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Pastor at Nuremberg
The U.S. Army chaplain had a new assignment, providing spiritual comfort to Hitler’s inner circle
The Nazi prisoners barely recognized Nuremberg when they arrived in the city in the late summer and early fall of 1945. Albert Speer, an architect who had designed many of Nuremberg’s Nazi edifices, could only guess at where the streets had been. “As we moved farther into the center of the city, I grew increasingly confused, for I could no longer get my bearings in this gigantic rubble heap,” Speer wrote later. “There, in the midst of all this destruction, as though spared by a miracle, stood the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. How often I had driven past it in Hitler’s car. Trite though the idea may be, I cannot help thinking there was a deeper meaning to the fact that this building remained undamaged.”
Outside the Palace of Justice, five U.S. M24 tanks armed with 75-millimeter guns surrounded the courthouse. Anyone coming in required documentation; even the judges of the International Military Tribunal often needed to flash their papers multiple times as they moved about the grounds. U.S. Army Colonel Burton Andrus, commandant of the complex’s prison, was the only person allowed to carry a firearm in the building. Guards inside the prison were allowed only billy clubs, which they made from mop handles and painted white.
The Palace of Justice contained 530 offices and 80 courtrooms, all mostly spared by the bombing. The U.S. Army spent $6 million—about $75 million today—renovating Courtroom 600, where the 21 so-called major Nazi defendants, among them Nazi Party leader Rudolf Hess, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Speer himself as the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, would be tried, in a section of the complex set back several hundred yards from Furtherstrasse, the main street Speer and Hitler had previously driven down.
Before the Trial of the Major War Criminals, as the hearings were collectively and formally called, GIs removed courtroom walls, creating an additional visitors’ gallery as well as room for the world’s press. To accommodate filming, they took out chandeliers and substituted floodlights, blacked out windows, and cut holes in the wooden walls to permit better camera angles.
The prison, which adjoined the courthouse, had been constructed in 1868 according to a four-spoked, half-wagon-wheel design. The Army had built a long, wooden covered walkway leading from it to an elevator that deposited prisoners directly into the defendants’ dock in Courtroom 600. The prison’s four wings were divided into three tiers that each held 99 cells. The wings radiated out from a central rotunda, where a guard sitting in a central wooden nest high above the main floor of the prison could control entry and exit to each wing. Two of the prison’s wings held civilian prisoners. The other two held Andrus’s charges—the defendants and the witnesses (whose own trials loomed) called to testify in the major trial. The major Nazi defendants were held on the ground floor of Wing Four, the spoke closest to Courtroom 600.
When the prison had opened in the 19th century, it was the most modern in Europe; it represented a new concept in resocialization that gave each prisoner his own cell, rather than placing prisoners together in community cells. The prison could be run by five guards, one in each of the four wings and one in the central hub. Its structure mimicked Philadelphia’s Cherry Hill Prison (later renamed Eastern State Penitentiary), which was based on a correctional theory known as the Pennsylvania system. The theory held that criminals were products of their environments, and that a setting of solitude would make a prisoner regretful and penitent.
Each cell measured 13 feet by six and a half feet. Opposite the wooden door, a window of unbreakable opaque glass opened only halfway to the outside world. The ceiling was slightly concave, giving it a vaulted look, and the floor was made of flagstone. The only objects in the cell not visible from the thick door’s one-foot-square peephole were a seatless toilet and tin washbasin.
Opposite the peephole was a steel cot, fastened to the wall, with a thin straw mattress and two gray army blankets, as well as a table and a chair. The chair was removed at night, and Andrus had ordered that the table be so rickety that it would collapse under any strain. The commandant didn’t want any Nazi suicides under his watch. For the same reason, Andrus ordered ties, shoelaces, belts, and nail files to be taken from the prisoners.
Yet, despite the colonel’s careful efforts, two men managed to commit suicide before the trials began: Leonardo Conti, Hitler’s health minister, who took part in the Nazi’s eugenics euthanasia program called Aktion T4, and Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front. Both found ways to strangle themselves with their towels, during October 1945.
Until the suicides, there had been one guard for every four cells, which meant a check on each cell every 30 seconds. After Ley’s death, Andrus required a guard for every prisoner, meaning constant observation of each for the rest of his time at Nuremberg.
