Basic Questions of Anthropological and

 Theological Cognition By Way of a Study

of Kurt Gerstein's Life and Witness


by Dr. Arnd Hollweg



These observations are a continuation of my essay Man in the Context of Life in His World. At the beginning of that essay I indicated that natural sciences are not "sciences per se" but sciences concerning human beings.  Therefore they are part of anthropology. We can only experience the cosmos in cosmic happenings that are part of our human living conditions, but from which our life as human beings cannot be derived, nor can our understanding, thinking and action. Later in the essay I showed why the paradigm and models of reality in modern science extinguish inter-personal relations in the socio-historic context in which their bodies, lives and their whole world are imbedded.  Because of this extinction, which is more than merely a reduction, all our thinking and understanding has lost its link with the earthly reality in which our life unfolds. In this essay I would like to discuss the question of whether, how and by what means we can restore this link.


Place of the epistemological question.


Epistemological questions in an empirical and theological anthropology arise in the context of life itself, where people share the common socio-historic reality of experience.  Our life is complex because of the intertwining of the different events and processes in which we have our place in the socio-historic reality. Natural sciences end to extinguish these event and processes because of their physical epistemology.  For that reason physical epistemology can be used neither for anthropology nor for the God question. Anthropology deals with the life of humans on earth, and the ground of being in the world. I would like to illustrate this question concretely by using an example of a history within history, i.e. the life story of a man in his socio-historic context. Kurt Gerstein was a Christian believer and inspired scientist and technician who, in extreme resistance to National Socialism as a spiritual power, put on the uniform of the Waffen-SS. I want to show by his example what the intermeshing of holistic-personal and scientific-analytic thinking means in the life of a Christian in the world.


A history within history


For those readers who are not familiar with the details of Kurt Gerstein's life I would like to start with some facts necessary to understand my observations. He was born on August 11th 1905 and was one of the leading personalities in the Confessing Church and the leader of its youth and school Bible groups to which I also belonged. A close contact with my family was established through my brother Dieter who had come to know him at a youth retreat of the Confessing Church in Zingst on the Baltic Sea.  Our Christian faith in the struggle against euthanasia and the holocaust determined the nature of our relationship.  As early as 1933 Gerstein publicly opposed the forcible incorporation of the Evangelical Youth movement into the Hitler Youth.  He was concerned to safeguard the young Christians' links with God, which National Socialism tried to destroy even in its ecclesiastical form.  Following a public protest in 1935 against a neo-Germanic play with anti-Christian content he was beaten up. He was arrested twice, first in 1936 and again in1938 and sent to the Welzheim concentration camp.  When he returned from the camp he was dismissed from his state employment as an engineer and inspector of mines and expelled from the National Socialist party.  In 1941 he volunteered for the Waffen-SS (the armed branch of the SS). Later, he explained what had led him to do this: "My one wish was to look right into the bottom of all those furnaces and chambers and shout about it loudly so that everyone could hear".[1]  `Proof of this is the famous Gerstein report, which he also sent to our family from prison as his defense against the accusation that he had invented the gas chambers himself.  The press reported his so-called confession as saying: "I have eradicated up to 11,000 people every day". (Geo Kleber in France Soir of July 5th, 1945). Gerstein's unexplained death occurred in his cell in the Paris military prison of Cherche-Midi on July 25th, 1945, by hanging from the window frame. As a witness to Jesus Christ he had become the witness to the holocaust who brought to light the truth of what had happened behind the scenes of the so-called Third Reich.


A stranger in his own context 


On June 23rd of this year, at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Kurt Gerstein's death, the President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, acknowledged "with special respect the unknown resistance fighter from Christian conviction, a Protestant loner with his roots in the Confessing Church". For the nature of his resistance Bishop Huber ranked him alongside the theologian of approximately the same age, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) to whom, unlike Gerstein, many books have been dedicated internationally. However, there exist a considerable number of personal testimonies of Gerstein's resistance from both friends and enemies, and I would like to add my own.  His resistance is still quite controversial. A witness to Jesus Christ in an SS uniform bearing the symbol of a death-head? At the time that had been an inner liberation for me since I, too, had been forced to wear the uniforms of the Hitler Youth and of the infantry, carrying the inscription "God with us" on its buckle.  I lost my fear of uniforms and started to wonder about the person inside.


