Il Rapporto Gerstein: Anatomia Di Un Falso

Reviewed by Robert A. Hall. Jr.

Italians have a special reason for being sensitive with regard to the allegations contained in the report made in 1945 by the SS officer Kurt Gerstein in his account of his observations at Belzec and other alleged “extermination-camps” in July, 1942. The German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, in his “historical drama” Der Stellvertreter (Eng. “The Deputy"; It. “II Vicario"; 1963), introduced Gerstein as a major character. In Act I, Hochhuth has Gerstein rush into the presence of the Papal Nuncio Count Césare Orsenigo in the latter's palace in Berlin in 1942 and tell him excitedly of the massacre of Jews which he has witnessed at Belzec. Orsenigo conveys this information to Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli). The Pope does not question its accuracy, but considers the fate of millions of Jews as secondary to the safeguarding of the Vatican's financial investments in Germany. Hochhuth has the Pope spill ink on his hands, call for a basin of water, and (with obvious symbolism) wash his hands of the whole matter.

Der Stellvertreter has been translated into many languages and performed-normally, because of its length, in abbreviated versions-in many countries. (Your reviewer saw it in Uruguay in 1966.) As so often happens with works of fiction, Hochhuth's version of history has been widely accepted outside of Italy as truthful. In Italy, on the other hand, Pius XII is considered to have been not only anti-Nazi (as far as was possible in the situation), but eager to do all he could to save as many Jews as possible. Hence the concern of many Italians over what they consider Hochhuth's unjustified slander against the posthumous reputation of Pope Pius, and over the truthfulness of the real Kurt Gerstein's depositions made in 1945. Mattogno's book is a thorough reexamination, from both a general and a specifically Italian point of view, of the authenticity of the story as presented in the actual documents attributed to Gerstein, and hence of his credibility with regard to the situation at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Italian falso, in Mattogno's title, can mean either “forgery” or “fraud.” In this instance, it clearly means the latter. In his Chapter I (pp. 15-31), Mattogno lists and describes the texts of the various depositions, hand-written and type-written, attributed to Gerstein. Of the two chief versions, one (numbered PS-1553) is in French and the other (no. PS-2170) is in German. Two Americans who took Gerstein's depositions swore under oath that they were actually made by him, and his widow recognized his hand-writing as authentic. Concerning their authenticity, purely as documents, therefore, Mattogno has no doubt, as he says in his brief second chapter (pp. 33-35).

Their truthfulness, however, is a totally different question. Mattogno denies (Ch. III: pp. 37-85), on the basis of a detailed study and comparison of the various texts, that they correspond to anything resembling historical truth. He lists no less than 103 internal and external contradictions, falsifications of history (as it can be determined from other sources), disagreement with official Exterminationist history, errors of fact, exaggerations, and unrealistic statements Listed on pp. 80-85). Some of these are minor discrepancies, e.g., in the measurements of rooms or the age of a child whom Gerstein saw distributing shoe-laces to prisoners. Others of these inaccuracies, however, range from major contradictions to real “whoppers,” such as the assertions that 15,000 persons were killed per day at Belzec, or 20,000 at Sobibor. The biggest of all is the figure of 25 million Jews executed. (Contrast this with the official Zionist figure of 16.6 million Jews in the entire world at the beginning of the Second World War, cited by W. Sanning, The Dissolution of Eastern European Jewry [Los Angeles, Institute for Historical Review, 1983], p. 14.)

Those who support Gerstein's claims to truthfulness cite various sources of information contained in statements dating from 1942 to 1947. Mattogno devotes six chapters to these sources, in their approximate chronological order. In the first of these (Ch. IV: pp. 87-97), he discusses the Swedish Baron von Otter, whom Gerstein claimed to have informed of the situation when they travelled together on a train returning from Poland. Although von Otter claimed in July, 194S, that he made an oral report to his superiors in Stockholm, Mattogno states that there is no surviving documentary evidence of such a report. A document in Dutch, dating from 1943, with the title in German (why?) “Tötungsanstalten in Polen” ("Killing-Establishments in Poland"), Mattogno dismisses (Ch. V: pp. 92-107) as containing too many inaccuracies and contradictions to be trustworthy.

The reports which reached the Vatican during the 1942-1945 period concerning alleged mass executions of Jews in occupied Poland involve a rather broader spectrum of presumed support for Gerstein's allegations. To these reports, Mattogno devotes a longer chapter (VI: pp. 109-123) than to the other “supporting evidence.” Of the interview which Hochhuth imagines as having taken place between Count Orsenigo and Gerstein, there is naturally no record in the Vatican archives, since Gerstein was, according to his own statement, not even allowed to enter the Nuncio's palace in 1942. (For a fuller discussion of Hochhuth's fabrications, see Paul Rassinier, L'Opération “Vicaire” [Paris, La Table Ronde, 1965].) Gerstein claimed to have told hundreds of persons (including a certain Dr. Hochstrasser and Bishop Dibelius) of the atrocities he had witnessed. After 1945, these two stated that they had forwarded this information to intermediate levels of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Switzerland and Sweden, respectively. Yet, Mattogno says (pp. 110-111), there is no trace of these reports in the Vatican. In the rest of the chapter, Mattogno reviews the various stories of atrocities against Jews and East Europeans which did reach the Vatican from 1942 onwards. He emphasizes what is already fairly well known, that these stories were vague and lacking in specific information, and did not arouse intense preoccupations because of their lack of confirmation.