Andrus had a German POW doctor and an American doctor check the prisoners’ health in the midmorning or afternoon each day. The prisoners also received frequent visits from the U.S. Army psychiatrist Dr. Douglas Kelley (and later Dr. Leon Goldensohn) or the U.S. Army psychologist Dr. Gustave Gilbert. After a shave, the prisoners were allowed their 20-minute walks in a small 140-by-100-foot exercise yard, where they were supposed to remain in a single file (but often did not). A guard wielding a billy club followed eight paces behind while others with machine guns stood sentinel on the walls and in the towers to protect the facility from any external threat.
Much of the prisoners’ time early on was taken up by U.S. Army interrogations, visits with their attorneys in Room 57, where they prepared legal defenses, or in discussions with the chaplains.
The Americans had drawn up a list of 100 candidates for a major trial, but the British wanted around a dozen defendants. At one point, the British even suggested that in the absence of Hitler—who had killed himself in April—Hermann Göring, who had served as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, director of Hitler’s four year economic plan in advance of war, and Reichstag president, should stand trial as Nazism’s lone representative.
A compromise between the two allies put the final number of major war criminals to be tried at 22, which was reduced after Robert Ley committed suicide (Conti died before the list was made). Some of the defendants would represent entire factions of the Nazi machinery, making for a dubious legal proposition. Hans Fritzsche, for instance, would represent the Third Reich’s propaganda ministry in the absence of its chief, Joseph Goebbels, who had killed his wife, his six children, and himself in Hitler’s Berlin bunker the day after the Führer’s suicide. Walter Funk would represent Hitler’s economic apparatus. Wilhelm Keitel would represent the German army, the Wehrmacht.
The United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union would each seat one judge and one alternate on the tribunal. Each country would also staff a prosecution team to argue the cases against the defendants and Nazi organizations.
Those organizing the tribunal knew that if they were going to try some of the world’s most notorious men for war crimes, they had to follow the Geneva Convention. Article 16 of the convention’s regulations regards the “Treatment of Prisoners of War” and states that prisoners of war are permitted “complete freedom in the performance of their religious duties, including attendance at the services of their faith.” Religion was something the Allies had to contend with—supplying the architects of the Holocaust with spiritual comfort while documenting to the world the murder of six million Jews.
In the prison, a small chapel was created for Hitler’s top lieutenants by knocking down a wall between two cells. There, a pair of candlesticks and some hymnbooks rested on an improvised altar covered by a white cloth. Above the altar, a small crucifix hung on the wall. A couple of wooden benches served as pews, and a U.S. Army chaplain’s kit organ sat in the corner (it would be played during services by a former lieutenant colonel of the SS).
Before the Nuremberg trial, there is no record of an American military chaplain being assigned to provide religious support to the enemy. Throughout history, captured clerics typically ministered to their own flocks in the prisoner of war camps where they too were prisoners. But the strict security at Nuremberg made it impossible to assign German army chaplains to look after the spiritual needs of Hitler’s inner circle. So the U.S. Army gave the men two of its own. This would be something new for the Army chaplaincy. An experiment.
The trial had not yet begun when Chaplain Henry Gerecke, a captain in the U.S. Army, arrived in Nuremberg on November 15, 1945, to join the 6850th Internal Security Detachment—Andrus’s Nuremberg prison unit. Gerecke (rhymes with “Cherokee”) was a stocky man with glasses, receding gray hair, and a doughy face. He was 50 years old, a Lutheran preacher from St. Louis. He’d learned German from his mother, a native of Hanover, and he had also studied the language in a college ministerial program for the Lutheran Church. He had experience in prison ministry, at the city jail, the Missouri State Penitentiary, and a prison in St. Louis.
Gerecke was nervous when he arrived at Andrus’s office at the Palace of Justice. Through the door, he could hear the colonel chewing out one of his underlings. A corporal walked out, head hung low, before Andrus saw Gerecke. “It’s about time you got here,” Andrus said to Gerecke. “I sure need a chaplain.”
You sure do, Gerecke thought.
At the Nuremberg prison, Andrus had already recruited two other chaplains—Fr. Sixtus O’Connor, a Catholic priest from New York, and a 28-year-old Lutheran chaplain named Carl Eggers. The two men ministered to the Nazis for several weeks, but the senior Nazis were mostly middle-aged, and they refused to be counseled by a junior officer of Eggers’s age.
