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. 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


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.


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.


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.


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.

Mennonite Environmental History

The term “Mennonite environmental history” yields only nine results when entered in a Google search. That is astounding, given the extent to which white Mennonites’ narratives of peoplehood are bound up with imagery of tilling and harvesting—as well as the degree to which Anabaptism and soil are linked in public imaginations. Recent New York Times articles featuring “Mennonite” in the title are exclusively devoted to issues of land, agriculture, and food: “Mennonite farmers prepare to leave Mexico,” “A Mennonite’s knack for fine goat cheese,” “Mennonite farmers struggle with water shortage,” and “Eat like a Mennonite.” While other reporting certainly focuses on topics from conscientious objection to sexual politics, surely no idea is more closely tied to popular North American perceptions of Anabaptism than the environment.image1-17

In this light, the latest issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies is an important and long overdue milestone. The first full volume of scholarship devoted to Mennonite environmental history, this special issue brings together papers presented at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year on “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” The conference was hosed by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies as well as Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, who in 2005 published the first academic article on Mennonites and environmental history. As Loewen explains in his editor’s foreword, the nucleus of the recent conference—as well as the resulting volume—formed around a multi-year research project, “Seven Points on Earth,” which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded in order to enable study of the environmental history of Mennonite communities in Bolivia, Canada, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

This essay aims to offer an interpretive and critical review of the articles collected in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” My intention is to illuminate what makes the volume’s contributions so interesting and refreshing to read, while also suggesting a number of possible future directions for the still fledgling field of Mennonite environmental history. To start with the obvious: this volume is a timely and much needed corrective to the surprising paucity of literature on Mennonites and the environment. In an era of rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing resource scarcity, we should all be studying and acting on environmental issues. If ever there were a time for Anabaptist history, theology, and practice to join an urgent, planet-wide conversation, it is now.

The 2017 Journal of Mennonite Studies admirably addresses its topic from a global perspective. Arguably, Anabaptism has been a global movement from the beginning, shaped by the mobile, transnational forces of the Reformation and quickly exported to Eastern Europe, the far side of the Atlantic, and later to Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Since the twentieth century, the church’s demographic weight—like most Christian denominations—has shifted decidedly to the Global South, indicating that a historiography disproportionately focused on Europe and the Americas is now badly out of balance. Given the uneven degree to which Anabaptist historians have thus far told the story of the global church, the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment,” offer varying degrees of nuance and innovation, depending on the geographic locations they cover. Taking the pieces more or less in chronological order, a few preliminary thoughts are as follows:

First, the section on the Netherlands provided fascinating insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch Mennonite rural transformation and visual art. Although the role of Mennonites in the Dutch Golden Age is comparatively well studied, it remains only poorly integrated into larger histories of Anabaptism. Generally, this period is portrayed as exceptional, having relatively little bearing on the more “typical” conservative white agrarian Mennonite communities in Russia and the Americas that were only at their nascent stage during this era. Second, in the section on Mennonites in North America, I appreciated the authors’ attention to changes within and challenges to agrarian lifestyles. These pieces do important work to contextualize narratives of land use rather than treating them as immemorial.

If one looks beyond the pale of Mennonite studies, the section on Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union seems perhaps the most historiographically important part of this volume. The Black Sea region appears, on the evidence presented here, to be one place where Mennonite agriculture made a truly substantial impact, contributing both to the construction of the Russian state and also to narratives of East European modernity. The authors portray Mennonites as an unusually useful group to study with relation to agronomy across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into the Soviet period and beyond. As revealed in the section on Bolivia, the hundreds of thousands of Low German-speaking Mennonites now living in Latin America are in many ways the most direct inheritors of this Russian tradition, so even the physical proximity of articles on these topics in one volume is revealing.

From a Mennonite studies standpoint, the sections on Indonesia and Zimbabwe cover the most important new ground. Anabaptist scholarship in North America generally and the Journal of Mennonite Studies in particular have tended—for both institutional and ideological reasons—to focus on white Mennonites with a general, sometimes latent, master narrative of migration from Europe, relative isolation and/or persecution, and perseverance through hard work, whether in the traditional patriarchal sense, or in an inverted way via the struggles of women and other underrepresented groups against the constraints of traditional authority. These articles challenge that master narrative in valuable ways: one essay on the environmental ethics of the nineteenth-century Javanese apostle Tunggul Wulung offers a non-European source of Anabaptist agency, as does another piece on pre-colonial environmental practices in southern Africa. To these might be added an earlier article on Mennonite-indigenous relations in Manitoba, which emphasizes the settler-colonial nature of white immigration, taking local Métis as an alternative narrative center of moral authority.

