The Chaplain at Nuremberg

Today’s post is written by Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis

Capt. Henry F. Gerecke thought he was going home. It was November 1945, and the Second World War had been over for several months. Instead, the Lutheran minister accepted a new assignment: to serve as the chief chaplain to the Nazi war criminals awaiting trial at Nuremberg, Germany.

The National Archives at St. Louis holds the Monthly Reports and Personnel Records (National Archives Identifier 6016856) from Record Group 247, Records of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 1902-1964. Chaplains were required to file reports at the end of each month detailing their activities while assigned to military units. The reports include statistical information on the number of services, visits to hospitals, marriages, baptisms, funerals, and other routine chaplain duties. But Gerecke’s files include something less routine: comments about his service in Nuremberg prison.

Gerecke was born in Gordonville, Illinois, on August 4, 1893. After graduating from St. John’s Academy in Kansas (which featured German-language instruction) in 1918, he studied at Concordia Seminary and elsewhere in St. Louis. He married St. Louis native Alma Bender in 1919, and they had two sons. In 1926 he became a pastor at the city’s Christ Lutheran Church and later headed up the St. Louis Lutheran City Mission. Throughout his career he ministered to prisoners, the sick, and the poor.

In August 1943, at age 50, Gerecke reported to the Army’s Chaplain School; his grown sons were already serving in the Army. He was assigned to the 98th General Hospital unit and stationed in England from April 1944 to June 1945, ministering to wounded American troops as well as to hospital staff. He received glowing evaluations from his commanding officer:

Efficiency Report for Henry F. Gerecke, 7/1/1945, NAID 299741
Efficiency Report for Henry F. Gerecke, 7/1/1945, NAID 6016856

In July 1945 the 98th set up operations in a hospital in Munich, and several months later Col. Burton C. Andrus, prison commandant at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, requested Gerecke’s service. He thought a mature, Lutheran, German-speaking chaplain who had worked in prisons back home ideally suited his needs.

After much prayer and contemplation, Gerecke agreed.[1] He joined the 6850th Internal Security Detachment, International Military Tribunal, which oversaw the war crimes trials, and arrived in Nuremberg in November 1945. Gerecke described the heavily bombed, former Nazi Party rally site as “a city of ruins.”[2]

Serving as his assistant chaplains were Capt. Sixtus R. O’Connor and Capt. Carl R. Eggers. O’Connor (1909-1983) was a Roman Catholic priest from Oxford, N.Y., who had studied in Germany in the 1930s and was, like Gerecke, fluent in German. O’Connor enlisted in June 1943 and served with the 11th Armored Division in the Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe campaigns. He saw the liberation of the Mauthausen-Gusen prison camp and received a Bronze Star in May 1945 “for heroic conduct in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.”[3] O’Connor was reassigned to Nuremberg in August 1945.

Eggers (1917-1998) was appointed a chaplain in September 1944 and was attached to a prisoner of war camp in Massachusetts before being sent to Europe in April 1945. He briefly served as the war criminals’ Protestant chaplain before Gerecke arrived. His monthly report for November 1945 noted, “Have discontinued working with the War Crimes Commission as chaplain to the German internees.”[4]

Gerecke served as minister to the 15 Protestant Nazi prisoners. Among the most notorious were Hermann Goering, former head of the German Air Force and Adolf Hitler’s chosen successor; Rudolf Hess, the deputy Fuhrer; Albert Speer, an architect and the Nazis’ minister of armaments and war production; Wilhelm Keitel, general field marshal; Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister; and Alfred Rosenberg, minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories and the primary author of many Nazi ideologies.

O’Connor was responsible for the six Catholic criminals, including Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had overseen the Nazi concentration camp system; and Hans Frank, the Nazis’ chief lawyer and governor general of Poland.

