Half of the Story, Honestly Told: Review of Benjamin Goossen’s “Chosen Nation”

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Benjamin W. Gossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a German Era (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0. Cloth $49.50; eBook $34.99.

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The “invention” of a Mennonite nation is one outstanding theme in Benjamin Goossen’s dissertation, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press in June 2017. This Mennonite from Kansas with Russian-Ukrainian roots points to the fact that the theory of a Mennonite “nation” was based on the assumed existence of a Jewish one. In both cases, a religious-ethnic grouping present in many cultures was seen as part of a larger nation transcending traditional cultural and linguistic boundaries. In the fascist-controlled, post World War I-regions of Europe, Mennonites even of Dutch heritage had celebrated themselves as champions of “Germandom.” But for obviously opportunistic reasons, the concept of a transnational Mennonite “nation” kicked in after 1945. It was used as a crux for obtaining exist visas to the Americas in post-war, anti-fascist Europe.

The Mennonite icon Peter J. Dyck (1914-2010) was honest enough to admit in 1988 that the claim of being a nation had been “a temporary cloak woven from the wool of political expediency.” The refugees from Russia had “changed their identity when it suited them. They became chameleons” (199). Dyck himself had under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tutelage helped fashion this construct at the end of WW II. The claim was used to spare once-Nazi Mennonites who deserved retribution. But of course, Dyck’s motives were somehow humanitarian.

In the course of the past several centuries, Mennonites had insisted on privilege. Privilege—in taxation for example—was very much a part of their decision to move to Russia (now eastern Ukraine) in the 1780s. When it was convenient, Mennonites promoted their state of privilege either by citing their Germanness or their supranational nationhood. Goossen points out that the ethnic and racial criteria prevalent during the Nazi period survived into the post-war era. Agnostics and Catholics posed as Mennonites in hopes of obtaining equal privilege for emigrating to the Americas. The criteria remained cultural and racial. He asks on page 182: “What were MCC’s refugee operations, after all, but an elaborate exercise in ethnic nationalism?” It was the Cold War’s transition from anti-fascism to anti-communism which in 1951 finally opened Canada’s gates even for Mennonite members of the Waffen-SS (181).

A particularly strong point of this book is its descriptions of Nazi fascination for the Mennonite colonies of Eastern Europe, an appeal underscored by Heinrich Himmler’s landmark visit to the Molotschna colony in October 1942. Mennonites in the USSR were one of “Germandom’s” most impressive specimens and “groundbreakers for Germandom.” Though scattered across the globe, Mennonites’ “church discipline and religious racial defense system have protected (them) one-hundred-percent against the dilution of their blood through the infiltration of foreign elements. There is likely no other confession in the world that demonstrates such a racially uniform character as the Mennonites” (131, from Benjamin Unruh, approx. 1939). Supposedly the most Aryan of all, this characteristic made them prime targets for Nazi anthropologists and Eugenicists. According to the author, Mennonites “relished the attention” these researchers showered upon them.

Goossen is to be thanked for pointing to the questionable, racist character of genealogical research as practiced by ethnic Mennonites. Though it had been strongly propagated by fascist circles, Mennonite theologian Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) wrote in 1950: “It is encouraging to learn that a permanent interest in family history remains among the Mennonites in Germany, even after the Hitler regime has long since passed away” (201).

The book points to the direct linkage between pacifism and Mennonite quietism. The Mennonite understanding with Czarist authorities assumed that freedom from the draft would be conceded if the colonies did not proselytise. Numerical growth had to be restricted to procreation; to do otherwise would have exceeded the limits of Russian tolerance.

The pacifism issue was also a source of long-term tension between Mennonites in Germany and the diaspora. Germany had no Mennonite conscientious objectors after the 1870s, and in 1912 the Danzig “modernizer” Hermann Mannhardt (1855-1927) was very much opposed to the repatriation of Ukrainian Mennonites to Germany. After all, “Mannhardt and his associates had spent the last half-century ridding pacifism from their own congregations. At the very moment that charges of cowardice were finally dissipating, it would be madness to import 100,000 colonists” (102). At the turn of the twentieth century, the pacifists were rural and traditional, located primarily in Russia and North America. It was the urban Mennonite middle-class  in Germany and Holland that had by then opted to “modernize.”

