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< 12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

Resister in a Nazi Uniform

12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

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April 7, 2021

Kurt Gerstein, a Nazi SS officer, is asked to supply the chemical Zyklon B to the Auschwitz killing center in 1942. But once Gerstein sees that the chemical will be used to murder Jews in gas chambers—he makes an unexpected move. Featuring historian Dr. Jürgen Matthäus.

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A canister of Zyklon B found in the Dachau concentration camp. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William and Dorothy McLaughlin

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Transcript

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Erin Harper
April, 1945. Just days before the defeat of Nazi Germany. Kurt Gerstein is shown into a hotel room in southern France. Gerstein is pale, and exhausted. He barely resembles the person he was three years earlier.

Gerstein is a Nazi SS officer. He sits down at the typewriter, and begins to write a report. He spells out a memory—  an event that has replayed in his mind over and over. The sputtering of the diesel engine, the woman with eyes like flames. Gerstein tells his story, moment by moment. A testimony, rewritten in multiple languages. This report is how the world knows what Kurt Gerstein witnessed three years earlier, and what he did to try to stop the Nazi killing machine from the inside.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.

It starts in August of 1942. Gerstein is getting a ride through the countryside, but he doesn't know where to. Only the driver knows that. Gerstein was summoned for this mysterious ride two months earlier, when a Nazi official showed up in Gerstein’s office. The officer ordered Gerstein to pack supplies, and meet other Nazi officers in German-occupied Poland.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
This was all shrouded in secrecy.

Erin Harper
That’s Dr. Jürgen Matthäus, historian, and Director of Applied Research at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, at the Museum.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
He was told that this had to be secret. Otherwise, there are the severest consequences, including death.

Erin Harper
The supplies Gerstein was instructed to bring is a truck-full of Zyklon B— a highly poisonous chemical originally used to exterminate insects or disinfect clothing.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
We know he was responsible within the Waffen SS for hygiene and sanitary measures, disinfection of clothing. And then he got heavily involved in the acquisition of poison gas— Zyklon B.

Erin Harper
Next comes the event Gerstein would replay in his mind. According to Gerstein’s report, here’s how it played out: The driver rolls into a stopping place. Gerstein said, an Nazi SS Major General awaits him. The General explains that he will personally escort Gerstein to three new sites in German-occupied Poland. First they take Gerstein through a site, called Belzec. Belzec consists of a railway station, and a series of buildings. Gerstein notices signs on the buildings marked “Cloakroom,” and “Hairdresser.” They walk through an open-air corridor, lined with trees and barbed wire on both sides. They approach a building that looks like a shower room. Leading to the entrance, there are geraniums, planted in large concrete pots. Then, they walk up a staircase, into small rooms. On the roof is a copper Jewish star.

Then, Gerstein said, the next morning, just before 7am, an officer tells him the first train is about to arrive. A few minutes later the train rolls into the site, with more than 6,000 people inside. The doors open and the people are driven out with leather whips. Gerstein said he could sense, the men, women and children, are filled with fear. They’re instructed to remove their shoes, clothing and valuables. The women and children have their hair forcibly shaved. Then, it began. Gerstein said, a Nazi SS man told the people, quote, “Nothing will happen to you. All you have to do is breathe,” he said. Gerstein later wrote that a Jewish woman “with eyes like flames” called them out as murderers. An officer whips her across the face. She disappears into the chamber, and the doors close behind her. She’s locked inside with hundreds of other people.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
What Kurt Gerstein is witnessing is really a crucial part of what is called Aktion Reinhard. And that is the systematic killing of the Jews in German-occupied Poland.

Erin Harper
Initially, this program had involved Nazis shooting Jews into mass graves. But Gerstein was witnessing the expansion of the program — where the Nazis begin to use gas to murder Jews. It would become the heart of what the Nazis call the “Final Solution”— their plan to annihilate all of Europe’s Jews.

In this camp, gassing is done with a diesel truck. Nazi officers plan to start the engine, and pump the exhaust into the chamber. Gerstein watches. The diesel motor won’t start. Outside the chamber, the officers struggle with the diesel engine. Gerstein said he could hear people's cries from inside the chamber. After nearly three hours, the diesel starts. A half an hour later, the crying has faded away. Every last person inside is dead. Then, Gerstein said, their bodies are removed and taken to a mass grave. But the Nazis have to hurry. They’re running behind schedule. More trains are about to arrive.

Other Nazi officers saw this as their days work. But Gerstein saw the murder of human beings. Gerstein recalled, at that moment, he prayed. He pressed himself into a corner and cried out to God.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
There is in his report an expression of sympathy where he writes, “I saw these people getting into the gas chambers, I wanted to join them. I wanted to die with them. And if they would find an SS man in uniform, wouldn't that be strange, but they would explain it away, but I can't do it yet. I have to testify.”

