(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) History is blunt. Left to itself, it doesn’t spin or gloss over unpleasant facts. The positive side to unvarnished history is that it can prevent future mistakes. There are many examples in history of religions enabling evil. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not an exception to this rule. A glance at the Dec. 9, 1933, LDS “Church News,” published with “The Deseret News,” contains a particularly unpleasant “puff piece” on Nazi Germany, and its leaders, Adolf Hitler, as well as Joseph Goebbels.
It’s titled, “Mormonism” in the New Germany,” and penned by the unfortunately over-enthusiastic Dale Clark, is grotesque in its effusive praise for Hitler. Here is an example: “As a specimen of physical endurance Hitler can easily take his place along side the athletes who are usually taken as classic examples. His 14 year struggle which brought him to power in Germany put him to a terrific physical strain (sic). Besides the great responsibility there has been trials and conflicts, and campaigning so strenuous that it has required his attention night and day, many times making it necessary for him to travel great distances by auto or plane, catching up on his sleep underway to fit him for the multitudes who would gather to hear him wherever he had time to stop.”
It’s amazing today to read such a sidling, fawning account of the 20th century madman, and I wonder if the Nazis controlled or edited what Clark submitted from Germany. The alternative is even worse to comprehend. In other parts of the article, the author sycophantically points out similarities between LDS Doctrine and Nazi Germany. Readers learn that Hitler and Goebbels lead “Word of Wisdom”-type lifestyles and do not drink or smoke. Also, the German custom of “Fast Sunday,” where Germans fast and donate the cost of the missed meals to a winter charity fund, is extolled for its similarity to Mormonism. Clark writes, again in press-release style, “… it has the important purpose of developing that spirit of sacrifice that is so being stressed in the new Germany, and also of creating more of a feeling of unity and brotherhood through voluntary mutual help.”
Early in the article, Clark writes, ominously, that religious freedom flourishes in Nazi Germany, except for “a few sects (which) have been prohibited or restricted.” We can guess at least one people of faith persecuted in Hitler’s Germany at that time — the Jews. And this leads to the most disturbing part of Clark’s national hagiography: finding a missionary moment in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews. After detailing previous difficulties to get access to Germany’s archives to do genealogy, Clark writes, “Now, due to the importance given to the racial question, and the almost necessity of proving that one’s grandmother was not a Jewess, the old record books have been dusted off and stand ready and waiting for use. No questions are asked. In fact some of the Saints instead of being refused by the pastors now have received letters of encouragement complimenting them for their patriotism.”
It is impossible to read that and not shiver with repulsion at why the “old record books” stood ready and waiting for use. Clark’s effusive cheerleading for Nazism is a dark moment in LDS history. But, as mentioned, it is history, delivered in a blunt, pure fashion. It underscores the enabling that many organizations, religious or otherwise, used to have a presence in the heart of evil. Church President Heber J. Grant, no doubt worried about persecution Mormons might receive, urged members in Germany in 1937 to get along and not cause problems. Another disturbing example — as late as 1939 — of Mormon enabling of Nazism was remarks in a Nazi media organ written by West German LDS mission president, Alfred C. Rees. Like Clark, Rees enthusiastically compared Nazism with Mormonism. (1)
There are more courageous exceptions, of course. One Latter-day Saint who stood up to Hitler’s rule was Helmuth Hubener, who died a martyr at 17, tortured and beheaded in 1942 for belonging to an anti-Nazi group and publishing anti-Nazi leaflets. Hubener, who is the subject of a Gunter Grass novel, was first repulsed by Nazism as a boy when he witnessed anti-Semitism in his local ward. Hubener was quickly excommunicated by local authorities. However, his excommunication was later reversed by LDS authorities, who said local German leaders had not followed proper procedures. According to historians Alan F. Keele and Douglas F. Tobler, Hubener’s leaflets show that the teenager regarded his opposition to Nazism as a component of his religion. Hubener’s final words to the judges who sentenced him to die, “Wait. Your turn will come,” underscore his courage and resolve.
Hubener’s branch president was a fervent Nazi, who played Hitler’s speeches at the branch. Another branch member, Heinrich Worbs, was tortured at a concentration camp for calling a state-honored Nazi a “butcher.” Worbs, according to Keele and Tobler, was so physically ruined after his detention that he died months after release.
Clark’s article from 1933 fascinates me as much for its style as its repulsive cheerleading. It contains several examples of modern totalitarian propaganda efforts, that were also used, and refined, by Soviet-led communism. There’s the effusive praise for the leaders, praise for the party (in one instance Clark uses the phrase “originality and political genius of the Hitler party” to tout relief efforts in Germany), and the use of the terms “voluntary” and “unity” as propaganda phrases. For an example, go back to the third paragraph of this piece, where Clark writes, “… it has the important purpose of developing that spirit of sacrifice that is so being stressed in the new Germany, and also of creating more of a feeling of unity and brotherhood through voluntary mutual help.” One more example of modern propaganda includes Clark’s description of posters from youth Nazi organizations against tobacco and women’s cosmetics.
As mentioned, blunt history can also be a teaching tool. It’s doubtful the ugliness of Clark’s Church News article would ever be repeated today. Unfortunately, when adverse history is not blunt but is instead de-emphasized, massaged, or rationalized, it can be repeated. To read the Dec. 9, 1933, Deseret News and Church News, go here.
(1) Keele and Tobler, Sunstone, November/December 1980.