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 the 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.
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?