Five Myths about Mennonites and the Holocaust

“Not all the Jews were bad,” a widely respected Mennonite born in interwar Ukraine told me recently, “even though they started the [Bolshevik] Revolution. My father had good Jewish friends.” This statement is classically anti-Semitic. It falsely conflates communism with Judaism, while using the excuse of having a few Jewish friends to mask an implied belief that Jews in general were bad. At least as importantly, my conversation partner’s words reveal how people who do not consider themselves racist or anti-Semitic can still propagate harmful myths.

New scholarship and ongoing public discussion about the historic entanglement of tens of thousands of Mennonites on three continents with Nazism and the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s has yielded productive conversation regarding how present-day Anabaptists can and should respond to this history, as well as calls for further discussion. At the same time, some church-affiliated periodicals have printed articles, letters, and reviews that propagate troubling interpretations of Mennonite-Nazi connections, including anti-Semitic tropes.

Figure 1, Great Trek

Imagery of the “Great Trek” during WWII has dominated Mennonite depictions of the era, bolstering a narrative of suffering, mostly female refugees. In fact, the word “trek” was widely and triumphally used in the Third Reich to describe German-speakers relocating from Eastern Europe to Germany. This particular movement of Mennonites and others out of Ukraine in 1943 and 1944 was overseen by the SS. Participants were not primarily considered to be refugees but rather Aryan “re-settlers,” traveling to a fatherland newly cleansed of Jews. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, attributed to Hermann Rossner.

Such reactionary responses are not exceptional, either in Holocaust historiography or in the current context of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. In February, Poland passed legislation criminalizing mention of some Poles’ involvement in genocide, while part of the international backlash to Israeli violence has been couched in anti-Semitic terms. When certain Mennonites voice anti-Semitic sentiments, this often reflects—as is the case of other groups—both an attempt to protect their own and also a real, dangerous current of anti-Jewish prejudice.

The following five myths date to the Third Reich or its immediate aftermath. They remain in circulation, deployed today to excuse Mennonite involvement in Nazism or to foreclose public discussion. Examples given below all appeared in Mennonite periodicals within the past two years. Since my intention is to stimulate thoughtful reflection, not to shame individuals, I have chosen not to cite most quotations. However, all are easily accessible online and in print.

Myth #1: Mennonites suffered under Bolshevism, justifying Nazi collaboration.

This is the most typical excuse for Mennonite involvement for Nazism. The trope holds that life in the Soviet Union was so brutal, Mennonites had no choice but to embrace Hitler’s crusade. In fact, most Mennonites involved with the Third Reich had never lived in the USSR. The subset who did—approximately 35,000 individuals in Ukraine—came under Nazi occupation in 1941. Like millions of other Soviet citizens, most of these Mennonites welcomed Hitler’s armies as “liberators” from hardship and repression. Yet unlike the majority of their neighbors, Mennonites were generally considered Aryan, a status that provided additional incentives to support Nazism.

This trope is often accompanied by assertions that Mennonite suffering under communism has not been properly recognized. But in reality, Mennonite authors have been publicizing Soviet atrocities without abate since the Bolshevik Revolution. Scholarly literature and memoirs on Mennonite victimhood greatly outnumber texts that explore collaboration or perpetration. Nearly all of the latter have appeared only recently. The imbalance is so stark that Mennonite historians can claim to have created an entire subgenre on the “Soviet Inferno,” a term in academic use since the 1990s and whose deployment continues to refer almost exclusively to Mennonites.

Myth #2:  The Allied powers committed atrocities, too – why should we single out Nazism?

“The Nazis were bad, but the Bolsheviks were worse,” a Mennonite born in the USSR told me in March. “You mean from a Mennonite perspective,” I said. My conversation partner shrugged. “Of course.” When white Mennonites think about what life might have been like for them if they had lived in Hitler’s Germany, they invariably assume that they would have been Mennonite—and by extension Aryan. From such a viewpoint, each of the Allied powers, not just the Soviet Union, would have posed a greater threat to life and livelihood than Nazism. In other words, assuming one would have been Aryan creates a false equivalency that downplays genocide.

Studying the Holocaust from a Mennonite-centric perspective runs the added risk of repeating debunked Nazi propaganda, such as the myth that Bolshevism was Jewish. Some invocations of a “Soviet Inferno” falsely imply systematic persecution or even a “final solution” of Mennonites (by Jews) in the USSR. Nazi perpetrators commonly used such reversals to portray themselves as the true victims. Last year, one historian explained Mennonite participation in Nazi death squads, stating: “men and women of Jewish background worked as [Soviet] administrators, agents, and interrogators.” He had previously directed me to a webpage entitled “Jewish Mass Murderers.”

Myth #3: Mennonites were mostly women and children, so they either had no choice or could not have been involved.

Women and children are often invoked to claim Mennonite innocence in Nazi war making. One writer recently claimed, for example: “in the 1930s most Mennonite men [in the USSR] had been exiled, imprisoned or executed, leaving families to be led by mothers and grandmothers,” who were not “collaborators, anti-Semites or Aryan.” Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were indeed disproportionately women and children. But there were also plenty of men—many of whom served in administrative positions, as translators, policemen, or soldiers. Gender disparity at the end of the war in part reflected the death or capture of Mennonite men in German uniform.

