Kurt Gerstein defies easy categorization. The Germans didn't know what to think of him, the French changed their minds. His friends and family paint a picture of a man torn between two worlds. Facts about his life seem to clash with one another. Even decades after World War II ended, people still couldn't figure out whether he had participated in, or sabotaged, the German murder machinery.
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. 2 - Transcription:
Hi, my name’s Nate Nelson, welcome back to ‘On the Holocaust’ from Yad Vashem. A quick note before we begin: this is the second in a two-part story about Kurt Gerstein. If you haven’t already listened to “Man on the Inside: Part One,” go back and do that, as what follows here builds on what we covered there.
When Kurt Gerstein surrendered to the French military commandant in charge of Reutlingen, he was received with honor. Literally: the Allied army held him in what was termed “honorable captivity.” He was put up at the Hotel Mohren in the nearby town of Rottweil, where he wrote a now famous report detailing what he’d witnessed as a lieutenant for the Schutzstaffel. Gerstein was so comfortable with his accommodations, in fact, that upon completing the report, he wrote to his French handlers saying, basically, that he was ready to go home. Oh, and, he wanted his old mining job back, if they could swing it.
That was April and May, 1945. In June, he found himself in a less honorable captivity: behind bars at the Cherche-Midi military prison in Paris.
Now, viewed from a distance, Cherche-Midi did have the appearance of a perfectly pleasant building--the kind that might house middle-class apartments, or a school. It was located on an ordinary street, but a thick wall and big wooden doors isolated the inside from pedestrian traffic. And with a closer look you’d notice the metal bars in the windows. Inside...let’s just say it was a far cry from the Hotel Mohren. We know it from accounts written by other German POWs. Quote:
"There was no window in the cell [. . .] It was a gloomy hole without illumination or heating. Added to this, the cell was alive with bugs and lice which defied all attempts to destroy them. Apart from rare exceptions, the food was completely inadequate, with the result that we got thinner and thinner. [. . .] The sanitary arrangements in that ancient building were indescribable."
It was as Gerstein sat in one of these cold, dark cages that an inquiry was opened into his case, quote, “in regard to murders and complicity in murder.” But only two weeks later, on July 25th, the inquiry was cut short when the accused was found sprawled out in his cell, the torn blanket he’d used to hang himself still wrapped around his neck.
Valerie Hebert : There was apparently a note. It was lost.
Valerie Hebert, associate professor at Lakehead University.
Valerie Hebert : I tried to access records about his time at Cherche-Midi, there's just nothing. There is very little to go on about what happened in those intervening days. The thing is about Gerstein though, I mean, there was some suspicion that perhaps he'd been killed by somebody else housed in the same prison, because he was willing to incriminate others. Certainly, that's plausible, but I also think suicide is also entirely plausible.
Suicide was the official determination. We can only speculate about motive. Perhaps Gerstein just couldn’t take it any longer. Perhaps he thought he wouldn’t receive a fair trial. Or, perhaps, he feared what that trial might expose...
To grasp what so deeply tortured Kurt Gerstein in his final hours--frankly, his final years--we have to rewind his story: way back, all the way to the beginning.
As a young man, Gerstein became deeply embedded in the Christian church. For example, in 1932, he became the head of the entire country’s Evangelical youth movement.
Valerie Hebert : And like a lot of other men of his generation, he joined the SA. These were the Storm Troopers and also called the Brown Shirts. This was the paramilitary organization attached to the Nazi Party. And then he joined the Party itself in May 1933.
At the same time he was leading church circles, the young Kurt Gerstein was also participating in Nazi paramilitary exercises.
Valerie Hebert : And given what he was to become, these choices are – seemed out of character and baffling. He never did fully explain why he joined the SA and the Party. His family supported the movement, particularly his father so it might just have been pressure from within his own family. But he was also a graduate engineer and had a budding career in the civil service. He worked for a state mining enterprises. And so, party membership certainly would have been helpful career-wise. That might have been a reason.
There is evidence that he was attracted to the Party’s promises to repair the battered economy of Germany. He certainly also sympathized with the Nazi’s anti-Bolshevism.
it was the Bolshevik’s rejection of organized religion that probably would have resonated deeply with him and the Nazi’s promise to rid Germany of Bolshevik presence.
There are all kinds of explanations for why Kurt Gerstein involved himself with the Nazi party. Perhaps it’s so difficult to pin down because the notion of a passive, largely apolitical Nazi is so anathema to us today.
