The Foxhole: Tim Townsend on the search for redemption at Nuremberg

In the voluminous recorded literature of World War II, there is only one known instance of an American housewife receiving a letter signed by all twenty-one of the Nazi war criminals tried – and many of them later hanged – at Nuremburg.

This was the letter that was received by Alma Gerecke, whose husband Henry was the U.S. Army chaplain who ministered to the dark souls arrayed in the defendants’ dock at Nuremberg. The former henchmen of Adolf Hitler learned that Gerecke was thinking of returning and St. Louis – and pleaded directly with Alma to persuade him stay.

Gerecke did stay, and his story is told in an important new contribution to the literature of the Third Reich. In "Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis" (William Morrow), author Tim Townsend, a veteran reporter and trained theologian, relates how a Lutheran minister from St. Louis in his mid-fifties became the unlikely spiritual counselor to the nominal Christians – of various denominations – who orchestrated the Nazis’ Final Solution: the nearly successful effort to exterminate European Jewry.

The book draws on previously unreleased war records from the National Archives, private letters and diaries, Townsend’s own original interviews, and the existing literature documenting the landmark war crimes trial that was conducted from November 1945 to October 1946.

With these infamous characters – among them Hermann Goering, Hitler’s longtime ally and designated successor as Fuhrer; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the notoriously brutal overseer of the concentration camp system who reported directly to Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the genocide; and Albert Speer, the charming and cultivated architect whose 1969 memoir made him a unique literary celebrity after his release from prison – Chaplain Gerecke forged deep and meaningful relationships.

Mission at Nuremburg even includes a photograph of the Goering family that the Luftwaffe chief personally inscribed for Gerecke. “Goering was interested in Christianity,” said Townsend in his visit to “The Foxhole” this week. “With Gerecke, I think they had a very frank and I think almost teacher-student conversation, for a large part of the year that they knew each other, about the fundamentals of the Christian faith. In the end, Gerecke was not successful, as he was with some of the other prisoners, in convincing Goering to kind of come back into the folds of the Church. Goering, Gerecke decided, was always going to be a gottglaubig, the German term for believing in God but not Christ.”

Townsend further relates that just hours before Goering cheated the Allied hangman – by swallowing a cyanide capsule in his cell prior to his scheduled execution – he asked Gerecke to receive communion, and the chaplain, disbelieving of Goering’s acceptance of Christ, refused to give the sacrament.

Click here to watch the entire episode of The Foxhole with guest Tim Townsend.