Only in the light of Biblical faith will it probably be possible to understand what drove him, what he said, how he acted and what his actions were about. He was a man driven by God's Spirit. But what does that mean? Wasn't it still a mad undertaking? In 1934, Gerstein wrote to his friend Egon Franz: "Unlike my former cowardice, timidity and reticence there is now growing in me more and more courage to give a clear witness to everybody, that Jesus Christ is Lord! It is becoming an increasingly inevitable compulsion for me to give this witness". He was truly daring!  That is precisely why we admire him. But even in the Confessing Church he remained an outsider, misunderstood in the adult world but beloved by the young people for whom he fought, in order to maintain in us the faith in Christ in this environment.  Even during the last interrogations just before his death both his friends and his enemies were amazed by his openness and honesty, his sincerity and at the same time his unshakable tenacity. But nobody wanted to believe what he reported about the factory-type murder of the Jews and the extermination of the so-called  "lives unworthy of existence" among us. Was he mad, was he hallucinating, was he the fanatic whom many Nazis admired? Could one take him seriously? What was happening in him? That is also a question to us.


The socio-anthropological dimensions of our perception and cognition.


This question is basic for the understanding of the empirical process of sight, perception and thinking in anthropology and theology because it is the question of truth. To a certain extent we can test everything that we perceive and experience, if we wish to do so and if, through contact


with our fellow human beings, we receive credible information to confirm it.  This is not only a question of observing empirical occurrences that happen to me in the reality outside my life, but also a question of what happens in our life when we participate together in the events wherein we live.  All our perception, our view, our cognition in life and action has a socio-anthropological dimension.  What are the presuppositions for our perception of the events in which we, together with others, are caught up and included?  Do we close our eyes to the brutal happenings in our social and historical world, then and now, or are we simply unable to see them?  Have we no inner strength to see everything we could see?  Where should this strength come from?  What is happening in us?  The stunned bewilderment of fright and fear render us dumb, blind and heartless.  But God's power in Jesus Christ can also be effective in our powerlessness. For Bonhoeffer, the guiding principle of his life and actions was Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. For Gerstein it was Christ as "the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world", through whom God calls us by the Holy Spirit to be his disciples, even in the deepest abyss of life in the world. Both had the same aim: Bonhoeffer's was to act in Christian faith; Gerstein's was Christian faith in its actions in the world.  Today, we need both, and at the same time: the opening of the church in modern society and its reform from inside, by its faith in Christ. But their biographies were different and influenced their ways.  Gerstein was the "black sheep" in well-know clan of his family, and he was an inspired scientist who constantly pondered the question of the relation between faith, science and ideology.


Intellectuals involved in the context of the Third Reich.


For Gerstein the alliance between church, state and university was a context of involvement based on a synthesis between idealism in philosophy, historicism in theology and transcendental mentalism in the current concept of science that could no longer distinguish between imagination and reality. In these structures Gerstein could no longer think or act responsibly. He was concerned for his neighbour in Christ.  This soon led to a fundamental conflict with the establishment that had let itself be functionalised and instrumentalised by the National-Socialist ideology. Recent studies of the armed Waffen-SS show that ideology was the driving power for their actions, and not economic or structural necessities.[2]  This probably induced Gerstein to join the Waffen-SS, the so-called "black order" of the Nazi movement, which saw itself to be the elite in the fight at home and abroad and tended to attract many intellectuals. Gerstein's boss, Joachim Mrugowsky, a lecturer at Berlin University, was mainly concerned with disinfecting water for fighting troops. Because of his scientific talents Gerstein soon became head of the department for technical hygiene and was promoted to "Obersturmbannführer". In this post he was able to study the interaction of ideology and technology in National Socialism. Together with Professor Pfannenstiel, a professor at the University of Marburg and, like him, an "Obersturmbannführer", he visited the concentration camps of Belzec and Treblinka. Gerstein's development of mobile and stationary decontamination units, which were adopted by the army later, limited the typhus and typhoid epidemics by 1941.