Both chaplains served not only prisoners but employees of the courts and prison, prisoners of war at a nearby camp, American service members and civilian employees, and even members of the prisoners’ families. One of Gerecke’s reports stated:

Visited the families of Goering, Funk, Frick, and von Schirach. One defendant said it touched his heart that the American Prison Chaplain should visit his people. The families were deeply grateful.[5]

Gerecke regularly attended the court proceedings at the International Military Court. In February 1946 he reported, “My assignment is becoming increasingly more difficult, both with Witnesses and Defendants. I shall have to prepare two German Sermons. The Defendants will need special Sermons. … Ten visits to Court Sessions.”[6]

While O’Connor’s monthly reports were generally matter-of-fact, listing basic statistics such as the number of masses he said and how many confessions he had heard, Gerecke’s reports included his observations. Of attendance at his sermons he noted, “Hess claims membership but never attends. Rosenberg thinks he is Gottglaübig.”[7]

On October 1, 1946, the court found the Nazi war criminals guilty. Twelve, including Goering, Frank, Kaltenbrunner, Keitel, von Ribbentrop, and Rosenberg, were sentenced to death by hanging (one, Martin Bormann, in absentia), seven, including Speer and Hess, were sentenced to life in prison, and three were acquitted.

O’Connor’s report for October 1946 included this remark: “I assisted as Chaplain at the execution of 10 War Criminals on 16 October 1946.”[8]

Gerecke’s report for that month began with a matter-of-fact narrative on a marriage he performed, listing the bride, groom, witnesses. Then his report includes an accounting of the execution of the war criminals (8b and 8c), as well as the suicide of Hermann Goering:

I was at Goering’s bedside when he died by his own hands. Spoke with him between 2000 hrs and 2030 hrs… Had he been sincere in his quest for Christ and Salvation, he would not have gone the way he did. (8d)

Gerecke, Monthly Report. 10/31/1946
Gerecke, Monthly Report. 10/31/1946

In a dramatic indorsement (sic) to Gerecke’s report, Col. Andrus sought to clarify any potential misunderstanding about his remarks “that might indicate that Gerecke was present when Goering took poison.”

Gerecke, Monthly Report, 10/31/1946
Gerecke, Monthly Report, 10/31/1946

The rest of those sentenced to death were hanged before dawn on October 16, and their bodies were cremated. The remaining war criminals were shipped out to other prisons.

Shortly after the executions Gerecke was promoted to major and transferred to the Fifth Army’s disciplinary barracks in Milwaukee for the remainder of his service, until 1950. He then became the pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Chester, Illinois, south of St. Louis, as well as the chaplain at the Menard Correctional Center and a hospital for the criminally insane. Gerecke died of a heart attack suffered in the prison parking lot on October 11, 1961.

A new book, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, by Tim Townsend (HarperCollins), sheds light on Henry Gerecke’s life and his service before, during, and after the Nuremberg trials. The National Archives holds numerous record series related to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal; one place to start is Record Group 238, the National Archives Collection of World War II Crimes Records, 1933-1949.

[1] Townsend, Tim, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (New York, HarperCollins, 2014), 97, 104

[2]Henry F. Gerecke, Monthly Report, Dec. 1, 1945, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files.

[3]Record of Award of Decoration, O’Connor, Sixtus R., Official Retired Officer Personnel File, RG 319, Department of the Army, National Personnel Records Center (NAID 299741)

[4]Eggers, Carl R., Monthly Report, Nov. 30, 1945, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files, 1920-1950, RG 247, Records of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 1902-1964, National Archives at St. Louis

[5]Gerecke, Monthly Report, March 8, 1946, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files

[6]Gerecke, Monthly Report, Feb. 1, 1946, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files.

[7]Gerecke, Monthly Report, Jan. 1, 1946, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files. Gottglaübig was a Nazi term used to signify a believer in God but not in Christ or in organized religion.

[8]O’Connor, Sixtus R., Monthly Report, Nov. 1, 1946, Monthly Reports and Personnel Files, 1920-1950, RG 247, Records of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 1902-1964, National Archives at St. Louis

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