Hitler’s Mennonite Physicist

A Mennonite named Abraham Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.1 Esau’s activities contributed to Albert Einstein’s decision to warn US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that Hitler’s government was studying atomic chain reactions that might lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”2 The program Esau ran in the Third Reich constituted a prime justification for the United States’ secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons. After the war, the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee helped rehabilitate Esau, who in turn downplayed Mennonite involvement in Nazism. 

Abraham Esau, Mennonite physicist. One 1944 article described Esau as “a stocky man with a solid peasant’s skull,” the ideal of a Nazi scientist.

Abraham Esau was born in 1884 to a respected Mennonite family in eastern Prussia. His paternal grandfather was elder of the large Tiegenhagen congregation. He was raised by his father, a local bureaucrat.3 During Esau’s adolescence, Mennonites across Germany adopted nationalist ideals.4 Esau, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from the denomination’s new enthusiasm for higher education and military service. After receiving his doctorate in 1908, he performed noncombatant service as a radio physicist. He became involved in an ambitious state-sponsored project to confront British power by building a global wireless network to spread German news.5

Esau cut his teeth combining German expansionism with large-scale physics projects in colonial Africa. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he traveled to the German colony of Togo to install a massive radio station, which he subsequently destroyed in the face of invading French troops. French captivity deepened Esau’s nationalism, as did the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which gave much of his native Prussia to a new Polish state. In 1925, Esau joined the faculty at the University of Jena. There, he developed a physics research program. He discovered how to use radio waves for therapy, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and became university president. 

The rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 proved fortuitous for Esau. Joining the Nazi Party in May, he strengthened his presidency at Jena within the new political order. The governor of Thuringia appointed Esau a State Councilor, giving him access to powerful Nazi leaders. Meanwhile, his knowledge of radio physics made him valuable to the Propaganda Ministry, for which he served as an advisor. By the end of the decade, Esau had relocated to Berlin, where he headed the Reich Physical and Technical Institute. As a prominent science administrator with impeccable political credentials, Esau eagerly followed new discoveries in the field of high-energy atomic physics. 

The Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Telemark, Norway. This facility produced heavy water for the Third Reich while Abraham Esau ran the Nazi nuclear program in 1942 and 1943.

Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program briefly in 1939 and then again from March 1942 to the end of 1943.6 In April 1939, he organized a conference on nuclear chain reactions through the Reich Ministry of Education, where he announced plans to collect all uranium in Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September, Esau lost control to the Army Weapons Office, which grew the program during the next eighteen months. Upon determining that nuclear power would not arrive in time to help win the war, the Army relinquished oversight to the Reich Research Council, which Esau headed. He ran the project until falling from political favor. 

Unlike the US Manhattan Project, Esau’s nuclear program was geared toward industrial applications of atomic energy, not bomb production. Nuclear science was certainly big business in the Third Reich. Esau oversaw a budget in 1943 worth $1,200,000.7 But this was hundreds of times smaller than the Manhattan Project, whose total cost reached $2 billion. Anxious not to overpromise at a time when Nazi leaders sought “wonder weapons,” Esau deliberately refrained from discussing atomic bombs with his superiors. This was not for lack of military commitment, however, but rather an effort to keep crucial war funds from being wasted on long-term research. 

On January 1, 1944, Abraham Esau exchanged his title of “Plenipotentiary for Nuclear Physics” for “Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology.” Infighting within the atomic program had earned Esau the enmity of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Nevertheless, as Esau handed the atomic program to his successor, he could boast real victories, including the enrichment of uranium isotopes by means of a centrifuge, application of nuclear physics to biology and medicine, and success with particle accelerators. Esau remained in the good graces of Hermann Göring, head of the Air Force, who gave him control of radio matters.

Esau committed the war crimes for which he was eventually convicted not as a nuclear scientist but through his capacity as Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology. The Third Reich had contracted with an electronics company in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands called Philips to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for the war effort. In the autumn of 1944, as Allied forces advanced, Esau ordered an SS captain named Alfred Boettcher to evacuate equipment from Philips in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Nazi Germany. Boettcher transported goods valued around $28,000 on three large trucks across the border, engaging in war plunder. 

