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Kurt Gerstein: God's Spy in the Devil's Uniform

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Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.
– Luke 12:3 (Revised Standard Version).

It was 4 May, 1945, a few days before the official German surrender in World War II. Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Kurt Gerstein had already surrendered to the French in Reutlingen, Baden-Württemberg. These authorities had moved him to the nearby town of Rottweil, and set him down in the Hotel Mohren with a typewriter. Gerstein had a story to tell – one he'd been trying to alert the world about since 1942. Finally, he told it, first in French, then in German.

Gerstein didn't know it, but he had very little time left, if he wanted to unburden himself of his message. On 25 July, he would be found dead, hanged in a French prison cell. By his own hand, or someone else's? The official verdict was suicide, but only Gerstein would be able to tell us, and he was no longer available for comment. It was the story of his life, really: being unable to communicate the vitally important information he had.

Kurt Gerstein was an eyewitness to mass murder.

The Gerstein Report: The CV

Like any good German, Gerstein knew how to write a Lebenslauf, or CV. He began with the facts – but there's a whole history behind those facts:

  • Born 1905 in Münster, Westphalia. Gerstein was the sixth of seven children in a strongly patriarchal Prussian family. All the sons, including Kurt, were expected to become professionals dedicated to the glory of the Prussian ideal and the good of the state. They were also supposed to do whatever their father told them to.
  • Studies: University of Marburg a. Lahn 1925-1927. Berlin 1927-1931, Technische Hochschule Aachen 1927. Diplom-Ingenieur-Examination 1931 in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Gerstein became a mining engineer.
  • 1925: Active member of the organised Lutheran youth groups CVJM-YMCA and the Bible Circles at institutions of higher learning. This sounds innocuous: it wasn't. The YMCA and those Bible classes were hotbeds of anti-Nazi propaganda. Worse, Gerstein was coming into contact with subversive elements like Martin Niemöller, the anti-Nazi pastor. As a youth leader, Gerstein was charismatic and influential with young people.
  • 2 May, 1933: Joined the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. There was a family meeting. All the male Gersteins dutifully joined.
  • 27 September, 1936: Arrested. In 1935, Gerstein stood up in a theatre and protested loudly against the anti-Christian sentiments of the play Wittekind. Patriotic Nazis beat him up. In 1936, Gerstein tried to mail out 8,500 anti-Nazi pamphlets, and was arrested.
  • 2 October, 1936: Thrown out of Nazi Party. For being religious and subversive. This also meant that Gerstein lost his job. He went back to university and studied medicine for a time.
  • 14 July, 1938: Arrested. This time, the authorities were less lenient. Gerstein spent more than six weeks in the Welzheim concentration camp, and was forbidden to speak in public anywhere in the Reich.
  • 10 March, 1941: Joined the Waffen-SS. If this sounds confusing, it is. Historians give a number of reasons for Gerstein's action here, but we are reading his CV, so we will let him explain. He says he did this because he'd learned that a relative by marriage, Bertha Ebeling, had been murdered in the Hadamar euthanasia programme. He says he wanted to get a look behind the curtains to see what the Nazis were up to.
  • 17 August, 1942: Gerstein found out more than any human being ever wanted to know. This is the reason he was writing the report. He'd been trying to 'shout it from the housetops'.

What Gerstein Heard

Here is what Gerstein, an officer in the Hygiene Department, experienced when he showed up in Lublin, Poland, expecting to disinfect buildings and clothing for the military. We'll let him tell it, because it is his story1.

Globocnek consulted me alone and said:
'Your particular job is to disinfect the extensive textile collection. The whole Spinnstoffsammlung [official public collection of cloth goods] has only been carried out to explain the origin of the textiles for the workers in the East, and to present them as the result of an offering by the German people. In reality, the yield from our facilities is 10-20 times that of the whole public collection.'

What was Gerstein being asked to do? Disinfect clothing taken from the victims of the mass murders – clothing that amounted to 10-20 times what the German people were able to collect as charitable donations. How much did that add up to? Gerstein says he contracted for 40 million kilograms of disinfectant – 60 complete freight trains – and it still wasn't enough. Where did these clothes go? To workers. A lot of people during World War II were wearing the clothing of the dead.

