"UNDER THE GUN: West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II," by Roger P. Minert, Deseret Book, $29.99, 524 pages (nf)
Life for German members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during World War II includes sacrament meetings interrupted by air bombers and many of their priesthood leaders being drafted into military service.
"Under the Gun: West German and Austrian Latter-day Saints in World War II" brings that experience to life in gripping detail. The book by Roger P. Minert tells hundreds of stories of people of faith who lived under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Before the beginning of the war, Germany had about 13,000 Mormons scattered across the country in dozens of branches, many of which had only a small handful of members and just a few priesthood holders. American missionaries filled many of the priesthood leadership roles.
In August 1939, an apostle, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, was touring Germany. But within days, the likelihood of war rose so much that he and all foreign missionaries and church leaders evacuated the country.
Suddenly, the German Saints found themselves administering the church on their own. In the introduction, Minert points out the uniqueness of the situation: “For the first time, large numbers of Latter-day Saints were citizens of a totalitarian regime. All contact with church leadership in Salt Lake City, Utah, was lost when the United States was drawn into the war.”
The book is organized according to the church’s districts and branches. Except for a few branches where only a few statistical data are available, the branch chapters tell the stories of numerous branch members in chronological order. Each chapter contains a list of names of church members who did not survive the war.
One page after the other, the book tells stories of families separated by the ravages of war, priesthood leadership uprooted by conscription, Mormon soldiers striving to remain faithful, and women and children at home trying to keep the church moving forward.
One of the stories involved Heinz Radhe, a member who served in an antiaircraft unit. He made a habit of leaving food on his plate so it could be eaten by the Russian prisoners of war who washed the dishes. Eventually, one prisoner gave him a note offering help “when Germany loses.” As the war ended, that note helped him convince American troops to let him go home rather than take him prisoner.
There are numerous faith-promoting stories of soldiers whose lives were spared when they followed spiritual promptings and of church members praying and being miraculously saved as bombs fell on their cities.
"Under the Gun" also seeks to answer many questions about how Latter-day Saints reacted to the demands of serving a regime whose principles many of them opposed. Some exercised passive resistance.
The book strengthens understanding of how people maintained faith in the face of trials unlike those most of us have seen; trials that are remarkably similar to many stories in scripture.
The stories move quickly and would hold the interest of many readers. It would be a valuable volume for anyone interested in history, German genealogy and stories of faith.
Bryan Gentry lives in Lynchburg, Va., where he writes for a private college and provides freelance Web design services. A graduate of Southern Virginia University, he and his wife Becky blog at bryanandbecky.us.