Half of the Story, Honestly Told: Review of Benjamin Goossen’s “Chosen Nation”

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Benjamin W. Gossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a German Era (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0. Cloth $49.50; eBook $34.99.

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The “invention” of a Mennonite nation is one outstanding theme in Benjamin Goossen’s dissertation, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press in June 2017. This Mennonite from Kansas with Russian-Ukrainian roots points to the fact that the theory of a Mennonite “nation” was based on the assumed existence of a Jewish one. In both cases, a religious-ethnic grouping present in many cultures was seen as part of a larger nation transcending traditional cultural and linguistic boundaries. In the fascist-controlled, post World War I-regions of Europe, Mennonites even of Dutch heritage had celebrated themselves as champions of “Germandom.” But for obviously opportunistic reasons, the concept of a transnational Mennonite “nation” kicked in after 1945. It was used as a crux for obtaining exist visas to the Americas in post-war, anti-fascist Europe.

The Mennonite icon Peter J. Dyck (1914-2010) was honest enough to admit in 1988 that the claim of being a nation had been “a temporary cloak woven from the wool of political expediency.” The refugees from Russia had “changed their identity when it suited them. They became chameleons” (199). Dyck himself had under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tutelage helped fashion this construct at the end of WW II. The claim was used to spare once-Nazi Mennonites who deserved retribution. But of course, Dyck’s motives were somehow humanitarian.

In the course of the past several centuries, Mennonites had insisted on privilege. Privilege—in taxation for example—was very much a part of their decision to move to Russia (now eastern Ukraine) in the 1780s. When it was convenient, Mennonites promoted their state of privilege either by citing their Germanness or their supranational nationhood. Goossen points out that the ethnic and racial criteria prevalent during the Nazi period survived into the post-war era. Agnostics and Catholics posed as Mennonites in hopes of obtaining equal privilege for emigrating to the Americas. The criteria remained cultural and racial. He asks on page 182: “What were MCC’s refugee operations, after all, but an elaborate exercise in ethnic nationalism?” It was the Cold War’s transition from anti-fascism to anti-communism which in 1951 finally opened Canada’s gates even for Mennonite members of the Waffen-SS (181).

A particularly strong point of this book is its descriptions of Nazi fascination for the Mennonite colonies of Eastern Europe, an appeal underscored by Heinrich Himmler’s landmark visit to the Molotschna colony in October 1942. Mennonites in the USSR were one of “Germandom’s” most impressive specimens and “groundbreakers for Germandom.” Though scattered across the globe, Mennonites’ “church discipline and religious racial defense system have protected (them) one-hundred-percent against the dilution of their blood through the infiltration of foreign elements. There is likely no other confession in the world that demonstrates such a racially uniform character as the Mennonites” (131, from Benjamin Unruh, approx. 1939). Supposedly the most Aryan of all, this characteristic made them prime targets for Nazi anthropologists and Eugenicists. According to the author, Mennonites “relished the attention” these researchers showered upon them.

Goossen is to be thanked for pointing to the questionable, racist character of genealogical research as practiced by ethnic Mennonites. Though it had been strongly propagated by fascist circles, Mennonite theologian Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) wrote in 1950: “It is encouraging to learn that a permanent interest in family history remains among the Mennonites in Germany, even after the Hitler regime has long since passed away” (201).

The book points to the direct linkage between pacifism and Mennonite quietism. The Mennonite understanding with Czarist authorities assumed that freedom from the draft would be conceded if the colonies did not proselytise. Numerical growth had to be restricted to procreation; to do otherwise would have exceeded the limits of Russian tolerance.

The pacifism issue was also a source of long-term tension between Mennonites in Germany and the diaspora. Germany had no Mennonite conscientious objectors after the 1870s, and in 1912 the Danzig “modernizer” Hermann Mannhardt (1855-1927) was very much opposed to the repatriation of Ukrainian Mennonites to Germany. After all, “Mannhardt and his associates had spent the last half-century ridding pacifism from their own congregations. At the very moment that charges of cowardice were finally dissipating, it would be madness to import 100,000 colonists” (102). At the turn of the twentieth century, the pacifists were rural and traditional, located primarily in Russia and North America. It was the urban Mennonite middle-class  in Germany and Holland that had by then opted to “modernize.”

It was also the rural and traditional who best resisted the enticements of Nazism. After a trip to Paraguay in the 1930’s, the pro-Nazi geographer Herbert Wilhelmy (1910-2003) complained that Mennonites there viewed the Third Reich as “too militarist and too worldly.” These “religious fanatics consider (pro-Nazi Mennonites) as being traitors to the Mennonite cause” (142). In North America, South German- and Swiss-rooted “Old Mennonites” and Amish expressed little admiration or interest in Hitler. Yet this is not the entire story: Pro-fascist sentiment among the low-German Mennonites of Manitoba in the 1930s also included the rural.

Goossen’s treatise includes tidbits of information worthy of further exploration. Numerous Mennonites were active in Germany’s liberal “Vormärz” revolution of 1848. Krefeld banker Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870) served as the German Reich’s first minister of finance. Indeed, Krefeld’s industrialist Von der Leyen family had been active in German politics and finance since the 1650s. (The current German minister of defense, the Lutheran Ursula von der Leyen, is married to a member of this Mennonite family.)

A particularly unsavoury set of anecdotal clips refers to Mennonites caught up in the fascist war. Heinrich Wiens, a Molotschna native and member of an SS-Einsatzgruppe, was involved in the elimination of Jews with gas vans (159). Jakob Reimer from Halbstadt/Ukraine participated in a massacre near Lublin (apparently the “Aktion Erntefest” of November 1943—see 162).

