Mennonites entered Nazi consciousness in 1929, when 13,000 refugees descended on Moscow, clamoring to leave the Soviet Union. In Germany, the National Socialist Racial Observer took up their cause. Blaming Jews and Bolsheviks for oppressing Mennonites, the paper condemned Western democracies for ignoring their plight. In one front-page article, editor Alfred Rosenberg—who had led the Nazi Party while Hitler was in prison—offered what he considered a solution. “The National Socialist movement,” he wrote, “recognized this danger [of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’] from the beginning and built that into its essence.” Little more than a decade later, Rosenberg felt that the Second World War had vindicated his position. Traveling in 1942 and 1943 through Nazi-controlled Ukraine as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, he announced to crowds in the Mennonite colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna that tables were finally turned. Already, death squads had murdered most of Ukraine’s 1.2 million Jews.
“Film footage of Alfred Rosenberg’s visit to the Chortitza Mennonite colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, June 1942.”
Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, the global Mennonite church has yet to confront its entanglement in this genocide. While stories have long circulated privately and in some academic publications, only recently have they garnered sustained public attention. In this light, the upcoming conference, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” to be held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, on March 16 and 17, 2018, is a breakthrough. [EDIT 5/29/2018: coverage of the Mennonites and the Holocaust conference can be found here.] The event promises serious discussion of the church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism, a topic vitally important to Mennonites around the globe. Sponsored by seven Mennonite religious and educational institutions, including Mennonite Church USA, this conference brings together leading scholars of Anabaptism and of the Holocaust from five countries. A film screening and the keynote lecture by Doris Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—are free and open to the public. Registration for panel sessions is now open.
Some of the 60,000 victims killed at the Stutthof concentration camp, a source of slave labor for Mennonite farms and factories. Credit: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Mennonite experiences of and involvement in the Holocaust differed widely. We know that a handful of individuals actively participated as executioners and concentration camp guards. We also know that a substantial percentage of Europe’s Mennonites benefited from and often sympathized with aspects of Nazism. Around 120,000 people, or about one-fourth of the denomination worldwide, lived under Nazi rule at the height of Hitler’s expansionism. Generally categorized as members of the Aryan racial elite, Mennonites sometimes received goods taken from murdered Jews or moved into their vacant homes. Others leased slave labor for their farms and factories, or otherwise profited from genocide. Yet many Mennonites also suffered. Life in wartime could be brutal, not least in German-occupied Western Europe, where some Mennonites joined the resistance. A number were executed or sent to concentration camps for political activities or for possessing Jewish heritage or cognitive disabilities. And a small but important subset—primarily in the Netherlands and France—hid Jews.
A poster for the Nazi propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, re-released in 1941 as Village in the Red Storm. Here, the Mennonite congregational elder is portrayed as a stoic Aryan in the face of Bolshevik oppression.
Arguably more impactful than Mennonites’ own actions, however, was the denomination’s enrollment in Nazi propaganda. In 1929, popular opinion had pressured German politicians to help approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees in Moscow relocate to Germany. The event became a founding myth of the Third Reich, inspiring novels and two of the Nazis’ most important early films, Refugees (1933) and Frisians in Peril (1935). Both were re-released in 1941 during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. In general, Mennonites became symbolic of Aryans’ supposed ability to maintain German cultural traditions abroad. Hundreds of books and articles by the Third Reich’s leading experts on German speakers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay, Galicia, Ukraine, the Volga region, and Siberia depicted the denomination in glowing terms. Many of these authors eventually translated their theories into ethnic cleansing by consulting for the Wehrmacht, East Ministry, and SS.
As for Mennonites overseas, most remained unaware of or uninterested in Nazi flattery. But they were equally apathetic to the fate of European Jews. Moreover, certain communities developed robust fascist sensibilities. In Paraguay and Brazil, entire colonies hoped to “return” to the Reich. Leading Mennonites helped finance the German Paper for Canada, a pro-Nazi organ. And in the United States, Herald Publishing House of Newton printed the rabidly anti-Semitic Defender, whose monthly circulation reached 100,000. As a site for the upcoming conference, Bethel College is an appropriate choice, given that it was Bible professor J. R. Thierstein who, as editor of The Mennonite during the 1930s, gave that periodical its anti-Semitic slant. Readers of the Bethel College Monthly likewise learned from Thierstein that “harm done to the Jews was insignificant by comparison with the great service Hitler had performed in saving Germany from Communism and its Jewish adherents.”
In 1945 when the Third Reich collapsed, church institutions on both sides of the Atlantic worked to suppress allegations of Mennonite collaboration. The Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee, in particular, feared for the safety of 45,000 Mennonite refugees in postwar Europe. Administrators believed that these individuals might be denied humanitarian aid and—as actually happened to around half—deported to the Soviet Union. Under MCC auspices, prominent scholars and churchmen sent dozens of memos to military personnel, refugee organizations, and the United Nations. These documents portrayed Mennonites as “strict pacifists,” as non-Germans, and as abhorring National Socialism. Receptive bureaucrats developed an erroneous impression that huge numbers had performed “slave labour” for the Nazis, while the New York Times reported that they suffered “as the Jews.”
Denialism has marked public discussions ever since. While other Christian denominations began self-scrutiny decades ago, conservative strategies—such as emphasizing Mennonites’ own hardships, referencing “Germans” instead of “Nazis,” and refocusing on Bolshevik atrocities—have depressed engagement for generations in Paraguay, Canada, and Germany. Little wonder, perhaps, that several of the twentieth century’s leading white supremacists and Holocaust deniers wrote fondly of their Mennonite backgrounds. Even among well-meaning and respected church members, anti-Semitic tropes continue to circulate. In 2017, Mennonite periodicals carried pieces that alternately excused genocidal killings by invoking Jewish communists, and denied that Jews were murdered near Mennonite colonies. In fact, death squads’ meticulous wartime reports are all too clear. 10,000 Jews were shot on October 13, 1941, for instance, fifty miles from Chortitza. And that was just one day.
Members of a Mennonite Waffen-SS squadron in Ukraine’s Molotschna colony, 1943. Credit: Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 106.
The “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference will provide a crucial step in our denomination’s journey toward recognition and atonement. Already, strongly-attended conferences in Germany and Paraguay have raised aspects of Mennonites’ involvement with National Socialism, and since 2015, three edited volumes and numerous journal articles have brought the subject to a wide readership. Yet almost none of this literature has broached the Holocaust specifically—a sign that major soul-searching remains for Mennonites. On a global scale, Mennonite World Conference and its member entities have recently participated in dialogue with Lutherans, Catholics, and others. Such deliberations have resulted, to much fanfare, in Mennonites accepting apologies for the persecution of sixteenth-century Anabaptists during the Reformation. Whether our church is willing to extend the same grace toward victims of a much larger and more recent outpouring of violence, remains to be seen.
Register for “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” North Newton, Kansas, March 16-17, 2018.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.