Figure 2, Chortitza table

A table compiled by Nazi occupiers showing the age and gender (men on the left, women on the right) of the 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Ukraine’s Chortitza colony, ca. 1942. Forty-three percent of “ethnic German” families in Chortitza had no male head of household—but fifty-seven percent did. Source: Karl Stumpp, Bericht über das Gebiet Chortitza im Generalbezirk Dnjepropetrowsk (Berlin: Publikationsstelle Ost, 1943), Tafel H.

This myth further assumes that women or children could not have contributed to Nazism or the Holocaust. However, many Mennonite women served as translators or in bureaucratic capacities, sometimes enriching themselves with the spoils of genocide. More often, women supplied moral support to male relatives and contributed to the war effort through their labor. Meanwhile, some underage boys took up arms. And most Mennonite children in the Third Reich absorbed Nazi ideals at school and through organized youth activities. They helped boost morale by singing, marching, and telling stories. Some racist proclivities learned in the 1930s and 1940s persist today.

Myth #4: Mennonites knew nothing about Holocaust-related atrocities.

This is simply untrue, as numerous archival documents testify. Nonetheless, the way this myth is told is itself revealing. Consider one statement: “Although Mennonites under German occupation witnessed how their Jewish neighbours packed up and fled, they did not know about the outcome of this fleeing until much later.” Another, strikingly similar account holds that Mennonites “saw their Jewish neighbours pack up and flee eastward across the Dnepr; how many survived and how many were executed on the eastern side they did not know until later.” These authors care more about locating killing elsewhere than considering why Mennonites stayed as Jews fled.

Figure 3, Molotschna

A caption in one Mennonite history book for this scene from the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, 1942, reads: “This photo shows the uneasy meeting of two branches of the German and Low German cultures: the militarism of Prussia as well as of the Third Reich, and its opposite—the nonresistance of the Mennonite religious culture. The worldwide German culture is much richer given the existence of a community that did not soil itself with the militarist Nazi madness.” In fact, the men pictured here belonged to Waffen-SS cavalry units composed mostly of Mennonites. The photo was taken at a rally where Mennonite women and children performed for the visiting head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Source: Adina Reger and Delbert Plett, eds., Diese Steine: Die Russlandmennoniten (Steinbach, MB: Crossway Publications, 2001), 332.

To suggest that murder did not occur around some Mennonite settlements or that Mennonites in these areas had no knowledge of genocide is a form of Holocaust denial. Such myths repudiate known facts. Yet claims persist that Mennonites “had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.” The author of this line, in subsequent postal correspondence, described glowingly her own wartime work as the secretary for a top German officer in Nazi-occupied Dnipropetrovsk, her receipt of German citizenship, and the voluntary induction of Mennonite men into the military; “I am a beneficiary of the German occupation!”

Myth #5: Mennonites suffered under Nazism.

Among the most disingenuous myths about Mennonite life under Nazism, this trope holds that the general suffering of Mennonites in the USSR continued under German rule. Nazi occupation was indeed catastrophic for a minority of Mennonites who were committed communists, as well as for disabled individuals and those of Jewish heritage. Some in Nazi-occupied France and the Netherlands joined the resistance or hid Jews. Yet claims of Mennonite suffering normally refer to those who in 1943 and 1944 participated in the “Great Trek” from Ukraine to Poland to escape the Red Army—an endeavor supervised by the SS and praised by Mennonite leaders at the time.

Indeed, closer inspection reveals that allegations of Mennonite hardship are often complaints that Nazism did not live up to its potential. If only the Eastern Front had held; if only religious reform had been more thorough; if only welfare programs were more generous—then Mennonite life would have been easier. Even the Holocaust and other persecutions are said to have “occasioned much disappointment among Mennonites.” This may be true. But note how the author chooses to emphasize the “disappointment” of Aryans, not the actual enslavement and slaughter of Jews. Despite the fading of his own initial “euphoria” for Germany, he could remain “deeply grateful.”

* * *

Mennonite authors and editors should think carefully before writing or printing pieces about the Third Reich. This is an important topic and requires our attention. But we must approach it in ways that do not recapitulate racism. Even those of us with good intentions need to be wary. In April, the cover story of a major denominational magazine laudably covered Mennonites and the Holocaust; yet in her introduction, the editor blithely compared Mennonites murdering Jews to Jews murdering Jesus—arguably the single most injurious trope of Christian anti-Semitism. Proofreaders apparently saw no problem with invoking “the crowd that yelled ‘Crucify him!’”

A few rules of thumb might be helpful. If you are discussing Nazism or the Holocaust, consider how someone from a different background might react—particularly if you are defending actions by your own group. Second, be aware of contextual differences: refocusing from the Holocaust to Soviet atrocities erases the specificity of Jewish genocide. Finally, when evaluating suffering, do not discriminate. While Mennonites have faced many difficulties, they never suffered alone. Nor were they always victims. Anabaptists, of all people, must surely grasp that violence can permeate even the most peaceable of cultures, a process we should understand but never justify.

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

Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus

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Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, speaks with the Mennonite physician Johann Klassen in Halbstadt, Ukraine, 1942. Klassen was executed after the war for crimes including the alleged selection of 100 disabled patients for murder. Photo courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg. Alber Photograph Collection 351-23.

