The Gerstein report

Publication, interpretation, reception

(Last modified April 2000)

While interned in a French POW camp in April and May 1945, Kurt Gerstein, a member of the former Hygiene Institute of the Waffen-SS, wrote a total of ten different versions of an eyewitness account, reporting on those aspects of the "final solution of the Jewish question" with which he had had contact during the war. Gerstein's reports, which might also be read as autobiographical texts, reveal an individual who was part of the Nazi machinery for annihilating the Jews. One of his jobs was to procure Zyklon B for Auschwitz. A few weeks after the completion of these accounts, Gerstein was accused of murder and aiding others in murder and committed suicide in July 1945, before his trial began.
Gerstein's desire to legitimate his actions was accompanied by a readiness to chronicle Nazi atrocities, as documented by his successful efforts to supply neutral nations and the Allies with precise information about current massacres throughout the war.

The Gerstein report (first published in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Jg. 1, (1953), Heft 2) was also used to document war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials. For historians, the report is a key source of information on the annihilation of the Jews in the gas chambers. Together with the testimony of Rudolf Hess, the Gerstein report played a key role in shaping post-war concepts of what occurred in the extermination camps.

This research project focuses on the various versions of the Gerstein report.

The first part of the study is concerned with the author of the report, who became known to a broader public in Germany because of Rolf Hochhuth's play, Der Stellvertreter, and a biography by the historian Saul Friedländer entitled Kurt Gerstein oder die Zwiespältigkeit des Guten. Gerstein's biography is marked by a discontinuity of behavior, between resistance and conformity. In the nineteen-thirties, Gerstein opposed the Nazi regime for religious reasons and was imprisoned in the Welzheim concentration camp for a short time before becoming a Nazi collaborator and a perpetrator of Nazi crimes.

The second section of this study investigates the various versions of the report, written in German or French in the period between April 26 and May 6, 1945. Analysis focuses here on philological aspects of the texts and the significance of this considerable number of versions written in a very short period of time. Constant and varying elements of the texts and variations which replaced preceding ones with each new version are also studied. A further aim of this part of the study is to elucidate the discursive strategies which contribute to making this testimony obscure and to simplifying it at the same time.

Gerstein's testimony is compared, in a third part , with all available documents about the Belzec concentration camp, with the aim of reconstructing the workings of the camp and actual occurrences there. Gerstein was at the Belzec camp in August 1942 and participated in the murder of Jews from Lemberg in the camp's gas chambers. While the Belzec death camp was in operation, from March to December 1942, the Nazis murdered 600,000 people there.

In a concluding section, the study deals with the chronology of the "final solution", referring to the Belzec death camp and the introduction of Zyklon B to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Majdanek as case studies. Finally, the question of the responsibility of various perpetrators who, like Gerstein, were bound up in these events is addressed.