Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Cross and the Swastika

While in Germany last summer, we set out on an adventure to visit the Nuremberg courthouse where the Nazi war criminals were tried. Unfortunately, we got lost in the city and by the time we found our bearings realized the museum had already closed. So we settled for some Turkish food (why is there so much Turkish food in Germany?) and headed back out on the road for our final destination of Prague, Czech Republic, one of the most amazing places I have ever been.

When I returned home, I noticed a book in our church library titled The Cross and the Swastika by Frederick Grossmith. What an odd title - what do the Cross and the Swastika have in common? Grossmith tells the story of the Nuremberg trial from the perspective of the chaplain. It's hard to imagine that anyone had the foresight to consider that these monsters could use a chaplain, but they did.

This story sheds new light on the word "grace" for me. This chaplain, Henry Gerecke, though internally disgusted with the men that committed such crimes, was 100% committed to serving them and proclaiming the gospel to them as long as the Lord would allow. This was no easy decision for him: his own family had been touched by the crimes of the Nazis. He recounts:

"I had plenty of excuses for bitterness toward them. I had been at the Dachau Concentration Camp, where my hand, touching a wall, had been smeared with the human blood seeping through. In England for 15 months I had ministered to the wounded and dying from the front lines. My eldest son had been literally ripped apaprt in the fighting. The second suffered severely in the Battle of the Bulge."

But he was able to come to grips with the gravity of his situation, "Slowly the men in Nuremberg became to me just lost souls, whom I was being asked to help. If, as never before, I could hate the sin, but love the sinner." He realized that the only way he would be able to genuinely minister to these men was to "summon the right Spirit worthy of a Christian" towards them.

Gerecke was chosen as chaplain for a variety of reasons, one being that he was fluent in German, and that his commitment to the gospel went beyond personal feelings. "I have been criticised for offering my hand to these men. Don't think it was easy for me. But I knew I could never win any of them to my way of thinking unless they liked me first. Furthermore, I was there as the representative of an all-loving father. The gesture did not mean that I made light of their malefactions. They soon found that out!"

Gerecke recalls his meetings with each of the men who were on trial, and does his best to summarize where he felt those men stood before God as their final hours on earth waned. Some seemed to have been truly repentant for their actions. Others were clearly defiant and had no interest in Gerecke's message. Ultimately, only God knows the true heart condition and final destination of each of these men.

One of the men that escaped death at those trials, Albert Speer, was interviewed years later by the author of this book (Grossmith). When asked to reflect on Gerecke, Grossmith noted that Speer "leaned further back into his chair, deep in thought and staring at the wall above my head. 'Henry Gerecke', he said slowly, with feeling, 'was a man with a warm heart... he cared.'"

Grossmith recalled the effect Gerecke's ministry had on Speer: "Speer spent 20 year in Spandau Prison, Berlin, and during that time read and studied eighteen large volumes of theology, such was the fruit of Gerecke's ministry and his desire for the truth of God's Word. Speer told me that he couldn't explain the change which came into his life when he accepted Christ; many times he had tried to understand it. There was a church in the Bavarian mountains he retreated to for a brief spell away from home surrounding in order to pray and meditate. 'Without Pastor Gerecke', he said, 'I could never have got through those days at Nuremberg.'"

Gerecke returned to Illinois after the trials to serve as a prison chaplain. He died 15 years to the day after arriving in Nuremberg, and the Illinois prisoners were devastated by his death. The prison Warden received special permission to hold a funeral service in the prison yard. "more than eight hundred convicts filed past the coffin. 'There were tears' the Warden said. He also believed it was the first time in Illinois, and possibly in the nation, that arrangements had been made for prisoners to pay tribute to an individual."

If you read the book, it is sure to produce a wide variety of emotions. For me, the primary emotion was sorrow. The entire thing should never have occurred or escalated to the level it did.

I'd also recommend a movie about the final days in Hitler's bunker. It is based on the interviews with his personal secretary, who survived the war and was in the main Nazi bunker until it was evacuated after Hitler's death. It is in German (with subtitles) and is called "Downfall." (FYI - there are some inappropriate scenes in this movie.)

Watching this movie and reading this book reminded me of a quote I once heard: "all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." Realize that every small decision in your life is a test of your integrity.


MajorScoop said...

Mmm... good post. Humbling, sorrowful, and kind of speechless considering what that man went through. I'll consider reading and checking that movie out someday...

John and Pam said...

Thank you for lending me that book. Gereke models the essence of Christian witness, that Christ died for all. I too, had conflicting emotions, but he was right.
I was a great book.
And the movie also!

Bob Hutton said...

I read this book and believe that it is possible for even the vilest of people to be converted.

rick00770 said...

I read this book about Garecke and his ministry to the protestant nazi prisoners, it was one of the most touching and inspiring books i ever read, simply amazing, chaplain Garecke showed christian compassion to the prisoners and many were converted, i believe we will see them in heaven, i highly reccomend this book, the cross and the swastika.