No less questionable were persons mentioned by Goossen as the close allies of Mennonites. Adolf Ehrt (1902-1975), the head of the Nazi “Anti-Comintern,” wrote his dissertation on the Mennonites. Georg Leibbrandt (1891-1982), a “long-time scholar of Mennonitism” (163), participated in the “Wannsee Conference” of January 1942 and was co-responsible for the mass extermination of Jews. Leibbrandt also served as an advisor to German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1955 (see German “Wikipedia”).

Erected in a region of dense Mennonite settlement near Danzig, Mennonite contractors were involved in the construction of the Stutthof concentration camp in 1939. Mennonites served there later as guards. A small consolation: Mennonite youth visiting from Germany helped rebuild Stutthof as a memorial in 1973-74 (193).

Conclusion

Mennonite encyclopedic or Wikipedia entries do not mention the pro-fascist dealings of Benjamin H. Unruh (1881-1959) or the militarism of Hermann Mannhardt. Ben Goossen can therefore be thanked for inching their biographies closer to reality. Along with Peter Dyck, Cornelius F. Klassen (1894-1954) was a second icon of mid-twentieth century Mennonitism. Yet Goossen quotes on page 143, that Klassen “aligned himself with Hitler’s Germany, railing against social-democratic rot, the Communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews.” Apparently, a part of the essential story on C.F. Klassen remains untold.

My primary criticism of Goossen’s treatise pertains to the fact that he only tells half the Mennonite story. Though the book’s title refers to “Mennonites in Germany,” solely the low-German story is told. More seriously, the story is told from the perspective of the Mennonite émigré, not also from those who “remained behind.” Surely there were Mennonites who did not desert the Red Army. I—not a specialist in Mennonite history—have not heard their story. Goossen reports that after WW I a “subset” of Mennonites joined the Bolsheviks and attempted to foment class struggle (110). That is a story which, to my knowledge, has yet to be told.

Most importantly of all, the book does not tell the Mennonite story as perceived through the eyes of their Slavic neighbors. Why, in 1920, did the anarchists and Bolsheviks of eastern Ukraine react as they did? Bolsheviks included Mennonites among the most counter-revolutionary of Russia’s minorities.

The mass Soviet deportations eastward in August 1941 were motivated by the suspicion that ethnic Germans were potential turncoats. As it turned out, those suspicions were completely justified. The communist position was, among other things, also a reaction to the German and German-Mennonite position. (These words are no defense of Stalinist behavior; they are only an attempt to understand it.) Western Mennonites have produced hundreds of treatises describing communist guilt; it is now time to hear the other half. We must hear more than only how Mennonites have interpreted themselves.

Though untold here, Ben Goossen understands that another Slavic narrative exists. Indeed, he has taken initial steps. When Mennonite farmers moved into Russia or the American frontier, they ”seized the land.” No amalgamation with native forces took place—they were simply displaced (211). Slavs were welcome as field laborers, not as co-owners. Concerned little about the good of the whole, these colonists intended to remain an ark in a Slavic sea. (Of course, there were exceptions, and prejudice ran both ways.) The author relates: Christian farmers opposed heathen nomads. Mennonite writers portrayed their colonies as “blossoming islands in the middle of Russian barbarianism” (102). Yet by 1920, Russia’s Mennonite colonies had clearly entered the globe’s post-colonial age.

Goossen refers in several instances to the Mennonite narrative’s bias: refugees were “lost” until MCC located them. Mennonites were “rescued out” of Russia—an interpretation still far from dead. The author describes the “lost” Baltic homeland as “a place of mystic tragedy.” Mennonites and other Germans have “constructed an intricate memorial culture;” minute details of their former lives are “obsolete and therefore fascinating” (191). Sadly, as we can observe since 1990, this “outpouring of minutiae” has not automatically resulted in interest for the present and future well-being of these Slavic societies. Why have almost no Mennonite refugees from Eastern Europe and their offspring chosen to move back to the “homeland”?

A further problem involves the fact that this study harbors an ideological agenda not requisite to the story. The author rejects mission as a colonial enterprise and places the word “heathen” in quotation marks (33). Gender issues, hardly ever a part of the historic Mennonite narrative, crop up in several instances. According to him, the denunciation of a Jewish neighbor in Nazi-occupied Ukraine or the shaming of the “queer” in the USA are “at least as Mennonite as bonnets, buggies and pacifism” (211).

Due in part to my perusal of the current Russian political and theological scene, I remain wary of the libertarian, individualist, pro-abortion, gender-neutral, essentially secular agenda grafted into western Mennonitism during the past three decades. Its present ideology may well be a result of the old desire of the intellectual to “be modern,” to conform. They are interested in worldly fashion, in keeping up with the Joneses. The venerable Mennonite theologian Myron Augsburger expressed to me in early 2017 his concern that Mennonite thought is no longer non-conformist: “Mennonite thinking should be with Kingdom priorities and Christ-centered in distinction from the liberal, secular agenda.”

It was the educated who brought down pacifism in Germany and Holland in the nineteenth century. Mennonite involvement in the wars of German nationalism and fascism ensued. Had German Mennonites remained “old-fashioned,” they would not have been guarding the condemned at Stutthof. Pacifism keeps believers with pro-fascist leanings—or liberals currently supporting “humanitarian” wars in the Middle East—from involvement in greater mischief.

Non-pacifism means ethical anarchy in countries with an aggressive foreign policy. In the U.S. context it meant that Mennonites dropping pacifism in the late 1950s soon had their sons dropping Agent Orange on the hapless peasants of Southeast Asia. In the context of WW II, it was the world’s rural and under-educated Mennonites who ended up prophetic, who stood the best chance of not compromising the Anabaptist witness.

