Book Review of Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
Reviewed by Dr. Alan Keele, Emeritus Professor of German Studies, Brigham Young University. January, 2016
The philosopher George Santayana famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The whole point of historiography is to learn lessons, sometimes even very painful lessons, from the past. And if we genuinely wish to learn something important from the past, few epochs and few locations in all history have more to teach us than the case of the Mormons in the Third Reich. Some of its lessons are excruciatingly embarrassing; some are absolutely inspiring. All are relevant for us today.
A new book by David Conley Nelson entitled Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015) demonstrates and documents a very broad spectrum of Mormon responses to National Socialism, that movement widely considered to be the quintessential historical Evil.
On one end of the spectrum we encounter heroic people like a Branch President in Hannover, Max Reschke, who on the “night of broken glass” (Reichskristallnacht), November 8-9, 1938, when synagogues were burned and Jewish shops destroyed all over Germany, boldly took two of his Jewish neighbors away from a rabble of their Nazi tormentors by appearing to flash a non-existent Gestapo badge on the inside of his coat lapel, loaded the frightened couple into his car and drove them 400 miles overnight to safety across the Swiss border.
David Nelson tells us how Max Reschke also sheltered a prominent Jewish banker, and sent his own children to bring relief supplies to the banker’s wife who had been taken to the Hannover ghetto. Later “Reschke shielded a Russian prisoner of war and protected a Polish slave laborer who had been assigned to work in his industrial plant.” [p. 3]
For harboring the Jewish banker, “Reschke suffered arrest and temporary imprisonment in a concentration camp. But as a factory foreman he also resisted the Nazi Labor Front’s attempts to organize his workers, and as a Boy Scout leader he opposed the Hitler Youth’s attempts to take over his Mormon Church scouting troop.” [p. 3]
On the other extreme end of the spectrum, David Nelson recounts the horrifying story of a Mormon named Erich Krause from Berlin, who had been “an especially cruel and sadistic Nazi torturer and murderer.” [p. 265]
Nelson learned about Krause from a reporter with the Wall Street Journal named Frederick Kempe, who had discovered from an old trunk containing family journals that Krause, a relative he had never met, a man who had married Kempe’s aunt, had murdered dozens and tortured perhaps hundreds as the commandant of what was known as a wildes Konzentrationslager (something like an “informal or provisional concentration camp,” often located in the basement of some Nazi building, especially in the early years before many of the larger formal camps were established).
Nelson reports that Krause had joined the Church in 1923 and the brown shirts of the SA (Sturmabteilung = Storm Division) five years later, in 1928, ultimately rising to the rank of Obertruppenführer (Senior Group Leader), the senior-most rank for Nazi storm troopers.
In Frederick Kempe’s book about his research published in 1999 entitled Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons), Kempe, paraphrasing the language of one of Krause’s sons, wrote: “[Erich Krause] felt very strongly about the church. Mormonism and National Socialism were his two greatest passions ... One required absolute faith in some superior being, and the other demanded absolute loyalty to a Führer.” [as quoted in Nelson, p.269]
When Kempe’s book appeared, Nelson tells us Krause’s younger daughter, whom Nelson here deferentially calls “Inge,” was particularly shocked and horrified. “Her loving father ... had suddenly become a monster.” [p. 267] In time, she made a pilgrimage to a red brick building on General-Pape-Strasse in Berlin’s Tempelhof district, in the cellar of which her father had brutally terrorized more than two thousand people, mostly Communists and Social Democrats, between March and December, 1933.
Relying on information from Kempe’s book, Nelson provides gruesome details: “[Erich Krause] beat prisoners with a rubber truncheon and an iron bar. He sliced open the soles of their feet and packed pepper into the wounds ... He gave one man a rope and told him to hang himself; presumably weary of the torture, the emotionally drained prisoner went into the lavatory and complied. Krause exercised prisoners to the point of exhaustion and extreme thirst, and then made them drink a concoction of wastewater and human feces. He told one prisoner he was free to go and then had him shot as an escapee ... A number of prisoners died of gunshot wounds, which he never inflicted in front of others – but he made other prisoners fall to their hands and knees and lick up the spilled blood with their tongues.” [p. 267]
After the war began in September, 1939, Erich Krause became a staff sergeant in the military police and followed the German troops into Poland, sending postcards home from places like Łódź, site of a ghetto from which Jews were sent to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. This caused Krause’s son Fridtjof Krause (“Inge’s” half-brother) to speculate that his father had been somehow involved in “breaking up the ghettos,” [p. 268] presumably a euphemism for sending Jews to extermination camps.
After the war, Krause began “having violent family arguments that resulted in frequent beatings of his second wife and children.” [p. 268] “Inge,” a much younger daughter by his subsequent third wife, evidently did not experience such beatings, remembering her father only as a kindly and devout man.
More than five years after the war and 17 years after the commission of his crimes, in October of 1950 Erich Krause was recognized on the street by one of his victims from the General-Pape-Strasse and eventually arrested. Kept in investigative prison for a year, he was charged in Berlin State Court “with murder, crimes against humanity, and applying torture and violence to gain confessions.” [p. 268]
The story has another vexing twist for Mormons: During Krause’s imprisonment, the President of the East German Mission, Walter Stover, an estimable German emigrant to the US with a legendary record for being generous (a wealthy man, he paid out of his own pocket for the construction of a fine chapel in Berlin-Dahlem, for example, which is still in use today, as well as five others, in Hannover, Hamburg Eppindorf, Bremen, Bremerhaven, and Kiel), wrote a letter to the authorities vouching for Krause and offering to post his bail: “Herr Krause is personally known to me as a member of our church. I am convinced that he will keep himself available to the court at any time and hasn’t any intention to suppress evidence or leave Berlin.” [p. 269]
(It is important to notice here that Stover does not bring up the issue of Krause’s guilt or innocence, stating only that Krause should not be considered a flight risk. Given Stover’s well-deserved reputation for largess, and given that even Krause had to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the fact that Stover was willing to try to help him get released on bail while awaiting trial in nowise makes the pastoral Stover, an American citizen with no known Nazi sympathies, into a kind of willing accomplice after the fact.)
