Kurt Gerstein (11 August 1905 – 25 July 1945) was a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS. He witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka. He gave information to the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, as well as to members of the Roman Catholic Church with contacts to Pope Pius XII, in an effort to inform the international public about the Holocaust. In 1945, following his surrender, he wrote the Gerstein Report covering his experience of the Holocaust. He died, an alleged suicide, while in French custody.
Kurt Gerstein was born in Münster in Westphalia, Germany on 11 August 1905. Sixth of seven children, in a family whose ancestors were typical members of the Prussian middle class who were strongly chauvinistic and "totally compliant to authority". His father, Ludwig, a former Prussian officer, was a judge and an authoritarian figure in what was a conventional, German middle class family of the time. He proudly proclaimed that in the family genealogical three there was only Aryan blood and exhorted future generations to "preserve the purity of the race!" As late as 1944 he was to write to his son Kurt: "You are a soldier and an official and you must obey the orders of your superiors. The person who bears the responsibility is the man who gives the orders, not the one who carries them out." Kurt Gerstein found such a parental approach difficult to digest and in the words of a childhood friend he "had always been the black sheep of the family.
Kurt was no more tolerant of discipline in secondary school than within the family. However, in spite of earning many bad reports, he managed to graduate at the age of 20. Going directly on to study at the University of Marburg for three semesters, he then transferred to the technical universities in Aachen and Berlin/Charlottenburg where he graduated in 1931 as a mining engineer. While he was in Marburg he joined, at his father's request, the Teutonia, "one of the most nationalistic student associations in Germany". While he was uncomfortable with the frivolity of the fraternity students, he didn't seem to mind their ultra-nationalism. On 4 September 1937, Gerstein started studying Medicine at the University of Tübingen. However his medical studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war.
Although his family was not a particularly religious one, Gerstein received Christian religious training in school. While at university, almost as an antidote to what he saw as frivolous activities of his classmates, he began to read the Bible. From 1925 onwards, he became active in Christian student and youth movements, joining the German Association of Christian Students (DCSV) in 1925 and in 1928 becoming an active member of both the Evangelical Youth Movement (CVJM-YMCA) and the Federation of German Bible Circles where he took a leading role until it was dissolved in 1934 after a takeover attempt by the Hitler Youth movement. At first finding a religious home within the Protestant Evangelical Church he gravitated toward the Confessing Church, which formed itself around Pastor Martin Niemöller in 1934 as a form of protest against attempts of the Nazis to exercise increasing control over German Protestants. His religious faith caused conflict with the Nazis and he spent time in prison and concentration camps in the late 1930s.
Relations with the Nazi Party and Government
Like many of his generation, Gerstein (and his family) were deeply affected by what they saw as the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and were attracted by the extreme nationalism of the Nazis. In July 1933, he enrolled in the SA, the Storm Troopers of the Nazis party. Friedlander describes the contradictions in Gerstein's mind at the time: "Firm defense of religious concepts and of the honour of the Confessional youth movements, but weakness in the face of National Socialism, with acceptance of its terminology and shoddy rhetoric; acceptance, above all, of the existing political order, of its authoritarianism and its hysterical nationalism".
However, in early 1935 he stood up in a theater during a performance of the play Wittekind protesting against its anti-Christian message and was beaten up by Nazi party members in the audience. He also came into conflict with the Nazi government for distributing anti-Nazi material. He was arrested for the first time on 4 September 1936, held in protective custody for five weeks, and expelled from the Nazi party. The loss of Nazi party membership meant that he was unable to find employment as a mining engineer in the State sector and he applied for reinstatement to the party. He was arrested a second time in July 1938, but was released six weeks later because no charges could be found against him. He (and his father) continued to pursue reinstatement in the party.
Membership in the SS
In early 1941 he joined the SS. Explanations for this decision are varied and confusing. On the one hand, one document indicates it was the result of his outrage over the death of a sister-in-law who apparently was killed under the euthanasia program directed at the mentally ill, Action T4. Other documents seem to indicate that he had already made his decision before she died and that her death reinforced his plan to join the SS "to see things from the inside", to try to change the direction of policies, and to publicise the crimes being committed. Browning describes him as "a covert anti-Nazi who infiltrated the SS ..." And in a letter to his wife he explains: "I joined the SS ... acting as an agent of the Confessing Church."
Because of his technical education, Gerstein rose quickly to become Head of Technical Disinfection Services, liaising with Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth on technical aspects of mass murder in the extermination camps. On August 17, 1942, Gerstein witnessed in Belzec the gassing of some 3,000 Jews who had arrived by train from Lwow and the next day he went to Treblinka which had similar facilities where he observed huge mounds of clothing and underwear.
