No exposition of a text of Holy Scripture tonight. Rather a reflection, an historical reflection on Paul’s autobiographical statement in 1 Tim. 1:15:
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
One of the most powerful evidences for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the conversion and subsequent life and ministry of Saul of Tarsus. How else can we explain the violent revolution in his life: from persecutor of the church and murderer of Christians to the gospel’s greatest champion in the world of his day? We may miss the real impact of the personal history of this man if we do not remember what he was before he became a Christian when the risen Christ encountered him on the road to Damascus. He was going there, you remember, to hunt out Christians and, by whatever means, get them arrested for transport to Jerusalem where they would face punishments of different kinds. The High Priests’ privileges – including that of enforcing religious discipline – were generally upheld by the Romans. In the dismal nomenclature of the 20th century, Paul was the head of the Gestapo, the secret police – the more jarring a title given the fact that he was a Jew – and he was doing what secret police always do: ensuring by whatever means the destruction of the enemies of the state. Whatever his pre-Christian personality, Paul, sure of the correctness of his views, confident of his morality, was a cruel man and he had a heartless indifference toward the lives and the happiness of Jewish Christians. And it was to him that Christ came on that dusty road and it was his sins that were forgiven and his life that was transformed. “…of whom I am chief…” Paul writes; understandably from the vantage point of his Christian life and remembering what he had once been and what he had done to the innocent in those years; remembering the sight of Stephen as he lay dead at his feet.
There is no doubt that the power and glory of the gospel is revealed in the conversion and transformation of such a man: hatred of Christ turned to reverence and love; the vicious destruction of the gospel turned to its propagation and defense; the haughty dismissal of Christians turned to admiration, respect, and love; the thirst for the death of Christians turned to a willingness to die for Christ, sins so great swept away as if they never were!
I was reminded of all of this when I came recently across some astonishing history. Honestly, I was nonplussed that I had not heard this before. It concerns, after all, one of the great moments of the history of the modern West and, indeed, of the entire world, caught up as it was in the Second World War and the carnage and the human devastation of that greatest war of human history. As soon as I read it I knew I had to tell you the story, and when better but on Easter Sunday. Nothing proves the reality of the resurrection and the power of the gospel built on that resurrection than the forgiveness and the transformation of lives that seemed to have been beyond redemption, dead from the inside out. What better reveals the power of the gospel than when terrible sins, mountains of sins are covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ?
Here is the story. It concerns the ministry of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor by the name of Henry Gerecke to the Nazi war criminals tried, sentenced, and, in most cases, executed by the Allied Tribunal at Nürnberg in 1945 and 1946. Gerecke’s assignment at Nürnberg lasted from November of 1945 to November of 1946. Most of what follows is taken originally from the primary document now in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church archives in St. Louis, Mo. entitled My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany by Henry F. Gerecke. It was written soon after the event when memory was still fresh. Gerecke never asked to be believed; he simply told what happened. The author who summarizes that account rightly says, “It makes astonishing reading.” I have also now heard a recording of an address by Pastor Gerecke in which he recounts a part of the story in his own voice and it makes fascinating hearing. Gerecke died in 1961, so, though I was unable to confirm this, that address by Gerecke presumably was given sometime during the 1950s. For all of this material I am indebted to the book by Don Stephens, War and Grace, published in 2005 by Evangelical Press. Here is the story primarily as told by Don Stephens.
Visiting condemned men in their cells was nothing new to Henry Gerecke. Much of his early career was devoted to work in prisons. However, the men he went to see in their cells at Nürnberg, Germany, just after midnight on Wednesday, 16 October 1946, were no ordinary prisoners. They were high-ranking Nazis sentenced to be hanged for the vilest crimes. He walked with the ten condemned men from their cells to the gallows. He heard all their last words. Some expressed thanks and faith. Others stayed defiant to the end, their belief in Hitler still unshaken, even though he was dead. One condemned man even shouted, ‘Heil Hitler!’ on the gallows before taking the final drop into the darkness.