(Likewise, one cannot conclude, because members of his Mormon branch are said to have regularly visited Krause in jail, that they were also somehow sympathetic to his political views. Absent any further specific evidence, exactly how much Stover and the other Mormons knew about the charges against Krause and how they felt about them will likely remain unknowable.)
In any event, Erich Krause was eventually acquitted because no witnesses to the murders were forthcoming and the statute of limitations had expired for the “lesser” crimes of torture.
After his death and after the publication of Frederick Kempe’s book, Krause’s daughter “Inge” learned in a chance encounter with one of her father’s old friends, that he, along with some of Krause’s other prior acquaintances, had seen her dad on a Berlin streetcar soon after the war. He was disheveled, unshaven, wearing a dirty winter coat. He tried to pretend he hadn’t seen them. When they persisted, he finally told his old companions: “I have served the wrong master.” [p. 271] After the horrors of the Holocaust, these words – with all due respect to the gentler era of a John Greenleaf Whittier – have to be now seen as the saddest words of tongue or pen.
The answer to the question of how religious people can turn into monsters like Erich Krause can be sought and found in the sometimes-hard-to-swallow simple fact that extreme right-wing political movements like National Socialism pose a trap for believing people by pretending to stand on moral high ground. They appear to oppose all the “immorality” of their times which believing people instinctively loathe, thus luring the unsuspecting faithful into their snare. (In actual fact, of course, the immorality of National Socialism was to equal or even eclipse everything which had ever been or would ever be defined as immoral in the history of the world, which is, however, not to minimize the immorality of Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Il, ISIS, or any number of other monstrosities.)
National Socialists hated all kinds of homosexuals, transvestites and long-haired cross-dressers, for example, a global hatred extending to all the decadent, libertine behaviors left over from the Roaring Twenties such as erotic night clubs and cabarets, prostitution, pornography, and drug dealing.
The nationalism expressly spelled out in the term National Socialism tapped into the almost boundless fervor and often unthinking zeal of patriotism. How, good people reasoned, could fervent love of country ever be bad?
Nazis also hated Communism, which faithful people knew to be godless. Communism was considered (treasonously!) international in orientation as opposed to patriotically national. And it was associated in the bourgeois mind with all the rampant immorality of the era.
Communists also favored abortion on demand. Nazis, on the other hand, opposed abortion (except when it coincided with their desire to kill the deformed), and appeared to promote family values, encouraging mothers to bear more children, for example, awarding the Mother’s Cross to those who did. (Of course the ultimate aim was to breed more soldiers for the Führer.)
Nazism had additional superficial appeals especially to Mormons: Hitler was known as a non-smoking teetotaler. And the Nazi regime had been the first in history to allow Mormons unrestrained access to genealogy archives, previously jealously guarded by the state churches, Lutheran and Catholic. (Of course the perverse, anti-Semitic reason for the Nazis’ interest in genealogy now makes us shudder ...)
Folklore, encouraged by pseudo social scientists like a certain Max Hähnle of Tübingen, maintained that Hitler had visited an Austrian Mormon branch as a child – in Haag am Hausruck, 37 miles east of his childhood home in Braunau am Inn – where among other things he had learned about the Word of Wisdom and had acquired the idea of adapting Fast Sunday into Eintopfsonntag (casserole Sunday), a Nazi fund-raising initiative involving a simple dish for Sunday dinner with the savings being given to the Party. Some held that Hitler had actually secretly joined the Church in Haag.
Even the term thousand-year Reich seemed to suggest to certain susceptible LDS souls the idea that Hitler had been called of God to usher in the millennium, that thousand years of paradise.
All this came on top of the general popularity boost Hitler received from the restoration of full employment and a stable currency after years of hyper-inflation and hyper-joblessness, even when it should have been ominously clear that the economic boom rested upon the armaments industry and the building of the strategic Autobahn. But as Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith did not mince words about the dangers of being misled into serving such wrong masters, and he could have been speaking specifically about Nazism well before its time: “A man must have the discerning of spirits before he can drag into daylight this hellish influence and unfold it unto the world in all its soul-destroying, diabolical, and horrid colors; for nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God [emphasis added]. Thousands have felt the influence of its terrible power and baneful effects ... nations have been convulsed, kingdoms overthrown, provinces laid waste, and blood, carnage and desolation are habiliments in which it has been clothed.”
David Nelson began his research into the Mormons in the Third Reich some years before 2000, when we first met at the Mormon History Association’s meetings in Denmark. He had read our book on the anti-Fascist resistence activities of the Helmuth Hübener group of LDS teens in Hamburg, When Truth Was Treason (Champaign/Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995, with Professor Blair Holmes and eyewitness Karl-Heinz Schnibbe) and said he wanted to do more research on the era; in fact he said he wanted to make it the topic of a Ph.D. dissertation some day. When I autographed David’s copy of our book, then, I encouraged him to “push the envelope of this story” by exploring avenues my colleagues and I had only been able to sketch out.
For fifteen subsequent years, David demonstrated great diligence and perseverance in his research. A commercial airline pilot by profession, David nevertheless found the time to locate and study all sorts of documents extending from LDS mission records to personal diaries. He conducted a number of interviews with important eyewitnesses and generally seems to have left no stone unturned.
David’s research eventually did become the basis for his Ph.D. dissertation in German History at Texas A&M, which in turn became the basis for Moroni and the Swastika.
