The contextual place of Mormonism in the nineteenth century is an increasingly broad subject, and there is no shortage of qualified historians who work to describe past events, revising and expanding on the work of previous scholars. There is a noticeably quantitative difference, however in the number of academics whose contributions to the field of Mormon Studies primarily address the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first half of the twentieth century. David Conley Nelson’s latest addition to this diverse body of literature on Mormonism clearly falls within the latter specialty. Unlike early Mormonism, which was replete with canonized revelations, visions, martyrdom, polygamy, and clashes between the Church and the U.S. government, its twentieth century identity was remarkably more socially integrated and politically active—exhibiting a conscious, calculated submission to civil authority both in the Intermountain West and in established ecclesiastical units abroad. This paradigm shift was clearly accented through the globalization of Mormonism spurned in the years immediately following Second World War, and solidified through executive actions implemented by the Church well into the 1960s. On an international level, the marked emphasis on adherence to secular laws began even earlier.
Latter-day Saint involvement in World War II has been the subject of a surprising number of scholarly works—written almost exclusively by Mormon authors—as well as many devotionalized historical-fiction novels, theatrical productions, and films. Nelson readily utilizes some of these resources in establishing the background and justification for writing Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany—the corpus of which was written as his doctoral dissertation at Texas A&M University. Nelson clarifies ambiguities and corrects some significant literary deficiencies produced by earlier authors, producers, and playwrights, endeavoring to rebut apparent faith promoting claims that sanitize or falsify the history of Mormonism in Nazi Germany. There has been a steady stream of material produced within the Mormon academic community that tells the stories of Latter-day Saints who lived in Axis nations during the conflict. Nelson’s work on Mormonism’s place in the Third Reich is an addendum to the recent scholarship of several other historians, and offers a new and distinctly more critical perspective on a considerably controversial topic. Nelson exhibits a style and level of detail reminiscent of what one might encounter in Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets or Keele and Tobler’s groundbreaking 1980 Sunstone paper “The Fuhrer’s New Clothes: Helmuth Hübener and the Mormons in the Third Reich.”
Although the subject of Moroni and the Swastika necessitates describing a distinctly Mormon experience in the Third Reich, there are portions that could benefit from more clarity and contextual clues that establish a broader framework for the events and policies described. Nelson goes to great lengths to document how some Latter-day Saints constructed an ideological bond between their theology and Nazism. A prevailing theme throughout Nelson’s book addresses how Mormons in Nazi Germany fell under Hitler’s propagandistic spell. The Mormon experience was somewhat unique in comparison to other faiths because its ecclesiastical doctrines, administrative policies, and connections to prominent American politicians may have preconditioned German members of the Church to seek out unique congruity with pre-war National Socialism.
While other minority faiths, such as the Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, faced open persecution from the Nazi Party, German Mormons—while still not theologically accepted within the Christian mainstream—suffered no more or less than the vast majority of their Protestant and Catholic neighbors. “The war impacted Latter-day Saint life on the same scale that it affected most citizens of the Third Reich,” Nelson writes. “Mormon husbands and sons fell on the battlefield. Church members died or lost their homes in bombing raids, made perilous escapes from burning cities, sent their children to live with relatives in the countryside, and feared advancing Red Army soldiers” (p. 13). It is also not entirely unlikely that racial policies prohibiting males of African descent from the priesthood, coupled with emphatic missionary work in Western European and Scandinavian countries, marginally underscores Nelson’s thesis that Anglo-Saxon converts were targeted because of their perceived exalted status over those of other ethnicities. Joseph Smith, Nelson somewhat churlishly describes as having “viewed Germans as breeding stock for deity” (p. 23).
Nelson concisely details the introduction and growth of Mormonism in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, in the book’s first 89 pages, a section Nelson calls “The Mormon Sonderweg.” Frequently translated as “special path,” Sonderweg was the nationalist theory that German-speaking peoples were, by their inherent nature, placed on an exalted, aggressive course charted for political and cultural superiority; parallels are easily drawn in the American concepts of Manifest Destiny and Jeffersonian exceptionalism. For many historians of the Third Reich, however, the term takes on an alternative, but similar meaning, implying an ominously catastrophic destruction, a gradual, but inevitable deterioration of a once lofty state to one of total depravity and inhumanity—the dramatic, epic descent one might witness in a classical Greek tragōidia. Nelson describes the introduction and evolution of Latter-day Saint proselytism in German-speaking countries, detailing the growth of the Church through the end of the Weimar Republic.
With a sizable number of Latter-day Saints living in Germany prior to and during a war that left millions of families destitute, broken—or, at worst, exterminated—their selected stories as told by Nelson are gripping; it’s especially easy to read for those already familiar with Mormon history and the significance of Latter-day Saint leadership structures. Around the time Hitler came to power, the German-speaking Mormon missions represented the largest ecclesiastical body of the faith outside the United States. They are stories of a people ostensibly torn by a commitment to their faith and to a progressively godless state. Some embraced Nazism wholeheartedly as an extension of their deeply held religious convictions, which Nelson aptly documents in the accounts of Erich Krause and Arthur Zander.