Erin Harper
By now Gerstein fully understands why he was invited on this trip. The Zyklon B that Gerstein brought is the weapon the Nazis were looking for. And they try to get Gerstein to supply Zyklon B as the means to increase the scale and speed of their mass murder program.

But Gerstein decides that he himself, a Nazi officer, was going to stop it. Gerstein claims in his report, the first thing he did was lie. He tells them the Zyklon B he’d brought had been damaged in transport and it was too dangerous to use. He said he promptly drove it away and buried it in the woods.

It’s important to know that this was not Kurt Gerstein’s first rebellion against the Nazi regime. Gerstein first joined the Nazi Party in 1933, just months after Hitler came to power. But some aspects of the Nazi party didn’t sit well with him. Gerstein was a devout Christian, and he felt the Nazi party disregarded religious values. So a few years later he sent anti-Nazi pamphlets to hundreds of people. For this— Gerstein was arrested. Nazi leaders expelled him from the party, and he was fired from his government job. But just a few months later, Gerstein tries to rejoin the Nazi Party. And they accept him back.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
I think it was a career move on Kurt Gerstein’s part. He had just been kicked out, not only of the Nazi party, but also he lost his job. He also lost his ability to acquire a livelihood. I think he was, at that time, also starting to have his own family. So that was clearly a consideration. His family was also pushing him in that way. His father particularly was interested in him to get into a serious profession that had some career trajectory.

Erin Harper
But what happened next was pivotal. A few months after Gerstein re-joins the Nazi Party, he applies specifically to become a Waffen SS officer —the elite military group of the Nazi regime.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
The reason why Gerstein joins them goes back to an incident in his family that seems to have moved him quite a bit. His sister-in-law suffered from schizophrenia and he found out that while she was at institution, she was killed as part of a program that we now refer to as “T4.”

Erin Harper
Beginning in 1939, the Nazi’s T4 program targeted German patients with mental and physical disabilities who lived in German institutions. One day, Gerstein’s family received a letter from the psychiatric hospital claiming his sister-in-law died after contracting an infectious disease while under their care. Some family members accepted her cause of death— but Gerstein was convinced she was murdered in this Nazi program. This is why he joins the Waffen SS.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
There are rumors about that program in Germany at the time already, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. He has a very interesting mindset that one could describe as fundamentalist moralism, where he is extremely geared towards a mindset that he thinks is the right path to take. And he wants to find out the truth. So the truth is one thing, but what then to do — the moral aspect— what he should do? That's really one of the driving forces here.

Erin Harper
As a Waffen SS officer‚ perhaps he would have a window into the truth about the T4 program. But now, in 1942, he’s discovered a new truth. And as Gerstein stands in his Nazi uniform, waiting for a train back to Germany, he can’t shake what he witnessed. The whole of Nazi crimes were beyond his imagination. He had to stop it. But how?

Gerstein boards the train back to Berlin. It’s getting late, so he heads to the sleeper car to look for a bed. But, no luck. Everything is occupied. So Gerstein tries to get some rest in the hallway of the train car. But his night is about to change course. The train conductor mentions to Gerstein that he’s sharing the hallway with a Swedish diplomat— who also couldn't find a bed.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
He gets on the train and he uses the first opportunity meeting a, in this case, Swedish diplomat, so a very fortunate coincidence, to tell the story and to tell him what happened. The diplomat asked for credentials, Gerstein provides this. And indeed, the Swedish official does try to initiate action on behalf of his government. His government passes the information on to the British as far as we know, and nothing happens.

Erin Harper
But Gerstein doesn’t stop. He arrives back in Germany, still distraught. He decides to tell leaders at the Vatican. But they dismiss him. So he tells the Catholic Bishop of Berlin, Protestant clergy, a Swiss diplomat, even a member of a Dutch resistance group, and members of the Confessing and Lutheran churches. Gerstein said, over the next several years, he told hundreds of people the grim story of what he saw.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
I think the unique aspect of this action is really what he does afterwards, because he doesn't just write it down in a diary. He doesn't just write a letter or something. He really goes out and tries to spread the word and tries to initiate action that would have an impact and possibly prevent future continuation of the killings.

Erin Harper
Gerstein said, “The outside world must know. These things must become the talk of the world. There is no other means of putting an end to these insane atrocities.” Yet, none of the people Gerstein told, took meaningful action.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
I think Gerstein had the impression that if you would tell the story of what he had witnessed, that would immediately prompt a reaction— “Oh, my God, we have to stop this.” I think he had a certain degree of naivete in terms of how that could be achieved. Europe was under firm Nazi German control. There was little the Allied powers could do to influence anything that was going on in that German-controlled realm of influence. So I think he wasn't quite clear as to what exactly should happen now, but I think he saw himself as the one who would convey that message and perhaps doing his part, and then feeling relieved and feeling that he had achieved his mission by just telling the story.

