One of the most horrifying testimonies from the horrors of the Holocaust was left by a conscience-stricken SS officer, Kurt Gerstein, who visited Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka in August 1942 and witnessed the mass gassing of Jewish men, women and children. Gerstein was shocked by what he had seen and eventually risked his life to inform the Allies.
by Kevin Stoda
In Saul Friedlander's (1969) classic biography of Kurt Gerstein, subtitled THE AMBIGUITY OF GOOD, the world was introduced to the tale of how a young man sought to be a soldier "for good" even in Hitler's Germany. Friedlander's was the first work on "the S.S. officer who risked his life to alert the Pope and the neutral countries to Hilter's extermination drive."
In subsequent writings, which include various eye-witnesses of Kurt Gerstein's life, one learns that some people considered him a "Spy for God" while others just called him a misguided Optimist waging a fight against Evil---a fight that would bear too little fruit for the effort and suffering surrounding the journey of one single "Christian SS agent(?)" trying to make his way in a world of terror and war.
Most pithier writings, like those found in Wikipedia, on the complicated Good (or Bad) German Kurt Gerstein introduce the man (or martyr?) in this way:
"Kurt Gerstein (11 August 1905 -- 25 July 1945) was a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS. He witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka. He gave information to the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, as well as to members of the Roman Catholic Church with contacts to Pope Pius XII, in an effort to inform the international public about the Holocaust. In 1945, following his surrender, he wrote the Gerstein Report covering his experience of the Holocaust. He died, an alleged suicide, while in French custody."
Most people reading the biographies of Gerstein (in whatever form or length) find it questionable that Kurt Gerstein--after surviving 12 years of the Nazi Terror & trying to work as an undercover agent for righteous gentiles --would have taken his own life in a jail-house suicide in Paris in mid-1945. They feel certain that unreformed or unrepentant Nazis or collaborators in that French prison had seen to it that Gerstein could speak no more of what he had witnessed.
The reason some observers see (or claim) that Gerstein is some sort of important martyr for the cause against Hitler is that in Gerstein's own younger life, he had already been been followed and persecuted by fascists. By 1936, Kurt Gerstein had already been ostracized and lost his chance for further employment as an engineer due to Nazi actions taken against him as a witnessing Christian. He had knowledge of infiltration of youth groups, whose members he had intended to encourage to always live outside the Nazi's vision of idealized Aryan youth.
By the time he was banned from working as an engineer in the late 1930s, Gerstein had come to understand that there were certainly Nazi spies among the membership of the Confessing Church groups he was involved in as a leader of youth. Hence, after being burnt several times by the actions of these Nazi infiltrators, Gerstein decided eventually that he had had enough. At first he considered emigrating from Germany, and even undertook a new full degree in tropical medicine in order to serve the church in other lands outside of Europe.
However, eventually, Gerstein showed again that optimistic side that everyone had seen in him as earlier. Instead of exiting Germany, Gerstein turned to the issue of how to reform the horrible land of his birth. After Nazi war of aggression began in earnest in late 1939-1941 Gerstein became determined to play the role of the infiltrator among the world of the Nazi SS agents.
Gerstein explained his decision on more than one occasion, if the Nazis could infiltrate his own Christian community and youth groups, why shouldn't he do likewise?
Such optimism is good and fine in a world where justice prevails, but for many, there was absolutely no justice to be found in the Third Reich. Therefore, many of us today--as in Gerstein's own time--ridicule the idea of a young man endangering his family and joining the dreaded Schutztafel (SS) in order to fight the very regime that had turned his country so upside down. Nonetheless, starting in the early 1940s, Gerstein rose in the ranks of the SS and was entrusted with the greatest secret horror of the decade: The mass extermination of the Jews of Europe, which we now know as the holocaust.
However, every step of Gerstein's journey brought dilemma. For example, from 1943 onward, Gerstein was either actively trying to divert tons of poisonous gases to places far from their death camp destinations, or he was actively arriving in the camps with the same chemicals only to witness the deaths of thousands before the day was through. Sometimes he was aiding the war machinery of the Nazi regime while at other times he was trying to secretly contact Western and neutral officials in order to pass on his reports on what the Nazi regime was up to. In short, it is ambiguous as to whether Gerstein was up to good or evil--in a time and place where evil seemed to have colored everything the Third Reich or its fascist adherents touched.
Provocatively, I will add here that many millions of young Americans have had to make a similar decision over the decades after WWII; i.e., a similar decision to the one that faced Kurt Gerstein in Germany of the 1930s. First, these millions of Americans experienced what was called the Cold War era and then the rest of us experience what has become the Era of Global War on Terror.
In all these decades, young idealistic and optimistic Americans have joined the horrid Endless War Machine (or Military-Industrial-Political-and-Social Complex). In most cases, this optimism has faded. Sometimes, the demise of this optimism fades into suicide. Most of the time it falls into cynicism and isolation from the reality that most of planet earth experiences.