Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government shut down forty-two small German religious sects. An American denomination, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, escaped oppression under National Socialism. Unlike persecuted Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other small faiths that suffered severe restrictions, almost fourteen thousand Mormons worshiped without undue hindrance. Mormon leaders resurrected a doctrinal edict requiring deference to civil authority, which the Latter-day Saints had not always obeyed at home or abroad. With a few notable exceptions, Mormons obeyed Hitler’s law and were treated as ordinary Germans. But survival was not enough: Mormons found opportunity under the Third Reich.
Under pre-war American mission presidents, the Mormons pursued avenues of commonality with the Nazi state. They emphasized their interest in genealogy, sports and large families, sent husbands into the Wehrmacht and sons into the Hitler Youth, and prayed for a German victory when the war began. They purged Jewish references from hymnals, lesson plans and liturgical practices, and in a few cases shunned Jewish converts. The wife of an American mission president rode with Hitler in the Führer’s limousine on the way to Nazi youth rallies. Another American mission president wrote an article for the official Nazi Party daily newspaper, extolling parallels between Utah Mormon and German Nazi society.
Mormons later tried to forget their approach to the government of the Third Reich, especially when large numbers of Germans immigrated to Utah after the war. When the story of a martyred teenaged Mormon resister, Helmuth Hübener, emerged in the 1970s, church officials hindered the research of scholars at Brigham Young University and forbade subsequent performances of a popular commemorative on-campus stage play. Leaders feared that Hübener’s example would incite Mormon youth to rebel against dictators abroad, hurt the church’s relations with communist East Germany, and offend German immigrants in Utah. In recent years, Hübener—excommunicated for rebellion against the Nazis but later restored to full church membership—has been rehabilitated as a recognized hero of Mormonism. Buttressed by recent books and videos, a new collective memory has arisen--one of wartime courage and suffering by ordinary German Mormons. The inconvenient past is being conveniently discarded, and an alternate narrative has been written.
David Conley Nelson
Historian and Author: Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany