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  • Gary Toyn

How the “Mormons” survived the Nazis (when other Christian religions didn't)

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

SA Members Enforce Boycott of Jewish Stores - Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14468 Georg Pahl CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Why did the Nazis ignore the “Mormon Church,” while other religions were banned?

I've held off posting this article for almost two years. I've been hesitant because the article focuses on a difficult time in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (for brevity, I’ll just call it "the Church" from here on.)

My concern is that critics of the Church will use portions of this article out of context, or they may make accusations about church leadership based on inaccurate or misguided assumptions, or they may otherwise ignore crucial evidence.

Criticism of the Church, especially as it relates to the Nazi era is not hard to find. It's all over the web, in books, and among groups who are antagonistic to the church. Their writings have the appearance of being fairly and exhaustively researched, but even casual analysis shows their conclusions are made through the lens of antagonism toward the Church. These critics assume the worst among church leaders, and by extension, they assume the worst of the entire church. Rarely do these critics disclose their own biases, as they try to appear objective or impartial.

I’m not suggesting that the Church or its leaders should be exempt from critical analysis by those outside the church. But I find it easy to dismiss the “guilt by association” argument used by many critics of the Church.

I can’t expect people with malicious intent to act honorably, so there’s no point in worrying about their criticism. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “haters gonna hate.”

I want to be upfront about my bias. I try to be a faithful member of the Church. It’s an important part of my life. My faith reflects who I am, and I am not ashamed of it. As an author, it allows me to write about the Church from a knowledgeable and authentic perspective. But as an author of historical fiction, my affiliation with the church doesn’t give me permission to ignore the mistakes made by leaders and members of the Church. As with any organization, its leaders are prone to make mistakes, and some of those mistakes are doozies.

I hope to present the evidence in a way that an honest seeker of truth could find answers without having to rely on sources from those who are antagonistic to the Church. I will try to present the facts as accurately as we currently know them, but I will also try to present those facts in their proper historical context, and avoid judgments based on a contemporary perspective.

A little background

The idea for this article came while researching my recently released book called "For Malice and Mercy," It was important to me that my novel be true to the underlying historical record. That’s because I have a pet peeve against works of historical fiction that play fast and loose with the historical facts, or that twist history to fit a particular political narrative.

In my book, one of my main characters is forced to confront a Nazi officer who served in a priesthood leadership position in the Church. As a result, I was knee-deep in the history of the Church during the Nazi regime, and during that process, I learned a ton of things that were both interesting and eye-opening.

While my book is a work of historical fiction, it’s written for a general audience who knows little or nothing about the Church, or about religion in general. It’s similar to a book like "We Are the Lucky Ones" by Georgia Hunter. (If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.) It focuses on the Kirc family and their incredible survival. Their "Jewishness" is openly a part of who the Kirc family was, and they were active in practicing their faith, but it was purposefully in the background of the story.

While the protagonists in my book are affiliated with the Church, it is all used as a backdrop for telling a much broader, more relatable saga about fear and patriotism, family and betrayal.

Despite my own biases, I have gone out of my way to write this novel so it wouldn't be off-putting or distracting for those who know little or nothing about the Church. On the other hand, for those familiar with the Church, I threw in a few twists that I hope will challenge how we judge others, especially when we don't have all the facts.

During the research process, I stumbled upon interesting people that were just too compelling to ignore. They were church leaders who faced some extraordinary challenges but did their best to make the right decisions. However, we can now see these men were being used by people who should not have been trusted, as the consequences are still being felt.

It would be easy to criticize their decisions, especially since we have the benefit of perspective. Still, that hasn't stopped many critics who mistakenly claim the Church survived because they were in cahoots with the Nazis, or they were viewed as likeminded enough that they received special treatment.

The Nazi Influence on the Church

After World War I, the Church experienced unprecedented growth in Germany. In the post-war 1920s, and leading up to the Nazi rule, membership exceeded 13,000 members, and was the largest assemblage of members outside the United States, even more than Great Britain. But still, when you consider Germany had roughly 65 million people in 1933, Latter-Day Saints accounted for .0002% of the population.

As Hitler came to power, the Nazi revolution seized total control over much of German culture. In 1933 the Nazis had successfully neutralized Catholics and Protestants in their initiative to consolidate power and subsequently focused their vitriolic attention on smaller denominations.

As for the Church, less than five percent of adult male members joined the Nazi Party. This relatively small number would likely have been even smaller had not the Nazis required all state employees to join the party.

In 1933, Nazi authorities independently confronted the two mission presidents for Germany, the German-Austrian mission and Swiss-German Mission. These leaders held significant authority and were obligated to issue a statement outlining the Church’s stance on Hitler, and National Socialism, among other related topics.

In Salt Lake City, the Church's First Presidency opted not to make any official statement, instead deferring to these church leaders in Germany who were dealing with the situation first-hand. Church headquarters did counsel local priesthood authorities to be apolitical and “get along” with the prevailing Nazi government authorities the best they could.

With the unenviable task of developing church policy, the statements from both mission presidents reiterated the Church’s spiritual mission, and cited the 12th Article of Faith proclaiming that members “obey, honor and sustain the law.”

From all reliable accounts, these statements worked to appease the Nazis, at least for a short time, and convinced them that the Church was not a subversive organization. In October 1933, an issue of the Church News section of the Deseret News stated, "The German-Austrian mission has been left almost untouched by the revolution in Germany."

But that wasn’t the end of it. The Gestapo held a tight grip on all religious gatherings and continued to harass members and congregations of all faiths. At times, Gestapo agents would attend LDS sacrament meetings. Other times they would interrogate leaders, and confiscate church attendance or financial records. Leaders complied with the Gestapo’s requests.

One of the constant threats to the Church was the risk of members being openly critical of the Nazi regime. Understandably leaders were quite concerned about what members may say in private. Members were repeatedly warned that the church could be at risk if they say anything publicly that could be remotely interpreted as being subversive.

In 1934, the Nazis demanded that the church’s scouting organizations be either disbanded or incorporated into the “Hitler Youth” program. Despite frantic pleas from Church leaders, the Nazis didn’t budge. The Church’s scouting organization was subsequently disbanded, opting instead to abandon their successful youth development organization altogether, rather than concede the training and development of their youth to the Nazi party.

With the international spotlight on Germany leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, Christians of all denominations were allowed a short period of unusual freedom. The Nazis more or less ignored religious groups until the Olympics were over, at which time the persecution resumed.

Persecution intensifies

Jewish persecution continued to escalate, but Christians were also feeling the pinch. The Nazis ordered Church leaders to stop preaching about "Jewish" topics. That meant that all hymns and sermons using words like "Israel” and “Zion” were banned.[1]

Systematically Christian religions and their leaders were being persecuted and their influence had noticeably diminished. Eventually, the worship of Jesus Christ was discouraged in favor of the worship of Adolph Hitler.

Nazi propaganda aimed to replace the worship of Christ with the worship of Hitler. Here, the banner is roughly translated as "I am in you, and you are in Me, Adolf Hitler." A not-so-subtle reference to John 15:4 "Abide in Me, and I in you."

Other efforts were made to discourage criticism of the regime, In 1937, a Church missionary, Alvin Schoenhals, was arrested after the Nazis intercepted a letter he wrote home criticizing the Nazis and its leaders. After a month in jail, Schoenhals was deported. Not long thereafter, two other missionaries fled to Switzerland after a photo was intercepted showing the two disrespecting the Nazi flag, draping it around themselves like a loincloth.

As Hitler was annexing Austria in 1938, and prior to the invasion of Poland in 1939, miraculously, the church avoided much of the bitter persecution faced by other small denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Bahá'í Faith, which were eventually banned. But so too were the Salvation Army, the Christian Scientists, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Each of these faiths eventually vanished from Germany until after the war.

For many reasons, not the least of which is the Church’s lack of relevant size, the Nazis didn’t view the Church as a serious threat. And although local Gestapo leaders were known to harass local congregations, national officials tended to ignore the Church, having more important matters to attend to.

