Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis is definitely going down as one of my favorite reads for 2014 and I can do nothing but highly recommend it to everyone. I accepted this title for review because I knew I wanted to read it and I was not a bit disappointed. I loved it so much I immediately purchased a copy for a friend who enjoys reading such books. I was sent an "uncorrected proof" to read in order to facilitate this review but I will be purchasing an actual hardback copy for our personal home library with the intent to re-read it someday myself and also to have my kids read it. I really loved it.
I have long been fascinated with World War II history and that is probably in no small part to the fact that my dad was fascinated by it. Our home was filled with books on the subject and I was taught to despise their philosophy which lead millions to their deaths. Hitler was a horrific monster; the horrors which he directed are hard to comprehend and/or to fathom. Despite the pain caused by even thinking about such things, I think it is important to remember - in detail - so that we can take care never to repeat their mistakes or accept their way of thinking as being anything less than vile.
The philosophy of the Nazis resulted in so much death and destruction that it could take you a lifetime to learn about and to internalize the full effect of their wickedness. Every little piece of the puzzle of who the Nazis were, what they thought, what they believed, what they did as a result of their beliefs, causes those even in this modern society - decades removed from the horror - to be driven to tears. We still think and refer to Nazis and their leaders as monsters. Their acts will go on horrifying people for centuries. It should never stop horrifying us.
Never for a moment have I considered what the Nazi leaders must have felt when going through the Nuremberg trials which sought justice for victims all across the globe. I have only ever been glad that justice was meted out. Never have I given a moment's thought towards the chaplain who would have been serving these beasts during their trial - or even wondered if there was a chaplain. When I saw Mission at Nuremberg come up on a new release list of books being published I wanted very much to ingest this particular angle of the trials and of the Nazi leaders themselves. Why? Because I am a Christian first and a human second. I care about history and the way redemption and forgiveness plays into things.
What I expected to read about was the army chaplain's experience with the Nazi prisoners during the trial. But who I met was Lutheran minister Henry Gerecke who considered it a mission work to minister to these prisoners in their final months with the purpose of bringing them back to and/or introducing them to Christ.
What sort of man would be able to shake the hands with a Nazi party leader without feeling a sense of revulsion, let alone be able to pray for them to repent? As it tuns out Gerecke himself felt nervous about the idea of doing such a thing but he also believed it was the right thing to do. Conviction helps us to do the very hardest of things.
Even killers will listen to a blood-bought Gospel. - Henry Gerecke
Gerecke firmly believed in the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that is the very reason that this book is so fascinating and emotional. Conviction lived out has the ability to convict and motivate others to do right as well.
Gerecke didn't purpose his life to minister to Nazis. Rather, he started his military journey by feeling called to sign up as an Army chaplain to be able to serve American troops. Gerecke's various assignments - and the way he responded to them - caused his name to be presented as a candidate for the chaplaincy at Nuremberg. At Nuremberg he oversaw the spiritual lives of 21 of the most hated men in the world. This book follows his journey from being a Luthern pastor in Missouri, to England, to Germany and back home again. Author Tim Townsend explores both Gerecke's life, his belief system, as well as his work both at home and abroad. Perhaps more important, Townsend begs the reader to ask the question, "Are some men so evil they are beyond redemption?"
That is an interesting question to pose and your theology will shape your answer. For my part I would say that some men are not going to be redeemed, having given themselves over to evil. This stated, I also do not believe that our job as Christians is ever over when it comes to these wicked men. Our job is always to seek after the lost and preach the Gospel to them, trusting God in the ultimate outcome. (See parable. Whether the sheep cared to be rescued is not the point. Seeking the sheep out is.) It's not my job - or yours - to haggle over whether or not the Gospel should be shared with any particular person. It's not our job to guess at God's plan for someone's life. In fact, we probably should not guess because His ideas are usually different than our own (thank goodness).
It's very tempting to think that those 21 Nazi leaders should have been locked away in a cell forever, or, as Winston Churchill would have preferred, to be instantly drug out into the streets and shot. What we really think these Nazis deserve is to experience the kind of treatment that they gave to others. The concept of extending to them a gentleman-style hand shake and the news that God forgives, redeems and transforms is a hard one to swallow. And yet, what is Jesus' example to us? See Matthew 20:1-15. No matter how wicked, no matter the length of time the wickedness lasts, no matter how horrifying, the good news exists for all and not just for the people that we have deemed to be the most deserving. This is the faith and belief of Gerecke and, I believe, it should be the faith and belief of us also.