The book covers much more than the Third Reich, however. It is a compendium of information about the Mormons in Germany from the very beginning, as David’s narrative starts off with the relationship between Germans such as Alexander Neibaur (Hugh Nibley’s great-grandfather) and the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith’s high regard for the Luther Bible and for the German people generally – most notably seen in his King Follett Discourse – led the prophet to exclaim (in a sermon about the possibility of the literal exaltation of human beings to the state of Godhood): “The Germans are an exalted people!” [p. 21]
Moroni and the Swastika continues its narrative about Mormonism in Germany throughout the nineteenth century, through both World Wars, and well into the postwar period, thus also providing at the end a brief glimpse into the relationship of Mormons with the Communist government in the so-called German Democratic Republic right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989.
Consequently, though the broader sweep of its historical narrative is primarily intended as background material to the case of the Mormons in Nazi Germany, this book is an important complement to the standard and somewhat limited, and now quite dated, book-length chronology by the late Gilbert Scharffs, Mormonism in Germany (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970).
David’s indebtedness to the microcosmic Hübener story is evident throughout his own book. Hübener’s case and anecdotal information about members of his St. Georg Branch in Hamburg contain within them all the elements of the broad spectrum of LDS responses to Nazi Fascism spelled out above, with people like Reschke on one end and Krause on the other.
Helmuth Hübener and his co-conspirators, young Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe, apparently managed to land on the right side of this historical spectrum, whereas the actions of their Branch President, Arthur Zander, a fervent member of the Nazi Party, are today an acute embarrassment.
(It was not always so: some German Mormons at the time and for years later a few diehards maintained that Helmuth and his friends had “broken” the 12th Article of Faith and had endangered the existence of the Church in Germany. To cite just one example: to his dying day, Karl Schnibbe was estranged from his sister, who still continued, even many decades later, to consider her brother’s actions treasonable, sinful, and stupid.)
Zander’s erstwhile Branch Presidency-counselor and later District President, Otto Berndt, on the other hand, who was grilled by the Gestapo for three full days and nights because they suspected him of supporting Hübener, behaved in a manner much more consistent with the teachings of the Prince of Peace. Though not considered a resistance fighter per se, Otto and others like him will doubtless go down in history as exemplars of Christian charity and good sense, untainted by the Nazi sickness.
Other Mormons in Hamburg range along the spectrum from Heinrich Worbs, who was sent to a camp for making a disparaging comment about the Nazis, where he was so badly treated that he soon died; to Solomon Schwarz, a young man whose father’s background was unknown (he was the product of a war-time rape) but who was considered to look “Jewish” by the distorted caricature-driven criteria of the time. His fateful given name also bespoke Jewishness.
Solomon was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and died in a concentration camp. Years later his sister confided in me that she was sure he was denounced by Arthur Zander. Zander had put up a sign on the branch house door reading: Jews not allowed to enter, probably to keep Solomon out.
A brother named Franz Jacobi spoke up in church after Helmuth’s arrest and reportedly said that Helmuth should be shot, and if had a gun he would gladly do it himself. (Some remember that it may have been Zander who said something like that. Perhaps both did.)
But Sister Emma Hasse, who innocently brought a dropped British propaganda leaflet to church one day and showed it to some others, was threatened with arrest by Zander if she ever did anything like it again. Clearly she belongs, doubtless along with a vast majority of others in Helmuth’s branch, somewhere along the more benign or apolitical middle of the historical spectrum.
Nelson reminds us that Rudi Wobbe’s future wife’s family, the Schmidts, were all anti-Nazis. Alfred Schmidt, president of the Barmbek Branch in Hamburg, welcomed Salomon Schwarz to his congregation. Alfred’s father Walter Schmidt risked punishment by visiting Salomon at home. [pp. 284-5]
And yet Karl Schnibbe maintained, without naming him, that there had also been a member of the Church in Hamburg who had belonged to the SS (Schutzstaffel = “protection squadron” or “defense corps”) and was rumored to have participated in the murder of a Communist. Other Mormon men wore their brown SA shirts to church, Schnibbe recalls. [p. 283]
I once reported on the interesting case of Bruno Stroganoff, a very young member of the Church who was steered by a trusted adult into membership in the SS but who then immediately deserted when he discovered what horrible things members of the SS were doing to Jewish villagers in Poland. Captured, he was kept as a slave laborer making aircraft engines for the rest of the war. When I met and interviewed Bruno he was the patriarch of his stake in Heidelberg.
Joseph M. Dixon, in his early article “Mormons in the Third Reich 1933-1945” (Dialogue 7-1 (1972), mentions an unnamed Mormon, a “mechanic at Auschwitz,” who had a nervous breakdown when he returned from Poland. [p. 286]
This wide spectrum of behavior – anti-Nazi to pro-Nazi – applies to all kinds of Church members, including some from the US. American mission presidents in Germany, for example, included one Roy Welker, who was guilty of being naive and badly informed – at the very least – about the dangers of Nazism – in these admittedly early days – pontificating in a speech after his mission in 1937 to a civic group in Salt Lake City that: “Jews are safer today in Germany than they are in many parts of the world.” [p. 13]
Roy’s wife Elizabeth found herself at the center of the Nazi vortex after she rather boldly and publicly complained about the number of young girls who were reportedly coming away pregnant from Nazi youth conferences. Her moral outrage caught the attention of the Reichsfrauenführerin, the women’s leader of the Reich, Gertrud Scholz-Klink, who took Sister Welker under her arm as a kindred spirit, an advocate for chastity as well as for large families. Together the two ladies reportedly rode in Hitler’s car on a number of occasions.
President and Sister Welker’s naive peccadilloes pale in comparison to the pro-Nazi fervor of a later Mission President, Alfred C. Rees, who maneuvered aside (from Berlin off to the new Frankfurt mission) a more moderate and apolitical mission president, Philemon M. Kelly, a physician from Idaho, and, exploiting a communication breakdown within the First Presidency caused by President Heber J. Grant’s sojourn in Europe, arranged to have himself assigned to the more politically interesting post in Berlin.