The story of Henry Gerecke is little known and the events of the most important year of his life, November 1945 to November 1946, have been largely overlooked. Henry F. Gerecke was born in August 1893, the child of a farmer and his wife living at Gordonville, Missouri. The family was bilingual. Young Henry spoke as much German as English in his early years [a fact that was to prove decisive later on in giving Gerecke his unprecedented opportunity]. The family was very active spiritually. At home he was taught to pray and trust the Bible as the Word of God. The family church was Lutheran, attached to the Missouri Synod. This is a decidedly evangelical body. Its beliefs were not unlike those of Reformer Martin Luther, with his emphasis on being right with God by personal faith in Christ, rather than by trying to achieve communion with God by accumulating good deeds, even religious good deeds.
After attending a local school during his early years, Henry spent 1913 – 1918 at St John’s College, Winfield, Kansas. Then, in preparation for the ministry, he went to Concordia Seminary in St Louis. Ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1926, he served as minister of Christ Lutheran Church, St Louis, until 1935. In that year he was appointed as executive director of St Louis Lutheran City Mission. [His primary responsibility] was coordinating aid to the underprivileged of St Louis. The mission was a large organization reaching institutions like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, refuges and jails. Gerecke led it from the front. An account of its work while Gerecke was in charge still exists. This reveals his extensive care and preaching ministry, notably in the city jail, which held murderers as well as other criminals. Gerecke’s own written rules for the mission’s work emphasized the need for personal faith. He was interested in ‘soul winning’, an old expression for spreading the gospel of Christ. His basic advice to the mission’s workers when confronted by the ‘unchurched’ was: ‘Show them Jesus, Saviour from sin.’
Every Saturday for many years, Gerecke broadcast a program on the local radio station KFUO called Moments of Comfort. Its main target was shut-ins and those in hospital. A report from the time states, ‘Many souls have been won for heaven.’ It is plain from this evidence that Gerecke had clear-cut confidence that the message of the Bible would bring redemption, hope and comfort to those who responded in faith. ‘Thousands of letters’ received by the mission [proved] the point.
By 17 August 1943 the United States had been at war with Germany and Japan for nearly two years. On that day Henry Gerecke left St Louis to enter the Chaplains’ School at Harvard. He was one of 253 Lutheran pastors from the Missouri Synod who became chaplains during World War II. After a short time at Fort Jackson, Columbia, in South Carolina, he sailed for England in March 1944. The destination was the US Army’s 98th General Hospital, where he served for fourteen months tending the sick and wounded. After D-Day, 6 June 1944, the trickle of casualties became a flood. In June 1945 [shortly after the end of the war] he crossed to France with the hospital as it received the wounded brought back from the front lines. A month later the hospital was in Munich.
While in [Munich] he [visited] the Dachau concentration camp, “where,” he said, “my hand, touching a wall, was smeared with the human blood seeping through’. [Like so many other such visitors to the death camps, Gerecke was revolted by what he saw there.] Both his eldest son Henry and then his second son, Carlton, had been severely wounded in the fighting against Germany in the last year of the war. All in all he had had enough of war and was looking forward to going home. He had not seen his wife Alma for two and a half years, and working with the wounded and dying had been trying and unpleasant.
Then, early in November 1945, Gerecke was called into the office of his commanding officer, Colonel James Sullivan. The fifty-two-year-old Gerecke had been posted to the 6,850th Internal Security Detachment at Nürnberg. His assignment was to serve as spiritual adviser and chaplain to the top Nazi war criminals on trial there. Sullivan offered his opinion that it was the most unpopular assignment around. He told Gerecke that he did not have to go. He encouraged him to use his age as a reason to return to the inactive reserves in America. Gerecke wrote, ‘I almost went home.’ [His revulsion for the Nazi leaders, his weariness of the war, his homesickness, all made the assignment utterly unappealing to him. But, Christian minister that he was,] He prayed for guidance. ‘Slowly the men at Nürnberg became to me just lost souls whom I was being asked to help.’ (1) After a few days he gave Colonel Sullivan his decision: ‘I’ll go.’
The US Army had selected Gerecke for three reasons: first, he spoke German; second, he had extensive experience in prison ministry; and, last, he was a Lutheran Protestant. Fifteen of the twenty-one Nazis on trial identified themselves as ‘Protestant’ which was to say Lutheran. Assisting him would be Roman Catholic chaplain Sixtus O’Connor. Six of the prisoners claimed to be ‘Roman Catholic’.
