My review of David Conley Nelson’s Moroni and the Swastika, a book about Mormons and the church in Nazi Germany, was just published in Dialogue. To summarize my review briefly: the book’s primary arguments are wrong, it distorts the facts and documents that it takes as evidence for those arguments, and the writing is imprecise and sensationalist in ways that are more typical of religious polemic than mainstream scholarship.If you are interested in reading the complete review, check the latest issue of Dialogue.
I feel moved now to address the youth in the audience when I say: there’s no profit in writing negative reviews. If you’re honing an academic CV right now, take my advice: do not write book reviews. They don’t add anything to a CV. Above all, do not write negative reviews. They make people unhappy, and unhappy people are not going to introduce you to their editors or perform any of the other skid-greasing that you’re going to need in pursuit of an academic career.
Even I don’t like negative reviews. Whenever I come across the old-school FARMS reviews, my reaction is mostly irritation that dozens or hundreds of pages are wasted on uncovering every flaw on every page of an obscure book. Wouldn’t it be better to just look at the book’s main argument and explain why it’s wrong, approaching it with charity rather than sarcasm? I still think that’s true, but perhaps I am beginning to understand those old reviewers at FARMS. When one reviews a truly bad book, it can require pages to unpack all of the shoddy handiwork packed into a single sentence, and the thought of doing so might even seem appealing.
I will resist that urge. Instead, what follows are notes about three of the passages that aroused my curiosity as I was reading Moroni and the Swastika. They are not central passages, but they are typical of what I repeatedly found whenever I investigated the relationship between the book and its sources. You can perhaps consider this post as three footnotes to my Dialogue review that dig into the bibliographic details in a way that isn’t possible in a book review.
Karl Maeser. The brief description of Karl Maeser in Moroni and the Swastika mentions that he attended “Friederich Stadt normal school.” That’s atrocious German (what Maeser attended was the Lehrerseminar in Dresden-Friedrichstadt; note the spelling), and we don’t often use the term ‘normal school’ today. How did such a phrase come about? The answer, after checking the footnote: Nelson is echoing the language of his source, Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker’s 1982 A Book of Mormons, more closely than you would want to see without using quotation marks. I’ve underlined the phrases that are identical to the source or varied only slightly.
Moroni and the Swastika, p. 32-33
A Book of Mormons
|His parents provided years of private tutoring, plus an impressive formal education for the time—two years at the Krenz Schule in Dresden, before he graduated with distinction from the Friederich Stadt normal school. He became proficient in Latin, French, and Italian, played the piano and organ, and conducted choral groups and orchestras. As a young man, he taught school and offered private tutoring.||With private tutoring, Maeser became proficient in French, Italian, and Latin, in addition to his native German. Musically gifted, he played the piano and organ, and conducted choral and orchestral music. He studied two years at the Krenz Schule in Dresden before graduating with honors from the Friederich Stadt normal school. At the age of twenty he taught in the Dresden schools, later serving as a private tutor in Bohemia.|
This isn’t plagiarism with intent to deceive. It’s patchwriting, writing that too closely follows the language of its sources. It’s the kind of thing you give a stern lecture about if you find it in a freshman term paper. Finding it in a book based on a doctoral dissertation and published by a university press makes me nervous, because it’s often a sign that the author isn’t sufficiently familiar with the material. Did Maeser conduct “orchestral music” or “orchestras”? There’s a significant difference between the two. Perhaps that difference isn’t directly relevant to the main topic of Moroni and the Swastika, but it’s a worrying sign of what to expect in the chapters to come.
Rio de Janeiro. Moroni and the Swastika includes a brief account of what sounds like a sordid little quid pro quo between the church and Arminius Haeberle, the U.S. consul general in Dresden. Haeberle had helped the American missionaries in Germany at various times, which according to Nelson had earned Haeberle the favor of church leaders. When Haeberle was accused in 1928 of having earlier profited from the seizure of a ship’s cargo in Rio de Janeiro, Mormon senator William Henry King “intervened and helped quash the investigation.” That sounds like a story worth checking up on, so you can follow the footnote to “Mitchelle, ‘Mormons in Wilhelmine Germany,’ 116.”
Now, that’s odd for a number of reasons. Wilhelmine Germany ended in 1918, a decade before the incident involving King and Haeberle. Also, Michael Mitchell, author of the 1994 BYU MA thesis in question, spells his name without a final ‘e.’ Odder still, page 116 in Mitchell’s thesis says nothing about Haeberle.
On the other hand, page 116 of another BYU MA thesis, Jeffrey Anderson’s chronologically relevant “Mormons and Germany, 1914-1933,” does discuss Haeberle on page 116. So let’s compare the two passages on the assumption that Anderson’s thesis rather than Mitchell’s is Nelson’s actual source.