The American family of Alfred C. Rees, who presided over the Church’s mission in Berlin and surrounding areas, frequently attended Nazi Party rallies and arranged as many meetings as they could with high-ranking Nazi officials, some of whom were later convicted of war crimes. While other European mission presidents conveyed a measured sense of caution toward the new German dictator, the Reeses “never expressed the slightest degree of dissonance between the church they served and the state they wished to accommodate” (p. 202). Others sought out a more neutral approach that required reluctant collaboration with the Reich only insofar as it necessitated their own survival. In a few notable, but rare cases, German Mormons worked against the Nazis, newly illuminated in Nelson’s account of the hitherto unknown Max Reschke. As a whole, however, Nelson argues that Latter-day Saints “cooperated eagerly with the government of the Third Reich” (p. 22).
Although the vast majority of current Latter-day Saints would abhor the thought of fellow church members collaborating or fraternizing with Adolf Hitler, the research presented by Nelson penetratingly confirms that some Mormons living as the Führer’s contemporaries spoke of him admirably. Furthermore, Nelson attempts to balance the prevailing narratives highlighting Mormon resisters to Nazism by addressing previously lesser-known cases in which Latter-day Saints actively participated in Nazi atrocities. Using the research of earlier scholars, Nelson argues that “five to ten percent” of German Mormons were official Nazi Party members, while “more of them participated in Nazi auxiliary organizations that did not require party membership” (p. 281). Official records from 1945 chronicle the party’s general membership at its highest point at more than eight million, or just over twelve percent of the total German population. On the latter comparison, Nelson might have offered a clearer contextual picture, but unfortunately leaves his readers questioning the propensity of German Mormons to affiliate with Nazism in contrast to the rest of their fellow citizens.
While certainly not excusing due culpability in the cases of Latter-day Saints who were complicit in war crimes, there is no smoking gun that provides a direct link between the LDS Church, its leaders, and the Nazi Party. There is, however, strong evidence that, as Nelson contends, the Church went beyond what was necessary in order to appease the pre-war Reich, something he acutely alliterates as “the murky muck of Mormon accommodation with one of world history’s most repulsive regimes” (p. 338). “The LDS Church,” Nelson writes, “[pursued a] policy of accommodation and ingratiation that put its members on the wrong side of history” (p. 263) by stressing congruity between Mormon beliefs and Nazi political platforms. These judgments, however partisan they may appear to readers, are made manifest in a series of troubling historical applications of the Twelfth Article of Faith, the moral code by which Latter-day Saints pledge to be “subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
At least one mission president serving in Germany encouraged Church members to “remain silent and apolitical” (p. 103) in an effort to avoid confrontations with increasingly surveillant state officials. Likewise, Church materials referencing Israel or the Lost Tribes were highly discouraged by the Church in Germany in order to avoid the appearance of philosemitism. As Nazi racial laws required all citizens to demonstrate their ethnic “purity” by researching genealogical records for at least four previous generations, Mormons rejoiced at the ease of access the state mandate gave them to provide names for posthumous temple ordinances. While such research may have saved the lives of ethnic Germans, it also laid the foundation by which hundreds of thousands of German Jews and other racial minorities were sent to their deaths. Alluding to the collective guilt associated with “desk genocide,” Nelson figuratively questions how the “assiduous efforts” of Mormon genealogists may have facilitated the fates of “those who could not produce a ‘racially pure’ pedigree chart” (p. 113). For a time, Church-owned newspapers praised the Nazi state for its emphatic genealogical shift, only to stifle that adulation after Kristallnacht—finally being “shocked into awareness of what was going on in Nazi Germany” (p. 115).
Another point of congruity between Church practices and those of the Nazi Party came through the state’s implementation of Eintopfsonntag—One-Pot Sunday. On the second Sunday of each month, German citizens would eat only one simple meal, then give the money saved from not eating their other daily meals to the national Winter Relief program, or Winterhilfswerk. Speculating Mormons saw a clear connection between the program and their own Fast Sunday observances, leading to an article in the Deseret News declaring that Hitler had borrowed the idea from the Church (p. 138).
A final major point of congruity addressed the Mormon practice of Word of Wisdom, in which Church members abstained from coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. Hitler projected a public image of being health-conscious, avoiding the consumption of meat and alcohol, as well as tobacco. German Latter-day Saints seized on this bit of propaganda to create their own mythos surrounding the dictator—that Hitler somehow modeled his health code on Mormon practices, that he’d had close friends who were Mormons, or that he’d secretly read the Book of Mormon and may have covertly converted to the Church under their noses (p. 140). Patent, speculatory absurdities by today’s standards, but damaging in its implication that Church members were seeking out a cooperative bond with the Führer in the early years of his administrative reign. It’s also worth nothing that the Mormon mythmaking phenomena linking high-profile figures to the Church is not unique to Germany, and in varying degrees continues among some Latter-day Saints today.