The pacifists are almost always the prophets. Mennonites and Protestants in general, once they haven “broken free” of pacifism, don’t have the political savvy or acumen (“politischer Durchblick”) required to stay out of particularly questionable wars. Perhaps only some Marxists and Quakers are capable of choosing their wars carefully.

Mennonites have proven prophetic by accident. Their state was a gift of heaven, not a result of cool analysis. Connected to the wisdom of tradition, country bumpkins have proven to be the actual prophets. In Sarasota, Florida, it’s the Amish steering their barely-kosher electric tricycles across baked asphalt parking malls that point to a saner and greener form of future transport. The world is a ball, and the Amish were so far behind the trend that they suddenly ended up out front. When the professors have lost their way, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40).

We all so through a glass darkly. In hopes of learning from past mistakes, I encourage Ben Goossen and others to press onward with their diligent research.

Originally from Sarasota, Florida, William E. (Bill) Yoder (born 1950), has resided in Russia and Belarus since 2001. He received a Ph.D. in political science from West Berlin’s “Free University” in 1991. He can be reached at kant50(at)web(dot)de”.

Mennonite Fascism

Fascism often begins with sex. It can rely especially on anxieties about men of color having sex with white women.1 The pattern holds for Mennonite fascism, a specifically Anabaptist political philosophy modeled on Nazism that during the 1930s found support among German-speaking Mennonites around the world. While there are many sides to Mennonite fascism, I will focus here on the writings of J.J. Hildebrand—a Winnipeg-based immigrant from the Soviet Union who in 1933 proposed the formation of a fascist “Mennostaat,” or Mennonite State.2 This tale unfolds in a moment of global uncertainty, in which the legacies of the First World War and the shock of the Great Depression had sent democracy into retreat. Strongmen like Hitler and Mussolini drew praise even in places like Great Britain or the United States, and for many Mennonites, fascism’s unabashed racism seemed both to explain why their church had experienced so much persecution and also to offer a buffer against fresh assaults.

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J.J. Hildebrand, Mennonite fascist, ca. 1930. Credit: J.J. Hildebrand Collection, Photograph Ca MHC 303-6.0, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Enter J.J. Hildebrand: a successful businessman born in Ukraine, a longtime advocate for Mennonite rights, and an avid observer of Nazi Germany. Emigrating to Canada after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Hildebrand had spent the following decade promoting various settlement schemes for anti-Soviet coreligionists who, like himself, were seeking both refuge from communism and economic security in their new American homelands. According to Hildebrand, Mennonites constituted a pure-blooded “nation” or “race” that, since arising in Central Europe 400 years previously, had become scattered across the earth. Dispersed among foreign populations whom he described as Russian, Persian, Chinese, Mongolian, Polish, Mexican, Paraguayan, and Brazilian, members of the faith supposedly faced a global plague of racial defilement, that if continued, might lead to their ultimate demise. Writing for the widely-read Canadian denominational paper, Mennonitische Rundschau, or “Mennonite Review,” Hildebrand emphasized the danger to his readers: “our Mennonite girls—to which we, Mennonite men, have the first and only right, and whom we approach only via the honest path to the altar—are now exposed to the sexual caprices of these and similar types.” Such a reality “makes my Germanic blood boil,” Hildebrand explained. “Yours too?”3

One can imagine the fifty-three-year-old Hildebrand in his Winnipeg office—fully bald, dark-rimmed glasses framing a face he fancied “Germanic”—fantasizing about the Mennonite girls whose sexuality he considered the property of his kind. The issue held significance against the recent backdrop of mass immigration from Eastern Europe; in contrast to the wealth and power of Anabaptist life in formerly tsarist Russia, many new arrivals faced unaccustomed hardship, to which hundreds of families responded by sending their daughters to perform domestic labor in Canadian cities.4 What bothered Hildebrand was not just the thought of brown men in dark alleyways forcing themselves on defenseless white women, as the racist stereotype held, but more insidiously the possibility that inter-ethnic relationships might be consensual—that Mennonite women in the diaspora might be led astray, allowing their wombs and thus their bloodlines to be lost to the race. Indeed, race: Hildebrand thought of Mennonitism as a distinct racial category, interwoven by centuries of intermarriage. A Native American or Indonesian convert—or even the Canadian “English”—could never be Mennonite in this sense. “There are no Slavic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Indian, Malayan, Chinese, or Japanese Mennonites,” Hildebrand wrote. Even if converts practiced adult baptism, foot washing, opposition to oaths, and nonresistance, they would only be Christians. Mennonitism stemmed “from our racial origins.”5

How to ensure that Mennonites preserved their racial stock, that the right women bred with the right men? Hildebrand’s solution was the formation of a Mennonite State. Envisioning the “collection of our race from across the entire globe,” he proposed the establishment of an autonomous, self-administered territory. The initial sketch was vague enough to be humorous: the world’s 500,000 Mennonites could build a homeland on, say, one to seventeen islands. Their official languages would be Low and High German. Their currency, the Menno-Gulden would be pegged to the gold standard and worth 25 US cents. Each family would be given 120 acres to farm, and each household would elect one representative to the local “district assembly.” Every district assembly (each with around 100 members representing 1,000 families) would then elect two representatives to the “state assembly.” To fund the venture, Hildebrand recommended that proponents donate to a hypothetical “Menno-Collection-World-Union.” Contributors would each wear small medallions showing doves with peace palms against a blue field—“external signs” reminiscent of Nazi armbands.6

