Friday, October 6, 2017
Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend
Some wanted to exterminate them without a trial since their guilt was so obvious. But others felt a trial was important because it distinguished between revenge and punishment. Gordon Dean (press spokesperson for the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials) wrote, "The concept that guilt should be fairly ascertained is so embedded in the charters of civilized countries that we cannot afford to abandon it here simply because the guilt is great."
Based on the religious rights clause of the Geneva Convention, Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from St. Louis, was called to minister to the Germans on death row. He felt that God was the ultimate Judge and that the earthly guilt of his "congregation" was of no significance as far as he was concerned. His only duty was the care of souls. He asked God to preserve him from any prejudice against those who spiritual care had been committed to his charge. Some wondered how he could comfort these Nazis who had caused the world so much heartache? How could he minister to the leaders of a movement that had taken millions of lives? He was even criticized for shaking their hands on their first encounter. But he was operating on the principle, "If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water."
What follows is a fascinating story of 22 men during their last weeks on earth. Thirteen of them attended Gerecke's daily services. Four attended Catholic mass and five refused all spiritual counsel. Some repented and some went to their deaths declaring themselves innocent of all wrong-doing.
Although the facts behind this book were gripping, the prose was often lacking. (I have found this to be true with most WWII non-fiction.) Because the recorded spiritual conversations between Gerecke and the prisoners fill only about 6 percent of the book's 300 pages, Townsend had to put in A LOT of filler. He gives 150 pages of background (including the grades the chaplains got in college) before Gerecke actually meets his prison congregants. In Chapter 9 he meanders through his odd understanding of the Old Testament. In another chapter he writes extensively about the Lord's Supper.
Still, I'm glad I gave this book a chance. I was impressed that these men were given a fair trial in spite of the overwhelming proof of their guilt. I was touched by Gerecke's life and that he took the eternal destiny of these men seriously enough to dedicate himself to their care. Most of all I was amazed at the miracle that God did in the hearts of some of the men.
P.S. Exceptions to dry WWII non-fiction are Lauren Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Robert Edsel's The Monuments Men, Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, and anything by Ernie Pyle.)