The Curious Case of Robert Ley’s Brain

Six years ago, while researching the life of an American psychiatrist who studied the top Nazi leaders during their imprisonment and trial in Nuremberg, I came across a small box among the physician’s possessions. The box held a set of glass photographic transparencies, with each slide showing a cross-section of a brain. Labels on the slides identified the brain’s former owner as Robert Ley.

Ley’s name had often come up in my research. From 1933 until the end of World War II, he headed the German Labor Front, a Nazi governmental department that directed the working lives of the Third Reich’s citizens. How images of his brain had ended up mixed in with the personal and professional papers of the psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, I could not imagine.

Over time I found out. And the story I pieced together on the fate of Robert Ley’s brain reveals much about the interpretation of the psychological testing that Kelley conducted on Ley and the other Nazis.

A U.S. Army major during the summer of 1945, Kelley had arrived in Nuremberg with orders to appraise the mental fitness of the Nazi leaders to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Beyond this assignment, however, Kelley imposed on himself more challenging duties. Given unrestricted access to the men widely considered the worst criminals of the twentieth century, he hoped to find a common psychological thread running through the prisoners — a “Nazi personality” that could account for their heinous misdeeds. If Kelley could identify a psychiatric disorder or set of psychological traits that the Nazis shared, he might be able to isolate other people among us capable of committing horrific crimes.

To assess the Nazis, Kelley intensively interviewed the men in their prison cells, but he also used a battery of psychological tests that had recently gained prominence. He relied most heavily on the Rorschach inkblot test, an assessment he had championed in the U.S. starting in the 1930s. The Rorschach test presents subjects with abstract inkblot images. Projecting into the images their fantasies and needs, the subjects explain what they see. Kelley was one of the best trained and most talented of the American Rorschach interpreters.

Nearly all of the 22 top Nazis indicted to stand trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg — including Hermann Göring, long Hitler’s second in command and the Third Reich leader that Kelley found the most intriguing — took the Rorschach. The most startling results came from Robert Ley, who misnamed colors, offered confused descriptions, and gave responses that lacked context and sense. Kelley advanced a diagnosis of brain damage in Ley’s frontal lobe, even though the prisoner’s physical exams had revealed no sign of neurological problems.

To Kelley, Ley’s frequent angry outbursts in prison and his illogical speech offered further evidence of frontal lobe injury. Alone among the indicted Nazis, Ley might have received from Kelley a declaration of mental incompetence, but the doctor had no way to be sure of his diagnosis.

No way, that is, until Ley committed suicide in his cell on October 24, 1945. He asphyxiated himself using the hem of a towel, the zipper of his jacket, and the pipe of his toilet. Kelley responded by declaring that Ley “did me personally a particular favor, because his was the one brain that I suspected would have organic damage.” Kelley asked a colleague to remove the brain from Ley’s body and smuggled it out of Nuremberg and into the hands of a friend, Webb Haymaker, a renowned neuropathologist at the Army Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.

Kelley asked Haymaker to examine the brain for signs of the frontal lobe damage that the psychiatrist had diagnosed. Haymaker did so and found “a long-standing degenerative process of the frontal lobes” in the region that Kelley had predicted was injured. In the process, Haymaker shot the photographs that I found with Kelley’s possessions more than 60 years later.

Kelley rejoiced, a celebration that proved premature. Haymaker wasn’t yet quite finished with Ley’s brain. Two years later, seeking another point of view, he sent samples of the organ to pathologists at the Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco. The examination there produced no clear evidence of damage to the frontal lobe. In a letter to Kelley, Haymaker broke the bad news that Ley’s brain abnormalities “were of a lesser scope than we had at first believed. Personally, I think maybe we had better let the whole thing lie buried, as the degree of change [in the brain] could be subject to a difference of opinion.”

By then, Kelley’s study of the German leaders had already caused the psychiatrist enough distress. The Nazis shared no significant psychological traits and were normal, Kelley had concluded. There was no Nazi personality. Struggling to understand this verdict, Kelley redirected his energies to criminology and fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism, workaholism, and eruptions of anger. He took his own life in 1958 by swallowing cyanide, just as his favorite subject Göring had done a dozen years earlier in Nuremberg.


Kelley, Douglas M. 22 Cells in Nuremberg; a Psychiatrist Examines the Nazi Criminals. New York: Greenberg, 1947.

Zillmer, Eric A., Molly Harrower, Barry A. Ritzler, and Robert P. Archer. The Quest for the Nazi Personality: A Psychological Investigation of Nazi War Criminals. Routledge, 1995.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jack El-Hai, MFA

Jack El-Hai holds a MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. He is the author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of World War II (PublicAffairs Books, 2013). He previously wrote The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (Wiley, 2005).
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