Recent conferences held in Germany (2015), Paraguay (2017), and the United States (2018) have led to significant public discussion and academic scholarship on the history of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust. These events have revealed that individuals associated with the Mennonite church were proximate to and sometimes participated in fascism and genocide to a greater extent than has been previously known. In response to several requests, we here at Anabaptist Historians have created this “Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus” to disseminate basic information and suggestions for further reading. In constructing this document, we have been inspired by other recent syllabi—such as the “Black Lives Matter Syllabus” and the “#StandingRockSyllabus”—that provide resources on topics of public import for adoption in educational settings as well as for wide circulation.

Below, recommended readings are organized by topic. This syllabus highlights short, free, web-accessible, English-language sources. Full-text links are provided. For readers wanting a deeper dive into any theme or area of interest, longer secondary sources in English, German, Dutch, and French are also listed under “Further Reading.” While full citations are given for the “Further Readings,” these are—unlike the primary texts—not all available online and, when no links are provided, must be accessed via libraries or database subscriptions. This syllabus is intended for general consumption: please use, distribute, amend, and share however you like.

A printer-friendly version can be found here: Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus, 2018

Contents

Key Terms

Timeline

Readings by Topic

Key Terms

Holocaust: The programmatic effort by National Socialists in the German Third Reich to exterminate Jews as a people during the Second World War. Usually dated between 1941 and 1945, this genocide drew on a much longer history of Nazi anti-Semitism and also extended to other groups, including Roma, political dissidents, and the physically and mentally disabled.

Mennonites: A Christian religious group originating in Europe during the sixteenth-century Reformation, named after the theologian Menno Simons, and historically associated with the separation of church and state, lay leadership, and opposition to military service and sworn oaths. During the Third Reich, there were about 500,000 Mennonites worldwide, living primarily in Eurasia and the Americas.

Nazism: A political movement led by Adolf Hitler and founded in southern Germany in the wake of the First World War. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, was established in 1920 and ruled in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Nazism as an ideology was characterized by anti-Semitism, anti-communism, and a Germany first approach.

Timeline

1918: The First World War formally ends, leaving Germany and its allies defeated. Paramilitary violence continues across Eastern Europe, spreading extremist ideologies and affecting Mennonite communities especially in Ukraine

1919: Allied victors impose the punitive Treaty of Versailles, assigning war guilt to Germany and drastically reducing its territory, including areas densely populated by Mennonites. The German Workers’ Party is formed

1920: The German Workers’ Party is renamed the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP in German), also known as the Nazi Party; Mennonites begin joining

1921: Famine in Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War draws international assistance from new aid organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC

1923: Hitler’s first attempted revolution, the “Beer Hall Putsch,” fails in Munich. Mass emigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union to Canada begins

1925: The first Mennonite World Conference is held in northern Switzerland, depicted as a global homecoming to the soil where Anabaptism was “born.” Anti-communism and nonresistance are discussed 

1926: In line with rising interest in racial science across Europe and beyond, the first periodical for Mennonite genealogy is founded in Germany

1927: Communist authorities end Mennonite emigration after 20,000 of 100,000 members in the Soviet Union have already left for Canada

1928: Stalin introduces his First Five Year Plan, leading to massive collectivization in the Soviet Union and violent liquidation of wealthy farmers and industrialists known as “kulaks,” including a high percentage of Mennonites

1929: Over 10,000 Mennonite refugees in the Soviet Union seek to escape Stalin’s “Revolution from Above,” drawing attention in Germany, including extensive coverage in the Nazi press

1930: Approximately 4,000 of the Mennonite refugees are given temporary shelter in Germany—where over 1,000 are examined by racial scientists—before traveling on to Brazil, Paraguay, and Canada

1933: Hitler comes to power in Germany, now called the Third Reich; Mennonite conferences in Paraguay and northeast Germany send congratulations, praising Nazi nationalism and anti-Bolshevism

1934: Germany’s largest Mennonite conference revises its statutes, formally abandoning nonresistance and promising obedience to the state; organizers are nevertheless unsuccessful at uniting all German congregations

1935: The Third Reich introduces military conscription and passes the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws; these themes are both promoted in the propaganda film, Frisians in Peril, about Mennonites in the Soviet Union

1936: Organizers of the Mennonite World Conference in the Netherlands agree to avoid the “political” topic of Nazism to appease German delegates. A small breakout group makes a peace declaration after German delegates leave

1937: Mennonites in Germany disavow prior affiliations with neo-Hutterite pacifists known as the Rhön Bruderhof, dissolved by the Gestapo. Expelled members move to England with help from Mennonites abroad

1938: Germany begins expanding as it absorbs Austria and the Sudetenland. Anti-Semitic violence escalates during the infamous Kristallnacht. Extreme anti-Semitic pronouncements continue among Mennonites in Germany

1939: The Second World War begins in Europe with the joint invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. Mennonites from Poland, Danzig, and Galicia come under Third Reich rule. MCC begins relief work in Germany and France

1940: Nazi occupation of France and the Netherlands brings tens of thousands more Mennonites under German auspices. Racial scholars, including several Mennonites, begin integrating Dutch into histories of Aryan colonization in Eastern Europe

1941: Simultaneous onset of the Holocaust and Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. 35,000 Mennonites in Ukraine welcome German occupation. Mobile killing units, some with Mennonite members, carry out genocide across Eastern Europe

1942: Mennonite Central Committee operations in Germany, France, and occupied Poland end with the entry of the United States into the war; MCC representatives are repatriated to the United States

