been analyzed repeatedly by several psychologists. A psychological analysis was published in the New Yorker, which made him out to be a monster and which was inconsistent with Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the “banality of evil.” Eichmann was also given the Bender-Gestalt drawing test. His drawings, which were also interpreted in the New Yorker, apparently showed how disturbed he was. That was a very controversial article because it was written with the clear intent to pathologize Eichmann.

Were the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials resistant to being given the Rorschach test?

They loved it. They believed that these tests could possibly affirm that they were the superior race. They were also bored waiting for the actual trial, and spent much time in solitary confinement. Hjalmar Schacht, the Finance Minister, thoroughly enjoyed the inkblots because he could find an astonishing number of pictures and shapes. Others, like Albert Speer, were clearly guarded. The defendants were also given IQ tests; when they got something wrong they asked to try again and competed to outdo each other.

How did they do on their IQ tests?

These were all high-ranking officers or politicians at the Nuremberg trials. Out of the 21 people, three had Ph.D.’s and many were very well educated. The mean IQ. for the 21 defendants was 128, falling into the “Superior” to “Very Superior” range. Herman Göring had an IQ of 138. He was delighted with his results, but was furious to later discover that Schacht and Arthur Seyss-Inquart had both beaten him. He then claimed the test was unreliable. Of course, the IQ test doesn’t say anything about morality. The fact that the Nazi elite scored high on US intelligence tests did not go over well with the US personnel in charge of the defendants and the results were not publicly announced until much later.

What’s the history of the interpretations of the Nazi Rorschach data? Has there been or is there now consensus among Rorschach experts about what kind of personalities they showed?

The first person to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Nuremberg Nazi records was Molly Harrower. In essence, her main findings from a 1975 paper showed that there was no single, uniform, abnormal personality that could serve to explain Nazi behavior. The reception Harrower received at this presentation led to television interviews, produced a flood of newspaper comments, and reopened a topic forgotten since 1948. In 1978 Bary Ritzler proposed that, as a group, the Nazi leaders were not psychotic and their responses did not resemble those of depressed and anxious non-psychotic patients. Ritzler further commented that the Nazis may have performed like “successful psychopaths” on the Rorschach, that is, opportunistic, but not severely dysfunctional, impulsive, or sadistic. Because of their work on the topic, I asked both Harrower and Ritzler to coauthor The Quest for the Nazi Personality with me.

There is no overwhelming uniform pathology in these records, with the exception of Rudolf Hess. The other exception might be Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer, who showed evidence of mental illness. By the way, my intention and ultimate failure to search for the Nazi personality was not to excuse what they did; I was just trying to understand why they did what they did.

What if there were a definable Nazi personality?

It would make it less likely that similar events could occur again. It would let the rest of humanity “off the hook.” But, the search for a German National Character fell short. Hitler’s men were more different from each other in terms of their personalities than they were alike. We found no specific inclination towards violence, aggression, or sadism. However, there were personality characteristics that were more prevalent among the Nazis.

What were those?

Well, the rank-and-file Nazis demonstrated an oversimplified problem-solving style. This means that they were not creative thinkers, were easily influenced by authority, were attracted to the rigid and quasi-military Nazi hierarchy, relied heavily on denial, and were lacking an “internal moral compass.” In my mind this shows why the rank-and file Nazis may have sought out an external Nazi structure and really believed that they were following orders. In our final analysis, it is quite clear that ordinary people who did not demonstrate any particular inclination towards violence became involved in these atrocities.

Was the test very popular when it was administered in Nuremberg in 1945? It seems that at some point popular culture, especially American culture, was full of images of the Rorschach test, but that the heyday of the Rorschach test is over.

The heyday was definitely in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was the most frequently used psychological test. As of five years ago, it had dropped to fourth position. The decline is in part because of the complexity of the test and in part because of the reimbursement pattern of insurance companies; it takes about two hours to administer and score the test, and it’s expensive. It’s much easier to do a behavioral rating scale or a quick interview.

But in the past, the Rorschach was also given to individuals who were well known as a way of tracking or understanding their personality. Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Linus Pauling took the Rorschach, for example. Unfortunately, in the current climate, very few people who are famous are going to subject themselves to a Rorschach test and give over the results. People are less interested in self-exploration, and celebrities are very concerned about their images. I think there are also legal issues.

Is the Rorschach still a viable test that you can bring into the courtroom?

Absolutely. The Rorschach is not an X-ray of the mind or of the soul as is often the popular opinion, but it can project a picture of the psychology of the person, when administered and interpreted correctly. There seems to be something mysterious about the test because it looks ambiguous, but in the simplest way the psychologist shows the ten inkblots, which are the stimuli, and what we get is really a sample of that patient’s behavior. We then compare that sample of behavior to the norms that we’ve established over many years to determine whether the behavioral sample we’ve recruited using the Rorschach is consistent with any kind of diagnosis.

Why are there only ten in the series?

That goes back to how Hermann Rorschach developed the test. Rorschach was a Swiss psychiatrist who worked at the famous Burghölzli Hospital, which was the Mayo Clinic of 80 years ago. What Rorschach did, which is really ingenious, was to look for an unstructured testing situation for his schizophrenic patients where he might learn something about them that he did not know beforehand. He knew of a game that German kids played where they would look at the clouds and make up things they could see in them. The game would be whether your friend could see the shape as well. There was also another game, which he played as a kid, called “Klexen,” which was just putting ink on a paper, folding it, and saying what you could see. Also significant is that Rorschach’s father was a graphic artist. So, he started experimenting with dozens of inkblots mostly on schizophrenics at his hospital, and he found it was a technique that could be useful.