As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Abraham Esau was apprehended by a special team of American soldiers tasked with finding high-profile Nazi scientists and engineers. Like Albert Speer, the rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and others, Esau was interned and interrogated. In late 1946, Dutch state prosecutors requested that he be transferred to the Netherlands to be tried along with Alfred Boettcher for plundering the Philips electronics company. US officials, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun, agreed. Esau was sent to the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he remained in prison for eighteen months.8

Esau’s first contact with North American Mennonites came while he was in Dutch prison. After the Second World War, an aid organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built a robust relief presence in the Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe. This agency had a long history of transnational aid work, dating to the 1920s. It had briefly operated in the Third Reich and Vichy France between 1939 and 1942, until the United States entered the war. For several years, MCC concentrated on North American needs. But with the war’s end, it returned to Europe, where staff distributed food and clothing to those suffering in the wake of violence.9

Mennonite Central Committee recruited some personnel from congregations in Germany and the Netherlands, but its most influential staff were drawn from Canada and the United States. Two early members were Peter and Helene Goertz of Kansas. Peter Goertz was the academic dean of Bethel College, a Mennonite institution of higher education, from which he received leave to work in Europe with his wife during 1947 and 1948. Much of their activity concerned the 45,000 Mennonite refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the former Free City of Danzig who were then spread across postwar Europe. Their most unusual case was that of Abraham Esau.

Dutch schoolchildren were among thousands of Europeans to receive humanitarian aid after World War II from the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

After more than a year of imprisonment in the Netherlands, Esau had become desperate to leave. He wrote letters incessantly, seeking to connect with his former scientific colleagues and to find anyone who could help him achieve freedom. When Esau’s daughter, then living in northern Germany, discovered that a Mennonite Central Committee office had been established in Kiel, she explained her father’s plight and asked if MCC could help. The Kiel office wrote to MCC in Amsterdam, where Peter and Helen Goertz received the request.10 On February 25, 1948, Peter traveled two hours by train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he met with the imprisoned Esau.

Peter Goertz descried his encounter with Abraham Esau in correspondence to friends and family in Kansas. Goertz reported that upon arriving at the prison in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he spent twenty minutes speaking with the warden, who agreed to vacate his office so the two Mennonites could meet in private. They spoke for two hours. To Goertz’s eye, Esau had become a despondent man, in need of “spiritual uplift.” Esau’s demeanor seemed to brighten over the conversation, and he expressed his gratitude so fervently that Goertz himself felt moved. The experience left a deep impression. Back in Amsterdam, he wrote: “Such are rather exciting moments even for me.”11

Over the following months, Peter and Helene Goertz reportedly developed a real friendship with Esau, although from their correspondence, it is hard to escape the thought that the former Nazi scientist cynically played his Mennonite benefactors. Although Peter clearly knew of the charges against Esau, he nonetheless took the prisoner at his word, writing that he “was not a confirmed Nazi,” that he “had been forced to care for physics laboratories in the whole of Germany,” and that “he does not know why he is in prison.”12 Helene, like her husband, expressed awe for Esau’s academic record, describing him as “a great physicist from the German Mennonites.”13

The willingness of Peter and Helene Goertz to believe Esau’s claims of innocence was typical of Mennonite Central Committee’s treatment of other Mennonites from the former Third Reich. After touring several refugee camps, Peter wrote, “It is amazing to me how many of the men from the Danzig area, even among the Mennonites, joined the [Nazi] party.”14 Helene identified attitudes of racism and territorial irredentism among the same group.15 Yet neither they, their colleagues, nor MCC as a whole seem ever to have seriously questioned their project of helping fellow Mennonites. Denominational connections outweighed even known Nazi collaboration.

Abraham Esau received several more visits in prison from Peter Goertz, who along with Helene also visited Esau’s daughter in Germany. Peter supplied his imprisoned friend with scientific and religious reading materials. He charged at least one book on electromagnetism to the MCC relief fund.16 Esau was particularly pleased with another volume, The Story of the Mennonites by the US historian C. Henry Smith.17 Commenting that this book should be available to the tens of thousands of Mennonite refugees then scattered across Europe, Esau began translating the 800-page tome into German using pencils and notebooks that Peter Goertz brought from Amsterdam.

