An anti-Nazi, Kurt Gerstein never intended to be a witness to the Nazi murder of the Jews. Yet he joined the SS and soon saw, first-hand, gassings at Belzec. Why did an anti-Nazi join the SS? What did Gerstein do with his knowledge of the Final Solution?
Kurt Gerstein was born on August 11, 1905 in Münster, Germany. Growing up as a young boy in Germany during the First World War and the following tumultuous years, Gerstein did not escape the pressures of his time. He was taught by his father to follow orders without question; he agreed with the growing patriotic fervor that espoused German nationalism; and he was not immune to the strengthening anti-Semitic feelings of the inter-war period. Thus he joined the Nazi Party on May 2, 1933.
However, Gerstein found that much of the National Socialist (Nazi) dogma went against his strong Christian beliefs.
While attending college, Gerstein became very involved in Christian youth groups. And though he graduated in 1931 as a mining engineer, he remained very active in the youth groups, especially the Federation of German Bible Circles (until it was disbanded in 1934).
On January 30, 1935, Gerstein attended an anti-Christian play, "Wittekind" at the Municipal Theater in Hagen. Though he sat amongst numerous Nazi members, at one point in the play he stood up and shouted, "This is unheard of! We shall not allow our faith to be publicly mocked without protest!"1 For this statement, he was given a black eye and had several teeth knocked out.2
On September 26, 1936, Gerstein was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Nazi activities. He had been arrested for attaching anti-Nazi letters to invitations sent out to invitees of the German Miner's Association.3 When Gerstein's house was searched, additional anti-Nazi letters, issued by the Confessional Church, were found ready to be mailed along with 7,000 addressed envelopes.4
After the arrest, Gerstein was officially excluded from the Nazi Party. Also, after six weeks of imprisonment he was released only to find that he had lost his job in the mines.
Not able to get a job, Gerstein went back to school. He began to study theology at Tübingen but soon transferred to the Protestant Missions Institute to study medicine. After a two-year engagement, Gerstein married Elfriede Bensch, a pastor's daughter, on August 31, 1937.
Even though Gerstein had already suffered exclusion from the Nazi Party as a warning against his anti-Nazi activities, he soon resumed his distribution of such documents. On July 14, 1938, Gerstein was again arrested. This time, he was transferred to the Welzheim concentration camp where he became extremely depressed. He wrote, "Several times I came within an ace of hanging myself of putting an end to my life in some other way because I hadn't the faintest idea if, or when, I should ever be released from that concentration camp."5
On June 22, 1939, after Gerstein's release from the camp, the Nazi Party took an even more drastic action against him regarding his status in the Party - they officially dismissed Gerstein.
Joins the SS
In the beginning of 1941, Gerstein's sister-in-law, Bertha Ebeling, died mysteriously at the Hadamar mental institution. Gerstein was shocked by her death and became determined to infiltrate the Third Reich to find out the truth about the numerous deaths at Hadamar and similar institutions.
On March 10, 1941, a year and a half into the Second World War, Gerstein joined the Waffen SS. He was soon placed in the medical service's hygiene section where he succeeded in inventing water filters for German troops - to his superiors delight.
But Gerstein had been dismissed from the Nazi Party, thus should not have been able to hold any Party position, especially not become part of the Nazi elite. For a year and a half, the anti-Nazi Gerstein's entry into the Waffen SS went unnoticed by those that had dismissed him. But, in November 1941, at a funeral for Gerstein's brother, a member of the Nazi court that had dismissed Gerstein saw him in uniform. Although information about his past was passed on to Gerstein's superiors, his technical and medical skills - proven by the working water filter - made him too valuable to dismiss, thus he was allowed to stay at his post.
Three months later, in January 1942, Gerstein was appointed the head of the Technical Disinfection Department of the Waffen SS where he worked with various toxic gases, including Zyklon B.
On June 8, 1942, while head of the Technical Disinfection Department, Gerstein was visited by SS Sturmbannführer Rolf Günther of the Reich Security Main Office. Günther ordered Gerstein to deliver 220 pounds of Zyklon B to a location known only to the driver of the truck. Gerstein's main task was to determine the feasibility of changing the Aktion Reinhard gas chambers from carbon monoxide to Zyklon B.