Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

Image 1

“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

Image-2-smaller

Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

Image 3

Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

Image-4-smaller

Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

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


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

Five Myths about Mennonites and the Holocaust

“Not all the Jews were bad,” a widely respected Mennonite born in interwar Ukraine told me recently, “even though they started the [Bolshevik] Revolution. My father had good Jewish friends.” This statement is classically anti-Semitic. It falsely conflates communism with Judaism, while using the excuse of having a few Jewish friends to mask an implied belief that Jews in general were bad. At least as importantly, my conversation partner’s words reveal how people who do not consider themselves racist or anti-Semitic can still propagate harmful myths.

New scholarship and ongoing public discussion about the historic entanglement of tens of thousands of Mennonites on three continents with Nazism and the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s has yielded productive conversation regarding how present-day Anabaptists can and should respond to this history, as well as calls for further discussion. At the same time, some church-affiliated periodicals have printed articles, letters, and reviews that propagate troubling interpretations of Mennonite-Nazi connections, including anti-Semitic tropes.

Figure 1, Great Trek

Imagery of the “Great Trek” during WWII has dominated Mennonite depictions of the era, bolstering a narrative of suffering, mostly female refugees. In fact, the word “trek” was widely and triumphally used in the Third Reich to describe German-speakers relocating from Eastern Europe to Germany. This particular movement of Mennonites and others out of Ukraine in 1943 and 1944 was overseen by the SS. Participants were not primarily considered to be refugees but rather Aryan “re-settlers,” traveling to a fatherland newly cleansed of Jews. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, attributed to Hermann Rossner.

Such reactionary responses are not exceptional, either in Holocaust historiography or in the current context of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. In February, Poland passed legislation criminalizing mention of some Poles’ involvement in genocide, while part of the international backlash to Israeli violence has been couched in anti-Semitic terms. When certain Mennonites voice anti-Semitic sentiments, this often reflects—as is the case of other groups—both an attempt to protect their own and also a real, dangerous current of anti-Jewish prejudice.

The following five myths date to the Third Reich or its immediate aftermath. They remain in circulation, deployed today to excuse Mennonite involvement in Nazism or to foreclose public discussion. Examples given below all appeared in Mennonite periodicals within the past two years. Since my intention is to stimulate thoughtful reflection, not to shame individuals, I have chosen not to cite most quotations. However, all are easily accessible online and in print.

Myth #1: Mennonites suffered under Bolshevism, justifying Nazi collaboration.

This is the most typical excuse for Mennonite involvement for Nazism. The trope holds that life in the Soviet Union was so brutal, Mennonites had no choice but to embrace Hitler’s crusade. In fact, most Mennonites involved with the Third Reich had never lived in the USSR. The subset who did—approximately 35,000 individuals in Ukraine—came under Nazi occupation in 1941. Like millions of other Soviet citizens, most of these Mennonites welcomed Hitler’s armies as “liberators” from hardship and repression. Yet unlike the majority of their neighbors, Mennonites were generally considered Aryan, a status that provided additional incentives to support Nazism.

This trope is often accompanied by assertions that Mennonite suffering under communism has not been properly recognized. But in reality, Mennonite authors have been publicizing Soviet atrocities without abate since the Bolshevik Revolution. Scholarly literature and memoirs on Mennonite victimhood greatly outnumber texts that explore collaboration or perpetration. Nearly all of the latter have appeared only recently. The imbalance is so stark that Mennonite historians can claim to have created an entire subgenre on the “Soviet Inferno,” a term in academic use since the 1990s and whose deployment continues to refer almost exclusively to Mennonites.

Myth #2:  The Allied powers committed atrocities, too – why should we single out Nazism?

“The Nazis were bad, but the Bolsheviks were worse,” a Mennonite born in the USSR told me in March. “You mean from a Mennonite perspective,” I said. My conversation partner shrugged. “Of course.” When white Mennonites think about what life might have been like for them if they had lived in Hitler’s Germany, they invariably assume that they would have been Mennonite—and by extension Aryan. From such a viewpoint, each of the Allied powers, not just the Soviet Union, would have posed a greater threat to life and livelihood than Nazism. In other words, assuming one would have been Aryan creates a false equivalency that downplays genocide.

Studying the Holocaust from a Mennonite-centric perspective runs the added risk of repeating debunked Nazi propaganda, such as the myth that Bolshevism was Jewish. Some invocations of a “Soviet Inferno” falsely imply systematic persecution or even a “final solution” of Mennonites (by Jews) in the USSR. Nazi perpetrators commonly used such reversals to portray themselves as the true victims. Last year, one historian explained Mennonite participation in Nazi death squads, stating: “men and women of Jewish background worked as [Soviet] administrators, agents, and interrogators.” He had previously directed me to a webpage entitled “Jewish Mass Murderers.”

