Seventeen months after the end of World War II, what came to be known as the “trial of the century” convened in the historic German city of Nuremberg. There before a military jury of some of the Allies’ most carefully selected legal “Brains”, a group of Nazi Germany’s most infamous surviving wartime leaders assembled behind the dock of room number 600 in that city’s Hall of Justice.
There were 21 Nazis accused of having committed “crimes against humanity”; crimes of such an enormity that there was no other legal term in common use with which to describe them. Together these prisoners-of-war had presided over a political system and war machine which had set as its goal to rid the world of an entire racial group guilty only of having been born with the “wrong” genealogy, national origin, “deviant persuasion”, or political party, including Jews, Christians and other “Non-Aryans”.
To place Nuremberg in proper perspective it should be pointed out that there had been or would be a total of 1676 other Nazis tried in 462 other trials; with death sentences passed on 36 for Dachau alone.
With Herman Goering perhaps seen as having the “starring role”, the men held in these 13 by 6.5-foot cells under the 24-hour observation of highly-trained military police guards of the U.S. Army’s 6850th Internal Security Detachment were in a league apart. They were largely the decision-makers who either authored or supervised the execution of the orders and policies which brought about the so-called “final solution” and the murder of millions.
It was not unusual to provide religious counselors for military prisoners, and ordinarily civilian pastors from the surrounding German communities would be recruited. But once again, the Nuremberg situation was unique because of the requirement of “absolute security” especially in view of a well-grounded fear of outside aid in carrying out suicides
At the center of today’s story is a 50-year old military chaplain named Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from Missouri whose sense of patriotism led him away from a devoted pastorate of under-privileged and overlooked members of society, and into the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, at the same time as his two older sons were also serving in Europe. Having grown up in a home where German was spoken, Gerecke was a perfect fit for the job General Eisenhower had in mind, and he was soon on his way to Nuremberg to minister to the 21 prisoners and many of the 200 witnesses, most of whom were of Lutheran background. Together with Fr. Richard O’Connor, a Franciscan who would labor with the several Catholic inmates, the two would be the only individuals to have total and confidential contact with those charged with the world’s most heinous crimes for the year leading up to the executions; it would be the first time in history America had ever provided such a service for its enemies.
What makes this story so notable is the unusual rapport which developed between an “old school” Doctor of Divinity steeped in the Christian ethic of repentance and forgiveness and a congregation of men heavy with unimaginable guilt who knew already they were going to be executed. And that very realization shook Hank Gerecke to the depths of his soul. Gerecke however was a man possessed of a rare level of love for his fellow humans, and within a short period of time, he managed to penetrate the defensive shell erected over a lifetime by most of these reluctant “parishioners”. His fellowship with Goering led to tearful baptism and eventual communion eligibility. (Goering though managed to commit suicide to save his beloved family from the ignominy of the hangman’s noose.) Gerecke continued to minister to each of his charges right up to the instant of execution, and to their families long afterward.At one point, the U.S. Commander at Nuremberg was about to accede to the demands of Mrs. Gerecke to release her husband to return home after three years of painful absence. When the prisoners got wind of it they drafted a letter of appeal bearing the signatures of all 21 which changed her mind; an unprecedented expression of the extent to which the love of one devoted man of God had touched the hearts of men – most of whom – would die within a span of 90 minutes on a rainy October day in 1946
In a much-publicized photo of the time, Nazi leaders being tried for “crimes against humanity” sit in their assigned places behind the dock in Nuremberg’s Hall of Justice. The first person wearing headphones on the left is Herman Goering, seen as the most senior of the 21. To his immediate left is the hapless Rudolph Hess. Number five in that row is Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a man so brutal and sadistic that even Himmler – his boss – feared him. All but four of these Nazis would meet the hangman’s noose. U.S. Army Photo.