God in the abyss  


During his journeys between the Western and Eastern fronts Gerstein often stopped off in my home and my home congregation in Mönchengladbach, which belonged to the Confessing Church.  Here he gave much important information about what was happening behind the scenes.  After discussions between Gerstein and my father I, then 14 years old, together with Catholic friends distributed leaflets containing the sermons against euthanasia of the bishop of Münster, von Galen. One of our group was sent to prison for this for several weeks.  Shortly afterwards, the death penalty was imposed for such activities.  The government was tightening the screws of its tyranny ever faster and tighter.  Euthanasia as extermination of the so-called "life unworthy of existence" was being increasingly applied to all persons who stood in the way of the realization of the National Socialist ideology. Through contacts with Gerstein we also got involved in helping Jews to escape, spreading information about the concentration camps, warning of imminent arrests and communicating among members of the Confessing Church.  Gerstein also tried to get my brother Dieter to join him in his office in the hygiene-institute of the Waffen-SS where he was already protecting other members of the Confessing Church as members of his staff.  But my horrified mother protested vehemently: "If you give the devil your little finger, he will immediately seize the whole hand". She drew his attention to the dangers in which he and his family would find themselves.  He answered: "I cannot fall any lower than into God's hands".  And if you are ordered to join an execution squad or something even worse?  "Even then I need not do it, and may even be able to prevent it".  He trusted in the presence of God who could give him light and guidance even in the abyss.


Many neuroscientists today seek God's presence in the brain, regardless of whether he actually exists or not. The concept of "God" is still socially and historically effective – but not for much longer.  Many people seek him in the cosmos, like the heathens.  For physics, in the thinking of Descartes, the cosmos is the "empty space" in which we can measure the movements of the starts and the light-beams, but a human presence cannot be found in it, and God even less.  And where is the human being himself?  Many biologists believe that he is in nature. He developed from the animal world. This is where the ground of human life is hidden.  Where do we discover God and man in the light of biblical faith? In the abyss of the socio-historic reality in which we live.  There He comes to us: Christ in the abyss, the Lamb of God. God and man meet in Him. This metaphor was the testimony to Gerstein's faith at the center of the defense statement, which he sent to my father.


"I send you out like sheep among the wolves".


Kurt Gerstein took a lonely and hopeless road in his non-violent resistance. And he knew it. When Jesus sent out his disciples, he said: " See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Mt. 10:16).  The following words of Jesus also reflect the way of his disciple Kurt Gerstein. He had to live amongst people who were walking around in sheep's clothing but who, inside, were raging wolves. He was like a sheep that tries to jump into the wolf's open jaws so that he might choke and die. At the end of his mission, however, he thought that a final victory of the demonic powers in National Socialism might be possible.  He probably had under-estimated the power of the ideology.  The ideology survived him and yet - he broke through it. In our Youth movement we experienced this as liberation.


