Mormons and Nazis: A Tale of Two Tragedies

History hurts.  No one comes out of a survey of the past without wounds, blemishes, failures, embarassing flaws, and ugly revelations.  We enjoy it when history turns its spotlight upon our enemies.  But history is the story of man’s sinful nature.  There are no golden ages, no pristine eras, and no pure movements.  This does not reduce all people and movements to the same level of sin.  The Nineveh that repented under Jonah’s reluctant preaching was far better than the Nineveh known for some of the worst atrocities of the ancient world.

Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany by David Conley Nelson is a tragic story.  It compounds the disgrace of many Germans who compromised with, ignored, remained passive toward, or fully embraced the National Socialist regime and its leader Adolph Hitler.  Many religious leaders and members of religious sects were persecuted by the Nazis.  Many religious leaders and religious people worked behind the scenes to protect innocent victims of Nazi evils, usually Jews.  People like Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth are remembered for their stands against Naziism.

To the shame of the name of Christianity, there was a large faction of church people in Germany who embraced the German Christian movement and opposed the Confessing Church.  In difficult times, professions of faith are often cashed in for political expediency or safety from ostracism or persecution.  The story is told repeatedly of Christians who stood against not only the Nazi regime but against fellow churchmen during those evil days.

A less known aspect of the story of the Third Reich is the role of Mormons in that time and place.  I admit that until I first heard of this book, I never had a single thought about Mormons even being in Germany.  But they had been promoting their religion in Germany for decades.  After getting past their usual problems regarding polygamy and other Mormon distinctives, they had organized groups throughout Germany.  There was, as expected, lots of contact and interaction between the German Mormons and the Mormon establishment in Utah.

With the rise of the Nazi movement, especially after it took power, the Mormons played it safe, too safe.  Because Hitler was interested in Germans being able to compete in Olympic basketball, a door opened for Mormons to teach basketball to German athletes.  Safe enough, right?  But pictures exist of Mormons, suited out for basketball, giving Nazi salutes.

The story continues.  The Boy Scouts, an international organization which included Mormons, was replaced by the Hitler Youth.  By and large, Mormons went along.  Pictures of Jesus and Joseph Smith in their places of worship began including pictures of Hitler.  References to Judaism and Jewish people were expunged from printed materials.

The most condemning aspect was a shared concern among Mormons and Nazis for genealogies.  Mormonism holds to a doctrine regarding baptism on behalf of the dead, so Mormons research ancestry extensively.  Nazis were bound and determined to prove pure Aryrian ancestry, so they researched ancestry extensively.

Mormon leaders, including some in Utah, praised the Nazi regime, embraced it, supported its goals, and served it totally.  It is ugly history, and it is to the credit of David Conley Nelson, who is a trained historian and a Mormon, that he has written this powerful book.

But there are moments of grace, meaning God’s common grace, in this story.  A large portion of the last third of the book is about a remarkable young boy named Helmuth Hubener.  Young, inquisitive, intellectual, and bold, this blond haired boy was the epitome of the best of German culture.  But he is remember for being the youngest person formally tried and executed by the Third Reich for treason.

Hubener listened to English radio broadcasts and noticed the discrepancies with the Nazi version of information and that given by the enemy.  Using a typewriter and enlisting a few friends, he began writing and distributing material critical of the Third Reich.  His bravery extended to the very end.  He was brutalized by the Gestapo and harassed by the court.  He spoke against them to their faces and resisted any action that might have saved his life or lessened his sentence.  For his courage, he was guillotined.  He was only 17.

Helmuth Hubener, in the center, with friends. Hubener was executed by the Third Reich and his friends were imprisoned.

The tragedy doesn’t end there.  In his own church, one of the leaders, termed an LDS President, was a fervent Nazi named Arthur Zander.  Zander saw to it that Hubener was excommunicated by the church.  After the war, Zander moved to Utah.

When a Mormon playwright and a group of students at Brigham Young produced a play about the life of Hubener in the early 1980s, church and university officials axed the performances.  There was also opposition to Mormon historians who were trying to tell the Hubener story.

Thankfully, the truth won out over time.  The play, and other versions of the Hubener story, were later produced and performed.  Books have been written, and the story has been told.

I recieved my copy of Moroni and the Swastika from the University of Oklahoma Press.  I am required to say that I am not bound to favorably review the book, but I am glad to say that I highly recommend this book.

As most of my readers know, I am a Christian and would be described as Reformed, Presbyterian, and Calvinistic.  I don’t feel it is necessary in this context to discuss the many and fundamentally different views I have from Mormonism.  I salute the author for his good work and honest approach to history.

The book may have only a limited appeal.  After all, who all studies Mormons in Germany just for fun?  But the issues of religious convictions and the State are critical issues.  Accomodationism is a danger to all of us.  We are people of our time.  We might be stumped as to why religious people in Germany fell for Hitler while we find ourselves making our own compromises with the culture–political and social.

I thank God for Helmuth Hubener.  His story broke my heart.  His courage has astounded me.

As a final note, perhaps the author should follow up this detailed scholarly book with a shorter version, maybe about 150 pages.  Much of the story that needs to be heard may find a broader audience.  Until then, put this book on your buying list, or wish list, and your reading list.


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