Review: David Conley Nelson’s Moroni and the Swastika

By April 16, 2015

MoroniDavid Conley Nelson, Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

David Conley Nelson’s book centers on a bold premise: that Mormonism in Germany did not only survive WWII relatively unscathed, but actually benefited from it. Nelson, who has a PhD in history from Texas A&M University, asserts that the church, helped by faithful historians, is invested in promoting a picture of German Mormons as suffering for the sake of the gospel. However, a more accurate picture would be that “German Mormons and their prewar American missionaries avoided persecution by skillfully collaborating to a degree that ensured their survival but did not subject them to postwar retribution” (xvi). Throughout the book, Nelson uses the rhetorical devices of ‘memory beacons’ and ‘dimmer switches’ to illustrate the construction of memory sites, and the ways in which realities of collaboration, then, were transformed into memories of appeasement and survival.

The book has a dual focus, dealing both with the history of Mormonism in Germany before and during World War II, and the ways in which Mormonism remembers said history. It has three parts, and the scope is quite impressive: Nelson discusses topics as varied as the advent of 19th century Mormonism, attitudes towards foreigners (Americans) as WWI and WWII loomed, the Weimar Republic and what that meant for Mormonism in Germany, and basketball diplomacy in the Third Reich. Nelson discusses the “Mormon Hitler Myth” that made it possible for the Deseret News to write approvingly of Hitler’s emphasis on genealogy and/or social programs, especially pre-Kristallnacht; cases in which Mormon leaders acquiesced to Nazi policies (abolishment of Boy Scouts in favor of the Hitler Youth) and cases where they didn’t (continued policies of proselytizing and tracting on a local level despite official opposition), and the various strategies mission presidents used to ensure Mormonism’s endurance. In his section on memory, Nelson traces the memory beacons currently in use within the church, focusing on the well-known case of Helmuth Huebner, but also spending time discussing other German Mormons that did or did not make the cut and what that means for Mormon cultural memory. The chapters are relatively short, and they all point to the the premise mentioned above. It is important to note that if there is blame, however, it is placed firmly on American, not German shoulders. From policies set in place during WWII that denied help to German Mormon Jews to the ‘dimming’ of inconvenient memory beacons post-war, Nelson pushes for a reading of culpability on the part of American Mormon leadership. His case is compelling, but whether he ultimately succeeds in proving his premise I leave to your own judgement.

I have two main criticisms of the book: the first is that Nelson seems determined to counter the existing faith-promoting narratives surrounding German Mormons in WWII by systematically interpreting historical evidence in the worst possible light. In doing so, he overuses variations of the word “probably,” ascribing personal motives to figures on the basis of tenuous evidence at best. The second is that his theoretical framework of memory beacons serves his book well, but I was surprised (to say the least) that it builds on, but does not acknowledge, prior scholarship surrounding lieux de memoire, archive and canon, the role of forgetting in cultural memory, etc. I feel acknowledging this would have lent both credence and depth to his analysis, and I would have been interested to know how, for example, the subject of Mormon memories fits in with the larger field of study relating to memory and the Holocaust. However, readers interested in the subject matter will find much of interest in the book, especially when read in tandem with other accounts that tend to be more faith-promoting in nature.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Memory Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Saskia. That is disappointing that he didn’t engage memory theory more, at least in the footnotes. I suspect he did do so in the dissertation, but when revising the manuscript into a book decided to strip out a lot of the theoretical apparatus. And it would have been interesting to see how the Mormon German experience fits into the broader field of Holocaust studies.

    Comment by David G. — April 16, 2015 @ 8:00 am

  2. David, that makes sense!

    Comment by Saskia T — April 16, 2015 @ 8:49 am

  3. Thanks, Saskia. I feared that it might lean towards the sensational, but I’m still interested to see which sources he examined.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 16, 2015 @ 9:00 am

  4. I think it has to be said that the publisher and book designers did him no favors–the cover is horribly sensationalized, and reads as a naked and cynical attempt to sell books by yelling “Mormons and Nazis!”

    Comment by Kristine — April 16, 2015 @ 10:54 am

  5. Kristine, so true. The book actually is way less sensational than the cover makes it seem.

    Comment by Saskia T — April 16, 2015 @ 11:53 am

  6. Thanks for the review, Saskia. If nothing else, your review has made me want to read the book, so kudos to both you and the author for accomplishing that.