The most senior Nazis of all, such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels, had already committed suicide to avoid justice. As Gerecke looked at the crimes of which the fifteen were accused he felt totally inadequate. ‘How can a pastor, a Missouri farm boy, make any impression on these disciples of Adolf Hitler? How can I approach them? How can I summon the true Christian spirit that this mission demands of a chaplain?’ He prepared himself by praying ‘harder than I ever had in my life’, so that he could ‘somehow learn to hate the sin but love the sinner’. The prison block at Nuremberg had three stories. The Nazis were on the ground floor. There was a broad corridor running its length with cells on both sides. Each cell door had a window at shoulder height. This let down to form a shelf where meals were placed. The window was open at all times for observation. A guard stood at the door of every cell round the clock and was required to look at the prisoner once a minute. Only if there were a breach of discipline was a guard allowed to speak to a prisoner. The waiter who brought the food was not permitted to answer even a greeting. The rest of the building was used for the several hundred witnesses who would give evidence at this trial of the century.
Colonel Burton Andrus, the US commanding officer of the prison, made Gerecke’s task clear. He would be allowed to conduct services for any Protestant Nazi prisoner who wanted to come, and be available for spiritual counsel, but only if invited by the prisoner. Nothing he said or did would influence the outcome of the trial. That was in other hands.
It was 12 November 1945 – time to begin work. Gerecke decided that he would visit each prisoner. That experience provided him with his first impressions of the men on trial. He admitted later, ‘I was terribly frightened.’ There was nothing frightening in a physical sense, because the once all-powerful prisoners were now helpless. It was the nature of their crimes, their connection with the absolute depths of evil, which made Gerecke shudder.
Before going to the cells he made the decision to offer to shake hands with each of the accused. There was no intention of making light of what they had done. Gerecke wanted to be friendly so that his message would not be hindered by a wrong approach. In his 1947 account of his first visit to the cells, Gerecke records that he was criticized for this decision. Presumably his critics did not understand [or did not share] his spiritual motives.
The first cell contained fifty-one-year-old Rudolf Hess, who once had been Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi party. Hess ruled his life by astrology. Gerecke offered his hand. Hess responded. Speaking in German, Gerecke asked, ‘Would you care to attend chapel service on Sunday evening?’ ‘No,’ replied Hess, in English. Gerecke then asked him, this time in English, ‘Do you feel you can get along as well without attending as if you did?’
‘I expect to be extremely busy preparing my defense,’ answered Hess. ‘If I have any praying to do, I’ll do it here.’ (2)
Gerecke left, knowing that he had accomplished nothing. The next cell contained the highest-ranking Nazi on trial, fifty-two year old former Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. With the range of powers given to him by Hitler, he had been an agent of death, clearly guilty of all charges. Gerecke wrote, ‘I dreaded meeting the big flamboyant egotist worse than any of the others. Through the small aperture I had a chance to size him up for a moment. He was reading a book and smoking his meerschaum pipe.’ (3)
Any diffidence Gerecke felt was removed by Goering’s shrewdly calculated amiability. ‘I am glad to see you,’ said Goering, pulling up a chair for Gerecke. (4) In conversation, he seemed enthusiastic about attending chapel services, though the chaplain soon found out from the prison psychologist that he only went in order to get out of his cell for a while.
The third cell contained sixty-three-year-old Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces. His unquestioning obedience to Hitler led to his being responsible for more deaths than anybody could count. Gerecke found Keitel also reading a book. ‘I asked him what he was reading. He all but knocked me speechless by replying, “My Bible.”’ Keitel then said, ‘I know from this book that God can love a
sinner like me.’ ‘A phony,’ thought Gerecke. They talked. Yes, he would come to chapel. Would the chaplain join his devotions now? ‘This I wanted to see,’ thought Gerecke. (5) Keitel knelt beside his bed and began to pray. He confessed his many sins and pleaded for mercy because of Christ’s sacrifice for sin. When Keitel finished his prayer, both men repeated the Lord’s Prayer together. Then Gerecke gave a benediction.