Myth #3: Mennonites were mostly women and children, so they either had no choice or could not have been involved.

Women and children are often invoked to claim Mennonite innocence in Nazi war making. One writer recently claimed, for example: “in the 1930s most Mennonite men [in the USSR] had been exiled, imprisoned or executed, leaving families to be led by mothers and grandmothers,” who were not “collaborators, anti-Semites or Aryan.” Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were indeed disproportionately women and children. But there were also plenty of men—many of whom served in administrative positions, as translators, policemen, or soldiers. Gender disparity at the end of the war in part reflected the death or capture of Mennonite men in German uniform.

Figure 2, Chortitza table

A table compiled by Nazi occupiers showing the age and gender (men on the left, women on the right) of the 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Ukraine’s Chortitza colony, ca. 1942. Forty-three percent of “ethnic German” families in Chortitza had no male head of household—but fifty-seven percent did. Source: Karl Stumpp, Bericht über das Gebiet Chortitza im Generalbezirk Dnjepropetrowsk (Berlin: Publikationsstelle Ost, 1943), Tafel H.

This myth further assumes that women or children could not have contributed to Nazism or the Holocaust. However, many Mennonite women served as translators or in bureaucratic capacities, sometimes enriching themselves with the spoils of genocide. More often, women supplied moral support to male relatives and contributed to the war effort through their labor. Meanwhile, some underage boys took up arms. And most Mennonite children in the Third Reich absorbed Nazi ideals at school and through organized youth activities. They helped boost morale by singing, marching, and telling stories. Some racist proclivities learned in the 1930s and 1940s persist today.

Myth #4: Mennonites knew nothing about Holocaust-related atrocities.

This is simply untrue, as numerous archival documents testify. Nonetheless, the way this myth is told is itself revealing. Consider one statement: “Although Mennonites under German occupation witnessed how their Jewish neighbours packed up and fled, they did not know about the outcome of this fleeing until much later.” Another, strikingly similar account holds that Mennonites “saw their Jewish neighbours pack up and flee eastward across the Dnepr; how many survived and how many were executed on the eastern side they did not know until later.” These authors care more about locating killing elsewhere than considering why Mennonites stayed as Jews fled.

Figure 3, Molotschna

A caption in one Mennonite history book for this scene from the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, 1942, reads: “This photo shows the uneasy meeting of two branches of the German and Low German cultures: the militarism of Prussia as well as of the Third Reich, and its opposite—the nonresistance of the Mennonite religious culture. The worldwide German culture is much richer given the existence of a community that did not soil itself with the militarist Nazi madness.” In fact, the men pictured here belonged to Waffen-SS cavalry units composed mostly of Mennonites. The photo was taken at a rally where Mennonite women and children performed for the visiting head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Source: Adina Reger and Delbert Plett, eds., Diese Steine: Die Russlandmennoniten (Steinbach, MB: Crossway Publications, 2001), 332.

To suggest that murder did not occur around some Mennonite settlements or that Mennonites in these areas had no knowledge of genocide is a form of Holocaust denial. Such myths repudiate known facts. Yet claims persist that Mennonites “had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.” The author of this line, in subsequent postal correspondence, described glowingly her own wartime work as the secretary for a top German officer in Nazi-occupied Dnipropetrovsk, her receipt of German citizenship, and the voluntary induction of Mennonite men into the military; “I am a beneficiary of the German occupation!”

Myth #5: Mennonites suffered under Nazism.

Among the most disingenuous myths about Mennonite life under Nazism, this trope holds that the general suffering of Mennonites in the USSR continued under German rule. Nazi occupation was indeed catastrophic for a minority of Mennonites who were committed communists, as well as for disabled individuals and those of Jewish heritage. Some in Nazi-occupied France and the Netherlands joined the resistance or hid Jews. Yet claims of Mennonite suffering normally refer to those who in 1943 and 1944 participated in the “Great Trek” from Ukraine to Poland to escape the Red Army—an endeavor supervised by the SS and praised by Mennonite leaders at the time.

Indeed, closer inspection reveals that allegations of Mennonite hardship are often complaints that Nazism did not live up to its potential. If only the Eastern Front had held; if only religious reform had been more thorough; if only welfare programs were more generous—then Mennonite life would have been easier. Even the Holocaust and other persecutions are said to have “occasioned much disappointment among Mennonites.” This may be true. But note how the author chooses to emphasize the “disappointment” of Aryans, not the actual enslavement and slaughter of Jews. Despite the fading of his own initial “euphoria” for Germany, he could remain “deeply grateful.”