His hair had turned white, his face gray and sunken, he suffered from diabetes, and from the fact that nobody wanted to listen to him.  We cannot manipulate God's Spirit in our faith. We remain dependent on it in our faith. Young people found in Gerstein a friend who would listen to them, who was always available and credible in the absurd theatre, in which he was able to play his part so enchantingly.  He was a Christian believer and a sharply thinking analyst who tried to get to the bottom of every question.  There was no distance between him and us, or us and him.  He cared for us like a father, sensitively and with understanding. He organised food for us wherever he could. Two weeks after his horrible visits to the concentration camps in Belzec and Treblinka my then 15-year-old brother Hans Georg visited him in his office.  In the entrance hall he said "Good morning!"  The answer came: "Here you only use the greeting Heil Hitler!" My brother replied that in the Rhineland, whence he came, it was "Good morning!"  They went to fetch Gerstein.  He drew himself up to his full height, smartly raised his arm and said: Heil Hitler, Hans Georg! For both it was really an absurd situation.  When they got to his office, Gerstein warned: You have to play the game.  That is the only way.  He wanted to give my brother a lift in his official car and drop him near Mönchengladbach.  But in addition to members of Gerstein's trusted staff an ideologically minded SS man was also to come along.  Hans Georg declined the lift.  When, three days later on the station he had just boarded the train to go home he heard his name called on the loudspeaker.  He saw an SS man hurrying towards him and took fright.  But then he recognized Gerstein, who handed him a parcel, saying: "I didn't want to let you go home without some provisions for the journey". We always had fun when Gerstein appeared at a youth conference.  In the midst of a world of deception, lies, enmity, hatred and blood we still were cheerful together, or bad-tempered and grouchy, rebellious and daredevil just like young people today, a mirror image of the world of the adults who worried about us.  Today, many people are irritated by maladjusted, disaffected or apparently rebellious behaviour in a world where adjustment and "fitting in" is the supreme law. With this psychological interpretation we project the image of our own world onto Gerstein, a world that he was questioning most critically. It was not his behaviour that was ambivalent but the world around him.


Ties to what? Courage for what? Freedom from  what?


Gerstein was among us, untroubled by whatever was happening in the world. He was mainly concerned with three questions: Ties to what? Courage for what? And freedom from what?   If we do not ask these questions today we will not have a future. Gerstein's wife Elfriede always stood behind him in her faith in Christ.  She had married him in the year between his two prison sentences when he had already been dismissed from his state employment and was in economic difficulties.  Her correspondence with her husband during that time shows that she knew what she letting herself in for. After the war her pension was withdrawn.  She had to go out cleaning in order to feed her children, and let herself be insulted as a Nazi pig. She was indefatigable in her efforts until the name of Kurt Gerstein found its way onto the Memorial to German resistance, where it belongs. " Though they take our life, goods, honour, children wife, …these things shall vanish all"…thus a hymn written by Luther.  Is that not inhuman?  Can one really, seriously want this and do this?  Mrs. Gerstein had to let her husband go and knew where he was going.  Today I marvel at her even more than at her husband.  We all have to die one day, but what do we do with out life before death?  The Christ message gives us the answer.


I shuddered at the events of the time, which filled me with fear and terror.  I wanted to close my eyes and die but I could not do it.  I can still hear Gerstein's laughter.  How could I lose my enjoyment of life?  The witness of his faith encouraged me to be grateful to take the time left for me on earth, given to me by God until I, too, will fall into His hands in the abyss of death.  Kurt Gerstein didn't want any disciples to copy his example, he wanted disciples of Jesus in faith.  For him God was a God of life in Christ who stays with us and in us, in life and death, until we see His face, as we cannot do on earth.


The ideology of uniformity


In his letter to his uncle Pommer in the USA (1938), which Gerstein was able to smuggle past the censorship during a trip to Southern Europe, he gives a clear analysis of the events in Germany under the domination of National Socialism which "wants to take over and totally dominate human beings in all their being, with life and soul". He was no longer concerned with inner-church resistance but with God's justice, which remains beyond any human reach.  The powers- that-be and those who legislate in them are accountable to it. May "Justitia" become a whore of the state"?  One of the most common misunderstandings in the general view of Kurt Gerstein, that he had sympathized half-heartedly with National Socialism, goes back to a sentence from this letter, quoted out of context.   Taken as a whole, Gerstein's words clearly mean however that he was not fighting against his own nation, i.e. against the German people.  This did not mean that he opted for a dictatorial national state, let alone a National Socialist state with its ideology.  He did not fight against people or against his nation but against an ideology by which they were obsessed, and, politically, against the National-Socialist government and its claim to dominance.  In this he insisted on differentiating clearly between Christian faith and ideologies from which Christ frees us.  In biblical terms, he was fighting against "authorities, principalities and powers."  Thus he enacted the freedom of the Christian closely tied to God and remained the person he was through God's grace.  This also made him immune against the ideology of the uniform.  In this he was a passionate and perhaps even aggressive pacifist who fought against the inner, mental and exterior, political "Gleichschaltung" (forcing into line) of a whole people by the National-Socialist idea.


