Book review

The 'Confessions' of Kurt Gerstein

Reviewed by A. Dibert

Rezeptionsgeschichte, or “history of reception,” has been a significant concept in German literary studies in recent decades. This notion can well be extended to other lines of investigation, including the study of the documents on which political and social history is based, in conjunction with such approaches as textual analysis and criticism. In the present instance, the narratives left by the SS officer Kurt Gerstein after his death in 1945 have served for almost half a century as the chief evidence for the existence of “death-camps” at Belzec and Treblinka (and to a lesser extent Sobibor and Majdanek) in Poland, at which many millions of Jews are said to have been gassed or otherwise exterminated. In this French doctoral thesis, Henri Roques examines critically the Gerstein texts themselves, their internal consistency, their conformity to what is known from other sources, and the history of their reception down the decades (of which the story of Roques' thesis itself forms a part). In so doing, Roques thoroughly demolishes the credibility of Gerstein's affirmations and hence of the existence of any extermination programs at these locations.

In a “Foreword” (p. i-xv), the translator Ronald Percival provides a brief history of the underhanded methods by which Roques' doctoral degree was revoked after he had passed his examination, his thesis had been accepted and the degree granted at the University of Nantes in 1985. Roques' treatment of Gerstein's “confessions” begins with his Introduction (pp. 1-17), presenting the reasons for discussing them critically. The core of the book (pp. 18-168) consists of four chapters. In the first, “Establishment of the Texts” (pp. 18-119), Roques presents the six (not five, as previously believed) versions of the texts in which Gerstein narrates his alleged observations at Belzec and Treblinka (with mention of Sobibor and Majdanek) in Poland in 1942. There are four texts in (rather poor) French, to which Roques gives the numbers T I, T II, T IV and T V, and two in German (T III and T VI). In this edition, they are all given in English translation; in the French edition, they are presumably transcribed from the French originals and translated from those in German.

The translations of these six texts occupy the first half of Chapter I (pp. 19-89). Photostatic reproductions of the original documents are given, for T I though T VI, in an appendix (pp. 210-287), but for the “Additions and Drafts” which occupy the rest of the chapter (pp. 89-119), they are intercalated in the body of the discussion, a procedure followed in later chapters as well. In a highly important section containing eleven comparative tables (A — K), Roques contrasts and evaluates Gerstein's allegations in texts T I through T VI. These tables are printed on six long fold-out sheets tipped in between pp. 117 and 118, with a photostatic reproduction of a letter from Pastor Martin Niemoller to Frau Gerstein on an unnumbered page (recto preceding 118).

The “Authenticity of the Texts” is Roques' topic in Chapter II (pp. 121-142). Was Gerstein the author of all six, or of only some? On the basis of their content, style, and typing, Roques concludes (p. 137) that the two texts in German (T III and T VI) were not by Gerstein, but were fabricated after his death on the basis of various documents left by him. Comparison of the typewritten versions shows that at least three different machines must have been used, one with a French keyboard and two with slightly variant German keyboards. Roques considers the hand-written texts in French to be authentic.

Chapter III treats “The Veracity of the Texts” (pp. 143-156). Since Gerstein's assertions have been widely accepted as a major keystone in the evidence for the existence of homicidal gas-chambers in Nazi concentration camps, Roques observes (p. 143) “Such a keystone should have the quality, accepted by all, of an historic document” and asks “Do the 'confessions' of Gerstein have this indisputable quality?” His answer is strongly negative, based on a summary of the Confessions” (pp. 144-146) and a statement of the improbabilities and peculiarities which they contain (pp. 147-153). There are, Roques suggests (pp. 153-156), degrees of improbability, diminished somewhat in the German texts (T III and T VI), which strengthen the hypothesis that these were fabricated to lessen their readers' skepticism. Even these, however, contain sufficient impossibilities to cast the gravest doubt on Gerstein's entire narrative.

The posthumous reception of the Gerstein story is Roques' topic in Chapter Four, “Gerstein's 'confessions' and the views of their readers” (pp. 157-168). Before their publication, they were accessible only to the Allied military authorities, who were not sufficiently impressed to use them as evidence at Nurnberg or in other courts, although not doubting the existence of the gas-chambers and related phenomena (p. 167).- After they were published, readers' reactions varied, and Roques divides those who have discussed them into three groups. Chief among those who do not doubt” (pp. 158-159), Roques names Pierre Joffroy, “Gerstein's hagiographer.” Of “those who do not believe” (pp. 159-161), the leader was the late Paul Rassinier, followed in more recent times by Robert Faurisson. The great majority of current discussants fall into the category of “those who believe the essential points” (pp. 162-166), i.e. admit that some of Gerstein's statements and particularly his statistics are exaggerated, but consider that he actually saw the events he describes. Among the last-mentioned group are Léon Poliakov (whose many alterations of Gerstein's text are notorious) and such other Holocaust-mongers as Saul Friedländer, Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, Gerald Reitlinger, et hoc genus omne.

