Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What About the Nazis?

It never takes long for any discussion about morality, evil, or the nature of man to turn into a discussion of Nazism. In fact, in today’s world, Nazism—from political rhetoric to dystopian imagery—is the favorite example of evil incarnate. Any person reflecting on these themes must explain, justify, or distinguish, the Nazis. It is a serious academic question, but for us it is only academic.

However, at the end of World War II, it was no abstract question for Henry Gerecke and Sixtus O’Connor. These two men, the former a Lutheran pastor and the latter a Catholic priest, had served as army chaplains during the war. But their most challenging assignment was after the fighting stopped. That was when they were asked to serve as personal chaplains to the highest ranking Nazi prisoners, who were awaiting trial at Nuremburg. Their story, and particularly Gerecke’s, is told in the recent book by Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplin and the Trial of the Nazis.

Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war must be provided with spiritual guidance from their own theological traditions. During the war, this had been provided by captured German chaplains. But for security reasons, such an arrangement was not appropriate for such high-ranking prisoners. It needed to be Americans. And since the Nazis who still claimed any religion were either Lutheran or Catholic, a representative of each was sent.

Both men had visited the concentration camps—O’Connor was with the soldiers who liberated one—and both were aware of the horrors the committed under these men’s orders. Both had to wrestle with the question of how to counsel, minister to, share the gospel with, and, ultimately, walk to the gallows beside and pray over, some of the most despised men in the world.

Some of the Nazi leaders were sincerely repentant. Others rejected the chaplains outright. Still others—such as top leader Hermann Goering—wanted the benefits of spiritual forgiveness without belief in Christ. Through the course of the trials and convictions, Gerecke and O’Connor had to constantly distinguish between sin and sinner in their pursuit of these very lost souls.

Townsend thoroughly researches and poignantly tells this previously little known story. He is at his strongest when describing the interactions between Gerecke and the prisoners. Yet for all the strength of the story, the book itself strays at times. Its narrative is choppy. Its weakest points are when Townsend attempts to explain some of the orthodox Christian theological ideas of sin, evil and forgiveness. He gives the impression of explaining it in a detached way, but doesn’t fully realize the depth of his own content. While he thinks he is writing deeply and criticizing profoundly, he is only wading in very shallow water.

Yet even through these weaknesses, the message of the gospel shines through in the lives of Gerecke and O’Connor. They believed that Christ came to seek and save the lost. They taught that there was forgiveness of even the darkest sins. And when placed in a situation that challenged those beliefs, they stood firm in their faith and cared for the outcast, the despised, the prisoner … the Nazi leader.

And some of those souls may very well be in heaven today because of it.

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
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