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My new book explores the origins, nature, and consequences of Mennonite fascism

Easily the oddest detail here is Hildebrand’s inclusion of the peace dove. All the other elements conform to the typical trappings of 1930s-era fascism. Racial utopias and agrarian settlements were hallmarks of fascist movements across Europe and the Americas, as was the general activity of planning the obscure details of future political and economic systems—from which certain groups, usually Jews, would be excluded. Even the concept of an island state held fascist connotations. At least some readers of the Mennonitische Rundschau, where Hildebrand’s piece appeared, were familiar with books like Aryan Race, Christian Culture, and the Jewish Problem (1931), an anti-Semitic pamphlet that advocated removing the world’s Jews from their countries of residence and sending them to Madagascar.7 Despite frequently comparing themselves to Jews (in fact Hildebrand conceived his Mennonite State as a “solution” to the “Mennonite Problem,” language evoking contemporaneous efforts to “solve” the so-called Jewish Problem), Mennonite newspapers and institutions across Canada and beyond were rife with anti-Semitism.8

But what about the dove? What made Hildebrand’s proposal absolutely unique in the history of political philosophy was that it represented a strange but surprisingly popular brand of pacifist fascism. The “Mennonite Problem” that Hildebrand hoped to solve was certainly about persecution, sex, and racial defilement. It was also about military service. While nonresistance had been a major tenet of Anabaptist thought until the nineteenth century, the rise of mass conscription and especially the events of the First World War had quite literally brought the principle under fire. “Peaceful coexistence of nations,” Hildebrand wrote, “the peace ideal—this Mennonite cultural inheritance—has been packed away in the travel trunk for protection, and in many states our freedom from military service has been trod under foot.” With yet more wars and revolutions looming on the horizon, Hildebrand believed that as long as Mennonites lived in militarist states, their pacifism would not survive the night. The state “sends the police into our homes to conscript our sons for war; it sends the police to confiscate our horses, wagons, grain, and more for war; it dictates the impossibly high taxes to cover the costs of war.”9

Hildebrand’s idea of a “peace island” inspired discussion among Mennonites across Canada and beyond.10 Over the following year, his proposal generated a lively debate in the denominational press about the feasibility and desirability of establishing a separatist Mennonite State. “Where is it supposed to be built?” wondered one skeptic, before going on to lay out the difficulty of gathering a half million Mennonites from a dozen countries, convincing them all to live and work together, and then going about the tricky business of setting up a bureaucracy and establishing diplomatic relations with other countries. “And would we eventually have communists among us?” he went on. “What do we do with them? Gently reprimand them? Or throw them out so that they go to our neighbors and turn them against us? Or perhaps condemn them to death?” Some issues generated laughter. Would mustaches be banned in the Mennonite State? But the most serious concerns revolved around military service: how could a pacifist state ensure its independence without eventually raising an army—and thus abandoning nonresistance? In the case of an invasion, foreign occupiers might, ironically, “also be interested in our beautiful girls, so that Hildebrand’s Germanic blood may once again be brought to a boil.”11

The Mennonite State never materialized—at least as Hildebrand imagined. Brushing aside questions of feasibility, he reasoned that although an independent Poland had seemed impossible before the First World War, the conflict had forged nearly overnight this improbable victory. As for small, defenseless states that managed to avoid military engagement, Hildebrand dove into the history and political structures of Switzerland, Andorra, San Marino, and Monaco. The dreamer went so far as to reach out to foreign governments about granting “complete, treaty independence” for possible Mennonite States across Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. One response from Australia informed Hildebrand that his request was “quite impossible.12 Political will was also lacking within the denomination. This wariness reflected, in part, a skepticism of Hildebrand himself. Although prominent, wealthy, and relatively well-connected, Hildebrand had never been quite as influential as he would have liked. If many commentators felt a Mennonite State was in theory possible, constructing it would require a feat worthy of a Moses or a Hitler. “In any event, Hildebrand is not this Moses,” one personal acquaintance assessed. “He may have Führer ambitions and Führer desires; Führer talent he does not have.”13

When viewed from the long arc of Anabaptist history, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss Mennonite fascism as a hapless anomaly. “Why don’t we relegate ‘the Mennonite State’ to the archive…?” suggested the editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau in an exasperated aside after one of Hildebrand’s more fanciful articles. “All in favor, raise your hands!”14 By April 1934, the matter seemed sufficiently closed that another author could refer to Hildebrand’s intervention as “unhappy and somewhat erstwhile.”15 Nevertheless, the Mennonite State was not a laughing stock. And Hildebrand was a serious enough figure to spark thoughtful debate. Consider the 1935 response of B.B. Janz, a prominent Mennonite Brethren church leader—and also an immigrant from the Soviet Union—who criticized Hildebrand’s proposal not for its implausibility but because it hit too close to home. “But wait,” Janz wrote, “we have already attempted the Mennonite State, whole hog.”16  Referring to the large semi-autonomous Mennonite settlements in the Black Sea region of the former Russian Empire, Janz noted that for more than one hundred years, Mennonites had exercised judicial, administrative, and educational independence. And what had it wrought? In his telling, conflict upon conflict—from tax and land issues to the persecution of one new religious movement after another: the Kleine Gemeinde, the Mennonite Brethren, the Templers.

Mennonite Choir at Canadian Nazi Rally, Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 1939 (1)

Mennonites in Canada, especially recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, often praised the Third Reich or modified fascism for their own purposes. Here, a Mennonite choir performs at a Nazi rally in Manitoba. “Hitler Salute: Local Germans Hail Re-birth of Fatherland Under Fuehrer,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 1939, 1.

