Spiritual counselor to the Nazis? 'Mission at Nuremberg' author Tim Townsend tells the unlikely story

'Mission at Nuremberg' tells the story of Henry Gerecke, the official chaplain of the Nuremberg Trials, and his relationship with the Nazis facing justice there.

Tim Townsend, author of 'Mission at Nuremberg,' says that the US chaplains assigned to work with imprisoned Nazi leaders learned that these men were, for the most part, 'average people who were somehow capable of colossal evil.'

Spiritual counselor to the Nazis? The title seems almost ludicrous, and yet that is the role Henry Gerecke filled when he became Army chaplain to the Nazi leadership during the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. Journalist Tim Townsend tells the unlikely story of Gerecke – a middle-aged Lutheran minister and one-time Missouri farm boy – and the men he ministered to in Mission at Nuremberg.

Townsend recently answered questions from Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe in an e-mail exchange.

Q: Henry Gerecke seems to have had a remarkable impact on many of the Nazi leaders he worked with. Is this more a story of an exceptional man or of exceptional circumstances? Do you think another well-intentioned chaplain could have served as well as did Gerecke?

As you might expect, I think it’s a little of both. The exceptional circumstance began with the war itself, and the decision by the Allies as the war wound down to reject the idea of vengeance against Germany and its leaders and choose justice instead.

The idea behind Nuremberg was that a public trial would contrast Germany’s tyranny with democratic notions of justice. Part of that notion was following the Geneva Convention, which said that “ministers of religion, who are prisoners of war … shall be allowed freely to minister to their co-religionists.” Those coordinating the trial believed that providing a German chaplain to minister to Hitler’s top leaders was a security risk, so they found two US Army chaplains who could speak German to do the job.

But Gerecke was also an exceptional choice. He had worked in the St. Louis jail system as a missioner during the Depression, and he was Lutheran, the same denomination as most of the 21 prisoners and witnesses imprisoned at the Palace of Justice. He was also about the same age as most of his Nazi flock, and he happened to be stationed as a hospital chaplain in nearby Munich just before the trial began. Gerecke was deeply committed to the job, both for military and Christian reasons, and he was very good at what he did. But at the same time, he was a farm kid from Missouri – very much an everyman.

Q: What motivated Gerecke? He was well beyond draft age, he was forced to live away from his family for years, and some of the public was very hostile to his work. Why did he want to do this?

His initial reason for volunteering for the Army’s chaplain corps was simple patriotism. It was 1943, he knew there was a chaplain shortage and two of his sons were already in the fight. He simply wanted to do something. His reason for taking the Nuremberg assignment was also pretty straightforward: He wanted to try and save the souls of these men who were on trial for their lives. Of course, he had some very human moments of doubt and terror at first, but he accepted the assignment because ministry was his job.

Q: As you researched, what did you find that surprised you most about the Nazis on trial?

Gerecke was very interested in the families of the men he was pastoring at Nuremberg and because of his interest in them, I paid a lot of attention to that humanizing aspect of these men. These were the architects of the Third Reich, but I tried to see them the way Gerecke had – as men with wives and children, many of whom were about to pay the ultimate price for the chaos they had created under Hitler.

Some say that when you start looking for psychological reasons for evil behavior, you’re ultimately searching to excuse that evil. The same could be said for showing that these men had families whom they loved and missed and feared for. Humanizing them the way Gerecke did forced me to acknowledge that the Nazi leaders were people – not inhuman monsters – who dreamed up and implemented the destruction of Europe’s Jews. For me, that makes wrestling with the concept of genocide much more terrifying. These were average people who were somehow capable of colossal evil.

Q: There must have been amazing stories that Gerecke and assistant chaplain Sixtus O'Connor could have told about what they heard as they worked with these men. Did either of them ever, at any point in their lives, hint at what they had learned?

Gerecke was pretty active after the war, telling his story to Lions, Elks and Rotary clubs, and church-sponsored ladies leagues in small towns around the Midwest. In 1951, he published his story in an article in the Saturday Evening Post. He received a lot of hate mail, which wounded him deeply (and which he kept hidden behind a desk panel that his sons found – and burned – after he died).

Gerecke and his eldest son, Col. Henry H. Gerecke (Ret.), were very close, but Hank told me that his father never once betrayed anything the Nazis told him in the confessional. Father Sixtus O’Connor, a Franciscan friar from New York and the prison’s assistant chaplain, barely spoke of his experience at all after coming home from the war.

Q: What about today? Are spiritual counselors and confessors made available to war criminals? Could there be another Gerecke-type story in the making?

In different capacities, yes, there are. During the course of my research for the book, I traveled to Rwanda and interviewed two Protestant prison chaplains who minister to the genocidaires who killed members of the chaplains’ own families. I’m hoping to write an article about a pastor I met in the Netherlands who ministers to the former African warlords on trial at the International Criminal Court.

A pastor named Christopher LaPel ministered to Khmer Rouge leader Kang Kek lew, or “Duch,” who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010. There are amazing chaplains around the globe ministering to the kind of people, in Gerecke’s words, “who the world wanted to forget.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor Books editor.

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