Top Nazi leaders sit on benches guarded by U.S. soldiers during the Nuremberg trials. (Washington Post archives)

Should anyone who commits evil on a massive scale be offered a path to forgiveness?

In the months before the opening of the International Military Tribunal — which took place 70 years ago Friday — the people who were devising the Nuremberg Trials had to contend with those questions.

Holding Nazi leaders accountable for World War II was an experiment. At the time, there was no legal precedent for framing criminal charges against the perpetrators of a war of aggression. Never before had the international community held a state’s major leaders accused, or convicted them of crimes against humanity.

The Trial of the Major War Criminals was, in the words of one of its American prosecutors, “a benchmark in international law and the lodestar of thought and debate on the great moral and legal questions of war and peace.”

Existing within the larger Nuremberg experiment was another improvisation — a historical asterisk to the spectacle of the trial itself, an exploration of how good confronts radical evil. And at its center was a farm kid from Missouri.

The trial’s organizers knew that if they were going to try Nazi leaders as the world watched, they also had to follow the Geneva Conventions. Article 16 says that “ministers of religion, who are prisoners of war, whatever may be their denomination, shall be allowed freely to minister to their co-religionists.”

But Nuremberg was not the average POW camp, and the Allies didn’t trust Wehrmacht chaplains to counsel Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and 18 others during the trial. So they brought in two of their own instead: Chaplains Henry Gerecke of St. Louis and Sixtus O’Connor of Oxford, N.Y.

For the first time in history, U.S. Army chaplains would minister to the enemy.

[Rescued from the Nazis, these Jews believe in helping Muslim refugees]

Gerecke’s two eldest sons were already in uniform in 1943 when he volunteered for the chaplaincy. During the Depression, Gerecke had directed the St. Louis Lutheran City Mission, traveling the metropolis, ministering to those on the streets, in hospitals and in city jails. When he joined the chaplain corps he was 50 years old.

The Army assigned Gerecke to the 98th General Hospital, which took over a bombed-out hospital in Munich when the war was over. He was assigned to the Nuremberg prison after its commandant heard about a Lutheran chaplain nearby who could speak German and who had ministered to men in jail.

The Rev. Sixtus O’Connor had been a chaplain with the 11th Armored Division, known as the Thunderbolt, during the war. The division helped liberate Mauthausen concentration camp, outside Hitler’s hometown of Linz, where nearly 100,000 people were murdered.

Mauthausen held 66,500 prisoners on May 4, 1945, the day before the 11th marched in. More than 450 died each day during the following week. O’Connor buried 2,911 people between May 8 and May 31. Three months later, the Franciscan friar was ministering to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Nazi responsible for the Third Reich’s extermination camp system.

Inside the Nuremberg jail, the chaplains knocked a wall down between two empty cells, creating a 169-square-foot chapel. They outfitted it with chairs as pews, an altar, some candles and a small organ.

It was in that chapel that Gerecke and O’Connor pursued their mission — to bring as many of the imprisoned Nazis back to Christianity as they could before escorting them to the gallows. In those 169 square feet, they celebrated Christmas Eve services with men responsible for the murder of millions.

After writing about his year in Nuremberg for the Saturday Evening Post in 1951, Gerecke received hate mail calling him a Nazi lover. Americans were repulsed that one of their own had prayed with Hitler’s lieutenants while they were on trial for war crimes.

But does attempting to understand human evil create a path toward justifying it? If the perpetrators of genocide can be seen as fellow human beings, do they deserve empathy or forgiveness from those who have chosen to lead good lives?

The Christian concept of forgiveness is strained by the idea of genocide. Could Christians really believe their God was crucified to forgive those who conceived of the gas showers at Auschwitz? Because the majority of the Holocaust’s victims were Jewish, it would seem right that the Allies should have honored the Jewish sensibilities about forgiveness.

But Christians like Gerecke and O’Connor would argue that they had to act toward the Nazis in their flocks in ways that honored their deepest understanding of humanity and its relationship to God. The chaplains believed that their duties toward the Nazis revolved around how to return them to the good.

Even though the war criminals on trial at Nuremberg had committed a spectacularly different kind of wrong than ordinary people do, their American chaplains did not see them as children of darkness. Without forgiving the deeds of those responsible for wiping out six million Jews, by the nature of their faith in God, Gerecke and O’Connor saw these men as part of a single human community.

For them, the answer to whether the architects of a genocide deserved forgiveness was simple. Once they recognized the Nazis as simply men, ministering to them became a matter of attempting a transformation. The Nuremberg chaplains’ one single burden was to return mass murderers from darkness to the good of their own light.

Tim Townsend is an editor at Timeline.com and the author of “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.”

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