Mennonites and the Holocaust: “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses”

20180316_110912Bookending 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.

20180316_110409The 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).1



Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction

Mennonites entered Nazi consciousness in 1929, when 13,000 refugees descended on Moscow, clamoring to leave the Soviet Union. In Germany, the National Socialist Racial Observer took up their cause. Blaming Jews and Bolsheviks for oppressing Mennonites, the paper condemned Western democracies for ignoring their plight. In one front-page article, editor Alfred Rosenberg—who had led the Nazi Party while Hitler was in prison—offered what he considered a solution. “The National Socialist movement,” he wrote, “recognized this danger [of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’] from the beginning and built that into its essence.”1 Little more than a decade later, Rosenberg felt that the Second World War had vindicated his position. Traveling in 1942 and 1943 through Nazi-controlled Ukraine as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, he announced to crowds in the Mennonite colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna that tables were finally turned.2 Already, death squads had murdered most of Ukraine’s 1.2 million Jews.

“Film footage of Alfred Rosenberg’s visit to the Chortitza Mennonite colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, June 1942.”

Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, the global Mennonite church has yet to confront its entanglement in this genocide. While stories have long circulated privately and in some academic publications, only recently have they garnered sustained public attention.3 In this light, the upcoming conference, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” to be held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, on March 16 and 17, 2018, is a breakthrough. The event promises serious discussion of the church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism, a topic vitally important to Mennonites around the globe. Sponsored by seven Mennonite religious and educational institutions, including Mennonite Church USA, this conference brings together leading scholars of Anabaptism and of the Holocaust from five countries. A film screening and the keynote lecture by Doris Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—are free and open to the public. Registration for panel sessions is now open.

A naked prisoner is led to an execution site in the Stutthof concentration camp 2

Some of the 60,000 victims killed at the Stutthof concentration camp, a source of slave labor for Mennonite farms and factories. Credit: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team

Mennonite experiences of and involvement in the Holocaust differed widely. We know that a handful of individuals actively participated as executioners and concentration camp guards. We also know that a substantial percentage of Europe’s Mennonites benefited from and often sympathized with aspects of Nazism. Around 120,000 people, or about one-fourth of the denomination worldwide, lived under Nazi rule at the height of Hitler’s expansionism. Generally categorized as members of the Aryan racial elite, Mennonites sometimes received goods taken from murdered Jews or moved into their vacant homes. Others leased slave labor for their farms and factories, or otherwise profited from genocide.4 Yet many Mennonites also suffered. Life in wartime could be brutal, not least in German-occupied Western Europe, where some Mennonites joined the resistance.5 A number were executed or sent to concentration camps for political activities or for possessing Jewish heritage or cognitive disabilities.6 And a small but important subset—primarily in the Netherlands and France—hid Jews.7


A poster for the Nazi propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, re-released in 1941 as Village in the Red Storm. Here, the Mennonite congregational elder is portrayed as a stoic Aryan in the face of Bolshevik oppression.

Arguably more impactful than Mennonites’ own actions, however, was the denomination’s enrollment in Nazi propaganda. In 1929, popular opinion had pressured German politicians to help approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees in Moscow relocate to Germany. The event became a founding myth of the Third Reich, inspiring novels and two of the Nazis’ most important early films, Refugees (1933) and Frisians in Peril (1935). Both were re-released in 1941 during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.8 In general, Mennonites became symbolic of Aryans’ supposed ability to maintain German cultural traditions abroad. Hundreds of books and articles by the Third Reich’s leading experts on German speakers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay, Galicia, Ukraine, the Volga region, and Siberia depicted the denomination in glowing terms. Many of these authors eventually translated their theories into ethnic cleansing by consulting for the Wehrmacht, East Ministry, and SS.9

As for Mennonites overseas, most remained unaware of or uninterested in Nazi flattery. But they were equally apathetic to the fate of European Jews.10 Moreover, certain communities developed robust fascist sensibilities. In Paraguay and Brazil, entire colonies hoped to “return” to the Reich.11 Leading Mennonites helped finance the German Paper for Canada, a pro-Nazi organ.12 And in the United States, Herald Publishing House of Newton printed the rabidly anti-Semitic Defender, whose monthly circulation reached 100,000.13 As a site for the upcoming conference, Bethel College is an appropriate choice, given that it was Bible professor J. R. Thierstein who, as editor of The Mennonite during the 1930s, gave that periodical its anti-Semitic slant. Readers of the Bethel College Monthly likewise learned from Thierstein that “harm done to the Jews was insignificant by comparison with the great service Hitler had performed in saving Germany from Communism and its Jewish adherents.”14

