Grace and judgment at Nuremberg
Sharing the Gospel with war criminals at the trial of the century
Early in the morning on October 16, 1946, an hour past midnight, the first Nazi war criminal to be hanged at Nuremberg began his final walk to the scaffold. Accompanying him was the U.S. army chaplain who had been his spiritual counsellor for the past year. After the prisoner climbed the steps and stood on the trapdoor, he was asked for his last words. He said, “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.” Turning to the chaplain, he added, “I’ll see you again.” With that, a hood was pulled over his face, the rope fixed around his neck, and he dropped through the trapdoor into eternity.
The prisoner was Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister and one of the highest profile Nazis to stand trial before the International Military Tribunal for crimes against humanity.
The chaplain is much less famous, in fact virtually unknown to popular history. His name was Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from Missouri with a background in prison and hospital ministry. At the end of the war, he was asked to serve as chaplain to the 15 Nazis on trial who had identified as “Protestant,” chiefly because he spoke German.
Initially Gerecke felt a fair degree of trepidation and even revulsion at the task. He’d been to Dachau and seen firsthand the results of the Holocaust. Two of his own sons had been severely wounded in the war. How could he be asked to minister to the monsters responsible for these things? Nevertheless, despite his feelings he brought the matter to God in prayer and resolved to undertake the assignment.
For nearly a year during the course of the trials, from November 1945 to October 1946, Gerecke ministered faithfully to his 15 charges. He held weekly chapel services that included Bible reading, a sermon, hymn singing and prayer. He met with the men and counselled them one-on-one. Some of them remained hardened and defiant, wanting nothing to do with what Gerecke was offering. Others showed a level of interest and went along with him, to a point. But a handful, including Ribbentrop, came to express genuine penitent sorrow for their sins and a credible profession of faith in Christ, at least as far as their chaplain could determine.
Henry Gerecke’s ministry at Nuremberg is well documented – the story was even published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1951 – and yet it remains relatively obscure. This is not all that surprising. Our secular culture is highly suspicious of conversion stories, especially those occurring in prison or at the proverbial eleventh hour before death. After all, people will say and do many things when faced with their own mortality.
But as a veteran of dealing with hard men in tough situations, Gerecke was no naïve idealist, to be easily swayed by shallow professions of faith. On the eve of the executions, Hermann Goering, the highest ranking Nazi on trial, asked to receive communion as an insurance policy, just in case the Christian religion was true. Gerecke refused, citing Goering’s continued impenitence and cynical lack of faith.
Perhaps the most remarkable token of Gerecke’s impact on the prisoners came in the spring of 1946, when the chaplain was to be discharged and sent home to his family. On hearing this news, the war criminals wrote a letter to his wife, signed by all of them, pleading that she allow her husband to remain at Nuremberg as their spiritual counsellor. The irony was sublime: a group of men, until recently among the most powerful on earth, petitioning a Midwestern housewife to let her pastor husband keep ministering to them. Alma Gerecke’s reply was simple: “They need you.”
There is, of course, a further reason – perhaps the primary reason – why Henry Gerecke’s story has largely eluded the history books. Like all cultures, ours has a deeply ingrained sense of merit based on good deeds. With that comes a scale for judging who is “worthy” of forgiveness and who is not. The very idea that people like the Nazis who had committed such monstrous acts could receive mercy and salvation from God is intolerable to skeptics.
It doesn’t always sit well with Christians either, if we’re honest. We believe we’re all sinners, equally deserving God’s righteous judgment. We also believe God’s grace is greater than all our sin and that Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all our iniquities. And yet, when we’re faced with the widescreen panorama of real-world evil, we can suffer from a lack of peripheral vision. In the middle we see the vast bulk of human sin, some of it more serious and some less so, in our estimation. Still we have no doubt that God can and does save people from such things.
But what about the fringes? Here lurk the sins too terrible to contemplate for very long, never mind comprehend. We tend to dissociate emotionally from individuals who commit such atrocities, believing we could never do likewise, no matter the circumstances. We think of the perpetrators as damaged, somehow less than human. Consequently we find it difficult, if not impossible, to feel real empathy or compassion for them.
When we hear the testimonies of former drug addicts, thieves or adulterers who have come to faith, we’re encouraged. And we should be. But how would we react if a former terrorist or mass murdering dictator professed faith in Christ? How about a serial killer, a sex offender or a sociopath?
According to the world’s wisdom, such individuals are past hope, beyond the possibility of change or redemption. But if Jesus can return a demon-possessed man to his right mind and make him a true worshipper, surely He is willing and able to save the worst people on earth – people from whom we only differ by the grace of God, and nothing else.
As Chad Bird wrote in his blog about Gerecke at Nuremberg, “The scandal of Christianity is not that these men went to heaven; it is that God loved them so much that He was willing to die to get them there. Had it been a human decision, many would have thrown these men, guilty of such atrocities, into the flames of hell.”
The degree to which we feel uncomfortable about meeting men like Ribbentrop in heaven is the degree to which we have yet to fully grasp the depth of our own sin as well as the power and beauty of the Cross of Christ.
The Lord Jesus instructed His disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
Henry Gerecke exemplified this principle, relying on God and showing shrewd discernment as he sought to hate sin but love sinners in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. At the same time, his chaplaincy at Nuremberg remains a concrete modern-day demonstration that no one, regardless of their sin, is beyond the reach of the Gospel.
Sources and further reading
Chad Bird, “From Hitler’s wolves to Christ’s lambs,” The Gospel Coalition, September 24, 2012. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/09/24/from-hitlers-wolves-to-christs-lambs/
Don Stephens, “Henry Gerecke: Chaplain to Nazi war criminals,” chapter from War and Grace: Short biographies from the World Wars, (Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England), available online at Messianic Good News, October 5, 2012. http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/henry-gerecke-chaplain-to-nazi-war-criminals/
Henry Gerecke, “I walked to the gallows with the Nazi chiefs,” Saturday Evening Post, 1, September, 1951, pp. 18-19.
In 1950, Gerecke became assistant pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Chester, IL. That church’s website has audio files of Pastor Gerecke speaking about his experience, available at http://www.stjohnchester.com/Gerecke/Gerecke.html
F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, (Henry E. Walter Ltd., Worthing, England, 1984).
N. M. Railton, “Henry Gerecke and the Saints of Nuremberg,” Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte, (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2000).
Many of the primary sources about Gerecke, including his own My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany, are found at Concordia Historical Institute, St. Louis, MO, the official archive of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.