A man enters the Waffen SS in 1941, in order to discover what is really happening there. His name is Kurt Gerstein. He has been jailed and thrown out of the NSDAP before, because of resistance activities against the suppression of the freedom for Christians to live their faith. Having become a member of the ‘Bekennende Kirche’, the part of the protestant church that did not accept government influence in matters of religion, he wrote critical leaflets. When a member of his family was murdered as part of the so-called ‘euthanasia-program’ (which put psychiatric and mentally disabled patients to death) his worries over the developments in his country became more pregnant. When, a hygienic expert in the SS, responsible for fighting typhus outbreaks in camps and barracks, he finds out about the mass killings of Jews, he dedicates himself to getting this information out, to foreign governments, to the Vatican, and to his own protestant circles. He also tries to prevent the murderous gas, which he ordered himself for fighting epidemics, to reach its human victims.
In both goals he largely failed. The allies, we know now, did know what happened in the extermination camps, but chose not to interfere – their primary goal being to win the war. When Germany was defeated, Gerstein wrote down his story for the allied authorities, but was jailed himself as an accomplice. Shortly after, he was found hanging in his cell. His case became the subject of twenty years of legal proceedings – the ethical analysis of his case has only yet begun.
The story of Gerstein came to my knowledge through the movie ‘Amen’, which is based on the novel by Rolf Hochhuth on the silence of the Vatican while the holocaust was going on. As the plot of the movie is largely fictional, I wanted to know more about Gerstein’s horrible dilemmas – and searched the internet. The most interesting work I found was a thesis from 1999 by Canadian historian Valerie Hebert, which analyses the difficulties in the various post-war legal proceedings to determine whether Gerstein was a resistance hero, an accomplice to the mass killings, or still something else. Seven years later Hebert reworked the thesis to an article for the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The most interesting aspects of her work on Gerstein are
- her discussion of the legal difficulties of passing judgment on the acts of an individual in the midst of a genocide – difficulties we have seen repeated from the later cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
- her stressing the remaining ambiguity of Gerstein’s choices, even when we accept his goals to have been the right ones, and take the dangers he faced into account.
I watched and read thinking how his case not only presented a challenge to the legal system, but also to ethics. From a consequentialist point of view his acts should be criticized – as they did not lead to much good; but from the standpoint of an ethics of duty they seem more acceptable – because his intentions were good. A documentary made by the German-French channel ARTE chooses the latter point of view and thus forces a way out of the inescapable dilemma examining the Gerstein case. To my view this is the easy way out. What both ethical theories neglect is the fact that a moral law, as well as a concern for good results shrink to powerless instruments over against situations when large collectives of human beings are drawn into murderous acts on a mass scale. Some philosophers have attempted to develop new ethical approaches which take war, totalitarianism and genocide into account. Levinas for instance, and Arendt. I doubt, however, whether the ‘appeal of the other’ or ‘the banality of evil’ can capture the dilemmas and choices of someone like Gerstein. We need an ethics which digs deeper into human psychology, as well into the sociology of war and mass murder. Such an ethics, to my knowledge does not yet exist. Leaving us empty handed before the task to understand the ever new racisms, genocides and wars that leave their victims around us. And what we cannot understand, we will not be able to dismantle.