In 1945 when the Third Reich collapsed, church institutions on both sides of the Atlantic worked to suppress allegations of Mennonite collaboration. The Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee, in particular, feared for the safety of 45,000 Mennonite refugees in postwar Europe. Administrators believed that these individuals might be denied humanitarian aid and—as actually happened to around half—deported to the Soviet Union. Under MCC auspices, prominent scholars and churchmen sent dozens of memos to military personnel, refugee organizations, and the United Nations. These documents portrayed Mennonites as “strict pacifists,” as non-Germans, and as abhorring National Socialism.15 Receptive bureaucrats developed an erroneous impression that huge numbers had performed “slave labour” for the Nazis, while the New York Times reported that they suffered “as the Jews.”16

Denialism has marked public discussions ever since. While other Christian denominations began self-scrutiny decades ago, conservative strategies—such as emphasizing Mennonites’ own hardships, referencing “Germans” instead of “Nazis,” and refocusing on Bolshevik atrocities—have depressed engagement for generations in Paraguay, Canada, and Germany.17 Little wonder, perhaps, that several of the twentieth century’s leading white supremacists and Holocaust deniers wrote fondly of their Mennonite backgrounds.18 Even among well-meaning and respected church members, anti-Semitic tropes continue to circulate. In 2017, Mennonite periodicals carried pieces that alternately excused genocidal killings by invoking Jewish communists, and denied that Jews were murdered near Mennonite colonies.19 In fact, death squads’ meticulous wartime reports are all too clear. 10,000 Jews were shot on October 13, 1941, for instance, fifty miles from Chortitza.20 And that was just one day.

Loewen, Road to Freedom, pg 106

Members of a Mennonite Waffen-SS squadron in Ukraine’s Molotschna colony, 1943. Credit: Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 106.

The “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference will provide a crucial step in our denomination’s journey toward recognition and atonement. Already, strongly-attended conferences in Germany and Paraguay have raised aspects of Mennonites’ involvement with National Socialism, and since 2015, three edited volumes and numerous journal articles have brought the subject to a wide readership. Yet almost none of this literature has broached the Holocaust specifically—a sign that major soul-searching remains for Mennonites. On a global scale, Mennonite World Conference and its member entities have recently participated in dialogue with Lutherans, Catholics, and others. Such deliberations have resulted, to much fanfare, in Mennonites accepting apologies for the persecution of sixteenth-century Anabaptists during the Reformation. Whether our church is willing to extend the same grace toward victims of a much larger and more recent outpouring of violence, remains to be seen.

Register for “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” North Newton, Kansas, March 16-17, 2018.

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

  1. Alfred Rosenberg, “Das deutsche Bauernsterben in Sowjetrußland,” Völkischer Beobachter, November 24/25, 1929. For context, see John Eicher, “A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929,” German Studies Review 40, no. 2 (2017): 333-352. On Rosenberg, see Ernst Piper, Alfred Rosenberg: Hitlers Chefideologe (Munich: Blessing, 2005). 
  2. Alfred Rosenberg, “Besichtigungsreise durch die Ukraine vom 18.6. bis 26.6.42,” Captured German and Related Records, T-454/105, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; “Aus dem Zeitgeschehen,” Deutschtum im Ausland 26, no. 5/6 (1943): 115-116. 
  3. For an overview of early scholarship on Mennonites and Nazism, see John D. Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism—Historiography and Open Questions,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary S. Sprunger, and John D. Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328. 
  4. Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549; Doris L. Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher R. Browning, Susannah Heschel, Michael R. Marrus, and Milton Shain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 142-156; Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 121-173. 
  5. See the contributions in Jelle Bosma and Alle Hoekema, eds., “Doopsgezinden tjdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 41 (2015), as well as Alle G. Hoekema, “Niederländische Taufgesinnte während des Zweiten Weltkriegs,” in Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen, ed. Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 173-184. 
  6. This is one of the least studied aspects of Mennonite-Nazi interactions. Examples include Gerlof Homan, “‘We Must and Can Stand Firmly’: Dutch Mennonites in World War II,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1995): 7-36; Christiana Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 81-96; “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun,” September 20, 1946, Voices of the Holocaust Project, online
  7. Gerlof Homan, “Friends and Enemies: the World War II Origins of MCC Work in France,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 71, no. 2 (2010): 7-14; Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18; Alle G. Hoekema, “Dutch Mennonites and German Jewish Refugee Children, 1938-1945,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 2 (2013): 133-152. 
  8. David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema: 1933-1945 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 108-109, 207-213. 
  9. Part of this history is discussed in Benjamin W. Goossen, “Mennoniten als Volksdeutsche: Die Rolle des Mennonitentums in der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda,” trans. Helmut Foth, Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 71 (2014): 54-70. 
  10. Jack Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 127-139. 
  11. John Thiesen, Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933-1945 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999); Uwe Friesen, ed., “Die völkische Bewegung und der Nationalsozialismus bei den Mennoniten in Paraguay,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kulture der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017). 
  12. James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia—Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 236-237. 
  13. James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 139. 
  14. Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” 134. 
  15. Peter Dyck, “Mennonite Refugees in Germany,” July 1946, FO 1050/1565, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. For context, see Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-187. 
  16. Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, “Memorandum: Mennonite Refugees from Soviet Russia,” ca. December 1946, AJ/43/49, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France; “Mennonite Issue in Germany Ends,” New York Times, February 15, 1947, 8. 
  17. Ted Regehr, “Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1995): 15-17; Ted Regehr, “Walter Quiring (1893-1983),” in Shepherds, Servants and Prophets: Leadership among the Russian Mennonites (ca. 1880-1960), ed. Harry Loewen (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 329-330; Diether Götz Lichdi, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung und Schuldbekenntnisse der Mennoniten nach 1945,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 64 (2007): 39-54; Daniel Stahl, “Wie die Fernheimer lernten, über die ‘Völkische Zeit’ zu sprechen: Zur langen Nachgeschichte eines Konflikts,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kulture der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 161-186; Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 187-194; Benjamin W. Goossen, “Ending the Silence,” Mennonite Historian 43, no. 4 (2017): 10-12. 
  18. James Urry, “Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland’s Lebensraum!” Mennonite Quarterly Review 73, no. 1 (1999): 107-127; Damon T. Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101. 
  19. Although both statements are publicly available in print and online, I am choosing not to cite them here, as my aim is not to shame individuals but to point out the continued circulation of certain forms of anti-Semitism among Mennonite communities. 
  20. SD, “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, R 58/219, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. For context, see Helmut Krausnick, Hitlers Einsatzgruppen: die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges, 1938-1942 (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985), 166-175. 

