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William Morrow

A Nazi murderer can go to heaven

2014 Books Issue | An excerpt from WORLD’s history Book of the Year

This year, WORLD selected a Book of the Year in three categories: popular theology, history, and analysis. The winning history book is Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend (William Morrow).

In this gripping narrative, Townsend tells us the story of Henry Gerecke, a German-speaking Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod pastor who ministered to high-level Nazi leaders during their trial in Nuremberg for hideous war crimes committed during World War II.

“His role as he saw it was to help the Nazis understand the evil they had done; the rest was up to God,” writes Marvin Olasky in WORLD’s annual Books Issue. “The criminal on a cross next to Christ made it to heaven, because Jesus said so, but who could absolve someone who has killed six people, or six hundred, or six million?”

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Olasky points out that Gerecke knew the biblical answer: “A Nazi murderer who comes to believe in Christ and rests on Him alone for salvation can go to heaven. That’s hard for some to accept. That’s one reason this book is so useful.”

The following is an excerpt from WORLD’s history Book of the Year. —Mickey McLean

Chapter 1: Death by Hanging

There had been men who had thought they could make a pet of cruelty, and the grown beast had flayed them. —Rebecca West

WILHELM KEITEL HAD BEEN general field marshal, second only to Adolf Hitler in Germany’s military hierarchy. Now on a cold, rainy October morning, at 1:00 a.m. in 1946, he stood, shackled to a guard, outside cell 8 of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. In half an hour, Keitel would be hanging by his neck from a rope, his hands tied behind his back with a leather bootlace, a black hood over his head. Outside the prison, no moon marked the sky above the destroyed city of Nuremberg.

The prison’s commandant, U.S. Army colonel Burton Andrus, spoke loudly, with both custom and history in mind. His voice was high pitched but authoritative, and it echoed off the prison’s dull stone walls and traveled up the metal staircases, past the mesh wiring that had been strung across the three tiers of cells to prevent suicides. It traveled past a small chapel that had been created by knocking down the wall between two cells.

Andrus felt the weight of the moment, but he didn’t relish it. He walked along the cell block on the first level, stopping at each prisoner’s cell and repeating his sentence. The men had heard the same words two weeks earlier when the justices of the International Military Tribunal read the verdicts and sentences aloud in court.

The colonel was simply going through with a formality—required by the army’s standard operating procedure and the Geneva Convention. The men in these cells were the former elite of the Third Reich, but they had long since been stripped of any military rank or privilege. In Nuremberg’s prison, they were treated by most as persons without status.

The other major war criminals—those who had avoided the tribunal’s supreme penalty and had been moved to the prison’s second tier—could hear the details of each sentence as Andrus stopped at the cells. So could those on the third tier, the lesser Nazi criminals, used as witnesses by prosecution attorneys for testimony that had convicted the men below.

Andrus’s strict adherence to by-the-book army rules and regulations had become something of a joke among the courtroom lawyers, and a headache to the twenty-one Nazis in his care during the yearlong trial. Before being assigned to Nuremberg, Andrus had served under General George Patton. He idolized Patton and tried to emulate him. He once wrote to a friend, “I will go anywhere with Georgie, anytime, for any purpose.”

This morning Andrus was dressed, as he always was, in his green, four-pocket uniform tunic with brass buttons imprinted with the United States coat of arms—an eagle carrying thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. The colonel wore a burnished steel olive-drab helmet and carried a riding crop tucked under his arm.

Andrus was anxious and annoyed as he eyed Keitel. This was the date the tribunal had set for the executions, and while the prisoners didn’t know it officially, most of them had guessed these were their final hours. Earlier in the night, Hermann Goering, Germany’s former reichsmarshal, Hitler’s designated successor and the former head of Germany’s air force, had killed himself by swallowing cyanide, cheating justice and outfoxing Andrus, who had vowed that his prison would be suicide-free. The commotion that followed Goering’s death had woken the other prisoners. At 12:45 a.m., they were told to dress and were given their last meal: sausage, potato salad, cold cuts, black bread, and tea.

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