In his first book, Townsend, a writer and editor with the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, examines World War II’s most unusual ministry: the pastoring of the architects of the Third Reich.
On Nov. 20, 1945, the Allies commenced the Nuremberg Trials, an unprecedented proceeding that charged Hitler’s top lieutenants—Goering, Kesselring et al.—with conspiracy to commit crimes against humanity. Due to the strict security surrounding the prisoners, the Chaplain Corps was called upon for the first time in its 230-year history to supply religious counseling to America’s enemies. Assigned to this controversial task since he was Lutheran (like so many of the German prisoners), spoke the language and had experience with prison ministries, Chaplain Henry Gerecke (1893–1961) worked for nearly a year to rescue the souls of some of history’s most notorious defendants. Gerecke’s prewar life story, a quick review of the Chaplain Corps’ evolution, scene-setting to explain the Nuremberg tribunal’s composition and mission, thumbnail sketches of the Nazi henchmen and a recitation of the atrocities they engineered, and prison life for the war criminals are all part of Townsend’s story. However, he focuses most on Gerecke’s delicate interactions with his highly unusual flock. Passages recalling the middle-aged St. Louis preacher’s counseling of Goering (and the decision to deny the Luftwaffe commander Holy Communion) and Gerecke’s first meeting with Rudolf Hess are especially well-done. Townsend authoritatively addresses the excruciating moral and religious issues confronting wartime chaplains and deftly explains the role of a spiritual adviser in bringing the wrongdoer, even one seemingly beyond redemption, back to “a place of restoration.”
Gerecke’s story is only a footnote to “the trial of the century,” but Townsend thoroughly understands and skillfully handles the rich, potentially explosive material it contains.