Himmler’s Mennonite Midwife

Ben Goossen

Long-lost datebooks of Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler from 1943 through the end of the Second World War have recently resurfaced and been published. Upon opening the new volume, which clocks in at more than a thousand pages, I was startled to see that the first entry—for January 1, 1943—describes meetings between Himmler and the leading representative of Mennonites in the Third Reich, Benjamin Unruh. Historians had previously known about this encounter from letters that Unruh penned for fellow Mennonite churchmen following a three-day summit with Himmler at the commander’s SS headquarters in East Prussia. Himmler’s date calendar confirms Unruh’s reports in striking detail, offering new insight on Mennonites’ relationship with the Nazi state.1

The newly published Himmler diaries show clearly why the powerful head of the SS wanted to meet with a delegate from the Third Reich’s Mennonite denomination during the darkest days of the Nazi assault on Jews and other perceived enemies, when Hitler’s territorial control of much of Europe was at its height. Unruh had been seeking such a meeting with a high-level Nazi like Himmler for years—unsuccessfully. Yet in the autumn of 1942, it had been Himmler who had reached out to Unruh to invite him for a tête-à-tête.2 “Guess whose greetings I bring for you from Russia?” Himmler asked Unruh when the two men broke bread. “For example, from Frau Berg,” Himmler continued, naming an elderly midwife he had recently met in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.3

The German war artist Heinz Hindorf sketched an elderly Mennonite woman (Maria Dyck, born 1867) in the Chortitza settlement in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943. The Mennonite midwife Helene Berg lived in the larger Molotschna colony to the southeast. Source: Mennonite Life 13, no. 2 (1958): 55.

Hearing Himmler utter the name Helene Berg must have been a remarkable moment for Unruh. The eighty-four-year-old midwife had long been a pillar of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine, where Unruh himself had been a prominent leader prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Unruh, an ardent anti-communist, had been exiled to Germany after the formation of the Soviet Union. The midwife Berg, meanwhile, had remained behind with another 100,000 Mennonites in the fledgling USSR. Unruh had watched with horror from his adopted homeland of Germany as coreligionists in once thriving Ukrainian colonies like Molotschna faced hardship upon hardship: famine, collectivization, deportations, and executions.

Unruh’s separation from Berg and the other Mennonites in Ukraine had lasted for two decades. During this time, Unruh worked tirelessly to publicize their plight in the Soviet Union, which—especially after the rise of Joseph Stalin—targeted religious groups, once wealthy people, and communities of German heritage with brutal violence. Unruh assisted thousands of Mennonites to leave the Soviet Union, and he helped organize food and clothing drives for those who stayed. Sharing a conspiracy theory with the nascent Nazi movement about communism being a Jewish plot, Unruh recognized a potential partner. In 1933, he welcomed Hitler’s rise to political power.

Unruh made his first financial donation to the SS in 1933, but another decade would pass before he met in person with the notorious head of this violent organization.4 During this period, Unruh chose to remain stateless, never applying for German citizenship, which he felt might harm his ability to advocate for downtrodden Soviet Mennonites on the international stage.5 He became the official representative in Germany of several major denominational aid organization abroad. His dealings with high government officials also rendered him an invaluable asset for Germany’s own Mennonite churches, which he increasingly came to represent in the eyes of Third Reich bureaucrats. Yet not until the Second World War did Unruh achieve the full influence he sought.

Germany’s Mennonite leadership had begun trying to win an audience with Himmler or another top Nazi official in 1937. This was arguably the single most dangerous year for Mennonites’ own legal position as a tolerated denomination operating openly in the Third Reich. In 1937, several threats to Mennonite independence arose simultaneously. In that year, Nazi authorities expelled a small group of Anabaptists known as the Bruderhof. Party censors grew suspicious of Mennonite ties to coreligionists abroad, especially those who espoused pacifism (a theological position that Germany’s Mennonites abandoned). Most concerning to Unruh and his colleagues, two separate Nazi Party chapters had questioned whether members could keep Mennonite church affiliation.6

Keen to demonstrate the compatibility of Mennonitism and Nazism, Unruh and his church allies pursued every avenue. Unruh pressed Mennonites’ case as part of two delegations to the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.7 Such efforts contributed to a ruling that “Mennonites can also be members of the NSDAP.”8 Yet issues persistently arose, especially opposition in various Reich services to exempt Mennonites from swearing oaths. Church leaders mulled a direct appeal to the Führer.9 Those with personal connections to his deputies, including Rudolf Hess and Himmler, approached these men by letter. But they met limited success. In 1938, the SS even temporarily banned Mennonites, news that reportedly “landed like a bomb” among one ministerial group.10

What changed Himmler’s mind? The SS chief had personally rejected an appeal from Mennonite leaders to allow the marriage of a preacher’s daughter with an SS man to go forward. Himmler insisted on both unusual blood purity and intense ideological commitment from female as well as male members of his SS “clan community.” In 1938, he clearly felt that “The foundations of the Mennonite sect are in no way reconcilable with the worldview of the Schutzstaffel.”11 Yet four years later, he had amended his position. The outbreak of World War II and Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe brought the large colonies in Ukraine to Himmler’s attention. “I have been in the Ukraine and seen the people there,” he reportedly told Unruh. “Your Mennonites are the best.”12

Himmler had once feared that Mennonites could contaminate the SS gene pool. His embrace of Mennonites in Ukraine during the Second World War, conversely, stemmed from a new belief that members’ blood could prove valuable for the new Aryan order that the Nazis hoped to build in Eastern Europe. When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they discovered hundreds of thousands of German speakers living in Ukraine, including some 35,000 Mennonites. Himmler and other leading Nazis saw these local people as a “master race” that had previously been repressed by Jews and communists under Soviet rule. Himmler dispatched death squads to Ukraine to murder the region’s 1.2 million Jews, including those in Mennonite areas.13

The Nazi conquest of Ukraine cheered Unruh and other Mennonite leaders in Germany, who had long prayed for the demise of Bolshevik tyranny over coreligionists to the east. Unruh dispatched numerous letters to his old friends in Ukraine, asking for news. Among those he reached was the midwife in Molotschna, Helene Berg. This elderly woman told Unruh of her great joy in being liberated from Soviet rule. Berg’s letters described the horrors of communism as well as the new privileges that German speakers like herself received through racial warfare. Like many residents of Molotschna—which the Nazis renamed Halbstadt (a more German name, to their ears)—Berg studied Nazi propaganda and developed good relations with agents of occupation and genocide.14

A map of prewar German-speaking settlements in Ukraine (shaded black) and of areas the Nazis planned to Germanize during and after World War II. The striped area around Crimea encompasses possible borders for the hypothetical “Gotengau.” Extant settlements like Halbstadt (formerly called Molotschna and located just north of Melitopol) were either to be relocated to Gotengau, included within an expanded version of it, or built up as racially pure “strongholds” in regions otherwise populated by Ukrainians and Russians. Source: Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 264.

From late 1941 through mid-1942, Himmler enthusiastically read the reports of his functionaries as they murdered Jews and distributed aid to German speakers like Helene Berg. The Holocaust of bullets in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory soon peaked, and the weight of the genocide shifted to centralized extermination camps in occupied Poland.15 The geographical boundaries of the Nazi empire were nearly at their zenith—and the regime’s wartime administrative machinery for Ukraine expanded apace. By September 1942, the Halbstadt colony where Berg lived had come under the territorial jurisdiction of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Day to day activities in the settlement, however, remained under SS rule. Himmler himself would soon make an appearance.

Himmler met Berg during a six-day tour of southeastern Ukraine that spanned late October and early November 1942. The SS chief had recently held meetings with Hitler about Germanizing Ukraine, including discussions about Halbstadt and other Mennonite colonies. Himmler had given the task of envisioning Eastern Europe’s racial reorganization to Konrad Meyer, a scholar and SS officer. Meyer drew up a secret master document, General Plan East, according to which populations from Halbstadt and elsewhere would form the kernel for a new Nazi province called Gotengau. Himmler’s meetings with Hitler yielded a bevy of new ordinances for Ukraine. These, and his trip to Halbstadt, constituted the first practical steps toward the hypothetical Gotengau.16

Himmler arrived in Halbstadt at 4:30pm on October 31, 1942. He had just come from Crimea and was traveling with a retinue of high-ranking SS men. The colony’s own SS administrators had planned a full schedule. During an “Ethnic German Evening,” local youth performed a pro-Nazi pageant. Himmler then delivered a speech to village mayors, proclaiming that they would receive German citizenship and material restitution for their hardships under communism. The next morning, Himmler spoke to a general assembly (with marches from Nazi youth groups and paramilitary formations), and he visited workshops and an educational institution.17 The SS chief reportedly inducted hundreds of Mennonites into the Waffen-SS and bestowed several honors.

The midwife Helene Berg appears to have numbered among Himmler’s honorees, likely on the morning of November 1. Subsequent correspondence shows that Himmler granted her a monthly pension from SS coffers of 100 Reichsmarks.18 He chose to celebrate Berg “as a midwife, who brought over 8,000 Ethnic German children into this restless world.”19 In her eighty-four years, Berg had certainly not performed thousands of births with any express intention of expanding the biological stock of an Aryan master race. But for Himmler, this had been the result—as essential a service to Nazism as could have been rendered by any male soldier. Berg’s example justified to Himmler’s thinking the future subjugation or removal of all Halbstadt’s remaining non-Germans.

The SS architect Heinrich Himmler toured the Mennonite colony of Halbstadt in southeastern Ukraine in 1942. Among those pictured here are German Red Cross nurses who had come to Ukraine during the war. Himmler exhibited interest in matters of health and racial hygiene while visiting Halbstadt, including meetings with a local doctor named Johann Klassen and with the midwife Helene Berg. Source: Mennonite Heritage Centre, Photograph 351-2.

Himmler’s meeting with Benjamin Unruh two months later concerned plans to import Germans from abroad and to murder or expel other peoples so that much of southeastern Ukraine would be a pure German territory along the lines of the Halbstadt colony. Over three days at the Hochwald bunker in East Prussia from December 31, 1942 to January 2, 1943, Himmler dined or otherwise conferred with Unruh on six occasions. His diary shows that others present during the encounters included leading SS figures responsible for perpetrating genocide in Ukraine, for forging Ethnic German policy, and for long-range racial engineering.20 Unruh subsequently relayed Himmler’s desire to acquire more German Mennonite settlers from the Americas. “The highest importance was placed on the resettlement,” he reported, “which should be executed very generously.”21

Unruh welcomed Himmler’s vision of bringing thousands of Mennonites from the Americas for colonization in Eastern Europe, alongside other German-speakers from locations as far-flung as Palestine and Italy. Unruh had already helped arrange modest migrations of his coreligionists to the Third Reich from Brazil, Canada, and Paraguay. Sponsoring much larger waves after the war would serve Nazi objectives and Unruh’s own. When speaking with Himmler, Unruh leveraged such prospects against more immediate religious concerns. Himmler agreed to allow ordination of Mennonite elders in Ukraine, and to consider exemptions from swearing oaths. Meanwhile, he redoubled efforts to ensure the region would be “totally Germanized, that is, totally settled.”22

Nazi losses on the eastern front thwarted Himmler’s dreams for a racial Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine. The SS began evacuating German settlers in 1943. As the Red Army retook Ukraine by 1944, Himmler simply shifted colonization schemes west.23 Most Mennonite refugees found new lodging in Nazi-occupied Poland. Benjamin Unruh, now receiving a monthly salary from the SS, oversaw their contacts with high Nazi offices.24 Among his concerns was finding a suitable home for Helene Berg, who had traveled by wagon from Halbstadt to Poland and was living in a transit camp. Unruh’s SS handlers were well aware of Himmler’s personal interest in this midwife, and they helped arrange her transfer to a Mennonite home for the elderly in the city of Marienburg.25

In the end, whether Berg was grateful for Himmler’s attentions is difficult to know. As the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, surely the comforting words shared by Unruh rang hollow: “Every birth is so difficult and the birth of a new Europe especially.”26 With the Red Army bearing down on Marienburg, most of the city’s able-bodied Germans fled. They abandoned Berg and the other residents of the home for the elderly. Over the next eighteen months, Berg witnessed atrocities committed against the few Germans who remained, including the rape of her caretaker. By the time Poland expelled her to western Germany in mid-1946, Berg had little incentive to talk about Himmler, dead for over a year.27 Yet she appreciated renewed contact with “dear, good Beny.”28

The history of Himmler’s Mennonite midwife reflects a troubling intersection of denominational activism and Nazi genocide during the Second World War. For Himmler, Helene Berg and the thousands of ostensibly Aryan children she had helped deliver constituted both past and future of a violently cleansed utopia, free from Jews and other so-called racial aliens. Mennonite leaders like Benjamin Unruh participated in this project, alternately sharing Himmler’s vision or using promises of future cooperation to attain their own religious goals. And what about Berg herself? The archival documents by and about her suggest intriguing new directions for research about Mennonites, reproduction, and the elderly under fascism—topics still waiting to be explored.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for providing sources and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.