In his “Conclusion” (pp. 169-174), Roques sums up the manifold “incoherencies, improbabilities, and inconsistencies” (p.174) which he finds in Gerstein's tales, to emphasise their total undependability. Ronald Percival supplies an “Afterword: The Gerstein Story: Questions and Comments” (pp.168-206), dealing with further aspects of Gerstein's highly unstable, schizoid personality; his incompetence in technical matters; and his (partly unlikely) life-history which did not form part of Roques' critical evaluation of the texts themselves. An interesting suggestion (pp. 191-194) is that his possession of invoices for Zyklon B may indicate that Gerstein was engaging in some black-market activity connected with this pesticide, and that his “confessions” may have been a mystification aimed at covering up such activities.

The final third of the book contains supplementary material.

In a long “Appendix I: Map and Gerstein Confessions Photocopies” (pp. 207-287), a sketch-map showing the location of various concentration camps (p. 209) is followed by the already mentioned reproductions of Gerstein's six texts (pp. 210-287). A second, much shorter appendix, “Kurt Gerstein: His Life, His Death, His ëConfessions' (pp. 289-294) provides not only a curriculum vitae (pp. 289-291), but also a chronology of the reception of Gerstein's “Confessions” from 1945 to 1983 (pp. 291-294), with critical remarks on the way in which they were garbled and misrepresented by Holocaust-maniacs.”

A brief “Bibliography” (pp. 295-298) is followed by two “Postscripts” dealing with persons whom Gerstein mentions as having been involved in his trip to Poland and back and as knowing (at either first or second hand) of the situation and events he narrates. The first of these (pp. 297-308) deals with Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, with whom Gerstein travelled to Poland in 1942, and who was for many years cited as a witness to “authenticate” Gerstein's account. Roques characterises Pfannenstiel as “a reticent witness but cooperative as to essentials” (p. 299), but suggests (pp. 304-308) that, according to correspondence between Pfannenstiel and Rassinier dating from 1963, the former may have “grown weary of the role he was asked to play” (p. 304). The second postscript (pp. 309-315) is entitled “Von Otter, or the Prudence of a Diplomat.” Gerstein claimed that, on the train returning from Poland, he met a Swedish legation-counsellor, one Baron von Otter, to whom he recounted the horrors he asserted he had witnessed, begging von Otter to report this to the Swedish government. The outcome of the whole matter is still unclear, because of von Otter's extreme caution in confirming Gerstein's assertions. A brief, incomplete and not wholly accurate index of personal names (pp. 316-318) concludes the book, which is reasonably well printed, with relatively few misprints. Unfortunately, several pages have not been given numbers, so that in certain sections the odd numbers are on the left-hand pages and the even on the right.

Although Roques modestly disclaims (p. 1) that he is “here concerned with an historical study,” he has in fact combined two types of criticism, the textual and the historical, which are normally the province of specialists in separate fields. All writing of history depends on reliable sources, especially accurate texts. These latter have to be established through careful evaluation of original writings (manuscript, printed, or typed) and of the language(s) involved. The transmission of the writings often casts light on the metamorphoses which the original may have undergone, and the textual critic's task is to reestablish the latter as well as possible. If there are multiple versions, they must be compared, and if (as here) there are too many different versions to establish a single archetype, the critic must reproduce the various forms in which the texts occur. Roques has done this with a high degree of competence, in accordance with the best methods of textual criticism as established by Lucien Havet and others.

Roques' demonstration of the internal inconsistencies and discrepancies between the six texts and what we know from other sources (especially as shown in Tables A — K) is in itself a piece of devastating historical criticism. After a careful reading of Roques' work, even without Percival's valuable additions, no-one can grant any credence to Gerstein's stories about millions of Jews being exterminated at Belzec or Treblinka, nor his assertions concerning the mass burnings of corpses; the killing of millions of children at Auschwitz (which he did not see) by means of a pad soaked in prussic acid (!) held under their noses, and the like. To continue believing utterly fantastic stories like these, the “true believers” of the Holocaust faith have to follow the example of those religious fanatics who said credo quia impossibile, “I believe it because it is impossible.” No wonder that the L.I.C.R.A. (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l'Anti-Sémitisme) and other Zionists pressured the French government into illegally cancelling Roques' degree!

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 223-227.