The Amazing Story of U.S. Army Chaplains Who Ministered to Nazi Leaders at the Nuremberg Trials 70 Years Ago Today

Should anyone who commits evil on a massive scale be offered a path to forgiveness?

The trial’s organizers knew that if they were going to try Nazi leaders as the world watched, they also had to follow the Geneva Conventions. Article 16 says that “ministers of religion, who are prisoners of war, whatever may be their denomination, shall be allowed freely to minister to their co-religionists.”

 

Should anyone who commits evil on a massive scale be offered a path to forgiveness?

In the months before the opening of the International Military Tribunal — which took place 70 years ago Friday — the people who were devising the Nuremberg Trials had to contend with those questions.

Holding Nazi leaders accountable for World War II was an experiment. At the time, there was no legal precedent for framing criminal charges against the perpetrators of a war of aggression. Never before had the international community held a state’s major leaders accused, or convicted them of crimes against humanity.

The Trial of the Major War Criminals was, in the words of one of its American prosecutors, “a benchmark in international law and the lodestar of thought and debate on the great moral and legal questions of war and peace.”

Existing within the larger Nuremberg experiment was another improvisation — a historical asterisk to the spectacle of the trial itself, an exploration of how good confronts radical evil. And at its center was a farm kid from Missouri.

The trial’s organizers knew that if they were going to try Nazi leaders as the world watched, they also had to follow the Geneva Conventions. Article 16 says that “ministers of religion, who are prisoners of war, whatever may be their denomination, shall be allowed freely to minister to their co-religionists.”

But Nuremberg was not the average POW camp, and the Allies didn’t trust Wehrmacht chaplains to counsel Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and 18 others during the trial. So they brought in two of their own instead: Chaplains Henry Gerecke of St. Louis and Sixtus O’Connor of Oxford, N.Y.

For the first time in history, U.S. Army chaplains would minister to the enemy.

Gerecke’s two eldest sons were already in uniform in 1943 when he volunteered for the chaplaincy. During the Depression, Gerecke had directed the St. Louis Lutheran City Mission, traveling the metropolis, ministering to those on the streets, in hospitals and in city jails. When he joined the chaplain corps he was 50 years old.

The Army assigned Gerecke to the 98th General Hospital, which took over a bombed-out hospital in Munich when the war was over. He was assigned to the Nuremberg prison after its commandant heard about a Lutheran chaplain nearby who could speak German and who had ministered to men in jail.

The Rev. Sixtus O’Connor had been a chaplain with the 11th Armored Division, known as the Thunderbolt, during the war. The division helped liberate Mauthausen concentration camp, outside Hitler’s hometown of Linz, where nearly 100,000 people were murdered.

Read More



×

2017 Matching Funds Campaign: $2575 raised of $7000 goal. Donate now!