Book Review: Moroni and the Swastika

Utah residents: Weller Book Works is hosting a book launch tonight at 7pm in Salt Lake’s Trolley Square for Moroni and the Swastika. David Conley Nelson will read a passage from, answer questions about, and sign copies of the book for attendees. 

 

Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany, written by David Conley Nelson, is a confronting historical look at Swastikathe relationship of the Mormon Church and Germany. The book itself is a result of Nelson’s 20-year project researching the German history of the church that culminated in his doctoral dissertation from whence this book is derived. Relating much more than only the Nazi regime, this is an account of the church and its German membership from the first missionaries sent to Germany in the 1850’s, well into the telling of the reactions of attendees of the Alaborg, Denmark Mormon History Association conference in 2000 where Nelson presented some of his research.

 

The breadth of the book is both positive and negative. It is positive in that it squarely positions readers to understand the historical relationship of the church with German Mormon pioneers, German church membership and Germany in general. Conversely, in undertaking such a broad report, the first section of the book felt long in anticipation of the upcoming analysis of the relationship of the church and the Nazis, which is not discussed until section 2. Nevertheless, Nelson’s writing style, a combination of narrative examples that engross the reader, peppered with analysis and context, make the book easy to read and engaging. Less academic in style than other comparative historical texts, it gives the reader a good foundational knowledge in regard to the position of the Mormon Church and its German members leading up to, following, and during World War II.

 

In reading the text, it was disconcerting to understand the admiration of the Mormons by the Nazis in genealogical research, and distressing to discover that such detailed genealogical records appeared to be equal, if not more important than actual living, surviving church members in the post-war rebuilding of Germany. It was equally disturbing to comprehend the willingness of the organizational church to not only comply, but be seen as supporting Hitler and the Nazi party to the extent of ambitious Mission President Alfred C. Ree’s ‘Heil Hitler’ arm-salutes and the outward refusal of the Salt-Lake based J. Reuben Clark’s to allow LDS Jewish converts from emigrating to the US. (Interesting in itself is the author’s preferred use of the term, “emigrating” rather than “immigrating,”  in conjunction with the relocation of German church members to Utah.) A righteous measure of Helmuth Hübener’s life, actions and subsequent reactions are included. Hübener was Mormon boy who, at the tender age of 17 was beheaded for actively distributing anti-Nazi literature. A play about Hübener’s life, written by a BYU graduate and performed in Provo in the 1970’s, was quickly quashed by the church. Nelson analyzes this history and historiography, and attributes the suppression of the play to the church’s desire to continue missionary work in and retain a positive relationship with Germany, in addition to avoiding any offence of former Nazi-party church members who had relocated to Utah at the end of the war.

 

An honest fact in most histories written of the Mormon Church is its American, male-centric focus. Nelson is no different. Like other historians of Mormon Church, Nelson was bound by the most plentiful, yet limited resource secured by the church: mission records. Mission records, kept by males, either by male Mission Presidents or by youthful, American missionaries, are often absent of cultural nuance, include sparse Relief Society reports, and but by rare exception are absent of female input. In many cases, mission records mention the Relief Society as an afterthought or a required task, making the historical documentation of Mormon women all but absent outside of North America.

 

In Moroni and The Nazis, Nelson took opportunity to use two diaries of Mission President’s wives, Ida May Dais Rees, and Rose Valentine, rare treasures in such a male-dominated church. However, Nelson’s references to the Valentine diary were limited, and Rees was positioned aside her Nazi-saluting husband, and primarily noted in terms of her political prestige and associations. Though her political actions were likely church inspired, she comes across as less connected to Mormonism and more connected to “worldliness.” Factually, we don’t know if these women mentioned the Relief Society or the work accomplished by the society in Germany. This is an unusual omission as Mission President’s wives traditionally acted as Mission Relief Society Presidents and would have had their own Nazi-related challenges in mid-war Germany. Comparatively, men are mentioned by name, and include professional, political and religious documentation and detailing as a matter of routine. Other than large comparisons of the Relief Society involved in general work, the work and position of women in the church during the Nazi reign is strikingly absent in the book. It is particularly odd that the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Relief Society occurred in 1942, and would likely have been recognised by German Mormon women, amid the war. It is possible that there are no records of German women celebrating or even recognising the 100th anniversary of the Relief Society, but if this is the case, surely in a Mormon history, the absence of this is notable in and of itself.

