Review of Ian Harker, Pearls before Swine: The Extraordinary Story of The Reverend Ernst Biberstein, Lutheran Pastor and Murder Squad Commander
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 27, Number 2 (June 2021)
Review of Ian Harker, Pearls before Swine: The Extraordinary Story of The Reverend Ernst Biberstein, Lutheran Pastor and Murder Squad Commander (Canterbury, UK: Holocaust Studies Center, 2017), 72 pp., ISBN: 978 1 5272 9648 9.
By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Many historians interested in German churches in the Nazi period know about the Rev. Ernst Biberstein. His is a dramatic story. He was tried at Nuremberg for his role as commander of a mobile killing unit, convicted of the murder of 2000 to 3000 Jews, and sentenced to death by hanging. But few have written about him or given him more than a brief mention. Ian Harker, a Church of England clergyman, is now an exception. I met him several years ago when he was doing graduate work under Michael Berkowitz, a Professor in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. Berkowitz introduced me, we chatted, and I encouraged him in his topic.
The resulting book is relatively brief. It has certain lapses in presentation, with typos proliferating in the final pages, for example. Even his acknowledgement of me at the end, with mention of my small role in his process, though it proved accurate in the use of the Norwegian “sen” in my last name, replaced “Robert” with “Richard.” However, I am pleased to see that Harker has given us a monograph on this Lutheran pastor, Biberstein, a committed Nazi, who rose to an active leadership position in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Born in Westphalia in 1899, Biberstein, moved to Schleswig-Holstein when his father, a railroad official, transferred there in 1906. This proved important for the son, placing him in the staunchly Lutheran atmosphere of the region. It also placed him into the sort of political atmosphere which eventually made this one of the “brownest” regions in Germany. During the elections of 1932 and 1933, northern Protestants gave Hitler the votes he needed, first to lead a coalition government and then to grab absolute power.
Biberstein began studying theology at the University of Kiel during the First World War. He was soon drafted, however, and his service at the front gave him an enthusiastic patriotism, followed by a bitter sense of unjust loss that further shaped him for his future career. Biberstein finished his theological studies postwar, received a probationary position in 1924, and then accepted an appointment in 1927 to the comfortable parish church in Kaltenkirchen, twelve kilometers north of Hamburg.
These early stages in Biberstein’s career were all documented under his birth name, Szymanowski. His lack of a German-sounding last name did not hamper his success as a pastor or his political enthusiasms during his six years in Kaltenkirchen. It did not inhibit his joining the fledgling Nazi Party in 1926 or his association with the strongly nationalistic and anti-Jewish Bund für Deutsche Kirche, or, later, the similarly antisemitic Deutsche Christen. Those connections and inclinations got him a 1935 appointment, suggested by Martin Bormann, to the newly created Ministry of Church Affairs in Berlin. Bormann meant him to be a watchdog on the director, Hanns Kerrl, who was thought to be too even-handed in the conflicts between the Confessing Church and Deutsche Christen factions within the church. Soon Werner Best recruited him to join the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) of the SS, with the task of actively spying on Kerrl from within the Ministry of Church Affairs. By the spring of 1936, he was producing secret reports about Kerrl’s private criticisms of leading Nazis. He also shared the task of listening in and reporting on Kerrl’s telephone conversations. Beyond these secret tasks, he monitored regional clergy, especially if he considered their behavior political and critical rather than spiritual. Having become a spy for the SD, he chose at this time to withdraw from his clerical position in the church, thereafter choosing to designated himself as gottgläubig rather than Protestant on his SS membership card.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Biberstein was drafted simply as a soldier. The SS quickly intervened and brought him back to Berlin, not to the Ministry of Church Affairs but to the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), led by Reinhard Heydrich. At his first interview, Heydrich pointed him toward “police work.” However, for the next year and a half he remained in Berlin, working within this office that oversaw all security matters, whether under the SS, the SD, or the Gestapo. On June 1, 1941, just before the German invasion of the USSR, Biberstein received an appointment as Gestapo chief in Oppeln in Upper Silesia, with direct involvement in the already ongoing purge and murder of Jews that began with the invasion of Poland. At this point in his life, arriving in a part of Germany with a majority population of Poles and with German forces occupying half of Poland, Szymanowski officially changed his name. He chose Biberstein, less Polish-sounding and more acceptable for someone about to implement the full, harsh authority of the Germanic people.
Biberstein spent a year as head of the Gestapo in Oppeln. This assignment left him with some explaining to do after the war. Three months before his arrival, a sealed ghetto had been created in Oppeln, in which 8000 Jews were confined. The invasion of the Soviet Union just three weeks after his arrival led to the calculated murder of Jews, with new methods and a thoroughness beyond the widespread killing already experienced in Poland. But his role in Oppeln was not likely to have landed him postwar in Nuremberg, charged with the murder of Jews.
After his one year as Gestapo chief in Oppeln, Biberstein, now an SS Lieutenant Colonel, was deployed to Kiev in the Ukraine and placed in charge of Einsatzkommando 6, a part of Einsatzgruppe C. For his trial in Nuremberg, he willingly described two executions at which he had been present. The first was a mass shooting next to a prepared pit. The victims had to undress and kneel next to the pit to be shot in the back of the neck. An officer then walked over the bodies and ordered more bullets if any were still alive. At his trial, Biberstein claimed he never could have done that task of walking over the bodies. He also admitted being present at a second execution, this time using a gas van. He acknowledged that 2000 to 3000 people were murdered in gas vans under his authority. He said the gas made it “much easier for [both] victims and soldiers.” This was the figure of two to three thousand victims used in his indictment at Nuremberg, though the actual number murdered under his authority was presumably much higher.
