Book review: God and the Nazis

An American chaplain pursues a connection.

At the first of the Nuremberg trials, Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor, delivered one of the most powerful opening statements in modern times. Speaking of the 22 top Nazi leaders brought before the International Military Tribunal (and Martin Bormann, who was tried in absentia), Jackson declared: “They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names.”

And yet, in Mission at Nuremberg, Tim Townsend, a former religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, chronicles the little-known tale of near-tender ministering by the U.S. Army chaplain assigned to most of the Nazis in the dock. Henry Gerecke, a 50-year-old Lutheran minister from St. Louis, certainly had no intention of encouraging evil. Townsend’s uneven but intriguing account nonetheless makes clear that his actions raise profoundly difficult questions about applying Christian notions of forgiveness and redemption to those who perpetuated almost inconceivably monstrous crimes—and who, whatever their purported Christian upbringing, had treated Adolf Hitler as their only deity.

Gerecke had no illusions about the Nazis’ transgressions against man and God. Before taking up his assignment in Nuremberg, he visited Dachau only 10 weeks after its liberation—and he would return there several times. He saw the execution mounds and, under a white cross, a sign in English that read: “This area is being retained as a shrine to the 238,000 individuals who were cremated here. Please do not destroy.” Standing next to the ovens, Gerecke asked softly, “How could they do something like this?” Later, he would speak, probably metaphorically, about how his hands were smeared with blood when he touched the walls of buildings in the camp.

As the descendant of German immigrants, Gerecke remained committed to his forefathers’ faith and worked hard to master the German language. Starting his career in ministry as the Depression hit, he also displayed a missionary zeal to help those most in need—both in material and spiritual terms. A gifted preacher, he was soon holding regular services in the city jail, attracting record attendance with both his sermons and well-orchestrated music. “Even killers will listen to a blood-bought Gospel,” he wrote in a newsletter.

After the war, instead of returning home to a wife who had not seen him for more than two years as he served in Europe, Gerecke accepted the plea of Colonel Burton Andrus, the commandant of the Nuremberg prison, to stay for the war crimes trial along with two other chaplains. Although Andrus had expressed loathing for his charges, he was deadly earnest about the role he saw for Gerecke, whose prison experience in St. Louis particularly appealed to him: “Chaplain,” he told Gerecke, “you’re going to find lost sheep in our prison and if God is gracious to you, you might bring back a few of them.” 

While Gerecke was nervous about the task ahead, the challenge appealed to his core instincts. “If, as never before, he could hate the sin but love the sinner, he thought, now was the time,” Townsend writes. The first prisoner he met was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s former deputy who had embarked on a bizarre solo flight to Scotland in 1940, claiming he wanted to negotiate peace. In a gesture that many of his fellow Americans found difficult to understand, Gerecke immediately shook Hess’s hand. “I knew I would never win any of them to my way of thinking unless they liked me first,” he wrote later.

Once the year-long trial started, and it became evident that many of the defendants would be hanged—in the end, 10 marched to the gallows—Gerecke worked relentlessly to win them over. Doing so meant leading the defendants to accept the faith in more than a perfunctory manner. While the first step was convincing them to attend the services he conducted in the prison chapel, the real goal was for them to achieve genuine repentance and embrace the Gospel, making them worthy of receiving Holy Communion. 

The most compelling parts of Townsend’s account revolve around Gerecke’s drive to achieve those results. He worked particularly hard to win over Hermann Göring, the dominant figure among the defendants. The former Luftwaffe commander welcomed Gerecke’s overtures and was especially appreciative of his contacts with his wife, but he was openly cynical at first. He agreed to attend all chapel services, but his reasoning was simple: “Prayers, hell!” he said. “It’s just a chance to get out of this damn cell for a half hour.”

In the end, Göring developed a genuine respect for Gerecke’s efforts—but he never convinced the chaplain that he had sincerely embraced the faith. In one of his hardest decisions, Gerecke refused him communion as his rendezvous with the hangman approached—an appointment Göring eluded by biting into a cyanide capsule shortly before he was supposed to be the first one hanged.

Others, like Fritz Sauckel, who had overseen the brutal treatment of millions of forced laborers, radio propaganda chief Hans Fritzsche, and Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, converted far more eagerly. When Gerecke came to Sauckel’s cell to offer him communion, Sauckel cried: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The chaplain later declared: “I believe he meant every word of it.” Even Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, who had been characteristically unrepentant and arrogant during much of the trial, accepted communion before becoming the first of the defendants to be hanged, escorted to the gallows by Gerecke. Others, like the Nazis’ racial theoretician Alfred Rosenberg, remained contemptuous and defiant until the end.

All of which should have provided rich material for an engaging biography of an unquestionably fascinating “preacher man,” coupled with well-integrated reflections on the nature of evil and the possibility of repentance. Unfortunately, Townsend doesn’t quite pull this off. Too often his account strays off into lengthy, didactic digressions—several pages on the history of Holy Communion, for example, and the story of Cain and Abel. The narrative suffers, and so does the reader, who is impatient to get back to the central character and issues. 

Townsend did not have to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether Gerecke was a naïf or a modern-day saint, but he could have provided a more satisfying, focused, and taut tale. Perhaps one reason he fails to do so is that Gerecke was robbed on a visit to Frankfurt shortly after the trial ended, and so lost his detailed notes from Nuremberg. As a result, Townsend had to reconstruct many of Gerecke’s experiences based on the minister’s later speeches. 

Still, Townsend brings to life a little-known character in the grand drama of Nuremberg, and he raises questions that have no easy answers. Could these mass murderers really deserve forgiveness from God and man? As a true believer, Gerecke had no doubt on that score. “This is our faith,” he proclaimed. “A religion without forgiveness is only the ghost of religion which haunts the grave of dead faith and lost hope.”

 Andrew Nagorski, the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, is working on a book about Nazi hunters.