* * *

Mennonite authors and editors should think carefully before writing or printing pieces about the Third Reich. This is an important topic and requires our attention. But we must approach it in ways that do not recapitulate racism. Even those of us with good intentions need to be wary. In April, the cover story of a major denominational magazine laudably covered Mennonites and the Holocaust; yet in her introduction, the editor blithely compared Mennonites murdering Jews to Jews murdering Jesus—arguably the single most injurious trope of Christian anti-Semitism. Proofreaders apparently saw no problem with invoking “the crowd that yelled ‘Crucify him!’”

A few rules of thumb might be helpful. If you are discussing Nazism or the Holocaust, consider how someone from a different background might react—particularly if you are defending actions by your own group. Second, be aware of contextual differences: refocusing from the Holocaust to Soviet atrocities erases the specificity of Jewish genocide. Finally, when evaluating suffering, do not discriminate. While Mennonites have faced many difficulties, they never suffered alone. Nor were they always victims. Anabaptists, of all people, must surely grasp that violence can permeate even the most peaceable of cultures, a process we should understand but never justify.

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.

Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus

30070588_4513091624056_1542572105_o

Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, speaks with the Mennonite physician Johann Klassen in Halbstadt, Ukraine, 1942. Klassen was executed after the war for crimes including the alleged selection of 100 disabled patients for murder. Photo courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg. Alber Photograph Collection 351-23.

Recent conferences held in Germany (2015), Paraguay (2017), and the United States (2018) have led to significant public discussion and academic scholarship on the history of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust. These events have revealed that individuals associated with the Mennonite church were proximate to and sometimes participated in fascism and genocide to a greater extent than has been previously known. In response to several requests, we here at Anabaptist Historians have created this “Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus” to disseminate basic information and suggestions for further reading. In constructing this document, we have been inspired by other recent syllabi—such as the “Black Lives Matter Syllabus” and the “#StandingRockSyllabus”—that provide resources on topics of public import for adoption in educational settings as well as for wide circulation.

Below, recommended readings are organized by topic. This syllabus highlights short, free, web-accessible, English-language sources. Full-text links are provided. For readers wanting a deeper dive into any theme or area of interest, longer secondary sources in English, German, Dutch, and French are also listed under “Further Reading.” While full citations are given for the “Further Readings,” these are—unlike the primary texts—not all available online and, when no links are provided, must be accessed via libraries or database subscriptions. This syllabus is intended for general consumption: please use, distribute, amend, and share however you like.

A printer-friendly version can be found here: Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus, 2018

Contents

Key Terms

Timeline

Readings by Topic

Key Terms

Holocaust: The programmatic effort by National Socialists in the German Third Reich to exterminate Jews as a people during the Second World War. Usually dated between 1941 and 1945, this genocide drew on a much longer history of Nazi anti-Semitism and also extended to other groups, including Roma, political dissidents, and the physically and mentally disabled.

Mennonites: A Christian religious group originating in Europe during the sixteenth-century Reformation, named after the theologian Menno Simons, and historically associated with the separation of church and state, lay leadership, and opposition to military service and sworn oaths. During the Third Reich, there were about 500,000 Mennonites worldwide, living primarily in Eurasia and the Americas.

Nazism: A political movement led by Adolf Hitler and founded in southern Germany in the wake of the First World War. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, was established in 1920 and ruled in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Nazism as an ideology was characterized by anti-Semitism, anti-communism, and a Germany first approach.

Timeline

1918: The First World War formally ends, leaving Germany and its allies defeated. Paramilitary violence continues across Eastern Europe, spreading extremist ideologies and affecting Mennonite communities especially in Ukraine

1919: Allied victors impose the punitive Treaty of Versailles, assigning war guilt to Germany and drastically reducing its territory, including areas densely populated by Mennonites. The German Workers’ Party is formed

1920: The German Workers’ Party is renamed the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP in German), also known as the Nazi Party; Mennonites begin joining

1921: Famine in Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War draws international assistance from new aid organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC

1923: Hitler’s first attempted revolution, the “Beer Hall Putsch,” fails in Munich. Mass emigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union to Canada begins

1925: The first Mennonite World Conference is held in northern Switzerland, depicted as a global homecoming to the soil where Anabaptism was “born.” Anti-communism and nonresistance are discussed 

1926: In line with rising interest in racial science across Europe and beyond, the first periodical for Mennonite genealogy is founded in Germany

1927: Communist authorities end Mennonite emigration after 20,000 of 100,000 members in the Soviet Union have already left for Canada

1928: Stalin introduces his First Five Year Plan, leading to massive collectivization in the Soviet Union and violent liquidation of wealthy farmers and industrialists known as “kulaks,” including a high percentage of Mennonites

1929: Over 10,000 Mennonite refugees in the Soviet Union seek to escape Stalin’s “Revolution from Above,” drawing attention in Germany, including extensive coverage in the Nazi press

