David Conley Nelson. Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 432 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-4668-3.
Reviewed by Grant Harward (Texas A&M University)
Published on H-War (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
This monograph represents the culmination of a great amount of research into a little studied aspect of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS or Mormon Church) in Nazi Germany. Debates within Mormon historiography have been and mostly remain focused on the American origins and experience of Mormonism. Dr. Nelson’s work represents an important contribution to international Mormon history. Moroni and the Swastika examines the actions of the LDS Church authorities in Salt Lake City as well as local German Mormons and their interaction with the Nazi regime. While Nelson brings many important, even troubling, facts to light on LDS Church politics, policies, and culture in Nazi Germany, his book is structurally flawed and fundamentally biased.
The book is divided into three parts: part 1, three chapters covering Mormon developments in Germany during the nineteenth century, World War I, and Weimar Germany; part 2, eight chapters on the period of the Nazi dictatorship before the war, from 1933 to 1939; and part 3, five chapters focused on the post-1939 memory of the German Mormons of the prewar Nazi period. In the first part Nelson shows how in the nineteenth century the LDS Church, stigmatized by its practice of polygamy and persecuted by suspicious German states and later, unified Imperial Germany, who feared losing citizens to a foreign sect that “gathered” its converts to “Zion” in America (particularly worrisome to the state which feared losing draft-eligible men to emigration) was often forced to conduct missionary work surreptitiously and flout local laws against Mormon proselyting. Nelson records a shift after 1890--the year that, following intense legal pressure from the US federal government, the LDS Church ended the practice of polygamy--when the Mormons began pursuing legal and diplomatic means and support from US diplomats in assuring their rights in Imperial Germany. In World War I German Mormons, much like German Jews, fought bravely in the German army to prove their loyalty to the nation-state and claim equal rights as German citizens. The chapter on Mormons in Weimar Germany is particularly interesting.
It is in the second part of the book that Nelson turns to his main argument, namely that there was a “Mormon Sonderweg” in Germany, that Mormonism and Nazism had a uniquely common Weltanschauung, that “the Latter-day saints were every bit as authoritarian and intolerant of internal dissent among ordinary members as were the National Socialists regarding rebellion within their ranks” (p. 97), and that Mormons “prospered” during this period by exploiting “National Socialism for the benefit of their church” (p. 98). It is at this point that the major flaw and bias in Nelson’s argument becomes apparent. Nelson chooses to compare the LDS Church with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (he also briefly mentions the Christian Scientists and the Seventh-day Adventists) which he justifies by emphasizing that both are American-headquartered, neo-Protestant, minority religions of roughly similar size; however, this is a misleading comparison for several reasons. First, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, uniquely among all Christian religions in Germany, made no concessions to the Nazi regime and came under intense state persecution. While one wishes that all Christians had taken such a radical stance it seems unfair to compare the Mormons to the outstanding example among Christian churches; no one can measure up to it. Second, Mormons believed in loyalty to the state, unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses. Joseph Smith had included this fundamental belief as one of the basic maxims of the LDS Church in the Twelfth Article of Faith (one of the Thirteen Articles of Faith written in 1842). Furthermore, the Articles of Faith were made part of LDS canon in 1880; thus it was a fundamental part of Mormon doctrine for decades, not “dredged up” in 1933, as Nelson repeatedly claims. Nelson tries to make much of Mormon flouting of the law in regard to polygamy and missionary work in the 1800s to support his argument that the LDS Church cynically decided to suddenly invoke loyalty to the state in relations with the Nazi regime. This ignores Mormons' belief that the Constitution protected religious freedom which, in their view, included the practice of polygamy. Nelson also minimizes the federal “raid” in Utah in the 1880s and the impact that it had on LDS Church-state relations. Mormon leaders, on their home turf, attempted to oppose the power of the US federal government over the issue of polygamy and for the first time took the Mormon Church “underground” as it faced the most extreme state persecution in its history, which nearly caused it to collapse. In the aftermath of the 1890 Manifesto, the LDS Church worked to normalize its relations with not just the US government, but with all states, including Germany. So, for more than forty years the Mormon Church had been working strictly within the law in Germany, and it is misleading to proclaim that Mormons cynically “dusted off the ninety-one-year-old Twelfth Article of Faith in 1933 under the totalitarian Nazis,” as Nelson baldly states (p. 98). Lastly, Nelson’s argument for a “Mormon Sonderweg” (already problematic as the entire theory of a German Sonderweg has come under great criticism in the last thirty years since David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley’s The Peculiarities of German History (1984) and is generally viewed as outdated) only stands up so long as Mormon relations with the Nazi regime are viewed in a vacuum, compared only with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, outside the context of the rest of the Christian churches in Germany.