On April 27, 1948, a Dutch court in The Hague released Abraham Esau along with his colleague and fellow inmate Alfred Boettcher, the former SS captain, with no criminal conviction. Exactly why Esau and Boettcher were released is unclear. Possibly, one or more of the letters written by Esau and his daughter convinced someone powerful to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf. It is likely that Mennonite Central Committee played at least a minor role, if only by providing Esau with the ability to claim association with a well-known and respected relief agency. MCC at this time held remarkable legal clout with multiple Allied governments, including the Netherlands.

In any event, Esau and Boettcher immediately made their way, after leaving prison, to the MCC center in Amsterdam. Arriving on May 1, they stayed for nearly a month, until May 28, when the two men left for a camp on the Dutch border, eventually arriving back in Germany. While living in the MCC house, Esau and Boettcher became acquainted with many of the leading Mennonite relief workers in Europe, since they regularly passed through Amsterdam. Both visitors penned glowing thank-you notes. Boettcher was touched with the generosity of the MCC workers after his time in isolation, and he was glad to have learned more about Mennonite faith communities.18

Mennonite staff members working inside the Amsterdam MCC center where the former Nazi scientists Abraham Esau and Alfred Boettcher lived for several weeks in May 1948. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

Helene Goertz described the weeks Esau and Boettcher spent in Amsterdam in her letters. She referred to both men as “university professors” and considered them to be “proved innocent.” To Helene’s mind, Esau and Boettcher were victims of circumstances, who had nonetheless retained “their manners, their culture ways, and their sense of humor.”19 The former Nazis washed dishes, carried baggage, and enlivened the atmosphere. Both plied Helene with flowers and fresh fruit. “Prof. Esau has been more than generous since you are away,” Helene wrote to her traveling husband. “Twice while I was sick he sent up some luscious strawberries and once a peach!”20

MCC rendered aid to Abraham Esau on the basis of his Mennonite identity, yet it is unclear that Esau was a practicing Mennonite prior to his contact with Peter and Helene Goertz. He had married a Mennonite (since deceased) and retained other family connections, but I have seen no evidence of any religious contacts between Esau and active Mennonite congregations during the Third Reich. A Mennonite Address Book published in Germany in 1936 does not include Esau’s name, despite printing membership lists for all the congregations to which he would likely have belonged.21 One Nazi-era article referred to him simply as from an “ancient peasant family.”22

Yet Esau represented himself to his MCC friends as a good and faithful fellow Mennonite. He attended church in Amsterdam with Helene Goertz, and he used religious language in his letters to her husband. “I thank God, that He has led me into your house and your family,” Esau wrote to Peter Goertz after leaving Amsterdam. He even portrayed his scientific and administrative activities in the Third Reich as consistent with Christian faith, writing: “I will resume the task which God will give to me with the old energy and in the same manner as before.”23 And all the while, he continued translating The Story of the Mennonites, completing ten pages every day.

Esau had nearly finished his German version of The Story of the Mennonites when he departed the MCC center in May of 1948. He left his completed notebooks with Peter and Helene Goertz. Upon arriving at his daughter’s home in northern Germany, Esau finished the work, and he gave the last part of his translation to MCC workers in Kiel, who then brought this document to the Netherlands. Finally, in mid-1948, Peter and Helene Goertz carried the full manuscript with them back to Kansas, where they deposited it at the Bethel College library. They reported Esau’s own hope that his translation would prove “of some profit for Mennonite circles in the world.”24

At the same time Abraham Esau was reconnecting with his Mennonite heritage, he faced critique from his former scientific colleagues. In the early postwar years, German nuclear physicists formed a remarkably solid front against perceived intrusions by occupying Allied forces. They abandoned old internal disputes and helped one another launch new carriers in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. Esau was unusual in being largely dismissed by this group. Physicists like Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for describing quantum mechanics and had been Esau’s chief rival in the Nazi nuclear program, portrayed Esau as irredeemably tainted.25

Notably, it was the radio scientist Leo Brandt, not a nuclear physicist, who aided Esau’s reentry into Germany’s scientific culture. Brandt knew Esau from earlier radio research and now invited him to North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1949, Esau became a professor in Aachen and joined a new aeronautical research institute. Brandt also nominated Esau for West Germany’s highest federal service prize. But fellow scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner Max von Laue, intervened. Von Laue wrote that during the Nazi period, Esau cast himself as a “chief representative of National Socialism.” A former subordinate also testified that Esau had twice threatened to murder him.26

Upon his death in 1955, Abraham Esau left two remarkably distinct legacies. In the scientific world, he was remembered as an ardent Nazi, rejected after the war by many of his onetime friends. He was also a convicted war criminal, having been re-charged in absentia by a Dutch court and sentenced to time served for plundering the Philips company.27 By contrast, Esau was eulogized by prominent Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and the United States. In 1964, when Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites finally appeared in print, the foreword by Cornelius Krahn of Bethel College praised him as “a man of uncommon creative capacity.”28 

Abraham Esau’s handwritten translation of C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites. Esau began his translation while in Dutch prison and completed the work after his release. These notebooks are now held at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas.

The German edition of The Story of the Mennonites sanitized not only Abraham Esau’s past but the broader role of Mennonites in the Third Reich. MCC expressed interest in the manuscript as a means of catering “to our German constituency,” and the US Mennonite General Conference took charge of printing it.29 Cornelius Krahn assembled a team of six readers, including Esau and two other former Nazis, who proofed the typed chapters. These appeared in serialized form in a Canadian Mennonite newspaper beginning in 1951. The book’s final version included some additions, but it also entirely omitted a critical original chapter about the Third Reich.  

It is appropriate that Abraham Esau, arguably the most powerful Mennonite in the Third Reich, also helped spark—quite unintentionally—the first efforts to publicly reckon with the church’s entanglement with National Socialism. In the same year that Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites appeared, a young Mennonite named Hans-Jürgen Goertz received his doctorate in Germany on the history of radical theology. Goertz, who became a pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg, took issue with the book’s silence on the Third Reich. He translated the missing chapter and had it serialized in 1965 in a German-language denominational paper.30

Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s resurrection of the redacted chapter on Nazi Germany from The Story of the Mennonites helped ignite a slow-burning interrogation into the denomination’s troubled past. Run-ins with former Nazis as well as Goertz’s own ongoing interest in radical theology led to his landmark 1974 essay, “National Uprising and Religious Downfall,” which alleged that during the Third Reich, Germany’s Mennonites abandoned their principles for nationalism.31 This piece, which sparked still more debate and instigated the first book-length study of the denomination’s Nazi complicity, continues to inspire a process of research and response that is not yet complete.  

The story of Hitler’s Mennonite physicist illuminates much of the arc of Mennonite involvement in German nationalism from the late nineteenth century into the postwar era. Abraham Esau’s denominational background primed him to fuse academia with state militarism, allowing him to helm the Nazi nuclear program during the Second World War. Afterwards, the North American Mennonite Central Committee treated Esau, like thousands of other collaborators, as innocent and deserving of aid. Esau, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a model Mennonite, thereby erasing the stain of his war crimes. Being Mennonite suddenly mattered to Esau in an entirely new way. 

Mennonites in North America, Europe, and around the globe might reflect on this history of perpetration and denial. Why is it that European Mennonites like Esau found collaboration with Hitler’s genocidal regime so easy and desirable? How could North American Mennonites then so breezily cover for their coreligionists, without raising serious concerns about crimes they might have committed? Abraham Esau’s case may require special soul-searching, given his direct and significant role in the Nazi war machine, as well as his broader impact on the global rise of nuclear weapons. But he was also one among tens of thousands of Mennonite Nazi collaborators. 

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, to be released in paperback from Princeton University Press on May 28. 

The author thanks Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dieter Hoffmann, Bernd-A. Rusinek, Allan Teichroew, John Thiesen, Mark Walker, and Madeline Williams for their help with sources and interpretation. 


