Beyond Redemption_Part 3_Were the War Criminals Repentant?

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Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

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.

Mission at Nuremberg

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.

Some of the defendants at Nuremberg guarded by American Military Police. My father was a MP stationed in near by Cologne at the time of the trial.

Some of the defendants at Nuremberg guarded by American Military Police. My father was a MP stationed in near by Cologne at the time of the trial.

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.

Herman Goring, death by cyanide capsule.

Herman Goring, death by cyanide capsule.

–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.”

The apostle Paul considered himself to be the chief of sinners.

The apostle Paul considered himself to be the chief of sinners.

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.


Beyond Redemption? Part 2 Nuremberg

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I recently finished author Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg-An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.

Mission at Nuremberg

During the reading of the book a flood of Scripture came to my mind in the different sections of the book. Some were the Scriptures quoted in the book but many were not as I considered the man who ministered to the Nazis at Nuremberg, Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS).

The two passages that kept coming to my mind after I finished the book were Acts 2:22-24 and Acts 2:37-39.

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24 ESV)

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-39 ESV)

Both passages are in the larger context of the apostle Peter’s Pentecost sermon and both passages, speak volumes to the situation that Pastor Gerecke faced at Nuremberg when he accepted the assignment to be chaplain to men accused of waging an unjust war and for the extermination of millions. I will come back to the passages in a later post.

Here is Pastor Gercke’s background:

Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

Pastor Gerecke barely made it into the chaplain’s corps of the US Army. The age limit was 50 and Gerecke just made the cut of by a couple of weeks.

Gerecke was from Missouri, a state that had a high proportion of German immigrants. Gerecke was fluent in German a fact that contributed to him being asked to minister to the war criminals, Gercke had also been a minister to criminals within the St. Louis jail system, an experience that helped prepare him to minister to criminals of a different sort.

Prior to the war Gerecke served as a local church pastor but really did much more. It seems he always had a heart for the down and out, the type of people who seem to have been forgotten or the type of people who seemed to need the most spiritual help. To Gerecke the men on trial were in most need of spiritual help since it was almost unthinkable that any would escape the death penalty and all would face their Creator shortly.

According to Townsend Gerecke’s reputation as a pastor and evangelist was second to none and if he had any enemies Townsend does not record them.

Gerecke’s deployment took him to Great Britain where he gave excellent service at a major hospital giving comfort to the wounded and the dying but also ministering to the enormous staff that populated the base. He seemed tireless in his work and was loved and admired by  all he ministered too.

He followed the hospital unit to France and by the end of the war to Munich in the German state of Bavaria. From there he was asked to go to Nuremberg and minister to the top surviving Nazis who were incarcerated.

As we look back almost 70 years the concept of a trial for war crimes does not seem out-of-place or even unusual. The US and Great Britain have prosecuted their own soldiers for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan and when they do it’s usually big news.

The Nuremberg trials were something different at the time and unique in many ways. For the first time the major leaders, both military and civilian would be brought to trial and held to account for their crimes.

The prosecutors came from the four major powers that included the US, Great Britain, France and Soviet Russia. The inclusion of Soviet Russia in a trial about war crimes must have struck the other allies at least a bit ironic.

The judges panel at Nuremberg, 1945

The judges panel at Nuremberg, 1945

Nevertheless, led by the US and Great Britain the western allies decided the trial would not be about vengeance but instead would focus on justice. They wanted the world to remember what the Nazis did in the hopes that the world would learn and that such a government would never rise again to wreak such havoc on mankind.

In retrospect, it was naive but the allies were serious about justice and wanted to present to the world a fair trial to those who never would have done so to their enemies.

The western allies gave considerable thought to the trial as they were breaking new ground. They even considered the spiritual welfare of the war criminals some of whom were the most hated men the world has ever known!

The two men who eventually got the job of ministering to the Nazis were Pastor Gerecke for the Lutherans among the them and Catholic priest Father Sixtus O’Connor for the Catholics. Father O’Conner also spoke fluent German.

Gerecke’s  initial reaction to being asked horrified him-ministering to vile men who had caused so much death and destruction. He didn’t want to shake their hands much less have a chat over spiritual things. He asked himself how could he try to bring comfort to men who had caused so much heart ache. He recognized there was a difference in ministering to burglars in St. Louis and those accused of mass murder and waging an inhuman war.

