Kurt Gerstein as a Perpetrator of Nazi Germany

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The Holocaust was not simply the attempt to physically remove Jewish people from the European continent. The Holocaust also included an attempt to destroy the memory of the Jewish people, not just their physical presence. The Nazi regime went to great lengths to achieve this end, from burning books to burning bodies to destroying any evidence of Jewish people’s existance. While there are diaries that survived outlining the events of the time period and memoirs written by survivors to keep that memory alive, there also exists accounts from the perpetrators. One may view these from a certain perspective, as history often paints the Nazis as complete villains, but some accounts begin to cast some doubt on that premise.

The account in question here is an excerpt from Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein gives some details about his appointment in the Nazi Department of Sanitation Techniques and the SS, but also alludes to his attempts to undermine the Nazi regime. Short excerpts like this one often pose more questions than they can answer. However, when one digs deeper into the background of the author and the historical context surrounding what he wrote, it is evident there is much more to the story. This excerpt from Kurt Gerstein gives some insight into the operations of the Nazis, but more importantly shows that an analysis of the individuals in the Nazi regime can never be black and white.

Kurt Gerstein was born in 1905 in Muenster, Germany. He was the sixth of seven children in a strong Lutheran household. Throughout his childhood his father instilled in him a strong sense of German patriotism. Gerstein was not a very good student growing up, but was bright enough to get a college degree in engineering. Soon after Hitler came to power, he joined the Nazi party, both from a sense of patriotic duty and to lessen the pressure from his father and brothers.

Before long however the ideals of the party clashed with his Christian background, and he was expelled from the party after speaking out against some of the practices and promoting church autonomy. Gerstein had joined the party in May of 1933 and was expelled in January of 1935. He spent some time in prison following his expulsion. After his release, he returned to school to study medicine and got married. He still avidly spoke out against the Nazis and ultimately saw himself arrested and imprisoned again. He was released a mere month and a half later.

Gerstein was readmitted to the party on June 10, 1939 with the influence of his father and several other prominent party and SS officials. Almost two years later he discovered that his sister had died at a psychiatric hospital amidst rumors that the government had started a Euthanasia Program.2 With this news, Gerstein joined the SS to allegedly avoid suspicion where he could further investigate concerns he had about the Nazi party. He was appointed to the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS in Berlin in June of 1941 where he quickly excelled. In January of the following year he got another promotion, the head of the Department of Sanitation Techniques. He talks about this appointment in the excerpt. While in this position he directly assisted with the implementation of the Final Solution. Gerstein organized delivery of Zyklon B gas to Auschwitz and other death camps. He even went around inspecting these killing centers and witnessed a mass execution at Belzec.3

Witnessing this mass killing seemed to give him the determination to spread the word of the horrors the Nazis were committing. He tried to tell anyone he could about what was happening, even an attempt to inform the British government through the Dutch underground that existed during the war.4 Gerstein was ultimately ignored by the Allies, with his information dismissed as propaganda techniques. Gerstein also claims to have disposed of a shipment of the Zyklon gas instead of delivering it in an attempt to save lives. He turned himself over to French troops who arrested and imprisoned him following the war in 1945. After his imprisonment he wrote a report about what he had seen, a detailed account of the murder system in the death camps and his other knowledge in an attempt to help punish those responsible. He never made it out as he hung himself in his cell, potentially due to guilt over his assistance in the gas shipments.

The biographical background of the author is important to understand when analyzing something they wrote. The larger historical context surrounding their writing is important as well. Looking at the year in question from this particular excerpt and looking at several key events in his life, there was a corresponding action from the Nazi party. Backtracking to before the time period of his excerpt, Gerstein discovered his sister had died. He was told she had died at a psychiatric hospital. Before there mass extermination of the Jewish people, the Nazis set up the T4 Operation, which dealt with the euthanasia of asocial people in society, such as the mentally ill.6 It is unknown where his sister fit into this category, but the operation did in fact use mental institutions as killing centers. These centers are actually some of the first instances of the use of gas chambers for killing. The T4 Operation ran from 1939 to 1941, which lines up with the death of Gerstein’s sister. As mentioned, rumors were circulating around Germany about this Euthanasia program, so he had his suspicions that this was the cause of her death. The circumstances surrounding her death are ultimately what led to his enrollment in the SS, and therefore his entire role in the implementation of the Final Solution. It is worth noting that when word of the euthanasia program reached the public, there was a large amount of backlash, especially from the Church. Gerstein’s religious background was one of the sources of his ill will toward Nazi policies.7

An analysis of the historical context of Gerstein’s writing reveals the involvement of several key figures. The obvious one is Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer, as it is explicitly stated that he ordered for operations to speed up. There are two other men who are important in this context. The first is Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was the head of the SS, and personally led the subdivision of the Waffen SS, of which Gerstein was a member. There is also record of Himmler personally visiting the death camps to inspect them and that he witnessed a mass killing on one occasion. The excerpt in question is part of a larger writing, and the literature that surrounds the excerpt mentions that the Fuhrer had been at the camp with Himmler just two days prior to Gerstein’s arrival.

There is some overlap between the supplementary writing and the original excerpt. The second man of importance is Odilo Globocnik, the man Gerstein is speaking with in his excerpt and the other writing. Globocnik was in charge of Operation Reinhardt, which saw the deportation and extermination of the Jewish people in Poland.8 Reports say Globocnik was very enthusiastic about this job, and Gerstein’s accounts of their conversation seem to corroborate this fact, since he mentioned placing bronze plaques with the buried bodies so future generations would know who deserves the credit.

