On April 22nd, 1945, Kurt Gerstein, a lieutenant for the Hygiene Institute in Berlin, took a train headed for Allied territory. That would seem a risky move, but this SS man had a pitch. He approached a French commandant, surrendered, and told the man his truly remarkable story.
Guest speaker: Valerie Hébert is associate professor of history and interdisciplinary studies at Lakehead University Orillia. She teaches European history, specializing in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and the photography of human rights violations and international conflict. She has published on the German resistance figure Kurt Gerstein, as well as on the Nuremberg Trials, Rwanda’s Gacaca Tribunals, the evolution of human rights law, and Holocaust photography.
Man on the Inside, Pt. 1 - Transcription:
Hi, I’m Nate Nelson, welcome to ‘On the Holocaust,’ a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
The pretty town of Reutlingen, in the hilly, silvan countryside of southern Germany, has been home to Jews since at least 1331. Even all the way back then, the Jews who lived there were being persecuted as outsiders.
The Black Death just happened to reach Europe in the late 1340s, and throughout the continent Jews were scapegoated and killed for it. The Reutlingen Jews who managed to survive both plague and murder had their property redistributed among the ruling class. It’s hard to imagine that any of them remained in town after that, and yet, in 1495 and again in 1516, records show systematic expulsion of the town’s Jewish population.
The final exile of Reutlingen’s Jews occurred four centuries later. According to a 1939 census, just half a dozen--six, total--lived in what was now a burgeoning city. In 1942, all six were deported to the ghettos in Terezin and Riga.
One can only imagine how generations of ostracized and exiled Reutlingen Jews would have reacted to the sight of the tall, handsome S.S. officer Kurt Gerstein, walking into their town on April 22nd, 1945, asking for sympathy from the Allied liberators.
The French had just seized the region. Germany was two weeks from officially surrendering but this S.S. officer, rather than retreat to Berlin, traveled by train into enemy territory. That would seem a risky move, but he had a pitch. That Saturday of the 22nd Kurt Gerstein approached the French commandant in charge of the town, surrendered, and told the man the thing he’d been waiting to get off his chest.
That he wasn’t a genuine Nazi officer. He was, in fact, a resistor--a covert saboteur, undermining the Nazi genocide from the inside.
Valerie Hebert: Kurt Gerstein was born in 1905 to an upper class Protestant conservative family.
Valerie Hebert is an Associate Professor of History at Lakehead University.
Valerie Hebert: his early adult years were shaped by the tumultuous Weimar Republic. The era was characterized by political fracture and polarization, economic crisis from the hyper inflation crisis and then the Great Depression. Germany was also in a position of much diminished status on the world’s stage because of the terms of the Versailles Treaty that formalized the end of the World War I.
Kurt Gerstein grew up in the warm little pond where an economic crisis, nationalism and antisemitism, among other factors, would soon merge to birth the Third Reich. It was an intense environment, best epitomized by his father, Ludwig.
A cold army man, Ludwig was strict, dogmatic, patriotic. In short, he totally embodied the national mood of his time--according to the historian Saul Friedlander, quote: “narrowly chauvinistic, unreservedly committed since 1871 to the greatness of the Empire, and totally compliant to authority.” End quote. In today’s terms, we might refer to Ludwig as Adolf Hitler’s “target demographic.”
Valerie Hebert: his father certainly took pride in their pure Aryan heritage. He had written up a family tree going back. Many generations had it bound. And the opening inscription advised his children to be proud of this Aryan heritage to ensure that they maintain its purity.
Quote: “There is nothing but pure Aryan blood in our veins; preserve the purity of the race!” End quote.
The pervasive influence of nationalism and antisemitism meant that Kurt Gerstien’s upbringing had all the ingredients necessary to create a good Nazi out of him. Except he himself never quite accorded to expectations. His brother later recalled, quote: “[Kurt] was certainly the most difficult of my parents’ seven children. [. . .] He had always gone very much his own way [. . .] He was, to use the words of a friend of his youth, an impulsive and passionate idealist who had always been the black sheep of his family.” End quote.
