After Gerecke had been selected to give Nazi war criminals spiritual counsel he decided to hold church services for them and to personally counsel those who were willing.
In all, Gerecke worked with thirteen of the defendants.
Gerecke was “in charge” to determine if the men were truly repentant for their crimes and whether or not he would allow them to return to their Lutheran faith. Once Gerecke determined that that they were repentant he allowed them to partake of the Lord’s Supper as a sign of their repentance.
Gerecke’s attitude is reflected in what he believed about the former SS Lieutenant Colonel who served as his chapel organist. Gerecke believed that by the end of the trial he had brought the man back to faith and he noted “The simple Gospel of the Cross had changed his heart.”
Whatever else we might conclude about the possibility of redemption for Nazi war criminals it is clear that Pastor Gerecke believed it possible and the organist would have been Gercke’s Exhibit A.
Here is sampling of what happened with some of the defendants Gerecke ministered too.
–Karl Donitz-head of the German Navy after Raeder, received 10 years in prison.
Donitz believed Gerecke could help him after Gerecke told him they would simply deal with the Word of God in relation to the hearts of men rather than a political debate. In other words Gerecke stuck to the gospel and that opened the door for him to speak with Donitz. Donitz responded with repentance according to Gerecke.
–Hans Fritzsche headed the news division of the ministry of propaganda under Joseph Goebbels. Fritzsche was acquitted.
Gerecke believed Fritzsche to be repentant. Most of the defendants believed they all would receive the death penalty from the vindictive allies. However, the allies (the western ones anyway) wanted justice to be served above all else and if there was not enough evidence to convict Fritzsche then an acquittal was appropriate.
I think that given the attitudes of the time it must have been a hard decision for the judges to make and it would have been easier to convict Fritsche and give him a light sentence like the one Donitz received.
–Herman Goering was the highest ranking Nazi to be tried. Goring was head of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and was Hitler’s designated successor almost to the end when he fell out of favor. Goring’s sentence was death by hanging but he committed suicide the night before the execution. Gerecke was one of the first to get into Goring’s cell the night he killed himself.
Gerecke never believed Goring repentant and refused him communion. In the book Goring comes across as extremely personable especially to Gerecke whom he loved to chat with.
Gerecke suspected Goring of game playing perhaps hoping for an acquittal or light sentence. Goring also comes across as delusional in the book. He is shocked that he is not treated with the respect he thought he was due.
Gerecke also ministered to the defendants families if they let him), Gerecke ministered to Mrs. Goring and their young daughter. Gerecke took the example of Jesus seriously as he would minister to any sinner who wished him too.
–Alfred Jodl was the General who was Chief of Operations for the German Wehrmacht. In his capacity as Chief of Operations he was the second highest ranking general after Keitel and Hitler’s closet military advisor. Jodl’s reputation was that of a sycophant and a yes man never standing up to Hitler’s often ludicrous military decisions.
His sentence was death by hanging.
Jodl had pled “not guilty” and said, “For what I have done or had to do, I have a pure conscience before God, before history and my people.” His not guilty plea speaks of his lack of repentance and a sense of false assurance.
Jodl would have used the “I was only following orders” defense offered by many of the Nazis.
— Ernst Kaltenbrunner was a high-ranking SS officer who had responsibility for the death camps.
Kaltenbrunner was an unrepentant psychopath and had no use for Gerecke. There is a whole chapter in the book detailing his crimes and frankly it is as appalling as a visit to Auschwitz-Buchenwald.
Kaltenbrunner was a Nazi to the nth degree apparently without any conscience what-so-ever. In my opinion he received justice in this life (death by hanging) and would receive justice in the life to come for his lack of repentance.
–Wilhelm Keitel was head of the German Army and like Jodl a chief military advisor to Hitler and like Jodl considered to be a yes man by many other generals in the Wehrmacht.
Keitel was a bit of surprise at Nuremberg. At first he refused to admit any guilt like Jodl but at the end made no excuse for what he was responsible. Gerecke believed him to be repentant and Keitel faced the gallows with some dignity and military bearing.
