“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”, states the 12th Article of Faith. So how does the LDS Church respond when missionaries are in a country where Nazis take over the government? David Conley Nelson gives a fascinating history of Mormons in Nazi Germany with his newly published book, Moroni and the Swastika.
This was a great, interesting book. I was surprised to learn how successful missionary work in Germany has been over the past century and a half. At one time, there were more German saints than Canadian! The Whitmer brothers hailed from Germany, and Joseph is said to have prophesied that the German people would accept the gospel.
Prior to World War 1, missionaries mostly ignored the 12th Article of Faith. LDS missionaries ran into trouble over polygamy with the German government who were uncomfortable with Mormons who wouldn’t obey the marriage laws in the United States, so why would they in Germany? Other Christian churches there often caused trouble for the missionaries, getting them jailed on spurious charges, and accusing them of seducing German women to become polygamist wives back home. Even with those problems, the missionaries were surprisingly successful among Germans.
In the 1930s, Communists and Nazis were gaining power in the government, and mission presidents wrote with dismay that they didn’t think either option was very good. Of course the Nazis overpowered the Communists, and went after not only Jews, but other minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists. Nelson writes in the preface to the book
prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps wore triangular symbols on their armbands. The color corresponded to the reason of confinement. Common criminals wore green triangles, political prisoners red, the “work shy” black, homosexuals pink, Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, and Jews a yellow Star of David–which could be seen as one yellow triangle atop another.”
Nelson continues with how some of these groups suffered on page 12,
the Christian Scientists and the Seventh-Day Adventists, suffered suspensions of worship or curtailment of their privileges in Germany. Another sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, fell victim to overt persecution that lead to the death of up to one-quarter of their German members. The compliant Mormons, ulike the Witnesses who refused to salute the swastika flag or serve in the army, knew when they could stand their ground and, conversely, when it was prudent to surrender to the Nazis’ indomitable will.
I think it is certainly understandable that an international church in a dictatorship is going to have to make certain accommodations to the government. When Germans raised issues with songs with Jewish references, such as Israel, Israel, God is Calling, LDS Church leaders in Germany wisely expunged such references from hymnbooks, pamphlets, and lesson manuals. Hitler demanded that Boy Scouts troops in Germany be disbanded, and that the young men join Hitler’s Youth Groups. Mormons complied as well. Mormons in Germany, in an effort to avoid mistreatment, proudly trumpeted that Mormons were law-abiding citizens, and would obey the laws of Nazi Germany. While such a stance is understandable, just where does it cross the line of getting by in a dictatorship, to openly supporting Nazis?
For the early part of Hitler’s reign, Mormons generally tried to do only what was necessary to get along. When German officials complained, Mormons tried to keep issues local, trying to avoid higher government interventions. LDS leaders were hopeful that they could wait out local government officials with the hopes that newer government officials would be more favorable. However, newly called mission president Alfred Rees “did not hesitate to appeal to the most senior official in the Nazi Party with whom he could be granted an audience. Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry and the editors of the national Nazi Party daily newspaper were merely his most successful targets.”
Rees did some things that would make modern Mormons, and even other mission presidents in nearby European countries cringe. Hitler was known as a non-drinker (which wasn’t really true), so Rees played up the Word of Wisdom to emphasize similarities. Hitler was interested in genealogy in order to find people of Jewish ancestry, and Rees continued to emphasize the LDS genealogy program, and Mormons gained access to genealogical records previously closed prior to the Third Reich. One German saint, arrested for being a Jew, proudly produced an 8-generation genealogical pedigree to show he had no Jewish ancestry. Nazi officials were impressed, and quickly released him.
But such links were a mixed bag. One branch president, upon learning of a Jewish LDS convert’s past, posted a sign on the building saying “No Jews allowed.” The man quit coming to church, was arrested, and suffered a mental breakdown in a concentration camp. He died a truly broken man. When LDS members tried to leave Germany, J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency helped those of “Aryan” ancestry, but refused to intervene to help LDS members of Jewish ancestry. Nelson writes one heartbreaking response. Richard Siebenschein of Vienna Austria wrote for help, noting that he had roomed with Heber J. Grant in 1901 in Japan. Clark replied,
“we have so many requests of this sort 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.” His letter recommended that petitioners, some of whom were LDS, contact Jewish organizations for help.
Thankfully, Rees and Clark’s cooperation with Nazis were a minority in LDS Church leadership circles. There are instances of heroic LDS efforts to help Jews. Max Reschke, after seeing a Jewish business destroyed and smeared with excrement, went to town to save a Jewish couple. From page 261,
He came back with the bedraggled couple. He had found them at the end of a column of people being herded through the streets by armed guards. Calmly Max stepped up to a uniformed guard and, flipping his overcoat lapel in a manner of a plainclothes policeman to show his concealed badge, he said, pointing to the Scheurenbergs, “I’ll take these two.” “Very Well, Sir!” the guard said, saluting.
Max Reschke put the Jewish couple in an automobile and embarked on an odyssey of more than four hundred kilometers, through the troubled night toward the Swiss border…Except for one paragraph in a privately published biography of Max Reschke, the remaining details of this heroic rescue remain untold.
The book is really a mixed bag of tales, some good, some bad. Many of you have heard of Helmuth Hubener, a 17-year old LDS German who published anti-Nazi propaganda. His branch president Arthur Zander was quite pro-Nazi, often requiring church members to listen to Hitler’s speeches and locking them in the building. When Hubener was arrested for sedition, Zander, without authorization from his LDS leaders excommunicated Hubener. Following Hubener’s death by guillotine a few months after his arrest, the excommunication was later ruled to have been a mistake by the First Presidency.
But the most interesting part of the story occurs in the 1970s and 80s. Many Germans had immigrated to America following the war. When Hubener’s story was discovered by a BYU playwright, they sought more information from others who had information about Hubener. Writers of the play approached Zander, who was working as a janitor in SLC, asking if he had information. Zander avoided the subject, not wanting to reveal his involvement in the sad situation, and purposely avoided the playwrights. While the play was met with great enthusiasm on BYU’s campus in 1976, pro-Nazi Germans were not happy with the play. The acting company had originally planned to perform in California, but BYU president Dallin Oaks and apostle Thomas Monson, acting on behalf of the sensitivities of German immigrants on the wrong side of history, quashed all future performances in the 1970s. A decade later, Monson was concerned the play would inflame East German Communist officials and quashed the play again. Now that East Germany is no longer communist, as well as the fact that many of those who lived in Nazi Germany are dying or have died, the Hubener story is starting to gain more acceptance, and LDS Church officials are not objecting as strongly to the play.
Truly this book recognizes the complexities of running an international church in places where democracy and human rights are not the same as America. It was a fascinating read. I’ve always wondered why many people object to baptism for the dead, and back in 2009, I wrote about a non-LDS writer from Ireland who didn’t object to the LDS practice: Baptism for the Dead–so what? But in dealing with Nazi Germany where one’s genealogy could cause a death sentence makes me more sympathetic to those of Jewish ancestry who so strongly object to Mormon genealogy programs. While there is no direct evidence of Jews being killed due to Mormon genealogical efforts, it easily could have happened.
This really was a great book, and shows that history can be quite messy at times. I think the Deseret News would like to un-publish a photo that proudly showed Mormons helping the Nazi German basketball team saluting Hitler. What are your thoughts?