Moroni and the Swastika, p. 84
Anderson, MA thesis 1994, pp. 115-16
|Haeberle’s assistance to the Mormon missionary efforts became so well known among the church hierarchy that U.S. Senator William H. King of Utah came to the consul’s assistance during a congressional inquiry in 1928. A senate subcommittee investigated charges that Haeberle sold, for personal gain, a seized ship’s cargo during his previous diplomatic assignment in Rio de Janeiro. King intervened and helped quash the investigation.||In 1927 Haberle assisted the Church with a visa problem encountered by missionaries when they traveled through Montreal. The German Consul in Montreal, apparently seeking to limit the stay of missionaries in Germany, gave them a visa for only one year. When the missionaries, intending to remain for three years, were unable to extend their visas, Haberle intervened, and through his influence was able to have the restriction lifted. Valentine returned the favor by using his influence with Senator William Henry King to assist Haberle through some difficulties he encountered in the State Department and with the U.S. Congress.
[fn19] Hyrum Valentine to William Henry King, 11 December 1928 Hyrum Valentine Collection. Haberle, while consul in Rio de Janeiro, had seized a ship run by a Captain Chambliss who had accused Haberle of stealing the cargo. The issue was discussed several times in Congress. Congressional Record, 70: 3921, 4230, 4230. King investigated the matter and was convinced that the claims against Haberle were extremely weak and therefore, defended Haberle on the Senate floor.
There are some important discrepancies between Nelson’s recounting of the incident and what appears to be his source. According to Anderson’s MA thesis, mission president Hyrum Valentine contacted King directly, while Moroni and the Swastika presents the church hierarchy as mediating King’s intervention on behalf of Haeberle. According to Anderson, the senator investigated the charges against Haeberle, found them unconvincing, and argued on behalf of Haeberle. In Nelson’s retelling, King moved directly to intervening and quashing the investigation. On the one hand, we have representative democracy and bureaucratic accountability in action; on the other hand, Mormons instigating a cover-up of crimes in high places.
This isn’t simply a matter of two scholars with different interpretations, however. Anderson’s thesis is the sole source for the passage in Moroni and the Swastika. Anderson is also the one who consulted the primary documents, while Nelson is relying on Anderson’s research. It’s perfectly normal to build on someone else’s work, of course. But it’s not normal at all to introduce new actors, motivations, and actions to a historical incident without having new documentary evidence.
The treatment of the incident in Rio is not unique in Moroni and the Swastika. After checking many of the footnotes, discrepancies between the book and its sources were so frequent that I couldn’t trust the book to accurately report who was involved in a given event, what they did, what their motivations were, or how the event appeared in the cited sources or secondary literature.
Reed Smoot. According to the introduction to Moroni and the Swastika (p. 12), “Reed Smoot, who served [as senator] for three decades, wrote an article in the German-language Mormon weekly that extolled the virtues of genealogical research and made an anti-Semitic reference.” The footnote documenting this allegation points to “Smoot, ‘Ein Freund von Deutschland,'” which according to the bibliography was published in the 1 March 1935 edition of Der Stern, the church’s German-language periodical. On pp. 217-19, Nelson discusses the allegation in detail. According to Nelson, Smoot “wrote a German-language article, under the guise of spiritual guidance, that urged his fellow believers to participate in an important activity that exploited a common interest of the LDS Church and the Nazi state,” that is, genealogical research. Moroni and the Swastika describes Smoot’s thought process as the apostle considered his dual audiences in the following way (218-19, bracketing and ellipsis as found):
Having stated his message in scriptural terms familiar to his LDS readers, Smoot faced one additional problem. The Nazis who read the article, who valued genealogical research for difference reasons, probably would not comprehend his spiritual code language. Smoot solved that problem by introducing an appeal to German resentment regarding the settlement of the First World War, plus a bit of old-fashioned anti-Semitism, into his biographical profile that accompanied the article. It described the former senator’s “unremitting and energetic [work] for the freeing of Germany from the unjust demands of the Versailles Treaty.” Smoot continued: “France was acting like the Jew, Shylock, in demanding the last pound of flesh…of Germany.”
Nelson’s footnote 40 again points to “Smoot, ‘Ein Freund von Deutschland.'” Nelson sees the timing of Smoot’s article as significant; its publication in 1935, as Nelson immediately notes, came over a year and a half after Jews had been removed from the German civil service (219).
The first problem is that the citation is wrong. The biographical profile of Smoot appeared in the 15 November 1935 edition of Der Stern, not in the 1 March edition. The second problem is that the title is wrong; it’s actually “Ein Freund Deutschlands.” The third problem is that it is ridiculous to think that Reed Smoot wrote a biographical profile of himself in German to appear in Der Stern alongside a translation into German of excerpts from his April 1934 General Conference address.