The Persecution Myth
Many LDS sources contend that Mormons suffered under Nazi leadership, and this is, for the most part, true—but only insofar as it reflects the experiences of the German people as a whole. Nelson himself concedes that the Mormon experience was unique in the fact that the war “cut the ecclesiastical chain of authority through the removal of American missionaries” (p. 13) and “destroyed the process of accountability” with the mass conscription of priesthood holders into the German armed forces (p. 14). Mormons, like Germans of all faiths, had their meetinghouses destroyed in Allied attacks. Furthermore, they were sometimes the subjects of probes by Nazi secret police who were—within reason—skeptical of the American-based religion. However, the historical evidence Nelson presents does not match the prevailing folk rhetoric that Mormons were specifically targeted for persecution because of their faith. Nelson’s thesis differs from that of earlier authors, such as Roger Minert and Robert Freeman, by contending that the LDS Church didn’t just survive in Nazi Germany, it prospered. Five years after Hitler came into power, the Church had three German-speaking missions with an estimated 300 convert baptisms annually, a 2.5 percent growth rate comparable to the yearly number of convert baptisms in the Church today.
The ninth chapter of Nelson’s book offers compelling evidence that most conflicts between the LDS Church and the Third Reich in the pre-war years of 1933 to 1939 were due in large part because of cultural misunderstandings between foreign Mormon missionaries and civil authorities within the police state. If there were problems, such as an offending reference in a pamphlet or hymnbook mentioning Zion or Judaism, Mormon leaders and missionaries yielded, rewrote the tracts and pressed on—a stark contrast to the resistance show by other minority faiths. By 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland only weeks away, the LDS Church evaluated foreign intelligence reports and evacuated all of their American missionaries. This action effectively cut off communication between Mormons living in Axis-controlled countries and their American-based leadership until the end of World War II. It also transferred the yoke of ecclesiastical supervision onto the shoulders of local leaders in Germany’s many branches and districts.
A selection of these ecclesiastical concessions doubtlessly played a role in the deaths of innocent people—particularly Jewish converts to Mormonism—who unsuccessfully sought out emigration assistance from the First Presidency (p. 250). Nelson’s work is a case study in how to critically flesh out stories of individuals within the Church—including those holding positions of leadership—who sympathized with broader anti-Semitic viewpoints that prevailed in the era. This was certainly true of J. Reuben Clark, who denied a request of immigration assistance from Egon Weiss, a “Mormon of Jewish descent [and] a member of the Vienna Branch of the Swiss-Austrian Mission in 1938” (p. 272). Clark advised Weiss to seek help from Jewish organizations as an alternative, but privately held deeply prejudiced views toward Jews. Nelson notes that Clark, who had formerly served as U.S. Under Secretary of State under the Coolidge administration, was known to have distributed blatantly anti-Semitic material both before and after the Second World War, including the forgery infamously titled The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (p. 279).
An ardent political conservative, Clark’s views were an unquestionable byproduct of the rhetoric promoted by influential and popular “America Firsters” of the age; Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Charles Coughlin—all of whom linked Judaism to communism, market manipulation, and financial greed. But unlike his American-born ecclesiastical contemporary, Alfred Rees, there is very little evidence suggesting that Clark or other General Authorities expressed a particular affinity toward Nazism. That Clark harbored and nurtured what are—by today’s standards—bigoted views toward Jewish people, there is little room to doubt. Nelson’s palpable pathos in recounting the stories of ethnically Jewish Church members seeking assistance to immigrate is noteworthy, but could benefit from the contextual, inductive data that underscores the complexities of immigration from Europe to the United States after 1930. In hindsight, the failure of many diplomats to offer asylum to Jewish refugees remains a tragic, inexcusable mistake.
There is no question that given the nuances of the subject, the unique conclusions and new evidence Nelson offers warrants further research. Nelson will no doubt generate criticism from some Mormon researchers and likely many apologists, who might object to the book’s seemingly implacable tone toward their faith’s core truth claims, organizational patterns, and leadership. Nelson makes apparent his opinion that even now, faithful, or apologetic-oriented LDS authors are by virtue of their affiliation with the Church less reliable, given their perceived tendency to conduct historical research from a faith-promoting perspective without any major challenge to the hierarchical status quo; the “ruling triumvirate” and “troika” that Nelson portrays as consistently suppressing free thought and expression. “Criticizing church leaders is still considered verboten in the Mormon Culture Region” Nelson laments, “…[Mormon authors] take comfort in seeking a church official’s blessing of their work” (p. 337).
The merits of Nelson’s summary conclusions in Moroni and the Swastika may depend in large part upon the degree of familiarity the reader has with Mormonism or with the Reich’s relationship with other religious groups. But a reader’s unfamiliarity with the issues discussed in Nelson’s book should not act as a deterrent. It is eye opening, but not necessarily intended to be faith shaking. If anything, it demonstrates with remarkable candor, the ideological struggles any person might face when they uncritically submit their minds and hearts to totalitarian authority. These are Mormon stories that need to be told, and need to be remembered in light of any mistakes and any successes. They are as much a critical part of Mormon history as are the stories of Brigham Young or the fabulous handcart companies. Advocating for institutional transparency and increased access to early documents will provide future generations of Mormon history researchers a much clearer picture. My ultimate conclusion is that Nelson provides a tremendously beneficial point of view that will undoubtedly pave the way for other writers, including myself, to explore these subjects in greater detail.