The next cell contained fifty-one-year-old Fritz Sauckel. Once Head of Labor Supply, he was, according to Chief Justice Jackson, ‘the greatest and cruelest slaver since the pharaohs of Egypt’ (6) He worked millions of slave laborers to death without mercy. When Gerecke appeared, he exclaimed with feeling: ‘As a pastor, you are one person to whom I can open my heart.’ During the conversation that followed he wiped away many tears. Yes, he would attend chapel services.
Admiral Raeder agreed to attend. That was not surprising since it was he who had taken the initiative in asking for spiritual advice. ‘Be sure to visit my friend Admiral Doenitz,’ urged Raeder as Gerecke departed in the event Doenitz, the man once in command of the U-boats, was not interested in spiritual matters. ‘I’ll attend your services,’ was his lukewarm response to Gerecke. He went to the next heavy door. Initial contact with fifty-two year old Joachim von Ribbentrop was not encouraging. He had been Hitler’s foreign minister. He was best remembered in Britain for greeting King George VI with a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute while ambassador to the UK. [He was the man who had inked the infamous treaty with Stalin in 1939 that opened the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin the Second World War. Readers of the history of Germany from the rise of Hitler to the outbreak of the war almost always come away from it with a profoundly negative impression of von Ribbentrop. A little man, a puppet, but arrogant enough with Hitler as the bully behind him.] Von Ribbentrop had a string of difficulties about Christian belief, which he shared with Gerecke in the months before the verdict. Nor would Ribbentrop promise to come to the service on Sunday, commenting that ‘This business of religion isn’t as serious as you consider it.’ (8) In spite of this, he became a regular in the chapel.
Gerecke’s footsteps echoed in the corridor as he proceeded to the cell of Alfred Rosenberg. The fifty-two-year-old Nazi ‘philosopher’ had committed most of his crimes while Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. He rejected everything Gerecke stood for, and told him to spend his time with others. Like Hess, he never attended any services. Just a few paces further on and the chaplain found himself with Baron von Neurath. The latter had served Hitler as ‘Reich protector’ of Bohemia, in other words, ruler of most of occupied Czechoslovakia. To be invited to go to church was a new experience for the seventy-two-year-old aristocrat. Though very lukewarm on the subject of faith, he did ultimately attend services. The next short walk took Gerecke to Hjalmar Schacht. He was a sixty-eight year old banker who, as Nazi Economics Minister, had used his skills to finance pre-war German rearmament. He had little or no interest in spiritual matters, but informed Gerecke that if a Lutheran minister was holding services, he would be there. Next was fifty-five year old Walther Funk, head of the German Central Bank and head of the war economy. He was another banker who protested his innocence. The Allies took the view that a man who filled the bank’s vaults with gold teeth and fillings taken from the mouths of the regime’s victims was a war criminal. Funk decided to go to chapel. A little further and Gerecke was with Hans Fritzsche. He was
forty-five years old, and had been a senior figure in Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. He decided to attend merely to hear what the chaplain would say. The chaplain’s walk from cell to cell was nearly over. Next he met Baldur von Schirach. At the age of thirty-eight he was the youngest defendant, and had been the Hitler Youth leader.
Gerecke disliked the visit to Wilhelm Frick. He was sixty-eight and was a hard-line Nazi whose title, Minister of the Interior, covered up a vicious reign of terror. The final man was forty-year-old Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments, who had caused as many deaths as any other man on trial. Every other Nazi claimed to be obeying orders. Speer probably saved himself from death by admitting responsibility and cooperating with his interrogators. He was to become known as ‘the Nazi who said sorry.’ Frick, Speer and Schirach all said that they would come to chapel services.
As Sunday, 18 November 1945, approached, Gerecke wondered how many of these men, whose collective crimes were so immense, would in fact attend the service. Knocking down the wall between two cells on the second floor made a spartan chapel. Where the organ came from is not explained, but the organist was a volunteer from among the witnesses. He was Walter Schellenberg, once a top officer in the Nazi security police. The simple services consisted of three hymns, a Scripture reading, prayers, a sermon and the benediction. Fifteen chairs were put out in hope. Out of a possible ‘congregation’ of fifteen, thirteen came – and continued to come on the following Sundays. Hess and Rosenberg kept their word and did not come.