Kurt’s individuality made him difficult in a home that valued total compliance with authority, and translated to bad grades in school, where the same was true. But unlike most young people, his big rebellious streak wasn’t crime, or drugs, or sex.
Valerie Hebert: He was deeply religious in a way that seemed to set him apart from his other family members even.
While the rest of his family joined up with the Nazi party, Gerstein dove deeper and deeper into his faith.
Valerie Hebert: He devoted all his spare time, a sizable proportion of his income to church work. He led youth groups, bible studies. This continued right up through his university education.
Starting in 1932 in fact, he became head of the Protestant Youth Movement for all of Germany, and in that capacity, he published and distributed religious tracks, gave talks, organized trips for youth groups. And it was that activity that first brought him into conflict with the regime.
It was this activity that first brought Gerstein into conflict with the Third Reich, as it began spreading its tentacles into the church.
His conflict began as the Third Reich spread its tentacles into the church. The government made an active effort to integrate Christianity into its authoritarian apparatus, using its influence to legitimize and empower their rule.
Gerstein found himself on the wrong end of this deal. Religious organizations he belonged to were being dissolved or banned. Those that survived only did so by forgoing their independence and Nazifying.
Valerie Hebert: eventually, they moved to dissolving the Protestant Youth Movement in Germany, trying to merge it with the Hitler Youth, and he was vocal about this.
In an effort to open people’s eyes, Gerstein began writing and distributing thousands of religious pamphlets. The gestapo called the campaign, quote,
“a concentrated, systematic, and organized mass literary attack against the National Socialist State.” End quote.
Valerie Hebert: he is continuing on in these church activities and more and more, he is feeling interference from the state.
The secret police targeted him personally, disrupting his church activities.
But even after becoming a target, Kurt Gerstein continued to resist. And, remarkably, he did so without much subtlety. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could get away with flagrant, open resistance to the Nazi regime, but one instance in 1935 perhaps best demonstrates just how little regard he had for his own safety.
The setting was a theater showing of “Wittekind,” about the medieval Saxon leader of the same name. In the play, Christians are portrayed as murderers and race-mixers, calling for the murder of men and the rape of pure German Saxon women by such lower beings as Jews and Italians. Gerstein, one evening, went before the crowd and very publicly disrupted the show. He was then beaten by a group of audience members.
Valerie Hebert: I think so much of what we see from Gerstein is he feels compelled. For him, Christian faith was empty if it was only words without actions. And I think that carried over into his political behavior as well. That if one was anti-Nazi then one had to do something in order to make that opposition effective
Gerstein’s bold, open-faced brand of resistance did end up catching up with him in the summer of 1936.
Valerie Hebert: In summer of 1936, he sent four brochures to 380 highly placed justice officials, and three of those brochures had already been banned for their anti-Nazi content. And then a short time later,
[. . .]
he was organizing a conference. And in sending out invitations to this conference, included a few notes that were poking fun at the Nazis.
[. . .]
He was charged with having violated the law for the defense of the party uniform. So, he was arrested in September, 1936. This prompted a search of his office. The Gestapo found another over 1000 letters, along with 7000 addressed envelopes, so it was clear that this was an ongoing campaign of his to try and reach people in a written form.
Gerstein was held in protective custody, and fired from his job as a mining expert for the state. When that didn’t stop him, the Gestapo [gess-ta-po] officially banned him from public speaking. Then…
Valerie Hebert: In 1938, he was arrested and charged with treason because he was connected to a group that sought to reinstall the monarchy in Germany.
After three years a thorn in the side of the ruling party, this was the final straw. Kurt Gerstein--the anti-Nazi resistor of pure Aryan blood--was thrown into the prison camp at Welzheim. Quote:
This was the most terrible time in my whole life. I cannot describe the humiliations, the abuse, the hunger, forced labor and indescribable treatment… Many times I was only a hair’s breadth away from hanging myself.
End quote. Gerstein was imprisoned for just six weeks, but he’d never quite shake the trauma ofWelzheim.