“You’re going to find another chaplain downstairs,” Andrus told Gerecke as the commandant led him out of his office after that first meeting. “He’ll be your assistant.”
In the small chaplain’s office, Eggers and O’Connor filled in Gerecke on the particulars of each of the 21 major prisoners. Eventually, 13 of them would attend the Lutheran services. Four others would attend O’Connor’s Catholic Masses, and four refused all spiritual counsel. Gerecke and O’Connor would develop a grim joke about the prisoners’ religious backgrounds. “At least we Catholics are responsible for only six of these criminals,” O’Connor would say. “You Lutherans have 15 chalked up against you.”
After their introductions, Eggers led Gerecke to the cells on the ground floor of the prison. They stopped first at the cell of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy who had flown a secret solo mission to Scotland during the war in an effort to broker a peace agreement between Germany and the United Kingdom. Most of the attorneys and judges at Nuremberg were sure that Hess was mentally unstable, but the tribunal had decided to go through with his trial.
Gerecke was nervous as they approached Hess’s cell door. “How could I say the right thing, and say it in German?” he thought. When they entered, Hess, who was six-foot-three, stood up from his bunk, towering over Gerecke.
“This is Chaplain Gerecke, who will be on duty here from now on,” Eggers told Hess. “He will conduct services and be available for counsel if you wish to have him.”
Gerecke offered the Nazi his hand, and Hess took it.
Later, when he told his story in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, he would be severely criticized for shaking hands with the defendants. It wasn’t an easy gesture for the chaplain to make. Yet he wrote later that he had offered his hand “in order that the Gospel be not hindered by any wrong approach I may make. . . . I knew I could never win any of them to my way of thinking unless they liked me first.”
“Furthermore,” he continued, “I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father. I recalled too that God loves sinners like me. These men must be told about the Saviour bleeding, suffering and dying on the Cross for them.” He tried to leave Hess with a copy of St. John’s Gospel and a folder of other Christian materials, but Hess refused to take them, saying it would appear as if he was accepting the material only because he was facing trial, and he did not want to look weak.
After backing out of the cell, Gerecke paced up and down the corridor, waiting for Eggers to return. The guards stared. Finally, it dawned on him that Eggers wasn’t coming back and that he could either retreat or forge ahead.
As he approached the next cell he realized it belonged to Hermann Göring, the Nazi he most dreaded to meet.
“You want in now, Chappie?” Göring’s guard asked.
“Yes, but don’t push!” Gerecke said. He watched Göring through the large peephole for a minute before going in. Hitler’s number two was reading a book and smoking his meerschaum pipe. Gerecke entered the cell, and Göring shot up, clicking his heels to attention. When Gerecke greeted Göring in German, Göring bowed. They shook hands.
“I heard you were coming, and I’m glad to see you,” Göring said. He offered Gerecke his only chair. “Will you come in and spend some time with me?”
As the minister sat in Göring’s cell, the former reichsmarshal unloaded a considerable amount of charm on him. He spoke quickly and politely, asking about Gerecke’s family and promising to come to chapel services.
Gerecke was a natural listener, but he also knew Göring was doing everything in his power to impress him. From that moment, Göring only called Gerecke “Pastor,” never “Chaplain.”
“What did Mr. Hess say about coming to chapel?” Göring asked.
Gerecke told him that Hess has declined his invitation.
“That’s too bad,” Göring said. “I’ll tell you, Pastor, I’m going to do this for you. I’m going to try to persuade Mr. Hess to come to chapel.” Later in the day, during one of the prisoners’ exercise walks, Gerecke listened from a window above the courtyard as Göring did as he had promised.
“Listen, Herr Hess. Since the Führer is dead, it might do us both good if we were both seen in chapel services,” Göring said.
“I have no intention of going to chapel!” Hess replied.
The next time Göring saw Gerecke, he apologized for his failure to persuade Hess to come to chapel. Göring, on the other hand, never missed a service.
Tim Townsend ’91 is a senior writer and editor with the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. Formerly the St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter, he was named religion reporter of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association in 2005, 2011, and 2013. This essay is drawn and adapted from his book Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (copyright © 2014 by Tim Townsend) by arrangement with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.