Eventually, though, the Nazis resumed their persecution, turning up the heat on leaders of the Church. Leaders were doing everything they could to protect members from further persecution, fearing deportation to the growing number of concentration camps. Avoiding such a fate called for desperate solutions.

Mormons and Jews: Enemies of Mankind

In November 1938, the Nazis unleashed their most ruthless and cruel attacks on the Jews to date. Known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass," where most all Jewish businesses were either burned, ransacked, or destroyed.

Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent out a telegram to all police and fire units ordering them not to interfere with the upcoming “actions against Jews.” It was noted that firemen, must watch as synagogues are burned, and they could only put out fires if adjacent “Aryan” properties were threatened. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned, nearly a hundred Jews were killed, and over 30,000 Jews were arrested, most of which were males. To manage so many new prisoners, concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald were ordered to expand.

The international press was swift and unusually united in their criticism of the Nazi's persecution of Jews. Americans were likewise outraged, as religious leaders of all faiths denounced the burning of religious buildings. Thousands of Americans marched in massive rallies to show support for the Jews in Germany. From Democrats to Republicans, war hawks to isolationists, all were vocal in their criticism of the Nazi’s pogram against Jews.

The American’s outrage spurred a scathing reply from the official Nazi party newspaper. Their stinging rebuttal reminded the “hypocritical Americans” about their handling of the “Mormon question” in Missouri in 1838. The article reminded the American press about Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs’ order of extermination,” against the Mormons, and how the local government allowed anti-Mormon vigilantes to threaten and attack Mormon settlers in Missouri. When the local papers accused the Mormons of waging “open and avowed defiance” of state laws and making “war upon the people of the State,” the state militia marched into the headquarters of the Church. Militia leaders forced the Saints to sign over all their property as payment for non-Mormon “losses,” and to leave the state immediately. The Nazi article pointed out that the government acted appropriately to the Mormon threat, arguing that both groups deserved annihilation because Mormons and Jews are both enemies of mankind.”

It wasn't long after this article that the Nazi Security Service (SD) officially declared, “Mormons were an enemy of the state." Church leaders scrambled to avoid facing the draconian actions that had already been aimed at other small religions.

A Deal with the Devil

Behind the scenes, Church leaders were attempting to repair relationships with the Nazi government. Swiss-Austrian Mission President Alfred C. Rees traveled to Berlin and reportedly struck a “secret deal” with someone at the Propaganda Ministry, most likely Joseph Goebbels. He asked Rees to speak on behalf of the Church, and speak favorably of the German government internationally, hoping to influence public opinion in their favor. In exchange, the Nazis would hold back on their criticism of the Church.

Church members were well aware of the irony of many shared beliefs between the Church and the Nazi party, yet most members were reticent to draw attention to those similarities. However, we're not sure where the idea came from, whether it was from Goebbels or from President Rees, but Rees is credited for writing an article that highlighted those similarities. It was titled “Im Lande der Mormonen” and it was published in the official newspaper of the Nazi Party, Volkischer Beobachter, on 14 April 1939.

“In the Land of Mormons” a tract reportedly written by Swiss-Austrian Mission President Alfred C. Rees.

The article drew several parallels between the German people and the “Mormon” people. For example, this quote pointed out that both Mormons and Nazis chose to avoid tobacco and alcohol:

“Mormons have advocated and practiced, since 1830, what they call the "Word of Wisdom", which calls for the total abstinence from the use of tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee.” “That is why the Mormon people, perhaps, more than any other people in all the world, pay high tribute to the German government for its bold declaration of war against the use of alcohol and tobacco by the youth of Germany.”

This quote highlights the shared ideal of community welfare over individual welfare:

“Perhaps the outstanding financial system of the world for the maintenance of a religious organization is to be found in Mormonism: It is their Tithing System.” “Here is the application of the German ideal: Community welfare before personal welfare. Mormons are practical exponents of that wholesome doctrine.”

After publication, Rees reprinted the article in a missionary tract, emblazoned with a swastika on the cover. Many church members were horrified and refused to use it, fearing it tied the Church too closely with the Nazis. The point became moot, however, when the Nazis demanded that the tract be destroyed, as they wanted no association with this religion with roots in America.

