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
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
A stranger in his own context
June 23rd of this year, at the commemoration of the 60th
anniversary of Kurt Gerstein's death, the President of the Council of the
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
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.
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. 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
God in the abyss
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
 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).
 Cf. Martin Cüppers, Wegbereiter der Shoa, 2005.
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