A fourth and more serious issue is that Nelson borrowed his English translation of Smoot’s statement from other scholars without acknowledging his source. The translation is taken (using the same brackets and ellipsis, but with one word omitted) from Alan Keele and Douglas Tobler, “The Fuhrer’s New Clothes: Helmuth Hübener and the Mormons in the Third Reich,” Sunstone 5.6 (November/December 1980), 29 n. 25: “An article entitled ‘A Friend of Germany’ chronicles Smoot’s ‘unremitting and energetic [work] for the freeing of Germany from the unjust and unfulfillable demands of the Versailles Treaty.’ According to Smoot, ‘France was acting like the Jew, Shylock, in demanding the last pound of flesh…of Germany.'”
The fifth and equally serious problem is that Nelson did not follow the quotation back to its source. While Keele and Tobler understood that Smoot did not write his own biographical profile, they were mistaken in attributing the statement “France was acting like the Jew, Shylock,” to Smoot. They attribute the statement to Smoot based on the 1935 biographical profile in Der Stern, but in Der Stern, the statement is quoted from a 1931 German newspaper article. The 1931 German newspaper article had added “den Juden Shylock” as an explanatory note to a translation of a news article written in English, which itself both summarized Smoot and quoted him directly. The original source is a speech given by Smoot in Salt Lake City in August 1931. In the New York Times (20 August 1931), a three-paragraph article (sourced to AP) appears under the headline “Smoot Denounces France”:
Senator Smoot branded France as a “Shylock” in denouncing its attitude on the war debt proposals before members of the National Association of Secretaries of State at a banquet last night. “I am disgusted with France in her efforts to destroy Germany,” said the Utah Senator. “She is demanding her ‘pound of flesh’ from Germany and Germany can’t pay.”
It’s not clear if ‘Shylock’ is meant as a direct quotation from Smoot’s remarks or as a quote-unquote usage to highlight the source of the ‘pound of flesh’ reference.
The biographical profile of Smoot in Der Stern quoted a UP-sourced article that appeared in German in the Frankfurter Zeitung on 20 August 1931. It contained a translation of the same direct quotation attributed to Smoot in the New York Times, preceded by an explanation of the ‘pound of flesh’ quotation for a German audience—and this German editorial explanation is the actual source of the phrase “the Jew, Shylock” attributed to Smoot. The article, as cited in Der Stern, reads:
Salt Lake City, 19. August 1931. (United Preß.) Der Vorsiztende des Finanzausschusses des Bundessenates, der republikanische Senator Smoot von Utah, wandte sich in einer äußerst scharfen Rede gegen die französische Politik in der Frage der Reparationen. In einer Ansprache vor der Vereinigung höherer Regierungsbeamter erklärte er, daß Frankreich den Juden Shylock (in Shakespeares ‘Kaufmann von Venedig’) nachahme in dem Versuch, das letzte Pfund Fleisch von Deutschland zu erlangen. Als er auf die französische Stellungnahme zu den Regelungen in der Frage der Kriegschulden zu sprechen kam, erklärte Smoot: ‘Ich bin angewidert von den französischen Versuchen, Deutschland zu zerstören. Frankreich verlangt von Deutschland das Pfund Fleisch, welches Deutschland nicht imstande ist, zu geben’.
Dear Dr. Keele: I’m sorry that I was a snot in your advanced grammar class in 1992. But it’s a mistake to translate a passage set in the subjunctive of indirect speech as a direct quotation, especially when dealing with journalistic conventions from nearly a century ago. (See point 1.4.2 and example A 4 b here.) We can’t assume that anything outside of the quotation marks is directly attributable to Smoot. It could as easily represent a summary of Smoot’s sentiments or an anticipatory explanation of his reference to a line of Shakespeare. In either case, there is no English-language source for Smoot having used the words “the Jew, Shylock” that Nelson twice attributes as a direct quotation to Smoot and interprets as an anti-Semitic slur.
So, to sum up: Reed Smoot did not write anything for Der Stern. He did not contemplate the needs of a Nazi audience. The alleged statement is not from 1935, but from 1931. The reference to “the Jew, Shylock” exists only in a faulty back-translation from a German translation of an originally English statement, in which documentary evidence for Smoot using the phrase is lacking. Nelson borrowed the faulty translation without acknowledging its source, and cited the German text incorrectly.
I suspect that this is how those hundred-page FARMS book reviews came about. It takes many hours of work and thousands of words to explain everything wrong with just a few passages from one book. To address all of the book in the same level of detail would take months of full-time work and result in a review longer than the book itself. At some point, one simply has to say: no, not this book. How the church dealt with the Nazi government is certainly a topic in need of research, discussion, and reflection. But the seriousness of the topic demands that it be treated with the utmost precision. It is impossible to undertake an earnest consideration of this period in history on the basis of Moroni and the Swastika, as it is riddled with factual errors and sloppy scholarship of the kind noted above.
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Please note that this is first and foremost a post about footnotes, scholarship, and book reviews. If you would like to comment instead on Mormonism during the Nazi period, please take a moment to refresh your memory of the issues, perhaps by reading Steve Carter’s “The Rise of the Nazi Dictatorship and its Relationship with the Mormon Church in Germany, 1933-1939,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 3 (2010): 56-89.