Where to go from here? “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will not remain the only volume on Anabaptist environmental history for long, so it is worth considering the extent to which the 2017 issue of Journal of Mennonite Studies can and should stand as a touchstone at the birth of a field. First, I think some rather high-level theorizing might be in order for any future synthetic work on Mennonites and environment. Within North American Mennonite studies, Anabaptist history has been dominated by social and, more recently, cultural history. Those traditions remain dominant strands in this volume, with the tools of environmental history often present yet playing a secondary role. If one were to begin from an environmental history perspective, rather than simply adding in environmental analysis here and there, much of this volume would look different.

For example, there would have to be some serious assessment about whether and how Mennonites are important at all, were we to start with the premise of Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, to name a few classic examples. I suspect an honest treatment of Anabaptism in environmental history might ultimately depict Mennonites as marginal figures operating within much larger trends: the formation of modern industrial economies, the trans-oceanic movements of seeds and animals, and the ongoing global transformation of agrarian landscapes. Mennonite actors retain an inordinate degree of narrative agency in the volume at hand. Noting some minor exceptions, such as in Tsarist Russia, I am not convinced—environmentally speaking—that they are deserving.

My second suggestion would be to take seriously the lessons of transnational history—which Royden Loewen and others have persuasively argued is uniquely suited to understanding the environmental context of at least some Mennonite communities. By contrast, most of the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” exhibit a more narrow community-centric model of narration, with the global Mennonite church divided up more or less by nationality like an enormous pie. The volume’s essay-collection format may overdetermine methodological nationalism, although some laudable examples of transnational scholarship are present here.

One meta question raised by a volume like this is, of course: why put these predominantly nationally-organized stories side by side in the first place? The basic assumption seems to be that Mennonites, globally considered, are worth studying together, including in the context of agriculture. On one hand, the point is to show diversity. Loewen notes in his foreword that “The [journal] issue makes no case for an ‘Anabaptist’ approach to the land,” and indeed, some of the articles’ primary conclusions are simply that agriculture as practiced by Mennonites in, say, the present-day Netherlands does not conform to traditional narratives of Anabaptist history and identity as recounted in North American academies.

But such disruptions are only interesting to a point. It would be valuable to consider how connected any of these case studies really are. Given that Mennonite historians have disproportionately emphasized agriculture as a through-line in their narrations of some groups’ movements across the Atlantic world—with sovereigns and migration agents emphasizing Mennonites’ alleged agrarian qualities along the way—we might follow how environmental thought and practice has mediated movements across and also within borders.

Finally, if future scholars of Mennonite environmental history choose to retain this volume’s global emphasis while also taking transnationalism seriously, I will be eager to see how they treat the Global South. From a Eurocentric or North-dominant view, the story would presumably be one of transmission through institutions (Loewen mentions Mennonite World Conference in his foreword) or individuals (missionaries figure prominently in the Indonesia and Zimbabwe sections). Alternatively, the tale might be one of failure by locals to develop Western Mennonite agrarian traditions, much as some early histories of missions narrated the disinclination of locals to wear bonnets and cape dresses. Both of these options are self-evidently problematic, however, since they presuppose the normality of Western institutions and perspectives, in turn raising the question of whether and how Mennonites studies departments and forums like the Journal of Mennonite Studies can create multi-centered approaches to Anabaptist scholarship.

Taken as a whole, this volume does not yet meet the challenge. Its starting premise is that Mennonite history should be studied from an environmental perspective; many of the individual articles subsequently justify this belief through reference to an Anabaptist agrarian tradition identified as unique and significant primarily in Western contexts. Thus, the final result sends an implied message to readers that Mennonites of color outside the industrialized West either deviate from or fail to live up to a “standard” white-ethnic Anabaptist model.