What Rees never knew was that Goebbels had struck the same deal with other denominations. It was all a ruse to manipulate the international press.

Unfortunately, that article and missionary tract will forever link the Church to the Nazis. According to Steve Carter, author of The Rise of the Nazi Dictatorship and its Relationship with the Mormon Church in Germany, 1933-1939; “ (Rees) underestimated the ruthlessness of the Nazis and overestimated his ability to deal with them. Rather than help the Mormon cause with the publication of his article in the Volkischer Beobachter, (he) unwittingly tied his religion to the pagan cult of National Socialism.”

Lessons for today

As non-Germans, we're likely to think one-dimensionally about Hitler and Nazi Germany simply because we have the perspective of the Holocaust. But long before the Holocaust, Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg laws, and the anti-Jewish legislation, most Germans believed the official Nazi rhetoric that Germany would bring a fulfillment of the dreams of restoring such noble goals as "goodness, righteousness, honesty, and dignity to the declining cultures of the world." [2]

Elder F. Enzio Busche was a general authority of the Church from 1977 to 2000. He was born in Germany in 1930, not long before Hitler came into power in 1933. Elder Busche wrote in his book titled “Yearning for the Living God" what it was like being a German growing up in Nazi Germany.”

"What I want to carefully explain is that the system had expressed a moral goal that was very successfully portrayed to the population. Everything that happened, we were told, was in pursuit of achieving that moral goal. My father, together with most German people, believed in the basic premise of Hitler’s alternative to the chaos that had occurred in Germany’s past. There had been inflation, prostitution, starvation, terrorism, and anarchy. My father told me that there was a time when there were 30,000 prostitutes in the city of Berlin alone. Corruption was devastating German society. When the new system began, there was a growing hope and a vision of purpose. There was meaning and an understanding of the need for order and discipline.

It is not easy to talk about this, knowing what I know now, but that helps explain the background of our society in that time. We believed what we heard. The magic of the music and the uniforms, the philosophy and talks—all were very powerful and convincing.”

Until 1944, the German people more or less stood behind the government and were ready to sacrifice anything, even to the point of giving their lives. When I look back on this with my current understanding, it seems unbelievable that so many could have been this naïve and uneducated in the political realities of the world."

While it’s clear mistakes were made, it's a big stretch to assume any of these leaders of the Church were acting with malice, or that they somehow wanted to endorse the Nazi criminal ideology. In many ways, Elder Busche's comments help explain why leaders of the Church wanted to associate with the moral rhetoric the Nazis were promoting. Still, it's tempting to voice outrage against Rees and others who willingly endorsed the Nazi's rhetorical, (yet horribly unfulfilled), objectives. We must avoid committing presentism to judge these Church leaders who had no idea of how the Nazi beast would eventually manifest itself.

I’ve found no substantial or credible evidence that members of the Church were given special treatment. In fact, from what I can tell, the Church wasn't large enough to be of any consequence to the Nazis. If anything, the Church benefited from the Nazi's benign neglect. Either way, no credible historian has produced any evidence that church leaders endorsed or were complicit in any of the war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.

However embarrassing it is for Latter-Day Saints to learn that a Church leader went out of his way to find similarities between the Nazis and the Church, Rees’ objective was to save the church and its members from potential persecution, torture, and deportation to concentration camps. It had happened to other Christian religions, and it wasn't a secret. In retrospect, Rees’ article was a misguided act of desperation intended to save lives, it was not an admission of guilt.

Despite what we may think, we can't and won’t possess the same information or perspective as they had at the time. We not only have expansive access to historical information, but we also have the benefit of hindsight to interpret that information in ways those of the past didn’t have.

Sometimes people do their best to make the right decision but end up making bad decisions despite their best intentions. It’s arrogant of us to pass harsh judgment when we have the benefit of hindsight. I say we cut them a little slack.

Note: This is a complex topic that requires elaboration along with thoughtful reflection. I could have included mounds of additional information, but this article is designed to be a brief, bare-bones summary. For those interested in learning more, here are some of the references and sources I've used to write this article:

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