By Anne M. Yoder
I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought up on stories of Mennonites as peace-keepers, makers, builders, and more. There was nothing wrong with those stories, except that they left out all the non-Mennonites who were doing the same thing around the world throughout time. For me, and for many people I know, it led to a sort of blindness from which it can be hard to recover unless we are confronted with the truth.
One example of this relates to the history of conscientious objection. I remember as a sixteen-year-old reading Noah Leatherman’s published diary about being a conscientious objector (C.O.) during World War I and the struggles he had in the army camp where he was sent. My notion while reading it, and for years afterward, was that other than a few Quakers, all WWI C.O.s were Mennonites, like Leatherman. I expected that all these C.O. witnesses would have had pretty much the same narrative of being persecuted for their peace stance, and prevailing through all the difficulties with God’s help.
I would not have had any argument with James Juhnke, who wrote back in 1970: “In the past, Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren have had the pacifist action pretty much to themselves. To be sure, there were always some humanitarian and socialist pacifists around who did a lot of talking about pacifism, especially between wars when talk was cheap. But every time war rolled around the humanitarian pacifists evaporated, and it was up to the Mennonites to provide the conspicuous majority of refusers of military service.”1
Many Mennonites I talk to in this day and age still believe this assertion. It is true that the majority of WWI C.O.s were from the Historic Peace Churches, but that does not by any means describe the full picture.
I came to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection to be its archivist in 1995. Five years later we received a shipment of boxes from Seymour Eichel, who was donating the WWI papers of his father, Julius Eichel, and his uncle, David Eichel, both of whom had been C.O.s. These texts changed my life, and became my primary research interest since then. There were diaries and dozens of letters written by both brothers, as well as other documents. Immigrant Jews from New York City, the Eichels had embraced socialism as their lens for analyzing what was happening in the world. This philosophy led to them becoming C.O. absolutists, unwilling to accept any orders from the military, and they were sentenced to prison for itWhat a fascinating group of papers, and so helpful in expanding my view of conscientious objectors! Julius and David Eichel were extremely detailed in describing their experiences in camps and prisons, the other C.O.s they met, and their viewpoints about all that was happening on the C.O. front. They gave voice to the political and humanitarian objectors who did not have the protection of being from a pacifist church tradition. I learned to admire the depth of the Eichels’ convictions and their tenacity in faithfully holding these beliefs, despite the pressures to conform, to which many others succumbed. I started searching for C.O.s who were not from the Historic Peace Churches and found that there were far more than a few — so many, in fact, that it puts to shame any notion that without the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren, there would be a very small number of conscientious objectors.2
The Historic Peace Churches have done a wonderful job of archiving and making known the stories of C.O.s from their traditions. But, again, this gives us a limited view of what was happening. The full account is far richer, and far more complex. Because of my unique position as a Mennonite at an archives where the non-religious C.O. material finds its way, I have the privilege of filling in some of the gaps. I’m not an historian per se, but see myself as a revealer of sources. As such, I’m currently working on a website where the personal writings of the Eichels and other non-religious C.O.s will be made available, both as scans of the original pages and as transcriptions. I hope to add some Quaker and Mennonite sources too, at some point. This site will be open to the public in October 2017, along with a presentation about it to be given at the World War I Museum’s conference the same month. I hope that it will help to round out the works about WWI conscientious objection that have been published up until now.
I recently re-read Noah Leatherman’s published diary. Once again I was moved by his witness to his faith and pacifist principles, but I was also shocked (and embarrassed) by how much I had considered unimportant in my earlier reading of the text. Many of the details had a deeper meaning to me now that I’ve been immersed in similar texts for a number of years. But I was also amazed at how many non-Mennonite C.O.s he mentioned – he was aware of them, and we would do well to note their presence as well.
It is ironic to me that David Eichel was one of the most staunch in his refusal to work for the military in prison and was one of the very last C.O.s to be released, in 1920. If only he had been a Mennonite, how we could crow over it! But he didn’t use religion as his reason for being willing to endure whatever it took, for however long it took, to stay true to his convictions. We can certainly admire and gain spiritual conviction from our Mennonite forbears, but we can also open the door to admire and learn from all the others, such as the Eichel brothers. They, too, suffered much for the sake of peace. They have also passed down to us an important legacy of conscientious objection to war and militarism.
Would there be peace without the Mennonites? I would give a resounding yes to that question. I celebrate all who have been, and are now, motivated to give themselves to this cause, no matter what their reasoning may be.
Anne M. Yoder is the archivist of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
- James C. Juhnke, “The Agony of Civic Isolation: Mennonites in World War I,” Mennonite Life 25, no. 1 (January 1970): 33. ↩
- I curate a database whereby I list information about every C.O. I come across, Mennonite or otherwise. This helps to document the variety of men involved, as well as the differences in their experiences (2300+ names so far; see http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/peace/conscientiousobjection/WWI.COs.coverpage.htm). ↩