Nelson tell us Rees was a businessman, at one time the advertising manager of the Deseret News, who also engaged in right-wing political causes. In 1923 he became a founding member of the Utah Taxpayers Association. He also vigorously opposed labor unions.
Alfred and Ida Rees plunged into their mission assignment with gusto. They visited with high-ranking government officials and made friends where ever they could. One of these friends may have been Alfred Rosenberg, one of the eminent “philosophers” of National Socialism. (Sister Rees writes in her journal of Alfred Rees meeting a high official named Dr. Rosenberg but neglects to tell us his first name.) If it was his namesake, Alfred Rosenberg, this might explain Alfred Rees’s success in getting an article published in the Völkischer Beobachter, the “People’s Observer,” the official Nazi Party news organ, for Rosenberg was its editor.
According to his mission secretary, Ralph Mark Lindsey, President Rees thought he had obtained a promise from the Völkischer Beobachter to refrain from printing any more negative articles about Mormonism. When one appeared anyway in early April of 1939, Rees immediately complained and was told that in compensation he would be allowed to write his own article about the Mormons which would be printed in the most desirable location in the paper.
Rees then submitted his article “Im Lande der Mormonen” (In the Land of the Mormons) which ran on April 14, 1939. The circulation of the Völkischer Beobachter approached one million copies daily, but according to Lindsey, the paper also agreed to print for President Rees many thousands of additional copies in the form of a broadsheet for later circulation.
The article is from top to bottom a shamelessly sycophantic attempt to link the underlying philosophy of Mormonism with that of Nazism, to demonstrate parallels between the two systems in the most sympathetic way. From Hitler’s non-smoking, non-drinking to the old saw about how the idea for Eintopfsonntag originally was borrowed from Mormon Fast Sunday, to praise for the newly discovered Nazi interest in genealogy, the article repeats many of the canards being commonly circulated in the urban folklore of the time.
To read it today without gagging requires summoning up a good deal of charity toward a mission president trying zealously to make friends with a regime he apparently enthusiastically believed was raised up by God to usher in the millennium.
But all the other European mission presidents at the time seem to have been on the more benign side of the spectrum. Franklin J. Murdock, President of the Netherlands Mission, once played a trick on the annoyingly chauvinistic Rees at a mission presidents’ conference in Copenhagen in 1938. He came up behind Rees on the stair and bellowed “Heil Hitler!” Rees instinctively responded: “Heil Hitler!” “Of course that wasn’t the thing for an American to do unless you were in favor of the regime,” Murdock concluded.
In addition to Murdock and to Philemon M. Kelly, there was also M. Douglas Wood, a teacher and an intellectual, Kelly’s replacement in Frankfurt, who also sharply disagreed with Rees’s approach. (Wood’s wife Evelyn was to become famous later for her Reading Dynamics Program.)
At a mission conference in Lucerne, Franklin J. Murdock noted frequent disagreements between Wood and Rees: “I would notice that these two men would converse and that they were quite opposed to each other’s viewpoint. They couldn’t agree on some of the things that were going on.”
Wallace F. Toronto, President of the Czech Mission, which had been invaded by Hitler in 1938 and 1939, also tangled with President Rees. Murdock continues his narrative: “Here was Brother Toronto who had two missionaries in jail for six months ... so, Brother Toronto would listen to President Rees and then he’d say, ‘Well, I couldn’t trust them. That’s the way I understand it. You’d better be careful, President Rees!’”
A most painful chapter in all this, finally, involves J. Reuben Clark, Jr., a member of the First Presidency. David Nelson (for whom D. Michael Quinn served as an ad hoc dissertation committee member) is evidently deeply indebted to Quinn’s 2002 biography of Clark, who wrote – with more than considerable charity, it seems to me – that Clark’s life spanned a period that saw “enormous changes in the attitudes and conduct of Western society, the United States, and the LDS church toward the races and ethnic peoples of the world.”
As a young man, writes Quinn, Clark possessed “the full endowment of racism characteristic of late nineteenth-century America.” Clark’s xenophobic, nativist views were evident in his bombastic 1898 valedictory speech at the University of Utah, in which he declared that “America must cease to be the cess-pool into which shall drain the foul sewage of Europe ... Great tidal waves of foreign paupers are rolling in upon our shores. Time after time have these mountainous ocean swells, racing with a mighty imperative, crested and thrown far inland a continent’s filth ... These great, undesirable elements have invaded our lands, are pillaging our homes, and threatening our lives. ’Tis time these thieves, anarchists, and assassins were excluded from our shores.”
Clark eventually tempered his sophomoric metaphorical rhetoric and some of his extreme racial and ethnic views; others he maintained to the end of his life. Quinn notes that “there was one ethnic group ... for whom Reuben expressed lifelong dislike and distrust — the Jewish people.”
According to Quinn, Clark kept several copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a gross forgery purporting to be the secret minutes of the International Jewish Conspiracy, something that has been called a Warrant for Genocide, in his personal library and shared this and other anti-Jewish publications with colleagues and acquaintances.
He expressed anti-Jewish attitudes in “code words publicly and in specifics privately” and used his church position to obstruct what he perceived as “Jewish influence.” Clark’s anti-Semitism seems to have derived at least in part from his ardent anti-Communism. As Quinn notes, “although not all American anti-Communists were anti-Semitic, the more intense tended to be. Reuben’s own fusion of anti-Communism and anti-Semitism was representative of this tendency.”
David Nelson does note that Quinn writes that Clark’s views put him at odds with later LDS Church president David O. McKay, whose “positive attitudes toward the Jews, Zionism, and the State of Israel were more representative of Mormons generally than were President Clark’s anti-Semitic attitudes and administrative actions.”