Therein also lay the conflict with his father who, as "Landesgerichtspräsident" (president of the regional court) admonished his son right to the end, saying that: "Responsibility lies with him who commands, not with him who obeys a command. Disobedience is not admissible. You have to do what you are ordered to do." This Protestant government tradition led to an imprisonment of the human spirit, which abandoned us helplessly to the power claims of the National-Socialist authorities.  Gerstein saw this as a direct confrontation between his Christian faith and the national-Socialist ideology.   His main concern was that "the young people should somehow, in a serious way, hear and know something about God".  In his youth work he made us conscious of the fact that we were not objects, and we must never let ourselves be turned into objects by other people, even by adults.  And, above all, we must never try to turn God into an object; we are always accountable to Him in our lives because He loves us in Christ and remains faithful to us.  What was important were we ourselves, not only our physical survival for which we were accountable, even in this extreme situation.  This meant that the "I" of the scientist (Descartes: "I think, therefore I am") was included in the "I" of the Reformation's faith in Christ.  In the bizarre play full of lies, deception and murder in the adult world we were to play our part without loosing ourselves in it or abandoning ourselves to it.  He made it clear to us that his SS uniform was simply a prescribed garment.  In a life governed by God's Spirit in Christ it no longer had a claim to authority.


Faith in Christ and natural science


As a humanist it took me a relatively long time to get access to the inner core of his faith in Christ, but then I was able to continue to think it through in other situations of my life, and also to accept it. The subject-object relation in science, illustrated by Kant's transcendental philosophy, does not apply to inter-personal relations. We do not live in a world of objects but in a world of people who, mutually and together, are responsible before God for the correct use of the objects in life. We therefore should not abandon the "person-neighbour-God" relation because of some scientific metaphysics or ideological philosophy, which could deliver us into the hands of murderers.  One of the reasons for the failure of intellectuals vis-à-vis the ideological clutches of National Socialism was that they were barely able any longer to distinguish between a mental reality and the socio-historic reality of experience in which we live.  They projected the one onto the other and thus blocked intellectual access to both.  Gerstein was fighting a spiritual battle, not just a political or ecclesiastical one, a fight in obedience to his faith in Christ that liberates us from the false ties to the world.  In this situation we were also accountable for what we could risk our lives for, and for what not. Any recklessness meant mortal danger. A false word could bring death to us and to others.


Nothing protects against abuse


When, during his interrogations, Gerstein referred to his conscience he meant his conscience freed by Christ.  As a pacifist he had kept his hands clean and had done everything he could to avoid a misuse of his invention. The fact that others had turned the decontamination units, which he had invented for combating epidemics, into killing machines hit him in the core of his being. Costa Gavras' film Amen illustrates this beautifully.  All Gerstein's desperate efforts to publicize the inner happenings in the concentration camps failed.   Even at his last interrogations he told the French security officer, Raymond Cartier: "Your threats leave me cold. I want to die. The only thing I would like to know is what has become of my reports to the Swedish Red Cross and to the Vatican". Cartier was deeply impressed by the "extraordinarily sincere expression" on Gerstein's face. To this day the papers lie hidden in the Vatican. At the grass roots of the Catholic Church, Bishop von Galen, Dean Lichtenberg and innumerable Catholic priests and lay people had fought against the murders of the Hitler Reich. Surely the Vatican must have known about it. That couldn't have been kept hidden. Where was their moral courage to speak up?  Both the Catholic and the Evangelical churches were internally torn.