 

Similarly and painfully, the book includes details of Mormon girls and women who were violently sexually assaulted by mobs of Russian soldiers as the iron curtain came crashing across Germany. In post-war carnage and recovery, details of food supplies being delivered by Allied soldiers who had served Germans missions, in addition to support from the church, were included. Nelson included the delivery and distribution of basics such as housing and food as these are obviously necessary for survival. But Nelson did not determine if the church offered any service to the girls and women who were unquestionably and repeatedly sexually traumatised. As other historians estimate that nearly 2 million girls and women were sexually assaulted in Germany in this short time period, usually gang-raped, it seems negligent to dismiss determining the action or inaction of the Mormon Church in offering support to our assaulted sisters. Perhaps the church offered no relief. If this is the case then, the organizational sin of omission should at least be noted. The book has an occasional nod and positive attribution aimed at Mormon women and the Relief Society, but as a whole, these mentions are brief and fleeting. In this, Nelson’s work places women in the same position as many church records: as peripheral post-scripts to the “real” story.
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Because the title includes the term, “swastika,” I anticipated that there might be more analysis of the Boy Scouts than what is included. I was surprised that the Boy Scout use of the swastika was wholly absent (as it is presumed by historians that Hitler adopted the icon from the Boy Scouts’ “Good Luck” and “Friendship” swastika badges),  and that the Boy Scouts are only relayed in terms of their Mormon affiliation. Nelson makes no distinction if the Scout Troops reported to National German Boy Scout body, or if they only reported to church (American) leadership. In this, he misses the opportunity of exploring the differing facets of Mormon duality and nationalism associated with the closure of church Boy Scout troops as required by the Nazi’s Hitler Youth program. Nelson’s work identifies the Mormon Boy Scouts as just that—Mormon Boy Scouts. But in Germany then, as is today, a national affiliation-
(American troops abroad or patriotic locals)-  is a necessarily affiliating concept imbedded in Scout dogma. By including details of local congregations being primarily led by American missionaries before the war, and local German leadership only gaining church leadership positions when the Americans were evacuated, one wonders if the church scout program was led by Americans before the war. This is an important consideration in determining the closure of German Mormon Boy Scout troops in positioning them as politically questionable organizations in the eyes of the Nazis.

 

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Do I recommend this book? Yes.

 

For feminist Mormon women, the book briefly records some gems, including the records women blessing and passing the sacrament, without reprimand, in absence of men who were in conscripted military service. It also includes the fact that women were assigned to, and “assiduously” collected tithing during the war, resulting in a tidy sum ready for church collection at the end of the war. Treasures such as these are imperative in discussing the future of women in the church today, and show the capability and honour of women serving in the church.

 

For those seeking to grant greater Latter-day Saints-sainthood to an anti-Nazi martyr, the details and controversy surrounding Helmuth Hübener and his legacy are fully detailed and discussed. Equal to this is the complex and ugly relationship of the church and some of its leaders in securing a relationship with the Nazis, squarely placing the church in the position of organizational Nazi sympathiser. There are occasional notes of torture at the hands of Mormon Nazis, reports including the depth of cruelty in the recorded sexual assaults, and the distasteful record of a branch president who posted a sign on the front of the branch building that forbade anyone of Jewish descent from attending services. In this, it is mindful for the reader to be aware of this violent content; it is not a book for the weak-hearted. Nonetheless, it is an important contribution to Mormon history that should not be overlooked in consideration of some of the issues at hand in the church today. It can be purchased from after 26 February at Amazon and with free international shipping from Fishpond.

 

What do you think? Are you interested in buying this kind of book on Mormon history? Why or Why not?

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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15 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow. Thanks for this amazing book review, Spunky. It sounds fascinating. I have a question about Hubener. Was his excommunication a rogue event, enacted by a Nazi-loving stake president? Or did the institutional church (including higher up church leaders) in Germany support this excommunication? Was there any pushback from members when he was excommunicated? It’s such a tragic story.

    Related to this is another question. Was it your sense in reading this book that most Mormons in Germany were enthusiastic Nazis? Or did they feel like they had no choice but to support the regime? Were there other Mormons actively trying to fight against Hitler and the Nazis?

    Thanks for including your thoughts about the author’s treatment of women.While I wish there were more, I love that he wrote about women blessing and passing the sacrament and collecting tithing.

    • spunky says:

      It is a complicated book, Caroline! To answer your questions, Hübener was excommunicated by a rogue branch president in absentia (It wasn’t until the 1950’s that church members outside of the US were organized into stakes and wards). This branch president was a devout Nazi who wanted to remove images of Christ from the branch building and replace them with images of Hitler. There seems to have been little push back at the time of the excommunication, but one of the branch president’s counselors was the one who ensured that the temple work for the boy was done after the boy’s excommunication was revoked, and just shortly after the end of the war- making it an ambitious action because of the temple location (Switzerland) and financially desperate state of Germans in the postwar years.