In Nelson’s book we are told that Clark sent a boilerplate form letter to Jewish Mormon converts from Europe who asked the Church’s help in finding sponsors, resident Americans who would vouch for their integrity, thus allowing them to enter the US: “In regard to your interesting letter, we have so many requests of this sort from various persons, including members of the Church, that we have found it necessary to ask to be excused from making the required guarantee.” (p. 273-4) Clark’s heartbreakingly heartless form letter then recommended that the writer contact Jewish organizations for help.
This brings me to the place where I must reluctantly point out what I consider a major shortcoming of Moroni and the Swastika. Whereas I see, and I believe any objective reader of this book will see, the cases cited by David Nelson as widely scattered along a broad spectrum ranging from non-violent anti-Fascist resistance fighters like Max Reschke or Helmuth Hübener to enthusiastic Nazis like Erich Krause and Arthur Zander with all sorts of behaviors and attitudes in between, the large majority of these doubtless benign, David inexplicably chooses to link all pro-Nazi attitudes and behaviors with the official Church, which he believes had a thoroughgoing accommodationist policy sympathetic to the Third Reich, and he seems to choose to view any anti-Nazi attitudes and behaviors of Mormons as exceptions that simply prove or obscure the rule. The sound of this particular axe grinding permeates the entire book.
For him the Church was Erich Krause, not Max Reschke or Helmuth Hübener, Rudi Wobbe, and Karl Schnibbe. It was Arthur Zander, not Heinrich Worbs, Salomon Schwarz, Otto Berndt, or Walter and Alfred Schmidt. It was J. Reuben Clark and Alfred C. Rees, not David O. McKay, Franklin J. Murdock, Philemon M. Kelly, M. Douglas Wood, or Wallace F. Toronto.
This is surprising because some of the very cases with which David seems instinctively most sympathetic, such as that of the heroic Max Reschke, are cases which he then has to essentially ignore or distort in order to pronounce Mormonism globally guilty of being pro-Nazi.
David appears to have gone into his research with such a strong a priori bias about the culpability of the Church that even his own subsequent discoveries failed to alter his original paradigm. This bias also leads him to convict people of nefarious behavior where there is none.
A glaring example of this is the case of Church President Heber J. Grant, who is guilty in David’s eyes of being somehow sympathetic to Nazism simply because there exists a photograph taken of him in 1937 giving a sermon in a rented hall with a swastika flag displayed behind him. To me this is a meaningless canard – many meeting halls in Germany in 1937 displayed a swastika flag. David even admits as much. But he then twice mentions it [pp. 11, 217], as though he hoped that telling the flag photograph story one more time would make it more convincing.
Even Helmuth Hübener takes a beating in David’s book, who complains that Helmuth “saved nobody” [p. 253] as Max Reschke had, unfairly implying, it would appear, that Helmuth was not willing to save Jews. Likewise, Helmuth “expressed no opinion on the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, at least in writing,” [p. 304], says David, a statement again unfairly implying that Helmuth was somehow not clearly opposed to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Certainly Karl and Rudi attested on many occasions that Helmuth was as deeply disturbed as they were by the treatment of Jews, especially after Reichskristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
David further maintains: “In modern times, Helmuth Hübener has become a distraction. His uncharacteristic Mormon resistance to the Nazis acts as a tactical smoke screen that hides the reality of Mormon accommodation in the Third Reich ...” [p. 344]
(I assure David that my work on the Hübener story was never intended to divert attention away from or distract from the negative cases such as Arthur Zander and Alfred C. Rees. In fact I believe I am the first scholar to write at length about those problematic individuals. I did hope that the Hübener case would show, by contrast, precisely that these negative examples were not the whole story of the Mormons in the Third Reich.)
It’s most remarkable that even the impressive anti-Nazi example that David himself showcases, Max Reschke, correctly referring to him as a kind of Mormon Oskar Schindler, succumbs to the power of David’s overarching paradigm of the Church as a Nazi-friendly monolith with “a centralized strategy mandated by senior ecclesiastical leaders.” [p. 4] David’s logic here seems strangely contorted: to him, the fact that Reschke is not well known among Mormons means that the pro-Nazi Church through its “faithful” historians must have somehow suppressed Reschke’s story.
(I wish to assure David that had I known anything at all about Reschke or Krause, I certainly would not have hesitated to write about them.) Professor Douglas Tobler did write about Reschke in 1992, not long after he had discovered him, reportedly from a relative in one of his classes, but David chides Tobler for writing only “five sentences in a thirty-three page article,” about Reschke, despite Tobler’s promissory conclusion: “the full story of Reschke’s heroism is yet to be told.” [p. 262]
One other brief note about the Hübener case: David makes it sound like the emerging Hübener story was systematically suppressed by the pro-Nazi Church. In fact, then-BYU-President Dallin H. Oaks passed on to me, to my friend and collaborator Douglas Tobler, and to our friend the playwright Thomas Rogers, a request by then-Elder Thomas S. Monson that we delay further publication of the Hübener story for reasons that Elder Monson said he was not at liberty at that moment to disclose.
When we inquired through President Oaks about his reasons, Elder Monson specifically affirmed that he had no objection to the project per se, that he was keenly aware of the implications of his request for the broader principle of academic freedom, but that this was simply a one-time request for a personal favor, based on his assurance that he had very good reasons to ask us to temporarily delay further publication. We complied with his request.
Later, we learned that he had been involved at that very moment in sensitive negotiations with the government of Communist East Germany and quite understandably did not want its leader, Erich Honecker, to have to fear that some LDS youth would arise and call for the overthrow of the regime.
There are many layers of irony in this, including the fact that these negotiations with the Communist regime were still going on even as Ezra Taft Benson assumed the Presidency of the Church in 1985, a towering political figure whose zeal for anti-Communism was legendary.
Another irony was that Communists do not typically fear anti-Fascists like Hübener, they in fact idolize them. They certainly do not confuse them with anti-Communists. Elder Monson was taking no chances, however. (Had he known at the time that the Hübener case had already been well publicized in Communist East Germany in best-selling books about anti-Nazi heroes, perhaps he could have rested easier.)
