“World War II,” Church History Topics (2022)
“World War II,” Church History Topics
Widely considered the most damaging and far-reaching armed conflict in world history, the Second World War engulfed every inhabited continent and oceanic region, involved more than 100 million military personnel, and resulted in an estimated 60 million deaths.1
The causes of the war were complex. During the 1930s, regional conflicts in Europe and Asia intensified and began to draw in the colonies and allies of the countries involved.2 By 1939, two blocs had emerged: the Axis powers, marshaled by Germany, Japan, and Italy; and the Allied powers, marshaled by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.3 The Axis powers sought to replace the prevailing international order with a new imperial arrangement; the Allied powers endeavored to defend the existing order and enhance their alliance against the Axis.4 War in Europe broke out after German forces invaded Poland in September 1939. It ended nearly six years later, in 1945, with the surrender of German officials in May and then Japanese officials in September.5
Latter-day Saints experienced the war across many fronts and within diverse national allegiances. As the threat of war in Europe deepened in 1938, missionaries serving in Germany were temporarily evacuated to Denmark and Holland, and mission leaders began preparing local Church members for a state of emergency. Days before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the First Presidency directed the evacuation of all North American missionaries from Europe—nearly 800 missionaries and 23 mission presidents and their families.6 When the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion, some 20 to 30 thousand Church members were living in continental Europe, most of whom resided within the East and West German Missions. Latter-day Saint servicemen from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa took part in the early Allied military operations. In the ensuing months, new fronts of the war emerged in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific. In June 1940, Latter-day Saint servicemen were caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation from Northern France, some of whom were captured and killed. Church members from all sides of the conflict experienced internment as prisoners of war.7
On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the United States military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—a surprise assault that was quickly followed by a declaration of war from the United States, where approximately 90 percent of Church members resided at the time.8 In 1942, Church leaders temporarily stopped calling draft-eligible men from the United States on full-time missions and worked to expand the number of Latter-day Saint chaplains. Thousands of Latter-day Saints volunteered for military service and were soon deployed across the globe, many others were conscripted, and some resisted war action as conscientious objectors.9
Regular bombing campaigns in Europe devastated areas controlled by both Axis and Allied powers. Home life suffered tremendously—Latter-day Saints away from combat faced ever-present physical threats and food shortages. Local congregations struggled to fill the gap left by those called to war service. Despite the violence and relative lack of support from other Latter-day Saints, European members continued to meet, hold conferences, and coordinate relief. In the missions, local Latter-day Saint men and women served as missionaries in greater numbers and helped to maintain congregations and spread the gospel message.10
The Second World War is often noted for the mass violence against non-combatants and prisoners that occurred during the conflict.11 The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (or Nazi Party), led by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, enforced internment and extermination measures often known as the Holocaust, or Shoah, which resulted in the slaughter of an estimated six million Jews and other targeted groups that included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sinti, Roma, gay men, people with disabilities, and political dissidents.12 Wartime atrocities were not confined to the Holocaust, as some other combatant nations subjected captured soldiers and civilians to torture, human experimentation, starvation, and murder. Large numbers of women were sexually assaulted.13 Civilians on all sides of the conflict at times were targeted by military forces attempting to break morale and resistance.14 The International Military Tribunal established in 1945 by Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States prosecuted Nazi officials for war crimes in Nuremberg, Germany. A year later, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East began war crime trials of accused Japanese officials.15
The liberation of much of Europe from German control in 1944–45 saw millions of people displaced and national borders redrawn. New technologies and weapons had resulted in immense destruction. Among the tragedies of the war was the United States’ devastating use of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. Neutral countries did not escape the war’s effects, and recovery from the worldwide economic devastation took years. The millions of survivors in combat zones continued to suffer from loss of shelter, severe injury, and sometimes occupation, even after the war ended.
After the war, the Church’s Serviceman’s Committee reported that nearly 6,000 Latter-day Saint soldiers had been killed, wounded, or declared missing in action. More than 1,300 German and Austrian Latter-day Saints died as a result of military action.16 Under the direction of then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson, the Church administered aid to struggling Church members in Europe in the years following the cessation of combat.