It was also the rural and traditional who best resisted the enticements of Nazism. After a trip to Paraguay in the 1930’s, the pro-Nazi geographer Herbert Wilhelmy (1910-2003) complained that Mennonites there viewed the Third Reich as “too militarist and too worldly.” These “religious fanatics consider (pro-Nazi Mennonites) as being traitors to the Mennonite cause” (142). In North America, South German- and Swiss-rooted “Old Mennonites” and Amish expressed little admiration or interest in Hitler. Yet this is not the entire story: Pro-fascist sentiment among the low-German Mennonites of Manitoba in the 1930s also included the rural.

Goossen’s treatise includes tidbits of information worthy of further exploration. Numerous Mennonites were active in Germany’s liberal “Vormärz” revolution of 1848. Krefeld banker Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870) served as the German Reich’s first minister of finance. Indeed, Krefeld’s industrialist Von der Leyen family had been active in German politics and finance since the 1650s. (The current German minister of defense, the Lutheran Ursula von der Leyen, is married to a member of this Mennonite family.)

A particularly unsavoury set of anecdotal clips refers to Mennonites caught up in the fascist war. Heinrich Wiens, a Molotschna native and member of an SS-Einsatzgruppe, was involved in the elimination of Jews with gas vans (159). Jakob Reimer from Halbstadt/Ukraine participated in a massacre near Lublin (apparently the “Aktion Erntefest” of November 1943—see 162).

No less questionable were persons mentioned by Goossen as the close allies of Mennonites. Adolf Ehrt (1902-1975), the head of the Nazi “Anti-Comintern,” wrote his dissertation on the Mennonites. Georg Leibbrandt (1891-1982), a “long-time scholar of Mennonitism” (163), participated in the “Wannsee Conference” of January 1942 and was co-responsible for the mass extermination of Jews. Leibbrandt also served as an advisor to German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1955 (see German “Wikipedia”).

Erected in a region of dense Mennonite settlement near Danzig, Mennonite contractors were involved in the construction of the Stutthof concentration camp in 1939. Mennonites served there later as guards. A small consolation: Mennonite youth visiting from Germany helped rebuild Stutthof as a memorial in 1973-74 (193).

Conclusion

Mennonite encyclopedic or Wikipedia entries do not mention the pro-fascist dealings of Benjamin H. Unruh (1881-1959) or the militarism of Hermann Mannhardt. Ben Goossen can therefore be thanked for inching their biographies closer to reality. Along with Peter Dyck, Cornelius F. Klassen (1894-1954) was a second icon of mid-twentieth century Mennonitism. Yet Goossen quotes on page 143, that Klassen “aligned himself with Hitler’s Germany, railing against social-democratic rot, the Communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews.” Apparently, a part of the essential story on C.F. Klassen remains untold.

My primary criticism of Goossen’s treatise pertains to the fact that he only tells half the Mennonite story. Though the book’s title refers to “Mennonites in Germany,” solely the low-German story is told. More seriously, the story is told from the perspective of the Mennonite émigré, not also from those who “remained behind.” Surely there were Mennonites who did not desert the Red Army. I—not a specialist in Mennonite history—have not heard their story. Goossen reports that after WW I a “subset” of Mennonites joined the Bolsheviks and attempted to foment class struggle (110). That is a story which, to my knowledge, has yet to be told.

Most importantly of all, the book does not tell the Mennonite story as perceived through the eyes of their Slavic neighbors. Why, in 1920, did the anarchists and Bolsheviks of eastern Ukraine react as they did? Bolsheviks included Mennonites among the most counter-revolutionary of Russia’s minorities.

The mass Soviet deportations eastward in August 1941 were motivated by the suspicion that ethnic Germans were potential turncoats. As it turned out, those suspicions were completely justified. The communist position was, among other things, also a reaction to the German and German-Mennonite position. (These words are no defense of Stalinist behavior; they are only an attempt to understand it.) Western Mennonites have produced hundreds of treatises describing communist guilt; it is now time to hear the other half. We must hear more than only how Mennonites have interpreted themselves.

Though untold here, Ben Goossen understands that another Slavic narrative exists. Indeed, he has taken initial steps. When Mennonite farmers moved into Russia or the American frontier, they ”seized the land.” No amalgamation with native forces took place—they were simply displaced (211). Slavs were welcome as field laborers, not as co-owners. Concerned little about the good of the whole, these colonists intended to remain an ark in a Slavic sea. (Of course, there were exceptions, and prejudice ran both ways.) The author relates: Christian farmers opposed heathen nomads. Mennonite writers portrayed their colonies as “blossoming islands in the middle of Russian barbarianism” (102). Yet by 1920, Russia’s Mennonite colonies had clearly entered the globe’s post-colonial age.

