Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction

Mennonites entered Nazi consciousness in 1929, when 13,000 refugees descended on Moscow, clamoring to leave the Soviet Union. In Germany, the National Socialist Racial Observer took up their cause. Blaming Jews and Bolsheviks for oppressing Mennonites, the paper condemned Western democracies for ignoring their plight. In one front-page article, editor Alfred Rosenberg—who had led the Nazi Party while Hitler was in prison—offered what he considered a solution. “The National Socialist movement,” he wrote, “recognized this danger [of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’] from the beginning and built that into its essence.”1 Little more than a decade later, Rosenberg felt that the Second World War had vindicated his position. Traveling in 1942 and 1943 through Nazi-controlled Ukraine as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, he announced to crowds in the Mennonite colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna that tables were finally turned.2 Already, death squads had murdered most of Ukraine’s 1.2 million Jews.

“Film footage of Alfred Rosenberg’s visit to the Chortitza Mennonite colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, June 1942.”

Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, the global Mennonite church has yet to confront its entanglement in this genocide. While stories have long circulated privately and in some academic publications, only recently have they garnered sustained public attention.3 In this light, the upcoming conference, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” to be held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, on March 16 and 17, 2018, is a breakthrough. The event promises serious discussion of the church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism, a topic vitally important to Mennonites around the globe. Sponsored by seven Mennonite religious and educational institutions, including Mennonite Church USA, this conference brings together leading scholars of Anabaptism and of the Holocaust from five countries. A film screening and the keynote lecture by Doris Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—are free and open to the public. Registration for panel sessions is now open.

A naked prisoner is led to an execution site in the Stutthof concentration camp 2

Some of the 60,000 victims killed at the Stutthof concentration camp, a source of slave labor for Mennonite farms and factories. Credit: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team

Mennonite experiences of and involvement in the Holocaust differed widely. We know that a handful of individuals actively participated as executioners and concentration camp guards. We also know that a substantial percentage of Europe’s Mennonites benefited from and often sympathized with aspects of Nazism. Around 120,000 people, or about one-fourth of the denomination worldwide, lived under Nazi rule at the height of Hitler’s expansionism. Generally categorized as members of the Aryan racial elite, Mennonites sometimes received goods taken from murdered Jews or moved into their vacant homes. Others leased slave labor for their farms and factories, or otherwise profited from genocide.4 Yet many Mennonites also suffered. Life in wartime could be brutal, not least in German-occupied Western Europe, where some Mennonites joined the resistance.5 A number were executed or sent to concentration camps for political activities or for possessing Jewish heritage or cognitive disabilities.6 And a small but important subset—primarily in the Netherlands and France—hid Jews.7

dorf_im_roten-sturm_1941

A poster for the Nazi propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, re-released in 1941 as Village in the Red Storm. Here, the Mennonite congregational elder is portrayed as a stoic Aryan in the face of Bolshevik oppression.

Arguably more impactful than Mennonites’ own actions, however, was the denomination’s enrollment in Nazi propaganda. In 1929, popular opinion had pressured German politicians to help approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees in Moscow relocate to Germany. The event became a founding myth of the Third Reich, inspiring novels and two of the Nazis’ most important early films, Refugees (1933) and Frisians in Peril (1935). Both were re-released in 1941 during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.8 In general, Mennonites became symbolic of Aryans’ supposed ability to maintain German cultural traditions abroad. Hundreds of books and articles by the Third Reich’s leading experts on German speakers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay, Galicia, Ukraine, the Volga region, and Siberia depicted the denomination in glowing terms. Many of these authors eventually translated their theories into ethnic cleansing by consulting for the Wehrmacht, East Ministry, and SS.9