Taking a larger view at the proceedings mentioned by Gerstein and taking into account the year, it is clear that Gerstein gained his job in the Sanitation department at the height of the extermination period when the Nazis were trying to expedite the process. The push for extermination resulted from several previous instances. The first is the failure of both the Nisco and Madagascar plan, which focused on the deportation of Jews to Eastern Europe and Madagascar, respectively. Hitler scrapped both plans after space and resources no longer made them feasible. Hans Frank, the Nazi official in charge of the General Government in Poland, was the one who then suggested they move from the idea of deportation to the idea of extermination.

The shift from sporadic to systematic killing can be seen in the killing data from 1941, where July saw 4,300 killings and August saw 37,000 killings, 32,000 of which were in the second half of the month.10 December of that year saw the use of gas for mass killings, first in gas vans and then later in the death camps. The camp described in Gerstein’s writing, Belzec, was using diesel engine exhaust pumped into the gas chambers for executions, and needed an upgrade to speed up the process, which is where Gerstein was needed. The year 1942 saw the most extermination in the years the camps were in operation, which lines up with Gerstein’s appointment and the desire of Hitler to increase killings.

A smaller insight but still important is the evidence seen in Gerstein’s excerpt about the lack of evidence left by Nazi officials. The Nazi regime did their best to retain deniability. This was accomplished through the rare use of documents that could leave a paper trial. The officials often gave verbal orders, and any nonverbal orders were destroyed. In Gerstein’s account, the SS official Gunther walked into his office and gave him the order for his top secret mission. No documents were used, just the verbal order.

The historical context of Gerstein’s account is important because it can help corroborate what he says and check his reliability. From that analysis, it is clear what he is saying lines up with the facts of the events that occurred during the Nazi regime. The historical analysis merely checks his facts however. The bigger question embedded in the analysis of Gerstein’s excerpt is whether or not he is believable in his disdain for the Nazi party and what they made him do and his attempts to impede their progress and save lives. Gerstein’s personal background plays a role here as well. Another tool to attempt to discern his credibility is the analysis of the language he uses. The Nazis’ rise to power resulted in a gradual radicalization of the language of Germany.

Nazi German became a language of violence, a language of command. Words that were previously neutral or positive came to have negative meanings, such as the word “selection” and its new attachment to the process of choosing whether a Jew lives or dies. A couple examples are seen in Gerstein’s excerpt as well. The Nazi view of Jews as subhuman is evident in the use of “disinfection” to refer to the gassing of people. The Nazis used many euphemisms to cover the truth, and even used the disinfection term to groups of naked Jews heading into the gas chambers. The other example is how Globocnik needs Gerstein to “improve the service in our gas chambers.” He again removes the humanity of it and speaks about the murder machines as though they are car engines in need of a slight upgrade. However, the second term is used only by Globocnik and the first is used as a part of his job duties. Gerstein himself doesn’t necessarily use these words in the same context as the Nazis.

However, Gerstein was still a Nazi official, still a member of the SS. Taking him for his word is difficult, and the language of the excerpt alone is not enough to absolve him. A comparison between Gerstein’s words describing the death camp and those of another former SS guard in the camp could be more revealing and supportive of Gerstein’s position. Franz Suchomel was a former guard in Treblinka and was interviewed in the documentary Shoah. He was outlining his perspective of his move to the camp, and he claimed that upon arrival and the realization of what was occurring, he and those with him wept bitterly.

However, the interviewer then asked Suchomel to describe the extermination process from beginning to end. At this point Suchomel began using very direct language, seeming to show a systematic view on the killing. He was almost businesslike in his presentation and his focus on the efficiency which undermined his previous comment about the negative emotions he felt. Gerstein also has a detailed account of the extermination process which can be seen in Appendix C. His language is far from businesslike and retains the humanity of the people he’s describing.

Phrases such as “led by an exceptionally pretty girl” or “a little glimmer of hope flickers once more in some of these poor people” depict a man who did not lose sight of human dignity. When one looks at the entire description and the language present one can see how different it is from that of Suchomel and supports the idea that Gerstein actually harbored anti-Nazi views. However, this is not concrete evidence as the passage of time could have aided in his ability to generate such language, but there is a logical conclusion that he was sincere.

So what does the small excerpt of Gerstein’s report actually show? First is the idea of complicity. The Nazis required cooperation and the blind eye from the German populous as well as foreign governments. Hitler rose to power on a wave of nationalist propaganda and appeasement from other countries, and once in power there was little anyone could do to stop him. There of course were many people, both from the Nazi elite and German citizens, that agreed wholeheartedly with the ideology Hitler was professing, but the vast majority of people didn’t necessarily harbor the same views. They were content with letting the regime do as they pleased as long as those in government provided the stability the nation lacked in the Weimar Republic, the previous government body. Gerstein gives some details of his position and what he was ordered to do but also talks about the luck or even Providence that led him to those orders. He was after something, he wanted some information, and he happened to be appointed to a job that would provide that information.

Gerstein’s biography and his other writings confirm the idea that he was not always complicit. He joined the SS to investigate what was going on with the euthanasia program and ended up transporting lethal gas to extermination camps. He did a small thing here and there, such as disposing of a shipment to try and save some lives, to thwart the Nazi efforts. He provides a very interesting case study. He was not a savior of the Jewish people as he was still at one point caught up in the Nazi fervor and did as he was ordered in his role in the Sanitation Department. He was not a true villain as he actively spoke out against the Nazis and attempted to spread the word of their horrible deeds. He is a fascinating example of how history is not black and white. Kurt Gerstein is very, very gray.


Cite this paper

Kurt Gerstein as a Perpetrator of Nazi Germany. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/kurt-gerstein-as-a-perpetrator-of-nazi-germany/

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