Goossen refers in several instances to the Mennonite narrative’s bias: refugees were “lost” until MCC located them. Mennonites were “rescued out” of Russia—an interpretation still far from dead. The author describes the “lost” Baltic homeland as “a place of mystic tragedy.” Mennonites and other Germans have “constructed an intricate memorial culture;” minute details of their former lives are “obsolete and therefore fascinating” (191). Sadly, as we can observe since 1990, this “outpouring of minutiae” has not automatically resulted in interest for the present and future well-being of these Slavic societies. Why have almost no Mennonite refugees from Eastern Europe and their offspring chosen to move back to the “homeland”?

A further problem involves the fact that this study harbors an ideological agenda not requisite to the story. The author rejects mission as a colonial enterprise and places the word “heathen” in quotation marks (33). Gender issues, hardly ever a part of the historic Mennonite narrative, crop up in several instances. According to him, the denunciation of a Jewish neighbor in Nazi-occupied Ukraine or the shaming of the “queer” in the USA are “at least as Mennonite as bonnets, buggies and pacifism” (211).

Due in part to my perusal of the current Russian political and theological scene, I remain wary of the libertarian, individualist, pro-abortion, gender-neutral, essentially secular agenda grafted into western Mennonitism during the past three decades. Its present ideology may well be a result of the old desire of the intellectual to “be modern,” to conform. They are interested in worldly fashion, in keeping up with the Joneses. The venerable Mennonite theologian Myron Augsburger expressed to me in early 2017 his concern that Mennonite thought is no longer non-conformist: “Mennonite thinking should be with Kingdom priorities and Christ-centered in distinction from the liberal, secular agenda.”

It was the educated who brought down pacifism in Germany and Holland in the nineteenth century. Mennonite involvement in the wars of German nationalism and fascism ensued. Had German Mennonites remained “old-fashioned,” they would not have been guarding the condemned at Stutthof. Pacifism keeps believers with pro-fascist leanings—or liberals currently supporting “humanitarian” wars in the Middle East—from involvement in greater mischief.

Non-pacifism means ethical anarchy in countries with an aggressive foreign policy. In the U.S. context it meant that Mennonites dropping pacifism in the late 1950s soon had their sons dropping Agent Orange on the hapless peasants of Southeast Asia. In the context of WW II, it was the world’s rural and under-educated Mennonites who ended up prophetic, who stood the best chance of not compromising the Anabaptist witness.

The pacifists are almost always the prophets. Mennonites and Protestants in general, once they haven “broken free” of pacifism, don’t have the political savvy or acumen (“politischer Durchblick”) required to stay out of particularly questionable wars. Perhaps only some Marxists and Quakers are capable of choosing their wars carefully.

Mennonites have proven prophetic by accident. Their state was a gift of heaven, not a result of cool analysis. Connected to the wisdom of tradition, country bumpkins have proven to be the actual prophets. In Sarasota, Florida, it’s the Amish steering their barely-kosher electric tricycles across baked asphalt parking malls that point to a saner and greener form of future transport. The world is a ball, and the Amish were so far behind the trend that they suddenly ended up out front. When the professors have lost their way, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40).

We all so through a glass darkly. In hopes of learning from past mistakes, I encourage Ben Goossen and others to press onward with their diligent research.

Originally from Sarasota, Florida, William E. (Bill) Yoder (born 1950), has resided in Russia and Belarus since 2001. He received a Ph.D. in political science from West Berlin’s “Free University” in 1991. He can be reached at kant50(at)web(dot)de”.

One thought on “Half of the Story, Honestly Told: Review of Benjamin Goossen’s “Chosen Nation”

  1. Very interesting review. And persuasive too (in the sense of convincing me to read the book) by combining appreciation for Goossen’s historical scholarship with cautionary notes regarding his liberal ideology.

    The experience of Mennonites in Prussia between the two world wars strikes me a highly relevant to our current situation as Mennonites in the US and Canada. LIke them, progressive Mennonites today are almost eager to believe state deceptions. The current Russia scare and the 2014 coup in Kiev are two recent cases in point.

    Yoder’s closing paragraphs are profound. As Goossen’s book continues to be discussed, I hope someone will bring these two voices into direct dialogue.

    Like

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