As for Mennonites overseas, most remained unaware of or uninterested in Nazi flattery. But they were equally apathetic to the fate of European Jews.10 Moreover, certain communities developed robust fascist sensibilities. In Paraguay and Brazil, entire colonies hoped to “return” to the Reich.11 Leading Mennonites helped finance the German Paper for Canada, a pro-Nazi organ.12 And in the United States, Herald Publishing House of Newton printed the rabidly anti-Semitic Defender, whose monthly circulation reached 100,000.13 As a site for the upcoming conference, Bethel College is an appropriate choice, given that it was Bible professor J. R. Thierstein who, as editor of The Mennonite during the 1930s, gave that periodical its anti-Semitic slant. Readers of the Bethel College Monthly likewise learned from Thierstein that “harm done to the Jews was insignificant by comparison with the great service Hitler had performed in saving Germany from Communism and its Jewish adherents.”14

In 1945 when the Third Reich collapsed, church institutions on both sides of the Atlantic worked to suppress allegations of Mennonite collaboration. The Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee, in particular, feared for the safety of 45,000 Mennonite refugees in postwar Europe. Administrators believed that these individuals might be denied humanitarian aid and—as actually happened to around half—deported to the Soviet Union. Under MCC auspices, prominent scholars and churchmen sent dozens of memos to military personnel, refugee organizations, and the United Nations. These documents portrayed Mennonites as “strict pacifists,” as non-Germans, and as abhorring National Socialism.15 Receptive bureaucrats developed an erroneous impression that huge numbers had performed “slave labour” for the Nazis, while the New York Times reported that they suffered “as the Jews.”16

Denialism has marked public discussions ever since. While other Christian denominations began self-scrutiny decades ago, conservative strategies—such as emphasizing Mennonites’ own hardships, referencing “Germans” instead of “Nazis,” and refocusing on Bolshevik atrocities—have depressed engagement for generations in Paraguay, Canada, and Germany.17 Little wonder, perhaps, that several of the twentieth century’s leading white supremacists and Holocaust deniers wrote fondly of their Mennonite backgrounds.18 Even among well-meaning and respected church members, anti-Semitic tropes continue to circulate. In 2017, Mennonite periodicals carried pieces that alternately excused genocidal killings by invoking Jewish communists, and denied that Jews were murdered near Mennonite colonies.19 In fact, death squads’ meticulous wartime reports are all too clear. 10,000 Jews were shot on October 13, 1941, for instance, fifty miles from Chortitza.20 And that was just one day.

Loewen, Road to Freedom, pg 106

Members of a Mennonite Waffen-SS squadron in Ukraine’s Molotschna colony, 1943. Credit: Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 106.

The “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference will provide a crucial step in our denomination’s journey toward recognition and atonement. Already, strongly-attended conferences in Germany and Paraguay have raised aspects of Mennonites’ involvement with National Socialism, and since 2015, three edited volumes and numerous journal articles have brought the subject to a wide readership. Yet almost none of this literature has broached the Holocaust specifically—a sign that major soul-searching remains for Mennonites. On a global scale, Mennonite World Conference and its member entities have recently participated in dialogue with Lutherans, Catholics, and others. Such deliberations have resulted, to much fanfare, in Mennonites accepting apologies for the persecution of sixteenth-century Anabaptists during the Reformation. Whether our church is willing to extend the same grace toward victims of a much larger and more recent outpouring of violence, remains to be seen.