Valerie Hebert : for a number of years, what you see happening was Gerstein is this on-going struggle between desire I think to try and have it both worlds through the world of the government in power in Germany at that time and then also this Christian world where he is motivated by very strict and clear moral principles.
Gerstein may have lacked strong feelings about the Third Reich until they forced his hand by taking over the church. He resisted and, rather than being met with some kind of harmonious compromise--harmonious compromise not being a particular strength of the Nazi party--he instead got a taste of the darker side of his government. First he was targeted by the Gestapo, who gradually made themselves more present in his life.
But even as he spread anti-government literature, Gerstein still wasn’t prepared to totally distance himself from that government. For example, after his first arrest…
Valerie Hebert: Once he was released, he actively sought reinstatement to the Party, again, that seems strange to us. How can he pursue these two paths, resistance and also trying once again to place himself in the Party?
In his reapplication, he claimed that he had just been trying to be a good Christian but had now seen the light. He was committed to being a loyal Nazi. Letters he wrote at the time suggest he was doing this under pressure from his father, his own brother said as much.
With help from his family, and connections higher up in the party, Kurt managed to get his status changed from “exclusion” to the less harsh “dismissal.” Of course, that didn’t stop him from opposing the government--his public speaking ban and subsequent detainment at the Welzheim prison camp were still to come.
The really confusing thing in all this is that, even after six weeks of starvation and forced labor at Welzheim, Kurt Gerstein never totally disavowed national socialism. He simultaneously opposed them on moral and religious grounds, and was willing to turn the other way in certain other respects.
To help parse out this apparent juxtaposition, we can look to a letter he wrote in 1938 to relatives in America. This was just after his release from Welzheim and, even in such a state, you can tell that he was of two minds. Quote:
In your visits to Germany you have seen the good that the Hitler movement has produced: roads, employment, construction--but you were not able to see the tragedy that results from the loss of intellectual freedom, religious freedom, and justice… We have all been at pains, where we have had to raise resistance, not to strike at political National Socialism, because that is not our affair. We have only tried to defend rights and responsibilities that were and are again and again solemnly guaranteed to us by Herr Hitler and National Socialism
Valerie Hebert : So this attempt to try and square both the on-going resistance activity and this on-going sympathy
I don’t think we can entirely square these things.
Is there anything to be gleaned from Kurt Gerstein’s apparently unbreakable sympathy for at least certain aspects of the Nazi movement? For example, might it have made the otherwise unthinkable notion of joining the SS thinkable?
Or perhaps it casts a certain light on one other mystery of Gerstein’s life. You see, even if his express purpose was to expose and undermine the S.S., there’s still the matter that he, alongside all his resistance activities, still did serve them for four years.
Valerie Hebert : and his early work there involved building disinfection systems for soldiers, so mobile things that could be taken into the field. He was also designing disinfection systems and water filtration equipment for POW in Concentration Camps and he was quite successful on this work, so much so that he was made head of the Health Engineering Department, which included developing disinfection services using poisonous gases.
Even trained spies get caught sometimes. Kurt Gerstein, by contrast, raised few red flags among his fellow soldiers. Apparently he spent enough of his time doing regular S.S business.
Valerie Hebert: And so, this is what, again, sort of the one of confounding things about Gerstein. As much as he might have been motivated to join the SS in order to learn about the regime’s crimes and to be in a position to work against them or exposed them, in order to be in that position, he also had to carry out his work with competence and with success. So while the intention was to sabotage the regime, he is also in his day-to-day routines supporting and advancing the larger Nazi project. So is he still a committed anti-Nazi? Yes. Is he also serving the SS? Yes.
It’s around this point where we can start to understand why the French liberators might have had reason to question Gerstein and his motives. Perhaps he really was a resistor, but it certainly wasn’t so clear-cut as it might have first seemed.
In fact, it was much less clear-cut than even they likely realized at the time. Whether Kurt Gerstein was a resistor, or a perpetrator, was a question that would be litigated for years, and even decades beyond the man’s death.
Valerie Hebert: so there were three sets of legal proceedings that dealt with Gerstein’s case after the war. It was fascinating because they were all different bodies, operating for different purposes according to different laws. And what they all shared though was they had to pass some kind of judgment on Gerstein, a person who has worked both opposed and supported a criminal regime.
