Errors of Compassion: Mission at Nuremberg and the Legacy of Nazism
A new non-fiction book, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis is not about the trial but how the Nazis manipulated two chaplains at best, and at worst convinced them to become Nazi sympathizers. The main focus of the book is the interaction between the chaplains and the twenty-one Nazis tried for war crimes.
Townsend illustrates the prewar life story of the two chaplains, Henry Gerecke and Father Sixtus O’ Connor, a quick review of the Chaplain Corps’ evolution, the Nuremberg tribunal’s composition and mission, the Nazi henchmen’s lives, and the prison life of the war criminals. The book has the unintended consequence of humanizing these mass killers through the way the author pieces information together.
There is nauseating detail about the life of each Nazi, from their youth through their years as part of the Third Reich. Throughout the book the author consistently writes, “Gerecke strived to remember that before their alliance with Hitler, before the choices they made that led to mayhem and murder, they had all been boys once and that they were still God’s children.” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, noted to American Thinker, “True, everyone was a child once, and yes they were probably once innocent. But we cannot ignore that in this world of freedom of choice, look at the choices they made.”
The worst part of the book is when the author does a “tit-for-tat,” although in the interview he denied it and commented, “It was my choice to tell a story in the chronology of how it happened.” Unfortunately, the way it was written seems to put the victims and the U.S. Army close to the level of the Nazis. One particular chapter begins with the discussion of Henriette von Schirach, the wife of Baldur, who was taken by American soldiers from a house, put into a jeep, leaving her four children behind, and in an allied POW camp “ordered to remove her clothes and told she’d be scrubbing toilets… with torn red, black, and white Hitler Youth rags.” What was the purpose of this scene other than to place the allies on the same level as the Nazis?
But it gets worse, because the author proceeds to discuss how “many of the survivors,” at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp found ways to avenge their treatment at the camp by doing supposed horrific things to the guards: executions, cutting of throats, beatings, and urinating on them. One can only wonder why this was emphasized in the same chapter as a discussion of the Nazi atrocities? Rabbi Hier wants people to understand, “At the end of the war revenge was so very slight, and the amount insignificant. Lets not forget that most of the victims were so weak and traumatized they would not have had the strength to take revenge.”
Did these chaplains become Nazi sympathizers? Townsend describes in the book how a chaplain referred to Hermann Goering, a leading Nazi figure, as “a likable man”, “a good-natured charmer with a good sense of humor.” O’Connor stated, “You felt that with his brain, he could have accomplished a lot.” Townsend commented to American Thinker about a letter he put in the book, written halfway through the trial and signed by all twenty-one Nazi war criminals. The letter requested of Gerecke’s wife, Alma, that she let her husband stay as their chaplain until the end of the trial. Townsend told American Thinker, “Part of the letter said what an extraordinary man the chaplain was and whom they had come to love.”
Early in the interview the author told American Thinker, “Both chaplains may have become close to these men, but I don’t think they were Nazi sympathizers.” However, at the end of the interview Townsend also said this, “I think they were given an impossible job, and were caught up in the personal relationships of the Nazis. They were taken with the Nazi families. Gerecke lied to Goering’s wife, telling her he had not committed suicide, and wrote to another Nazi’s child ‘to carry on the honorable name of your father.’ They probably lost sense that these men were mass murderers because they spent too much time with them, these pathetic, incarcerated animals.” Townsend further noted that Efraim Zuroff, the Nazi hunter, became horrified when told that Gerecke tried to help the Nazi families by sending gift baskets. Not surprisingly, this somehow did not get printed in the book. A current Air Force Chaplain Assistant after hearing about this noted, “I would not become sympathetic. I don’t know how you could become sympathetic to the Nazis considering what they have done.”
In the latter part of the book the author attempts a comparison between the Christian and Jewish concept of forgiveness. However his analysis is fleeting since the reader is left to wonder what was the author’s actual point: was it to defend the chaplains, criticize the Jewish viewpoint, or a little of both. Townsend tries to explain by quoting Simon Wiesenthal, Maimonides, and the most holy day in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur.
A rabbi who read this portion of the book told American Thinker, “The author placed repentance in the wrong place, and appears to have selectively picked these quotes. Judaism does not turn the other cheek, especially when murder is involved. What Wiesenthal said was that no single person has the right to forgive the Nazis because the crimes they committed were against humanity. Think of it this way, the murders were more than six million because had those killed lived many would have had children.” Rabbi Hier agrees and added, “The heart of any debate is whether a verbal confession is sufficient. Jews would answer no because it must be accompanied with good deeds. The easiest thing in the world is for a person, when trapped, to become a believer. Regarding the chaplains, G-d did not appoint them as his representative to give forgiveness, that is not in their hands.”
Mission at Nuremberg leaves the reader to wonder what is actually the “mission” of this book. It seems that the author attempts to rationalize for these chaplains who crossed the line and became too close to the Nazis. Townsend asks the question in the book, “If God creates evil, but also allows his creation free will, is God or man responsible for the Holocaust?” There should be no debate to that answer, regardless of a person’s religion; just asking forgiveness is not enough to save these Nazi monster’s souls.
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.