1. The papers, discovered in a Moscow archive in 2013, have been published as Matthias Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors: Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1943-1945 (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2020). Another section, covering the years 1941-1942, had already been found in 1990 and appeared in print as Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999). On Unruh’s meeting with Himmler, see Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-156.

2. This invitation came on the recommendation of an SS officer and longtime scholar of Mennonites named Karl Götz, whom Himmler planned to install as the head of the Overseas Department of the Ethnic German Office after the war. Götz, who had known Unruh since 1934, apparently tried to establish a meeting between Unruh and Himmler for November 1941. Götz seems to have written to Unruh again in September 1942—during the period when Himmler and Hitler were conferring with advisors about Ethnic German policy in Ukraine. At this time, Unruh provided documents about Mennonites to Götz, who passed this information to Himmler. Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Hein, July 25, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany, hereafter MFS. Himmler’s staff then reached out to Götz on October 2, 1942, asking for Unruh’s address. Geheime Staatspolizei to Karl Götz, October 2, 1942, T-81/143, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter NARA). On Götz, see Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173-206.

3. “‘Notizen”’ über die Unterredung des Reichsführers SS Heinrich Himmler mit dem Verteter der Rußlanddeutchen in der Ukraine, Südrußland, Professor Dr. Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, Karlsruhe/Baden, an Sylvester 1943 im Hauptquartier Himmlers, in dessen Wohnwagen,” n.d., Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.

4. Unruh’s 1933 financial contribution made him a Supporting Member of the SS with the membership number 168,232. Benjamin Unruh to Walther Kolrep, January 30, 1940, Benjamin H. Unruh Papers, box 2, folder: Misc. Unruh Papers, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

5. Until Unruh received his invitation to visit Himmler in November 1942, he had been trying unsuccessfully through civilian channels to receive permission to travel to Nazi-occupied Ukraine to meet with Mennonite coreligionists. In September 1942, he even applied for German citizenship as a means of greasing the bureaucratic wheels. Ernst Kundt, “Einbürgerung von Professor Dr. B.H. Unruh,” September 8, 1942, R 127518, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin, Germany. Just as Mennonite leaders in the Third Reich struggled to gain the attention of prominent Nazis during the 1930s, however, Unruh was unable to reach wartime Ukraine for primarily religious purposes using civil service contacts. Commenting retrospectively on his 1942 rejection by the East Ministry, Unruh recalled: “At this point, it was entirely clear to me that one path alone could lead to my goal [of reaching Ukraine]: namely through the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom [Himmler].” Unruh to Hein, July 25, 1943. Unruh never actually reached Ukraine: he planned to visit in early 1943 after his visit with Himmler, but unfavorable military conditions other factors consistently delayed his trip until the late summer, at which time the SS had begun evacuating Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies due to Red Army advances.

6. This was a new development given that Mennonites with church membership had been joining the Nazi Party since 1920. Around August 1937, NSDAP Ortsgruppe Rom temporarily stripped Paul Reymann of his membership. Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. At nearly the same time, a Nazi Party court in Tübingen questioned the membership of a Mennonite farmer named Daniel Schneider. Emil Händiges to Arbeitsausschuß der Vereinigung, September 24, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS.

7. Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, and Gustav Reimer visited the Brown House on July 6, 1938. During the meeting, Unruh emphasized: “As a church we unconditionally support the [Nazi] Party. In West Prussia and Danzig, the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the Party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Hendrik van Delden, Benjamin Unruh, Gustav Reimer, and Daniel Dettweiler attended another meeting at the Brown House on March 16, 1939. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, April 14, 1939, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: 1939, MFS.

8. Ruling of NSDAP Kreisgericht Celle I, May 12, 1938, quoted in Goossen, “‘A Small World Power,’” 204.

9. Mennonite leaders contemplated writing to Hitler in August 1937. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, August 31, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS. Church leaders again considered contacting Hitler in August 1943 regarding the use of oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Emil Händiges to Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, and Abraham Braun, August 17, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Instead of approaching Hitler, however, Unruh pursued the matter through his contacts with Himmler, who ultimately approved Mennonites’ exemption from oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, February 28, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

10. The precipitating case concerned a proposed marriage between SS member Heinrich Krüger and a Mennonite woman, Erika Driedger. The head of Germany’s largest Mennonite conference reported on the rejection of this marriage by Himmler: “The communication of the decision landed like a bomb in the ministerial assembly in Kalthof on June 16, 1938, especially since numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as [Nazi] Party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. Himmler’s decision reflected a recommendation from the head of the Reich Main Security Office that “members of this sect cannot simultaneously be members of the SS clan community.” Chef des Sicherheitshauptamtes to Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes, April 9, 1938, NS 2/220, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. Quick action by Mennonite churchmen ensured that by 1939, members were once again admitted to the SS clan community, albeit with some suspicion.

11. Händiges to Dettweiler, et al., June 23, 1938. On marriage and the SS “clan community,” see Gudrun Schwarz, Eine Frau on seiner Seite: Ehefrauen in der “SS-Sippengemeinschaft” (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1997).

12. Quoted in Diether Götz Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977), 141.

13. Himmler met with detachments from Einsatzgruppe D in September 1941 and Einsatzgruppe C in October 1941, shortly before these death squads began wholesale murder of Jewish men, women, and children in and around the two largest Mennonite colonies in Ukraine: Molotschna and Chortitza, respectively. Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 533, 537. See Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549.

14. One letter from Halbstadt reported: “Naturally Frau Berg, despite her advanced age…inquired about everything; including in the political realm. She has studied the Führer’s [Mein] Kampf with appropriate interest.” Berg reportedly also met with Karl Stumpp, whose East Ministry commando worked to identify and register Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews.Hans Spittler to Emil Händiges, May 7, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS. Berg herself reported meeting with an Einsatzgruppe member (“Among the first Germans [to arrive during the 1941 invasion] was SS-Mann [Heinrich] Wiens, originally from Muntau [Molotschna], who must once have been your student.”), and she deployed casual antisemitism in her correspondence with Unruh. Berg reported that religious life in Molotschna had not yet fully recovered from the Bolshevik period; in her church, “the praying [by a Baptist minister whom Berg disliked] is terrible, all mixed up such that one imagines oneself displaced to a synagogue [Judenschule].” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. April 1942, quoted in Benjamin Unruh, “Nachrichten aus Rußland,” May 22, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS.

15. The economics of genocide continued to link Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with the Holocaust: Himmler ordered that clothes and household goods taken from Jews in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to Halbstadt, Chortitza, and other settlements. Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA. By November 1942, twenty-seven wagons of plunder had been sent from SS-Wirtschaftslager Lublin. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603. Similar aid actions for Ukraine’s Mennonites continued into 1943.

16. Himmler and Hitler met on August 9, 1942 at the Führer’s Werwolf bunker in Ukraine to broadly discuss Ethnic German questions for the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On this meeting and its aftermath, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 266. Himmler and Hitler met again on September 22, 1942 to discuss settlement in and around Crimea, including plans for 40,000 Ethnic Germans in Halbstadt and 15,000 in Chortitza. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 562-568. On the Nazis’ Gotengau settlement plans, see Norbert Kunz, Die Krim unter deutscher Herrschaft (1941-1944): Germanisierungsutopie und Besatzungsrealität (Darmstad: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), 72-73.

17. Upon arrival, Himmler conferred with the SS officers Hans-Adolf Prützmann, Horst Hoffmeyer, and Hermann Roßner. Then he had one-on-one meetings with SS officers Claus Selzner, Hermann Harm, and Erwin Metzner. Himmler dined, then attended the pageant and spoke to the mayors. He lodged with a Dr. Haus. Around noon on November 1, following a short lunch, Himmler departed for Zaporizhia to view the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603-604.

18. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, November 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

19. Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, December 3, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Berg’s special treatment by the SS came at the direct expense of people considered undesirable by the Nazis. The Ethnic German Office provided her with a cow and a house in Halbstadt, and when the SS evacuated this colony to a more westerly part of Ukraine in 1943, officers found a new house for Berg. The SS requisitioned such lodging by force from local Ukrainians. See for example Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.

20. On December 31, 1942, Himmler met at 2:30pm with Werner Lorenz, Horst Hoffmeyer, Benjamin Unruh, Konrad Meyer, Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, and Herman Wirth. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 660. On January 1, 1943, Himmler lunched at 2:15pm with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, Unruh, Ernst Rode, Josef Tiefenbacher, Karl Gesele, and Werner Grothmann. At 5:00pm, Himmler met with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, and Unruh. At 9:30pm, Himmler dined with Lorenz, Unruh, Bernhard Frank, and a Captain Rickert. On January 2, Himmler lunched at 2:10pm with Lorenz, Unruh, and Fritz von Scholz. At 5:00pm, Himmler bade farewell to Lorenz and Unruh. Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors, 64-66.

21. Benjamin Unruh to Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, Christian Neff, Gustav Reimer, and Henrik van Delden, January 6, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Unruh further reported: “It has been agreed that Herr Obergruppenführer [Werner] Lorenz will personally take care of our matters, naturally in constant agreement with [Himmler]…. Regarding the resettlement [of Mennonites from the Americas], which will be of unimaginable scope, I do not want to pontificate. I have just been brought into this matter, and it will likely occur as I told our [Mennonite] people when they went overseas: we will get you back again! This assurance lives in the hearts of our brethren!” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

22. Heinrich Himmler to Konrad Meyer, January 12, 1943, quoted in Czeslaw Madajczyk, ed., Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan (Munich: Saur, 1994), 256. After Meyer drafted the General Plan East in 1942, Himmler charged him with expanding this into a General Settlement Plan for all of Nazi-occupied Europe. According to Himmler’s wishes for this expanded plan, the areas envisioned for Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine were to include “all of Crimea and Taurida.” In the meantime, occupiers’ focus remained on building up smaller Ethnic German “strongholds.” In July 1943, Meyer traveled to Halbstadt to finalize plans to deport non-Germans still living there and to import urban and scattered rural Ethnic Germans from elsewhere in Ukraine. Ibid., 277-281.

23. For example, Gerhard Ritter, “Wunschträume Heinrich Himmlers am 21. Juli 1944,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 5, no. 3 (1954): 162-168.

24. Emil Händiges to Hendrik van Delden and Abraham Fast, May 27, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

25. When Unruh reported difficulties with local authorities in Danzig-West Prussia regarding the Marienburg home, an SS contact recommend that he appeal directly to Himmler: “I suggest that you explain to the Reichsführer-SS [Himmler]—it must naturally be written in a careful way—that the handling of Mennonites in Danzig and their few private wishes would not be without significance for the attitudes of the Mennonites overseas. And that it would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.” Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, ca. January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. While Unruh intended to contact Himmler about the matter, it is unclear whether the SS chief ultimately interceded. In any event, Berg arrived at the Marienburg home by March 1944, where Unruh visited her at that time. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

26. Benjamin Unruh to Helene Berg, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh offered this sentiment in response to Berg’s report that the trek from Ukraine to Poland had required “difficult, yes very difficult efforts.” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. late January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

27. Berg’s postwar recollections say nothing of her wartime encounters with prominent SS officers. After the fall of the Third Reich, she had incentives to downplay former links to Nazism and instead to emphasize her own suffering. Berg was in this respect typical of other Mennonites from Ukraine and also of Germans generally. See Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 218; Elizabeth Heineman, “The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany’s ‘Crisis Years’ and West German National Identity,” American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 354-395.

28. Helene Berg, Unsere Flucht (Winkler, MB: Winkler Printery, 1947), 18. Upon her arrival in western Germany and return to the broader Mennonite community, Berg (then around 88 years old) professed her intention to emigrate to the Americas. Whether she achieved this goal or remained in Europe requires further investigation. Benjamin Unruh spent the rest of his life in West Germany, a somewhat diminished but nevertheless celebrated figure among Mennonites worldwide. A biography by his son, Heinrich Unruh, Fügungen und Führungen: Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, 1881-1959 (Detmold: Verein zur Erforschung und Pflege des Russlanddeutschen Mennonitentums, 2009), gives a sanitized and hagiographic account of Unruh’s life. See Gerhard Rempel, “Book Review: Fügungen und Füherungen,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 2 (2010): 275-278.

An Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List

Rowena Lark teaching Bible school. Lark’s husband, James, was the first African American minister ordained in the Mennonite church (1944). [Caption edited 6/19/2020]

The brutal murder of George Floyd has exposed again the systematic injustices perpetrated by institutions of power against black and brown people in the United States and around the world. We, the board of Anabaptist Historians, are enraged and heartbroken. To stand in solidarity with those protesting police violence and interrelated forms of institutionalized racism, we have put together the following Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List. We have been inspired by other anti-racist reading lists recently circulated, and we hope our contribution will be as useful as possible for readers. We have thus compiled specifically Anabaptist ways of saying: Black Lives Matter.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List features short and online-accessible articles and essays on the relationships between Anabaptist history and matters of race, racism, and violence. Each thematic section also includes suggestions for further readings, including articles and books that may require purchase. In such cases, we recommend supporting local bookstores, ordering used copies, or you can submit a purchase or interlibrary loan request through your local library. And of course, if you like what you read, be sure to share recommendations with friends and family!

Overview

Anabaptists over the past five hundred years have been deeply entangled with racism and racial violence. From European imperial expansion and the Dutch slave trade to settler colonialism and displacement of native peoples, the origins and development of Anabaptist churches have been shaped and reformed in crucibles of injustice. As individuals and as communities, Anabaptists have struggled with these contexts, often developing sophisticated ways of naming and resisting state violence although more typically deploying such strategies to serve themselves than others.

If the story of Anabaptism is inextricably bound to race and racism, then the process of doing Anabaptist history must be understood as an anti-racist calling. The readings highlighted below share a common mission to bring about a more equal church and a more just future. Historians may take different approaches toward this end. Some uncover troubling examples of racism in the church. Others explore cases when Anabaptists meaningfully spoke truth to power within their own denominational contexts or beyond. All recognize that these stories resonate today.

We acknowledge the profound incompleteness of this anti-racist reading list. The brokenness of our wider society impedes efforts to fully grasp systemic injustice. Working toward restitution will mean changing how we think about the Anabaptist past alongside reformulating our public institutions. We invite readers to submit further reading suggestions in the moderated comments section. We also welcome submissions and pitches for short historical essays and think-pieces. Anabaptist Historians looks forward to publishing a new anti-racism series over the coming year.

Readings by Topic

1) African Americans and Anabaptism

Melody Marie Pannell, “A Radical Love in Harlem: Resolve, Resilience and Restoration (Part 1: 1952-1975),” Anabaptist Historians, November 24, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment,” Anabaptist Historians,November 15, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “The Unexpected and Complicated Presence of African American Women in Mennonite Churches” (PhD diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Phillip Gingerich, “Sharing the Faith: Racial and Ethnic Identity in an Urban Mennonite Community” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2003).

2) Anabaptists and the Black Freedom Struggle

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today,” Anabaptist Historians, January 20, 2020.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979,” Anabaptist Historians, October 3, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010).
  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

3) Imperialism, Slavery, and Settler Colonialism

Marvin E. Kroeker, “Natives and Settlers: The Mennonite Invasion of Indian Territory,” Mennonite Life 61, no. 2 (2006): online.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and Empire,” Anabaptist Historians, September 21, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • James Lehman, Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  • Anthony Siegrist, “‘Part of the Authority Structure’: An Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 5-38.

4) Anabaptists, Immigration, and Nativism

Felipe Hinojosa, “Place Matters,” Anabaptist Historians, September 22, 2016.

Felipe Hinojosa, “Hazel’s People,” Anabaptist Historians,January 12, 2017.

Further Reading:

5) Gender, Race, and Anabaptist Women

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College,” Anabaptist Historians, February 16, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Telling All of Our Stories as a Movement To Peace,” Anabaptist Historians,August 24, 2017.

Further Reading:

  • Anita Hooley Yoder, “In A Reunion Like This We Can Share,” Anabaptist Historians, August 31, 2017.
  • Kimberly Schmidt, “Moneneheo and Naheverein: Cheyenne and Mennonite Sewing Circles, Convergences and Conflicts, 1890-1970,” Great Plains Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2011): 3-22.

6) Anabaptists and White Supremacy

Ben Goossen, “The Pacifist Roots of an American Nazi,” Boston Review, May 2, 2019.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump,” Anabaptist Historians, December 8, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.
  • Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

7) Ethnic Shibboleths and Racial Exclusion

Austin McCabe Juhnke, “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite National Anthem,’” Anabaptist Historians, November 28, 2017.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” Anabaptist Historians, November 3, 2016.

Further Reading:

8) Interracial Alliances and the Problem of Tokenism

Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015): online.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend,” Anabaptist Historians, April 10, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Philipp Gollner, “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism, Cultural Power, and the City,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 165-193.
  • Steve Heinrichs, ed., Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019).

9) White Mennonites as Allies

Tobin Miller Shearer, “The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born,” Anabaptist Historians, September 8, 2016.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of ‘Race Criminals’,” Anabaptist Historians, April 19, 2019.

Further Reading:

10) Anabaptists, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust

Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus,”Anabaptist Historians, April 7, 2018.

“Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust,” Anabaptist Historians, March 23, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020).
  • Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

11) Anabaptism, Race, and Overseas Missions

Danang Kristiawan, “The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church,” Anabaptist Historians, May 21, 2020.

Lucille Marr, “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a ‘Spiritual Mother,’” Anabaptist Historians, January 28, 2020.

Further Reading:

12) Building Coalitions

Felipe Hinojosa, “Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians, April 24, 2017.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians,April 13, 2017.

Further Reading:


We hope that these readings offer entry points into deep, long-lasting movements that address racism and violence in Anabaptist communities and beyond. We see scholarship and education as elements of larger struggles against structural injustice that also include organizing, protests, voting, and other strategies for systemic change. We hope that this Anti-Racist Reading List will inspire fresh research into the subjects covered here as well as new areas like Anabaptism and policing. If you are conducting such scholarship, please contact us about featuring your work.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List was compiled by the Board of Anabaptist Historians: Ben Goossen, Simone Horst, Ted Maust, and Christina Entz Moss, as well as by Coordinating Editor, Joel Horst Nofziger. Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Madeline J. Williams for providing comments.

Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg

Ben Goossen

Why is it news in 2019 that some Mennonites participated in the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews? Last month, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada sponsored a symposium in Winnipeg on the history of Mennonite-Nazi collaboration. During the question and answer period, audience members asked historians Aileen Friesen and Hans Werner why this story is only now gaining public attention. The scholars gave two main answers. First, new sources in East European archives have recently come to light. And second, Mennonite memoir literature has tended to treat the Holocaust cursorily or emphasized Mennonites’ own wartime suffering.

To these two responses might be added a third reason: Mennonite leaders and others affiliated with the church actively repressed evidence of Nazi collaboration and Holocaust participation. As the recent scholarship by Friesen, Werner, and others suggests, the story of why it has taken so long for Mennonites to speak publicly and extensively about this dark chapter in twentieth-century history requires investigation in its own right. This essay considers one small slice of that larger question. It examines testimony given by two witnesses, Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers, at trials of Nazi war criminals held in Nuremberg in occupied Germany in the 1940s.

Defendants in the case United States of America vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al. in the dock at Nuremberg. Defense lawyers are in the foreground. Werner Lorenz is at center back, chin in palm. Credit: Trials of War Criminals, 605.

The first witness, Benjamin Unruh, testified at Nuremberg on December 17, 1947 on behalf of the Nazi administrator Werner Lorenz. Lorenz had headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, which during the war had resettled hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe with the purpose of demographically engineering an Aryan utopia. At Nuremberg, Lorenz was tried along with thirteen other defendants in the eighth of twelve trials organized by United States authorities to prosecute war criminals. Unruh, who had been born in a Mennonite colony in Crimea in 1881, had liaised with Lorenz in his capacity as a leading Mennonite church leader in the Third Reich.

Unruh testified to the court that Lorenz and his subordinates had extended favorable treatment to Mennonites and other so-called Ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe. From 1941 to 1943, Nazi offices had provided aid to German-speaking Mennonite colonies in occupied areas of the Soviet Union, and in 1944, the SS had overseen their evacuation from Ukraine to more western regions. Unruh emphasized a longer history of Mennonite suffering under communist rule in the USSR. He himself had helped to organize a mass exodus of tens of thousands of church members during the 1920s, and he considered Lorenz’s activities a continuation of this older humanitarian effort.

The court understood that the favorable policies of SS leaders like Lorenz toward Mennonites and other “Ethnic Germans” had come at the expense of populations the Nazis had considered to be non-Aryans. Judges sentenced Lorenz to twenty years imprisonment for his crimes. However, Unruh refused to acknowledge links between welfare and genocide. During cross-examination, he claimed that “we, the Mennonite Church, always collaborated in perfect harmony with all other churches and also with the Jewish church.” When asked about the Holocaust, Unruh said that he knew of the killings, but he insisted that he “always protested against that energetically.”1

Benjamin Unruh’s postwar claims of helping Jews and of opposing genocide are not supported by the extensive correspondence preserved in his personal papers, government archives, or other sources. In fact, he appears to have hastened the turn toward extreme antisemitism in Mennonite church organizations in the Third Reich. Unruh contributed financially to the SS already in 1933, and in the same year, he personally quashed a request by two Jewish physicians for Mennonite help in leaving Germany.2 During the Second World War, Unruh collaborated with various Nazi agencies to aid Mennonites while these same offices expropriated and murdered Jews and others.

The second Mennonite to testify at Nuremberg, Franziska Reimers, served as a witness at the ninth and next war crimes trial organized by the United States. Born in 1911 in the Mennonite Chortitza colony in Ukraine, Reimers came under Nazi rule during Hitler’s wartime invasion of the USSR. As a young woman, she had experienced the Bolshevik revolution and the horrors of Stalinization. Soviet secret police had arrested her husband in 1937, along with numerous other Mennonites. She had not heard from him since. In August 1941, as the Nazis advanced eastward, Soviet secret police pressured Reimers to spy behind German lines, threatening her young child.

During her testimony at Nuremberg on January 7, 1948, Reimers reported that Romanian troops had apprehended her. The Romanians sent Reimers to the Nazi killing squad, Einsatzkommando 6, then based in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. It was on behalf of one member of this group, Mathias Graf, that the court called Reimers to testify. Graf had served as a low-ranking member of the death squad, and he was on trial along with twenty-three other members of the liquidation units called Einsatzgruppen, or Task Forces. Each of the four main Task Forces had between 800 and 1,200 members, and they were collectively responsible for murdering two million people.

A Mennonite woman at her home in the Chortitza colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943, sewing with photograph of Hitler on the wall. Credit: Image NN11456799, Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Reimers described Graf as an upstanding and pious man. In cross examination, the prosecution expressed surprise that Graf’s Commando 6, which was a subunit of the larger Task Group C, had not summarily shot Reimers, a Soviet spy. But she explained that as an “Ethnic German,” she had seen the invading Nazis as liberators, and in turn they had treated her as a persecuted conational. Reimers testified that Mennonites in the USSR “had to suffer terribly from cruelties in Russia; in the flourishing locations at the time not one man ever came home in the villages, all the men were expelled to Siberia.” Reimers responded by offering “service to my countrymen.”3

For several weeks during September 1941, Reimers lived under special protection of Commando 6 in Kryvyi Rih. She gave Russian language lessons to several death squad members, including Graf. According to Reimers, Graf arranged with the commando’s leader, Erhard Kroeger, to take her back to the region around Chortitza to search for her child, and she arrived in late September or early October. While Reimers presented this move as a happy tale of family reunification, the transfer of part of Commando 6 from Kryvyi Rih to Chortitza coincided with the Nazi capture of the nearby city of Zaporizhia. The group murdered 3,000 Jews there over the next month alone.4

Asked at Nuremberg if she had known about the operations of Commando 6, Reimers said, “in general I saw that Jews were herded together with bundles on their back. What happened to these people I could not find out.”5 Reimer’s claim that she learned of the Holocaust only years later, after leaving Ukraine, is certainly false. Commander Erhard Kroeger’s personal involvement in Reimer’s transfer to the Chortitza area suggests that he considered her valuable as a translator and cultural link to the local Mennonite population. Upon arrival at Chortitiza, the Commando 6 subgroup recruited dozens of volunteer auxiliary policemen, including a number of Mennonites.6

Whether Reimers directly participated in the recruitment of Mennonite killers for the Nazi death squad, or whether she herself was present during related actions, is difficult to know. However, her testimony does reveal that she reestablished contact with her child and other relatives thanks to Commando 6. Even children among this local Mennonite population were aware of Holocaust atrocities. Years after the war, one Mennonite woman recalled how as a girl, she had encountered the body of a murdered Jew in the hedgerow by her farm. In another case, she helped distributed bloodstained clothing. She herself washed and wore a dress with a bullet hole through the chest.7

Nazi officials organized Mennonite men in occupied Ukraine into police and military units, such as this “self-defense” group in the Molotschna colony in 1942. Credit: Bild 137-78955, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

That Reimers acquitted herself well in the eyes of Commando 6 is suggested by the fact that she continued onward with Graf and other squad members from the Chortitza area to another city, Dnipropetrovsk. Reimers reported working there for the German civil administration, although she continued to provide Russian language lessons to Commando 6 two or three times weekly. Reimers was one of numerous Mennonites to join the Nazi administration in Ukraine. Others served as mayors for cities like Zaporizhia. Collaborators aided various aspects of the Holocaust, expropriating Jews, forcing them to wear identifying symbols, and assembling them in ghettos.8

Although Graf left Dnipropetrovsk after several weeks, Reimers remained in touch with him by post. After the city’s evacuation in 1943, Graf invited Reimers to resettle near his own home in Germany along with her mother and child. He helped her find office work in a munition factory. Reimer’s testimony in support of Graf may or may not have positively influenced the Nuremberg court’s verdict. The judges ultimately sentenced Graf to time served and ordered his release. The ruling noted that while Graf had certainly belonged to a criminal organization, lack of evidence due to his low rank meant that his presence at killing actions could not be definitively proved.9

The Nuremberg testimony of Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers shows how Mennonites with vastly different relationships to church leadership could suppress histories of collaboration. While Reimers lived in Bonn after the war, a city without any Mennonite congregations, Unruh worked closely with both the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Germany’s largest conference, the Mennonite Union. He helped MCC provide aid to Mennonite refugees from Ukraine as the agency downplayed their wartime actions.10 Meanwhile, his Union colleagues sought to intercede with Allied authorities for former Nazis facing criminal charges.11

While Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is making headlines in 2019, the fact that two Mennonites testified at Nuremberg is not news. Transcripts of their remarks have been available for years in church archives, alongside numerous reels of Nazi documents copied from state repositories.12 Researchers have more often used such materials to recount suffering in the Soviet Union than to reveal complicity with genocide. Indeed, one person was sufficiently taken with Reimer’s testimony to pen a fictional coda. Grateful for ostensibly having saved each other, Graf and Reimers fall in love, although she and her child eventually depart with MCC for Canada.13

One anonymous author imagined a romantic affair between the Mennonite Franziska Reimers and the former death squad member Mathias Graf, pictured here at Nuremberg in 1947. Credit: Image 09930, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

How could it ever have been possible to imagine such a tone-deaf fantasy? Stories of Mennonite victimhood in the Soviet Union circulated so widely through official and informal channels, and memories of Mennonite involvement in murdering Jewish neighbors had become so thoroughly repressed, that this author found it possible to compare Graf’s imprisonment in postwar Germany to Reimer’s suffering under Stalinism. It apparently seemed unproblematic to laud romantic love between a Mennonite and a former member of a Nazi death squad. The reality that such an idea could inspire not horror but wistful longing should give pause to Mennonites and others today.

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. “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA).
  2. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, August 25, 1933, Nachlaß Otto Schowalter, Folder: Korrespondenz 1929-1945, Mennonitische Forschungsstellte, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for sharing this source.
  3. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.,” January 7, 1948, M-895, roll 5, NARA. Reimers was summoned by Graf’s legal counsel. Eduard Belzer, “Defendant’s Application for Summons for Witness,” September 15, 1947, M895, roll 34, NARA.
  4. Alexander Kruglov, “Jewish Losses in Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 279.
  5. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf.”
  6. Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 530-535.
  7. Pamela Klassen, Going by the Moon and Stars: Stories of Two Russian Mennonite Women (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994), 85. Mennonite women in Ukraine participated in the distribution of clothing from murder victims on several occasions. The Nazi press referred to such clothing as “used” but did not specify its origins. For example, “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8. However, archival correspondence demonstrates that clothes and other goods taken from Jews were to be designated for redistribution among Mennonites and others. On one occasion, Himmler ordered that items from warehouses in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to the 55,000 “Ethnic Germans” in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies for Christmas 1942. His instructions included that each person was “to be given a dress or suit, a coat and hat if available, each three shirts and relevant underwear and other daily necessities including utensils as well as a trunk. The needy are also to be given featherbeds and blankets as well as linens.” Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA.
  8. Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Brandon and Lower, 248-271; Markus Eikel and Valentina Sivaieva, “City Mayors, Raion Chiefs and Village Elders in Ukraine, 1941-4: How Local Administrators Co-operated with the German Occupation Authorities,” Contemporary European History 23, no. 3 (2014): 405-428; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  9. Michael Musmanno, John Speight, and Richard Dixon, “Mathias Graf,” in Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals, vol. IV(Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1949), 587. See also Hilary Earl, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 258-260.
  10. Part of this history is told in 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.
  11. In one case, the Union’s de facto postwar leader claimed to British authorities that Heinrich Enß, a Mennonite who had served with the Waffen-SS at the Stutthof concentration camp, “had only to do with the financial administration and was able to help some of the prisoners in that camp.” Ernst Crous to Religious Affairs Branch Zonal Executive Offices, October 22, 1947, FO 1050/1565, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. Enß joined the Nazi Party and the SS in 1933. By 1941, he had advanced to the rank of SS-Oberscharführer. See A3343-SM-C107, Heinrich Enß 2.3.7, NARA. Postwar charges against Enß are archived in BY 5/V279/124, vol. 7, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.
  12. “Official Transcript of the American Military Tribunal against Otto Ohlendorf et. al. Nurnberg, Germany,” 1948, Siegfried Janzen Papers, Volume 5456, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Canada; “Case #8 Tribunal 1 US vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al., Volume 7 Transcripts,” December 17, 1947, SA.I.184, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
  13. “Leben u. Liebe im Sowjetparadiese,” Henry B. Hoover Papers, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. This account appears to be entirely fictional, with Reimer’s name changed to “Ella.” Records of Mennonite immigrants to arrive in Canada after World War II do not include a Franziska Reimers.

Mennonites and the Waffen-SS

Recent scholarship has illuminated the hitherto little-known involvement of Mennonites in the perpetration of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews and other atrocities committed during the Second World War. While historians have begun to describe the overall shape of Mennonite participation in war crimes, and although numerous individual stories continue to come to light, the details of how specific Mennonite communities interacted with many of the Nazi state’s killing operations have yet to be clarified. This essay offers one possible model for such studies. It examines the involvement of Mennonites in the Waffen-SS, particularly the activities of a cavalry regiment totaling about 700 men in the Halbstadt colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.1

Nazi occupiers in Ukraine organized local German-speaking Mennonites, such as those pictured here, into several kinds of military and paramilitary formations during the Second World War. The large Halbstadt colony was unusual in acquiring its own Waffen-SS regiment. Source: Harry Loewen, ed, Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchner, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2000), 106. [Caption edited 6/22/2019]

Mennonites in Germany had participated in the SS well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Some rose in the ranks, thus holding leadership positions as the Holocaust and other war atrocities began. Jakob Wiens, an agricultural office assistant in Tiegenhof, for instance, joined the SS in 1932. Wiens transferred to the Waffen-SS when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and in 1941 he headed a requisitions group in Tarnow as local Jews were forced into a ghetto. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Wiens managed a center for clothing distribution in Dnipropetrovsk, likewise a site of expropriation and murder.2 Once in Ukraine, Waffen-SS members like Wiens often came into contact with the region’s large German-speaking Mennonite population. One SS-Hautpsturmführer, Günther Fieguth, published a feature article in the newspaper Danziger Vorposten about such encounters. In addition to recognizing common surnames and making genealogical connections, Fieguth lauded the Third Reich for aiding local Mennonites “to once again stimulate the blossoming racial life of this German population.”3

Nazi Germany’s military expansion into Eastern Europe presaged enormous recruitment efforts for the Waffen-SS. The organization had begun in 1933 as the armed branch of the SS, an elite core of soldiers who served as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard. The Waffen-SS was marked by its militancy and loyalty to the Führer, including perpetration of a violent purge of the rival SA in 1934. With the outbreak of war at the end of the decade and access to populations in Eastern Europe, the Waffen-SS radically expanded. The occupied territories ultimately supplied more than half of the nearly one million men who served in the Waffen-SS at its height.4 Recruiters opened their ranks to men of a variety of perceived racial backgrounds, but they favored people they considered to be German, even if they did not yet possess German citizenship. Such individuals were known within Nazi racial terminology as “ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche).

Hitler intended “ethnic Germans” to be treated as a master race in Eastern Europe. One directive to occupational authorities read:

When girls and women of the occupied Eastern territories abort their children, then that can only benefit us. . . . since we have absolutely no interest in the growth of the non-German population. . . . Therefore also under no condition should German healthcare measures be provided to the non-German population in the occupied Eastern territories . . . . In no way may the non-German population receive advanced education . . . . Under no circumstances will the Russian (Ukrainian) cities be improved or even beautified, since the population should not reach a higher level, and the Germans will live in new cities and towns to be built later, from which the Russian (Ukrainian) population will be strictly prohibited. 5

The Waffen-SS counted among the numerous Nazi organizations charged with achieving this vision. In 1941, Himmler formed an SS Cavalry Brigade for deployment in Belorussia and northern Ukraine. Jews and others considered racially inferior were marked for immediate destruction: “If the population, treated on a national basis, is composed of hostile, racial and bodily inferior criminals… then all who are implicated in helping partisans are to be shot; women and children are to be deported; livestock and food are to be requisitioned and brought to safety. The villages are to be burned to the ground.”6 This SS Cavalry Brigade engaged in the mass execution of Jews, helping initiate the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust in the East.7

The Halbstadt colony (formerly known as Molotschna) comprised the largest settlement of German-speaking Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Halbstadt was in the war zone from the 1941 invasion until September 1942, when it became incorporated into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. This map shows the borders from November 1942, when the Nazi empire was at its height. The blue line approximates the trek route taken by residents of Halbstadt to Poland in 1943 and 1944, accompanied in part by the colony’s Waffen-SS regiment.

While Ukraine’s Mennonites entered the Waffen-SS in various ways, the most notable induction occurred in the largest Mennonite colony of Molotschna, renamed Halbstadt by the occupying forces. During the first year of German occupation, Halbstadt remained located in the war zone and thus fell under SS administration rather than under civil jurisdiction of the new Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, tasked a group called Special Commando R (“R” for Russia) with overseeing “ethnic German” affairs in areas conquered from the Soviet Union, including Halbstadt. Although Special Commando R’s main objective was to provide welfare to local “ethnic Germans,” its instructions as part of Himmler’s Ethnic German Office included cooperation with the mobile SS killing units known as the Einsatzkommandos.8 Through this partnership, Special Commando R and its “ethnic German” associates participated in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews and other victims across Eastern Europe.

