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He Descended into Hell in Vain

A Spy for God: The Ordeal of Kurt Gerstein

by Pierre Joffroy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 319 pp., $6.95

The man who will not act except in total righteousness achieves nothing. He does not enter the path of progress and he is not true because he is not real…. The man who seeks to be true must run the risk of being mistaken, of putting himself in the wrong.”

—Karl Jaspers

It is very seldom that a book reduces me to tears as this one did. It is the story of a man who, if he had not committed suicide in a French prison in 1945, would almost certainly have been hanged at Nuremberg as a war criminal; yet, on finishing it, I find myself sharing Martin Niemöller’s conviction that he was a saint.

He was tall, with grey-blue eyes, his temples and the back of his neck shaved in the Prussian style. A wide expanse of forehead on a narrow head, big ears that stuck out slightly, a large nose somewhat flattened above a full mouth, of which the firmly modelled upper lip seemed to crush the lower as though by an impulse from within.

Kurt Gerstein was born in 1906, one of seven children. His father was a judge, an upright man according to his standards, which were those of the upper middle class before 1914. Certain things were simply “not done,” for example:

…to disobey one’s civil and military superiors, to show lack of respect for the Imperial family or for constituted authority, to marry someone of inferior status or to be on too friendly terms with Jews, though these might be quite honorable people.

Even as a child, Kurt Gerstein seems to have been a maverick, estranged both from his parents and his siblings. He never referred to his father as “father” but always simply as Er, and the “mother” in his early life was not his own but his Catholic nursemaid Regina, a position later occupied by his Berlin housekeeper, Leokadia Hinz. At school, though he was obviously the brightest in his class, he was often in trouble for not doing his work. After passing his Arbitur, he decided to become a mining engineer, a job at which he was very successful. The arts meant nothing to him, but he had a passionate wish to know. He displayed many manic traits:

He drove himself remorselessly. Eating, drinking and sleeping were time-consuming occupations, a waste of substance…. He slept less than five hours a night, there was always so much to do.

A devout Christian, in his spare time he ran summer camps for boys, who all seemed to have adored him, though some later felt the need to rebel against his overwhelming personality.

On May 1, 1933, he became a member of the Nazi Party. To those who objected, he said: “You’re criticizing it from the outside. No man should pass judgment on matters of which he has not first-hand knowledge. You must go and see for yourself—to Hell if need be.”

It was not long before he was in trouble. In 1935, at a performance of a racist play, Wittekind, he stood up, wearing his party badge, and shouted “Shame!,” for which he was badly beaten up. In September, 1936, he was imprisoned for six weeks for distributing illegal pamphlets of the Confessional Church. As a result he was expelled from the Party, dismissed from the Ministry of Mines, and debarred from public service.

He decided to study medicine, but was presently again in trouble for practicing it before he was fully qualified. In 1937 he married. In July, 1938, he was again arrested on account of his relations, in this case quite innocent, with an opposition group that wanted to restore the Monarchy, and was sent to Welzheim concentration camp near Stuttgart. Fortunately, he had made a good impression on one of his Gestapo interrogators, who managed to get him out after six weeks. His father, who by now had become an ardent Nazi, pulled strings so that, on June 10, 1939, he was readmitted to Party membership.

It was at this time that the Nazi authorities started their euthanasia program for the elimination of the old and incurably sick, and one of their victims in 1941 was Gerstein’s sister-in-law, Berta. His reaction to this was to decide to join the Waffen SS which miraculously, in view of his record, he succeeded in doing, and, because of his training as a mining engineer and a doctor, was appointed to their Hygiene Institute in Berlin. This was just at the time when a typhus epidemic had broken out among the German armies in Russia.

Gerstein, aided by two of his former pupils, Armin Peters and Horst Dickten, proceeded to show what he could do. They devised, first, a delousing apparatus for uniforms, blankets and under-clothes, using high pressure steam, which destroyed not only the lice but also their excrement, and secondly a mobile water-filter unit. Both were approved by the Army and proved highly successful…. Later they produced a floating pump for use against mosquitoes, a new type of hospital bed and special delousing vehicles.

As a result, Gerstein soon became a VIP, traveling all over Germany and occupied Europe and with an apparently inexhaustible expense account of which he took full advantage. Everywhere he went, he bought up large stocks of food and rare articles. Interviewed in 1968 by M. Joffroy, Horst Dickten said:

He had two objects in mind. First, to suborn important people with the princely gifts he made them. It was a triumph every time he got another high-ranking soldier or civil servant in his power—and I may say that there were plenty of them. And this first operation paved the way for the second, which was far more important: helping people in the concentration camps…. The goods—mainly food and medical supplies—were either sent in through the aircraft factory at Oranienburg or else smuggled into the camp at night with the help of guards whom we had bribed.