  1. The most complete biography of Esau is Dieter Hoffmann and Rüdiger Stutz, “Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager,” in ‘Kämpferische Wissenschaft’: Studien zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, and Rüdiger Stutz(Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003), 136-179.
  2. Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), 295. On the Manhattan Project, see Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  3. For works that consider Esau’s relationship to Mennonitism, see Horst Penner, “Abraham Esau: Der Große Physiker aus Tiegenhagen,” Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 14 (1974): 54-57; Horst Gerlach, “Abraham Esau: Ein Physiker und Pionier der Nachrichtentechnik,” Westpreußen-Jahrbuch 27 (1977): 57-66; Horst Gerlach, “Esau, Abraham Robert,” MennLex V, online.
  4. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18-95.
  5. See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 45-69.
  6. Information in this section is from Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-206; Kristie Mackrakis, Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162-186.
  7. Klaus Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1996), 321-322.
  8. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Deutsche und Niederländische Physiker,” paper given at the conference “Ambivalente Funktionäre: Zur Rolle von Funktionseliten im NS-System,” held November 9-10, 2001 in Osnabrück, Germany, online.
  9. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Taube und Hakenkreuz: Verhandlungen zwischen der NS-Regierung und dem MCC in Bezug auf die lateinamerikanischen Mennoniten,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 133-160; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-199.
  10. Helene Goertz to C. Henry Smith, September 24, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, hereafter MLA.
  11. Peter Goertz to Peter [Unknown], February 26, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  12. Peter Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  13. Helene to Family Members, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  14. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA. On MCC’s postwar refugee efforts, see also Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.
  15. Helene Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA.
  16. Peter Goertz to Dewey Yoder, April 15, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  17. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941).
  18. Alfred Boettcher to Helene Goertz, May 30, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  19. Helene Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, May 8, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  20. Helene Goertz to Peter Goertz, May 16, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  21. Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936).
  22. Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism, 324.
  23. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, June 17, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  24. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, July 1, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  25. Klaus Hentschel, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists 1945-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 96.
  26. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Leo Brandt: Ein Überblick,” in Leo Brandt (1908-1971): Ingenieur, Wissenschaftsförderer, Visionär, ed. Bernhard Mittermaier and Bernd-A. Rusinek (Jülich: Forschungszentrum Jülich, 2009), 22-23; Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Von der Entdeckung der NS-Vergangenheit zum generellen Faschismusverdacht: Akademische Diskurse in der Bundesrepublik der 60er Jahre,” in Dynamische Zeiten: Die 60er Jahre in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Axel Schildt, Detlef Siegfried, and Karl Christian Lammers (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000), 120.
  27. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Schwerte/Schneider: Die Karriere eines Spagatakteurs 1936-1995,” in Der Fall Schwerte im Kontext, ed. Helmut König (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1998),44-45.
  28. C. Henry Smith, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Europas, trans. Abraham Esau (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), Einleitung.
  29.  Orie Miller to Cornelius Krahn, October 6, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  30. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Umwegen zwischen Kanzel und Katheder: Autobiographische Fragmente (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018): 70.
  31. Goertz’s original essay is reprinted with commentary in Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 11-38. For historiographical context, see John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism,” 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.

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

30070588_4513091624056_1542572105_o

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.

Why collect a Nazi flag?: Kauffman Museum’s Role in Confronting Our Past

Renae Stucky, Kauffman Museum, Collections Manager

In November 2016, a donor approached Kauffman Museum at Bethel College with the offer of this Nazi flag for consideration for donation. The flag belonged to the donor’s father who traveled to do relief work in Europe following WWII. The young Mennonite volunteered as a “Seagoing Cowboy” helping tend and deliver livestock being transported to war-torn countries by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Heifer Project. The donor believes that the flag was given to his father by a man he befriended during his time in Germany.

Nazi Case-bell-wagon-0397-144dpi

While the flag has Mennonite connections, usually a decisive factor in the museum’s collections policy, its Nazi connections made it a controversial case. The decision about whether or not to accept the object evoked many questions. What would it mean to have the flag in our collection? Would accessioning the item show insensitivity to those who suffered under the Nazi regime? Or could we use the flag to expose and confront this difficult history? What role did the flag play in our mission to tell the Mennonite story?

Due to the controversial nature of the artifact, the flag was brought to the full Kauffman Museum board for consideration and discussion. Members of the board, staff, and Bethel College history faculty were invited to offer their expertise and insight to the conversation. A variety of viewpoints were presented. In preliminary correspondence, the potential donor of the flag asserted that if there was no interest in the artifact by an historical institution he would likely destroy it ceremoniously in memory of those who perished. The members of the history faculty acknowledged the sensitivity of the object, however they ultimately agreed that “there are more constructive ways” of dealing with troubling historical topics if used or displayed in the “appropriate interpretative context.”

After much discussion among the board about the flag’s Mennonite connections, the importance of not denying “painful history” and the need to address recent scholarship related to Mennonites and the Holocaust the board voted unanimously to accept the artifact into the museum’s permanent collection.

The flag was officially accessioned at the end of 2017 with the understanding that it would be used to acknowledge the difficult history surrounding the symbol, and to confront hate rather than celebrate it.