Gerstein claimed that a certain Wilhelm Pfannenstiel accompanied him on his visits to the various “death-camps"; but, in his short chapter on Pfannenstiel (VII: pp. 123-138), Mattogno finds that the former's statements, made between 1947 and 1970, are (like so many of the others) vague and self-contradictory. A Pole named Rudolf Reder, in 1947, published an account (in Polish) of the “death-camp” at Belzec. For several reasons, Mattogno considers, in his Chapter VIII (pp. 129-137), that Reder's story is a mere vulgar plagiarism from Gerstein's depositions, which had by then been published. Mattogno then takes up, in the final chapter of this group (IX: pp. 139-147), the depositions made by Rudolf Höss and Konrad Morgen in 1946, which have already been analyzed and found untrustworthy by other Revisionist scholars.

Mattogno's next three chapters deal with the relation of Gerstein's documents to the broader historical context. What actually happened to Gerstein himself? Nobody knows, except that it is fairly certain that he died in 1945, in a French prison. In Chapter X (pp. 149-156), Mattogno discusses the mystery surrounding Gerstein's death after he was imprisoned by the French in 1945 and found hanged in his cell on July 25 of that year. The official verdict was suicide, but the details and the actual cause (possibly murder, either by fellow inmates or the French authorities) are, Mattogno tells us, open to question. Interestingly, the file on Gerstein has also disappeared from the archives (as happens all too often in such instances). “Only one fact is certain: Kurt Gerstein's corpse disappeared, as did also his file,” says Mattogno (p. 156).

The existence of “gas-chambers” at Belzec and of “steam chambers” at Treblinka is a pure myth, according to Mattogno's next two chapters. His Chapter XI (pp. 157-165) is devoted to the various alleged methods of execution at Belzec, pointing out the absurdities, impossibilities, and contradictions inherent in Gerstein's and others' accounts. In some stories, we are told of electrocutions by means of metal floors on which victims were forced to stand in large numbers, all squashed together, with electric currents being passed through the mass of naked bodies. (What about the grounding of the current, or the very high tension required to overcome the electrical resistance of such a mass?) Other accounts involve such methods of execution as metal floors which were made (how?) to sink into water through which an electric current was passed (!), or freight-trains on the floors of whose cars quick-lime was spread so as to torture and kill the victims crowded in them and dissolve the corpses (!). Mattogno's twelfth chapter (pp. 167-173) deals with the 1942 report issued by the Polish government-in-exile in London, according to which the victims at Treblinka were executed in “steam-chambers"-a most inefficient procedure, which was later changed, in official Exterminationist history, to gas-chambers, through clumsy adaptations of Gerstein's assertions.

In his two final chapters, Mattogno examines the treatment of the Gerstein material by later historians. His Chapter XIII (pp. 175-185) is a discussion of Revisionists' presentation of the matter. In examining the work of such scholars as Rassinier, Aretz, Butz, Walendy, Faurisson, and others, Mattogno engages in some “cross-bench” criticism, pointing out various errors (mostly minor) in their work, but is, on the whole, favorable to them. In the course of this chapter, he refutes Georges Wellers's criticisms of Rassinier, and the assertions of the Italian Exterminationist Luciano Sterpellone.

Mattogno reserves his strongest denunciations, however, for the French Exterminationist Léon Poliakov, in the second longest chapter of the book (XIV: pp. 187-227). First Mattogno reproduces (pp. 187-207) Gerstein's own texts (in German, French, and English) with an Italian translation for each. Then he prints (pp. 187-207) the versions of each which Poliakov gives in successive editions of his Bréviaire de la haine (1951; revised 1974). Mattogno indicates, by means of bold-face type and numbered end-notes, all the places (398 in all) in which Poliakov altered the original, by additions, omissions, substitutions, or insertions. From this discussion, Poliakov emerges as an untrustworthy, unscrupulous deceptionist.

Mattogno needs only one page (231) for his “Conclusion,” in which he points out that Gerstein's “eye-witness” account is only a mass of absurdities, contradictions, and errors of all kinds, unsupported by trustworthy confirmation, whose falsity even Poliakov implicitly recognized by manipulating the material so as to make it seem credible. It is well known that Gerstein must have been mentally unbalanced, in his attempts at reconciling his alleged faith in Christian principles with his equally strongly asserted devotion to the National Socialist cause. If Gerstein's depositions are genuine (which Mattogno considers they are), the origin of his assertions is to be sought in his “schizoid personality” (a phrase which Mattogno quotes from the Exterminationist Saul Friedlander).

The book is well organized and Mattogno's discussion is clear, concise, and to the point, with relatively little emotionalism. The translations from French, German, English, and Dutch into Italian are all faithful to their originals. (Your reviewer knows no Polish and hence cannot judge the translations from that language.) Unfortunately, there are a number of misprints, not only in foreign languages, but also in the ordinary Italian prose.

In the light of Mattogno's extensive discussion, Gerstein's “eye-witness” accounts, and further argumentation based thereon, appear very untrustworthy indeed. One does not have to be a fanatical supporter of Nazism or Fascism (your reviewer, when a student in Italy in the 1930's, was strongly anti-Fascist, and still is) to recognize the extent to which, all unsuspecting, we have been tricked into believing Gerstein's assertions, especially through the deceit practised on us by Rolf Hochhuth in Der Stellvertreter.

About the author

ROBERT A. HALL, JR. is a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Italian at Cornell University. He is the author of numerous books dealing with Italian language, literature, and culture

Bibliographic information
Author: Robert Hall, Jr.
Title: The Gerstein Report: Anatomy of a fraud (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Spring 1987
Issue: Volume 7 number 1
Location: Page 115
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.