1943: Germany’s Eastern Front begins collapsing. German-speaking colonies in Ukraine that have been built up as model colonies—including the Mennonite Molotschna and Chortitza settlements—start retreating westward with the Wehrmacht and SS

1944: Mennonite leaders collaborate with Nazi bureaucrats and the SS to resettle nearly all of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the new model province of Wartheland in occupied Poland. They also envision resettlement of Mennonites from overseas

1945: The Third Reich collapses with the end of the Second World War. Approximately 45,000 Mennonite refugees seek shelter in Denmark and occupied Germany and Austria, fearing deportation to the Soviet Union

1946: Mennonite Central Committee begins new programs in Europe, including refugee operations. MCC leaders like Peter Dyck begin telling military and UN officials that Mennonites are non-German pacifists who suffered under Nazism

1947: The first refugee ship after World War II sails for South America with over 2,000 Mennonites on board. Over the following eight years, MCC will help relocate over 15,000 Mennonites to the Americas, most claiming to be non-Germans

1948: Mennonite World Conference is held in the United States. German delegates express regret at having supported Nazism but claim to have participated in collective “resistance.” International Mennonite aid to Germany redoubles

1949: West Germany is established with a new Basic Law, including provision for conscientious objectors, the first time such exemption is not based on religious exemption. Peace work begins to emerge among local Mennonites

 

Readings by Topic

1) General Overviews

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: An Introduction,” Anabaptist Historians, February 7, 2018.

Coverage of “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference by Anabaptist Historians, held at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas on March 16-17, 2018.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Ben Goossen, ed. German Mennonite Sources Database, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, online.

2) Background: Mennonites and German Nationalism

Mark Jantzen, “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1860-1890,” Mennonite Life 58, no. 3 (2003): online.

Karl Koop, “A Complication for the Mennonite Peace Tradition: Wilhelm Mannhardt’s Defense of Military Service,” Conrad Grebel Review 34, no. 1 (2016): 28-48.

Further Reading:

Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2010).

Wilhelm Mannhardt, The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2013).

H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919 (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2008).

3) Mennonites and Nazism in Germany

James Regier, “Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Prussian Mennonites, the Third Reich, and Coming to Terms with a Difficult Past,” Mennonite Life 59, no. 1 (2004): online.

Christiana Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 81-96.

Gerhard Rempel, “Heinrich Hajo Schroeder: The Allure of Race and Space in Hitler’s Empire,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011): 227-254.

Further Reading:

Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017)

James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

Diether Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Weierhof im Bolanden: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977).

4) Nazi Visions of Mennonites

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot,” Anabaptist Historians, March 17, 2018.

Clip from Friesennot (English subtitles) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

Ben Goossen, “Measuring Mennonitism: Racial Categorization in Nazi Germany and Beyond,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 225-246.

Further Reading:

Ben Goossen, “Mennoniten als Volksdeutsche: Die Rolle des Mennonitentums in der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda,” trans. Helmut Foth, Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 71 (2014): 54-70

Friesennot (full movie) (Ufa, Delta-Filmproduktion, 1935).

John Eicher, “A Sort of Homecoming: The German Refugee Crisis of 1929,” German Studies Review 40, no. 2 (2017): 333-352.

5) Neo-Hutterites: The Third Reich’s Only Anabaptist Pacifists 

James Lichti, “The German Mennonite Response to the Dissolution of the Rhoen-Bruderhof,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 10-17.

Eberhard Arnold, “Rhön Bruderhof (Hessen, Germany),” GAMEO, 1959, online.

Hans Meyer, “Hans Meier tells how the Gestapo raided the Rhön Bruderhof in 1933,” YouTube, online.

Further Reading:

Thomas Nauerth, “Michael Horsch and the Rhön Bruderhof, 1936–1937: From Friend to Hostile Witness to Historical Eyewitness,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91, no. 2 (2017): 213-246.

James Lichti, “Rhönbruderhof,” MennLex, online.

Emmy Barth, No Lasting Home. A Year in the Paraguayan Wilderness (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014).

6) Mennonites and Nazism in Canada

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

Tim Nafziger, “A Window into Antisemitism and Nazism Among Mennonite in North America,” The Mennonite, July 30, 2007.

Benjamin Redekop, “German Nationalism Among Canadian Mennonites During the Early 1930s,” Mennonite Historian 19, no. 3 (1993): 1-2, 9-10.

Further Reading:

James Urry, “A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 65-80.

Frank Epp, “Kanadische Mennoniten, das Dritte Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 31 (1974): 91-102.

James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia— Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 185-228.

John Redekop, “The Roots of Nazi Support Among Mennonites, 1930 to 1939: A Case Study Based on a Major Paper,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 81-95.

7) Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism in Latin America, 1933-1944,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 12 (1994): 104-117.

John Thiesen, “The Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism: The Example of Fernheim,” Mennonite Life 46, no. 2 (1991): 4-9.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, Mennonite and Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933–1945 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999).

Uwe Friesen, ed., “Die völkische Bewegung und der Nationalsozialismus bei den Mennoniten in Paraguay,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017).

John D. Roth, ed., special issue on Mennonites and Nazism, Mennonite Quarterly Review 92, no. 2 (2018).

Peter Klassen, Die deutsch-völkische Zeit in der Kolonie Fernheim, Chaco-Paraguay (1933–1945) (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1990).