For the first service only, two trial witnesses filled the two vacant seats. One was Hess’s former secretary. The other was Field Marshal Kesselring. During the hymn singing Goering’s voice always ‘boomed above all the rest’, and Gerecke noticed that Kesselring was moved to tears during the gospel sermon in German. At the end of the service Sauckel asked to see Gerecke in his cell. [Remember, Sauckel was the Head of Labor Supply, who worked so many captive people to death during the war.] When the chaplain arrived, he sensed that Sauckel wanted to discuss spiritual matters. After some conversation on those lines, Sauckel implored Gerecke to read the Bible and pray with him. Unafraid and unashamed, Sauckel prayed at his bedside and ended with the words: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ In the weeks that followed Sauckel was given his own Bible and Luther’s Catechism. Gerecke worked with Sauckel until he reached the point where he was satisfied in his own mind that the latter was a broken man with regard to what he had done. No restitution was possible, but Gerecke was convinced that Sauckel trusted in Christ as Saviour and had become a real Christian. In his written submissions about his work Gerecke repeatedly insisted: ‘I have had many years of experience as a prison chaplain and I do not believe I am easily deluded by phony reformations at the eleventh hour.’ (9)
As Christmas 1945 approached, Gerecke noticed a change in the spiritual attitudes of Fritzsche, von Schirach and Speer. After instruction in the Christian faith these three joined Sauckel and Schellenberg, the organist, as communicants. The Lutheran preparation to receive the bread and the wine ends with the pastor addressing each proposed communicant in these words: ‘I now ask you before God, is this your sincere confession, that you heartily repent of your sins, believe on Jesus Christ, and sincerely and earnestly purpose, by the assistance of God the Holy Spirit, from now on to amend your sinful life? Then declare so by saying: “Yes.”
The guards who were present at this first communion service were so impressed by the bearing of the penitent Nazis that they said to Gerecke, ‘Chaplain, you’ll not need us. This is holy business.’ (ll) They walked out, leaving Gerecke alone with his five communicants. Gerecke wrote later, ‘I am very slow about administering the Lord’s Supper. I must feel convinced that each candidate not only understands its significance, but that, in penitence and faith, he is ready for the sacrament.’ (12) Keitel [the Supreme Commander of the German Military] was to follow the road to faith. Gerecke recorded: ‘On his knees and under deep emotional stress, he received the Body and Blood of our Saviour in the bread and the wine. With tears in his eyes he said, “May Christ, my Saviour, stand by me all the way. I shall need him so much.” (13)
In the spring of 1946 Raeder told Gerecke that he too wanted to be a Christian. He had stated initially that he could not accept certain Christian beliefs and Gerecke thought he was a genuine intellectual skeptic. He had a Bible and tried to dig for material to justify his doubts. After many services and much instruction in the meaning of Christian belief, he changed into ‘a devout Bible student’. Eventually Gerecke added him to the communicants. Even more heartening for the American pastor was ‘the slow but steady change in von Ribbentrop’. In the course of several months he moved from cool, arrogant indifference to sincere questioning of Gerecke about various Christian teachings. He became more and more penitent, eager to turn from the past. After his final plea in the courtroom, Gerecke admitted him to communion, being convinced that God had worked in his soul.
Ribbentrop’s wife agreed with her husband’s pleadings that she should bring up their children in a godly way if the verdict went against him. Eventually, after instruction, Gerecke arranged for the Ribbentrop children to be baptized in the local church.
So it was that eight former Nazis were admitted to communion on the basis of their request, Gerecke’s instruction and a [credible] profession of faith. That is the practice of almost all churches. There are no windows to look into men’s souls. Gerecke acted in good faith on the basis of the evidence available in 1945-46. A biblical parallel for late repentance is the penitent thief on the cross at the side of Jesus who professed faith in the Lord as his end brought eternity into focus. [I should add that events seemed to prove in Albert Speer’s case that his faith in Christ was spurious, superficial, it did not last.
