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Posted: 9/9/2014
Is Anyone Beyond God's Forgiveness?
Saving the Nazis?
Nazi atrocities

One of the world's darkest periods: The reign of terror by the Nazis before and during World War II.

We've heard the numbers: Six million Jews exterminated. 780,000 people murdered at Treblinka. At least 5 million non-Jewish non-combatants killed by the Nazis. 1.9 million Non-Jewish people killed in Poland alone. An estimate of 200,000 individuals with mental or physical disabilities killed. ...

We're aware of the locations: Auschwitz. Buchenwald. Flossenburg, Dachau. Treblinka. ...

We've heard names of Nazis charged with Crimes Against Humanity: Hermann Goering. Rudolf Hess. Hans Frank. Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Albert Speer. Joachim von Ribbentrop. Wilhelm Keitel. ...

Most of us have no direct remembrance, but we have seen the pictures, the black and white movie clips. We've seen Schlinder's List. We can only say, "How?" and "Why?" I can imagine the tears shed in heaven, the wailing, and maybe even gnashing of divine teeth. One of the most difficult mysteries of my faith (and I imagine the faith of many) is, "WHY was there no divine intervention?"

Prison cells at Nuremberg
Individual cells (13' x 6.5') for the major Nazi defendants were on ground floor of the Nuremberg prison. (Lesser defendants and witnesses were confined in cells on two floors above.) Ever watchful of suicide attempts, guards were stationed at each cell of the major defendants 24/7.

If any group of people deserves the even-too-mild label "Monsters", I think it would be these men and their many colleagues of the Third Reich. Terms like, "rot in hell", "unforgivable", "beyond mercy", and "evil personified" do not seem out of place. The world saw them as monsters, and in 1945-46, at the famous Nuremberg Trials, 24 of them were tried for their crimes including Crimes against Humanity.There were actually several "trials" at Nuremberg, lasting until 1949. The trial referred to here is the first and most famous one, the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. (The Hollywood movie Judgment at Nuremberg focuses on a later trial in the series.) One defendant was considered unfit for trial, and another committed suicide before his verdict. Three were acquitted, seven received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, and 17 were sentenced to hanging at the Nuremberg gallows. (One of those sentenced to hanging committed suicide the night before his execution.)

But, most probably aren't aware that there was more to the story than the heinous crimes, the trials, and the hangings. Two American Armed Forces chaplains accepted as their final assignment of the war to be chaplains to these Nazis on trial. In the released-this-spring book, Mission at NurembergMission at Nuremberg: An Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, by Tim Townsend, 2014, William Morrow/HarperCollins, author Tim TownsendWhen author Tim Townsend came upon the background for this story, he was religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is now with the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project. Townsend holds Masters Degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Divinity School. Three years, he was named Religion Reporter of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association. tells the story of army chaplain Henry Gerecke (rhymes with "Cherokee"), a Lutheran pastor (Missouri Synod) and his colleague at Nuremberg Catholic priest Sixtus O'Connor. Although the book centers on these two extraordinary men of God's ministry to the Nazis, it is the life story of Gerecke, a Missouri farm boy, and his dedication to bringing the poor, the marginalized, and prisoners to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Gerecke died, still serving others, in 1961.

Chaplain Gerecke
Pastor Gerecke in training for combat chaplaincy

That chaplains Gerecke and O'Connor were even present at Nuremberg was due to the Geneva Convention's provision that prisoners of war are to be permitted freedom to practice their religion, including attending services of their faith and being ministered to. American officers in charge did not think German pastors could be trusted for this service, so they selected two of their own chaplains. Among the reasons for Gerecke and O'Connor assignment was that both were near in age to most of the Nazis on trial ... and that they both spoke German.

Chaplain O'Connor
Chaplain Sixtus O'Connor

While it was difficult for these two American chaplains to accept this assignment, they viewed this particular ministry more as a sacred calling than the performance of perfunctory duties. Many Americans, as well as some Jews and many others, could not fathom why and saw the chaplains as traitors for trying to bring salvation to the monstrous Nazis. Perhaps, though, Gerecke and O'Connor had some insight in what God may have meant when the Almighty spoke through the prophet Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).

"Those chaplains believed that God loves all human beings, including perpetrators, and so their decision was more about HOW to minister to the Nazis, not WHETHER they should. The process of ministering to those who have committed evil involves returning the wrongdoer to goodness, a difficult challenge when faced with a leader of the Third Reich. For Gerecke and O'Connor that challenge meant using what they learned about each defendant to spiritually lead him back from the place where he'd fallen to a place of restoration. ... The Nuremberg chaplains were not judging the members of their flocks, nor were they forgiving their crimes against humanity. They were trying to lead those Nazis who were willing to follow toward a deeper insight into what they had done. They were attempting to give Hitler's henchmen new standing as human beings before their impending executions."Mission at Nuremberg, Townsend, p. 251.

Gerecke and O'Connor did not approach this ministry naive to the hideous actions of the men in their flock. Both had ministered to soldiers fighting the Nazis, and Gerecke's own two sons were active on the battlefield. Before going to Nuremberg, Henry Gerecke visited Dachau. "He'd touched the inside of the camp's walls, and his hands had come away smeared with blood. ... He said in a soft voice, 'How could they do something like this?' He said it over and over again. [He would soon find out the kind of men.] ... (And now) the U.S. Army was asking one of its chaplains to kneel down with the architects of the Holocaust."Ibid., p. 8 and pp. 94-95.