Whether or not B.B. Janz was right about the deleterious nature of Mennonite administration in old Russia, during the years between the World Wars, he was surely in the minority of Mennonites from Eastern Europe who did not think back on the settlements with fondness. “As I was still a boy, I often and gladly looked over the green gardens and forest-filled villages of the Molotschna [colony],” volunteered a more nostalgic writer. “I loved the whole settlement, containing the whole Mennonite nation as I knew it. At that time, I too dreamed of the formation of a country where no Russian or anyone else would order us about and where Mennonitism could unfold in its full glory.”17 Stripped of their wistful sheen, such notions found deep resonance in the new imperial projects of European fascists—movements that shared Hildebrand’s racism but whose power was far greater. “Germany is fighting for its rehabilitation and for its lost colonies,” reported an Ontario-based author in the Mennonitische Rundschau. “And when this moment arrives, then we may hope that we will be incorporated into that country, whose sons and daughters we are, whose spirit is our spirit, whose blood is our blood—as an independent Mennonite colony under German protection.”18

Himmler in Halbstadt

Visions for racially homogeneous Mennonite settlements under fascist rule found realization in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Here, Heinrich Himmler (third from right), head of the SS and an architect of the Holocaust, at a flag raising in the Molotschna Mennonite colony, 1942

Why care about Mennonite fascism? One answer is that it was far more widespread than has generally been recognized. Well beyond statist debates in the Mennonitische Rundschau, similar ideas found adherents and interlocutors among populations across Europe and the Americas. Some pockets were remote and unexpected. Schoolchildren in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco, for example, could read about “Mennonites as Genealogical Community” in one biology textbook: “They form a large family or clan. In their veins flows the same German blood.”19 In other contexts, the ideology’s influence was monumental. Across the ocean in the Third Reich, Mennonites found a special place in Nazi racial theory. During the Second World War, when Hitler’s armies conquered large swaths of the Soviet Union, prominent fascists visited, praised, and supported the large German-speaking Mennonite colonies in occupied Ukraine. Harrowing experiences under communism had prepared the way for a warm reception. “I was no enemy of the Soviets,” one local explained to Nazi occupiers, “but now that I’ve come to know them, you’ll find I’m a true enemy. Now I’m a Hitlerite, a fascist unto death.”20

Mennonites in Eastern Europe generally collaborated with Nazi colonizers—if not always fully supporting their ideology or policies, as historian Aileen Friesen explains in a recent post. While occupiers built up local settlements like Chortitza and Molotschna, providing aid and services not dissimilar from the visions of Hildebrand and his supporters, death squads—some with Mennonite members—massacred nearly all of Ukraine’s 1.2 million Jews, including tens of thousands in and around the Mennonite colonies. This is what fascism looked like in its rawest form. Hildebrand’s “peace island” was indeed an unachievable fantasy, but not because there was insufficient will to produce a racially-pure utopia. It was a fantasy because fascism is always built on racial exclusion—and hate is inherently violent. J.J. Hildebrand himself spent the Second World War in Allied Canada. While he was a decorated member of the Nazi German Canadian League, he did not personally participate in ethnic cleansing. Yet whether in democratic Canada, rural Paraguay, or the Third Reich, Mennonite fascism was never innocuous. Listen to the second stanza of Hildebrand’s proposed anthem for the Mennonite State, set to the tune of Germany’s own national song:  

Our girls among foreigners
become ever more lost to us
Who however for our young men
alone have been predestined.
Have you for our girls
not a dear warm heart?
To wrest them from the yellow to-
bacco chewer’s unwelcome jape?21

Lest we think that peace theology alone shields us from the dangers of racial nationalism, let it be said: pacifists can be fascists, too. In the 1930s and 1940s there were plenty of Mennonite fascists, pacifist or otherwise. As a denomination we have not yet come to terms with this past, nor have we fully examined which elements of Mennonite fascism slipped past the end of the Second World War, which snippets of our theology and worldviews remain influenced by the once prominent drive for Germanic racial purity in many Mennonite congregations. Paraguayan biology classes, to name one example, continued referring to Mennonites as a blood community well into the postwar years, while in Germany, a popular Mennonite history book authored by a former Nazi and emphasizing genealogical transmission remained in print as recently as 1995.22 In North America, too, we frequently hear claims that Anabaptism is a German religion or that Mennonitism constitutes a family church. Violence and exclusion, including oppressive uses of peace theology, can be tied up in such claims. We should ask: who is marginalized, demonized, or rejected in our own congregations—whether in the name of religion, nation, immigration status, or sexual orientation?

Were J.J. Hildebrand writing today, he would undoubtedly see justification for new nativist projects in the right-wing populism sweeping Europe, the United States, and the world. Nor would he be alone. Fascism as a self-conscious movement is once again gaining prominence. Indeed, immigration restrictions in the United States, power grabs in Asia and Latin America, and refugee backlash in Europe—along with a shocking spate of anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic sentiment, homophobia, and Holocaust denialism in both official and unofficial places—demonstrate that in essence, if not in formal name, the logic at fascism’s core already holds political power.

Mennonites are not immune.

This article draws on research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, out this month from Princeton University Press. Thanks to Uwe Friesen, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Conrad Stoesz, John Thiesen, James Urry, and Madeline Williams for their assistance.