Ukraine’s approximately 35,000 Mennonites comprised slightly more than ten percent of the 313,000 “ethnic Germans” that Nazi occupiers counted in German-occupied Ukraine, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and the nearby war zone.9 Around 25,000 “ethnic Germans,” of which a majority were Mennonites, lived in the more than ninety villages of the Halbstadt colony. Special Commando R reported that to a higher degree than in more western regions, “the German settlements of Mennonites on the Molotschna [River] and in the Gruanu area (Mariupol) have been evacuated and destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”10 Communist authorities had deported around half of Halbstadt’s residents beyond Soviet lines on the eve of the German invasion. Less than a third of remaining adult “ethnic Germans” were male. Special Commando R began organizing 1,200 of the colony’s men and boys into paramilitary “Self Defense” units, a practice typical within German-speaking settlements across Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.11

The first steps toward the induction of Halbstadt Mennonites into the Waffen-SS began in the context of jurisdictional disputes between the German Army and the SS. The Army had been recruiting local Mennonites to serve as translators for its operations against the Red Army on the nearby Eastern front. Then, in early March 1942, the head of a Tank Group, Ewald von Kleist, ordered the formation of three “ethnic German” cavalry units (Reiterschwadronen). These were to be used as guards in the Halbstadt area, and weapons and uniforms were provided by the Army.12 A Mennonite named Jacob Reimer, then a teenager, later recalled that the mayor of his village had called a meeting of all men of fighting age and requested volunteers. “The principle of non-resistance was forgotten,” Reimer wrote after the war, “and the men felt it their duty to assist in the struggle against the fearful oppression we had been subjected to for so long.”13

Special Commando R informed Heinrich Himmler of the Army’s intrusion into the affairs of its subsidiary, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt, which was responsible for administering the colony. Himmler, who styled himself the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Race, was eager to cement SS control in Halbstadt. He forbade the new cavalry units from being taken out of the area, emphasizing: “They are not under Army jurisdiction.”14 At Himmler’s instruction, the soldiers were placed under the jurisdiction of SS-Obergruppenführer Hans-Adolf Prützmann, who oversaw police and anti-guerilla activities across Ukraine and south Russia. While the regiment remained a standard “Self Defense” force for several months, it was reorganized within the Order Police in late 1942 and joined the Waffen-SS in early 1943, receiving new commanders and uniforms.15

Himmler broadly intended the region’s “ethnic Germans” to be involved directly in Nazi Germanization and ethnic cleansing efforts. Potential rivals were informed: “The Germans in the East are to take up arms as a totality. They are to be aids to the police.”16 Military trainers belonging to the Waffen-SS provided intensive education to the Halbstadt regiment.17 The Mennonite Jacob Reimer reported that his cavalry training consisted of technical drills, such as horse and weapons handling, as well as anti-Semitic propaganda and other ideological content. One high-level directive for training “ethnic German” cavalry soldiers for service with the Waffen-SS explained that the goal of such instruction was “to free the ethnic Germans from spiritual burdens and disappointments and to educate them into good comrades and uncompromising fighters.”18 In practice, this meant a willingness to kill unarmed victims.

The Halbstadt regiment’s exact activities require additional inquiry. The soldiers’ duties are known to have included protecting the colony from robbery, military deserters, and general unrest, as well as guarding bridges, roads, and train lines against sabotage. Members also supervised the construction of military installations, such as new barracks for themselves in Tokmak, likely using forced labor. Available sources do not indicate the extent to which the regiment may have engaged, like other “ethnic German” cavalry units, in the liquidation of Jews or Red Army prisoners outside the colony. SS task forces had already murdered 36 Jews in Halbstadt prior to the regiment’s formation. But cavalry members were expected to kill any Jews remaining in the colony or encountered elsewhere. On at least one occasion, the soldiers willingly did so.19 They may also have participated in the murder of 81 Roma.20

The regiment was certainly involved in extensive warfare against so-called partisans. These “partisans” may have included armed bands who opposed the German occupation, but records of anti-partisan campaigns conducted by the SS include murder tallies of tens of thousands of unarmed men, women, and children. The first months of the Halbstadt units’ operation coincided with the initiation of a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in nearby Crimea, which the Nazis eventually planned to incorporate into a new German province. Hitler ordered the deportation of Russians and Ukrainians from the peninsula as well as the murder of all people considered racially or politically dangerous.21 Fueled by violence in Crimea and elsewhere in the region, southern Ukraine remained an area of anti-partisan activities until December 1942.22

Halbstadt’s “ethnic German” cavalry regiment and other members of the colony gathered to celebrate the visit of Heinrich Himmler in late 1942. Source: Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986): 7.

Jurisdictional clashes between the SS and Nazi civil authorities erupted in September 1942 as the Reich Commissariat Ukraine expanded to include Halbstadt and surrounding areas. Erich Koch, the governor of the newly enlarged wartime province, sought control over police activities, putting him into conflict with the SS leader Hans-Adolf Prützmann.23 Koch expressed concern over the application of collective punishment to whole villages in retribution for partisan attacks. Koch and Prützmann met for a tense discussion. During the encounter, Koch tried to bend Prützmann’s troops to his authority, while Prützmann insisted that he was answerable directly to Himmler.24 Himmler, then in Italy, took Prützmann’s side in a letter to Koch, and he promised to look into the matter shortly.25 Upon return to the region, Himmler traveled with Prützmann through Crimea and southern Ukraine, including a visit to Halbstadt on October 31 and November 1, where they inspected the “ethnic German” cavalry units.26

During late 1942 and early 1943, members of the Halbstadt regiment traveled into the war zone for operations far from the colony. One unit was reportedly decimated in anti-partisan actions in the Don area.27 Others may have aided the transportation of fellow “ethnic Germans” from Donbass, Caucasus, and Kalmykia. More than 3,000 German speakers from the eastern settlements of Mariupol, Grunau, and Kharkiv had already been relocated to Halbstadt.28 The SS planned to bring thousands more from the war zone, accommodating newcomers through the expulsion of local Ukrainians.29 From January through mid-March of 1943, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt moved nearly 10,000 “ethnic Germans.” Battle losses on the Eastern Front changed SS plans, however, and most refugees were sent on to Poland rather than settled in Ukraine. That 2,500 fled back into the war zone hints at the violence of even allegedly humanitarian actions.30

Mennonite men in Ukraine continued to be inducted into the Waffen-SS during 1943. The Eastern Front’s deteriorating state and ongoing atrocities behind German lines had fueled local opposition to the occupation, and in June, authorities once again declared southern Ukraine to be a zone of major partisan activity.31 Two months later, Himmler ordered the recruitment of 1,200 men from Halbstadt and the non-Mennonite Hegewald colony.32 In part, this reflected Himmler’s desire to keep fighting-aged “ethnic Germans” from being conscripted into the Army after its defeat at Stalingrad.33 He intended new recruits to form a regiment with a cornflower as its insignia within the SS Cavalry Division (recently expanded from the SS Cavalry Brigade), still engaged in murder to the north. By September, this division moved to southern Ukraine, where it joined the German retreat to the Dnieper River, near the largest Mennonite colonies.

Although the trek of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” from Ukraine to Poland in 1943 has been remembered as a movement of mostly women and children, Mennonite men in the Waffen-SS and other armed units accompanied the refugees, participating in acts of violence along the way. Source: Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 120.

The Nazi military continued its halting retreat into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine as Stalin’s Red Army pushed westward. Rather than allowing Mennonites and other alleged Aryans to fall back into Soviet hands, the SS planned to move all “ethnic Germans” west into zones of safety. In September 1943, occupiers relocated 67,000 “ethnic Germans” west of the Dnieper River. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment assisted in transferring their colony’s 28,500 residents beginning on September 12.34 Traveling by train and in wagon treks comprising between 4,000 and 8,000 people, they were initially quartered in areas around the Kronau colony (which had a large Mennonite population) in homes taken from Ukrainians. In Prützmann’s overly optimistic view, the Halbstadt Mennonites could remain there permanently.35 But the Red Army continued to advance. Between late October and early December, the treks again moved west to the Polish border, settling for several months with other refugees in the region around Kamianets-Podilskyi.

The westward trek of Ukraine’s Mennonites with the SS constituted an unmitigated stream of violence against other peoples. One Halbstadt native justified the requisitioning of homes from Ukrainians for “ethnic German” use in his memoirs: “That is a radical solution to the housing question, which truly amazes us, but it is war; life is harsh and we, too, have become harsh.”36 Cavalry member Jacob Reimer—who changed his name to the more Aryan-sounding “Eduard”—recalled how his unit combed through forests, marching between the trees in straight lines with orders to kill partisans on sight. Reimer’s regiment burned villages and shot civilians. In a letter to Himmler, Hans-Adolf Prützmann reported that the “ethnic Germans” remained in good spirits despite their itinerancy and deprivations. He assessed that they were eager to remain under German rule, and he commended the Halbstadt group for being highly cooperative.37

In March 1944, the Halbstadt refugees moved westward yet again. As Ukraine fell to the Red Army, the colony’s former residents crossed into Poland, many traveling by train from the city of Lemberg (Lviv) to Litzmannstadt (Łódź) in the Nazi wartime province of Warthegau. There, SS employees processed them as immigrants to the German Reich, sifting them through racial lists, granting citizenship, and assigning them to transit camps or to houses and farms requisitioned from Jews and Poles. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment, meanwhile, began to be disbanded piecemeal. Jacob Reimer and most of his fellow soldiers were sent to Hungary, where they joined the SS-Cavalry Division, which had been reassigned from Ukraine.38 This division fought in Transylvania before being destroyed in the siege of Budapest by early 1945.

The history of the Halbstadt cavalry regiment demonstrates the involvement of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the machinations of the Waffen-SS during the German occupation of Eastern Europe. Mennonites’ induction into this organization and their activities within it reflected the broader maneuverings of the Nazi war machine and the fate of the Eastern Front. Little of this context has survived in collective Mennonite memory. After the war, Mennonite refugees in war-torn Germany had strong incentives to deny involvement in war crimes, a process aided by church organizations. Most notably, the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee told tales of innocence while helping to transport refugees, including former Waffen-SS members, to Paraguay and Canada. Coming to terms with Mennonite participation in the Third Reich’s atrocities remains a task for the denomination.

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


  1. On Mennonites and the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-173; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  2. Wiens held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. See his SS officer file in A3343, roll 243B, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter cited as NARA).
  3. Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” December 13, 1942, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  4. Gerhard Rempel, “Gottlob Berger and Waffen-SS Recruitment, 1939-1945,” Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 27, no. 1 (1980): 107-122.
  5. Martin Bormann to Alfred Rosenberg, July 23, 1942, T-175, roll 194, NARA. On the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Karel Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Dearth in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  6. Heinrich Himmler, “Richtlinien für die Durchkämmung und Durchstreifung von Sumpfgebieten durch Reitereinheiten,” July 28, 1941, T-175, roll 109, NARA.
  7. Jürgen Matthäus, “Operation Barbarossa and the Onset of the Holocaust, June-December 1941,” in Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 279.
  8. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, July 11, 1941, M894, roll 11, NARA.
  9. “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen im Reichskommissariat Ukraine, in Transnistrien und im Heeresgebiet,” ca. July 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  10. “Bericht des SS-Sonderkommandos der Volksdeutschen Mittelstelle über den Stand der Erfassugnsarbeiten bis zum 15.3.1942,” T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  11. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht,” March 15, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gerhard Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation and Other Stories (Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers, 1982), 50.
  14. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, April 10, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA. Special Commando R also oversaw the recruitment of “ethnic Germans” for cavalry units in Romanian-occupied Transnistria. Unlike the Halbstadt regiment, however, these other units seem to have remained part of “Self Defense” formations outside Waffen-SS jurisdiction (although around a fourth of such soldiers in Transnistria were transferred to separate Waffen-SS formations in 1943, and most of those remaining were conscripted into the Waffen-SS in Poland in 1944). See Eric Steinhart, The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 166-169.
  15. The Halbstadt cavalry units were restructured twice while based in Ukraine. First, Himmler’s visit to the colony on October 31 and November 1, 1942, resulted in the formation being renamed the Halbstadt Ethnic German Regiment. According to a November 6 letter to the chief of the Order Police in Kiev, this occurred “in the context of the reorganization of the ethnic German Self Defense forces,” and the regiment was to be headed by an “SS leader experienced in ethnic [German] work.” Second, as reported by Hans-Adolf Prützmann on April 7, 1943, Himmler ordered that the Halbstadt regiment be transferred from the Order Police to the Waffen-SS. The SS Leadership Main Office was therefore expected to equip the soldiers. See Thomas Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division “Prinz Eugen”: Die Banater Schwaben und die Nationalsozialisitischen Kriegsverbrechen (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, 2003), 327-328.
  16. SS-Obersturmbahnführer to Gottlob Berger, July 6, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  17. “Volksdeutsche Reiter-Schwadrone,” June 5, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  18. “Besondere Anweisungen für die weltanschauliche Erziehung,” April 5, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  19. “Molochansk,” Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=568; Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 110.
  20. Mikhail Tyaglyy, “Nazi Occupation Policies and the Mass Murder of the Roma in Ukraine,” in The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration, ed. Anton Weiss-Wendt (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 128.
  21. “Aussiedlung aus der Krim,” July 12, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  22. “Bandenlage im Gebiet des Reichskommissariats Ukraine und im Gebiet Bialystok,” December 27, 1942, T-175, roll 124, NARA.
  23. Erich Koch to the Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer, September 10, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA. The transfer of the Halbstadt regiment from Order Police auspices to the Waffen-SS in early 1943 appears to have particularly irritated Koch, whose response suggests that this development was unusual within the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. In June 1943, Koch wrote to Himmler: “you yourself expressed the wish [during previous discussions], that local military commandos were not yet appropriate for ethnic Germans in the Ukraine, because they are supposed to be getting used to the standards of living of the Germans from the Reich. I have tried hard to fend off the formation of local military commandos and the conscription of ethnic Germans. I am thus all the more troubled that recruitment has occurred at your order [in Halbstadt].” See Ingeborg Fleischhauer, Das Dritte Reich und die Deutschen in der Sowjeutnion (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1983), 145.
  24. Hans-Adolf Prützmann, “Aktenvermerk über Besprechung mit Gauleiter Koch am Sonntag, den 27.9.42 in Königsberg,” T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  25. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch, October 9, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  26. Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999), 603-604.
  27. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 58.
  28. Himmler to Lorenz, April 10, 1942; “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen.” The total number of re-settlers was reportedly 3,296.
  29. Werner Lorenz to Heinrich Himmler, January 15, 1943, M894, roll 10, NARA.
  30. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht über den Abtransport der in den Einsatzgruppen Halbstadt und Nikopol sowie der Aussenstelle Kiew aufgefangenen Volksdeutschen aus dem Kauskasus, dem Donbas, der Kalmückensteppe und dem Charkower Gebiet,” ca. mid-1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  31. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch et al., June 21, 1943, T-175, roll 140, NARA.
  32. Heinrich Himmler to Gottlob Berger, August 9, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  33. Gottlob Berger to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  34. Wilhelm Kinkelin to Gottlob Berger, September 22, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  35. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, October 13, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  36. Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.
  37. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, November 16, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA. An October 20, 1943, report to the SS Leadership Main Office commented on the Halbstadt regiment: “In addition to fanatical hate of the Russians, the men demonstrate an excellent ability to move through the terrain. With regard to training, they are well educated and handle weapons well.” See Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division, 328.
  38. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 65-70. Research by the former Waffen-SS member and chronicler Wolfgang Vopersal suggests that by 1944, the Halbstadt regiment (then reportedly called the “1st Ethnic German Cavalry Regiment of the Waffen-SS”) totaled nearly 1,000 members. Vopersal’s findings provide further details about the regiment’s postings, leadership, and activities from March 1942 to October 1944. However, much of Vopersal’s account is based on information acquired after the war; this source is thus not fully reliable and must be used with caution. See “Volksdeutsches Reiter-Regiment der Waffen-SS,” N 756/151a, and “Fotografie von Angehörigen des 1. Volksdeutschen Reiter-Regimentes,” N 756/256a, Bd. 1, Bundesarchiv Abteilung Militärarchiv, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