1930: Approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees are given temporary shelter in Germany—where over 1,000 are examined by racial scientists—before traveling on to Brazil, Paraguay, and Canada

1933: Hitler comes to power in Germany, now called the Third Reich; Mennonite conferences in Paraguay and northeast Germany send congratulations, praising Nazi nationalism and anti-Bolshevism

1934: Germany’s largest Mennonite conference revises its statutes, formally abandoning nonresistance and promising obedience to the state; organizers are nevertheless unsuccessful at uniting all German congregations

1935: The Third Reich introduces military conscription and passes the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws; these themes are both promoted in the propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, about Mennonites in the Soviet Union

1936: Organizers of the Mennonite World Conference in the Netherlands agree to avoid the “political” topic of Nazism to appease German delegates. A small breakout group makes a peace declaration after German delegates leave

1937: Mennonites in Germany disavow prior affiliations with neo-Hutterite pacifists known as the Rhön Bruderhof, dissolved by the Gestapo. Expelled members move to England with help from Mennonites abroad

1938: Germany begins expanding as it absorbs Austria and the Sudetenland. Anti-Semitic violence escalates during the infamous Kristallnacht. Extreme anti-Semitic pronouncements continue among Mennonites in Germany

1939: The Second World War begins in Europe with the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. Mennonites from Poland, Danzig, and Galicia come under Third Reich rule. MCC begins relief work in Germany and France

1940: Nazi occupation of France and the Netherlands brings tens of thousands more Mennonites under German auspices. Racial scholars, including several Mennonites, begin integrating Dutch into histories of Aryan colonization in Eastern Europe

1941: Simultaneous onset of the Holocaust and Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. 35,000 Mennonites in Ukraine welcome German occupation. Mobile killing units, some with Mennonite members, carry out genocide across Eastern Europe

1942: Mennonite Central Committee operations in Germany, France, and occupied Poland end with the entry of the United States into the war; MCC representatives are repatriated to the United States

1943: Germany’s Eastern Front begins collapsing. German-speaking colonies in Ukraine that have been built up as model colonies—including the Mennonite Molotschna and Chortitza settlements—start retreating westward with the Wehrmacht and SS

1944: Mennonite leaders collaborate with Nazi bureaucrats and the SS to resettle nearly all of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the new model province of Wartheland in occupied Poland. They also envision resettlement of Mennonites from overseas

1945: The Third Reich collapses with the end of the Second World War. Approximately 45,000 Mennonite refugees seek shelter in Denmark and occupied Germany and Austria, fearing deportation to the Soviet Union

1946: Mennonite Central Committee begins new programs in Europe, including refugee operations. MCC leaders like Peter Dyck begin telling military and UN officials that Mennonites are non-German pacifists who suffered under Nazism

1947: The first refugee ship after World War II sails for South America with over 2,000 Mennonites on board. Over the following eight years, MCC will help relocate over 15,000 Mennonites to the Americas, most claiming to be non-Germans

1948: Mennonite World Conference is held in the United States. German delegates express regret at having supported Nazism but claim to have participated in collective “resistance.” International Mennonite aid to Germany redoubles

1949: West Germany is established with a new Basic Law, including provision for conscientious objectors, the first time such exemption is not based on religious exemption. Peace work begins to emerge among local Mennonites

 

Readings by Topic

1) General Overviews

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction,” Anabaptist Historians, February 7, 2018.

Coverage of “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference by Anabaptist Historians, held at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas on March 16-17, 2018.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Ben Goossen, ed. German Mennonite Sources Database, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, online.

2) Background: Mennonites and German Nationalism

Mark Jantzen, “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1860-1890,” Mennonite Life 58, no. 3 (2003): online.

Karl Koop, “A Complication for the Mennonite Peace Tradition: Wilhelm Mannhardt’s Defense of Military Service,” Conrad Grebel Review 34, no. 1 (2016): 28-48.

Further Reading:

Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2010).

Wilhelm Mannhardt, The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2013).

H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919 (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2008).

3) Mennonites and Nazism in Germany

James Regier, “Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Prussian Mennonites, the Third Reich, and Coming to Terms with a Difficult Past,” Mennonite Life 59, no. 1 (2004): online.

Christiana Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 81-96.

Gerhard Rempel, “Heinrich Hajo Schroeder: The Allure of Race and Space in Hitler’s Empire,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011): 227-254.

Further Reading:

Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017)

James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

Diether Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Weierhof im Bolanden: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977).

4) Nazi Visions of Mennonites

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot,” Anabaptist Historians, March 17, 2018.

