This article is an abridged version of the book 'De boodschapper uit de hel' ('The messenger from hell') by the same author.
Kurt Gerstein was born in Münster in Westphalia on August 11, 1905. His father, Ludwig Gerstein, was a judge and came from a respected Lutheran family of doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Together with his wife, Clara Gerstein Schmemann, he had seven children, of which Kurt was the sixth. Kurt was not an exemplary student, his grades were bad, he skipped school regularly and played practical jokes in the classroom. He was rebellious at home and he was considered the black sheep. Strikingly enough, this recalcitrant young man was looking for an approach to Christianity and he grew into an inspirational youth leader in the Protestant Youth Movement.
The rise of the NSDAP (National socialist German Workers Party) did not pass the Gersteins unnoticed. On May 1st, 1933, Ludwig Gerstein allowed his sons to become member of the party. Five months later, Kurt also joined the Sturmabteilung (SA). Shortly after the seizure of power by the Nazi's he seemed convinced that he could combine his faith with loyalty to the party. This changed when the Nazi´s began to pursue an increasingly antireligious policy. In vain he objected to the inclusion of Protestant youth organizations in the Hitlerjugend. On January 30, 1935, there was an open confrontation between Gerstein and national socialists in the city theatre of Hagen where the anti-Christian play Wittekind was performed. When one of the actors spoke about Christ in a negative way, he loudly expressed his protest, after which party members gave him a "decent thrashing".
Meanwhile, Gerstein graduated in June 1931 as an engineer. He continued to study to achieve an even higher degree in Mining Engineering (Bergassessor) in November 1935. That same month in Berlin, he became engaged with Elfriede Bensch, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor whom he married in 1937. In 1936 he joined the Saar mines as a civil servant. There, he would only work a mere few months, because on September 24, 1936 he was arrested in Saarbrücken by the Gestapo. He had been reported to the infamous secret police department after playing a practical joke with the invitations to a meeting of the German Miners Association. The text contained some satirical comments that could be considered offending by party members. During a search of his home, letters and Christian pamphlets containing critical remarks with regard to the regime were found, that Gerstein had meant to distribute among staff members of justice and ministry departments. As a result, he was detained for six months, lost his job at the Saar mines and was dishonourably discharged from the NSDAP.
Soon after his release Gerstein tried to be rehabilitated in the party. His first attempt proved to be in vain and since he was now unemployed, he undertook a study in medicine at the Deutsches Institut für Ärtzliche Mission (German Institute for Medical Mission) in Tübingen. There, he made contact with a group of German nationalists who opposed Hitler which brought him again in conflict with the authorities. In May 1937 he received a nationwide ban on public speaking and about a year later he and other members of the group were arrested. On July 14, 1938, Gerstein was detained in camp Welzheim, where he was kept for six and a half weeks. With the help of a protestant Gestapo employee Gerstein was released on August 28, 1938. Beaten down during his captivity he abstained from oppositional activities for the time being.
Assisted by his father, Gerstein tried again to be rehabilitated by the party. In August 1940 he visited the Braune Haus, the party headquarters of the Nazi's in Munich. There he was told that only Hitler himself could decide about full rehabilitation, but that he did not take into consideration any such requests at that moment. An official of the supreme court of law indicated that Gerstein, in order to make his case more credible, should prove himself as a true national socialist. A possibility to that end was to join the 'Schutzstaffel' (protection squad) (SS). Membership of the NSDAP was not required to join. Presumably that very year (1940) he reported himself as a volunteer.
In the spring of 1941, Kurt Gerstein joined the Waffen-SS. He himself claimed that his membership was a deliberate act of resistance. He wanted to know more about the activities of the SS from within. One of the reasons for his decision to join the Waffen SS was to determine the death of his mentally disabled sister-in-law Bertha Ebeling, who resided in the psychiatric institution in Hadamar. She was a victim of the secret Nazi euthanasia program that claimed the lives of 80,000 or more mentally disabled people in the country between October 1939 and August 1941. However, his application to the SS actually took place before he knew of her death in the beginning of 1941.