8) Mennonites and Nazism in the United States

Jack Fischel, “An American Christian Response to the Holocaust,” in Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989, ed. Alan L. Berger (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 127-139.

Rich Preheim, “White Supremacist’s Racist ‘Faith,” Mennonite World Review, April 28, 2017.

James Juhnke, “Ingrid Rimland, the Mennonites, and the Demon Doctor,” 60 no. 1 (2005): online.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, “The American Mennonite Encounter with National Socialism,” Yearbook of German-American Studies 27 (1992): 127–158.

James Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 137-140.

Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.

9) Mennonites and Nazism in the Netherlands

Clyde Farnsworth, “Canada Revokes Citizenship of Nazi Collaborator,” New York Times, November 12, 1991.

Alfred Neufeld, “How Have We Dealt with Conflict in the Past?” Mennonite World Conference, July 2015.

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Have Come to Love Them’: Russian Mennonite Refugees in the Netherlands, 1945-1947,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2011): 39-59.

Further Reading:

Jelle Bosma and Alle Hoekema, eds., “Doopsgezinden tjdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 41 (2015).

Gerlof Homan, “‘We Must and Can Stand Firmly’: Dutch Mennonites in World War II,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1995): 7-36.

Alle Hoekema and Pieter Post, Frits Kuiper (1898-1974): Doopsgezind Theoloog (Hilversum: Verloren, 2016).

10) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Witnesses and Perpetrators

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration,” The Mennonite, March 1, 2012.

Ben Goossen, “Becoming Aryan,” Canadian Mennonite, June 26, 2016.

Aileen Friesen, “Soviet Mennonites, the Holocaust & Nazism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 25, 2017.

Further Reading:

Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507–549.

Doris Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher Browning, Susannah Heschel, Michael Marrus, and Milton Shain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 142-156.

Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” trans. John Thiesen Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986), 4-9, 32.

Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013).

Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life and Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

11) World War II and the Holocaust: Mennonites as Victims and Helpers

Goshen College, “Woman ‘Righteous’ for Saving Jewish Children,” Mennonite World Review, July 22, 2013.

David Boder, “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun,” September 20, 1946, Voices of the Holocaust Project, online.

Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18.

Further Reading:

Gerlof Homan, “Friends and Enemies: The World War II Origins of MCC Work in France,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 71, no. 2 (2010): 7-14.

Alle Hoekema, “Dutch Mennonites and German Jewish Refugee Children, 1938-1945,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 87, no. 2 (2013): 133-152.

Jean-Paul Kremer, Le salut ne vient pas d’Hitler: Un mennonite déporté à Natzweiler et Buchenwald (Alès: Mission Timothée, 2016).

12) Postwar Migration, Cover-up, and Denial

Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.

Steven Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms with the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945–1950,” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 2 (2003): 6-16.

Ted Regehr, “Of Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC, and the International Refugee Organization,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (1995): 7-25.

Further Reading:

Horst Klaassen, “Nationalität: Mennonit? Mennonitische Auswanderungslager in Backnang 1947 bis 1953,” Mennonitischer Geschichtsblätter 54 (1997): 89-115.

Frank Epp, Mennonite Exodus: The Rescue and Resettlement of the Russian Mennonites Since the Communist Revolution (Altona, MB: D.W. Friesen & Sons, 1962).

James Urry, “Fate, Hate and Denial: Ingrid Rimland’s Lebensraum! Mennonite Quarterly Review 73, no. 1 (1999): 107-127.

13) Uncovering the Past: Recent Developments 

John Roth, “Europeans Confront Hard Truths of Nazi Era,” Mennonite World Review, October 5, 2015.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites Seek to Come to Terms with Nazi Collaboration,” Religion News Service, March 16, 2017.

Gordon Houser, Paul Schrag, and Melanie Zuercher, “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: Conference Looks at the Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 19, 2018.

Further Reading:

John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism: Historiography and Open Questions,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary Sprunger, and John Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328.

Ben Goossen, “Ending the Silence,” Mennonite Historian 43, no. 4 (2017): 10-12.

Doris Bergen, “Workshop Report: Mennonites and the Holocaust,” Contemporary Church History Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2017): online.

Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with Our History in the Holocaust,” The Mennonite, March 26, 2018.

How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust

Lisa Schirch

Bethel College should be applauded for taking the leadership to organize the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference March 16-17, 2018. Because of a generous grant from Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking initiative of MCUSA, I was able to attend the conference.  Across the street from Bethel College’s campus, the Kauffman Museum portrays a history of Mennonites that illustrates the type of commonly told positive narrative of our beliefs, pacifism, martyrdom, humanitarian work and community. While there are stories of Mennonites opposing the Nazis and hiding Jews in this history, the recently revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust feels like a betrayal of everything I’ve been taught over the last fifty years of attending and working for Mennonite institutions. There is a terrible chapter in our history that has been intentionally silenced and absent from my education. Records of Mennonite history are like Swiss cheese: full of holes that leave out our participation in the holocaust. It is important for the church to reflect on how we reckon with this history and what this history requires us to do.

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Jerusalem at Sunrise

Beyond Academic Discussions

This is not just an abstract, academic conversation among historians who compete to document the facts of this history. Many people in the audience at the conference were experiencing intense emotions because of the shocking revelations about Mennonite complicity and participation in the Holocaust.