The first legal body that took a view of Kurt Gerstein’s service to the S.S. occurred in 1948 and 1949. A trial was arranged not for Gerstein but, rather, three employees of The Degesch Company: Germany’s sole manufacturer of Zyklon B poison gas.
Valerie Hebert: The principal defendant was the former manager. His name was Gerhard Peters. And he was charged with murder and accessory to murder for having delivered Zyklon B to Auschwitz. The pivotal issue in determining his guilt and this was a function of German law on murder and accessory to murder, the pivotal issue was whether Peters knew at the time that he sold this gas that it was intended to be used to kill people.
And so this is where Gerstein comes in because it was Gerstein who approached him with the request for shipment of Zyklon B. And so, the court became very interested in what Gerstein said during that initial meeting. And then also, whether the gas actually was used to kill people.
The Zyklon B that Kurt Gerstein ordered from Gerhard Peters in 1943 was to be delivered to two locations. Those locations, on their own, revealed quite a bit about how the chemical might have been used. The first was Oranienburg.
Valerie Hebert: what do we know about how this gas was used? Well, Oranienburg or Sachsenhausen was a camp for forced laborers, for POWs, for political prisoners. It had a very small gas chamber, about the size of two standard shower stalls. It was mainly used for experimental purposes. Most of the people who died there perished by shooting.
Whether the delivery to Oranienburg would be used in mass murder wasn’t clear. Less of a question surrounded the second delivery, headed straight for Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Valerie Hebert : Auschwitz, which in this context included the main killing center of Birkenau, this was the primary killing center for the East. So it makes sense that Zyklon B would be delivered there if it was to be used for killing people.
The court in Frankfurt noted evidence that Gerstein had faked a truck accident in order to destroy the first shipment from Degesch, and that, in so doing, he may have prevented that batch from ever being used against people. The court also heard testimony from workers at Oranienburg, who recalled that a shipment Gerstein had delivered--identifiable, as it came in non-standard 100-gram canisters--had actually been rerouted out of the camp. To where, they didn’t exactly know.
Valerie Hebert: They said, “Well, we can’t count any of Gerstein’s gas that went to Oranienburg. But it still left the Auschwitz shipments in contention.
Through what records survived the war, it appeared Gerstein was unable to divert at least 1,775 kilograms of Zyklon B from reaching Auschwitz, but that he may have had some hand in at least delaying its use.
Valerie Hebert: it’s possible that all of this gas had just been accumulating at Auschwitz and in May 1944, it still hadn’t been used. They are willing to accept that that was possible. But it was at that very time, that very moment that there was a significant increase in the demand for Zyklon B at Auschwitz for two reasons. One was the deportation of Hungary’s Jews which began in May and about only six weeks, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Most of them perished there. So that’s happening right at the moment where this potential stockpile of Zyklon B sitting there. Also, the manufacturing plant in Geisa was bombed. And this meant there was now a shortage in the supply.
So even if Gerstein had somehow prevented its use until then, the court didn’t believe this could be assured after May 1944. And the total that they could – that they evidence for, that they could account for was 1,775 kilograms. Only about 6 kilograms was needed to asphyxiate 1,500 people. So if we work out these calculations, Gerstein’s 1,775 kilograms of Zyklon B perhaps still sitting there stockpiled at Auschwitz was enough to cause the deaths of about 450,000 people.
By the end of the Frankfurt trial, the judges concluded that Gerstein, quote, “represent[ed] the type of man who rejected the Nazi regime from deepest conviction, even hated it, but took part in it, to prevent worse things and to work against it from the inside.” End quote. At the same time, however, they found that, quote, “he did not succeed in eliminating the deliveries of poison gas in a decisive way.” End quote. In other words, in spite of any good intentions, he may have a hand in anywhere from 0 to 450,000 murders.
In 1949, Frau Gerstein--now four years without her husband, the bread-winner of the household--filed for welfare. It may have been necessary from a financial standpoint, but it opened up a can of worms all over again.
Valerie Hebert: so anybody seeking any kind of responsible employment or political or political office, anyone seeking state support would have to prove that their past was free of sort of Nazi contamination.
So, Gerstein’s did. But even for his heirs to receive state support, there had to be an investigation into his past.
The judges in Kurt Gerstein’s second posthumous assessment agreed with the judges in his first: that his intentions were good, but that he most likely failed at making any significant dent in the Nazi machine. And they went one step further.
Valerie Hebert: he was in a position where he could have predicted that failure. He could have seen that the machinery was stronger than him and he should have simply removed himself all together rather than try continually pursue this fruitless path of resistance.