In conjuncture with the recent conference “Mennonites and the Holocaust” held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, the flag was displayed across the street at Kauffman Museum along with several other Nazi artifacts from the museum’s collection (including artifacts brought to the United States from Mennonite colonies in South America.) The artifacts were displayed in a tall narrow case with the flag as a backdrop to a Luftwaffe dagger, an iron cross medal, and a commemorative pin from the Nazi era, and a copy of Mein Kampf. Accompanying the artifacts was interpretive text explaining the museum’s thoughtful consideration and acceptance of these Nazi artifacts, specially the flag, entitled “Why collect a Nazi flag?”

Why would Kauffman Museum collect a Nazi flag? In the same way that the conference continued the conversation about Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust, a museum has a unique opportunity to use artifacts, like this flag and others objects like it, as a catalyst for conversation about historical and current topics. We talk about these difficult issues, and display these controversial symbols, in order to confront the troubling parts of our past. If we ignore or destroy evidence of our misdeeds we risk forgetting them, letting them gather dust in the dim corners of our memory—or in this case our storage space.  However if we literally, put them on display for all to see, we are forced to come face-to-face with the reality of our past, which could change our future.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Film Screening of Friesennot

Frisians in Peril, 1935

The final event on Friday, March 16, at the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference was an evening screening of the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Friesennot, which in English translates to “Frisians in Peril.” Professor of History Mark Jantzen of Bethel College, one of the conference organizers, introduced the film. Jantzen had requested permission to screen the film from the German Federal Film Archive, and he organized English-language subtitles of the German and Russian dialogue. This was the first public screening of Friesennot in the United States since 1936 and its world premiere with English subtitles.

Friesennot was one of several films featuring Mennonite themes promoted by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. Of these, Friesennot most explicitly depicts Mennonite characters—although even here, the protagonists are referred to not according to their religion but with to the racial term “Frisian.” The film’s plot follows a small Mennonite colony along the Volga in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While the Mennonite inhabitants are portrayed as quintessential Germans, the film depicts communists who arrive in their colony as Semitic brutes, who oppress the blond “Aryan” farmers.

The moral dilemma of Friesennot concerns the Mennonites’ pacifism. While the Bolsheviks steal horses and molest women, the Mennonite elder cautions his congregants to turn the other cheek. Continued abuses by the communists prove this foolhardy, however, and eventually the men of the colony take up arms. One evening while the Bolsheviks are inebriated, the Mennonite militia surprises them in the church building—which has been turned into a drinking hall—slaughtering everyone inside. In the final scene, the colonists pack their belongings and depart for a new homeland.

Refugees, 1933

Nazi filmmakers had become interested in Mennonites following an international crisis in 1929 and 1930 when thousands of refugees fled the Soviet Union, arriving both in Germany and in northern China. This event captured German public attention, inspiring extensive newspaper coverage as well as several novels. In 1933, the first film in the Third Reich to win the Propaganda Ministry’s State Film Prize—entitled Flüchtlinge, meaning “Refugees” in English—followed the fate of German-speaking colonists who escaped from the Soviet Union to China.

Homecoming 1940

During the Second World War, Nazi films with Mennonite themes became tied to ethnic cleansing. In 1940, a film called Heimkehr, meaning “Homecoming,” valorized National Socialist programs to resettle hundreds of thousands of German speakers—including Mennonites—from across Europe to occupied Poland, where they were supposed to “Germanize” land previously held by Poles or Jews. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Propaganda Ministry also re-released Flüchtlinge and Friesennot—retitled Dorf im roten Sturm, meaning “Village in the Red Storm.”

Following the film screening on Friday, discussants noted the various ways that Friesennot contributed to Nazi programs of anti-Semitism before and during the Second World War. Originally produced in 1935, the film coincided with the re-introduction of German military service as well as the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping Jews of citizenship and targeting sexual relations between Germans and Jews—a topic of contention in the film. When re-released during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Friesennot helped generate support for the Nazi war effort and stirred up anti-Semitism at the same time that death squads were initiating the Holocaust.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Conference Opening and Session One

