Kurt Gerstein: A German Spy in the SS

(Photo by Fang Zhou / Getty Images)

Anti-Nazi Kurt Gerstein (1905-1945) never intended to be a witness to the Nazi murder of the Jews. He joined the SS to try to find out what happened to his sister-in-law, who had mysteriously died in a mental institution. Gerstein was so successful in his infiltration of the SS that he was placed in a position to witness gassings at Belzec. Gerstein then told everyone he could think of about what he saw and yet no action was taken.

Some wonder if Gerstein did enough.

Who Was Kurt Gerstein?

Kurt Gerstein was born on August 11, 1905, in Münster, Germany. Growing up as a young boy in Germany during the First World War and the following tumultuous years, Gerstein did not escape the pressures of his time.

He was taught by his father to follow orders without question; he agreed with the growing patriotic fervor that espoused German nationalism, and he was not immune to the strengthening anti-Semitic feelings of the inter-war period. Thus he joined the Nazi Party on May 2, 1933.

However, Gerstein found that much of the National Socialist (Nazi) dogma went against his strong Christian beliefs.

Turning Anti-Nazi

While attending college, Gerstein became very involved in Christian youth groups. Even after graduating in 1931 as a mining engineer, Gerstein remained very active in the youth groups, especially the Federation of German Bible Circles (until it was disbanded in 1934).

On January 30, 1935, Gerstein attended an anti-Christian play, "Wittekind" at the Municipal Theater in Hagen. Though he sat amongst numerous Nazi members, at one point in the play he stood up and shouted, "This is unheard of! We shall not allow our faith to be publicly mocked without protest!"1 For this statement, he was given a black eye and had several teeth knocked out.2

On September 26, 1936, Gerstein was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Nazi activities. He had been arrested for attaching anti-Nazi letters to invitations sent out to invitees of the German Miner's Association.3 When Gerstein's house was searched, additional anti-Nazi letters, issued by the Confessional Church, were found ready to be mailed along with 7,000 addressed envelopes.4

After the arrest, Gerstein was officially excluded from the Nazi Party. Also, after six weeks of imprisonment, he was released only to find that he had lost his job in the mines.

Arrested Again

Not able to get a job, Gerstein went back to school. He began to study theology at Tübingen but soon transferred to the Protestant Missions Institute to study medicine.

After a two-year engagement, Gerstein married Elfriede Bensch, a pastor's daughter, on August 31, 1937.

Even though Gerstein had already suffered exclusion from the Nazi Party as a warning against his anti-Nazi activities, he soon resumed his distribution of such documents. On July 14, 1938, Gerstein was again arrested.

This time, he was transferred to the Welzheim concentration camp where he became extremely depressed. He wrote, "Several times I came within an ace of hanging myself of putting an end to my life in some other way because I hadn't the faintest idea if, or when, I should ever be released from that concentration camp."5

On June 22, 1939, after Gerstein's release from the camp, the Nazi Party took an even more drastic action against him regarding his status in the Party - they officially dismissed him.

Gerstein Joins the SS

In the beginning of 1941, Gerstein's sister-in-law, Bertha Ebeling, died mysteriously at the Hadamar mental institution. Gerstein was shocked by her death and became determined to infiltrate the Third Reich to find out the truth about the numerous deaths at Hadamar and similar institutions.

On March 10, 1941, a year and a half into the Second World War, Gerstein joined the Waffen SS. He was soon placed in the medical service's hygiene section where he succeeded in inventing water filters for German troops - to his superiors' delight.

But Gerstein had been dismissed from the Nazi Party, thus should not have been able to hold any Party position, especially not become part of the Nazi elite.

For a year and a half, the anti-Nazi Gerstein's entry into the Waffen SS went unnoticed by those that had dismissed him.

In November 1941, at a funeral for Gerstein's brother, a member of the Nazi court that had dismissed Gerstein saw him in uniform. Although information about his past was passed on to Gerstein's superiors, his technical and medical skills - proven by the working water filter - made him too valuable to dismiss, Gerstein was thus allowed to stay at his post.

Zyklon B

Three months later, in January 1942, Gerstein was appointed the head of the Technical Disinfection Department of the Waffen SS where he worked with various toxic gases, including Zyklon B.

On June 8, 1942, while head of the Technical Disinfection Department, Gerstein was visited by SS Sturmbannführer Rolf Günther of the Reich Security Main Office. Günther ordered Gerstein to deliver 220 pounds of Zyklon B to a location known only to the driver of the truck.

Gerstein's main task was to determine the feasibility of changing the Aktion Reinhard gas chambers from carbon monoxide to Zyklon B.

In August 1942, after having collected the Zyklon B from a factory in Kolin (near Prague, Czech Republic), Gerstein was taken to Majdanek, Belzec, and Treblinka.

Belzec

Gerstein arrived at Belzec on August 19, 1942, where he witnessed the entire process of gassing a trainload of Jews. After the unloading of 45 train cars stuffed with 6,700 people, those that were still alive were marched, completely naked, and told that no harm would come to them. After the gas chambers were filled...

