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
Kurt Gerstein
Kurt Gerstein; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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