Clip from Friesennot (English subtitles) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

Ben Goossen, “Measuring Mennonitism: Racial Categorization in Nazi Germany and Beyond,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 225-246.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, “Mennoniten als Volksdeutsche: Die Rolle des Mennonitentums in der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda,” trans. Helmut Foth, Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 71 (2014): 54-70

Friesennot (full movie) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

John Eicher, “A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929,” German Studies Review 40, no. 2 (2017): 333-352.

5) Neo-Hutterites: The Third Reich’s Only Anabaptist Pacifists 

James Lichti, “The German Mennonite Response to the Dissolution of the Rhoen-Bruderhof,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 10-17.

Eberhard Arnold, “Rhön Bruderhof (Hessen, Germany),” GAMEO, 1959, online.

Hans Meyer, “Hans Meier tells how the Gestapo raided the Rhön Bruderhof in 1933,” YouTube, online.

Further Reading:

Thomas Nauerth, “Michael Horsch and the Rhön Bruderhof, 1936–1937: From Friend to Hostile Witness to Historical Eyewitness,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91, no. 2 (2017): 213-246.

James Lichti, “Rhönbruderhof,” MennLex, online.

Emmy Barth, No Lasting Home. A Year in the Paraguayan Wilderness (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014).

6) Mennonites and Nazism in Canada

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

Tim Nafziger, “A Window into Antisemitism and Nazism Among Mennonite in North America,” The Mennonite, July 30, 2007.

Benjamin Redekop, “German Nationalism Among Canadian Mennonites During the Early 1930s,” Mennonite Historian 19, no. 3 (1993): 1-2, 9-10.

Further Reading:

James Urry, “A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 65-80.

Frank Epp, “Kanadische Mennoniten, das Dritte Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 31 (1974): 91-102.

James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia— Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 185-228.

John Redekop, “The Roots of Nazi Support Among Mennonites, 1930 to 1939: A Case Study Based on a Major Paper,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 81-95.

7) Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism in Latin America, 1933-1944,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 12 (1994): 104-117.

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism: The Example of Fernheim,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 4-9.

Further Reading:

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 Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017).

John D. Roth, ed., special issue on Mennonites and Nazism, Mennonite Quarterly Review 92, no. 2 (2018).

Peter Klassen, Die deutsch-völkische Zeit in der Kolonie Fernheim, Chaco-Paraguay (1933–1945) (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1990).

8) Mennonites and Nazism in the United States

Jack Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” in Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 127-139.

Rich Preheim, “White Supremacist’s Racist ‘Faith,” Mennonite World Review, April 28, 2017.

James Juhnke, “Ingrid Rimland, the Mennonites, and the Demon Doctor,” 60 no. 1 (2005): online.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, “The American Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism,” Yearbook of German-American Studies 27 (1992): 127–158.

James Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 137-140.

Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.

9) Mennonites and Nazism in the Netherlands

Clyde Farnsworth, “Canada Revokes Citizenship of Nazi Collaborator,” New York Times, November 12, 1991.

Alfred Neufeld, “How Have We Dealt with Conflict in the Past?” Mennonite World Conference, July 2015.

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Have Come to Love Them’: Russian Mennonite Refugees in the Netherlands, 1945-1947,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2011): 39-59.

Further Reading:

Jelle Bosma and Alle Hoekema, eds., “Doopsgezinden tjdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 41 (2015).

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Must and Can Stand Firmly’: Dutch Mennonites in World War II,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1995): 7-36.

Alle Hoekema and Pieter Post, Frits Kuiper (1898-1974): Doopsgezind Theoloog (Hilversum: Verloren, 2016).

10) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Witnesses and Perpetrators

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration,” The Mennonite, March 1, 2012.

Ben Goossen, “Becoming Aryan,” Canadian Mennonite, June 26, 2016.

Aileen Friesen, “Soviet Mennonites, the Holocaust & Nazism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 25, 2017.

Further Reading:

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507–549.

Doris Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher Browning, Susannah Heschel, Michael Marrus, and Milton Shain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 142-156.

Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” trans. John Thiesen Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986), 4-9, 32.

Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013).

Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life and Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

11) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Victims and Helpers

Goshen College, “Woman ‘Righteous’ for Saving Jewish Children,” Mennonite World Review, July 22, 2013.

David Boder, “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun,” September 20, 1946, Voices of the Holocaust Project, online.

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.

Further Reading:

Gerlof Homan, “Friends and Enemies: The World War II Origins of MCC Work in France,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 71, no. 2 (2010): 7-14.

Alle Hoekema, “Dutch Mennonites and German Jewish Refugee Children, 1938-1945,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 2 (2013): 133-152.

Jean-Paul Kremer, Le salut ne vient pas d’Hitler: Un mennonite déporté à Natzweiler et Buchenwald (Alès: Mission Timothée, 2016).

