Army chaplain tried to minister to condemned Nazi leaders at Nuremberg

“Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis” by Tim Townsend (William Morrow, 312 pages, $28.99)

As condemned Nazi leaders awaited their judgment from the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946, the Rev. Herman Gerecke, U.S. Army chaplain, offered them spiritual consolation and sought their conversion. At the time, it was hard for many people to accept, with any real probity or sense of justice, what Gerecke was attempting to do for the architects of genocide and mass destruction.

But Gerecke, a Lutheran minister, firmly believed that winning souls for Christ, even those of some of the worst of Hitler’s followers, was and would always be his primary mission in life.

“Mission at Nuremberg” is the account of how Gerecke, at age 50, found himself in a ministry that has been called “one of the most singular . . . ever undertaken by U.S. Army chaplains.” The author, a former religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and currently senior writer for the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, relies on range of documents, personal accounts and archives here and overseas to tell a gripping story of this single-minded pastor.

The book is a mix of biography, military history and theological interpretation. Townsend digs into the lives of Gerecke (rhymes with Cherokee) and many of the 21 Nazi leaders imprisoned at Nuremberg. He sets the stage with a gripping account of the final hour of Wilhelm Keitel, general field marshal of the German Army, before he would be hanged. Kneeling with Gerecke in his cell, Keitel sobbed uncontrollably as he prayed. Gerecke pronounced a blessing most likely from the Book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Rising to his feet, Gerecke moved to the next cell for a last visit.

Growing up on a farm in southeast Missouri, Gerecke felt called by God to the ministry after hearing evangelist Billy Sunday. In 1913 at age 20, Gerecke enrolled at St. John’s Academy and College, affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, in Winfield, Kan. Six years later, he received his degree and headed to the denomination’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. There he met a department store candy counter girl name Alma who became his wife. But that marriage caused an immediate problem: Students were not allowed to be married. Seven years later, with the private help of some professors and a prominent Lutheran pastor, he was able to complete his preliminary studies, re-enroll and graduate.

Gerecke served a mission church in a poor section of St. Louis and began collecting donations of food, clothing and furniture, working with prisoners in the city jail and workhouse, and visiting the sick in hospitals. In 1940, his son Hank enlisted in the army. Two years later his second son, Corky, did the same. Gerecke thought more and more about the war and what he could contribute. In 1943, Gerecke was named chaplain by the U.S. Army and eventually was assigned to the Ninety-Eighth General Hospital that treated military casualties.

Six months after the war ended, Gerecke was asked to care for the prisoners’ spiritual welfare at Nuremberg because he was a Lutheran, spoke German and had worked in prisons and jails in the U.S. Gerecke was terrified at the prospect of ministering to the leaders of the Nazi Party. “He imagined that simply feeling their breath on his face would be sickening.” After much prayer and soul-searching, he agreed to the assignment. “If, as never before, he could hate the sin but the [sic] love the sinner, he thought, now was the time.”

Townsend puts the reader inside the cells of various Hitler henchmen and provides a provocative look at each. Some could be charming and repentant, but others were unwavering in their belief that their duty to the Third Reich excused the atrocities that occurred. Some sought forgiveness while others scoffed at spiritual entreaties.

In his last visit with Hitler’s second in command, Hermann Goering, Gerecke reminded him of what his 8-year-old daughter had said: “Herr Goering, your little girl said she wants to meet you in heaven.” Goering slowly responded: “Yes, she believes in your savior. But I don’t. I’ll just take my chances, my own way.” Hours after the visit, Goering committed suicide by ingesting a vial of potassium cyanide.

In one of his four suicide notes, Goering told Gerecke that he had prayed to God and felt that he was “acting correctly. … Please console my wife and tell her that mine was no ordinary suicide and that she should be certain that God will take me into his grace. … God bless you, dear Pastor.”

For his ministry at Nuremberg, Gerecke received a lot of hate mail. Several Lutheran pastors chided him for not allowing some prisoners, including Goering, to receive Holy Communion even though Gerecke claimed those whom he refused never were repentant. In all his efforts he admitted he could have erred. “If I blundered in my approach to reach this man’s (Goering’s) heart and soul with the meaning of the Cross of Jesus, then I’m very sorry,” he later wrote. “I hope a Christian world will forgive me.”

“Mission at Nuremberg” is a thoughtful and sobering look at some of the 21 men who allowed savagery to smother human decency. Although the book veers off at times on tangential topics, overall it provides fascinating insights to the last days of the 20th century’s most notorious wartime criminals and the role of faith in the face of their unspeakable evil.