Friday, September 12, 2014

Mission at Nuremberg

Shortly after World War II, there was only a handful of Lutheran pastors in the United States whose names would have been recognized across the country and beyond their own church body. In the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod two such individuals come quickly to mind: Walter A. Maier, speaker of the radio program, the Lutheran Hour, and Henry Gerecke, chaplain to the twenty-one major Nazi war criminals who were tried in Nuremberg in late 1945 and 1946.

Quite a lot has been written about Dr. Maier. Of special note is the biography that his son, Paul, wrote: A Man Spoke, A World Listened (MacGraw-Hill, 1963). But Chaplain Gerecke's life and work have not received as much attention. Indeed, while Maier's name is still recognized by many in the LCMS today, a large number of pastors and laity have probably never heard of Pr. Gerecke (whose family name rhymes with "Cherokee"). Thankfully, a new book about him has recently been published, which should help to make him more well known among people who should know of him and his ministerial work.

Tim Townsend's Mission at Nuremberg (William Morrow, 2014) tells Gerecke's story. The initial chapter begins with a vignette of the day that this Lutheran army chaplain had to accompany General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to his death. Earlier the two had prayed together on their knees and Gerecke had blessed him. Still earlier Gerecke had regularly preached to him and administered the Sacrament. "On his knees and under deep emotional stress, [Keitel] received the Body and Blood of our Savior," Gerecke wrote later. "With tears in his voice, he said, 'You have helped me more than you know. May Christ, my Savior, stand by me all the way. I shall need him so much'" (11). 

Chaplain Henry Gerecke
From this scene Townsend takes the reader back several years to when Pr. Gerecke joined the army (serving at the same time as two of his three sons). He had been prepared for this service through private instruction from a Lutheran pastor in St. Louis and from several faculty at Concordia Seminary. Never actually attending classes at the seminary, he still was able eventually to pass his exams and graduate. He was then called to serve a local congregation. He later served another congregation in St. Louis and became the leader of City Mission, a social ministry organization. (The Lutheran Deaconess Association--now based at Valparaiso University---provided this mission with its first full-time nurse to help with its visits to Robert Koch Hospital.) At that time Gerecke managed about 85 student volunteers throughout the city and another 65 from area Lutheran congregations. “Your City Mission business is God’s big business in St. Louis,” Gerecke wrote.

The chapters that describe Gerecke’s early life and family, along with one brief chapter on the history of military chaplains in the US, help to set the stage for his chaplaincy in the army (first in England, and then in Germany, and specifically at Nuremberg). The book turns theological at several points, most notably in sections that address questions about the nature of sin and repentance, the Christian understanding of divine grace and forgiveness, and the calling of a pastor to minister God’s love and mercy to those who do not deserve them. (After the war Gerecke also served as a chaplain at a large penitentiary, a period that Townsend also analyzes.)

The center of the book is devoted to literary evidence that gives insight into the spiritual condition of the war criminals Gerecke served and how he pastored them. Within a short time he had won their trust and friendship, despite his limitations with the German language. At one point, when the US Army was going to return him to the states (he had been away from his wife for nearly three years), one of the prisoners, Fritzsche, wrote a letter to Mrs. Gerecke, which was signed by all 21 war criminals. In this letter they asked that she “put off” her wish that her husband come home. “Please consider that we cannot miss your husband now. During the past months he has shown us uncompromising friendliness of such a kind, that he has become indispensable for us in an otherwise prejudiced environment which is filled with cold disdain or hatred…” (224). Gerecke remained until all the executions had taken place.

A fair amount of the central part of the book is devoted to Gerecke’s relationship with Hermann Goering, who committed suicide rather than being subject to his sentence of death by hanging. In addition to leaving behind a note for his wife, Goering directed a last note to Gerecke: “Forgive me but I had to do it this way for political reasons… I have prayed for a long time to God and feel that I am acting correctly. Would that I might be shot. Please console my wife and tell her that mine was no ordinary suicide and that she should be certain that God will take me into his grace … God bless you, dear Pastor” (269). Gerecke had become close to Goering’s wife and daughter—he ministered to them and the family members of several of the other prisoners—and after the war sent them care packages from the US, but he was also convinced that Goering himself was merely “Gottglaeubig,” one who believed in a kind of rationalistic Deism but who denied most of the central articles of the Christian faith. Thus, Gerecke refused to commune Goering, despite the latter’s request to receive the Sacrament before he died. “I cannot with a clear conscience commune you because you deny the very Christ who instituted the sacrament.” “Herr Goering, your little girl said she wants to meet you in heaven.” “’Yes,’ Goering said slowly. ‘She believes in your savior. But I don’t. I’ll just take my chances, my own way.’ … Defeated, Gerecke left the cell and moved on” (265). Apparently, these were the last words that Goering spoke to anyone. Later that evening, he changed into his pajamas and broke with his teeth a glass vial of potassium cyanide that he had placed in his mouth.

Gerecke’s pastoral encounters and conversations with several others of these criminals—especially Keitel, Ribbentrop, Sauckel, Speer, Fritzsche, and Schirach—are quite revealing and help to augment the psychological analyses that Gerecke’s roommate at the time, the army psychologist G. M. Gilbert, provided in his book, Nuremberg Diary  (Farrer, Straus & Giroux, 1947). (Reading these books in tandem shows significant differences of perspective between the secular-minded Gilbert and the spiritually-minded Gerecke.) 

Townsend’s book is ultimately about the nature of Christian forgiveness: “Christians like Gerecke and O’Connor [the Roman Catholic military chaplain at Nuremberg] would argue that they had to act toward the Nazis in their flocks, and their families, in ways that honored their deepest understanding of humanity, and its relationship to God. The chaplains believed that their duties toward the Nazis and their families revolved around how to return them to the good” (287).

But there is one overstatement that Townsend makes at just this point in his narrative. After summarizing the Lutheran view that spiritual consolation is indeed to be offered to people who commit evil against others, Townsend writes: [Luther] would have seen no principal difference between a criminal and an innocent. He would not have divided people into children of light and children of darkness. No one is innocent—neither a Gerecke nor a Kaltenbrunner [one of the Nazi mass murderers]—but everyone, Christians believe, is saved” (287).

While Lutherans have historically taught the universality of God’s grace, i.e., that God in Jesus Christ is indeed merciful and forgiving toward all—they have historically refrained from making the bold claim that therefore “everyone is saved.” Rather, Lutherans tend to stress that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Repentance and faith go together in response to the death of Christ Jesus and the message of his cross. Otherwise, grace becomes “cheap,” to use the Kierkegaardian/Bonhoefferian expression. Moreover, there is the tricky issue of divine election/predestination and the fact of the persistence of some to reject the freely-offered grace of God. Very few Christians actually teach that “everyone is saved” (even if many secretly hold out such a hope). Luther certainly did not teach this!

Nor did Gerecke. At the end of the many speeches about his war-time experiences, which he gave to large audiences after the war, he offered this prayer (which also ended his radio show, Moments of Comfort):

“Lord, lay some soul upon my heart and love that soul through me. And may I nobly do my part, to win that soul for thee. And when I come to the beautiful city, and the saved all around me appear, I want to hear somebody tell me: It was you who invited me here.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review, Dr. Becker. It motivated me to order a copy, which arrived last night. I'm only one chapter in but already captivated. More than learning about Ch. Gerecke, I am curious to discover what it might reveal about the mystery that is God's grace in Christ Jesus.