Several days later, he had a chance encounter on the Warsaw to Berlin train with Swedish diplomat, Göran von Otter, who was based in Berlin. During a conversation which lasted several hours, he told the Swede what he had seen and urged him to spread the information internationally. In the meantime he attempted to make contact with representatives of the Vatican, the press attaché at the Swiss Legation in Berlin, and a number of people linked to the Confessing Church. His statements to diplomats and religious officials over the period of 1942 through 1945 had disappointingly little effect.
After his surrender, in April 1945, Gerstein was to write a report about his experiences with respect to the extermination camps, at first in French, followed by two German versions in May 1945. Gerstein's report has been criticized, not the least by Holocaust deniers. Distinguished French historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet in "Assassins of Memory" discusses such criticism.
Historian Christopher Browning has written: "Many aspects of Gerstein's testimony are unquestionably problematic. ...[In making] statements, such as the height of the piles of shoes and clothing at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein himself is clearly the source of exaggeration. Gerstein also added grossly exaggerated claims about matters to which he was not an eyewitness, such as that a total of 25 million Jews and others were gassed. But in the essential issue, namely that he was in Belzec and witnessed the gassing of a transport of Jews from Lwow, his testimony is fully corroborated .... It is also corroborated by other categories of witnesses from Belzec."
Arrest and death
On 22 April 1945, Gerstein surrendered to the French commandant of the occupied town of Reutlingen. He received a sympathetic reception and was transferred to a residence in a hotel in Rottweil. It was there that he was able to write out his reports. However, he was later transferred to the Cherche-Midi military prison where he was treated as a war criminal. On 25 July 1945 he was found dead in his cell, an alleged suicide.
A semi-fictional movie about his emotional search for Christian values and ultimate decision to betray the SS by attempting to expose the Holocaust through informing the Catholic Church, Amen., was released in 2002, starring Ulrich Tukur as Kurt Gerstein and directed by Costa-Gavras. Amen. was largely adapted from Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy.
Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, wrote a dramatic play, Either Or, on the subject of Gerstein's life as an SS officer and how he dealt with the concentration camps. It premiered at the Theater J in Washington, D.C. in May 2007.
In 2010, a group of film students from Emory University produced a short film entitled "The Gerstein Report" that chronicled the events leading up to Lt. Gerstein's death. The film went on to win Best Drama at the 2010 Campus MovieFest International Grande Finale in Las Vegas, Nevada.
- Friedländer, Saul, Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969, p.4.
- Friedländer 1969, p.10.
- quoted in Friedländer 1969, p. 4
- quoted in Friedländer 1969, p. 6
- Friedländer 1969, p. 11
- Friedländer 1969, p. 8
- quoted in Friedländer 1969, p. 13
- Friedländer 1969, p. 19
- Friedländer 1969, p. 35
- Yahil, Leni; Friedman, Ina; Galai, Hayah (1991), "The Holocaust: the fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945", Oxford University Press US: 357, ISBN 978-0-19-504523-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], retrieved 2009-08-10
- Friedländer 1969, p. 32
- Friedländer 1969, p. 37
- quoted in Friedländer 1969, p. 80 where she is referred to as: "aunt [sic]", but page 73 makes it clear that it is his sister-in-law
- Pierre Joffroy, L'Espion de Dieu, Paris, Laffont, 2002, p. 133 (taken from French edition of Wikipedia)
- Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution: Electronic Edition, Browning, Christopher R.
- quoted in Friedländer 1969, p. 215
- Friedländer 1969, p. 112.
- Friedländer 1969, pp. 123-125
- Friedländer 1969, pp. 128-129
- Assassins of Memory Pierre Vidal-Naquet, 1987. Ressources documentaires sur le génocide nazi / Documentary Resources on the Nazi Genocide © Michel Fingerhut, auteurs et éditeurs, 1996-98
- Friedländer, 1969, pp. 218-222
- Yahil, Leni; Friedman, Ina; Galai, Hayah (1991), "The Holocaust: the fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945", Oxford University Press US: 360, ISBN 978-0-19-504523-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], retrieved 2009-08-10
- Hochhuth, Rolf (1967), The Deputy, New York: Grove Pr, ISBN 0-394-17125-X [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
-  Winning short film about the Gerstein Report
- Friedländer, Saul, Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969. ASIN B000GQS4Z6.
- Joffroy, Pierre, L'espion de Dieu. La passion de Kurt Gerstein, Robert Laffont, 1969, dernière édition 2002, 453 pages ISBN 2-221-09764-5 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- Hey, Bernd u.a.: Kurt Gerstein (1905 - 1945). Widerstand in SS-Uniform. Bielefeld, 2003. ISBN 3-89534-486-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
A more detailed article appears in the French edition of Wikipedia. It has been closely consulted for this article.