  1.  For a brief introduction to fascism, see Robert Paxton’s excellent, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Random House, 2007). On fascism and sex, see Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 10-63. 
  2.  The most extensive treatment of J.J. Hildebrand and his Mennostaat proposal is James Urry, “A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 65-80. For Hildebrand’s context among recent Mennonite immigrants to Canada between the World Wars, see James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia— Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 185-204. On the Mennonite paper, Die Mennonitische Rundschau, in which Hildebrand published his proposal, see Harry Loewen and James Urry, “A Tale of Two Newspapers: Die Mennonitische Rundschau (1880-2007) and Der Bote (1924-2008),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 86, no. 2 (April 2012): 175-204. On the generally German nationalist orientation of the immigrant Mennonite press in 1930s Canada, see Frank Epp, “An Analysis of Germanism and National Socialism in the Immigrant Newspaper of a Canadian Minority Group, the Mennonites, in the 1930’s” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1965).  
  3.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 29, 1933, 4. 
  4.  Marlene Epp has emphasized how Mennonite immigrant families and church communities generated anxieties around the sexual safety of female domestic laborers while also asserting patriarchal control over these women’s movements and earnings: Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008), 42-51. 
  5.  J.J. Hildebrand, “Mennonitische Geschichte: 60 Jahre später,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 28, 1934, 2. For Hildebrand’s views of many non-Mennonite Canadians as racially “English,” see J.J. Hildebrand, “Our Flag is One Thing. Our Race is Another,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 27, 1937, 24. 
  6.  Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” 5-6 
  7.  Egon van Winghene, Arische Rasse, Christliche Kultur und das Judenproblem (Erfurt: U. Bodung-Verlag, 1931). For a Mennonite review, see A. Kröker, “Zum Judenproblem,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 14, 1934, 2-3. On van Winghene’s book and its context, see Magnus Brechtken, Madagaskar für die Juden (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1997), 38-42.  
  8.  On Nazi sentiment among Mennonites in Canada, see Frank Epp, “Kanadische Mennoniten, das Dritte Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 31 (1974): 91-102; Benjamin Redekop, “Germanism Among Mennonite Brethren Immigrants in Canada, 1930–1960: A Struggle for Ethno-Religious Integrity,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 24 (1992): 20-42 
  9.  Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” 5-6. 
  10.  Argus, “O x O burg,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 12.  
  11.   Incertus [probably elder Jacob H. Janzen], “Zur Hildebrand-Utopie,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 11.  
  12.  Quotations from Urry, “A Mennostaat,” 65 
  13.  Incertus, “Zur Hildebrand-Utopie,” 11. 
  14.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Ueber Mennostaat,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 14. 
  15.  B.W., “Wanderungen,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 4, 1934, 2 
  16.  B.B. Janz, “Woher und Wohin: Streiflichter auf die mennonitischen Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 10, 1935, 3. 
  17.   J.B.W., “Mennonitisches Problem,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 26, 1933, 4. 
  18.   B.W., “Wanderungen,” 2.  
  19.  Naturkunde, Erdkunde, Täufer und Mennonitengeschichte für die Volkschulen: 6. Schuljahr (Philadelphia, Paraguay; Druckerei “Menno-Blatt,” 1943), 17.  
  20.   Franz Hamm, “Schilderung des Volksdeutschen Franz Hamm über ein Jahr Gefängnisleben,” March 8, 1942, T-81/606/5396745-51, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 
  21.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Zu meinen ‘Zeichen der Zeit,’” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 19, 1933, 12. 
  22.  Naturkunde für die mennonitischen Volksschulen, 5.-6. Schuljahr (Philadelphia, Paraguay: Druckerei “Menno-Blatt,” 1954), 32-33; Horst Penner, Horst Gerlach, and Horst Quiring, Weltweite Bruderschaft: Ein mennonitisches Geschichtsbuch, fifth edition (Kirchheimbolanden: GTS-Druck, 1995). 

Soviet Mennonites, the Holocaust & Nazism: Part 1

Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Canadian Mennonite that caused a brief, yet significant controversy. Ben Goossen, a scholar of global history, wrote an article entitled, “Becoming Aryan,” in which he challenged Mennonite churches to acknowledge that Mennonites had benefitted from Nazi racial policies, which had also instigated and justified violence against the Jewish people. He chose the Soviet Mennonites as his case study to illustrate the sins of our Mennonite past, implying that not only had Soviet Mennonites profited from Nazism, but also that under German occupation Soviet Mennonites in Ukraine had “first learned to think of themselves as Aryan.”1

2004-0071

Adelsheim choir at the church in Nikolaifeld, Molochna, Russia, during German occupation, ca. 1941. (Mennonite Library and Archives, Photo Collection, 2004-0071)

Members of the Soviet Mennonite community in Leamington, Ontario, objected to this version of their story. In a short response, Johanna Dyck, on behalf of other Soviet Mennonites, challenged Goossen’s interpretation of their lived experience. As she wrote, “The choices we made in Ukraine were not motivated by Aryan, National Socialist or racist theories, but, rather, were based on the Stalinist extermination of Mennonites from 1937 to 1940. This oppression and persecution was not unlike that which our religious group faced in earlier historic times… Further, we confirm that we had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.”2

The role of Soviet Mennonites in the Holocaust has recently received much attention. I feel compelled to unpack these two narratives of Soviet Mennonites as either complicit participants and perpetrators (inspired, in part, by their treatment under Communism) or as unimpeachable victims of the policies and actions of both Soviet and Nazi governments. Both these narratives distort the past and are unhelpful in forging a path towards atonement for Mennonite churches. It should be noted that the issue of atonement with regards to the Holocaust is not new within the Canadian Mennonite community. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Canadian government levelled accusations of Nazi collaboration against Jacob Luitjens, Mennonites debated issues of collaboration, accountability, forgiveness, and atonement in the pages of the Mennonite Reporter.3 One letter writer, Alfred Heinrichs, offered a path for Mennonites to show contrition: “First, we need to draft a statement that takes ownership of our involvement in the Jewish solution. Second, we need to stage a public meeting with the Jewish community as we seek forgiveness. Third, we need to find ways of doing service projects together with the Jewish community as it seeks to build a bond of fellowship.”4

Like Heinrichs and Goossen, I view this not as a hunt for the guilty, but rather an opportunity for Mennonites in Europe and the Americas to exercise a collective acknowledgment of our failings during this period. Notice that I say “our” failings. To engage in a conversation of atonement, it is important for those of us who were not placed in untenable positions, not forced to make compromised choices, to acknowledge that faced with same dilemmas we also might not have emerged morally unscathed. It is time to heed this call for collective responsibility.