My critique is meant not to dissuade but to encourage widespread use and thoughtful engagement with this special issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. The many authors who have contributed to the volume have enriched our historiographical horizons invaluably, while also adding extensively to our knowledge regarding communities on five continents. “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will be of great significance to anyone studying Anabaptism and environmental history over the coming years. It will certainly be a testament to this volume if the ideas and methodologies offered here undergo sustained testing and rigorous transformation in future works. Many more of us, after all, should be thinking critically and innovatively about our local communities and our planetary home, given the real environmental challenges ahead.

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

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: Mennonite Women in the Shenandoah Valley History Tour


Conference organizer and professor of history Mary Sprunger organized a bus tour of Anabaptist historic and cultural sites in the Shenandoah Valley for Crossing the Line participants.


The first stop was the Burkholder Myers House (built 1854), where participants heard from Ruth Stoltzfus Jost about her family’s role in the Underground Railroad as well as about her mother, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, who at the age of 74 became the first woman to be ordained in the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1989).


Following a stop at the Hickory Hollow School of the Weaverland Old Order Group, the tour visited this Old Order Mennonite Church, including lively Q and A with Minister Lewis Martin.


Sisters Ruth and Etta Showalter run the Rocky Cedars Store which sells goods such as these hats and broad coats to customers from the Shenandoah Valley’s three different horse-and-buggy Anabaptist groups.


The tour concluded with a delicious meal at the home of Old Order entrepreneur Janet Shank, whose business is to cater dinners with the help of her family and neighbors.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at “Crossing the Line”


Sofia Samatar answering questions at “Crossing the Line.”

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.” This was the message of the third plenary talk at Crossing the Line, “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” delivered by award-winning novelist Sofia Samatar.

Samatar, who teaches literature at James Madison University, opened her presentation with a discussion of the poem “Annie,” published in 1912 by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire. The poem describes a chance encounter between the rakish poet and a Mennonite woman in a rose garden in eastern Texas.

“Her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,” Apollinaire writes. “And as my coat has lost two / She and I are almost of the same religion.”

Like many of us who have run across unexpected Mennonite references in literature, Samatar described the small “flash of joy” she felt upon reading Apollinaire’s poem, as well as the “sting” of wondering what, exactly, this woman in the rose garden represents. How does this short, possibly inaccurate representation reflect on Anabaptists as a whole?

Arcing through the twentieth century, Samatar took us on an insightful, often hilarious tour of Mennonites and Amish in popular media. We reflected on Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford goes Amish to solve a crime, and learned about the thriving subgenre of Amish romance novels—so-called “bonnet rippers”—that apparently include Amish vampire romance.

Common to all these examples, according to Samatar, is the stereotyped figure of the sexualized Anabaptist woman. Chaste and coy beneath her bonnet and cape dress, this trope inherently invites uncovering by the male gaze. Think of Rachel in Witness, who memorably locks lips with Harrison Ford—or of Apollinaire’s “Annie,” based on a governess whom the poet wished to bed.

Or consider the first season of Breaking Amish, which features a young Mennonite woman named Sabrina. She is of Puerto Rican background and leaves her conservative adoptive family to find biological relatives in New York City. Long-lost sisters run a beauty parlor, it turns out, and Sabrina gets a makeover—traditional dress swapped for a t-shirt and tight shorts.

For Samatar, Sabrina’s transformation (from innocent Mennonite into sexy Latina) presupposes a narrative strategy incapable of acknowledging both aspects of the young woman’s identity. She cannot simultaneously be both Puerto Rican and Anabaptist. According to the logic of mass entertainment, she must choose.

Samatar rejects this dichotomy. Only when we welcome the messiness, the complexity of women’s lives, she suggests—when we cross lines of gender, race, religion, and language—will we be able to understand our cultural richness as well as, ultimately, ourselves.

Giving body to this idea, Samatar concluded her keynote with three readings. She chose autobiographical pieces by three Mennonite women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Through the multi-generational voices of Amy Kreider Glick, Lydia Glick, and Sofia Samatar, we heard unexpected, beautiful stories: of a girl growing up in rural Missouri; of a young woman traveling to Somalia and falling in love; of a brown student reading fantasy and navigating fashion at her boarding school.  

These are the stories we need. We can all look forward to Samatar’s forthcoming short story collection, Monster Portraits, as well as to her next project, an exploration of women’s experiences in a nineteenth-century Mennonite-Muslim settlement in Central Asia.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.