Erin Harper
At the same time, Gerstein takes action himself. He secretly tries to sabotage the operation.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
He claims that he destroyed, on a regular basis, shipments of Zyklon B that he received from the company en route to Auschwitz.

Erin Harper
But Gerstein is not the only Nazi officer asked to supply Zyklon B to the Auschwitz killing center in German-occupied Poland. Receipts and written accounts show that large amounts of Zyklon B were still being delivered to Auschwitz, and used to gas Jews.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
Just for the period of mid-1943 to mid-1944, we have accounts that run up to almost 8,000 pounds of Zyklon B. This is an amount with which you can kill more than three-and-a-half million people. So this is Zyklon B shipments were delivered to Auschwitz. So, was he effective in blocking anything in relation to the Holocaust? I think he would have liked to think so. As a historian, I think one has to be very skeptical. We could also ask the question whether it would have made any difference.

Even if Auschwitz would have run out of Zyklon B, they could just as well have lined up the people against the wall and shot them. And this is what happens towards the end of the war in the death marches and in other situations. So it's a question that is clearly relevant as to whether sabotaging the shipments of Zyklon would have had an impact. But I think it's a little unrealistic under the circumstances because there were other means of mass killing that were proven and tested and used by the Germans at the time.

Erin Harper
By 1944, Gerstein’s struggle had started to weigh on him. Many who spoke to Gerstein later reported how much he had changed. Some said the memory haunted him. One friend recalled Gerstein said, over and over, “I can’t go on.” Still Gerstein continued his pursuit.

But by the early months of 1945, the Allies are closing in. It’s clear that Germany is losing the war. Gerstein makes his next move. He will testify to Allied authorities about what he saw, and what he did to stop it from the inside. So in April of 1945, Gerstein crosses into French-controlled territory. He immediately finds a French soldier, and surrenders. Initially, the French authorities see Gerstein as an asset — an informant who could help bring the Nazis to justice.

They put Gerstein in a hotel room. He writes his reports and gives them to the French authorities. Then they send him to the French Office for the Investigation of War Criminals. He’s interrogated. And after hearing his account, things don’t go how Gerstein had imagined. The French authorities determine that Gerstein is not a friend of the Allies— but rather— he’s an accomplice to the murder of the Jews.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
I think he was expecting in May 1945 that he would be received as the messenger of German atrocities and the murder of the Jews in particular. The Allies saw that differently, and particularly the French there at the time, and for good reasons, because he was a guy in Waffen SS uniform and they had reason to be suspicious because many highly-implicated perpetrators at the end of the war, or after the war, tried to spin a story in which they presented themselves as, not only observers, but really rescuers. So it's not surprising that he was treated the way he was by the French. And I think he was shocked to find out that then he gets put into prison.

Erin Harper
Then French authorities indict Gerstein as an accomplice in the Final Solution— and for the murder of several million people.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
Gerstein finds himself—although he opposes and he wants to attest and resist—he finds himself enmeshed, inextricably into a machine that produces mass death. So he becomes an operator and he becomes guilty himself, and that's the only thing then left. When he attests and his report is not seen as testimony to his own action, but rather testimony to his own guilt, he becomes the guilty one.

Erin Harper
Gerstein is returned to prison. He refuses a lawyer, believing that his report will prove his innocence. But that day didn’t come. On July 25 of 1945, a few days after his indictment, a prison guard finds Gerstein had hanged himself in his prison cell. Three years of outcry and attempt to stop the Nazi killing machine from within, was over.

After his death, Gerstein’s report was used at the International Military Tribunal, the Nuremberg trial against major war criminals, and other legal proceedings. Initially, a German court saw Gerstein as someone implicated in the Final Solution. But later, in 1965, a German court pardoned Gerstein.

Dr. Jürgen Matthäus
Gerstein’s story is often presented as one that points to the possibilities of individual decisions and action. I think it shows clearly the complexity of the situation at the time. The difficulty we find in applying black-and-white patterns of explanation is there is a lot of gray here in this man and what he did and what he achieved and what he failed to. And I think this gray zone is typical for the situation at the time. It doesn't take away anyone's responsibility or guilt, but I think it helps explaining the complications, the difficulties, the system that drove in a certain direction, driven by human decisions. But it was so powerful that individual choice, while important, really couldn't affect much by way of a final outcome.

Erin Harper
Was Kurt Gerstein too small to take on the massive killing machine? Did he fail because he acted alone— without the help of those he pleaded with? Did he act too late to stop the momentum? In the end, Gerstein’s actions were not enough. Still— did they matter?

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. Joining us today was Dr. Jürgen Matthäus, historian, and Director of Applied Research at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, at the Museum.

Kurt Gerstein’s report became a topic for research, producing several books by eminent historians. Our story is informed by the works of Saul Friedlander, Valerie Hébert, and Pierre Joffroy.

Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and from Laura Ginns and Family. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to podcast@ushmm.org, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening.

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