- The Nazi Spy Pastor: Carl Krepper and the War in America by J. Francis Watson
On December 21, 1944, a front page headline in The New York Times proclaimed: “Ex-Pastor Seized as Nazi Spy Aide.” The man arrested was Carl Krepper (1884–1972), who had served German congregations of the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) from 1909 to 1935. Two years earlier, the FBI had foiled “Operation Pastorius,” a plot to land eight Nazi saboteurs in the United States to attack key economic targets. Two saboteurs turned themselves in and gave information to the FBI; all eight were tried by a military tribunal, convicted, and sentenced to death. The sentences of the two informants were commuted; the others were executed a month after their trial. Only later was Krepper identified as the contact whom the Nazi agents could call if they needed assistance with money, false documents, or other matters.
The role of Carl Krepper in this plot has not been widely known, but now J. Francis Watson, president of the Lutheran Archives Center in Philadelphia, has written the story of “the Nazi spy pastor.” Watson first called attention to Krepper in an article some years ago (“Carl Krepper, American Pastor and Nazi Saboteur,” Lutheran Quarterly 23.4 (2009). See also “Revisiting Carl Krepper, American Pastor and Nazi Saboteur,” Lutheran Quarterly 24.4 (2010). [End Page 115] Now, aided by voluminous material released by the FBI, he has given a much expanded and highly detailed account of the Nazi agent—his background, his ministry, his troubled relationships with a succession of women, his ultimate decision to betray the country of which he had become a citizen some twenty years before. The book is at its best as the FBI begins to suspect Krepper; the massive federal files allow Watson to follow him almost day by day as his arrest draws near. The reader eagerly pursues the end of the story.
Two flaws, however, bog down the narrative. First, Watson suffers from the tendency to include every little detail. Do we really need to know the birthdate of Krepper’s academic advisor? And who cares to know the architect that designed a building where Krepper arranged to meet a contact, let alone what other buildings the architect designed? The other problem is the lack of editing. Information already presented is repeated almost verbatim a page or a paragraph later (occasionally even later in the same paragraph). These problems fade somewhat into the background as the action picks up, but in the early chapters they make for rather tedious reading.
The book recounts an episode often forgotten today and reminds us that terrorism did not make its first appearance on our shores on 9/11. Had Operation Pastorius been successful, serious damage could have been done at a strategic moment, not only to the American infrastructure but also to the morale of a nation dragged reluctantly into what they regarded as a foreign war. From the perspective of church history, one wishes that Watson had spent more time discussing the “Pastor Krepper Defense Committee,” formed after the war—apparently including a number of ULCA clergy—to try to obtain a pardon for Krepper, as well as some kind of rehabilitation of his reputation. What were they thinking? Watson suggests that they may not have known “the full extent of the FBI’s investigation” (165), but one is still left wondering about their motivation. In Krepper we see a Lutheran pastor who was sympathetic to the monstrous Nazi philosophy. It is unlikely he was the only one, although not many went so far beyond the casual anti-Semitism that infected an unfortunate number of Lutherans in mid-twentieth-century America. But these paths of inquiry await exploration by other scholars. [End Page 116]
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