The Gospel in a handshake
I’ve just finished “Mission at Nuremburg” by Tim Townsend. It is the fascinating story of Henry Gerecke, chaplain at the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal. A one word quote from a newspaper review on the front simply says “Gripping”, and it was.
Among Gerecke’s ‘parishioners’ were:
- Hermann Goering—Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, and a man who had given some of the most genocidal orders of the war.
- Rudolf Hess—known as the third most powerful man in Germany, behind Hitler and Goering
- Fritz Sauckel—Head of Labour and Supply in Nazi Germany. He was described as “the greatest and cruellest slave driver since Pharaoh”. He worked millions of slave labourers to death without mercy.
- Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel—Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed forces. His unquestioning obedience to Hitler led to his being responsible for more deaths than anyone could count.
- Wilhelm Frick—Minister of the Interior. An innocuous sounding title, but that meant he was responsible for all that happened within the borders of Germany, including the rounding up of the Jewish people for extermination. His title covered up a reign of terror.
- Joachim von Ribbentrop—Hitler’s Foreign Minister.
How would you do in ministering to such men?
As chaplain Gerecke knew it was his duty to share the hope of forgiveness with the men under his care—a commission from God that he took most seriously.
Even in his opening meeting with these men, I was moved by his faithfulness to his Saviour. Though their crimes utterly repulsed him, on being introduced to them, he offered his hand, in his own words: “in order that the Gospel be not hindered by any wrong approach I may make… Furthermore I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father. I recalled too, that God loves sinners like me. These men must be told about the Saviour bleeding, suffering and dying on the Cross for them.”
Given the circumstances—Gerecke himself had been to Dachau and touched the walls only for his hand to come away covered in blood—and given that other men were repulsed at his willingness to shake hands—I wanted to cheer for his faithfulness to the gospel.
As he sought to minister to them some, like Goering and Hess, had little time for his message, yet they appreciated his ministry. For Sauckel, Keitel, Frick and Ribbentrop it was different. As they met with Gerecke over the course of the trials, and although they knew it wouldn’t impact their sentence, they came to conviction of their sin, repented and sought forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Each of those four was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Yet these men displayed at their death that something had happened within them.
Ribbentrop, asked for his last words by the executioner, said, “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins.” Then he turned to Gerecke and said, “I’ll see you again.”
Sauckel the ‘slave driver’, and Keitel the head of armed forces made similar statements, and Frick the man who terrorised hundreds of thousands informed the chaplain that he too had come to faith in Christ.
From Gerecke’s account it would seem that these conversions were genuine. He wrote, “I have had many years experience as a prison chaplain and I do not believe that I am easily deluded by phoney reformations at the eleventh hour.” What had these men to gain by pretending anything? They were sentenced to die regardless.
Here is the wonder of Christ’s work on the cross. You can’t be too bad for forgiveness. There is grace for the worst of sinners. The damnation Sauckel, Frick, Ribbentrop, Keitel and I deserved was taken by God the Son.
But that victory of grace came about, humanly speaking, by a man who was himself conquered by grace. And held out his hand.
How would you do in ministering to such people? History is easy to read—but less easy to be part of.
Who is your Saviour asking you to shake hands with for the sake of the gospel? Someone whose lifestyle is utterly repugnant to you? Someone whom you think deserves what they get?
I leave you with Gerecke’s words:
“in order that the Gospel be not hindered by any wrong approach I may make… Furthermore I was there as the representative of an all-loving Father. I recalled too, that God loves sinners like me. These men must be told about the Saviour bleeding, suffering and dying on the Cross for them.”
For a review of the book see here