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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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.