Register for “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” North Newton, Kansas, March 16-17, 2018.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. Alfred Rosenberg, “Das deutsche Bauernsterben in Sowjetrußland,” Völkischer Beobachter, November 24/25, 1929. For context, see John Eicher, “A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929,” German Studies Review 40, no. 2 (2017): 333-352. On Rosenberg, see Ernst Piper, Alfred Rosenberg: Hitlers Chefideologe (Munich: Blessing, 2005). 
  2. Alfred Rosenberg, “Besichtigungsreise durch die Ukraine vom 18.6. bis 26.6.42,” Captured German and Related Records, T-454/105, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; “Aus dem Zeitgeschehen,” Deutschtum im Ausland 26, no. 5/6 (1943): 115-116. 
  3. For an overview of early scholarship on Mennonites and Nazism, see John D. Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism—Historiography and Open Questions,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary S. Sprunger, and John D. Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328. 
  4. Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549; Doris L. Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher R. Browning, Susannah Heschel, Michael R. Marrus, and Milton Shain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 142-156; Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 121-173. 
  5. See the contributions in Jelle Bosma and Alle Hoekema, eds., “Doopsgezinden tjdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 41 (2015), as well as Alle G. Hoekema, “Niederländische Taufgesinnte während des Zweiten Weltkriegs,” in Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen, ed. Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 173-184. 
  6. This is one of the least studied aspects of Mennonite-Nazi interactions. Examples include Gerlof Homan, “‘We Must and Can Stand Firmly’: Dutch Mennonites in World War II,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1995): 7-36; Christiana Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 81-96; “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun,” September 20, 1946, Voices of the Holocaust Project, online
  7. Gerlof Homan, “Friends and Enemies: the World War II Origins of MCC Work in France,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 71, no. 2 (2010): 7-14; Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18; Alle G. Hoekema, “Dutch Mennonites and German Jewish Refugee Children, 1938-1945,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 2 (2013): 133-152. 
  8. David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema: 1933-1945 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 108-109, 207-213. 
  9. Part of this history is discussed in Benjamin W. Goossen, “Mennoniten als Volksdeutsche: Die Rolle des Mennonitentums in der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda,” trans. Helmut Foth, Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 71 (2014): 54-70. 
  10. Jack Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 127-139. 
  11. John Thiesen, Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933-1945 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999); Uwe Friesen, ed., “Die völkische Bewegung und der Nationalsozialismus bei den Mennoniten in Paraguay,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kulture der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017). 
  12. James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia—Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 236-237. 
  13. James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 139. 
  14. Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” 134. 
  15. Peter Dyck, “Mennonite Refugees in Germany,” July 1946, FO 1050/1565, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. For context, see Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-187. 
  16. Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, “Memorandum: Mennonite Refugees from Soviet Russia,” ca. December 1946, AJ/43/49, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France; “Mennonite Issue in Germany Ends,” New York Times, February 15, 1947, 8. 
  17. Ted Regehr, “Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1995): 15-17; Ted Regehr, “Walter Quiring (1893-1983),” in Shepherds, Servants and Prophets: Leadership among the Russian Mennonites (ca. 1880-1960), ed. Harry Loewen (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 329-330; Diether Götz Lichdi, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung und Schuldbekenntnisse der Mennoniten nach 1945,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 64 (2007): 39-54; Daniel Stahl, “Wie die Fernheimer lernten, über die ‘Völkische Zeit’ zu sprechen: Zur langen Nachgeschichte eines Konflikts,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kulture der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 161-186; Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 187-194; Benjamin W. Goossen, “Ending the Silence,” Mennonite Historian 43, no. 4 (2017): 10-12. 
  18. James Urry, “Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland’s Lebensraum!” Mennonite Quarterly Review 73, no. 1 (1999): 107-127; Damon T. Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101. 
  19. Although both statements are publicly available in print and online, I am choosing not to cite them here, as my aim is not to shame individuals but to point out the continued circulation of certain forms of anti-Semitism among Mennonite communities. 
  20. SD, “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, R 58/219, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. For context, see Helmut Krausnick, Hitlers Einsatzgruppen: die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges, 1938-1942 (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985), 166-175. 

2 thoughts on “Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction

  1. Thanks for your ongoing research on this important topic. Looking forward to reading more about the conference. Will any of the sessions be streamed online? The push-back your book received from Canadian Mennonites tells me this work is long overdue.
    Kathy Shantz, Kitchener, Ontario

    Like

    • Hi Kathy – this Anabaptist Historians site is planning to provide simultaneous coverage of the conference, so watch here for panel summaries and discussion in March. One of the conference’s goals is to promote public conversation, so it’s possible that some content will also be audio/video recorded. And of course, denominational press will be there.

      Like

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