12) Postwar Migration, Cover-up, and Denial

Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.

Steven Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms with the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945–1950,” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 2 (2003): 6-16.

Ted Regehr, “Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1995): 7-25.

Further Reading:

Horst Klaassen, “Nationalität: Mennonit? Mennonitische Auswanderungslager in Backnang 1947 bis 1953,” Mennonitischer Geschichtsblätter 54 (1997): 89-115.

Frank Epp, Mennonite Exodus: The Rescue and Resettlement of the Russian Mennonites Since the Communist Revolution (Altona, MB: D.W. Friesen & Sons, 1962).

James Urry, “Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland’s Lebensraum! Mennonite Quarterly Review 73, no. 1 (1999): 107-127.

13) Uncovering the Past: Recent Developments 

John Roth, “Europeans Confront Hard Truths of Nazi Era,” Mennonite World Review, October 5, 2015.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites Seek to Come to Terms with Nazi Collaboration,” Religion News Service, March 16, 2017.

Gordon Houser, Paul Schrag, and Melanie Zuercher, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: Conference Looks at the Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 19, 2018.

Further Reading:

John 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 Sprunger, and John Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328.

Ben Goossen, “Ending the Silence,” Mennonite Historian 43, no. 4 (2017): 10-12.

Doris Bergen, “Workshop Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust,” Contemporary Church History Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2017): online.

Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with Our History in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 26, 2018.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot

Frisians in Peril, 1935

The final event on Friday, March 16, at the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference was an evening screening of the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Friesennot, which in English translates to “Frisians in Peril.” Professor of History Mark Jantzen of Bethel College, one of the conference organizers, introduced the film. Jantzen had requested permission to screen the film from the German Federal Film Archive, and he organized English-language subtitles of the German and Russian dialogue. This was the first public screening of Friesennot in the United States since 1936 and its world premiere with English subtitles.

Friesennot was one of several films featuring Mennonite themes promoted by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. Of these, Friesennot most explicitly depicts Mennonite characters—although even here, the protagonists are referred to not according to their religion but with to the racial term “Frisian.” The film’s plot follows a small Mennonite colony along the Volga in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While the Mennonite inhabitants are portrayed as quintessential Germans, the film depicts communists who arrive in their colony as Semitic brutes, who oppress the blond “Aryan” farmers.

The moral dilemma of Friesennot concerns the Mennonites’ pacifism. While the Bolsheviks steal horses and molest women, the Mennonite elder cautions his congregants to turn the other cheek. Continued abuses by the communists prove this foolhardy, however, and eventually the men of the colony take up arms. One evening while the Bolsheviks are inebriated, the Mennonite militia surprises them in the church building—which has been turned into a drinking hall—slaughtering everyone inside. In the final scene, the colonists pack their belongings and depart for a new homeland.

Refugees, 1933

Nazi filmmakers had become interested in Mennonites following an international crisis in 1929 and 1930 when thousands of refugees fled the Soviet Union, arriving both in Germany and in northern China. This event captured German public attention, inspiring extensive newspaper coverage as well as several novels. In 1933, the first film in the Third Reich to win the Propaganda Ministry’s State Film Prize—entitled Flüchtlinge, meaning “Refugees” in English—followed the fate of German-speaking colonists who escaped from the Soviet Union to China.

Homecoming 1940

During the Second World War, Nazi films with Mennonite themes became tied to ethnic cleansing. In 1940, a film called Heimkehr, meaning “Homecoming,” valorized National Socialist programs to resettle hundreds of thousands of German speakers—including Mennonites—from across Europe to occupied Poland, where they were supposed to “Germanize” land previously held by Poles or Jews. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Propaganda Ministry also re-released Flüchtlinge and Friesennot—retitled Dorf im roten Sturm, meaning “Village in the Red Storm.”

Following the film screening on Friday, discussants noted the various ways that Friesennot contributed to Nazi programs of anti-Semitism before and during the Second World War. Originally produced in 1935, the film coincided with the re-introduction of German military service as well as the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping Jews of citizenship and targeting sexual relations between Germans and Jews—a topic of contention in the film. When re-released during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Friesennot helped generate support for the Nazi war effort and stirred up anti-Semitism at the same time that death squads were initiating the Holocaust.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Conference Opening and Session One

Bethel College

Over two hundred participants gathered today for the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference, held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Bethel President Jon Gering welcomed the assembly for a packed day to discuss challenging topics. Conference co-organizer John Thiesen offered some brief background, noting that this is the third conference in a series dedicated to interrogating the history of Mennonites’ relationship to National Socialism. The first event, which focused on Mennonites and Nazism in Germany, took place in Münster, Germany, in 2015. The second, held in Filadelfia, Paraguay, dealt with the history of Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America. A fourth conference on the topic of “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust” is being planned for the spring of 2020 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Seeds planted by this multi-year international dialogue across and beyond the Mennonite church bore fruit today. Many speakers at this “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference had been present at previous events and made reference to work produced by colleagues in those contexts. Presenters hail from five countries—Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Ukraine, and the United States—and attendees have arrived from across North America. Because this event is sponsored by seven church and educational organizations, discussions have engaged participants with diverse interests and expertise, transcending disciplinary, professional, and faith boundaries. Topics addressed this weekend include: Mennonite-Jewish relations, theology and anti-Semitism, war crimes, postwar refugee experiences, memory, and literature.

