- Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany by David Conley Nelson
Works on Mormon history could once be divided into two categories: "faith-promoting" accounts aiming to strengthen the convictions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and "warts and all" accounts written to counter such narratives. David Conley Nelson's excellent work descends from the latter tradition, engaging a gravely serious topic of how members of the church managed to survive and even thrive under the Nazi regime. As Nelson shows, Mormons became the most successful foreign-born new religion in Germany during the Nazi years. Nelson attempts to explain how Mormon acts of accommodation and limited resistance have been remembered or forgotten by subsequent generations of Mormons. While he is less successful in these latter tasks, Nelson offers a frank and fascinating historical account of Mormons in the Hitler state.
At the beginning of the Nazi era, 11,000 Germans claimed membership in the LDS Church. The products of concerted missionary work since the mid-nineteenth century, these Germans accounted for the second-largest LDS church membership in any nation at that time. In contrast to other new religious movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science, the LDS Church had a relatively congenial relationship with local and national Nazi officials. One American LDS mission president in Berlin succeeded so well at ingratiating his church with the Nazis that he and his wife attended an annual Nuremberg rally and convinced Goebbels to publish a highly favorable article about the Mormons in the Nazi party paper. Unlike any other American-born new religion, the Mormons had powerful American protectors—US senators and government officials who were LDS—which the Nazis saw as evidence of this church's political importance.
With these advantages, Mormon leaders became masters at accommodation, resisting restrictions on their activities only when they thought they could do so without any serious repercussions. Nelson argues that Mormon officials, ever eager to convert more Germans, attempted to exploit imagined commonalities between their church and the Nazi ideological program. Mormon leaders—many of them Americans—deleted all positive references to Jews in their German hymnals or Sunday school materials, and they enthusiastically promoted their religion's expertise in genealogical research as dovetailing with the Nazis' obsession with proving non-Jewish ancestry. German Mormons admired the propagandized image of Adolf Hitler as a clean-living individual who did not drink or smoke, habits that were in accord with the Mormon health code. Some German Mormons even believed that Hitler himself was a secret Mormon who had read the Book of Mormon. [End Page 447]
In the days after Kristallnacht 1938, LDS officials became weary of trumpeting their links with the Nazi government, but they did not offer serious resistance to the state. Even while LDS leaders did all that they could to successfully evacuate American missionaries once war began in 1939, they categorically refused to evacuate German converts who had Jewish ancestry. Nelson explains that this policy was partly out of fear of the repercussions for other German LDS and partly due to the opposition for such aid by J. Reuben Clark, first counselor to the LDS president, thus a powerful Mormon leader with antisemitic views.
Even as officials pursued a path of calculated accommodation, a few isolated LDS individuals took matters into their own hands. For eight months in 1941–1942, an LDS teenager, Helmut Hübener, and four other coconspirators (three of them LDS) led a secret campaign in Hanover to write and distribute anti-Nazi pamphlets. The youths thought that they would spark a revolution. The Gestapo caught Hübener, however, and the Nazi state beheaded the teenager, while his coconspirators were sentenced to hard labor. Hübener's LDS branch president, a true Nazi, summarily excommunicated the young resister before the execution. As Nelson argues, Hübener's resistance to the Nazi state was not simply resistance to a government in Berlin, it was resistance to...