Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.
by Tim Townsend, William Morrow, 400 pages, $28.99
In Mission at Nuremberg, author Tim Townsend relates how, at the request of the US Army, a middle-aged American Lutheran minister attended to the spiritual needs of 21 high-ranking Nazi prisoners of war during their war crimes trials at Nuremberg. Those defendants included Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, weapons and war production head Albert Speer, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Captain Henry Gerecke, Townsend writes, was to "kneel down with the architects of the Holocaust and calm their spirits as they answered for their crimes in front of the world."
Article 16 of the Geneva Convention of 1929, regarding treatment of POWs, stipulates that prisoners are to have "complete freedom in the performance of their religious duties" and allows for fellow prisoners who are ministers "freely to minister to their coreligionists." However, says Townsend, in Nuremberg during the days following Germany's surrender, allowing captured German chaplains to intermingle with prisoners who once composed Adolf Hitler's highest echelon was out of the question.
The only alternative was to provide chaplains from the US Army. So, in the fall of 1945, Colonel Burton Andrus, commander of the Nuremberg prison, requested Gerecke. His choice was logical. Many of the POWs were Lutheran, Gerecke spoke German, and he had a history and a passion for ministering to the downtrodden. In 1935 he had announced to his family that they would leave their comfortable St. Louis vicarage, with its stable salary and housing, and move to an apartment in the city, where he could better minister to the poor, old, insane, sick, abandoned, and criminal. It was work that he was already doing during his free time, as he had become bored with ministering to those who were already Christians. Townsend writes that Gerecke was more interested in "the city's wounded, those who were at risk of dying without hearing God's message of love for them."
Once Gerecke was installed as chaplain at Nuremberg, some prisoners found comfort in his ministrations. One was Keitel, and during the year of the trial, he and Gerecke became friends. Others, such as Deputy Fiihrer Rudolf Hess, politely but firmly refused Gerecke's efforts. Goring played the middle. Though he rejected any authority of Jesus Christ as savior, as the date for his execution grew closer, he asked Gerecke to give him Holy Communion. The chaplain could not do that in good conscience, considering that faith in Christ is a requisite for Communion. It was a moment Gerecke had dreaded, yet he remained firm even as Goring insisted. Goring hated the idea of the gallows, and in the end he cheated his executioners, committing suicide with a cyanide capsule just hours before he was scheduled to hang. Afterward, Gerecke wrote in his chaplain report that if Goring had been "sincere in his quest for Christ and Salvation, he would not have gone the way he did." Even so, Gerecke later wondered if he had been too rigid and had failed Goring.
Ironically, it was this kind of self-doubt that made Gerecke perfect for the job. Townsend writes that the Nazis killed 11 million noncombatants. Six million of those were killed just for being Jewish. Gerecke took the experience from his city mission years with him to Nuremberg, where, says Townsend, he made a conscious choice to remember that before their alliance with Adolf Hitler and before all the atrocities that followed, the defendants "had all been boys once...."
Hans Fritzsche, who was on trial as Hitler's radio propaganda chief, later said, "Pastor Gerecke's view was that in his domain God alone was Judge, and the question of earthly guilt therefore had no significance so far as he was concerned. His only duty was the care of souls ..., a battle for the souls of men standing beneath the shadow of the gallows."
Ten high-ranking Nazi officials were executed and one committed suicide as a result of that first, historic war crimes trial. Townsend writes that Gerecke was convinced they "were 'men of intelligence and ability' who, in different circumstances, could have been 'a blessing to the world instead of a curse.'"
In Mission at Nuremberg, Townsend sheds light on a little-known player in an iconic episode of world history. With extensive and varied sources and thorough research behind it, the book is a well-written study about a subject matter that can't help but hold a reader's attention. It sparks the age-old debate about evil that will continue to rage until the end of time. It also subliminally reinforces the idea that no one can truly know the condition of another's soul. That remains privileged information, reserved exclusively for every individual and his or her maker.
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