SS Officer's Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews

Wyatt Redd - February 2, 2018

Here’s a question that’s worth thinking about: If your government kills someone, are you responsible in some way, even if you don’t support them? What if your government kills millions of people? And what if you’re the one supplying the poison gas they use to do it? Those aren’t questions most people will probably ever have to answer. But Kurt Gerstein did. Gerstein was a devout Christian and hated the policies of the Nazis. And he was also an SS officer who helped carry out the Holocaust. According to Gerstein, that’s because he joined the Party to take them down from the inside. But that’s a little hard to believe, right?

After all, Gerstein found himself on trial after the war like many Nazis. And if you were on trial for war crimes, that would be a pretty good defense, wouldn’t it? You didn’t join the SS to help kill Jews, you joined to help save them. But Gerstein made a pretty convincing case. In fact, Gerstein was one of the people who first tried to tell the world what was happening inside Nazi Germany. So, who was Gerstein? How did a man who hated the Nazi regime and wanted to save Jews end up helping to carry out the Holocaust? And was he really telling the truth?

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
Kurt Gerstein/ Spartacus Educational

Gerstein was the son of a German military officer who taught his son that their family was racially superior to other Germans. He also taught the boy that the Germans were better than everyone else. And he tried to teach him to always obey the orders of the state. But while Gerstein’s family wasn’t religious, Gerstein was. He seems to have become devoutly Christian in college. But like many young Germans, Gerstein was very attracted to the Nazi Party when it first came to power. In 1933, Gerstein decided to join the SA, or “storm troopers,” the paramilitary wing of the Nazis.

Of course, in Nazi Germany, you couldn’t obey the Church and Hitler at the same time. The Nazis demanded that the every German put Hitler and the state above everything, even God. And shortly after seizing power, they began trying to break the grip of the Church on the nation. They frequently tried to remind the Germans of their pagan ancestors with plays and operas. And at one of these plays telling the story of the Pagan Saxon leader Widukind, the religious Gerstein decided he’d had enough. He stood up and loudly protested the anti-Christian message of the play.

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
A Nazi rally at Nünberg/ Wikimedia Commons

A group of SS men in the audience then grabbed Gerstein and dragged him outside. There, they beat him savagely. This was probably the beginning of Gerstein’s opposition to the Nazis. And he was arrested a year later for handing out anti-Nazi pamphlets. Gerstein spent five weeks in prison and was officially expelled from the Party. This meant he couldn’t find work in Germany. But thanks to his father, Gerstein finally managed to rejoin the Nazis in 1939. Of course, 1939 was the year that war broke out in Europe. And it was also the start of Gerstein’s journey to become an important cog in the Nazis’ deadly machine.

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
The crematorium at Dachau/ Pixabay

The first concentration camp was established at Dachau in 1933. At first, the camp was mainly used to hold people who the Nazi regime considered politically dangerous. This category included Social Democrats, communists, and homosexuals. Jews were sent to Dachau in the early days. But it was usually because they belonged to one of these other groups. However, the Nazis soon began to boycott Jewish businesses and pass laws taking away their rights. Other groups suffered as well, especially the mentally disabled. In 1939, Hitler signed an order saying that those with mental disabilities were to be killed.

This law hit Gerstein in a very personal way. His sister-in-law was one of the more than 70,000 people with mental illnesses or disabilities that were murdered by doctors on Hitler’s orders. Gerstein claimed that he had already decided to secretly oppose the Nazis. And his sister-in-law’s death reinforced his decision to follow through with a daring plan. in 1941, Gerstein officially joined the SS. The SS was the most fanatical branch of the Nazi Party and took the lead in carrying out the Holocaust. And according to Gerstein, he joined them in order to bring the Party down from the inside.

Gerstein wrote in a letter to his wife, “I joined the SS … acting as an agent of the Confessing Church.” But if that’s true, then Gerstein was an excellent spy. It seems that none of his superiors suspected anything. In fact, Gerstein was rose quickly within the Party. And he soon received a promotion to “Head of Technical Disinfection Services.” Disinfection was the word the Nazis used to describe gassing the prisoners at their concentration camps. The prisoners were often pulled off of trains and lead to rooms that looked like showers. There, they were told that they needed to be disinfected.