During the late spring of 1946 a rumor went round the war criminals that Gerecke, now nearing his fifty-third birthday, would be allowed to return home because of his age. Hans Fritzsche wrote a letter on 14 June 1946 addressed to Mrs. Gerecke. This unusual document still exists in US archives. While the court was in session, and with permission, the letter went from one prisoner to another until all read it. Amazingly it was signed, not only by the Protestants, but also by the Roman Catholics – and by Hess and Rosenberg, the two who refused to attend chapel. It was sent through the regular prison censorship with a translation and a note of explanation sent by Gerecke to his wife. Gerecke’s handwritten letter, also still extant, says, ‘Here’s the most unusual letter signed on the original by the most talked about men in the world. You are, without a doubt, the only woman in the world to get such a letter containing such a request.’ He goes on to say that of the twenty-one men who signed he expects that ‘half will go to their death’.
The substance of the letter says:
My dear Mrs. Gerecke,
Your husband, Pastor Gerecke, has been taking religious care of the undersigned … during the Nürnberg trial. He has been doing so for more than half a year. We have now heard, dear Mrs. Gerecke, that you wish to see him back home … we understand this wish very well. Nevertheless we are asking you to put off your wish to gather your family around you. Please consider that we cannot miss your husband now. Our dear Chaplain Gerecke is necessary for us, not only as a pastor, but also as the thoroughly good man that he is. In this stage of the trial it is impossible for any other man than him to break through the walls that have been built up around us, in a spiritual sense even stronger than in a material one. Therefore please leave him with us. We shall be deeply indebted to you. We send our best wishes to you and your family. God be with you.’ (14)
Alma Gerecke sent an airmail reply: ‘They need you.’ With reflection it seems a strange irony of history that men once so powerful should be reduced to petitioning an American housewife to allow her husband to continue to give them spiritual counsel.
The trial ended on 31 August 1946. While the judges were in secret session Gerecke and O’Connor arranged for wives and children to visit provided that this took place before the verdicts were announced. Gerecke records several memories of the families. Goering’s wife urged his child Edda to talk to Gerecke. Surprised, and thinking quickly of something to say, he asked the child if she said her prayers. The reply was: ‘I pray every night.’ ‘And how do you pray?’ persisted the chaplain. She answered, ‘I kneel by my bed and ask God to open my Daddy’s heart and let Jesus in.’
When he tried to talk to Rosenberg’s pretty thirteen-year-old, she interrupted: “‘Don’t give me any of that prayer stuff.’ So Gerecke asked, ‘is there anything at all I can do for you?’ ‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Got a cigarette?’” (15)
On 1 October 1946 each of the defendants in turn stood alone in the dock for the verdict. Each man had been tried on four counts. In summary form they were:
1. Crimes against peace;
2. Planning a war;
3. War crimes;
4. Crimes against humanity.
Gerecke watched the members of his ‘congregation’ as each heard the verdict. Death sentences went to Goering, Ribbentrop, Keitel, Frick, Sauckel and Rosenberg; life imprisonment to Hess, Raeder and Funk; long terms of imprisonment to Schirach, Speer, von Neurath and Doenitz. Fritzsche and Schacht were declared not guilty. Five of the six Roman Catholics were sentenced to death.
Whatever else may be said about the Nuremberg Trials, it is impossible to deny that the defendants were given support and a hearing — something the guilty refused their own victims. For reasons of security, chapel services ceased after the verdicts were given. Cell interviews numbered many hundreds up to this time. But before the executions on 16 October 1946, there were to be many more.
At about 8:30 p.m. on the evening before the death sentences were carried out, Gerecke had his final talk with Goering, who was to hang first soon after midnight in the early hours of the morning of the 16th. During this final interview Goering denied the fundamentals of Christian belief – and then had the temerity to ask for the Lord’s Supper. His attitude was: ‘I’ll take the Supper just in case there is anything to this business of
yours.’ What Gerecke told him supports the chaplain’s own statement that he took the administration of the Lord’s Supper seriously: ‘I cannot give you the Lord’s Supper because you deny the very Christ who instituted the sacrament … you do not have faith in Christ and have not accepted him as your Saviour. Therefore you are not a Christian, and as a Christian pastor I cannot commune with you.’ (16) Goering responded by saying, ‘I’ll take my chances.’ (17) At about 10:30 p.m. [that same night] Goering committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. [I had always known that Goering committed suicide, I had not known that as he breathed his last his head was cradled in the arms of an American evangelical pastor!] Commander of the prison, Colonel Andrus, asked Gerecke to go round the cells and tell the others what Goering had done. They all took a dim view of the cowardice of a man who had bragged how brave he would be at the end. That left ten men to die by the rope.
