Despite the notorious trials that followed World War 2, Kurt Gerstein’s story remains shrouded in mystery. A rebellious member of the SS factions, he supposedly engaged in double dealing to corrupt the Nazi infrastructure from the inside. Hero or accomplice?
Born 1905 in Westphalia, Kurt Gerstein grew up with his father’s post-WW1 resentful speeches buzzing around his ears. “Hard times call for hard measures,” his father Ludwig would say in the first years of Hitler’s rise to power. Now Ludwig, a retired Prussian officer who became a judge in his later years, shared those vengeful ambitions with many of his fellow German citizens. As for Kurt Gerstein, it was harder to pick a side. He joined an ultranationalistic club during his student years, but turned to the reading of the Bible, and eventually reached out to Christian groups which appealed more to his own beliefs.
Early on, light and shadow mixed. The undecided young man, nicknamed ‘Vati’, joined the Nazi Party in 1933, but nevertheless kept on handing out leaflets against Nazi rule. Those illicit activities even sent him to jail a couple times in the 1930s. In 1936, thanks to his rebellious deeds, his membership of the Nazi Party was revoked — which meant he could not access State jobs… His father stepped in and Kurt won back his member card in 1939. Longing for quietness, the latter settled with his wife and newborn kid in Tübingen when a diplomatic thunderstorm broke out.
Sure enough, the Nazis’ unstoppable rise planted seeds of doubt into Kurt’s ebullient brain. As war broke out, Hitler gave his green light to the ultrasecret program ‘Action T4’ which aimed at wiping out mentally retarded patients across Germany and neighboring countries. Psychiatric hospitals were methodically combed, and 100,000 beds were “freed” during the first year of the program. Among them, Berta Ebeling, Vati’s sister-in-law, whose tragic death made Kurt realize the blackness of Nazi ideals.
What should he do? As the State secret police kept a close eye on him — his days of ‘high treason’ were not that long ago –, Vati came up with one solution: hide his intentions beneath the mask of patriotism. “At that point, help from outside will be useless. Help then can only possibly come from a person who can suppress orders or deliver them in garbled form,” he argued in a letter. So Kurt Gerstein eventually joined the Waffen-SS in early 1941, to work at the Hygiene Institute in Berlin with a dreadful mission — make sure that the gas chambers run smoothly and efficiently.
“In the depths of evil”
During the summer of 1942, Gerstein was a daily witness (and somewhat accomplice) of the mechanical mass murder that took place at Belzec extermination camp. His own role was to deliver parcels of Zyklon B, the poisonous acid that run through the gas chambers. This task earned him the trust of the SS hierarchy: but was it worth betraying his beliefs? “This is a singular life which I lead,” he wrote to his wife from Holland in 1941. “I often think about Nietzsche’s famous expression I frequently quoted. More clearly than ever, I know realize what matters most…”
This letter was undoubtedly stuffed with hints (his mail might have been spied on), but Kurt’s spouse Elfriede knew how to read between the lines. In the margin, she scribbled next to the Nietzsche reference “Live dangerously?”, which echoed the German philosopher’s famous quote, extracted from his 1901 book The Gay Science:
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!”
Kurt Gerstein indeed decided to live dangerously. The slaughters of Treblinka and Belzec forced him to activate his pre-war networks; he would tell people about what was going on behind the closed walls of extermination camps, whatever the costs. He warned the Baron von Otter, a Swedish diplomat, during a train ride in August 1942; he told Father Cesare Orsenigo, the Pope’s nuncio (ambassador) in Berlin; he also made most of his former religious club members aware of the situation… Vati’s aim was double: that the Allies eventually picked up the information, and that German citizens realized what was going on. But neither of these goals were fulfilled.
From 1942 to 1945, despite many people hearing Gerstein’s horrific stories, nobody lifted a finger. Diplomatic channels remained clogged, and the Vatican silent as ever. Perhaps was it safer not to act upon something one was afraid turned out to be true? Perhaps not believing it would make the whole thing go away? It did not, however. In 1944, a very shaken Gerstein warned his father that “pride goeth before the fall”.
“Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule,” Nietzsche famously wrote. The reason why people failed to believe Gerstein may be that there seemed to be some spark of madness inside him — a violent, weird and reckless behavior, perhaps triggered by his own witnessing of Nazi deeds. Eaten up by guilt and fear to be seen right through, Vati sank into depression. In the background, the Nazi regime was cracking up. The year was 1945, at the end of the world’s deadliest conflict.
The Third Reich in ruins, Gerstein decided to turn himself in to Allied autorities. But suspicion remained. Several questioning sessions followed, and Vati was eventually jailed at the Cherche-Midi prison, in Paris. He did not say much anymore; and in July 1945, prison guards found him dead in his cell. Suicide. The mystery man had taken off, leaving behind him a testimony he had written during his jailtime, better known today as the ‘Gerstein Report’.
At first convicted by Allied courthouses, Gerstein was eventually acquitted in 1965, thanks to his widow’s prodigious tenacity. Nevertheless, Vati has carried some of his secrets into the grave, and it remains hard to understand his path. More than ever, the life of Kurt Gerstein is a struggle between light and shadow. “Man needs what is most evil in him for what is best in him,” says Nietzsche.
- Pierre Joffroy, A Spy For God. The Ordeal of Kurt Gerstein, New York, Collins Sons & Co., 1970.
- Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein oder die Zwiespältigkeit des Guten, München, C. H. Beck, 2007.
- Jennifer Rosenberg, “Kurt Gerstein: A German Spy in the SS”, ThoughtCo., 01/05/2019.
- Bernd Hey, « Kurt Gerstein. Une vie de résistant », Anglophonia/Caliban, n°17, 2005, Protestantisme(s) et autorité, pp. 431-441.