From March to June 1941 Gerstein attended basic military training in Hamburg-Langenhorn, Arnhem and Oranienburg. During his stay in Arnhem, he regularly visited an old friend, the Dutch engineer Herman Ubbink, with whom he had attended the Christian student association in Aachen in the late 1920's. He seemed not to have swallowed his criticism of the Nazis entirely. "Our discussions had the subject of war and national socialism," Ubbink said. There he showed himself to be an ardent opponent of National Socialism.
Gerstein completed his training period successfully. Due to his combined technical and medical knowledge, he was transferred in June 1941 to the Hygiene Institut der Waffen-SS. This institute engaged in research in the fields of chemistry, parasitology, bacteriology and water hygiene. Within the institute, he personally worked on two successful projects to improve hygiene at the front: a mobile delousing facility for uniforms and other laundry and a mobile plant for water filtration and disinfecting. His superiors were pleased with Gerstein and in November 1941 he was promoted to SS-Untersturmführer
In January 1942, Gerstein was appointed chief of the department Gesundheitstechnik (Health technology), developed by himself, there he was responsible for the disinfection with highly toxic gases. It was this responsibility that brought him in contact with the extermination of the Jews in the extermination camps in Poland. According to Gerstein, it began with a visit by SS-Sturmbannführer Rolf Günther on June 8, 1942. This was the deputy of Adolf Eichmann (Bio Eichmann), the chief of the department within the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Main office of state security), who was engaged in the coordination of the deportations of the European Jews to the extermination camps. "He (Günther) instructed me to deliver an extremely secret government order of 100 kg of Prussic acid immediately," Gerstein claimed, "and to bring them by car to an unknown location known only to the driver of the car. A few weeks after Günther's visit, in August 1942, Gerstein left for his special mission. Gerstein's travelling companion was SS-Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, a professor of hygiene and bacteriology.
Before the two men visited the secret travel destination, two other locations were called at. First, a stock of Zyklon-B, supplied in sealed cans, had to be collected in Kolin, nearby Prague. Kaliwerke Kolin A.G. was one of the producers of this poison gas that was used in Auschwitz and Maidanek for gassing Jews. The fact that Zyklon-B was used to kill people was already known by Gerstein, because at the end of the war he wrote in a report that he had "deliberately made it clear in the factory that the acid was meant to be used for killing people".
Following the visit to the factory, Lublin in the east of the General Government was the next travel destination. There, they met SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik (Bio Globocnik), whose headquarters of SS- und Polizeiführer of the Lublin-district were located in that town. He was in charge of AKtion Reinhard, the extermination of the Jews in the General Government. Globocnik told Gerstein about the gas chambers of the extermination camps Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka where Jews were killed in gas chambers by means of carbon monoxide from the exhausts of engines. Gerstein had to investigate whether Zyklon-B could be used for that purpose instead. After visiting Globocnik, Gerstein and Pfannenstiel travelled to Belzec, where they witnessed the extermination process in practice.
After some experiments with a few small transports of Jews in February 1942 to determine the efficiency and capacity of the gas chambers, Belzec became officially operational from March 17.
From mid-March till mid-June 1942, approximately 93.000 Jews were already exterminated. The first commander of the camp was SS-Hauptsturmführer Christian Wirth (Bio Wirth). On the second day of their visit to Belzec they met him. Wirth showed them that morning how a transport of Jews was being "processed". According to Gerstein, it concerned a train from Lemberg, consisting of 45 wagons with 6,700 people, of which 1,450 were already dead on arrival. The gassing took longer than usual because the engine that produced the exhaust fumes refused to start. According to Gerstein, it took almost 3 hours before it worked and after that another half hour was required before all people were killed.
Despite the fact that Gerstein accidentally witnessed the fact that gassing did not work smoothly, due to the temporary malfunction of the engine, no changes were made in the extermination camp. Wirth refused to proceed with the use of Zyklon-B.