Valerie Hebert: And this is a moment where Gerstein's at a crossroads. He's now seen, firsthand and up close, how brutal the regime could be, and realized that his activities, such as it was, was enough to bring him within the sites of the state, imprisonment and possibly worse.
So he had these choices before him. He could try and reconcile with the regime for real, he could retreat from politics all together, take some private sector job and just keep his head down, or he could continue to resist.
[. . .]
And he kind of drifts around for a few years. He briefly studied theology. He then attended a medical school that would have trained him to go on medical missions abroad, and then settled into a job at a private mining company.
It took until 1941 for Gerstein to decide what role he would occupy in Hitler’s Germany. The choice he came to was not just strange, it was beyond anything you’d imagine.
One friend recalled hearing about it.
Valerie Hebert: this friend of his said that no Christian could come to terms with someone like Hitler with something like the Party to which Gerstein allegedly replied that, “If the Nazis truly were a danger then perhaps one ought to join the party in order to have inside knowledge and to be able to work against it from the inside.” Right? That if one was to resist, the best position from which to resist would be from within the organization itself.
[. . .]
So he joined the SS in March 1941.
he claimed to have done so in order to learn more about Nazi crime and tell the world. Again, that same like you have to be part of the machinery in order to expose it.
If Kurt Gerstein thought he could casually walk into the S.S., observe their crimes and undermine them from the inside, he was mistaken. He had vastly underestimated whom he was dealing with.
That really only sunk in on August 18th, 1942.
Owing to his engineering and medical training, Gerstein had been placed in a technical-medical role within the S.S. That would seem like a relatively tame job to have, for an S.S. man, but that August it brought him to the extermination camp at Belzec. He was to be counsel for a new method of mass killing.
Valerie Hebert: So, he was sent to Belzec in order to test the efficiency of Zyklon B. This was a time when they were making the transition from gas chambers operating on diesel exhaust fumes, to an actual poison agent.
[. . .]
And the first part of this process was to witness a gassing using the traditional means of diesel exhaust.
In a report written a few years later, Gerstein recalled the thousands of Jews he’d encountered that day. Quote:
they come onward, hesitate, enter the death chambers! At the corner a strong SS man stands who, with a voice like a pastor, says to the poor people: "There is not the least chance that something will happen to you! You must only take a deep breath in the chamber, that widens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the illnesses and epidemics."
For some of these poor people this gave a little glimmer of hope, enough to go the few steps to the chambers without resistance. The majority are aware, the smell tells them of their fate! So they climb the small staircase, and then they see everything. Mothers with little children at the breast, little naked children, adults, men, women, all naked - they hesitate but they enter the death chambers, pushed forward by those behind them or driven by the leather whips of the SS. The majority without saying a word.
Valerie Hebert: They're ushered into the gas chamber, and the doors shut, the engine starts and fails, and it goes on for hours. And through this, he hears people crying and wailing.
“The people are waiting in their gas chambers. In vain! One can hear them crying, sobbing…”
[. . .]
“Many people pray. I pray with them, I press myself in a corner and shout loudly to my and their God. How gladly I would have entered the chamber together with them, how gladly I would have died the same death as them.”
[. . .]
“After two hours and 49 minutes - the stop watch has registered everything well - the diesel starts. [. . .] Right, many are dead now. One can see that, through the small window in which the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few are still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, everyone is dead!”
And when you read that document, the detail that he includes, the emotion that he includes makes clear how deeply felt that experience was. He was writing this years later, and it was as if it was playing out right in front of him.
No thinking, feeling human being can witness a mass extermination, then go to sleep at night the same person they woke up as earlier in the day. It’s not the kind of experience you can just shrug off.
Kurt Gerstein held it together at Belzec, knowing no amount of protestation would’ve saved anyone, and might have only gotten him killed along with the rest. Only on a train ride back to Berlin did he have time to think. By random chance, he happened to be in the same car as a Swedish diplomat named Baron von Otter. Years later, von Otter remembered encountering Kurt Gerstein in that state.
