Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Powerful message of redemption involving Nazi war criminals.

A Lutheran pastor from a small town in Missouri served as the confessor to several Nazi war criminals on trial at the Nuremberg war trials.  Here are powerful stories of redemption and forgiveness.  They remind me of criminal on the on the cross with Jesus.  At the last minute some are repentant while others are not.

Here's his background.
Visiting condemned men in their cells was nothing new to Henry Gerecke.
Much of his early career was devoted to working in prisons. However, the men he went to see in their cells at Nuremberg, 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 each of 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. In that year he acted as spiritual advisor and chaplain to Nazis on trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. His own accounts, written soon after the event while memory was fresh, survive in American archives. From these primary sources the following story is compiled. He never asked to be believed. He simply outlined his experiences.

Henry F. Gerecke was born in August 1893, the child of a farmer and his wife living at Gordonville, Missouri, USA. The family was bilingual. Young Henry spoke as much German as English in his early years. 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 the 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.

...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 assigned to the 6,850th Internal Security Detachment at Nuremberg. Why? To serve as spiritual advisor 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.’ He prayed for guidance. ‘Slowly the men at Nuremberg became to me just lost souls whom I was being asked to help.’ 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; secondly, he had extensive experience in prison ministry and, lastly, he was a Lutheran Protestant. Fifteen of the twenty-one Nazis on trial identified themselves as ‘Protestant’. 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’....

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 his spiritual motives.
 His encounter with Rudolf Hess.
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 defence,’ answered Hess. ‘If I have any praying to do, I’ll do it here.’

Gerecke left, knowing that he had accomplished nothing.
 Herman Goering
The next cell contained the highest-ranking Nazi on trial, fifty-two year old former Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. With a range of powers given to him by Hitler, he had been an agent of death, clearly guilty on 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.’

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. 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.
 Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, overall army commander.
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 phoney,’ thought Gerecke.

They talked, Yes he would come to chapel. Would the chaplain join his devotions now? ‘This I wanted to see,’ thought Gerecke.

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.
Fritz Sauckel, head of slave labor
The next cell contained fifty-one-year-old Fritz Sauckel. Once Head of Labour Supply, he was, according to the Chief Justice Jackson, ‘the greatest and cruellest slaver since the pharaohs of Egypt.’ He worked millions of slave labourers 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....
Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister
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 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.’ In spite of this, he became a regular in the chapel.
Banker Walther Funk
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.
 Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments
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’.
Conversion experiences
At the end of the service Sauckel asked to see Gerecke in his cell. 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 phoney reformations at the eleventh hour.’

As Christmas 1945 approached, Gerecke noticed a change in the spiritual attitudes of Fritzsche, 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.’ They walked out, leaving Gerecke alone with his five communicants.

Gerecke wrote later, ‘I am very slow about ministering 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.

Keitel 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.”’

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 sceptic. 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.
The response of many were not to kind to his efforts.
"...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’.

The Christian concepts of grace and mercy have always been opposed, not only by the liberal intelligentsia and those with no spiritual interests, but also by a cross-section of most societies...
They naturally and properly experienced temporal justice.  But they  experienced the far more important eternal mercy of God through Christ's sacrifice.  Which is available to all of us sinners in need of  savior.

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