It was Biberstein’s year in charge of this Einsatzkommando killing unit which led to his conviction for murder. His final assignment, however, based in Trieste for the last year of the war, was similarly scandalous and involved him with especially unsavory co-workers. Himmler had appointed Odilo Globocnik commander of the SS in the region. Globocnik had previously served as commander of Operation Reinhard, the plan to murder Jews at the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka death camps. Other colleagues included Franz Stangl, former commander at Sobibor and Treblinka, and Christian Wirth, who had been an inspector at the death camps. Biberstein’s job in Trieste involved “overseeing police work [dealing] with the black market.” This job did not produce documents or specific evidence for Biberstein’s trial, though the leadership of Globocnik and Stangl in the chaos of northern Italy in 1944 involved the shooting of Jews, the roundup of Jews, and approximately two train loads of Jews per month sent to Auschwitz. It also involved a huge black market in confiscated valuables, with Stangl overseeing that market while carrying suitcases filled with cash. This was the violently chaotic setting for Biberstein’s final year in the SS.
At war’s end and in the midst of that chaos, Biberstein was apprehended and sent to Schleswig-Holstein. He remained imprisoned in northern Germany until he was moved to Nuremberg for the Einsatzkommando trial in the fall of 1947. The twenty-four defendants planned to argue that their actions were legal. They had merely obeyed legal orders to police the eastern front after the Wehrmacht had passed through, even if many Jews were among the victims. Biberstein modified this approach for his part in the trial. He claimed under oath that he had never heard orders that involved the killing of Jews, nor did he ever know or notice that Jews were being singled out or that their murder was a goal of the SS. He claimed that his role had simply involved legitimate and necessary work against criminals and bandits.
At one point the presiding judge asked Biberstein whether, as a pastor, he had felt compassion toward the Jews about to be murdered, or felt he should express some sort of blessing. He responded, “One should not cast pearls before swine.” This produced sounds of astonishment in the courtroom, even among his fellow defendants. Later Biberstein protested that he was speaking from scripture. People had failed to recognize he was merely quoting Jesus. In May 1948, Biberstein was one among the fourteen defendants at the Einsatzkommando trial sentenced to death by hanging.
Harker does a nice job of telling the rest of the story. First of all, Biberstein’s death sentence was delayed, as happened to many of those sentenced to death. By 1951, four of the fourteen convicted at the Einsatzkommando trial had been executed, and Biberstein and the rest had their sentences commuted to life in prison. By that time, the Federal Republic of Germany had been established and the Cold War had begun. The United States was eager to assist its West German ally facing off against the German Democratic Republic, in a battle for hearts and minds between West and East. At least partly as a result, the Allied postwar emphasis on denazification, the removal of committed Nazis from positions of influence, softened almost entirely by 1951. The postwar churches, both Catholic and Protestant, had quickly moved to describe their stance during the Third Reich as one of victimhood and quiet opposition, rather than support.
In the case of Biberstein, incarcerated in Landsberg Prison, supporters noted his religious faith and practice. Richard Steffen, a fellow pastor who advocated most effectively for his release, had been a prominent member of the Deutsche Christen, a member of the Nazi Party, and had served in the SS. Now postwar Dean of Neumünster, Steffen visited Biberstein in prison and confirmed that, even while working for the SS, he “had a good conscience before God and men in all his actions.” Furthermore, Steffen had found Biberstein with a Bible in his hand and a conviction that he was holding “Christ in his heart.” In May 1958, Biberstein and the other two remaining prisoners from the Nuremberg Einsatzkommando Trial were released from Landsberg. The following September, a Swiss publication, Deutsche Pfarrerblatt, strongly criticized both Biberstein and those supportive churchmen who had aided in his release. Steffen wrote back that Biberstein was not a criminal but a victim of “Nuremberg justice,” while adding that Christians were meant to forgive. Biberstein lived almost three decades after his release from prison, even working for the church for a time. He then labored as a handyman in a senior living complex, dying in 1986 at the age of 87.
I recommend Harker’s book as a starting point in the attempt to understand an individual such as Biberstein. Harker worked with documents in the Wiener Library in London. He also worked in the Imperial War Museum for access to the Einsatzgruppen Trial records from Nuremberg, and with assistance from church archivists in Schleswig-Holstein. In his book, he cites important historians on German church history, from Conway, Scholder, and Besier to editorial participants in the CCHQ: Bergen, Gailus, and Hockenos. He also uses significant historians of the Holocaust, from Raul Hilberg to Gitta Sereny to Michael Wildt, among many others.
Biberstein has been given a very small place in the literature on Nazi Germany. Brief mention can be found in John Conway (The Nazi Persecution of the Churches) and Gerhard Besier (Die Kirchen und das Dritten Reich: Spaltungen und Abwehrkämpfe 1934-1937). In Conway’s case, one finds two index references under the name Biberstein. Besier’s index notes eight brief references under the name Szymanowski. Gerhard Hoch (1923-2015) produced several not very accessible publications in his later years that dealt with his homeland of Schleswig-Holstein. One of these is Ernst Szymanowski-Biberstein, die Spuren eines Kaltenkirchener Pastors: Gedanken zu einem in Deutschland einmaligen Fall (Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2009). I suspect that others eventually will follow in Harker’s path. The life of Ernst Biberstein reflects a number of important issues involving Christians in Nazi Germany, from the level of their actual enthusiasm for and participation in the regime to the postwar difficulties—persisting for at least a generation—in coming to grips with the realities of that past.
 Quotations indicated in this review primarily represent Biberstein’s own words from his personal statement at Nuremberg as used by Harker.