In describing the case in his book, however, David’s paradigm of Church complicity apparently required him to use strong words like “ordered, banned, forbade” [pp. 290, 322], none of which were ever used by Oaks or Monson; the tone is simply wrong. David further maintains that Keele, Rogers, and Tobler “had no choice but to comply with the edicts of the LDS leaders who controlled their continued employment.” [p. 325]. All of this gives a totally false impression. No such duress was ever applied or even implied.
(After a certain amount of time had elapsed, I and my colleagues – I was soon ably joined by Professor Blair Holmes in the effort – proceeded unobstructed with our publications, first with a Sunstone article, “The Führer’s New Clothes” in 1980; a small Bookcraft volume, The Price, in 1984; a book in German, Jugendliche gegen Hitler, in 1991; a larger book, When Truth Was Treason, with the University of Illinois Press in 1995; and we assisted with a documentary film Truth and Conviction in 2002.)
To return to the central question posed by David’s book: As a Mormon, I fervently wish that during the Third Reich every member of my Church on both sides of the Atlantic had acted with perfect wisdom, keen political insight, profound charity, boundless courage, and the utmost integrity. I wish that none had been deceived by their own biases, patriotic zeal, or hatreds, whether of Communism or of Judaism.
I wish they had all been better informed, as Helmuth Hübener was, that they had had better sources of information, as he did in the BBC. I wish that not one had succumbed to the cunning propaganda efforts of the likes of Josef Goebbels or to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I wish all of them had been perfect disciples of the Prince of Peace.
At the same time, I am immensely proud of all those who remained His disciples, managing somehow to block out all the strident voices of hatred and do the right things, even heroic things in many instances.
But though I may wish that all had been heroes, that is not how history happens. People and institutions are not infallible. David Nelson himself begins his book with a recent (October 5, 2013) General Conference quotation from German native Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency: “And to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” [p. vi]
Because some Mormons did make terrible mistakes during the Third Reich, I do not have the moral authority to insist that David Nelson or anyone else see these matters the same way I do. He sees the Erich Krauses, the Alfred C. Reeses, and the J. Reuben Clarks as quintessential Mormons, typical representatives of the Church generally. I view them with sadness as pathetically flawed individuals.
On the other hand, Nelson views the Helmuth Hübeners and the Max Reschkes as outliers. I see them as having acted more in accordance with what I think the gospel of the Prince of Peace teaches us we should all strive to do, and recommend them most heartily as role models for all Mormons.
In the last analysis, we can all agree that there were a multitude of Mormon responses to Nazism. In the light of history, some were awful and some were terrific, and there were many in between. In my view, we can and must find a way to learn from all of them, from the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So why have I written a review that sounds like it recommends David’s seriously flawed book to my readers? For all its faults in drawing conclusions from the cases examined (which, in my view, his dissertation committee and the editors at the University of Oklahoma Press inexplicably and regrettably did not help him correct), in the last analysis, David’s book is a valuable repository of important information.
I would like to retain this baby – the information resulting from his research – while being able to throw out the bath water – to be able to disregard David’s accusatory paradigm of the all-seeing, all-powerful monolithic, pro-Nazi Church. Until a better book is written, this book contains more information about the Mormons and the Third Reich than any other single source. And it turns out to be really quite easy to look at David’s data, the cases he cites, and arrive at totally different conclusions from his: I find his anti-Church arguments remarkably unpersuasive.
Perhaps it is too farfetched to be useful even as a metaphor, but it seems to me that the Hubble telescope is distantly analogous. After it was launched into orbit, scientists discovered that the Hubble had an optical flaw. Ingeniously, a lens was devised that was flown into orbit and placed in front of the Hubble’s original lens to correct its vision. Hubble was then able to reveal to us remarkable things previously unseen in our own universe.
I recommend that readers of Moroni and the Swastika be prepared to supply their own corrective lens, as it were, a lens of charity and humility, whilst reading David’s sometimes aggravating but still valuable book. I recommend that we try to look at the important information provided and, given that our own record is certainly not flawless, be willing to look beyond any flaws in the presentation of the information about it.
At least since that important moment when President Gordon B. Hinckley and Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen correctly decided such painful historical demons as the Mountain Meadows Massacre cannot be denied or simply ignored, but must be exorcized by rigorous, honest scholarship and compassionate, sincere apologies to the offended parties, it is clear that we cannot sugarcoat the history of the Mormons in the Third Reich, nor can we ignore the information, even in flawed books like this which, however painfully, endeavor to hold our collective feet to the fire.
There are simply too many important lessons at stake. As painful as it is to recount the errors of members of the Church who stumbled onto the wrong side of history when confronted by arguably the world’s most evil regime, it is wrong not to try to learn even from their most excruciating mistakes.
Conversely, we must also learn important positive lessons from those heroic Saints who defied the world’s most evil regime. How did they do it? How did they avoid all the pitfalls? Why did they come out on the right side of history? Here are a few possible examples of lessons we could and should learn:
While visiting in 2007 the Villa Wannsee, outside Berlin, site of the infamous planning meetings for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” presided over by Adolf Eichmann, I was intrigued – and, frankly, shocked – to learn from a display there that from within Germany proper – not counting places outside its borders like Poland with much larger Jewish populations – the Nazis actually murdered more homosexuals even than Jews.
I am convinced that the sobering fact of the existence and extent of such homicidal Nazi homophobia, if more widely known and better understood among Mormons today, could have an important tempering effect on current thinking about how disciples of the Prince of Peace should speak about and behave toward members of the LGBT community, especially recalling how homophobia was falsely viewed in the Third Reich as a lofty moral position, the taking of a righteous religious stand against sinful monsters portrayed by Fascist hate-mongers as an imminent danger to society.
