IntroductionOne of the most remarkable German resistance men is the protestant mining engineer Kurt Gerstein. As an SS-officer he was co-responsible for the delivery of Zyklon-B to Auschwitz. In Belzec's extermination camp he witnessed how hundreds of Jews were gassed. Shocked by what he saw, he tried to make contact with representatives of neutral countries, the Catholic and Protestant churches and the Dutch resistance. He hoped that his testimony would be made public and that the world leaders, among whom the pope, would make a stand against this genocide. But instead he encountered unbelief and indifference.
This article is an abridged version of the book 'De boodschapper uit de hel' ('The messenger from hell') by the same author.
Youth and academic years
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".
Conflicts with the regime
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.