Hitler’s Mennonite Physicist

A Mennonite named Abraham Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.1 Esau’s activities contributed to Albert Einstein’s decision to warn US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that Hitler’s government was studying atomic chain reactions that might lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”2 The program Esau ran in the Third Reich constituted a prime justification for the United States’ secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons. After the war, the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee helped rehabilitate Esau, who in turn downplayed Mennonite involvement in Nazism. 

Abraham Esau, Mennonite physicist. One 1944 article described Esau as “a stocky man with a solid peasant’s skull,” the ideal of a Nazi scientist.

Abraham Esau was born in 1884 to a respected Mennonite family in eastern Prussia. His paternal grandfather was elder of the large Tiegenhagen congregation. He was raised by his father, a local bureaucrat.3 During Esau’s adolescence, Mennonites across Germany adopted nationalist ideals.4 Esau, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from the denomination’s new enthusiasm for higher education and military service. After receiving his doctorate in 1908, he performed noncombatant service as a radio physicist. He became involved in an ambitious state-sponsored project to confront British power by building a global wireless network to spread German news.5

Esau cut his teeth combining German expansionism with large-scale physics projects in colonial Africa. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he traveled to the German colony of Togo to install a massive radio station, which he subsequently destroyed in the face of invading French troops. French captivity deepened Esau’s nationalism, as did the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which gave much of his native Prussia to a new Polish state. In 1925, Esau joined the faculty at the University of Jena. There, he developed a physics research program. He discovered how to use radio waves for therapy, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and became university president. 

The rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 proved fortuitous for Esau. Joining the Nazi Party in May, he strengthened his presidency at Jena within the new political order. The governor of Thuringia appointed Esau a State Councilor, giving him access to powerful Nazi leaders. Meanwhile, his knowledge of radio physics made him valuable to the Propaganda Ministry, for which he served as an advisor. By the end of the decade, Esau had relocated to Berlin, where he headed the Reich Physical and Technical Institute. As a prominent science administrator with impeccable political credentials, Esau eagerly followed new discoveries in the field of high-energy atomic physics. 

The Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Telemark, Norway. This facility produced heavy water for the Third Reich while Abraham Esau ran the Nazi nuclear program in 1942 and 1943.

Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program briefly in 1939 and then again from March 1942 to the end of 1943.6 In April 1939, he organized a conference on nuclear chain reactions through the Reich Ministry of Education, where he announced plans to collect all uranium in Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September, Esau lost control to the Army Weapons Office, which grew the program during the next eighteen months. Upon determining that nuclear power would not arrive in time to help win the war, the Army relinquished oversight to the Reich Research Council, which Esau headed. He ran the project until falling from political favor. 

Unlike the US Manhattan Project, Esau’s nuclear program was geared toward industrial applications of atomic energy, not bomb production. Nuclear science was certainly big business in the Third Reich. Esau oversaw a budget in 1943 worth $1,200,000.7 But this was hundreds of times smaller than the Manhattan Project, whose total cost reached $2 billion. Anxious not to overpromise at a time when Nazi leaders sought “wonder weapons,” Esau deliberately refrained from discussing atomic bombs with his superiors. This was not for lack of military commitment, however, but rather an effort to keep crucial war funds from being wasted on long-term research. 

On January 1, 1944, Abraham Esau exchanged his title of “Plenipotentiary for Nuclear Physics” for “Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology.” Infighting within the atomic program had earned Esau the enmity of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Nevertheless, as Esau handed the atomic program to his successor, he could boast real victories, including the enrichment of uranium isotopes by means of a centrifuge, application of nuclear physics to biology and medicine, and success with particle accelerators. Esau remained in the good graces of Hermann Göring, head of the Air Force, who gave him control of radio matters.

Esau committed the war crimes for which he was eventually convicted not as a nuclear scientist but through his capacity as Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology. The Third Reich had contracted with an electronics company in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands called Philips to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for the war effort. In the autumn of 1944, as Allied forces advanced, Esau ordered an SS captain named Alfred Boettcher to evacuate equipment from Philips in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Nazi Germany. Boettcher transported goods valued around $28,000 on three large trucks across the border, engaging in war plunder. 

As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Abraham Esau was apprehended by a special team of American soldiers tasked with finding high-profile Nazi scientists and engineers. Like Albert Speer, the rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and others, Esau was interned and interrogated. In late 1946, Dutch state prosecutors requested that he be transferred to the Netherlands to be tried along with Alfred Boettcher for plundering the Philips electronics company. US officials agreed, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun. Esau was sent to the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he remained in prison for eighteen months.8

Esau’s first contact with North American Mennonites came while he was in Dutch prison. After the Second World War, an aid organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built a robust relief presence in the Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe. This agency had a long history of transnational aid work, dating to the 1920s. It had briefly operated in the Third Reich and Vichy France between 1939 and 1942, until the United States entered the war. For several years, MCC concentrated on North American needs. But with the war’s end, it returned to Europe, where staff distributed food and clothing to those suffering in the wake of violence.9

Mennonite Central Committee recruited some personnel from congregations in Germany and the Netherlands, but its most influential staff were drawn from Canada and the United States. Two early members were Peter and Helene Goertz of Kansas. Peter Goertz was the academic dean of Bethel College, a Mennonite institution of higher education, from which he received leave to work in Europe with his wife during 1947 and 1948. Much of their activity concerned the 45,000 Mennonite refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the former Free City of Danzig who were then spread across postwar Europe. Their most unusual case was that of Abraham Esau.

Dutch schoolchildren were among thousands of Europeans to receive humanitarian aid after World War II from the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

After more than a year of imprisonment in the Netherlands, Esau had become desperate to leave. He wrote letters incessantly, seeking to connect with his former scientific colleagues and to find anyone who could help him achieve freedom. When Esau’s daughter, then living in northern Germany, discovered that a Mennonite Central Committee office had been established in Kiel, she explained her father’s plight and asked if MCC could help. The Kiel office wrote to MCC in Amsterdam, where Peter and Helen Goertz received the request.10 On February 25, 1948, Peter traveled two hours by train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he met with the imprisoned Esau.

Peter Goertz described his encounter with Abraham Esau in correspondence to friends and family in Kansas. Goertz reported that upon arriving at the prison in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he spent twenty minutes speaking with the warden, who agreed to vacate his office so the two Mennonites could meet in private. They spoke for two hours. To Goertz’s eye, Esau had become a despondent man, in need of “spiritual uplift.” Esau’s demeanor seemed to brighten over the conversation, and he expressed his gratitude so fervently that Goertz himself felt moved. The experience left a deep impression. Back in Amsterdam, he wrote: “Such are rather exciting moments even for me.”11

Over the following months, Peter and Helene Goertz reportedly developed a real friendship with Esau, although from their correspondence, it is hard to escape the thought that the former Nazi scientist cynically played his Mennonite benefactors. Although Peter clearly knew of the charges against Esau, he nonetheless took the prisoner at his word, writing that he “was not a confirmed Nazi,” that he “had been forced to care for physics laboratories in the whole of Germany,” and that “he does not know why he is in prison.”12 Helene, like her husband, expressed awe for Esau’s academic record, describing him as “a great physicist from the German Mennonites.”13

The willingness of Peter and Helene Goertz to believe Esau’s claims of innocence was typical of Mennonite Central Committee’s treatment of other Mennonites from the former Third Reich. After touring several refugee camps, Peter wrote, “It is amazing to me how many of the men from the Danzig area, even among the Mennonites, joined the [Nazi] party.”14 Helene identified attitudes of racism and territorial irredentism among the same group.15 Yet neither they, their colleagues, nor MCC as a whole seem ever to have seriously questioned their project of helping fellow Mennonites. Denominational connections outweighed even known Nazi collaboration.

Abraham Esau received several more visits in prison from Peter Goertz, who along with Helene also visited Esau’s daughter in Germany. Peter supplied his imprisoned friend with scientific and religious reading materials. He charged at least one book on electromagnetism to the MCC relief fund.16 Esau was particularly pleased with another volume, The Story of the Mennonites by the US historian C. Henry Smith.17 Commenting that this book should be available to the tens of thousands of Mennonite refugees then scattered across Europe, Esau began translating the 800-page tome into German using pencils and notebooks that Peter Goertz brought from Amsterdam.

On April 27, 1948, a Dutch court in The Hague released Abraham Esau along with his colleague and fellow inmate Alfred Boettcher, the former SS captain, with no criminal conviction. Exactly why Esau and Boettcher were released is unclear. Possibly, one or more of the letters written by Esau and his daughter convinced someone powerful to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf. It is likely that Mennonite Central Committee played at least a minor role, if only by providing Esau with the ability to claim association with a well-known and respected relief agency. MCC at this time held remarkable legal clout with multiple Allied governments, including the Netherlands.