The same thing could be said for all forms of xenophobia, for racism and other kinds of fear and hatred toward different ethnic groups. If we learn anything from Nazi Germany, it must be that any attempt to portray other human beings as inferior (Untermenschen) whilst viewing ourselves as superior (Übermenschen) leads inevitably to catastrophe. Those who view all humans as God’s literal children must surely be disgusted at any attempt to portray others as foul sewage, as inherently criminal, or as otherwise sub-human “aliens.”
Another important admonitory lesson from the Third Reich involves excessive patriotic zeal and the rush to war. President Spencer W. Kimball wrote in the Ensign of June, 1976, in an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, entitled: “The False Gods We Worship:” “We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel ... and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;’(Matthew 5:44-45) ... What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? ... Our assignment is affirmative: ... to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.”
We learn from the case of the Third Reich that one of the problems with any rush to war is that when a war is framed as a just war waged against monstrously diabolical adversaries who threaten our very way of life, even faithful people can be tempted to engage in grossly sinful conduct because they can convince themselves that they are doing it for a good cause. Erich Krause can torture and murder people in his basement-sized concentration camp because for him they are evil enemies of the state who deserve what they get.
From Mountain Meadows to the two Mormon shooters at My Lai to those four prominent Mormon men in the legal and psychological professions who helped make possible the now-infamous torture regime during the so-called “War on Terror,” Mormons could have benefitted by better understanding the need to make correct individual moral choices, not allowing themselves to become complicit with evil in the name of loyalty, patriotism, divine retribution, or any other bad reason.
We further glean from the case of the Third Reich that any person who does not learn how to seek out credible sources or does not understand how to rationally examine truth claims will have no reliable information to guide him when he is confronted with a maze of propaganda lies. He will be driving blind down a very dangerous road.
Likewise, when a person is misled into believing that his particular political cause must necessarily be on the moral high ground because “it’s the other people” who support immoral behaviors (when they may in fact simply be less judgmental), that person may begin to succumb to the rhetoric of extremism, all the while continuing to believe that his position represents God’s absolute righteousness.
That person’s world-view may even begin to spin completely out of control into the realm of fantasy, the realm of internet and talk-radio rumor-mongering, fear-mongering, and hate-mongering, finally blinding him to reality altogether and causing an otherwise good person to become a miserable, frightened hater hoarding guns and ammo against some inevitable and immanent Armageddon.
This is by no means an abstract concern. I have witnessed several things, some quite recently, that both shocked and horrified me. In my High Priests’ meeting in early 1994, a retired Seminary and Institute teacher, a man I very much admire, a war hero seriously wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, worked himself into a rage over the fact that President Clinton had invited gays to march in his inaugural parade. Growing more angry by the moment, he opined that gays should not be allowed to take employment or find housing. When someone asked him how he expected them to live, he finally sputtered that all queers should probably be taken out and shot.
Then, sitting in my barber’s chair in Orem, Utah in the summer of 2015, I watched an elderly man enter the shop and take a seat. Soon he turned to me, a total stranger, and said: “I put out a contract this morning for $100 to have Harry Reid killed.” No doubt mistaking my shocked silence for bewilderment, he added: “Do you know who Harry Reid is?” “Of course I do,” I finally responded. He repeated his question several more times, as if to imply that anyone who knew who Harry Reid is would understand why someone would want to have him killed.
I regret that my shock and instantaneous anger prevented me from calmly asking him more about his horrifying plan. Where did he get such an idea? Is there some website out there offering to assassinate political leaders for a few bucks? If so, was this a real threat to Brother Reid? Should the FBI have been notified?
I confess to my shame that all I could think to do at the moment was to repeatedly ask the man to stop talking about it, which he only did when I finally raised my voice in an (admittedly threatening) manner.
At my next appointment, I sheepishly asked my barber if the man was some kind of lunatic. I would have felt silly reacting as strongly as I had to some senile old neighborhood nutter. “No,” he replied, “he’s a very ordinary old LDS gentleman who’s been coming here for years” and he proceeded to tell me more about the man and his very responsible occupation.
In October, 2015, as I was leaving our Fall missionary reunion, one of our old missionaries, a man now in his mid-seventies, walked with me to the door of the church house, suddenly saying, completely out of the blue: “I would be thrilled if someone would shoot Obama!” This time I did not stop or raise my voice, because people were waiting for me by my locked car in the cold dark parking lot, but as I walked quickly away I did tell him that I thought that may have been one of the dumbest things I had ever heard anyone say and I suggested he’d be wise to moderate his political views.
Perhaps even more shocking and unbelievable than the statements themselves, in retrospect, is the assumption on the part of these men that their barbaric views would somehow be shared by pretty much everyone else they encounter, from quorum brethren to perfect strangers to old missionary acquaintances, and that they would be seen by them somehow not as complete idiots but as heroic geniuses.
Where had they heard this? How often and in what kinds of contexts had these men been saying what they said to me? Why had they come to believe that such views were not only acceptable in a civilized, contitutional society consisting of followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but doubtless even admirable and praiseworthy? How widespread is this kind of abomination in our society today? How far into the fabric of life has such poison soaked?
I have no way of knowing for sure, but judging by the incessant grinding of the internet rumor mills in my LDS neighborhood alone about President Obama’s birthplace and other canards, it may be more wide spread than one would suppose.
In any case, I think Mormons can do better. As evidence I submit that in Germany, where the painful lessons of which I speak have been learned very well indeed, I think I have yet to encounter any Mormons given to any kind of political extremism. After the excruciating calamities of their own recent history, the vast majority of Germans (and I include Austrians) seem instinctively to recognize all too well the early warning signs of extremism, having “been there, done that” throughout the whole catastrophe.
Consequently the vast majority of Germans instinctively respond negatively to any rabble-rouser screaming about how the _______________ (fill in the blank: Jews, Communists, gays, aliens...take your pick...) are threatening our way of life and how we must rally around to repulse these barbarian hordes, preferably by violent force. Guns and ammo are not a way of life in Germany. Neo-Nazi skinheads are a very small and a very despised minority.