      From Nelson’s perspective, it seems as though German church members were nationalists– they fought for Germany as most would fight for their country. Some, if not many, were devout Nazis. Most checked their politics and associated weaponry at the meeting house doors, but still wore requisite wartime uniforms to church services. By and large, it seems that German church members -at least those who resided in Germany, were more prone to be pro-Nazi. There are significantly more cases of Mormon Nazi sympathizers and supporters than there are of Mormon Nazi dissidents.

      I’ll respond to the women’s question in another entry as a few people have mentioned it in the comments.

  2. Ziff says:

    Thanks for the review, Spunky! I’m interested to read this book.

    I’m intrigued by the women blessing and passing the sacrament when the men had been conscripted. I assume that was a locally-made decision (although maybe I’m overly pessimistic), because I would think the Church today would very much prefer people not have the sacrament at all than that they have it by the hands of unordained women. This is a long stretch of a connection, but this kind of reminds me of a comment Bryndis Roberts made in her Feminist Mormon Housewives podcast interview, where she said that she appreciated Baptist pragmatism, and cited as an example her mother, who had served as clerk for her church for decades even though the position was technically only supposed to be open to men. I wish we could have a little more of that pragmatism in the LDS Church. (Here’s the link: http://feministmormonhousewivespodcast.org/episode-128-meet-bryndis-roberts/)

  3. Liz says:

    I am really interested in reading this book after reading your review, Spunky. I love the mentions of women blessing and passing the sacrament, too.

  4. Emily U says:

    I’m glad this kind of scholarship is being done. To be honest this book is on my mental list of books I’d like to read but probably never will, so I really appreciate you reviewing it.

    The story of Helmuth Hübener is one I’d never heard until this book came out, and his brave opposition, excommunication, and death are things that need to become part of Mormon historical consciousness.

    The existence of Mormon Nazis makes me realize I have a hope that is constantly disappointed but never quite killed, which is that my fellow Saints and I will act as though the gospel of Jesus is our core, guiding identity, not nationality, politics, or other affiliations. I believe if that were our guiding light we’d see through and work against evil ideologies and practices, but life isn’t simple, and people have complicated allegiances. I just read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which set in German-occupied France during WWII, and I thought it did an unforgettable job of showing those complications. Beautiful writing about nature, too.

    • spunky says:

      “The existence of Mormon Nazis makes me realize I have a hope that is constantly disappointed but never quite killed, which is that my fellow Saints and I will act as though the gospel of Jesus is our core, guiding identity, not nationality, politics, or other affiliations.”

      I feel this, too Emily. Only too deeply. I think this book can serve as a reminder that we need to do better to check our minds at the doors of the church, and use our hearts to hear the spirit and respond to promptings.

    • FoxyJ says:

      Enzio Busche’s memoir (Yearning for the Living God) talks about growing up in Nazi Germany, and he mentions that many Germans, Mormon or not, were drawn to the Nazi party’s nationalism, pro-family policies (including explicit support of childbearing and rearing), and emphasis on clean living. Busche was not a Mormon during his youth, but joined the Church later–I read his memoir a few years ago and thought it had some great insights about being a German Mormon during the second half of the 20th century. This sounds like it might be an interesting book.

      Who is the publisher of this book? And what are Nelson’s credentials (independent scholar, professor, ?) Neither are mentioned in the review.

  5. spunky says:

    Thank you for your comments mentioning women passing the sacrament and collecting tithes, Caroline, Ziff and Liz.

    As I mentioned, these mentions were brief, beautiful treasures. Shockingly, the book included more details on Mormon women being raped than there were of Mormon women passing the sacrament (from memory, 3 or more rape paragraphs compared to 1-ish paragraph on women passing the sacrament and collecting tithes.)

    In my mind, this served to feed the male-only perspective of the author. Rape involves men, so it took higher ranking (more space), whereas sacrament and tithes collecting was absent of men, so not given as much attention. Quite frankly, I did not feel like the author took the women included in the book seriously. I felt like the mission presidents’ wives were sometimes positioned to seem almost comical in reference to the political seriousness around them. He did make broad comment about “natural” leadership skills of women which I felt was more patronizing than authentic, based on the fact he neglected to include academic or other analysis (or in one case to mention) the 100th anniversary of the Relief Society, the reaction of the church regarding the grotesque sexual abuse of women at the end of the war, and the women who passed the sacrament in the absence of men.

    So to me, the book is unfinished because of these omissions, but still a work of consideration because it talks about the role of the church church in relationship to Germany, including a nod to President Monson’s position as bishop of a German ward, his work in the German Mission from 1963, his questionable position in quashing the Hübener play in 1976, and his calling a German to the First Presidency .

  6. EmilyCC says:

    Oh! I’m so excited to read this book, Spunky. I’m particularly glad that you took the time to outline how women were addressed. I don’t read so many Mormon-themed books because I see so much androcentrism in Church, I just can’t bear to see more of it in academic Mormon writing, but I’m realizing book reviews written with this in mind make the idea of reading them more interesting.