Numerous participants expressed gratitude that this event is being held publicly and with formal church sponsorship. The fact that such a conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust is occurring only now in 2018 also highlights, however, the enormous opposition—official or otherwise—that this topic has faced from within the Mennonite community over the past seventy years. In that regard, the current conference is also an imperfect vessel, with many of us still learning how to appropriately, respectfully navigate the best ways to talk and learn about Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust. Today included an impromptu teach-in from a Jewish individual, whose own family had suffered during the Holocaust, who critiqued audience members for laughing at inappropriate moments and encouraged Mennonites to keep the victims of Nazism—not themselves—at the forefront of their minds when talking about anti-Semitic atrocities.

The conference will continue tomorrow with further presentations—and the progress set in motion here will also continue for many months afterward via further dialogue, research, and publications. Here at Anabaptist Historians, we are pleased to be providing full coverage of this groundbreaking event. Be sure to watch this site over the next days and weeks for updates, including new posts with panel summaries, narrative reports, and participant reflections.

Panel Summary

Session One: Pre-War Denominational and Organizational Themes

“Anti-Semitism and the Concept of ’Volk’: The Mennonite Youth Circular Community at the Beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship”
Imanuel Baumann, Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg

  • In the first paper of the conference, Imanuel Baumann provided an analysis of round robin letters circulated between Mennonite youth groups in Germany at the start of the Third Reich. Participants included men and women and were of diverse backgrounds.
  • The concept of “Gemeinschaft,” meaning community, helped provide a bridge to Nazism for many of the writers, who since the 1920s often sought a strong sense of belonging. Nazis aimed to provide this desire for coherence with a new specifically “racial” community.
  • Within the circular letters, anti-Semitic measures in the Third Reich mostly drew silence or positive assessments. Even in cases where Mennonite writers opposed these acts, they only condemned Nazi focus on race as an idol, without questioning racial logics as such.

“Mennonite Scholarship in the Third Reich: From Knowledge Production to Genocide”
Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My paper examined the writings of a small but influential cohort of Third Reich academics who produced hundreds of books and articles about Mennonites, often praising members of the denomination as possessing unusual German racial purity
  • These mostly non-Mennonite scholars developed interest in the denomination in the context of a 1929 refugee crisis in the Soviet Union. The temporary “return” of thousands of Soviet Mennonites to Germany generated major public and official interest
  • Nearly all leading Nazi scholars of Mennonitism went on to participate in ethnic cleansing during the Second World War, often deploying concepts they had developed when conducting racial studies on Mennonites to help segregate Germans from non-Germans

“An Illusion of Freedom: Denominationalism, German Mennonites, and Nazi Germany”
Jim Lichti, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles

  • Drawing on his 2008 book, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany, Jim Lichti discussed the legal and administrative structures of Mennonites in the Third Reich, comparing them with Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists.
  • Mennonites in Nazi Germany identified as members of a “Free Church.” This term could be contrasted with Protestant or Catholic “state churches” as well as with the word “sect,” which was an undesirable designation in the Third Reich.
  • Religious opposition to Nazism more often came from state churches, since Free Churches welcomed Nazi emphasis on separation of church and state. They often also supported Nazi anti-Bolshevism, of particular interest to Mennonites with relatives in the Soviet Union.

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. [EDIT 5/29/2018: coverage of the Mennonites and the Holocaust conference can be found here.] 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. 

 

Anabaptists and the Reformation 500 Years Later

October marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, an event remembered around the world through festivals, sermons, and hefty debate. Here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I attended a conference on “The Relevance of the Message of the Reformation,” which raised many of the concerns which have recently reverberated across Christian communities. While many Protestants see the Reformation in unambiguously heroic terms, it was also a period of immense bloodshed and a fundamental rupture in church history. Historians have long argued that the sixteenth century ended the Middle Ages and ushered in a new age of modernity. But this too—particularly the claim that Protestantism is responsible for modern capitalism—has a dark side.

image1-17

Panelists in Buenos Aires discuss the Reformation and its legacy. The event was sponsored by Argentina’s Ecumenical Network of Theological Education, which includes Mennonites, Lutherans, Waldensians, and others.