Bethel College

Over two hundred participants gathered today for the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference, held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Bethel President Jon Gering welcomed the assembly for a packed day to discuss challenging topics. Conference co-organizer John Thiesen offered some brief background, noting that this is the third conference in a series dedicated to interrogating the history of Mennonites’ relationship to National Socialism. The first event, which focused on Mennonites and Nazism in Germany, took place in Münster, Germany, in 2015. The second, held in Filadelfia, Paraguay, dealt with the history of Mennonites and Nazism in Latin America. A fourth conference on the topic of “Reading the Bible after the Holocaust” is being planned for the spring of 2020 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Seeds planted by this multi-year international dialogue across and beyond the Mennonite church bore fruit today. Many speakers at this “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference had been present at previous events and made reference to work produced by colleagues in those contexts. Presenters hail from five countries—Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Ukraine, and the United States—and attendees have arrived from across North America. Because this event is sponsored by seven church and educational organizations, discussions have engaged participants with diverse interests and expertise, transcending disciplinary, professional, and faith boundaries. Topics addressed this weekend include: Mennonite-Jewish relations, theology and anti-Semitism, war crimes, postwar refugee experiences, memory, and literature.

Numerous participants expressed gratitude that this event is being held publicly and with formal church sponsorship. The fact that such a conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust is occurring only now in 2018 also highlights, however, the enormous opposition—official or otherwise—that this topic has faced from within the Mennonite community over the past seventy years. In that regard, the current conference is also an imperfect vessel, with many of us still learning how to appropriately, respectfully navigate the best ways to talk and learn about Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust. Today included an impromptu teach-in from a Jewish individual, whose own family had suffered during the Holocaust, who critiqued audience members for laughing at inappropriate moments and encouraged Mennonites to keep the victims of Nazism—not themselves—at the forefront of their minds when talking about anti-Semitic atrocities.

The conference will continue tomorrow with further presentations—and the progress set in motion here will also continue for many months afterward via further dialogue, research, and publications. Here at Anabaptist Historians, we are pleased to be providing full coverage of this groundbreaking event. Be sure to watch this site over the next days and weeks for updates, including new posts with panel summaries, narrative reports, and participant reflections.

Panel Summary

Session One: Pre-War Denominational and Organizational Themes

“Anti-Semitism and the Concept of ’Volk’: The Mennonite Youth Circular Community at the Beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship”
Imanuel Baumann, Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg

  • In the first paper of the conference, Imanuel Baumann provided an analysis of round robin letters circulated between Mennonite youth groups in Germany at the start of the Third Reich. Participants included men and women and were of diverse backgrounds.
  • The concept of “Gemeinschaft,” meaning community, helped provide a bridge to Nazism for many of the writers, who since the 1920s often sought a strong sense of belonging. Nazis aimed to provide this desire for coherence with a new specifically “racial” community.
  • Within the circular letters, anti-Semitic measures in the Third Reich mostly drew silence or positive assessments. Even in cases where Mennonite writers opposed these acts, they only condemned Nazi focus on race as an idol, without questioning racial logics as such.

“Mennonite Scholarship in the Third Reich: From Knowledge Production to Genocide”
Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My paper examined the writings of a small but influential cohort of Third Reich academics who produced hundreds of books and articles about Mennonites, often praising members of the denomination as possessing unusual German racial purity
  • These mostly non-Mennonite scholars developed interest in the denomination in the context of a 1929 refugee crisis in the Soviet Union. The temporary “return” of thousands of Soviet Mennonites to Germany generated major public and official interest
  • Nearly all leading Nazi scholars of Mennonitism went on to participate in ethnic cleansing during the Second World War, often deploying concepts they had developed when conducting racial studies on Mennonites to help segregate Germans from non-Germans

“An Illusion of Freedom: Denominationalism, German Mennonites, and Nazi Germany”
Jim Lichti, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles

  • Drawing on his 2008 book, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany, Jim Lichti discussed the legal and administrative structures of Mennonites in the Third Reich, comparing them with Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists.
  • Mennonites in Nazi Germany identified as members of a “Free Church.” This term could be contrasted with Protestant or Catholic “state churches” as well as with the word “sect,” which was an undesirable designation in the Third Reich.
  • Religious opposition to Nazism more often came from state churches, since Free Churches welcomed Nazi emphasis on separation of church and state. They often also supported Nazi anti-Bolshevism, of particular interest to Mennonites with relatives in the Soviet Union.

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.

18143152_4019163316157_1560960504_n

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

image001

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).