Unterscharführer Hackenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn't go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster. Yes, I see it all and I wait. My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chambers. In vain. They can be heard weeping, "like in the synagogue," says Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to a window in the wooden door. Furious, Captain Wirth lashes the Ukrainian assisting Hackenholt twelve, thirteen times, in the face. After 2 hours and 49 minutes - the stopwatch recorded it all - the diesel started. Up to that moment, the people shut up in those four crowded chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp inside lit up the chamber for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead. 6

Gerstein was then shown the processing of the dead:

Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: "See for yourself the weight of that gold! It's only from yesterday and the day before. You can't imagine what we find every day - dollars, diamonds, gold. You'll see for yourself!" 7

Telling the World

Gerstein was shocked by what he had witnessed. Yet, he realized that as a witness, his position was unique.

I was one of the handful of people who had seen every corner of the establishment, and certainly the only one to have visited it as an enemy of this gang of murderers. 8

He buried the Zyklon B canisters that he was supposed to deliver to the death camps.

He was shaken by what he had seen. He wanted to expose what he knew to the world so that they could stop it.

On the train back to Berlin, Gerstein met Baron Göran von Otter, a Swedish diplomat. Gerstein told von Otter all he had seen. As von Otter relates the conversation:

It was hard to get Gerstein to keep his voice down. We stood there together, all night, some six hours or maybe eight. And again and again, Gerstein kept on recalling what he had seen. He sobbed and hid his face in his hands. 9

Von Otter made a detailed report of his conversation with Gerstein and sent it to his superiors. Nothing happened.

Gerstein continued to tell people what he had seen. He tried to contact the Legation of the Holy See but was denied access because he was a soldier.10

[T]aking my life in my hands every moment, I continued to inform hundreds of people of these horrible massacres. Among them were the Niemöller family; Dr. Hochstrasser, the press attaché at the Swiss Legation in Berlin; Dr. Winter, the coadjutor of the Catholic Bishop of Berlin - so that he could transmit my information to the Bishop and to the Pope; Dr. Dibelius [bishop of the Confessing Church], and many others. In this way, thousands of people were informed by me.11

As months continued to pass and still the Allies had done nothing to stop the extermination, Gerstein became increasingly frantic.

[H]e behaved in a strangely reckless manner, needlessly risking his life every time he spoke of the extermination camps to persons he scarcely knew, who were in no position to help, but might easily have been subjected to torture and interrogation. . .  12

Suicide or Murder?

On April 22, 1945, near the end of the war, Gerstein contacted the Allies. After telling his story and showing his documents, Gerstein was kept in "honorable" captivity" in Rottweil - this meant he was lodged at Hotel Mohren and just had to report to the French gendarmerie once a day.13

It was here that Gerstein wrote down his experiences - both in French and German.

At this time, Gerstein seemed optimistic and confident. In a letter, Gerstein wrote:

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 in Tübingen. 14

On May 26, 1945, Gerstein was soon transferred to Constance, Germany and then to Paris, France in early June. In Paris, the French did not treat Gerstein differently than the other war prisoners. He was taken to the Cherche-Midi military prison on July 5, 1945. The conditions there were terrible.

On the afternoon of July 25, 1945, Kurt Gerstein was found dead in his cell, hung with part of his blanket. Though it was apparently a suicide, there is still some question if it was perhaps murder, possibly committed by other German prisoners who did not want Gerstein to talk.

Gerstein was buried in the Thiais cemetery under the name "Gastein." But even that was temporary, for his grave was within a section of the cemetery that was razed in 1956.

Tainted

In 1950, a final blow was given to Gerstein - a denazification court posthumously condemned him.

After his experiences in the Belzec camp, he might have been expected to resist, with all the strength at his command, being made the tool of an organized mass murder. The court is of the opinion that the accused did not exhaust all the possibilities open to him and that he could have found other ways and means of holding aloof from the operation. . . .

 

Accordingly, taking into account the extenuating circumstances noted . . . the court has not included the accused among the main criminals but has placed him among the "tainted."15

It was not until January 20, 1965, that Kurt Gerstein was cleared of all charges, by the Premier of Baden-Württemberg.

End Notes

1. Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969) 37.
2. Friedländer, Gerstein 37.
3. Friedländer, Gerstein 43.
4. Friedländer, Gerstein 44.
5. Letter by Kurt Gerstein to relatives in the United States as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 61.
6. Report by Kurt Gerstein as quoted in Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) 102.
7. Report by Kurt Gerstein as quoted in Arad, Belzec 102.
8. Friedländer, Gerstein 109.
9. Friedländer, Gerstein 124.
10. Report by Kurt Gerstein as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 128.
11. Report by Kurt Gerstein as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 128-129.
12. Martin Niemöller as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 179.
13. Friedländer, Gerstein 211-212.
14. Letter by Kurt Gerstein as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 215-216.
15. Verdict of the Tübingen Denazification Court, August 17, 1950 as quoted in Friedländer, Gerstein 225-226.

Bibliography

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Friedländer, Saul. Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969.

Kochan, Lionel. "Kurt Gerstein." Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1990.