They’d first come across one another in a corridor--Gerstein, in his full S.S. uniform, seemed unsettled. Quote:
“I noticed him nodding his head to me as if to say: ‘A fine trip this is going to be!’ I made it easier for him to approach me by offering him a cigarette. He thanked me, gave me a light, and asked me in the same breath if he might tell me a grim story.”
End quote. Gerstein went straight to the point. He showed von Otter his ID card, and his order for deadly Zyklon B acid, and began to tell his grim story. Quote:
“It was hard to get Gerstein to keep his voice down. We stood there together, all night, some six hours or maybe eight. Again and again, Gerstein kept on recalling what he had seen. He sobbed and hid his face in his hands. I thought to myself that he could not long go on letting his conscience torture him in this way. He would give himself away and they would arrest him.”
End quote. Gerstein pleaded with the diplomat to convey this message to his government.
Valerie Hebert: immediately once he left, he started speaking to anybody who would listen about what he had seen. And he did this even though he had been warned that he had to keep silent on pain of death.
[. . .]
Once back in Berlin, he contacted the Papal Nuncio in order to try and get information to the Vatican. He approached the legal adviser to the Catholic Bishop in Berlin. He approached the Swiss Press Attache, other church contacts. And remember, because of his church work before the war, he had contacts all over Germany who were highly placed in the churches. He had friends in the Dutch Resistance. He estimates he contacted hundreds and hundreds of people with this information.
In an unfortunate irony, while Gerstein was spreading word of the horrors of the gas chambers, he was also in charge of making them more efficient.
In June, 1943, Kurt Gerstein paid a visit to the Degesch Company on orders from none other than Heinrich Himmler. He was to arrange for the shipment of large quantities of deadly Zyklon B gas--enough to, potentially, kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Valerie Hebert: And so as a result of that meeting, a standing monthly order of 200 kilograms of irritant-free Zyklon B was set up for Auschwitz and Oranienburg. And we know that these deliveries took place. Gerstein himself attached invoices for these orders to the report that he wrote at the end of the war.
Gerstein, who’d expressed such distress over the murder of thousands of Jews at Belzec, was now playing a key role in the development of a new and improved gassing system.
Why, though? Perhaps he recognized that, even if he tried resisting the order, somebody else would carry it out instead.
Or, maybe, he believed that this was the opportunity his entire service had been leading up to.
Valerie Hebert: There’s evidence that Gerstein personally picked up the first shipment and then destroyed it by faking an accident with his truck.
Owing to relatively limited oversight, Gerstein was able to use various means to sabotage his stated mission.
Valerie Hebert: Gerstein said that and he told others that he was paying off a man in Berlin to destroy the shipments that feeling that misdirected them so that they weren’t available. He said that he also had people in the camps contacts in – at Auschwitz to ensure that it was used for other purpose, be used other disinfection purposes, etc.
In a letter to Gerhard Peters, manager of Degesch Company, he tried to draw out other useful information to manipulate the shipments.
Valerie Hebert: There is a letter from Gerstein to Peters dated May 1944 in which he asked Peters about the gases’ shelf life. So he is saying it has basically been stockpiled up to this point. None of it has been used. And the wording of the letter suggests that was fishing for a reason to destroy it. He is between the lines, asking Peters to say it has somehow decomposed or it’s – the quality, the effectiveness can’t be assured and it can’t be used.
In spite of the minor interruptions Gerstein may have caused, though, the mass killing continued unabated. In a series of letters to his father in 1944, he struggled with feelings of pride, for what he did to resist, and guilt, for what he did not do. For instance, when at one point Ludwig tried to assuage his son’s guilt, Kurt replied, quote:
“Your words deeply shocked me, which you [wrote] to me as I wrestled with the most difficult things: “Hard times demand hard measures!” No, such words are not sufficient to render acceptable what has happened… However tight the limitations on a man may be he must never lose a single one of his standards or ideas. He may never exonerate himself by saying: That is not my business; I cannot change things. This thing concerns me. I bear this responsibility and this guilt, and indeed as a conscious person I have a corresponding measure of blame.”