What did these people think about what they were doing? Weren't they worried about someone finding out? This is what Gerstein reported:

Then Pfannenstiel asked: 'What did the Führer say?'
Glob: 'Faster, carry out the whole action faster.'
His companion, Ministerialrrat Dr Herbert Lindner, asked: 'Herr Globocnek, do you think it's right to bury all the bodies instead of burning them? A generation could come after us, that doesn't understand all this!'
To which Globocnek replied: 'Gentlemen, if a generation should ever come after us, that is so weak and lily-livered that it doesn't understand our great task, then all of National Socialism has been in vain. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that one should sink bronze plaques on which it states that we had the courage to carry out this great and oh-so-necessary work.'
To which the Führer said: 'Good, Globocnek, that is indeed also my opinion!'

Gerstein notes that other opinions prevailed eventually, and they started burning the bodies. Smoke and ash make it harder to count the corpses.

What Gerstein Saw

Then, Gerstein saw the Final Solution in action at Belzec. Warning: it isn't quite as clean as what you may have seen in the movies. It took longer than they let on. Part of that was due to technical problems with the chemicals, and they wanted Gerstein's expert opinion.

In fact, the first train from Lemberg [Lvov] arrived in a few minutes. 45 cars with 6,700 people, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the barred hatches children looked out, horribly pale and terrified, full of deadly fear, as well as men and women... a giant loudspeaker gives the further instructions: Take off all clothes, also prosthetics, eyeglasses, etc. Surrender valuables at the counter, without ticket or receipt. Tie the shoes together carefully (on account of the clothing drive), because nobody would have been able to find mates again in the 25-meter pile of shoes. Then the women and girls had to go to the barber, who with two, three snips of the scissors cuts off all the hair and makes it vanish into potato sacks. 'That is intended for some kind of special use for submarines, for insulation or suchlike!' the SS-Unterscharführer in charge there tells me.
Then the whole procession is set in motion. In the lead is a young girl, pretty as a picture, and so they all go down the road, all naked, men, women, children, without their prostheses. I myself stand with Captain Wirth up on the ramp between the chambers. Mothers with their infants at their breasts, they come up, hesitate, enter into the death chambers! – On the corner stands a strong SS man, who says to the poor wretches in a pastoral voice: 'Nothing in the least will happen to you! You must just breathe in deeply, that expands the lungs...'...So they all mount the small staircase, and then they see it all. Mothers with children at the breast, small, naked children, adults, men, women, all naked – they hesitate, but they enter in the death chambers, driven by those behind them or by the leather whips of the SS. The majority, without saying a word...

Gerstein was about to find out why the SS needed him to see this. They had a technical issue. You see, at this early stage, they were trying to mass-execute these people using diesel motor exhaust. In fact, the sign on the door said, 'Heckenholt-Stiftung'. Heckenholt was the diesel driver. As Gerstein watched, the true horror became even clearer: killing thousands of people this way was not only horrific and painful. It took an unconscionably long time.

...the diesel doesn't work! Captain Wirth comes. One can tell that it is embarrassing to him that this has to happen when I'm here. Yes, I see it all! And I wait. My stop watch dutifully registered it all. 50 minutes, 70 minutes – the diesel won't start! The people wait in their gas chambers. In vain! One hears them crying, sobbing... Captain Wirth uses his riding whip to strike a Ukrainian who is supposed to be helping Unterscharführer Heckeholt with the diesel, 12-13 times in the face. After two hours and 49 minutes – the stop watch kept a good record – the diesel starts up. Up until this time, people have been living in these four chambers, four times 750 humans in four times 45 cubic meters! – Another 25 minutes go by. Okay, many are now dead. One can see that through the electric light which illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes, only a few are alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, everything in there is dead!

Captain Wirth was embarrassed, because inefficiency is an embarrassment. What did he want from his hygiene officer? Suggestions on making death more efficient.