  7. Miles Moore says:

    Nice review as I am very interested in this book. I am an active member of the LDS church and such history if un-biased (as possible) can be of great use to members like me. War, politics, etc. can be a complicated thing, and add religion to that and even more so, just like the history of Blacks and the Priesthood is not a simple but complex thing in a world of racism and change. Anyways thank you for your review.

  8. I normally do not reply to reviews immediately after they’re published, for two good reasons.

    First, I believe that review authors should be given some space to either bask in their glory or stew in their own juices. Reviewing is a scholarly endeavor, as is authorship. It would be highly disrespectful for an author to jump into an on-line discussion of a review right away. This is the reviewer’s turn on the stage. I’ve had mine.

    Secondly, having spent fifteen years researching, writing, and shepherding this book through the publishing cycle, I’d rather let my long-considered and often-revised words take precedence. I’d hate for a reader’s lasting impression of my work to be some half-cocked, emotional comment uttered by me during an on-line forum exchange.

    Having said that, I’d like to address one particular aspect of Spunky’s excellent review, and the escalation of that issue in the comments that followed. I refer to the observation that my book is androcentric. Actually, I was in accord with Spunky’s initial observation that most of the historical actors in my book were male, thus limiting the available source material that supports the activities of German Mormon women during the Third Reich. This is true. As the picture below illustrates (I hope I got the HTML code right), the Mormon mission field in the 1930s was quite male-centric. This is a picture of missionaries on the way to Germany.

    Simply put, the available source material did not support a larger role for women in the narrative. You could argue, I suppose, that I should have looked harder. You might even find a diary or other record that I missed in my extensive combing of the archives. But the scarcity of women’s sources was a limiting factor. This is history, not literature. I could not atone for the deficit by making something up.
    It is the comments section, rather than the review, to which I take the most umbrage. Yes, I did find three instances of German LDS women being raped by advancing Red Army soldiers. I found only one citation of women blessing and passing the sacrament. Actually, the exact verbiage of the second record, which I accurately quoted, indicted that there were “several” such events that took place during first missionary evacuation during the 1938 Czechoslovakian crisis (p. 237).

    I’m also a bit flummoxed by the suggestion that I favored rape stories over women passing the sacrament because rape is an act that involves a male participant. The supposition, I presume, is that women passing the sacrament passed it only in the absence of any qualified male priesthood holders, and that those receiving this liturgical ordinance were exclusively female. That may not necessarily have been so. There may have been males in attendance, but I just don’t know.

    I do not wish to belittle Spunky’s review, which I consider to be excellent, and also appreciate her kindness in promoting my book talk in Salt Lake City on the evening of the day that it appeared. I also realize that in actively seeking a review from the Exponent, I was soliciting a Mormon feminist publication, which is wont to such criticism in the books that it reviews.

    I suppose what riles me a bit is the implication that my book is another male-centric contribution written by a characteristically dense guy who was insensitive to the implications of his androcentric work. In actuality, I consider myself a feminist, and try very hard to keep that in the forefront of my awareness. I have published an OW profile. One reason that I’m not rearing the children by my second marriage in the LDS Church is its limitation on the participation and authority of women. In my local UCC congregation, by contrast, my 13-year-old daughter can aspire to be the minister or a national church official. I encouraged and supported my wife in her endeavor to finish her construction science degree, a hardhat profession where women still face a considerable glass ceiling.

    I do not wish to appear defensive, but merely to point out the problem with sources and my intentions in writing this book. My sources wrote about men. I hope I have not offended anyone with my response, nor do want to appear ungrateful.

    Thank you, one more time, Spunky’s review of my book and all of the kind comments in the review and the comments that followed.

    • Please excuse my lack of picture embedding competence. Here’s another try at the image I attempted to include in my post:

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/5vl220yhkqpm8mj/PH%206634-1%20copy.jpg?dl=0

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment, David. I agree with you and pointed out that church resources reflect women’s input and experience on a very limited basis. The review was never to imply that you were misogynistic, but that church historical resources often are because of the institutional class structure that places women’s words and experiences as minor. Because the church materials reflect the male-centrist point of view, it is nearly impossible to avoid the overwhelming institutional sexism when doing academic work- I know this by experience.

      I think the book was excellent and did a great job of unearthing some ugly truths about the church, as well as inspiring some beautiful truths about women and the sacrament. I also hope that you book inspires change in the church in the way records are kept, and they way value is placed on women’s voices and experiences. I also think your book opens a lot of doors and invites further research and developing analysis and thought on Mormon German women in the Second World War — this is a very powerful compliment to you and your work.

      Thank you so much for commenting and for writing this important book.

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