The Gerstein Report was written in 1945 by Kurt Gerstein, an Obersturmführer (First Lieutenant) of the Waffen-SS who rose to become the Head of Technical Disinfection Services of the SS. In that capacity he witnessed in August 1942 the gassing of some 3,000 Jews in the extermination camp of Belzec. The report details his eyewitness experience and was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.
When Gerstein surrendered to the French Commandant in the occupied town of Reutlingen on 22 April 1945 he was sent to the town of Rottweil where he was placed under “honorable captivity” and given accommodation in the Hotel Mohren. There he composed his report, first in French and then in German.
Gerstein was born on 11 August 1905 in Münster where he lived until 1910, moving to Saarbrücken, Halberstadt, and Neuruppin near Berlin where he received his secondary school diploma in 1925. He attended universities in Marburg, Aachen and Berlin, receiving an engineering degree in 1931. During his studies he was active in the Protestant youth movements.
He joined the Nazi Party in May 1933. But as a committed Christian activist he resisted attempts by the Nazi state to control the Christian youth movements and ran afoul of state authorities. He was expelled from the party in October 1936 after his arrest in September 1936 for circulating anti-Nazi pamphlets. Released, he was arrested a second time in July 1938, spending two months in a concentration camp. Outraged by the euthanasia program, he decided to join the Waffen SS “to look into the matter of these ovens and chambers in order to learn what happened there.” Because of his technical education, Gerstein was placed in the Waffen-SS technical disinfection services where he rose quickly to become its head. It was in that capacity that he traveled to the extermination camps of Belzec and Treblinka.
He reports that on 18 August he traveled to the extermination camp at Belzec where the next day he witnessed the arrival of “45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival.” He continues by describing the procession in front of him:
“Then the procession starts moving. In front a very lovely young girl; so all of them go along the alley, all naked, men, women, children, without artificial limbs. I myself stand together with Hauptmann Wirth on top of the ramp between the gas chambers. Mothers with babies at their breast, they come onward, hesitate, enter the death chambers!” After the doors are closed, there is a technical hitch: the diesel motor will not start, but finally he writes, “After two hours and 49 minutes - the stop watch has registered everything well - the diesel starts. Until this moment the people live in these 4 chambers, four times 750 people in 4 times 45 cubic metres! Again 25 minutes pass. Right, many are dead now. One can see that through the small window in which the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few are still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, everyone is dead!”
The final part of the report describes Gerstein’s attempts to circulate his eyewitness testimony. He reports on his chance encounter with the secretary of the Swedish legation in Berlin, Baron Göran von Otter, on the Warsaw-Berlin train “Still under the immediate impression of the terrible events, I told him everything with the entreaty to inform his government and the Allies of all of this immediately because each day's delay must cost the lives of further thousands and tens of thousands.” He also reports on his unsuccessful attempts to see the Papal Nuncio Cesare Orsenigo in Berlin. He adds that he reported on what he saw to “hundreds of personages.” His report reached the Dutch war minister van Lidth de Jeude in May 1943.
The report and Nazi war crimes tribunals
Gerstein's report has been used as evidence in a number of high-profile cases. It was used at the Nuremberg Trials against major Nazi war criminals such as Hermann Göring and Hans Frank. It was also later used in the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann by an Israeli court. More recently in 2000 it was used by Christopher Browning in the Holocaust libel trial between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt.
Criticism of the Gerstein Report
While some aspects of Gerstein's report include false or exaggeratedly attributed statements to Odilo Globocnik, and inaccurate claims regarding the total number of Jews gassed at places where he was not an eyewitness, Gerstein's claim that gassing of Jews occurred at Belzec is independently corroborated by SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel's testimony given at the Belzec trials, as well as by the accounts of other witnesses that can be found in Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness, a biography of one-time Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl.
The historian, Christopher Browning, has written: "Many aspects of Gerstein's testimony are unquestionably problematic. ...[In making] statements, such as the height of the piles of shoes and clothing at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein himself is clearly the source of exaggeration. Gerstein also added grossly exaggerated claims about matters to which he was not an eyewitness, such as that a total of 25 million Jews and others were gassed. But in the essential issue, namely that he was in Belzec and witnessed the gassing of a transport of Jews from Lwow, his testimony is fully corroborated .... It is also corroborated by other categories of witnesses from Belzec."
Notes and references
- Friedländer, Saul, Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969, pp. 211-212.
- Gerstein Report (English)
- Florent Brayard (2000), An Early Report by Kurt Gerstein
- Kurt Gerstein, Nuremberg Trial Document PS-1553.
- Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution: Electronic Edition, by Browning, Christopher R.
- Pierre Vidal-Naquet: "Assassins of Memory" (1987). Ressources documentaires sur le génocide nazi / Documentary Resources on the Nazi Genocide © Michel Fingerhut, auteurs et éditeurs, 1996-8 see also Lipstadt, Deborah E. (1993). Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-919235-8. p.10.
- HDOT : Irving v. Lipstadt : Defense Documents : Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution: Electronic Edition
- Shofar FTP Archives: people/p/pfannenstiel.wilhelm/
- Friedländer, Saul: Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969.
- Sereny, Gitta: Into That Darkness. McGraw-Hill, 1974. Also available as Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, Vintage, 1983. ISBN 0-394-71035-5 or ISBN 978-0-394-71035-8.