Reading the Nuremberg Trials on Holy Saturday

Staying home has also meant having more time to read. With time at hand, I picked up a book that had been sitting on my shelf for some time – Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg. I’m only about halfway through the book but it has been so challenging to read. Challenging because I find myself confronted with who I am and how little I understand forgiveness and grace.

Mission at Nuremberg tells the story of how an American chaplain was sent to minister to the worst of war criminals. With the progressive defeat of the Axis powers, Hitler had taken his life knowing that the Third Reich which he set up was crumbling apart. While Hitler may have gotten away easy, his comrades didn’t. A number were caught and had to be trialled in what we know call the Nuremberg Trials. Some of the war criminals caught were high ranking officials with the highest being Hermann Göring, the Reichmarshall of Nazi Germany. Under these war criminals, the number of people who died was just horrifying. When Robert Jackson the chief prosecutor during the trial got up to speak, he said:

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive being repeated.”[1]

How bad was it?

According to Jackson, 33,771 Jews had been killed within a two day period near Kiev and another 56,065 Jews at Warsaw.[2] On top of these killings, prisoners were also frozen and rewarmed using animal heat. “The victim, all but frozen to death was surrounded by bodies of living women until he revived and responded to his environment by having sexual intercourse.”[3]

It was to people who masterminded such monstrosity that a chaplain by the name of Henry Gerecke had to minister to. Yet on the day of the trial, one by one, each of the defendant came forward to plead not guilty. Fritz Sauckel, the labour minister of the Reich even had the nerve to say “I declare myself in the sense of the Indictment, before God and the world and particularly before my people, not guilty.”[4] This was the same man who in a letter to Alfred Rosenberg, the head of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, “demanded “the ruthless application of all measures” to acquire two million Russian workers”.[5]  The reply received was that “‘Recruiting’ methods were used which probably have their precedent only in the blackest periods of the slave trade. A regular manhunt was inaugurated.”[6] By the time the war ended, 1.2 million POWs in forced labour had died.

How does one minister to a person like that? Any normal person reading this cannot help but feel utterly horrified. What more having to meet someone like that in person to minister to them. Yet as Townsend’s account tells us, Gerecke did just that. He went and ministered to the people there. Initially he was met with some hostility. A number had refused to attend chapel but over time, Townsend tells us that people started to respond. Sauckel who expressed interest in attending chapel right from the start even asked about communion. Gerecke being a Lutheran was of course hesitant. “Mr Sauckel, you don’t want to go through the motions. You want to let the motions of God’s Holy Spirit go through you.”[7] I suppose that must have been Gerecke’s way of saying “I need you to take time and actually repent before taking the Lord’s Supper.”

But over the course of his chaplaincy, Gerecke saw a change of heart and the following account is probably what confronts me the most:

“Each time the chaplain visited, the two men (Gerecke and Sauckel) ended their time in prayer, kneeling on the floor by the cot. Many times, Sauckel asked for God’s mercy and wiped away tears as he called himself a sinner. Sauckel would take his Bible study seriously during the months of the trial, often brining the catechism to court with him to read during sessions.

Eventually after one Sunday church service, Sauckel asked Gerecke if he could take Communion. “All right, Mr. Sauckel,” Gerecke told him. “I’ll be down to see you.” When Gerecke arrived, Sauckel was on his knees, praying on the cement floor of his cell.

Gerecke entered the cell and prepared the Communion kit against the wall. Sauckel got off his knees, threw his hands in the air and cried out so loudly that every guard on the floor came rushing to Sauckel’s cell. “Gott sei mir gnädig, ein Sünder!” Sauckel yelled. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

“I believe he meant every word of it,” Gerecke said later. “He virtually crawled to the communion kit and partook of the Lord’s Supper. The first one to come back!”[8]

Reading this made me doubtful. Maybe Sauckel only did it because he was hoping to get a more lenient sentence? How is it possible that someone like Sauckel can just confess and be forgiven? Maybe Gerecke penned this down because he didn’t want his ministry to be a case of no converts. If none of the prisoners converted, it would look quite bad on him wouldn’t it?

True enough, on the day Sauckel got hanged, he screamed “I’m dying an innocent man!”

KNEW IT! I felt quite relieved that my hypothesis was probably right. Perhaps he did have an agenda when he cried out to God for mercy.

But then I paused and felt disturbed about how relieved I was. Was it because deep down, I believed that such people were so much worse than me that they were beyond the point of true repentance? By extension, was it because I believed that unlike these people, I probably had more merits to deserve God’s forgiveness?

As I reflect on the Nuremberg Trials this Holy Saturday, I come to a reminder of my own attitude toward’s God’s grace. Easy it is to verbally say that none of us deserve grace. Even easier if you went through Sunday school. Yet our human experience, incurvatus in se, reveals to us that deep down, we haven’t quite appreciated the generosity of our God who took on flesh.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all – Titus 2:11

 

[1] Robert H. Jackson, “Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal,” Robert H. Jackson Center, 1945, accessed April 11, 2020, https://www.roberthjackson.org/speech-and-writing/opening-statement-before-the-international-military-tribunal/.

[2] Tim Townsend, Mission At Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain And The Trial Of The Nazis. (William Morrow, 2015), 157.

[3] Jackson, “Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal.”

[4] Townsend, Mission At Nuremberg, 155.

[5] Ibid., 172.

[6] Eugene Davidson, The Trial of the Germans: An Account of the Twenty-Two Defendants before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, 1st University of Missouri Press pbk. ed. (Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 512.

[7] Townsend, Mission At Nuremberg, 174.

[8] Ibid.


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