At 1:00 a.m. Ribbentrop [the Nazi foreign minister] was called for first. Before he walked to the gallows, he told Gerecke that he put all his trust in Christ. Ribbentrop was then marched to the first of three scaffolds. He climbed the thirteen steps to the trapdoor. The impassive soldiers and press representatives looked on. A guard tied his legs. An American officer asked for his last words. Ribbentrop responded: ‘I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.’ Then he turned to Gerecke and said, ‘I’ll see you again.’ (18) The black hood was pulled over his face. The thirteen-coiled noose was put round his neck — and he dropped through the trap door.
Keitel and Sauckel followed amidst similar scenes. When it came to Frick’s turn, Gerecke records that he received a surprise. Although Frick had been regular at chapel services, and unlike Rosenberg had accepted a Bible, he never showed faith. Andrus allowed Gerecke a few minutes in Frick’s cell before he was escorted to the gallows. On the scaffold Frick, who never took communion, stood in front of the chaplain in his bright tweed jacket and told him that secretly during the chapel services he had come to believe that Christ had washed away his sins. Then the door opened beneath his feet and he was gone.
The last of Gerecke’s group was Rosenberg. ‘I asked if I might say a prayer with him. He smiled and said, “No, thank you.” He lived without God a Saviour, and that is how he died.’ (19) To avoid future trouble the bodies of the eleven were cremated at Dachau a few hours later. At 2:45 a.m., when the executions were over, Henry Gerecke walked from the scene to be alone. Later he wrote, ‘Thus died eleven men of intelligence who, differently influenced, could have been, I am convinced, a blessing to the world instead of a curse.’ (20)
Shortly afterwards Captain Gerecke was promoted to major. He left Nürnberg on 16 November 1946 and arrived back at St Louis, Missouri, in time to spend the first Christmas with his family in three years. He was assigned as prison chaplain to the US Army Disciplinary Barracks at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There he stayed for thirty-three months dealing with disobedient soldiers. He described them as ‘mostly young men whom the world wanted to forget’. His duties as 5th Army chaplain ended on 1 July 1950. He became a well-accepted joint pastor at St John Lutheran Church, Chester, Illinois. In parallel with this work he served as ‘institutional missionary’ to the eight hundred prisoners at the Menard State Penitentiary. Driving to take a Bible study at the prison, he collapsed at the gate on 11 October 1961. A heart attack killed him. He was …sixty-eight years old. Warden Ross Randolph said of the deceased Gerecke, “The
prisoners respected him. He never lost his temper with them, and they knew they couldn’t fool him.’ (21)
The prisoners may have warmed to him, but after his death his eldest son, Henry, found a thick file of letters stored in a secret compartment in his father’s desk. They were postmarked from all over the US. ‘They called my father everything,’ reported Henry Gerecke. ‘He was called “Jew-hater”, “Nazi- lover”. They said that he should have been hanged at Nuremberg with the rest of them.’ All the letters were written in the ‘most hateful vituperative language imaginable’. (22)
There were only three men among the Allies at Nuremberg who spoke German to the defendants: Dr Gilbert, the psychologist, O’Connor [the Roman Catholic Chaplain] and Gerecke. They bore the burden of the spiritual response to the issue of guilt among the Nazis. Hans Fritzsche, who had been found not guilty, later wrote a book in which he offered his opinion: ‘Of all the prison officials, the most outstanding was the insignificant-looking, unassuming, Lutheran pastor from St Louis, Gerecke.’ (23)
So far the history as reported by Chaplain Gerecke. No one can look into another man’s heart. But surely we cannot believe that it is impossible that von Ribbentrop or Sauckel or Field Marshall Keitel found grace at the very end of their lives. Not if we believe the New Testament. Not if we believe that there was grace for a man such as Paul. Still more if we believe that there is grace for such as ourselves. What evil lies in any human heart? What evil might be done by a great, great many human beings if only the circumstances were right? The greatest crime in the history of the world was the murder of the Son of God, yet he himself prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers and no doubt some of them eventually believed and were forgiven. Can any human evil be so great that it cannot be covered by the infinite righteousness of Jesus Christ? And is it not very likely that, at least from time to time, there would be demonstrations of that greatest of all possible facts.
“Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.”
Reading this history two texts came constantly into my mind. The first is the one with which we began, Paul’s own autobiographical confession of faith:
“…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
And the second is this:
“‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’”
One shudders to think that no chaplain would have been sent to those men or that the man sent would be one of those time-serving, worthless men one can always find in the chaplaincy and the ministry. How can we hear this history without consecrating ourselves again and afresh to telling others, telling anyone and everyone the amazingly good news that God extends the gift of eternal life to all who will believe in Jesus Christ his son? One of Henry Gerecke’s favorite poems was this:
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 from around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me
“It was you who invited me here.”
More information on Henry Gerecke
The primary sources for this story are stored in the Concordia Historical institute, St Louis, USA. This is the official archive for the history of Lutherans in America.
Pastor Victor Budgen wrote an article on the Nuremberg Trials in Evangelical Times, May 1985. He based his article on the book by F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika (H.E. Walter. 1984). Paul Watkins of Stamford, England, published a second edition of this book in 1998. Sadly, Fred Grossmith died in April 2002. The book he wrote perpetuates the mistake that Albert Speer was truly converted. The evidence for the assertion that this was not the case is based on events in his later life, which were, in practice, a denial of the faith. The only scholarly assessment of Gerecke’s ministry at Nuremberg is by Dr Nicholas M. Railton of the University of Ulster. It is a long article called ‘Henry Gerecke and the Saints of Nuremberg’. It appeared in English in a German magazine (Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte) in January 2000. Although Gerecke wrote on the subject several times, the primary document is My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany, by Henry F. Gerecke, 13 May 1947. It makes astonishing reading. The internet site of St John Lutheran Church, Chester, USA, includes a talk given by him. Those who have the correct equipment can hear ‘a voice from the past’.
Gerecke spoke and wrote of his experiences several times, both in Lutheranjournals and in secular publications. The essential facts are identical, whetherspoken or written, no matter which source is used. His stated motive, given inhis talk preserved by St John’s Church, is to save the story from being
forgotten when Chaplain O’Connor and himself were ‘six feet under’.
1. Gerecke’s account of the conversation with Sullivan may be heard in his own words by downloading the talk from the website of St. John Lutheran Church, Chester, Illinois, USA (www.stjohnchester.com/).
2. All the quotations relating to Hess are from Henry Gerecke, ‘I Walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs,’ Saturday Evening Post, 1 September 1951, pp.18-19. The bimonthly Saturday Evening Post is still published in Indianapolis, USA.
3. Ibid., p.19.
5. Conversation with Keitel, ibid.
6. F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, Henry E. Walter Ltd., Worthing, England, 1984, p.37.
7. Saturday Evening Post, p.19.
8. Ibid., p.57.
9. Ibid., p.18.
10. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, p.68.
11. Henry Gerecke, talk on the St John’s website.
12. Saturday Evening Post, p.18.
13. Ibid., p57.
14. Extracted from N. M. Railton, “Henry Gerecke and the Saints of Nuremberg,” Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2000, pp.126-7.
15. The conversations with the children of Goering and Rosenberg are recorded in Saturday Evening Post, p.58. They are also a feature of Gerecke’s talk on the St John’s website.
16. Ibid., p.58.
18. Henry Gerecke, ‘Walther League Messenger’, Nürnberg Chaplain,
October 1947, p.15.
20. Saturday Evening Post, p.58.
21. Report in local newspaper.
22. David Strand, The Lutheran Witness, May 1995, p.23. In 2002 an article
appeared on the Internet repeating the same information from a different angle and adding to it. See Keith Lockwood, ‘Wartime Angst’, in a feature called Skeletons in our Closet (http://jemimef.topcities.com).
23. Hans Fritzsche, The Sword in the Scales, London, 1953, p.55.