    And for anyone interested, David Nelson will be presenting a short lecture and book signing at Pioneer Book in downtown Provo at 5:30 pm on June 4, just 90 minutes before MHA’s opening reception a couple of blocks away. More details (and instructions on RSVPing) are available at his website: http://www.davidconleynelson.com/

    Comment by Christopher — April 16, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

  7. Thanks, Saskia. I need to read this book. Having read some of the previous scholarship on this, particularly the Huebener stuff, I think there is certainly a dimension of institutional culpability to be dealt with here. On the other hand, the conspiracy-theory complicity argument and the idea that Huebener becomes merely a redeeming memorial is a bit hard to stomach. Glad to know that it’s not as slanted as everything about the branding makes it seem.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 16, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

  8. Thanks for the review, Saskia.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 16, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

  9. Sounds to me like he ignored (at least in America) how split the Church leaders and members were in relation to Nazi Germany. Yes, there were some supporting voices for peace’s sake, but there were some very serious criticisms. I read a book written either late 30s or early 40s that compared Hitler and the Nazis to Satan’s side of the War in Heaven. This book is nothing more than sensationalism and propaganda, ignoring way too much evidence how polarizing it all was.

    Comment by GodisGreat — April 18, 2015 @ 8:06 am

  10. “Sounds to me” sounds like someone who hasn’t read the book.

    Comment by AllahuAkbar — April 19, 2015 @ 8:49 am

  11. So? I’m going by what the critic in the article said. As to my interest in reading the book, no thanks.

    Comment by GodisGreat — April 20, 2015 @ 8:03 am

  12. Saskia, I imagine Nelson works in the anti-Semitism of people like J. Reuben Clark. Anyone know the title of the dissertation? I’d like to read that, I think. Thanks for the review.

    Comment by WVS — April 20, 2015 @ 9:55 am

  13. WVS-yes, he does, in one of the last chapters. As far as I can tell, his dissertation is _The Mormons in Nazi Germany: History and Memory_. https://repository.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/148154

    Comment by Saskia T — April 20, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

  14. The book GodisGreat refers to is probably NLNelson’s _The Second War in Heaven, as Now Being Waged by Lucifer through Hitler as a Dummy_. I have a copy — it’s … interesting. 🙂

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 20, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

  15. Unlike some, I will forbear from comment until I have read the book.

    Comment by Roger — April 22, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

  16. I want to thank those of you who indicated that you would read my book before rendering judgment. When Saskia posted her review, I wrote to thank her for an honest assessment, and especially for recognizing that historical memory is a key component of my argument. Most Bloggernacle reviews, so far, have focused on my description of what transpired during the Third Reich.

    Generally, I believe that authors should not respond immediately to reviews, but instead should allow a particular review to take its place among others, and give the readership a chance to digest the book. To come on line and rebut a review immediately is a discourtesy to the reviewer.

    However, after a few days of thought, I think it’s best to make one point, so as to head off any possible misunderstanding regarding scholarly attribution.

    Although I did indeed delve into the theory of collective memory more extensively in my dissertation, the book does give adequate credit for the concepts I use. “Beacons of memory” is a device military historian Douglas C. Peifer uses in the context of early historiography in the GDR, when certain groups of historical actors rose to prominence for a period of time, but were then replaced by others as doctrinaire scholars found more convenient models to emphasize.

    The “dimmer switch” is my device. To my knowledge, the closest concept in study of collective memory is Nancy Wood’s “lieux d’oublie,” which Wood describes as “the will to forget.” I thought that was inadequate to convey what went on in the aftermath of Mormon accommodation with the Third Reich. Instead, I employed a “rheostat of memory” as method to describe, for example, the dimming of Hübener’s memory by German Mormons in the early post-war period, its later illumination by Ulrich Sander, Günter Grass, and Alan Keele/Doug Tobler/Tom Rogers, then its subsequent darkening by Thomas S. Monson and Dallin Oaks, and finally its brightening after the Berlin Wall fell.

    In that context, the desired manipulation of memory, Henry Rousso’s “vectors of memory” is mentioned in my dissertation. But for my target audience, that kind of scholarly terminology would only serve to bog down the narrative.

    Saskia, I’m sorry to have reneged somewhat on my pledge to keep my head down in the immediate aftermath of your review. I wish not to detract from it in any way, and I think you did a fine job. For those determined to evaluate my book based only on reviews, I’d invite you to consult a page on my web site that links to all known commentary on my book, positive or negative. Some do not believe I was hard enough on the Mormons, and one even called me an apologist.

    Comment by David Conley Nelson — April 24, 2015 @ 7:59 am

  17. I heard that Nelson wrote in the book that active LDS are too “biased” in write their history. Is this true?

    Comment by Katherine — April 26, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

  18. *to write about their history

    Comment by Katherine — April 26, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

  19. Reply to No. 17 & 18: To respond to the word in quotation marks, here is a word search of my book, conducted on the galley proofs. For a more nuanced understanding of my arguments, I suggest reading the book.

    http://goo.gl/RMfQ8P

    Comment by David Conley Nelson — April 28, 2015 @ 3:24 am


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