In defense of his idea of a Mormon Sonderweg the rest of the chapters in part 2 focus on Mormon collaboration with the new regime: genealogy, basketball and the Olympics, giving up Boy Scouts, Mormon Hitler myths, “obtuse” Mormon leaders, mission politics, the anti-immigrant (with antisemitic undertones) of the LDS Church leader J. Reuben Clark, etc. Later, Nelson also discusses a Mormon hero who saved Jews during Kristallnacht as well as a Mormon Nazi who became the commandant of a “wild” concentration camp, one of many that popped up early on under the SA before the SS shut them down and created a more systematic and murderous system of camps. This evidence, while true and disturbing, was not, unfortunately, unique to Mormons in Christian church relations with the Nazi regime. As Richard J. Evans relates in The Third Reich in Power (2006), many German Protestants and Catholics collaborated with the regime after 1933. Surprisingly, Nelson hardly mentions the policies taken by the Evangelical or Catholic churches in Nazi Germany. There is not one mention of the extremely controversial Reichskonkordat signed in 1933 between Hitler and the Vatican which effectively surrendered the political power of the Catholic Church in Germany and undermined the resistance of Catholic Germans to the Nazi regime. Nor does Nelson mention the Protestant “German Christian” movement that embraced Nazism wholeheartedly and tried to fuse the two beliefs. Additionally, Dagmar Herzog’s recent work emphasizes that most Christian churches in Germany in 1933 believed that they could work with the Nazis because they (mistakenly) saw them as a conservative ally against the threat of “atheist Communism” and the liberal social mores in Germany, especially in regards to sex. The story of Elizabeth Welker, the Mormon mission president’s wife, and her concern about “lax moral standards” at Nazi youth camps (p. 141) was repeated among Protestant and Catholic leaders. Equally important in its absence is any mention of Nazi persecution of Protestants and Catholics, such as the trial and imprisonment of Martin Niemöller of the Confessing Church or Nazi harassment of Catholic clerics, pilgrims, and processions. Any political religious activity was suppressed by the Nazis. Instead, Nelson minimizes the coercive nature of the Nazi dictatorship and blithely claims that Protestants and Catholics survived “unscathed” between 1933 and 1939 (p. 343). The indirect influence that Nazi suppression of Protestant and Catholics might have had on the LDS Church is also ignored. When this context is given, Nelson’s “Mormon Sonderweg” becomes much less persuasive.
The last part of the book is an interesting examination of Mormon memory of the prewar Nazi period. After a brief chapter that rushes through the events of the Second World War, Nelson turns to a critique of the LDS Church leadership memory politics focused on the case of Helmuth Hübener, a young German Mormon who resisted the Nazi regime and was executed by the Nazis. Nelson is highly critical of the decision of LDS Church leaders in having a play about Hübener censored at Brigham Young University due to concerns about the message that a story of resistance against a totalitarian state might have on delicate Mormon relations with the East German Communist government (where thousands of Mormon Germans remained after 1945). Yet, there are few actions by the LDS Church leadership that Nelson is not critical of; for example, he criticizes one Mormon leader for being too accommodating with the Communists and, on the very same page, another leader for his “neo-McCarthyism” and being an anticommunist (p. 323). Also, these chapters on memory, while very interesting, suffer again from a lack of context concerning wider developments of postwar memory in Germany, such as examined by Frank Biess in his book Homecomings (2009) that explored the role of Christian churches in constructing postwar memory.
Nelson is most convincing when he argues that Mormons in Nazi Germany “behaved as ordinary [German] citizens” (p. 182). Some became convinced Nazis, others resisted, and the majority tried to adapt to the new regime and often, as Richard J. Evans argues, increasingly retreated into the private sphere and their private lives as the dictatorship strengthened its grip on power and wrested control of the politicized public sphere. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, Nelson has presented the Mormon leadership in the least positive light possible. The decisions taken by LDS leaders in their relations with Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1939 were not infallible or perfect, but nor were they uniquely heinous or driven by a shared Weltanschauung with Nazism. Despite its weaknesses, Nelson’s polemical monograph is very interesting and will surely be an important, and controversial, work in the fields of Mormon and German history in the future.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Grant Harward. Review of Nelson, David Conley, Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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