The Swedish diplomat presented a detailed report of his conversation with Gerstein on the train to the Swedish ambassador. However, Sweden did nothing with the report and did not pass it on to the Allies. They were afraid to jeopardise their relations with Germany. The country was officially neutral, but it was dependent on Germany for the supply of necessary goods, due to the British sea blockade. Apart from the Swedish embassy, Gerstein sought numerous ways to convey his message to the Western Allies. He contacted the press attaché of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin, Paul Hochstrasser, but Switzerland also did not want to provoke Germany. Swiss neutrality was found more important than the fate of the Jews.
Kurt Gerstein also sought rapprochement to the Roman Catholic Church to urge the Pope to publicly condemn the extermination of the Jews. Soon after his visit to the extermination camps, he tried to make contact with the Apostolic Nuncio, the representative of the Vatican in Germany. As he visited the Apostolic Nuntiature in Berlin, he was denied all possibilities for an interview and was urged to leave the Papal embassy. The authority of the Catholic Church in Germany and the Vatican did not want to jeopardise their relation with Nazi Germany.
A copy of Gerstein's report was sent to London by the Dutch resistance. It was received on April 24, 1943 by the Dutch government. Not until August 16,1943 Prime Minister Pieter Gerbrandy ordered the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst (RVD) (Public Information Service) to pass the information on to the Inter-Allied Information Committee, the official publicity agency of the ministries of information of the Allied governments in London. Despite repeated remarks by Gerbrandy, the committee probably never received the report. Gerstein's report remained in London's archives, where it was not recovered until 1992.
Little is known about Gerstein's precise activities from 1942 to 1945. He later indicated that he visited several concentration camps during that period, including Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is also supposed to have witnessed experiments on human subjects in the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück and he was aware that such experiments also took place in Buchenwald. More controversial, however, is his involvement in the delivery of Zyklon-B to concentration camps. Despite the fact that in the post-war litigation, it was extensively investigated whether the amount of Zyklon-B ordered by Gerstein was used to kill people, no concrete answer could be given.
In the second half of March 1945 Gerstein left Berlin. After having stayed with his family in Tübingen for a short period, he reported to the French army in Reutlingen on April 22, 1945. Shortly thereafter, the French commander in Reutlingen sent him to the southerly Rottweil am Neckar. He was given a statement with the following text: "The proprietor of this document is not a true SS person and may not be treated as such but with all allowances". In Rottweil he was accommodated in hotel Mohren. Here he wrote in French a report on the massacre in Belzec, which he later translated.
In the afternoon of July 25, 1945, Gerstein was found dead in his cell. According to the official version, Kurt Gerstein killed himself. However, there are also people, including his own wife, who did not believe he committed suicide. They are convinced that he was murdered by his guards or by German fellow prisoners who wanted to prevent him from speaking about Nazi crimes. Concrete evidence for this, however, is lacking. In the loneliness of his cell, he probably lost all hope, all his efforts had been in vain, suicide seemed the only way out.
As a result of this verdict, Elfriede Gerstein's request for a pension was denied as a result of this verdict, but much worse, she found her husband considered a war criminal. She appealed, but the higher court upheld the sentence. Ordering Zyklon/B at Degesch made Gerstein guilty of murder, because he knew what the gas was used for. Elfriede left the case lie for a few years, but in the summer of 1954 she submitted a petition for her husband to the prime minister of Baden-Württemberg. This was rejected, but it was decided that the Gerstein family was no longer accountable for the trial costs.
Along with all the attention a campaign began for the rehabilitation of Kurt Gerstein. It was supported not only by friends of Gerstein and Protestant clerics, but also by the Secretary General of the Jewish Central Council in Germany. Finally, in 1965 followed the rehabilitation of Gerstein. On January 20, 1965 he was classified as Nichtbelastete (innocents) group by Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, who became Chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1966 till 1969.