I grew up in the Mennonite community of Bluffton, Ohio, where I never heard anything anti-semitic. I was encouraged to read Jewish literature as a kid and was taught to have nothing but respect for Judaism. I was taught to commit to “Never Again” and took up a career in peacebuilding to prevent genocide. On the other hand, I never heard any Mennonite discuss broader church responsibility for the anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In hindsight, this is problematic. Christians are generally unaware of the long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

Last fall, I led Eastern Mennonite University’s study abroad program to Israel and Palestine where we focused on Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding efforts. My husband is Jewish, and we are raising our children to be both Jewish and Mennonite. We know at least fifteen other Jewish-Mennonite families. For us, this is not just history. I was flooded with emotion hearing about Mennonites participating in massacres of Jewish families or Mennonites taking Jewish land. 

My first thought was this: ethnic Mennonites went from participating in the Holocaust, to helping Palestinian refugees, to denouncing Israeli occupation. Where in this story did ethnic Mennonites help Jewish refugees or stand up for Jewish rights at the same scale? How dare Mennonites act self-righteous in their relentlessly critical stance toward Israel when these Mennonites literally pushed Jews out of their homes and some of those Jews fled to Palestine, where my Palestinian friends were pushed out of their homes. This is a sick and twisted history where Mennonite victims hurt Jewish victims who hurt Palestinian victims. And of these three groups, Jews suffered the most.

The role of Mennonites in the Holocaust has direct impacts on Mennonite-Jewish families, the integrity of Mennonite peacebuilding efforts in Israel and Palestine, and our collective voice on issues of peace and justice.

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Synagogue Bimah in Migdal, beside the Galilee, where Jesus studied. The bimah is the Seed of Life symbol, a symbol used to represent the sacredness of life in many religions.

Emotional Intelligence and Personal Sharing

During the first few panels of the conference, members of the audience shared personal stories. These were a necessary part of the audience digesting and processing the information provided by researchers. But it was not without consequence.

A Mennonite holocaust denier, Bruce Leichty, attended parts of the conference. Leichty is a California-based lawyer known for representing the Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and his Mennonite wife Ingrid Rimland Zundel. Leichty has passed out anti-semitic literature at the past several MCUSA gatherings. At the introduction of the conference, the organizers told the audience there was someone attending the conference who they were watching. But many were not in the room or did not understand what was being said. When Leichty began to ask an offensive question during the conference, the organizers removed him by calling campus security, but did not inform the audience of who the man was or why he was being removed. The lack of communication confused many in the audience.

Minutes earlier, a Jewish participant in the audience shared about her discomfort at the emotionally inappropriate discussion of these topics. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to stand up in a room where she was alone in representing the Jewish people to a group of Mennonites. She noted the lack of acknowledgment that the stories being told were about people like her and included her relatives. She expressed offence at the laughter and lighthearted comments that were tone-deaf to the seriousness of the stories being told. For example, one panelist mentioned there were “fifty shades of Mennonite collaboration” which was met with laughter. She asked, “you’re laughing at the number of ways your people were involved in the genocide against my people?” I felt pain and embarrassment over the behavior of “my people.” Perhaps Mennonites are so allergic to grief that some choose to laugh inappropriately instead? This was so awkward and uncomfortable. But what came next made it worse, not better.

Panel moderators immediately told the audience we were no longer allowed to share personally. They informed us we were only allowed to write down our questions on slips of paper and submit these to the moderators. Coming immediately after the sharing of a Jewish woman, while a number of us in the audience were in tears, it was hard to understand the logic. No one explained this decision.

A trauma expert, facilitator or pastor could have helped the conference audience recognize and make space for the personal impacts we might experience during the conference. We could have acknowledged that people in the room would feel a range of emotions. We might have been reminded that laughter can be therapeutic but that we need to be careful to understand that inappropriate laughter can also be harmful.

The body and brain are not separate. I have attended many academic conferences that also include elements that address emotion and spirituality. It is not either/or. A conference can be both academic and address the intense emotional significance of a subject.

It is not possible or desirable to have an academic conference on a topic involving discussion of Mennonite complicity in the genocide of six million Jews and other groups without the expression of emotion. This insistence that the conference ONLY be academic and heady, without allowing other people to participate in shaping elements to support emotional, spiritual and personal responses was harmful. Because several conference attendees had mentioned this need for a grief room, candle or prayers to the conference organizers before and during the conference with no response. It appeared as if the organizers themselves were unable to imagine or acknowledge the emotion that might emerge from the academic discussions, overwhelmed when audience members shared their personal responses, and felt deeply uncomfortable with giving up some control of the conference and allowing others to help facilitate aspects of the program.

For a conference about Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis, it felt in form like Mennonites are still infected with some lingering patriarchal, authoritarian mindsets. There was only one person of color involved as a panel moderator. White men were in charge. No emotion was allowed. Participants were restricted in how they participated. Offers to help facilitate grief circles were seemingly ignored. There was no collective accountability or statement of responsibility. The tone and form of the conference felt offensive given the weight of the facts presented.

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Statue of Mother Mary standing on Jewish Covenant representing Supercessionist Theology

Ramifications for Mennonite Theology, History, and Institutions Today

For decades, Mennonite historians and theologians have searched for a coherent statement of our history and theology. History impacts theology. While the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) is planning a theology conference to address this history in 2020, it feels strange to try to completely separate out a history conference from a theology conference or to have to wait two more years to take church action on this history. Mennonite complicity with the Holocaust requires action in the present. This is not just an academic historical topic – this history disrupts Mennonite narratives about ourselves, our history, our theology, and our current struggle with racism in the church. Mennonite Nazi connections and theologies of racial superiority continue to have impact today. 

