Cover Story

Books of the Year

"Books of the Year" Continued...

Issue: "2014 Books Issue," June 28, 2014

(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from How to Talk to a Skeptic.)

HISTORY

WINNER:
Mission at Nuremberg
by Tim Townsend
RUNNERS-UP:
The Great Debate
by Yuval Levin
A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, Vol. II
by Larry Schweikart & Dave Dougherty

WE KNOW THAT the just shall live by faith, but what about the radically unjust who gain faith at nearly the last moment of their lives? Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (William Morrow) implicitly takes on that question, and through gripping narrative suggests an answer that’s basic to Christianity. That’s why it’s WORLD’s history Book of the Year.

Tim Townsend
William Morrow
Tim Townsend
Townsend’s thorough research brings us the story of Henry Gerecke, a German-speaking American Lutheran pastor who took on the task of ministering to the worst of sinners—21 Nazi leaders including Hermann Georing, Albert Speer, and Joachim von Ribbentrop—because he did not see them as beyond redemption. This conviction stemmed from Gerecke’s lifelong calling to reach not the rich and famous but the poor and infamous: the unemployed of the Depression, death row inmates in Illinois, and war criminals at Nuremberg. 

Townsend keeps the central narrative moving but also refers to Simon Wiesenthal’s famous story, “The Sunflower,” in which Wiesenthal refuses to forgive an SS officer for his role in the massacre of the inhabitants of a Jewish town. Some critics contrast that refusal with a Christian willingness to forgive, but Gerecke knew that his task was neither to forgive nor to condemn.  His role as he saw it was to help the Nazis understand the evil they had done; the rest was up to God. 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?

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. —M.O.

(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Mission at Nuremberg. And listen to an interview with Tim Townsend that aired on The World and Everything in It.)

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA equates “government” with “community” and castigates Republicans for dog-eat-dog individualism, he’s continuing (and twisting) a political discussion that began with two great champions of liberty, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin (Basic Books), exposes the roots of ideologies that remain with us today.

Paine’s fundamental presupposition was that the basic unit of society is the sovereign individual, equal to all other sovereign individuals, who has the power to remake himself with every generation. Burke saw individuals in context, shaped by class, family, nation, and religion, with obligations to each. Men and societies could change, according to Burke, but never without due consideration of their context. The journalistic salvos between these two exposed the core of political thought for the next 300 years: “what makes a government legitimate, what the individual’s place is in the larger society, and how each generation should think about those who came before and those who will come after.” 

Levin explores the 18th-century dialectic between Nature and History, Choice and Obligation, and other dilemmas in learned (sometimes dry) prose. The reader is allowed to draw his own conclusions, but thoughtful 21st-century observers will find plenty of modern parallels. —J.B.C.

THE TITLE OF Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty’s A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, Vol. II (Sentinel) tips us a clue: This history from 1945-2012 leans toward a conservative view that sees the United States as exceptional. Four reasons, introduced in the first volume, are expanded here: “a Christian (mostly Protestant) religious foundation, free enterprise, common law, and private property with titles and deeds.” Sadly, these pillars are decaying. The narrative covers events all over the world, not just the United States, but as the unchallenged leader of the free world after Europe lay in ruins, the USA carried a weight and authority far beyond its considerable geographical size.

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, a good history is hard to find. In the vast middle ground between Howard Zinn and Lyndon LaRouche lies as many interpretations of history as there are historians, but Schweikart and Dougherty strike a reasonable balance between honest evaluation and traditional values. Since “Modern” is defined in decades rather than centuries, 583 pages (plus notes) is sufficient for due consideration of such events as the Korean War, the Berlin Wall (rise and fall), and the strengths as well as weaknesses of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. —J.B.C.

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