Without question, Hugh Nibley is one of the seminal thinkers in the history of Mormonism, along with such important predecessors as Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, and James E. Talmage. Fortunately, although he died in his mid-nineties in February 2005, his remarkable legacy is being preserved and even extended in an ongoing multivolume series of his “Collected Works” published under the auspices of BYU’s new Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
Nibley has already been the subject of an award-winning biography, his son-in-law Boyd Jay Petersen’s authorized but nonetheless very candid 2002 Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life . Now, in Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley, Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2006), his son Alex offers us a captivating and very readable account of Hugh Nibley’s experiences during the Second World War.
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Attached to the famed “Screaming Eagles” of the 101 st Airborne Division and to the staff of General Maxwell D. Taylor, Nibley was an unusually well-situated observer, and an exceptionally well-qualified one. He came ashore at Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion and, as part of British General Bernard Montgomery’s grossly misconceived Operation Market-Garden, flew into occupied Holland in a glider.
He had already completed his doctorate in Greek and Roman history at the University of California at Berkeley and taught at Claremont College by the time he volunteered for military service. He was able to converse in German, French, Dutch, and Russian, and peppered his journals with sardonic remarks about officers and military life … sometimes written in Arabic.
In certain cases, his military assignments took him to the very same places where, only a few years before, he had testified as a missionary. At the end of his mission, he had found himself warning the people of the great destruction that awaited them, including (unbelievably) fire from the sky.
The book opens with a contrast between “two zealous young preachers” in the southern part of Germany – Hugh Nibley and Adolf Hitler. Intriguingly, Nibley was convinced that he once had a passing face-to-face encounter, during his missionary service, with the future Fhrer.
Subsequently, figures such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Gertrude Stein made cameo appearances, and Nibley was able to spend considerable time with Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovitch Romanoff, the head of the exiled Russian imperial family. He also believed that he caught a late glimpse of Martin Bormann, the highest ranking Nazi leader whose postwar fate remains obscure. Unfortunately, though, whoever the man was, he eluded Nibley’s attempt to capture him.
I can certify from personal experience with him that Hugh Nibley possessed a powerful mind and prodigious linguistic ability. Those characteristics are evident in this volume, but they are not particularly emphasized.
Instead, we see Nibley the combat soldier – unlike most soldiers in most wars, he really did fire his weapon in battle – and Nibley the reflective observer, steeped in the scriptures and in history, watching apocalyptic scenes unfold before his eyes that made the Book of Mormon’s narrative ever more plausible to him.
Moreover, we notice a vital dimension of his life and personality that concentration on his scholarship tends to obscure: Hugh Nibley was a man of premonitions, prophetic dreams, and spiritual promptings.
While his own pivotal near-death experience is not discussed in this book since it happened during his youth, his seeming encounters with apparitions of the president of Claremont College and of his beloved grandmother immediately after their deaths – the latter when he was in a foxhole in Holland, thousands of miles away from her home in Cardston, Alberta – remind us that, in the final analysis, his conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel rested not on historical arguments but on spiritual experiences.
Alex Nibley, a screenwriter and filmmaker who produced the marvelous 1985 documentary entitled The Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley (re-released in 2004), has skillfully blended material from extensive interviews with his father along with journal entries and letters, commentary from college and military buddies, quotations from secondary historical sources, and numerous well-chosen photographs to create not only a fascinating portrait of Master Sergeant Hugh Nibley but, using Nibley as a focus and principal narrator, a valuable contribution to the general literature about the Second World War and about the “greatest generation” that won it.