The denazification evaluation included five official categories: main offender, tainted, lesser offender, follower, or exonerated. For reference, Paul Salitter--whom we covered in a different episode of this podcast--was deemed a category three “lesser offender” for his role in transporting 1,007 Jews to the ghetto in Riga, Latvia.
At the conclusion of Kurt Gerstein’s denazification trial, the court handed down their ruling: he was “tainted.” Category two.
Valerie Hebert: The widow and these three children are still in dire financial straits. So there were another few options available. They could try and have this denazification classification overturned. There was also the possibility of pursuing compensation for Gerstein having been imprisoned by the regime for his resistance. They could also pursue compensation for his – what they alleged was his wrongful death in French custody. There was also the possibility of seeking a pension because he had been a state employee for a short time in the 1930s and just over the beginning of the war.
And these cases which actually only concluded in 1969, they went on for years and years and years, a lot of complicated legal wrangling, various provincial and federal bodies took on this case using different laws. There were decisions, appeals, new cases. But essentially, they fell into – they followed a similar pattern, right? They believed that he had been an opponent of the regime in the early years. They questioned his motives for joining the SS. He did at least superficially cooperate with the murder of the Jews. And certainly, once he had full knowledge of what the regime was doing, he should have recognized his own, how should I put this, like his own incapacity that he was only one person, that he didn’t have the power or was not highly placed enough in order to affect real change about this. And it would have been better for him if he had simply left the SS all together.
The final legal decision with regards to Kurt Gerstein was made on June 13th, 1969. Government authorities offered Mrs. Gerstein a settlement on the grounds that her husband, three decades prior, had lost his position as a state employee for reasons, quote, “other than officially sanctioned.” End quote. In other words, their decision had only to do with Gerstein’s employment through 1936, his S.S. service being entirely irrelevant. That made things a lot less complicated.
Valerie Hebert: And that was where they left it. There was no reason to deny him nor his heirs his pension so it was allowed to be paid out. But the terms of agreement were also very stern in telling his widow, “It ends here. this ends any further appeals, requests, or revisiting of the case.”
23 years after his death, the matter of Kurt Gerstein was finally laid to rest. It was befitting a man of such contradictions that no definitive judgment was reached.
Interviewer: What outstanding mysteries of Gerstein’s story nag at you?
Valerie Hebert: I wish I knew why he was directed to obtain these shipments of Zyklon B to Auschwitz and Oranienburg, because what he obtained represented only a fraction of what was actually used there.
I’d like to know what his day-to-day activities were. He listed having – mentioned having visited these other camps. He said he tried to avoid this because it was customary to hang a prisoner in honor of one official visit from someone. But certainly, he was at these places. Why? We don’t know what else was he involved in. And it’s not so much that I suspect he was wavering in his resistance or faltering in his opposition but I just would like to know more about what he was doing.
Things that nagged me about his story, one is the terrible loneliness of his position. He tried to alert people of influence. The information went nowhere. It changed nothing. He believed he had to stay with the SS even though it brought him deeper and deeper into the worst crimes of the regimes. I think he had to know he was part of that machinery.
And his suicide at the end of the war suggests at a minimum that he was not at peace. So, there’s something very tragic about that.
The legal decisions trouble me. They came to this similar and repeating conclusion that Gerstein ultimately failed. He could have predicted this failure. What they are saying is that he would have been in a better legal and some even suggest at a better moral position if he had left the SS after Belzec, if not sooner. And this is troublesome in two ways because one, the laws that the courts applied, privileged action over intention, which meant that they couldn’t take full account of the context. And it raises questions about the law’s capacity to confront morally complex cases. It’s troublesome also in how the law was interpreted because the judgment suggested that it’s better to uninvolved, to retreat, than to fight and defend principles that when the odds are stocked against us, it’s better to set our conscience aside and with it abandon others who might be in harm’s way.
There are all kinds of ways you can judge Kurt Gerstein, even though the facts never change. He both participated in and sabotaged an unprecedented, total, and systematic genocide. Regardless of context, or motive, both of these are truths, and neither cancels out the other.
Valerie Hebert: I don’t think there is a way to come to a satisfying conclusion about him because these two fundamental things about him can’t be reconciled. At the same time, I think that is where the truth actually is. He was an accessory to murder and a courageous opponent of a murderous regime simultaneously indivisibly. Now, the courts had to choose one side of the story but we don’t.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem. 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.