Because of his status as the leading decontamination expert, an invitation to visit Hell was not long in coming. Two doctors came to visit him. “We need two trucks capable of pumping exhaust gas into a closed chamber. Can you suggest a suitable method?” Gerstein roughed out a design on the spot. “You need only fit the trucks with an auxiliary engine.” Then, on June 8, 1942, a Major Gunther walked into his office.

Lieutenant Gerstein, you are required to procure 260 kilos of prussic acid within the shortest possible time. You will be required to accompany it and to make arrangements for its use in place of the gas at present being used.”

The official German euphemism for extermination of human beings was Entwesung, in English decontamination, so it was as an expert in exterminating lice that Gerstein came to Belzec and saw with his own eyes exactly what went on. He wrote a report on this in French when a prisoner of war, which Mr. Joffroy prints in full. Most of the horrors are by now well-known, but on this occasion there was an added touch. After the Jews had been pushed into the chamber and the doors closed, the Diesel pump refused to start, and it took two hours and forty-nine minutes to get it going.

Now that he knew the worst, Gerstein went to everybody he could think of who might be able to get the news to the Allies and the neutral countries, but nobody would believe him. Here are some typical reactions.

The Papal nuncio: “Go away. Get out!”

A member of the Dutch Resistance: “I told them [the British]. But they simply refused to believe anything so atrocious.”

An official in the State Department: “It appears to me inadvisable, in view of the incredible nature of these allegations, and our complete inability to give assistance in the event of their being true, to circulate the information in the manner proposed.”

A German Protestant pastor and anti-Nazi: “Your friend is mad.”

The International Red Cross: “We’re in a terrible dilemma. A woman member of the Committee is urging us to issue a solemn protest against the persecution of the Jews in Germany. But how can we? If we were to protest, Hitler would denounce the Geneva Convention and we should have to give up all our work in favor of the Allies and on behalf of prisoners of war, the occupied territories, civilian internees and so on.”

Gerstein had hoped that the Allied planes would shower leaflets on Germany telling the facts. Whether the Germans would have believed them seems doubtful. It is true that Hitler called off the euthanasia program because the facts had gotten around, and he was afraid of disaffection among Catholic soldiers, but then the facts came from the Germans themselves, not from people with whom they were at war. Anyway the Allies did nothing. He had dirtied his hands in vain. By supplying gas he had made himself an accomplice in crime. He was on occasions able to perform little acts of sabotage, but his only concrete achievement was to modify the gas Zyklon B so that it killed a little less painfully.

Presently he began to arouse suspicions. Some of the doctors in Auschwitz even thought he was planning to blow the camp up. By 1944, the SS had decided he was too slow in delivering and were ordering their gas through another channel. He was acquainted with the generals who were planning to assassinate Hitler, though he believed them mistaken. They simply wanted to get rid of Hitler and then win the war: Gerstein believed that nothing but total defeat could atone for what had been done. How he escaped being arrested and shot remains a mystery. As the Russians advanced, the authorities made plans to eliminate all those who had worked in the camps. Foreigners were to be shot: Germans, like the bestial Captain Wirth, were sent to fight the Yugoslavian Partisans.

When the war ended he surrendered to the French and wrote his report. At first he was allowed a good deal of liberty, but he ended up in the high security prison of Cherche-Midi, charged with “war-crimes, murder and complicity.” They seem even to have suspected him of having invented the gas chamber. He might have accepted such a fate for himself, but he was tormented by the knowledge that he had mentioned the names of several people who had tried to do something, with the result that they too, thanks to him, were arrested. On July 26, 1945, he hanged himself in his cell. The body was buried in a communal grave under the name of Gastein, so that “Gerstein” remained on the list of Wanted Persons long after he was dead. At Nuremberg, efforts were made, principally by the Americans, to suppress his report, for what political reasons we shall never know. Finally, on August 27, 1950, a German denazification court sitting on his case ruled that he had been a Nazi and remained one.

Mr. Joffroy’s attention was drawn to the case by a remark of Leon Poliakov in his book The History of Anti-Semitism:

Our personal conviction is absolute…. The German Gerstein was a just man among the Gentiles.

At first he was skeptical. He thought his inquiry would only take a few weeks’ time and that he would probably find it was simply a case of a man who thought it safer to have a foot in both camps. It took him two years and eight months. His conclusion: “I have not juggled with facts or with texts, and I have accepted as essentially true Gerstein’s own account of his situation, having verified most of the details.”

Let Karl Barth have the last word:

Gerstein was a truly remarkable figure such as could only have existed and can only be understood in the context of that time and those terrifying dilemmas.

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