David 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.