What Gerstein Felt

Again, we will leave the speculating to the historians. This is what Gerstein, writing in 1945, said he felt. He didn't know this would be a deathbed confession, but deathbed confessions are usually given extra weight by observers.

...I press myself into a corner and cry aloud to my and their God. How gladly would I have joined them in the chamber, how gladly would I have shared their death. They would have found, then, an SS officer in their chambers – the matter would have been interpreted as an accident and handled as such, dismissed without a trace. So I can't do that yet. I have to tell what I'm experiencing here!

After all the victims were dead, the workers pulled their teeth. The SS bragged to Gerstein about how much in gold, diamonds and dollars they garnered everyday. The next day, the stunned SS man was taken to Treblinka, where the staff rejoiced in eight gas chambers. There, the visitors had a festive meal: on Himmler's orders, the workers of the Final Solution were to have nothing but the best, and all the meat, butter, and alcohol they wanted.

Gerstein knew what few people knew in 1942. The next question was, what to do with the information?

Who Gerstein Told

On the train back from Warsaw, Gerstein had a stroke of good luck on this surreal journey. He ran into Baron von Otter, secretary to the Swedish ambassador in Berlin. Gerstein, brimming with outrage, spent the next 6-8 hours standing in a corridor, begging the Swede to believe him, imploring von Otter to tell everyone he could, because if they didn't do something right now, thousands would die, every day...

Von Otter was skeptical, because... well, everyone knew that the SS tried to provoke foreigners. But he checked it out, truly he did, and he made a report to his superiors, and when he saw the increasingly desperate Gerstein again in Berlin, he tried to reassure him that yes, he'd told someone...

Gerstein also went to talk to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. As soon as it became apparent that he was a soldier, he was told to go away, and stay away. He kept trying to talk to Catholic priests, asking them to inform the Vatican. He got nowhere, although he said he must have talked to hundreds of religious people.

What Gerstein Never Knew

When Gerstein died in July 1945 – however he died – he had no way of knowing this, but his message had, indeed, gotten through. The Allies had been informed. And yes, the Pope knew what was going on. The British, Americans, Dutch, Swedes, all knew. What did they do about it? Nothing. Neutral powers such as Sweden or the Vatican didn't want to rock the boat. Belligerent powers had other priorities. To them, winning a war was far more important than stopping mass murder. This was not a new idea, and it hasn't gone away, either. Ask someone at the UN about Rwanda.

Gerstein also never knew that his testimony, although it never saved a life, would be used against the perpetrators after the fact. His evidence was presented at the Nuremberg trials, the Eichmann proceedings, and the lawsuit Irving v Penguin Books Ltd.

This might not have been much comfort to Kurt Gerstein: he was trying to stop the killing.

For Further Information

There are films about these events. One of the most famous is Amen, by Constantin Costa-Gavras, a fictionalised account. The French/German documentary film, Kurt Gerstein: Zeuge der Wahrheit takes an indepth look at Gerstein's life, actions, and motivations.

The Gerstein Report is kept at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. Its file number is 100-1125. To read the original in its entirety, simply click on Der Gersteinbericht.

For a German account of Gerstein's experiences by Saul Friedländer, consult this article in Der Spiegel.

Kurt Gerstein was motivated by his personal faith in the German religious movement called the bekennende Kirche, or 'Confessing Church'. This movement aimed, not to preserve Western civilisation or its religious traditions, but to ask, always and only, 'What would Jesus do?' Besides Martin Niemöller, one of the leading figures of the bekennende Kirche was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote a famous poem, included as part of a Christmas letter to his fiancée from prison. The words to this poem have been set to music and sung around the world as a tribute to the influence and beliefs of this particular brand of resistance. Although Gerstein, of course, could never have read the poem or heard it sung, it circulated among his friends after the war. This song might give the listener a glimpse into why Gerstein did what he did. After all, his friend Helmut Franz called him 'a spy for God in the devil's uniform'.

1Translations by the author of this Entry. A complete translation of the document is available from the Holocaust Research Project at their website.

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