As panelists at the Buenos Aires conference pointed out, the way we choose to talk about the Reformation will shape its ongoing legacy in the twenty-first century. In addition to Luther’s Bible translation and insistence on sola scriptura, for example, should we remember his anti-Semitism—including writings that inspired the Nazis? Are our narratives of the Reformation, with emphasis on figures like Luther, too male-focused? How do we tell a global history of the Reformation, when today most Protestants live in the Global South and are people of color? Perhaps more abstractly, should we even consider the Reformation to be the starting point of Protestantism? After all, one sponsor of the Buenos Aires conference was the Waldensian church, whose tradition—identified by Martyrs Mirror author Thieleman van Braght as a forerunner to Anabaptism—dates not to the sixteenth century but to the twelfth.

How should Anabaptists relate to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? As in the wider Protestant world, this question is complex. Despite reconciliation talks recently conducted with the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, inherited memories of the torture and murder of sixteenth-century Anabaptists by both Catholics and Protestants remain significant for many. Nevertheless, broader efforts to commemorate Luther and his contemporaries have found resonance. Mennonite World Conference has initiated a ten-year conference series entitled “Renewal 2027.” Its first event—held last February in Augsburg, Germany—was widely reported in the denominational press. Countless congregations have independently broached the subject.

image3-19

Conceived as a global pilgrimage to Anabaptism’s “birth place” in Switzerland, the first Mennonite World Conference, held in 1925, was the first time that Mennonites celebrated a world-wide denominational centennial.

Among the richest forums to appear so far has been the special online issue of Mennonite Life, entitled “Why 500 Years?” In addition to an introduction from editor Brad Born, the special issue includes fourteen essays from Mennonite thinkers on three continents about whether and how to tell Anabaptist origin stories five hundred years after the Reformation. César Garcia, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, and J. Nelson Kraybill, its president, outline the plans and promise of “Renewal 2027,” including the joys of being part of a worldwide faith community whose members respond to the history of early Anabaptism in diverse and often unexpected ways.

Offering historical perspectives, Troy Osborne of Conrad Grebel University College explores the distinction between the Reformation itself and the way that it has been studied by Mennonite historians, while Walter Sawatsky, professor emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, highlights the important role of Mennonites in twentieth-century Russia. Mennonite Central Committee’s Alain Epp Weaver notes the remarkable emergence of global Anabaptist institutions like MCC and Mennonite World Conference during the 1920s—a period in which church leaders celebrated the 400th anniversary of Anabaptism—and asks how we can be responsibly address the good, the bad, and the ugly of historic institutions.

image5-21

Anabaptists have long been debating the merits of historic commemorations. This 1761 medallion, struck in Amsterdam on the 200th anniversary of Menno Simons’ death, emphasizes restraint: “celebrate now this man’s second centenary festival/ With a humble heart and spirit.”

Fascinating cross pollination emerges between activist Tim Nafziger’s discussion of how some Mennonites have used triumphalist tales of Anabaptist history to enter dominant white cultures and poet Raylene Hinz-Penner’s account of Cheyenne Peace Chief Lawrence Hart’s integration of Anabaptist theology with the history of native peoples’ destruction. Tobin Miller Shearer, historian at the University of Montana, examines how a holistic approach inspired by civil rights leader and Mennonite pastor Vincent Harding might help us reimagine Anabaptist history. And Julia Spicher Kasdorf of Penn State University reminds us to take seriously the women of the Reformation. “Don’t dismiss your sisters,” she writes.

Considering the radical demographic changes that over the past decades have remade the global church, Bock Ki Kim, Interim Director of Korea Anabaptist Center and Karl Koop of Canadian Mennonite University warn against Reformation commemorations that privilege Eurocentric accounts of Anabaptism, while equally affirming this opportunity to celebrate. Likewise embracing theological and ethnic diversity, Hannah Heinzekehr, editor of The Mennonite, welcomes a future in which our church’s origin stories are plural and plentiful. Gerald W. Schlabach, theologian at the University of St. Thomas, encourages us to look beyond the Anabaptist fold by considering how Mennonites, Catholics, and others have long influenced each other in ways that defy denominational labels. 

As we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the special issue of Mennonite Life offers a stimulating conversation to join. It is a pleasure to read and think with each of these essays, and I hope that as dialogue continues over the next decade—whether through Mennonite World Conference’s “Renewal 2027” program or via other avenues—the ideas these authors have put forward will offer models for reflection and action. We can surely all agree that those who lived and died five centuries ago experienced the Reformation as an era of peril, opportunity, and fascinating complexity. May the memory of this multifaceted past speak forcefully into our own time of religious and political strife.

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.