This is also why internet rumors among German Mormons warning about various political Armageddons are nonexistent. Nor do German Mormons rely on talk-radio hosts and their ilk for “information.” There is no German Glenn Beck.
Real information and facts are highly valued over propaganda and spin. Germans, including the Mormons of my acquaintance, pride themselves on acquiring real knowledge, tested empirically, and compatible with truth.
Most Germans, including Mormons, likewise instinctively resist anyone who wants to tell them their democratically elected government is a threat and should be feared and attacked. Germans seem to highly prize democratic government which they view as a legitimate social contract embodying the will of “we the people” and not as an evil entity somehow threatening their freedoms.
They know very well from their history what kind of dictatorial, absolutist regimes threaten freedoms, and they are not the democratically elected kind: in their view, good, democratic government is the very guarantor of freedom.
Germans know that they must act democratically to support their hard-earned democracy. Hence their participation rates at the polls are typically some two to three times higher than those in the United States.
There is another important historical example of the hard-earned German instinct for democratic involvement: in 1989, hundreds of thousands of East Germans, including many Mormons, began to peacefully demonstrate on Monday evenings week after week for months, finally bringing a non-violent end to one of the most repressive Communist dictatorships in history. Only had this occurred in North Korea would it be slightly more amazing.
More recently, however, these deep-seated German democratic impulses and the very democratic fabric of the nation have been severely tested, as great waves of refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as from turmoil in Nigeria and Eritrea have flooded into Europe.
As in other European countries, xenophobic and Islamophobic movements sprang up in Germany on the extreme right, cynically imitating in disturbing ways those peaceful Monday demonstrations of 1989. (The most well-known calls itself PEGIDA, an acronym for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident.)
The German reaction so far to PEGIDA has been to stage much larger peaceful counter-demonstrations, nationwide, in an attempt to show that PEGIDA is nothing more than an extremist fringe development.
But then, drunken gangs of young men reportedly arranging to meet on social media as a kind of “flash mob” – apparently including many asylum seekers from Northern Africa and the Middle East, perhaps taking advantage of what from their perspective were looser moral standards in Europe – groped women and stole their purses and cell phones in large crowds during New Year’s Eve 2015 celebrations in German cities, most notably in Cologne, where the police badly misjudged how large the crowds would be near the central station and the cathedral.
Identifying and prosecuting all such guilty parties will take time, but Germany on the whole seems seriously determined not to allow these sorts of incidents to create those levels of anti-refugee hysteria experienced in other European countries, most especially in places like Hungary, (even in the face of continuing attacks, such as that on December 19th, 2016, where a terrorist drove a hijacked truck into crowds at the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin killing 12 and injuring 56 others. The driver, a Tunisian named Anis Amri, who had failed to gain asylum in Germany, was later killed in a shootout with police near Milan, Italy).
It remains to be seen how Europe will finally cope with the enormous challenges confronting it at the moment. So far, the vast majority of Germans, including leaders such as Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite extreme political pressure, seem to be coming down on the side of democratic rule, on the side of kindness and of acceptance. Germans can recall without too much difficulty when they themselves were the displaced persons of Europe, streaming in huge numbers through the snow to escape the Soviet advance in January, 1945; or fleeing across the border from Communist East Germany, to cite only two examples.
LDS First Presidency Second Counselor Dieter F. Uchtdorf, as a child himself a German war-time refugee, has also spoken out strongly about being charitable toward refugees, reminding Mormons how their refugees from Missouri were helped by the vastly outnumbered small Non-Mormon population of Quincy, Illinois. (Cf. Church News for the week of May 29, 2016)
Still, such anti-immigrant movements as PEGIDA and AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, a recently emerged extreme nationalist right-wing party), some even reportedly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, may very well pose a real threat to German democracy, as have similar extremists elsewhere in Europe such as Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in Holland. Only time will tell whether Germans, with their long history of being refugees themselves, as well as other Europeans will resist the impulse to follow such Pied Pipers of paranoia.
Whatever the final outcome of the refugee crisis in Europe, one thing one can definitively say is that Germans do not like to rush into wars. For those who saw their country destroyed and as many as 60 million people killed (a full 3% of the world’s population) in a war based on fraudulent claims, paroxysms of patriotic fervor for starting wars simply don’t occur. Political candidates in Germany do not routinely recommend carpet-bombing as a solution to the world’s problems as Ted Cruz did during the US primary campaign in 2015-16.
Germans, including most Mormons of my acquaintance, overwhelmingly rejected the obviously fraudulent claims used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (“Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks? Really?”)
Remembering their own terribly troubled history, then, as Santayana advocated, seems to have made it possible for Germans to work toward building a more peaceful and prosperous society without being condemned to repeat the errors of their catastrophic past. Will American Mormons learn some of the same important lessons? If we open-mindedly and carefully studied the case histories in David Nelson’s book, I am convinced it would be a very good start indeed.
1. George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, p. 284 (vol. 1 of The Life of Reason: or the Phases of Human Progress, 5 vols., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905-6).
2. History of the Church, 4:573.
3. “An LDS in Hitler’s SS” BYU Studies 42, nos. 3 and 4, 2003, pp. 21-28.
4. Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocolls of the Elders of Zion, New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
5. D. Michael Quinn, Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002, p. 339.
6. For Mormons at My Lai see: http//forusa.org/blogs/jerry-elmer/my-lai-massacre-was-exemplar-not-aberration/11748, as well as an account by Ron Ridenhour at: http//www.ridenhour.org/images/ron_writings_jesus_was.pdf.
On Mormons and torture see: Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Random House, 2008), pp.50, 151-154, 158; as well as: http//www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/11/1350885/-Torture-s-new-acronym-may-be-LDS#