–Konstantin von Neurath was minister of foreign affairs for Hitler. He received fifteen years in prison for his crimes.
Von Neurath was initially unresponsive to Gerecke but Neurath’s family thanked Gerecke for helping him “get right with God.” Neurath was one of the five Catholics so it is apparent that both Gerecke and O’Connor ministered to him at some point during the trial.
–Erich Raeder was head of the German Navy prior to Donitz. He received life imprisonment for his role as Hitler’s naval advisor up until 1943.
Raeder was skeptical about certain Christian tenets and Gerecke at first considered him an intellectual skeptic regarding Christianity but later believed Raeder was more suspicious of the American Army than he was of Christianity.
Raeder became an ardent Bible reader and one of Gerecke’s best students. Gerecke believed Raeder returned to the Lutheran faith.
Although Raeder received a life sentence he was released from prison in 1955 due to poor health.
–Joachim von Ribbentrop was another minister of foreign affairs. His sentence was death by hanging.
Von Ribbentrop was unrepentant at the start of Gerecke’s ministry. His wife was even more adamant in her opposition to Christianity. Both were ardent Nazis.
Later after reading the Bible and the Lutheran Catechism von Ribbentrop became penitent and right before the end of the trial he asked to take communion which he did indicating that Gerecke believed him to be repentant.
–Alfred Rosenberg was a racial theory ideologist and minister of the eastern occupied territories. As the minister for the eastern conquered territories he was responsible for the death of perhaps millions. His sentence was death by hanging.
Rosenberg told Gerecke he had no use for his childhood faith but added he believed in God, but not Christ.
This was a reflection of Gottglaubige or “believers in God.” Certain Nazis didn’t want to be Christians but also wanted to distinguish themselves from atheists.
Although this appears to be an odd attitude it does reflect the attitude of many within our own culture. They want to believe in “God” as they chose to define him but want nothing to do with the Christ of the Bible even though they may call themselves “Christian.”
–Fritz Sauckel was the planner of the Nazi slave labor program which killed hundreds of thousands. His was the Reich’s Labor Minister and his sentence was death by hanging.
Saukel initially pled “not guilty” and said, “I declare myself in the sense of the Indictment, before God and the world and particularly before my people, not guilty.” Saukel was considered an “old guard hard line Nazi.”
Sauckel became the first to work seriously with Gerecke. He saw himself as a person who did no wrong against God or man even though he was responsible for the slave labor that killed many.
Sauckel seemed eager to repent but Gerecke saw through it telling him, “you don’t want to go through the motions, you want to let the motions of God’s Holy Spirit go through you.”
According to Gerecke Sauckel did eventually repent crying out so loud that every guard on his floor heard him say “Gott sei mor gnadig, ein Sunder,” God, be merciful to me a sinner. Sauckel then helped with other men including Speer, Fritzsche and Schirach all of whom Gerecke believed returned to faith.
–Dr. Hjalmar Schacht was a banker and industrialist. He was acquitted.
He objected to being tried with the likes of Goering and Kaltenbrunner and because of that association believed he was unfit for communion. He told Gerecke that once he was declared a free man he would take his wife back to church and partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Gerecke did not render an opinion as to Schacht’s repentance. What is interesting to me is Schlacht’s sense of self-righteousness in being associated with “worse” sinners like Goring and Kaltenbrunner.
Schlacht played the game that many of us play by comparing ourselves to other sinners rather than comparing ourselves to the sinless Son of God.
Gerecke was asked later if the men who he thought repented did so simply because they would meet their deaths on the end of the rope.
Gerecke replied, “My only answer is that I have been a preacher for a long time and decided that [finding God] is the only way a good many folks find themselves.”
In other words, only God knows for sure the inner workings of man’s heart.
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV)
In the next installment I will work through many of the relevant Scriptures.
For further reading…
From Hitler’s Wolves to Christ’s Lambs, an article from the Gospel Coalition on Gerecke and Nuremberg.