Do you say that saving a Nazi's leader from eternal damnation is unfair of God? Pay close attention to verse 15 of Matthew 20:
God can be generous if He so chooses. Gerecke believed this; so should we.
Now this book is certainly interesting from a historical perspective but I think even more so - as a Christian - from a spiritual one. Forgiveness is a hard concept in any age. The idea of being able to forgive Hitler and his men seems rather preposterous. And then what about the person who accused us unjustly? What about the people who deliberately seem to misunderstand us and put the worst interpretation on all of our words and actions that they possibly can? What of Bill Gothard? What of Doug Phillips? What of the person who stole money from us, or the child who has rejected the family? What of the parent who ignores you when you are in desperate need of their attention? What of the lady at church who lacks tact? Sometimes our grievances are desperate and dark. It's hard for us to imagine being able to forgive the wounds received as a result of a rape, a divorce, or an unkind word. We also try very hard to argue our way around having to forgive. We say that we cannot forgive unless an apology has first been delivered and yet we forget that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins before we were even born . . . before we ever knew that we needed to apologize.
Forgiveness frequently seems unattainable . . . no matter what the action or word. And yet, for Christians, it is absolutely required.
The whole world could spit upon these 21 Nazi leaders (for starters) and be humanely justified in doing so. But thanks be to go that there are Gereckes on this earth who believe that Jesus is who He says He is. Thanks be to God that there is a cross and that the punishment for our sins and those of others have already been dealt out.
Do not misunderstand me here - we continue to sin and we will have to suffer the consequences of our actions (in the case of these Nazis, that meant imprisonment and hanging) - and that is as it should be. Justice has to be carried out. If a man's blood is shed (in this case, millions of men's blood) then the murderer must be punished appropriately. But grace, justice and mercy work effectively and properly when the Gospel is involved and Grecke's obedience to scripture allowed all three things to be in place at the same time. That is what makes this story so wondrously moving. At the 11th hour, this Gospel was preached to 21 men and it saved a few of them. They still hung for their crimes against humanity - as they ought to have! - but their eternal redemption was also secured. God's generosity was extended to a few. I do not begrudge them that.
Frequently during the reading of this book I found myself choked up. Tim Townsend cannot defend the actions of these 21 men during the war and he absolutely does not try. But what he does do, is present each man as a human being with emotions of his own. We get to know them in all of their depravity but we also meet their families and see them as loving fathers and husbands. The reader knows that justice is coming and at the same time, you begin praying (in retrospect) that they will understand Jesus is the Son of God and you want to know - as a Christian - that one day you'll meet them in Heaven. And that's an amazing thought right there because I never thought I could stand to be near a Nazi myself. Which tells me that God is bigger than I am and everyone can be glad of that.
Mission at Nuremberg is a must read for many reasons. For one, it's a very unique angle on the historic Nuremberg trials. Secondly, I would say that this belongs in a line-up of "missionary stories" for Christians to read. Gerecke is a very committed Christian who acted out his beliefs to "the least of these" at a remarkable moment in history. His mission work was directed at those whom the world had rejected and the Lord worked in the lives of those men as a result of Gerecke's obedience. Gerecke's involvement is awe-inspiring and moving and is a "don't miss" in the annals of history.
The whole world was said to have been watching this trial. The whole world should remember it still. For many reasons.
"But the strict security at Nuremberg made it impossible to assign the German army chaplains to look after the spiritual needs of Hitler's inner circle. Instead, with the world's attention turned to postwar Germany, the Allies decided that despite the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity leveled against the defendants, these men deserved spiritual succor. So the U.S. Army gave the men two of its own. This would be something new for the army chaplaincy. An experiment. (Chapter 6, Judas Window)
Thanks to Tim Townsend for taking the time to write out a thoughtful, well researched book to help modern readers remember Henry Gercke and this amazing and pivotal point in history. Many thanks to William Morrow books for first publishing this work, then sending a copy of it my direction in order to facilitate this review. I received no additional compensation for this post and all opinions on my own.
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