While I appreciate that Goossen presented a simplified narrative in order to make a broader point, we need to be cautious in our use of the Soviet Mennonite story.5 Within the Canadian Mennonite community, the experience of the 1940s refugees has been marginalized and appropriated in service of the Russlaender (or the 1920s Mennonite immigrants) narrative of the horrors of Communism. I fear that now the Soviet Mennonite story is once again being co-opted, only this time into a narrative that has its foundations in the Mennonite experience within Germany. In reality, relatively little academic research has been conducted on the Soviet Mennonites.6 Before we can truly unpack this encounter between Soviet Mennonites and Nazism, we must develop a better understanding of what happened to Mennonites in Ukraine during the 1920s and 1930s. The suffering experienced by Soviet Mennonites under Communism did make them susceptible to Nazi ideology during the Second World War. But this narrative is too simplistic. It neglects the communal suffering experienced by Mennonites and their Ukrainian and Jewish neighbours as well as the role of ‘the terror’ in shaping relations within Mennonite communities.7 It also underestimates how Soviet nationality policy influenced the development of Mennonite identity. Over my next several posts, I would like to explore elements of Soviet Mennonite history before and during German occupation to add nuance to the positions that Goossen and Dyck expressed in the Canadian Mennonite.

For this discussion to proceed, one point needs to be made clear: some Soviet Mennonites participated directly in the Holocaust, which means they took part in ‘actions’ in which Jews were murdered (including men, women and children). In Ukraine, the Holocaust unfolded in a very public and brutal way, with the execution of Jews outside of towns and villages, often, though not exclusively, with help from the local police.8 Mennonites participated in these police forces in a variety of functions (as did other Soviet Germans and Ukrainians). Such a statement is still controversial for some Mennonites; this denial cannot continue. Direct Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is a fact. Even before Gerhard Rempel published an article attesting to this point in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, the first chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Harry Loewen, who also was a Soviet Mennonite, published the following: “Some [Soviet] Mennonite young men joined the German forces voluntarily and gladly, or at least did not resist induction…Some Mennonites even took part in “actions” against Jews…”9 Stories told informally among Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union confirm this reality.10 Nonetheless, at this moment in time, we simply do not know the extent of the direct participation of Soviet Mennonites. This issue requires digging through memoirs, survivor accounts, German archives as well as those in the former Soviet Union to write micro histories of these “actions” and of the villages, towns and cities where Jews and Mennonites lived together in Ukraine.11 This is painstaking, but necessary work before we can assess whether these perpetrators were a few lost souls or a significant number of young Mennonite men.12

Goossen draws our attention beyond the issue of direct participation in atrocities into the realm of complicity. As a result of their elevated position within the Nazi racial hierarchy, we must question whether the designation of ‘bystander’ is entirely appropriate for Soviet Mennonites living under occupation in Ukraine. This is a difficult question. Mennonites benefitted from their Volksdeutsche status given to them by their Nazi “liberators”. Yet it is hard to read Susanna Toews’ account and view her as anything but a woman faithful to God, who survived, despite experiencing unimaginable hardships. In fact, the role of women in keeping the Mennonite faith alive in Ukraine and in defining what it meant to be ‘Mennonite’ has been overlooked within the recent academic literature.13 She presented a basic, but in many ways unflinching view of her life under German occupation and her participation in “The Great Trek” in 1943. Her account is straightforward and filtered through a distinctly Christian lens. She expressed her “disappointment” in the attitude of German soldiers towards the Christian faith. She interpreted the murder of Jews by German soldiers as an example of how “unbelief reign[ed] in Germany.”14 She judged people (including other Mennonites) by their kindness and compassion towards others. Anyone who helped her and her sister during the Great Trek, regardless of their ethnic background, was remembered with gratitude, including Russians, Poles, and Germans. She recalled her appreciation that the Polish people were “kind to us” despite having been “evicted from their homes” to make room for this caravan of Volksdeutsche.15

This eviction is just one example of how Toews benefitted from the Nazi racial policies; yet the question remains, how did this privilege influence her identity? At least some sources indicate that Mennonites felt uneasy and ashamed of their treatment by the German occupiers in comparison with that of their Jewish and Ukrainian neighbours. This shame, one might argue, stemmed from their shared suffering during collectivization, dekulakization, and the 1932-33 famine. We must remember that the Soviet Mennonites, more than previous generations, had the language skills necessary to communicate with their neighbours. (These language skills, of course, are one of the reasons that the German occupiers so eagerly integrated them into the administrative system). As John Sawtazky from Osterwick recalled,

“We soon heard that Jews were being killed. At first we didn’t believe it, but it wasn’t long before we learned it was true. Some of my best friends were Jews. We had worked side by side and shared the same hardships. Now we were different. They were targeted, and their lives were in jeopardy, all due to their nationality. I could not face the Jews anymore. I was ashamed.”16

