Bookending Doris Bergen’s lecture “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust” was the call for more scholarship. Her talk, the keynote of the Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference and convocation for Bethel College, focused on the challenges of doing Holocaust scholarship. Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—explored five specific challenges, increasing in difficulty, with the note that “like those nesting dolls”, each opens new issues even as the resolve others.
The first challenge looked at insider/outsider scholarship, including its costs and benefits. Mennonite scholars come with some advantages–they have access to some sources, especially oral memories–that could not be found by outsiders. Insiders also make special note of details others might miss: Bergen recounted being at a talk about the nature of the guards at Auschwitz, and in the general spreadsheet of place of origin and other statistics was a column on religion; one Mennonite was listed. “As an insider you notice and care,” noted Bergen. However, insiders face disadvantages. She singled out the push and pull of mythologies, especially “the myth of Mennonite innocence,” as a factor that can lead scholars to attack, defend, or censor themselves.
The second challenge was the question of definitions, specifically “what is a Mennonite” and “what is the Holocaust?” For the former she gave two guidelines. First, a warning to avoid “the temptation to define to distract” where you become so caught up in the words that you lose sight of the matter at hand. Second, she stressed the importance of having a functional definition of identity, not one based on fluid individual identities, but one that accounts for accounts for all ages and genders, covers communal bonds and how Mennonite identity can be constructed. She also included an admonition not to forget the women, “as defining, narrating, and performing Mennonitism has largely been the work of women.” For the latter, she noted that a proper definition of the Holocaust would consider a chronological range, encompassing both the prewar years and the immediate postwar period, as well as being constructed by the identity of the perpetrators not the victims.
Bergen’s third challenge was to maintain a clear focus on the way Jews maintained a particular place of destruction in the Holocaust, being mindful of anti-Semitism. It is especially important for Mennonites to examine how Jews and anti-Semitism are built into our narratives. As one example, she recounted hearing how “Mennonites were [like] Jews” being told as the description of their experience; an inversion common across genocides where people take on the identity of victims “as a way of erasing their memory of their roles as victimizers.” She also noted how in Mennonite literature, especially in texts in the 1920s and 1930s, Jews become narrated as villains. The solution to this held up by Bergen was to incorporate literary scholars into the research to help analyze texts deeply, as opposed to taking them at face value. She also highlighted the need to have multiple sources, not just Mennonite and German ones, but Jewish, Roma, and more as well.
The fourth challenge was the questions “how do we avoid writing scholarship that is moralistic or judgemental?” Bergen’s response was to start by noting that studying genocide does not imply that she would personally have done better had she lived in a genocidal context, but “scholarship is about analyzing and understanding–how could people like us behave certain ways?” She also warned against the tendency to use avoiding judgement as a way to avoid discussion. This also gets caught up with the maintenance of Mennonite mythology. One solution given was to use the tools of genocide scholarship, which use comparison. “Mennonites were not unique, though distinctive, many of the issues we explore have been and are being confronted by many other people,” said Bergen, “These can be humbling and extremely liberating.”
The final challenge, as articulated at the beginning, was the need for more scholarship, particularly work “that will contextualize the topic, that will be discipline, that will look for unknown unknowns” an use a broad range of sources and tools. While this is an impossible task for an individual, it becomes possible if many become involved. Specific topics of research named included the Stutthoff concentration camp (situated among Mennonite communities), interactions between Mennonites and Roma, pre-war relations with Jews, and the role of singing and music.
Professor Bergen’s research focuses on issues of religion, gender, and ethnicity in the Holocaust and World War II and comparatively in other cases of extreme violence. During the keynote, she confided that she had not grown up with an innate interest in Mennonite history–indeed she actively avoided it–but it found her nonetheless via the topics she researched; at every turn, Mennonites popped out of the archive. Bergen’s books include Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (1996); War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (2003); The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Centuries (edited, 2004); and Lessons and Legacies VIII (edited, 2008).