The role of Mennonites and the Holocaust requires an acknowledgement and a statement to Jewish groups that we are undergoing a process of accountability and repentance and invite their participation in how we best do that.  I am curious to understand the rationale for not inviting Jewish participants to attend these conferences where we are wrestling with how we are accountable.

The Bethel conference included papers about German and Dutch Mennonite theology, Some challenged Nazi theology. Some justified Nazi theology. But these scholarly panels made no reference to how the story of Mennonites and the Holocaust seriously disrupts today’s narrative of Mennonite theology.

  • Some Mennonite theologians took part in Nazi racial science, opened church records, and asserted with Nazis that “morals pass through blood.” This is seemingly in direct opposition to Anabaptist beliefs about adult baptism.
  • Some Mennonites in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere rejected pacifism and joined the military to defend national interests. This directly challenges the narrative of Anabaptist nonviolence.
  • Just as West Germany went through a process of self-reflection and intentional de-Nazification, so too does the Mennonite Church need an explicit de-Nazification effort to address the lingering anti-semitism that informs our history and church culture.
  • Mennonite-born White Nationalist leader Ben Klassen is one of the two main figures of the white nationalist movement in North America.  Ben Klassen grew up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and read Mein Kampf there. He credits Mennonite theology for his white supremacy.  Regrettably, Klassen is not an aberration. Some Mennonites have reinforced the ideology of white supremacy in unique ways in US and Canadian history. White nationalism is a serious threat to Muslims, Jews, First Nations, African Americans, Latinos and all people of color and non-Christians in North America today. The white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer were carrying the words of Mennonite-born Ben Klassen. In sharing the history of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust with friends on Facebook, the strongest response has been from African American friends who repeatedly reported that they were “not at all surprised.” Racism and anti-semitism stem from the same superiority narrative and belief that “morals pass through blood.” Friends recounted how they didn’t get jobs at Mennonite institutions even though they were clearly more qualified than the “ethnic Mennonites” who were hired. Our current work on racism needs to be informed now by this history.
  • The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) story has been told in a way that has suppressed the fact that Russian Mennonites were both victims and perpetrators. At the conference, we heard that MCC storyteller Peter Dyck told stories that intentionally deceived not only immigration agents, but also the Mennonite church at large. MCC has hidden the fact that some Russian Mennonites were Nazi leaders and collaborators. The whole story of MCC needs to be retold. MCC needs to reckon with its founding, its relationship to Jews, and its programming in Israel and Palestine which to date has focused almost entirely on the Palestinian narrative without acknowledging Jewish connection to the land and need for control over their safety following centuries of persecution. MCC is holding a 100-year anniversary conference in 2020. Hopefully, this awful history can be addressed, and real action can take place to be accountable for both these historic wrongs and the glaring absence of attention to Jewish connections to the land of Israel just as Palestinians are connected to the land of Palestine, and the need for safety for both Jews and Palestinians.
  • Who will be held to account for suppressing this awful history? Some scholars in the audience at the conference shared that they had tried to raise this history with Mennonite institutions thirty to forty years ago. Church leaders intentionally silenced these voices, diminished the Mennonite role in the Holocaust, and continued to leave out this history. Even today, I’ve heard a dozen Mennonite scholars assert that Ben Goossen’s historical survey of this history in his book Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era is an “exaggeration” or “not footnoted carefully.” When I ask for specifics, it turns out they haven’t yet read the book. But they are clearly eager to downplay the significance of this history (which, as a fellow scholar, I think is well footnoted). This failure to take responsibility and to illustrate accountability and repentance is familiar to those of us who have worked on the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church.  Mennonite leaders practice denial and suppression of any facts about Mennonites that are not flattering. They give speeches over and over about Mennonite values, our humility, our history of persecution, our work for reconciliation and justice. But they leave out any truthful acknowledgement of our failings.  They seem to think they can keep these terrible histories down by ignoring and suppressing them.  But truth always has a way of coming out. And the church is more likely to suffer lack of integrity by the failure of Mennonite leadership to confront these problems than it will if it admits the failures of the past.
  • Mennonites and Jews have a unique history. For centuries before the holocaust, Jews and Mennonites were persecuted together. European states applied special taxes, restrictions on public office, and allowed Mennonites and Jews only to live in certain areas. Helen Stolzfus is a Mennonite friend also married to a Jewish man, and also raising her children as both Mennonite and Jewish. Helen gave a reading of a play she and her husband wrote about their discussions of this painful history of Mennonite roles in the long history of anti-semitism. In the play, her Mennonite ancestors and her husband’s Jewish ancestors talk to each other. I know fifteen or so other Mennonite-Jewish families, at least. I don’t know that many Mennonites married to any other groups, not Mennonite Catholics, or Quakers, or Muslims. So why do Mennonites and Jews intermarry so often? And what more can we learn about the history of this, for Mennonite friends have also found they have Jewish blood. Mennonites also need to look into this broader history between Mennonites and Jews.
  • Finally, Mennonites pride themselves as being “authentic” Christians who attempt to return to the teachings of the early church, before the Council of Nicaea and before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, Jesus and the early church were Jewish. Jesus was very clear he was an observant Jew and was not trying to start a new religion. While traveling though Galilee last fall with my students from EMU, we visited the synagogues where Jesus studied. We learned many new things about Jesus, seeing him through the eyes of our Israeli and Palestinian guides. If Mennonites actually want to practice an authentic way of following Jesus, we are going to need to learn more about Judaism.