Interactions with the realities of the Holocaust formed deep impressions in the memories of Soviet Mennonites. In her 1946 interview with David Boder, Anna Braun, a 40 year-old woman from Einlage, confirmed that Mennonites were strongly affected by what was happening to their Jewish neighbors. She claimed to have challenged German soldiers on this topic, telling them “…it is wrong the way you treat the Jews, murdering the Jews, who are the chosen people.”17 Another woman, Helen Rempel Wiens Franz, recalled the plight of one family in her village. A Russian woman, Vera, who was married to a Jewish man, was given the choice of living or dying with her husband and children: she chose to die. As Franz wrote, “I saw Vera walking across the yard with her baby in her arms. She had been given a chance to save herself, but her husband and his children would be shot. Knowing what happened to Vera made a deep impression on me to this very day. She had chosen to die with her family…”18 John Sawatzky confirmed this event in his memoirs, adding that Vera’s choice had “touched all people in [Osterwick].”19

While one can find examples of Soviet Mennonites who embraced Nazi ideology, we can also find those who disapproved of these ideas and the actions they justified. This story, however, is complex. In my next posts, I will attempt to unpack the meaning of “Mennonite” in Ukraine as well as address the more troubling aspects of Mennonite encounters with Nazism, including the issue of antisemitism and the persistence within the Mennonite community of the idea of Judeo-Communism as an explanation and justification for the fate of Jews in Ukraine.


  1. “Becoming Aryan,” accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/becoming-aryan
  2. “Readers Write: November 7, 2016 Issue,” accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/readers-write-november-7-2016-issue
  3. For example, Gerlof Homan, “Luitjens should apologize and seek forgiveness” Mennonite Reporter (21 November 1988), 8; Edward Enns “Disappointment in coverage on Luitjens” Mennonite Reporter (26 September 1988), 7; John Miller “We must quit hatred of Nazis and repent of our wrong-doing” Mennonite Reporter (19 April 1993), 6; Ruth Heinrichs “Letters: Luitjens must face his day in court” Mennonite Reporter (26 September 1988), 6. Similar processes of uncovering and deporting those accused of Nazi collaboration also occurred in the United States. See Eric C. Steinhart, “The Chameleon of Trawniki: Jack Reimer, Soviet Volksdeutsche, and the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23, no. 2 (October 1, 2009): 239–62. 
  4. Alfred Heinrichs, “Move from Damage Control to Cooperation” Mennonite Reporter (6 April 1992), 8. 
  5. In his broader work, Goossen has recognized that more research needs to be done on how Mennonites interpreted these categories. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Measuring Mennonitism: Racial Categorization in Nazi Germany and Beyond,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (January 2016): 240. 
  6. Two exceptions are Colin Neufeldt and Peter Letkemann. See, for example, Peter Letkemann, “The Fate of Mennonites in the Volga-Ural Region, 1929-1941,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 26 (January 2008): 181–200; Peter Letkemann, “Mennonite Victims of ‘The Great Terror,’ 1936-1938,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (January 1998): 33–58; Colin P. Neufeldt, “Separating the Sheep from the Goats: The Role of Mennonites and Non-Mennonites in the Dekulakization of Khortitsa, Ukraine (1928-1930),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 2 (April 2009): 221–91; Colin Peter Neufeldt, The Public and Private Lives of Mennonite Kolkhoz Chairmen in the Khortytsia and Molochansk German National Raĭony in Ukraine (1928-1934) (Pittsburgh: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2015). 
  7. Thanks to James Urry for bringing this point to my attention 
  8. For more about the role of the local police in the Holocaust in Ukraine and the participation of Soviet Germans in their ranks, see Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 248–71; Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). 
  9. Harry Loewen, “A Mennonite-Christian View of Suffering: The Case of Russian Mennonites in the 1930s and 1940s,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 77, no. 1 (January 2003): 55. 
  10. See, for instance, 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 et al. (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 149. 
  11. Omer Bartov draws our attention to the importance of understanding local dynamics, including the “cultures, languages, traditions and politics” of Jewish victims and of their neighbours. He also emphasizes that relatively little work has been done on the “triangular relationship between Jews, local gentiles, and the German perpetrators.” Omer Bartov, “Eastern Europe as the Site of Genocide,” The Journal of Modern History 80, no. 3 (2008): 561–62. 
  12. Harvey Dyck, for instance, writes that “a handful of youthful Mennonites in the Soviet Union undoubtedly participated in the persecution and murder of Jews during World War II.” See Jacob A Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule, ed. Harvey L. Dyck, trans. Sarah Dyck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 48. 
  13. For more on this role of women, see Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (University of Toronto Press, 2000). 
  14. Susanna Toews, Trek to Freedom: The Escape of Two Sisters from South Russia during World War II (Winkler: Heritage Valley Publications, 1976), 19–20. 
  15. Ibid., 31. 
  16. John Sawatzky, “The Fate of a Jewish Friend,” in Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering, ed. Harry Loewen (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2000), 61. Helen Rempel Wiens Franz recalled that these Jewish families could all speak Low German. There are, of course, strong similarities between Yiddish and Low German. See Helen Rempel Wiens Franz, “My Memoirs,” Preservings, no. 23 (December 2003): 116. 
  17. Thanks to James Urry for providing me with this source. David Boder, “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun; September 20, 1946; München, Germany : Voices of the Holocaust Project,” accessed March 29, 2017, http://voices.iit.edu/interview?doc=braunA&display=braunA_en
  18. Franz, “My Memoirs,” 116. 
  19. Sawatzky, “The Fate of a Jewish Friend,” 61.