An Invitation to the “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions” Conference

Rachel Waltner Goossen

It’s been twenty-two years since historians from the U.S. and Canada collaborated on the first academic conference focusing on women of Anabaptist traditions.  A sequel comes this summer: an interdisciplinary conference, Crossing the Line:  Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, slated for June 22-24, at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Scholars from around the globe as well as students and others interested in women’s and Anabaptist/Mennonite history will gather for cross-disciplinary panels, sessions, and conversations.  The conference theme invites us to consider how Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, and related groups have bumped up against – and traversed – physical and figurative borders, right up to the present day. 


Crossing the Line is a conference about women from Anabaptist traditions. Panels will emphasize the rich diversity of Anabaptist women’s experiences.

In 1995, a landmark scholarly conference titled The Quiet in the Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspective drew 256 participants from Canada, the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands. Hosted at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, this early collaborative effort among Mennonite scholars featured artistic performances, especially drama, music and poetry. Approximately one hundred academic presentations explored the richness of women’s experience and interests drawn from Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Amish, Hutterite, Brethren in Christ, German Baptist, and Jewish perspectives. 

At the conclusion of the 1995 conference, participants were enthusiastic about the variety of methodological and interdisciplinary approaches on display, but noted that a future conference would need to cast a more inclusive net.  Many called for greater attention to international stories and viewpoints, pointing out that a critical mass of individuals in Anabaptist traditions lived outside of U.S./Canadian communities.  Others critiqued the Millersville gathering for failing to incorporate LGBT history, although other forms of inclusion/exclusion were dominant themes of the conference. 

Strangers at Home

Strangers at Home came out of a landmark 1995 conference on Anabaptist women.

By the final day of the conference, one observer noted the gathering’s big-tent flavor:  “Many perspectives have been expressed underneath this canopy . . . . We have not been concerned with boundaries.” Johns Hopkins University Press was attracted to the gendered theme of the conference and subsequently published an edited collection, Strangers at Home:  Amish and Mennonite Women in History (2002), which highlighted European- and North American-focused scholarship (a notable exception was Marlene Epp’s “’Weak Families’ in the Green Hell of Paraguay”). 

Intensifying an international reach this time around, the June 2017 conference will focus on boundaries and border-crossings. Women from the Global South will participate. Students and scholars from a dozen countries are among the panelists and plenary speakers.  Each day, an invited scholar will address implications of border- and boundary-crossings.  Hasia Diner, New York University Professor of History, will speak on gender systems in ethno-religious immigrant communities. Cynthia Peacock of India, affiliated with Mennonite Central Committee for nearly four decades and a representative for Mennonite World Conference, plans to address church leadership in South Asia. And Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American writer and English professor at James Madison University, will be drawing from her own Arab and Mennonite heritage for her presentation, “Crossing Ethnicities.”


Sofia Samatar, professor of English at James Madison University, will be one of several plenary speakers at Crossing the Line.

Academic presentations on a wide array of topics, as well as an art exhibit, poetry readings, original dramatic performance, modern dance and ballet performances, and Shendandoah Valley cultural tours round out the conference offerings. In the spirit of the 1995 gathering, organizers of the upcoming Crossing the Line gathering hope the event will contribute to “mentoring relationships that crossed traditions and disciplines and age groups,” according to planning committee co-chair Kimberly Schmidt.

Watch this Anabaptist Historians blog site for regular updates and postings from participants throughout and after the conference. Participants may register for the entire conference or for a daily rate.  Registration, schedule, sponsorship, and lodging details are available via the conference website.

Rachel Waltner Goossen is a member of the conference planning committee and professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.