In 1921, he wrote his classic book on the technique, Psycho-diagnostik. It’s a scholarly, professional book that outlines a very precise procedure that he was trying to develop for psychiatrists and psychologists. But he also wanted to have his first set of inkblots printed. He had to pay for this himself. At that time he didn’t know how many he wanted to have printed, and he submitted dozens of his original inkblots to the printer, but the printer only printed ten of the plates because of Rorschach’s resources. That’s why we have ten; five of them are in color and five in black and white. The printing process introduced shading, which Rorschach had not planned. But he just said, “This is interesting. Let me see if shading can contribute to some of the responses.” The shading gives more depth to the inkblots, and possibly even three-dimensionality. The truth is probably that you could use any ten complicated inkblots, and many people have tried to replicate their own set of inkblots, but the Rorschach blots are the most popular to this date. The advantage of sticking to the same inkblots is that you can generate norms. Typically, respondents will give over 20 responses to the 10 cards, and those responses can be compared to thousands of responses from normal and different psychiatric groups.

Why did he introduce color? The popular image of the Rorschach blot never has color.

Early on, Rorschach thought that color could play a role in how people relate to their emotions. So we talk about singing the blues, or seeing red. The colors are sort of an entrée to saying something pathological that the patient might not have wanted to say.

Is there a system for reading the data that everyone agrees on?

Since Rorschach, the inkblot technique has enjoyed a rich but often controversial history regarding the precise nature of the test’s administration, scoring, and interpretation. This controversy is related, in part, to the developer of the test having died in 1922 at the early age of 38, just a year after the test was published. The test was picked up by a lot of different groups in psychology—ranging from behavioral to very analytic—and so different systems evolved for how to administer the test and interpret it. Over the last 20 years, the Rorschach Inkblot test has been summarized and systematized by John Exner, Jr., in an intensive effort to make the Rorschach technique more objective and empirical. About 90% of psychologists now use the Exner system.

How would you go about scoring the responses?

I think the easiest way to do it is to see how the information has been processed and integrated. Does the person take the whole blot into consideration, or are they really interested in details? By the way, one blot response doesn’t really mean anything, but if there’s a pattern that the subject is more comfortable isolating details, then that person is probably more comfortable with the trees and not with the forest. I don’t think that person should be put in charge of a nuclear reactor or national security. Conversely, it could be good if someone is trying to integrate everything, but the information they attempt to integrate should be appropriate. So a good response to a complicated card, like Card10, could be “This is Independence Day in France, this is the Eiffel Tower, with fireworks, ‘Vive La France’!” This response is something that integrates every aspect into an abstraction. A poor response is when an individual tries to integrate the image but it makes little sense. I had a patient who was a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and went to New Guinea to work on his dissertation, not to return for two or three years, and his advisor was wondering what happened to him. They finally brought him back and we tested him. His response to Card 2 was that it looked like a bear, which it does, and the map of France, which it does, dancing together. But a bear and a map of France can’t dance! He demonstrated what we call “slippage” in his thinking and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

These are stationary blots, but if a subject can superimpose movement that person is usually very bright. Often individuals see humans, compared to others who don’t see any humans, or just see fragmented humans or animals, which is a very easy response that is often given by children and adolescents. Basically, the ­two basic criteria for looking at the Rorschach results is integration of information and then to see if other people see what you saw. That’s just a frequency response, not a question of whether it’s really there.

Are certain blots considered more difficult or notorious?

Well, to me as a scientist, they are all stimuli, and some of them are more difficult to integrate. There are some blots that are quite simple, like Card 5, which looks like a bat, and over 50% of people say so.

What did Göring say it looked like?

A bat.

Please read the warning below before following the link.

WARNING: The Rorschach images presented in conjunction with this interview are the ones Rorschach published with Ernst Bircher Publishers in Switzerland in 1921. When Hans Huber, an employee of Bircher's, established his own publishing company, he bought the rights to the Rorschach tests. Huber’s company in Bern has held the ri­ghts ever since. For reasons of trademark, Rorschach blots seen in popular culture have always been substitute images. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, however, the copyright for the original Rorschach images has very recently run out in the US. While it is now legal to print these images, looking at them outside the test environment and reading others’ responses to them may affect and render invalid the results of anyone later looking at the images under test conditions. Please take this into consideration before reading the protocols from Göring, Speer, and Eichmann.

Rorschach images and responses by Adolf Eichmann, Hermann Göring, and Albert Speer are here.

  1. Twenty-four Nazis were chosen to stand trial at Nuremberg. Of these, Martin Bormann died before being brought to trial, Ley committed suicide at Nuremberg, and Krupp was considered u­nfit to stand trial. The 24 remaining defendants who did complete the trial included Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Albert Speer.

Eric A. Zillmer is the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology at Drexel University and the author of The Quest for the Nazi Personality: A Psychological Investigation of Nazi War Criminals (1995) and a textbook entitled Principles of Neuropsychology (2001).

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet.

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