Instead, they were killed with poisonous gas. Gerstein’s new position meant that he was in charge of providing the Zyklon B, a deadly pesticide, that was used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. There’s some debate over whether or not Gerstein really knew that the gas he supplied was actually going to be used to kill people at first. But he negotiated prices with suppliers and oversaw the delivery of the gas to the camps. Gerstein’s work took him from concentration camp to concentration camp, where he witnessed the mass murder of the prisoners. Still deeply religious, these murders seem to have seriously affected him.

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
Prisoners being unloaded at Auschwitz/ Wikimedia Commons

Once he witnessed the killings, he began looking for a way to tell people in the outside world what was happening at the camps. In 1942, Gerstein happened to sit next to a stranger on a train. That stranger turned out to be Swedish diplomat Göran Von Otter. The two began talking and Gerstein told him what he had seen in the concentration camps. Otter quickly took the report back to the Swedish Government. But for some reason, the Swedes never passed it along to the Allies. Meanwhile, 2,000 people an hour were being murdered with gas at Auschwitz while Gerstein tried to get someone, anyone, to do something.

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
Some of the children who survived Auschwitz at the time they were liberated/ Wikimedia Commons

Gerstein next decided to take his information to the Vatican. He tried to meet with a representative of the Pope in Berlin, but he was refused. Gerstein claimed to have tried to meet with hundreds of people in the Church and foreign governments over the next few years. But he never seemed to find anyone willing to listen. Eventually, he managed to get a message sent to the Pope. However, if the Pope saw the message, he never mentioned it to anyone. It wasn’t until 1945 that anyone in power actually tried to ask Gerstein about what happened at the camps.

That April, Gerstein surrendered to French troops advancing into Germany. By then, Allied troops had entered the camps and seen the horror themselves. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know exactly what the Nazis had been doing. And Gerstein informed the French that he was an eyewitness to many of the killings. So, they asked him to draft an official report. This Gerstein Report contained everything Gerstein had seen during the Holocaust. And it had everything the Allies needed to bring the top-ranking Nazis to justice. But there were some problems with Gerstein’s story.

The report was mostly accurate. But Gerstein had gotten a few things wrong. He exaggerated the size of the gas chambers. And he eventually reached a figure of 25 million people killed, which we know today is almost twice the actual number. Gerstein’s report eventually helped convict a number of Nazi leaders. But these exaggerations provided ammunition for people who wanted to deny that the Holocaust had actually happened. And of course, his report raised some questions about Gerstein himself. After all, he had helped the Nazis carry out the killings. Soon, Gerstein found himself in prison again.

Gerstein was held by the French at a military prison in Paris as a war criminal. By July, he was found dead in his cell. According to the authorities, he had committed suicide. There’s no obvious reason to doubt that Gerstein killed himself. If Gerstein really had been opposed the Holocaust, then he must have felt extremely guilty about the role he played in it. It’s easy to imagine that guilt driving him to suicide. But there are still many questions about the man himself. Had Gerstein really seen himself as a spy of the Church in the Nazi Ranks? Had he really tried to do everything he could to stop the killing?

SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews
German leaders being tried for war crimes/ Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, Gerstein didn’t do much to actually slow down the Holocaust. If anything, his efforts made it easier for the Nazis to carry it out. Of course, Gerstein had few options. If he had refused to help gas Jews, he would likely have been killed himself. His efforts to tell the outside world what was happening were already a huge risk. As were the several times he claimed that he purposefully “lost” or tampered with shipments of Zyklon B. But did he really do enough? That’s up to you to decide.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial: Dachau

United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial: War Crimes Trials

United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial: Kurt Gerstein

Holocaust Research Project: Kurt Gerstein Report

Jewish Virtual Library: The Kurt Gerstein Report

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