Gerecke in Prison Cell Chapel
While Nuremberg Prison had a small chapel, a special one for the major Nazis was created near their cells by knocking down a wall in between two cells. Picture is of Chaplain Gerecke praying in that chapel.

Townsend's book chronicles the chaplains' ministry of love, compassion, and hope: Man-to-man discussions about sin and scripture, a supporting arm, kneeling together and praying on cold cell floors, worship in a "chapel" (a knocked-out space between two cells), and holy communion administered to those who desired it and in the pastors' assessment seemed truly repentant. From Gerecke: "I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father. I recalled too, that God loves sinners like me. These men must be told about the Saviour bleeding, suffering and dying on the Cross for them."Ibid., p. 141.

While many of those on trial availed themselves of this ministry and seemingly changed their lives, a few quickly rejected any contact with the chaplains. Some welcomed the spiritual contact, had grown up in the church, but could not now accept Jesus as Savior. For some in this latter group, Nazi influence removed Jesus from their faith: "The religion of Jesus--a Jew, after all--was at last a 'malignant, corrupting influence,' a faith of and for the darker races, not compatible with the Aryan soul."Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh, 2014, Alfred A. Knopf.

To those men who embraced the chaplains, the ministry continued to the gallows. One who had connected with Gerecke but could not embrace the full faith, when Gerecke asked permission to say a final prayer, simply smiled and said, "No, thank you,". But the last moments of many were like those of Wilhelm Keitel with Chaplain Gerecke as Gerecke later wrote:

(In Keitel's cell kneeling together): "Our period of prayer in his cell was drenched in his tears." At the top of the gallows, Keitel said his final words, and then (together with his chaplain) prayed in German a prayer both men had learned as children: "Christ's blood and judgment are my adornment and robe of honor; therein I will stand before God when I go to Heaven. Amen." Keitel turned to Gerecke and said: "I thank you, and those who sent you, with all my heart." The black hood was pulled over Keitel's head and the noose placed around his neck. Keitel dropped at 1:20 A.M., and the chaplains returned to the prison (to escort another prisoner to be hanged).

When I returned Mission at Nuremberg to the library, I told the librarian it may have a bit of water damage from my tears while reading. Townsend's writing triggered a range of emotions as few books have done. Horror and compassion, hate and admiration, disgust and hope. Even a few weeks after reading, my stirred emotions are still raw and my thoughts difficult to articulate.

  • Trying to internalize what was happening in these Nuremberg cells, I realized that God's mercy and forgiveness must be so much more than I thought I understood. I know that parable about the laborers who worked only a few hours and received the same pay as those who toiled all day. It always seemed a bit troubling that God would act so contrary to our sense of fairness. But, the story is abstract enough that I can make room for it in my picture of God.

    Even when Jesus says to Alpha/Omega pic the thief next to him on the cross, "Today, you will be with me in paradise," I think of that as an OK picture that no one is beyond God's forgiveness. (Besides, my image of that thief was that he was probably a good guy who got in with the wrong crowd like the bad other thief.) But, to think, as the chaplains believed, that our God is ready to forgive -- no, has mercy and WANTS to forgive -- even these monstrous Nazi mass murderers makes me realize how little of God I understand. I even wonder whether I want my God to be that forgiving.
  • Perhaps what makes this picture of God so hard to actually believe is that if God is that compassionate and forgiving, God wants me -- no, expects me -- to demonstrate the same. It is easy for me to view this life of faith as one of finding comfort in times of trial, of singing praises, of helping the less fortunate, of feeling loved. But, when I look at the crucifix and see that love may require being killed on a cross, or when I think of the kinds of people God expects me to love, to extend mercy to, to forgive those I want to hate, I wonder. This trying to follow God, of being a disciple of Christ: Is it more than I signed up for?
  • Through Townsend's writing, I felt as if I were alongside the Nuremberg Chaplains ministering to these Nazis. And I realized these monsters were just men, humans of the same substance as I. Even with the evils they did, they were once little playful boys. They had hopes, setbacks, and ambitions, families they loved and who loved them. (Read about Gerecke's getting to know Hermann Goering and his family in the Related Resources below.) It is painful to think, but it seems important to realize that if they are of the same substance as I am, I can be what they became. My dislike of the oddball can become a passion of destructive hate. My lack of understanding of another religion can lead me to despise those of that strange faith and if I'm put into a position of leadership, I could legislate intolerance. I keep hearing the phrase, "There but for the grace of God ..."
  • But if I have the potential of those Nazis for such evil, as a human, I also have the potential for the goodness of Chaplain Henry Gerecke, of Chaplain Sixtus O'Connor. I can have the will to act for good even toward those about whom I ask, "How could they do something like this?" I can look into the eyes of the one I want to hate and see another human being. One of the defendants, Hans Frank, testified that he and the Nazi leaders "did not suspect that our turning away from God could have such disastrous deadly consequences. ... Hitler's road was the way without God, the way of turning from Christ ..."Townsend, op. cit., pp. 229-230.Perhaps it is God who can help my humanness be like that of the chaplains. I pray that it can be.

One of the cover sheets for Mission at Nuremberg is just a short verse from St. Paul:

Do not be overcome by evil. But, overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

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Resources Related To this Reflection

Foxhole's in-depth interview with the book's author.
(About 25 minutes)
Mission at Nuremberg cover Tim Townsend's Mission at Nuremberg. (
Chaplain Gerecke and his relationship
with Hermann Goering

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