The Magazine

God and the Nazis

An American chaplain pursues a connection.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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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.”

Capt. Henry Gerecke in England (1944)

Capt. Henry Gerecke in England (1944)

robert cohen

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.”