In any event, Esau and Boettcher immediately made their way, after leaving prison, to the MCC center in Amsterdam. Arriving on May 1, they stayed for nearly a month, until May 28, when the two men left for a camp on the Dutch border, eventually arriving back in Germany. While living in the MCC house, Esau and Boettcher became acquainted with many of the leading Mennonite relief workers in Europe, since they regularly passed through Amsterdam. Both visitors penned glowing thank-you notes. Boettcher was touched with the generosity of the MCC workers after his time in isolation, and he was glad to have learned more about Mennonite faith communities.18

Mennonite staff members working inside the Amsterdam MCC center where the former Nazi scientists Abraham Esau and Alfred Boettcher lived for several weeks in May 1948. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

Helene Goertz described the weeks Esau and Boettcher spent in Amsterdam in her letters. She referred to both men as “university professors” and considered them to be “proved innocent.” To Helene’s mind, Esau and Boettcher were victims of circumstances, who had nonetheless retained “their manners, their cultured ways, and their sense of humor.”19 The former Nazis washed dishes, carried baggage, and enlivened the atmosphere. Both plied Helene with flowers and fresh fruit. “Prof. Esau has been more than generous since you are away,” Helene wrote to her traveling husband. “Twice while I was sick he sent up some luscious strawberries and once a peach!”20

MCC rendered aid to Abraham Esau on the basis of his Mennonite identity, yet it is unclear that Esau was a practicing Mennonite prior to his contact with Peter and Helene Goertz. He had married a Mennonite (since deceased) and retained other family connections, but I have seen no evidence of any religious contacts between Esau and active Mennonite congregations during the Third Reich. A Mennonite Address Book published in Germany in 1936 does not include Esau’s name, despite printing membership lists for all the congregations to which he would likely have belonged.21 One Nazi-era article referred to him simply as from an “ancient peasant family.”22

Yet Esau represented himself to his MCC friends as a good and faithful fellow Mennonite. He attended church in Amsterdam with Helene Goertz, and he used religious language in his letters to her husband. “I thank God, that He has led me into your house and your family,” Esau wrote to Peter Goertz after leaving Amsterdam. He even portrayed his scientific and administrative activities in the Third Reich as consistent with Christian faith, writing: “I will resume the task which God will give to me with the old energy and in the same manner as before.”23 And all the while, he continued translating The Story of the Mennonites, completing ten pages every day.

Esau had nearly finished his German version of The Story of the Mennonites when he departed the MCC center in May of 1948. He left his completed notebooks with Peter and Helene Goertz. Upon arriving at his daughter’s home in northern Germany, Esau finished the work, and he gave the last part of his translation to MCC workers in Kiel, who then brought this document to the Netherlands. Finally, in mid-1948, Peter and Helene Goertz carried the full manuscript with them back to Kansas, where they deposited it at the Bethel College library. They reported Esau’s own hope that his translation would prove “of some profit for Mennonite circles in the world.”24

At the same time Abraham Esau was reconnecting with his Mennonite heritage, he faced critique from his former scientific colleagues. In the early postwar years, German nuclear physicists formed a remarkably solid front against perceived intrusions by occupying Allied forces. They abandoned old internal disputes and helped one another launch new carriers in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. Esau was unusual in being largely dismissed by this group. Physicists like Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for describing quantum mechanics and had been Esau’s chief rival in the Nazi nuclear program, portrayed Esau as irredeemably tainted.25

Notably, it was the radio scientist Leo Brandt, not a nuclear physicist, who aided Esau’s reentry into Germany’s scientific culture. Brandt knew Esau from earlier radio research and now invited him to North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1949, Esau became a professor in Aachen and joined a new aeronautical research institute. Brandt also nominated Esau for West Germany’s highest federal service prize. But fellow scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner Max von Laue, intervened. Von Laue wrote that during the Nazi period, Esau cast himself as a “chief representative of National Socialism.” A former subordinate also testified that Esau had twice threatened to murder him.26

Upon his death in 1955, Abraham Esau left two remarkably distinct legacies. In the scientific world, he was remembered as an ardent Nazi, rejected after the war by many of his onetime friends. He was also a convicted war criminal, having been re-charged in absentia by a Dutch court and sentenced to time served for plundering the Philips company.27 By contrast, Esau was eulogized by prominent Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and the United States. In 1964, when Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites finally appeared in print, the foreword by Cornelius Krahn of Bethel College praised him as “a man of uncommon creative capacity.”28 

Abraham Esau’s handwritten translation of C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites. Esau began his translation while in Dutch prison and completed the work after his release. These notebooks are now held at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas.

The German edition of The Story of the Mennonites sanitized not only Abraham Esau’s past but the broader role of Mennonites in the Third Reich. MCC expressed interest in the manuscript as a means of catering “to our German constituency,” and the US Mennonite General Conference took charge of printing it.29 Cornelius Krahn assembled a team of six readers, including Esau and three other former fascists, who proofed the typed chapters. These appeared in serialized form in a Canadian Mennonite newspaper beginning in 1951. The book’s final version included some additions, but it also entirely omitted a critical original chapter about the Third Reich.

It is appropriate that Abraham Esau, arguably the most powerful Mennonite in the Third Reich, also helped spark—quite unintentionally—the first efforts to publicly reckon with the church’s entanglement with National Socialism. In the same year that Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites appeared, a young Mennonite named Hans-Jürgen Goertz received his doctorate in Germany on the history of radical theology. Goertz, who became a pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg, took issue with the book’s silence on the Third Reich. He translated the missing chapter and had it serialized in 1965 in a German-language denominational paper.30

Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s resurrection of the redacted chapter on Nazi Germany from The Story of the Mennonites helped ignite a slow-burning interrogation into the denomination’s troubled past. Run-ins with former Nazis as well as Goertz’s own ongoing interest in radical theology led to his landmark 1974 essay, “National Uprising and Religious Downfall,” which alleged that during the Third Reich, Germany’s Mennonites abandoned their principles for nationalism.31 This piece, which sparked still more debate and instigated the first book-length study of the denomination’s Nazi complicity, continues to inspire a process of research and response that is not yet complete.  

The story of Hitler’s Mennonite physicist illuminates much of the arc of Mennonite involvement in German nationalism from the late nineteenth century into the postwar era. Abraham Esau’s denominational background primed him to fuse academia with state militarism, allowing him to helm the Nazi nuclear program during the Second World War. Afterwards, the North American Mennonite Central Committee treated Esau, like thousands of other collaborators, as innocent and deserving of aid. Esau, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a model Mennonite, thereby erasing the stain of his war crimes. Being Mennonite suddenly mattered to Esau in an entirely new way. 

Mennonites in North America, Europe, and around the globe might reflect on this history of perpetration and denial. Why is it that European Mennonites like Esau found collaboration with Hitler’s genocidal regime so easy and desirable? How could North American Mennonites then so breezily cover for their coreligionists, without raising serious concerns about crimes they might have committed? Abraham Esau’s case may require special soul-searching, given his direct and significant role in the Nazi war machine, as well as his broader impact on the global rise of nuclear weapons. But he was also one among tens of thousands of Mennonite Nazi collaborators. 

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, to be released in paperback from Princeton University Press on May 28. 

The author thanks Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dieter Hoffmann, Bernd-A. Rusinek, Allan Teichroew, John Thiesen, Mark Walker, and Madeline Williams for their help with sources and interpretation. 


  1. The most complete biography of Esau is Dieter Hoffmann and Rüdiger Stutz, “Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager,” in ‘Kämpferische Wissenschaft’: Studien zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, and Rüdiger Stutz(Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003), 136-179.
  2. Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), 295. On the Manhattan Project, see Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  3. For works that consider Esau’s relationship to Mennonitism, see Horst Penner, “Abraham Esau: Der Große Physiker aus Tiegenhagen,” Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 14 (1974): 54-57; Horst Gerlach, “Abraham Esau: Ein Physiker und Pionier der Nachrichtentechnik,” Westpreußen-Jahrbuch 27 (1977): 57-66; Horst Gerlach, “Esau, Abraham Robert,” MennLex V, online.
  4. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18-95.
  5. See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 45-69.
  6. Information in this section is from Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-206; Kristie Mackrakis, Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162-186.
  7. Klaus Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1996), 321-322.
  8. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Deutsche und Niederländische Physiker,” paper given at the conference “Ambivalente Funktionäre: Zur Rolle von Funktionseliten im NS-System,” held November 9-10, 2001 in Osnabrück, Germany, online.
  9. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Taube und Hakenkreuz: Verhandlungen zwischen der NS-Regierung und dem MCC in Bezug auf die lateinamerikanischen Mennoniten,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 133-160; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-199.
  10. Helene Goertz to C. Henry Smith, September 24, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, hereafter MLA.
  11. Peter Goertz to Peter [Unknown], February 26, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  12. Peter Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  13. Helene to Family Members, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  14. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA. On MCC’s postwar refugee efforts, see also 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.
  15. Helene Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA.
  16. Peter Goertz to Dewey Yoder, April 15, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  17. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941).
  18. Alfred Boettcher to Helene Goertz, May 30, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  19. Helene Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, May 8, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  20. Helene Goertz to Peter Goertz, May 16, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  21. Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936).
  22. Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism, 324.
  23. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, June 17, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  24. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, July 1, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  25. Klaus Hentschel, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists 1945-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 96.
  26. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Leo Brandt: Ein Überblick,” in Leo Brandt (1908-1971): Ingenieur, Wissenschaftsförderer, Visionär, ed. Bernhard Mittermaier and Bernd-A. Rusinek (Jülich: Forschungszentrum Jülich, 2009), 22-23; Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Von der Entdeckung der NS-Vergangenheit zum generellen Faschismusverdacht: Akademische Diskurse in der Bundesrepublik der 60er Jahre,” in Dynamische Zeiten: Die 60er Jahre in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Axel Schildt, Detlef Siegfried, and Karl Christian Lammers (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000), 120.
  27. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Schwerte/Schneider: Die Karriere eines Spagatakteurs 1936-1995,” in Der Fall Schwerte im Kontext, ed. Helmut König (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1998),44-45.
  28. C. Henry Smith, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Europas, trans. Abraham Esau (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), Einleitung.
  29.  Orie Miller to Cornelius Krahn, October 6, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  30. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Umwege zwischen Kanzel und Katheder: Autobiographische Fragmente (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018): 70.
  31. Goertz’s original essay is reprinted with commentary in Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 11-38. For historiographical context, see John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism,” 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.

The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

Children’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. This was the first time many had seen a Christmas tree, aglow in the Einlage kindergarten in December 1942. Soldiers handed out wooden toys. They had spent weeks carving them—model houses, schools, churches, city halls, trucks, and trains—while convalescing at the military hospital in this Mennonite village in southeastern Ukraine. The group joined in song, filling the hall with old German Christmas carols. The tunes, which had not been heard openly during the recent years of Bolshevik rule, reminded all those present of the momentous changes wrought since Hitler’s armies had taken control of Ukraine.1

Children march in an October 1942 parade honoring the visit of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to the Halbstadt Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine. Courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Alber Photograph Collection 151-17.

The Mennonite kindergarten in Einlage was a Nazi showpiece. Military engineers and SS agents had helped refurbish the sturdy stone structure, coated with quality oil paints and sporting its own washroom, kitchen, and cafeteria. The kindergarten had steam heating and electric lights. Einlage’s recovering soldiers hailed from all over Germany, but they affectionately termed the town’s youngest members “their children.” In addition to making toys, they had drawn pictures that inducted the kindergarteners into the fantastical world of German fairy tales and myths. Outside, a swastika flag fluttered in the breezes passing over the Ukrainian steppe.2

No other kindergarten in the whole administrative district of Dnipropetrovsk was as magnificent as Einlage’s. Nazi occupiers had counted 10,000 kindergarten-aged children in the area as being of “German blood.” These had been sorted by men in brown uniforms who could be found in all the villages, going door to door and categorizing inhabitants according to “genealogical and racial biological” criteria.3 Children deemed to be German were put into a segregated school system—separate and very unequal. The 129 pupils in Einlage happened to be the most fortunate of the roughly 5,000 children already organized into the district’s 110 German-only kindergartens.4

We know about the Einlage kindergarten because it was profiled extensively in two Nazi papers that served the Dnipropetrovsk district. The Ukraine Post and the German Ukraine Newspaper regularly featured Einlage and other villages in the Chortitza Mennonite colony. “Chortitza on the Dnieper!” wrote one SS journalist, expressing joy that through the war, readers had become familiar with “the most flourishing” colony in the district’s “chain of German villages.”5 Its fame was rivaled only by that of Halbstadt, Ukraine’s largest Mennonite settlement, which became incorporated into Dnipropetrovsk in September 1942 as Nazi civil administration expanded east.6

Nazi civil administration in occupied Ukraine (shaded) had expanded by September 1942 to encompass the region’s three largest Mennonite colonies (in black). This involved Germanizing place names: Halbstadt was previously called Molotschna, while Kronau had been Zagradovka.

Most of Ukraine’s 35,000 Mennonites lived in three colonies: Chortitza and Halbstadt in the Dnipropetrovsk district as well as Kronau in an area called Mykolaiv. This latter district was served by the German Bug Newspaper, named for the local Bug River. Nazi occupiers reported a total of 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Chortitza, 25,000 in Halbstadt, and 13,000 in Kronau. Most of these inhabitants were of Mennonite background, although each colony—especially Kronau—included numerous Lutherans and a smaller number of Catholics. All three colonies also had Russians and Ukrainians, whom occupiers subjugated or deported. Death squads shot or gassed resident Jews.