End quote. In a later letter, Kurt was of a different mind. Quote:
“If, and so far as I received such orders, I did not carry them out and changed how they would be carried out[,] I myself emerge from the entire [matter] with clean hands and an angelically pure conscience.”
End quote. It was this mindset--redemption, for what small resistance he was able to achieve--that spurred Gerstein to head for Allied-controlled territory in April 1945. Before heading off, he proudly told his wife, quote: “People will hear about me, you can be sure of that! You will be astounded to learn all the things I have done...In three or four weeks, I shall be back again.” End quote.
Valerie Hebert: He had turned himself over to French authorities at the end of the war and offered himself to be used as a witness because he knew so much. He said, “You can use me in order to prosecute representatives of the SS, of the State, in any potential cases.”
He met with the military commandant in charge, with only the hope that the man would understand his unique circumstances. The commandant listened, and examined Kurt’s papers. Then, after consideration, he handed Kurt a document. It stated, quote: “This bearer is not a genuine member of the S.S. and is not to be treated as such. On the contrary, he is to be shown every consideration.” End quote.
It worked. After four years, Kurt Gerstein was finally being recognized for his righteous work.
Valerie Hebert: And he was put in protective custody. That's when he writes these reports that account for his overall activities, both pre-war and war time. That's when he writes, commits to paper, seeing that he'd witnessed at Belzec.
From the Hotel Mohren in the nearby town of Rottweil, Gerstein prepared the detailed account of all he’d witnessed in service of the S.S. Weeks later, a radio broadcast would be heard across the city of Lyon describing a report on the extermination camps. They would cite Kurt Gerstein as the source.
His job was done. In a request to the French, Gerstein now expressed his desire to return home. Quote:
“I am certain that I have made a considerable contribution to the moral undermining of the Nazi system. After twelve years of unremitting struggle, and in particular after the last four years of my extremely dangerous and exhausting activity and the many horrors I have lived through, I should like to recuperate with my family [. . .] I further have the understandable wish either to return to the factory of which I am part owner or to go back to the public service in the coal mines.”
End quote. Gerstein’s request was sent but not carried out, because he was instead transferred to Paris. In Paris he was interrogated and, soon thereafter, the French Embassy in London received a report in the mail. It came from a man named M. G. Mantout who was the head of the research section for France’s War Crimes Commission. Apparently, Mantout was interested in Kurt Gerstein. Quote:
“I have the honor to send you attached a copy of the interrogation carried out by my Services on the principal, Gerstein of Tubingen. This document will not fail, I think, to interest you. At all events, I leave it to you to decide whether it shall be forwarded to the War Crimes Commission.”
End quote. On July 5th, 1945, Kurt Gerstein was apprehended and taken to the Cherche-Midi Military Prison in Paris. An inquiry was filed against him, quote, in regard to murders and complicity in murder.”
But why? Just weeks earlier, a French military commander explicitly endorsed Gerstein, stating that he was “not a genuine member of the S.S. Now, on recommendation by the commission for war crimes, the same man was being charged as a murderer.
Apparently, over the course of May, 1945, something shifted in the way the French viewed their S.S. informant. They were no longer certain that he was the righteous resistor he’d made himself out to be. What changed their minds, though? Did they miss something, and mistakenly throw an innocent man in jail? Or did they discover something new--something in hiding, that cast a different light on the case?
In the following episode of this podcast, Kurt Gerstein will be put on trial. All the evidence of his S.S. service will be placed before a series of judges so that, finally, he will be exonerated as a righteous resistor...or exposed as a two-faced killer.
And here’s where we’re going to stop, for now. For the fate of Kurt Gerstein, stay tuned for our next episode.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem. Direct quotes you heard in this episode came from Saul Friedlander’s “Kurt Gerstein: the Ambiguity of Good.” Our program was produced by Itamar Swissa, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan and Dafna Dolinko. The story you heard was written by me, Nate Nelson. Thank you for listening.