In case you are not familiar with German war crimes this snippet from Wiki gives you an idea of the magnitude of what transpired as well as explaining Gereke’s reluctance to even meet the men responsible:

The government of Germany ordered, organized and condoned a substantial number of war crimes in both World War I and World War II. The most notable of these is the Holocaust in which millions of people were murdered or died from abuse and neglect, 60% of them (approximately 6 million out of 10 million)[citation needed] Jews. However, millions also died as a result of other German actions in those two conflicts. The true number of victims may never be known, since much of the evidence was destroyed by the perpetrators, by burning of bodies, murder of witnesses and destruction of documentation in an attempt to conceal the crimes. Wiki

Scripture is what turned Pastor Gerecke’s mind around. Luke 23:32-43 in particular ministered to Gerecke before he could minister to the Nazis.

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews. ”One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:32-43 ESV)

With this passage Gerecke realized the possibility of redemption existed for even the worst of the worst. I will deal with this passage at length in a later post.

Gerecke realized that if there was an opportunity to love the sinner and not the sin this was it and so he accepted and he became chaplain/pastor to the 15 Lutherans while O’Connor had the smaller flock of 6 Catholics.

We need to understand that the Nuremberg defendants were charged along the following lines:

1. Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace.

2. Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace.

3. War crimes

4. Crimes against humanity

The general idea was that indictments #s 1 and 2 involved the major military and civilian administrators that enabled Hitler and the Nazis which led to wars of conquest, the committing of war crimes and crimes against humanity that included but were not limited to the holocaust death camps.

In other words it was possible for a defendant to be convicted in four ways or one way or anything in between. Depending on the conviction an appropriate sentence was carried out.

Some of the defendants at Nuremberg guarded by American Military Police. My father was a MP stationed in near by Cologne at the time of the trial.

Some of the defendants at Nuremberg guarded by American Military Police. My father was a MP stationed in near by Cologne at the time of the trial.

Below is a list of the defendants, what their role in the Nazi government was and the sentence they received. They are in alphabetical order.

1. Karl Donitz-head of the German Navy after Raeder, received 10 years in prison.

2. Hans Frank-governor general of occupied Poland, death by hanging.

3. Wilhelm Frick-minister to the interior authored race laws, death by hanging.

4. Hans Fritzsche-headed the news division of the ministry of propaganda under Goebbels-acquitted.

5. Walther Funk-Hitler’s minister of economics, sentenced to life imprisonment.

6. Herman Goering-highest ranking Nazi to be tried, head of the German Air Force and was Hitler’s designated successor, Goring’s sentence was death by hanging but committed suicide the night before the execution.

7. Rudolf Hess-Hitler’s deputy fuehrer until he flew to Scotland in 1942 in a weird attempt to broker peace, received life in prison.

8. Alfred Jodl-General, Chief of Operations, death by hanging.

9. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, high-ranking SS officer who had much of the responsibility for the death camps, death by hanging.

10. Wilhelm Keitel-head of the German Army, death by hanging.

11. Gustav Krupp-industrialist, found innocent of the charges but later charged for crimes that did not merit the death penalty.

12.  Konstantin von Neurath – minister of foreign affairs, fifteen years in prison

13. Franz von Papen-diplomat, found innocent of two charges acquitted of another two, later retried for lesser offenses and went to prison for eight years.

14. Erich Raeder-head of the German Navy prior to Donitz, life imprisonment, released after ten years.

15. Joachim von Ribbentrop, minister of foreign affairs, death by hanging.

16. Alfred Rosenberg-racial theory ideologist and minister of the eastern occupied territories, death by hanging.

17. Fritz Sauckel-planner of the Nazi slave labor program, death by hanging.

18. Dr. Hjalmar Schacht-banker and industrialist, acquitted.

19. Baldur von Schirach-head of the Hitler Youth, ten years in prison.

20. Arthur Seyss-Inquart-commissioner of occupied Holland, death by hanging.

21. Albert Speer-head of armaments and Hitler’s friend, twenty years in prison.

22. Julius Streicher-publisher of anti–Jewish newspaper, death by hanging.

These men were the primary people at the Nuremberg trials and the men that Gerecke and O’Connor tried to reach.

The question becomes did any of these men repent and if so have they have been forgiven by God for their enormous crimes and are they in heaven?

For some, the idea is repulsive at face value and given the magnitude of their crimes understandable from a human point of view. A Christian however has to view the situation through the lens of Scripture regardless of how they may feel about it. Viewing the situation through Scripture is what Pastor Gerecke did and in part three of this series I will give his opinion about those he ministered too.

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