It is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Mennonite daily life in Nazi-occupied Ukraine through careful readings of the Ukraine Post, the German Ukraine Newspaper, and the German Bug Newspaper. Scholars must treat these sources cautiously. All three papers’ primary purpose was to circulate propaganda. Their target audiences were German-language readers in Ukraine—including soldiers, bureaucrats, and local Mennonites—as well as interested audiences on the home front. Articles were steeped in anti-communist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and authors wrote confidently of the Third Reich’s coming victory at a time when the front was already faltering.

Nevertheless, basic information like dates, events, names, and ranks were generally accurate. Selective combing reveals much about Nazi efforts to expand administrative control. Articles tell how local Mennonites joined the army or bureaucracy.7 Village names were Germanized.8 By October 1942, Chortitza had an operational post office.9 Halbstadt’s opened a month later.10 One of Dnipropetrovsk’s two courts held session next door.11 Occupiers sanctioned businesses like an iron foundry in Chortitza and a machine factory in Halbstadt.12 Horse breeding took place, as did silk manufacture.13 And tallies are available for grain, milk, and eggs produced in Kronau.14

The nature of these newspapers as propaganda organs makes them valuable for understanding the landscape navigated by local Mennonites. Content and diction reveal how occupiers hoped the region’s “ethnic Germans” would learn to think and act. In May 1943, a Nazi Party rally took place in Mykolaiv. The main speaker thundered that “international Judaism” had started the war: “Whether on the side of the plutocrats or the Bolsheviks, the Jew works everywhere as agitator and provocateur. This war is a race war. We must break the Jewish danger, or we will be broken by it.”15 Functionaries fanned across the district, repeating this lie in all twenty-nine of Kronau’s villages.

National Socialists murdered 1.2 million Jews in occupied Ukraine, including tens of thousands in the Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv regions. Propagandists avoided reporting explicitly on the Holocaust. Journalists instead portrayed Jews as aggressors who must be stopped. Jews’ alleged victims were Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans.” The very real deprivations and terrors of Soviet rule were thus ascribed to “Jewish-Bolshevik tyranny.”16 Occupiers seized Jewish property and redistributed it, claiming to redress past wrongs. Jubilant reports of one aid action in Kronau mentioned only that the 32,000 clothing and household items were “for the most part used.”17

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites.18 Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza.19 Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.”20 Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.21

“You are a piece of Germany!” Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, spoke to thousands of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” in the Chortitza colony in June 1942. Rosenberg and his high-powered entourage visited Halbstadt a year later. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Administrators moved quickly to indoctrinate Mennonites into National Socialism. By December 1941, all able-bodied men in Kronau were organized into a paramilitary German Corps. Boys aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to a German Youth Corps, and their female counterparts aged fourteen to twenty-one joined a League of Ethnic German Girls.22 The local Women’s League was responsible for activities like sewing circles and distributing clothing shipments from Auschwitz. Aid workers arrived in the colonies with such organizations as the German Red Cross, the People’s Welfare, and the SS. Chortitza, Halbstadt, and Kronau all received youth delegations from Germany.23

This 1942 feature piece in the wartime Nazi newspaper, Ukraine Post, lauded local Mennonites: “Thanks to their strict lifestyle and their outstanding work ethic, they became the most successful German settlers in the East.”

Occupiers stressed education. Wartime transportation needs initially prevented regular teacher exchanges between Germany and Ukraine. Small groups of professionals therefore held crash courses so that local educators could be “indoctrinated in the National Socialist mindset.”24 These specialists organized back-to-back three-week camps in Kronau during the spring of 1942.25 Wagon upon wagon of men and women arrived, some from as far as one hundred miles away.26 Participants heard lectures on German politics, literature, and art. They then returned to their villages, where schools received Nazi-oriented workbooks and reading materials.27

Kindergartens comprised just one among many types of German-only educational institutions to open in Mennonite colonies. Chortitza’s segregated kindergartens were joined by elementary schools and, in 1943, at least two high schools.28 Kronau boasted planned or operational middle schools, high schools, an agricultural school, and a training school for rural women’s work. The orchestra of one institute played Wagner for visiting dignitaries, and pupils pledged loyalty to Reich and Führer from the stage.29 A teacher training academy that served as Ukraine’s primary location for cultivating “ethnic German” educational professionals held class in Halbstadt.30

Education prospered both in and out of the classroom. Hitler Youth officers kicked into high gear during the summer of 1943. A third of eligible young people across Dnipropetrovsk already belonged to the German Youth of Ukraine, with the best results from Chortitza and Halbstadt’s “fertile ground.”31 Following a leadership training camp, the graduates—forty-two girls and thirty-two boys—staffed camps throughout the district. The grandest lasted six weeks and had 160 participants.32 Affirmative action also came to Ukraine. In Chortitza, twenty gifted young people competed for five spots to study in Germany.33 Others returned from learning trips to teach true Nazism at home.34

No single school received as much public attention as the Einlage kindergarten. This was the prize institution overseen by “Aunt Müller,” the area’s child education specialist. In 1942, Aunt Müller, who originally hailed from Transylvania, organized a camp for twenty girls and women who would go on to become Chortitza’s kindergarten workforce. They put on a craft exhibition, and those who were particularly quick studies received awards.35 Under Aunt Müller’s direction, plans were initiated to expand the school and to board children aged three to seven from outlying villages. The Chortitza iron foundry agreed to repair donated beds.36

“It is a miracle.” So wrote a German soldier named Leonhard Froese in 1943. He one day hoped to have a kindergartener of his own, and he penned a glowing letter to the German Ukraine Newspaper describing his visit to the school in Einlage. Each day, the building opened by 7:00. At 8:00, the children assembled outside for roll call. The swastika flag would be hoisted, and it was time for athletic exercises. Then everyone would “goose step” through the front door. Each child had a personal cubby for jackets. During field trips, they were divided into three groups by height: giants, dwarves, and Thumbelinas. To Froese’s eye, he could have been in Germany.37

Decades after the Second World War, under entirely different circumstances, I, too, attended a Mennonite kindergarten. My school was in Indiana, not war-torn Ukraine. My parents had not suffered through years of fear and hunger in the Soviet Union. Nor did Bolshevik agents come in the night to shoot my grandfathers or to deport them to gulags. My kindergarten cubby contained a nylon jacket, not some wrap of unknown provenance, perhaps taken from another five-year-old who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Nevertheless, the songs, the laughter, the shouts, and the joy of children at the Einlage kindergarten resonate with me. What a privilege it is to learn.

Precisely such familiarity of experience is what renders Mennonites’ past in wartime Ukraine so chilling. Nazi officials did not hide Einlage’s kindergarten. Unlike the blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away, writers trumpeted the school in page upon page of propaganda. Education in Einlage was intended to show Nazism’s radiant potential. It represented an alleged antidote to “Judeo-Bolshevism.” It was what the Holocaust was supposed to enable not only in Ukraine, but for all children of “German blood.” Today, historians sift laboriously through archival records to identify Mennonite death squad members. No such work is needed for Einlage’s kindergarteners.

Collective memories of this Holocaust kindergarten have never left us. Mennonites who grew up in Ukraine during the Second World War continue to speak and write with grateful thanks for their generous treatment by the Third Reich. When Hitler’s regime collapsed in 1945 and they became homeless refugees, their plight developed into a cause célèbre for congregations across Europe and the Americas. Their voices and their stories remain heard through film, books, and close family relationships, including my own. Leading Mennonite newspapers in North America still to this day credit Nazi officials with returning a “semblance of normal life” to Ukraine.38

Our denomination, as a Christian peace church, must grapple with our history in the Holocaust. This is first and foremost the tale of the Einlage kindergarteners, of Jews murdered so that Mennonites could flourish. Myths of happy wartime children shine with the light of latent anti-Semitism. It is a vital, urgent task to identify and to root out our anti-Semitic narratives. I have never once felt physically endangered because of my faith. But in my country, Jews are gunned down in houses of worship. If you are a Mennonite, if you attended a kindergarten, or if you ever experienced the wonder of singing around a Christmas tree, this story is for you. This is a task for our church.

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. “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 9, 1943, 8; “Soldaten erfreuen volksdeutsche Kinder,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 29, 1942, 3. All of the newspaper articles cited in this essay are freely available online: https://libraria.ua/en
  2. Leonhard Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 11, 1943, 8.
  3. Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Leistungen deutscher Kolonisten,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung<, August 8, 1942, 3; “Das Bluterbe der Väter,” Ukraine Post, March 6, 1943, 3.
  4. “Fürsorge für die Volksdeutschen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 31, 1943, 3; “Es geht wieder vorwärts,” Ukraine Post, August 10, 1943, 8.>
  5. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  6. “Erweiterung des Reichskommissariats,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 2, 1942, 3; “Eingliederung in das Reichskommissariat,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, September 5, 1942
  7. Rudolf Rümer, “Heimkehr in das Volkstum,” Ukraine Post, October 31, 1942, 3.
  8. “Alexanderstadt statt Bolschaja-Alexandrowka,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 9, 1942, 4.
  9. “Neue Dienstpostämter,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 3, 1942, 3.
  10. Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 15, 1942, 3.
  11. “Deutsches Gericht in Halbstadt,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 2, 1943, 3.
  12.  “Amtliche Bekanntmachung,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 12, 1943, 6.
  13. “Körordnung für den Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4; “Aufbau der Pferdezucht,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 29, 1943, 3; “Deutscher Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 31, 1943, 3; “Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3.
  14. “Volksdeutsche Bauern packen weider an,” Ukraine Post, July 3, 1943, 7.
  15. “‘Der Kampf ist hart aber wir sind härter!’” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 29, 1943, 4.
  16. “Der Ruf des Reiches an die Volksdeutschen am Schwarzmeer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 16, 1943.
  17. “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8.
  18. Rudolf Rümer, “Volksdeutsche sind unserer Hilfe sicher,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 22, 1942, 3.
  19. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  20. “Nach deutschem Vorbild,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 2, 1942, 3; “Deutsche Art dringt durch,” Ukraine Post, April 17, 1943, 5.
  21. “Führung des europäischen Ostens größte Aufgabe unseres Volkes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 21, 1942, 1; Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Festtag im deutschen Dorf am Dnjepr,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 28, 1942, 3; “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung; “Reichsleiter Rosenberg besuchte die Schwarzmeerdeutschen,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 22, 1943, 3-4.
  22. “Aus der Volkstumsarbeit Kronau, Gebeit Alexanderstadt,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 11, 1942, 4; “Der Generalkommissar in Alexanderstadt und Nowibug,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 1, 1942, 4.
  23. “Erzähl uns von Deutschland,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 25, 1942, 3; “HJ-Tagebuch in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, 3; “Abschluss der HJ-Fahrt durch den Generalbezirk,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 26, 1942, 4; “Jugend als Sendboten des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 19, 1943, 3; “Harzer Hitlerjungen im Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3; “Regelung des studentischen Osteinsatzes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 4, 1942, 3.
  24. “Umschulungslager volksdeutscher Lehrer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 24, 1942, 3.
  25. “Umschulungslager für volksdeutsche Lehrer,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, April 8, 1942, 4.
  26. “Volksdeutsche Lehrer im Schulungslager,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4.
  27. “Der Lehrernachwuchs in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 2, 1942, 3.
  28. “Zwei neue deutsche Hauptschulen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 13, 1943, 3.
  29. “Schülerheim in volksdeutschem Dorf,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 16, 1943, 3.
  30. “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung.
  31. “Volksdeutsche Jugend an der Arbeit,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 21, 1943, 3; “Jugend im Gleichschritt,” June 5, 1943, 7.
  32. “Volksdeutsche Jugend in froher Gemeinschaft,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 17, 1943, 3.
  33. “Ausleselager in Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 15, 1942, 3; “Aufgeschlossen, begabt, einsatzbereit, kameradschaftlich,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 3, 1943, 2.
  34. “Die Kinder der ‘Kulaken,’” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 9, 1943, 3.
  35. “Für die Volksdeutsche Jugend,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 3, 1943, 3.
  36. Rümer, “Heimkerh in das Volkstum.”
  37. Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat.”
  38. Rich Preheim, “From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso,” Mennonite World Review, December 3, 2018, 6.

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

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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.