Mennonite history classes, books and museums need to tell this newly-revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust. The positive narrative of Mennonites needs to include the angels and demons in our histories. We can’t wait another few years to address Mennonite history and theology. It will take a lifetime for me to recover a positive sense of identity after learning all of this. And Mennonites have some serious work to do in taking responsibility for those Mennonites who did these terrible things. We urgently need to begin talking about the ramifications of this history now.

As a witness to this conference and this history, I feel shame, grief, and immense sadness. This history disrupts my world, my identity, and my relationships.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Soviet Union and Mennonite-Jewish Connections

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“Survival and Trial: The Post-War Experience of Chortitza Mennonites”
Erika Weidemann, Texas A& M University

  • Using the life stories of two women, Erika Weidemann explored how the actions of Mennonites from Chortitza during the Second World War influenced their ability to create new lives in the post-war environment.

  • She demonstrated how Mennonites (and other ethnic Germans) attempted to re-characterize their wartime experiences to fit the categories created by the Allied powers of displaced peoples worthy of assistance; sometimes they were successful, other times they were not. Often this re-characterization involved emphasizing their victimhood and reinventing their identity in pursuit of survival.

  • Weidemann’s study shows us that identity politics, which performed an important role in shaping the options and opportunities available to Mennonites during the war, continued to be one of the main factors in determining access to resources and routes out of Europe in the post-war era.

“The Mennonites under the Nazi Regime in KGB Documentation, Ukraine 1941-44”
Dmytro Myeshkov, Nordost-Institut (Lüneberg)

  • Dmytro Myeshkov presented fascinating new materials from the recently opened SBU (KGB) archives in Kiev that reveal many hidden stories about Mennonites before, during, and after the Second World War. While he illustrated the limitations of these sources, which must be read with caution, he also demonstrated their incredible potential in allowing us to trace the life stories of Soviet Mennonites.

  • On the basis of these sources, Myeshkov described the case of Ivan Klassen, a doctor from Molochansk (Halbstadt), who was tried and convicted by the Soviet of a number of offenses. During the German occupation, Klassen visited a hospital in Orloff with disabled people (including children) to determine whether the patients could work or not. After his visit to the site, about half of the people were executed by the Germans. Klassen’s case raises questions on the role of Mennonite doctors in the Holocaust.

  • Finally, Myshkov discussed Mennonite women who served as translators in Crimea. These translators assisted in locating Jews for elimination and they received Jewish property and goods in return for their service. His research cautions us against assuming that only men belong in the category of perpetrators and against viewing the activities of translators under German occupation as benign.

“The Mennonite Search for Their Place in the Struggle Between Germany and the USSR”
Viktor Klets, Dnipropetrovsk University

  • Viktor Klets provided an overview of Mennonite experiences during the Second World War, showing this period in all of its complexities. He reminded us of the deportation of part of the Mennonite population in Ukraine by the Soviets before German occupation and their treatment in the labour army.

  • By demonstrating not only how Mennonites collaborated with the Germans, but also how Mennonites did not quite fit the expectations of these occupiers, Klets illuminates how the Soviet environment had shaped Mennonite life in the years preceding the war.

  • He also offered a window into how Ukrainians viewed Mennonites during this period. Some Ukrainians remembered Mennonites as willing collaborators, who readily adopted a superior attitude toward their neighbours based on their Germanness while others emphasized that Mennonites reacted in similar ways to other Soviet citizens.

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“Jewish-Mennonite Relations in Gabin, Plock County, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland, Prior to and during World War II”
Colin Neufeldt, Concordia University of Edmonton

  • Colin Neufeldt investigated Mennonite experience in Poland through a microhistory of the village of Deutsche Wymyschle. Based on a combination of archival sources and oral interviews, Neufeldt showed the variety of ways in which Mennonites in this area collaborated with the German occupiers as their Jewish neighbours faced discrimination and then destruction.

  • Neufeldt also shared the story of Erich L. Ratzlaff, a native of Deutsch Wymyschle, who would become well-known as a teacher, editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau, and minister in Canada. After Germany invaded Poland, Ratzlaff became a full member of the Nazi Party, serving the party cause as the mayor of Gabin. Similar to a number of other prominent Mennonite men from this period, this wartime history has never been fully incorporated into Ratzlaff’s biography.

“Mennonites and Jews in Soviet Ukraine”
Aileen Friesen, Conrad Grebel University College

  • My presentation explored issues surrounding perpetration and rescue among Mennonites living in Khortitsa. By detailing the massacre of Jews just outside of Zaporizhia and the celebration of Easter by Mennonites, both events which took place in the spring of 1942, this presentation forces us to address the reality of occupation: Mennonites benefitted from the racialized policies of the Nazis which victimized their Jewish neighbours.
  • By exploring cases of Ukrainians providing assistance to Jews in the province of Zaporizhia, this presentation also raised uncomfortable questions about why we find so few stories of Mennonites helping Jews during this period.