In the midst of this context of collective involvement nobody remained innocent.  Nothing can protect against the abuse of what God has given us for our lives among people who have lost their relation with Him. Freedom without God is also an ideology. Gerstein wanted to lead us on the way of knowing God through the working of His Spirit within us. In the outside world we discovered our interior life and were able to experience within it God's presence when we opened ourselves to the workings of His Spirit in Christ. There we could find freedom from the dominating exterior criteria and orders, and from the moral, scientific or social laws that claimed to be absolute. Accountable to God, to our fellow humans and to ourselves we could ask ourselves what best to do in the concrete historic situations of our life. In order to do this we needed God facing us, and our fellow Christians as partners in the Church of Jesus, in whose context Gerstein's resistance happened.


Non-identity and unity


Gerstein's self-understanding was not the scientific idea of an  "isolated ‘I' in space" (Descartes) but rather that of a scientist and technician in Christ.  An empirical anthropology and an empirical theology cannot be derived from a scientific epistemology. Such a derivation is destructive for people who are rendered incapable of controlling the technological processes that they have started.  Today they control us and turn us into objects of our own acts.  Gerstein's acts came out of the inner ground of his being, where we experience God's Spirit in Christ acting with us.  No Aristotelian "unmovable mover" is hidden there but God's presence in the working of His Spirit in Christ.  This really has nothing at all to do with subjectivism in human understanding faced with an objective mental reality constructed by our intelligence.  We are already moving here among philosophical ideologies. Recognizing the non-identity of the inner and outer world in human life, of spirit and body, of mental world and socio-historical reality of experience, of God and man, of human being and fellow human being in the "I-Thou" relationship is the precondition for recognizing that we are related to each other in our other-ness.  This cannot be abolished in an ideological unity like the National Socialism: one Reich (the German one), one people (the Germanic race) one Führer (the Germanic Messiah). Human striving for a total unity, abolishing the relation of otherness in our reality, leads to total war,


even in the situation of global development today. Totalitarian thinking tries to eliminate whatever does not submit to its domination, be it mental, political or social.  But the unity of humankind is not uniformity of substance, being or form, not a metaphysical or ideological unity but a unity of relations in otherness.


Living and acting in faith in Christ


The question of what is absolute, ultimate and unconditional arises for us even in our relation to God in Christ.  For this, we have to accept first the existing socio-historic context of our lives, which, in our faith in Christ, opens for us trans-personal access to God's presence. Functional and technological empiricism as the law of cause and effect for our actions in our relations with the world requires the anthropological and theological reality into which human life is embedded; without this it comes to nothing. We would misunderstand Gerstein's struggle for God and his neighbour if we did not recognize that it had two sides. In his resistance to the neo-Germanic ideology of the Third Reich he endeavored to fight evil in the form of power politics without links with God and without boundaries; on the other hand he was concerned with the commitment of the Church of Jesus, and particularly of young people for whom, by sowing God's word in Christ, he opened the way through death, into a future worth living, beyond death.  In his understanding of faith, living and acting belong together.  



[1]  Gerstein's words are quoted from the book by Pierre Joffroy: Der Spion Gottes (God's Spy), 1995, and from the article by Bernd Hey: Kurt Gerstein – ein Leben im Widerstand, in:  Bernd Hey, Matthias Rickling and Kerstin Stockhecke, (ed.): Kurt Gerstein (1905-1945) Widerstand in SS-Uniform, Schriften des landeskirchlichen Archivs der Evangelischen Kirche in Westfalen, vol. 6, Bielefeld 2003, 9-20.  (Papers from the archives of the Regional Evangelical Church of Westphalia).

[2]  Cf. Martin Cüppers, Wegbereiter der Shoa, 2005.

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