State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979

Tobin Miller Shearer

In 1955, white Mennonite church periodical editor Paul Erb wrote, “Perhaps in nothing have our Mennonite people so completely conformed themselves to a worldly idea as in this.”1 He was not referring to dancing, watching movies, cutting hair (women’s! – not men’s), wearing wedding rings, or any of the other worldly pursuits deemed anathema by Mennonite church leaders at the time. He was referring to racial discrimination and segregation.

He did so on the occasion of the release of the 1955 Mennonite uber race relations statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” That carefully vetted document, largely a result of the wordsmithing provided by Guy F. Hershberger and Grant M. Stoltzfus, called the Mennonite Church community to repent of the sin of racism and embark on a “ministry of reconciliation” by working “against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”2

The 1955 document was one in a series of twenty-two race-focused statements that Mennonite bodies in the United States released between 1940 and 1976.3 By far the most high-profile of any of those statements, it was not the boldest, the most challenging, or the most theologically sophisticated of that set of twenty-two pronouncements. It was, however, the touchstone that statements for the next twenty-years – and beyond – referred back to and built upon.

Yet I am less interested in the impact of that particular statement than I am in the context of all but two of the twenty-two statements issued by Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren. For the three and half decades here examined, written statements about race by U.S. Mennonites were prompted by external political forces and almost exclusively a project of white men. Not once in any of those twenty-two statements did the white male authors identify, name, or evaluate their own racial identity. As a result, I will argue that, with one exception, these statements failed to address the underlying problem of white domination and supremacy in the church.

The story that I am focusing on begins not with the oft-touted 1688 Germantown anti-slavery statement because, as I have argued elsewhere, it was a document written to a Quaker assembly by practicing Quakers. It simply wasn’t a Mennonite document in terms of audience, sensibility, or authorship.4 Instead the story begins with the 1940 Virginia Conference statement that mandated racial segregation in church sacraments such as communion, footwashing, and the Holy Kiss.5

That 1940 statement – like only one other of the twenty-two I have documented – was released primarily in response to dynamics internal to the Mennonite community. In essence, the workers at Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had in their bishops’ eyes become too racially progressive. As a result, the Virginia bishops reigned them in by segregating the sacraments.6 When Broad Street leaders Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber resisted that racist doctrine, the bishops dismissed the couple from their posts.7

To be certain, the Virginia bishops also passed the segregation mandate in hopes of placating the critics who called into question their patriotism as a result of the Mennonites’ refusal to bear arms in the midst of World War II. By making the decision to conform to segregationist practices, Virginia Mennonites could at least demonstrate they were willing to cooperate with the dictates of a racially segregated and white supremacist society.

The first record I can find of a Mennonite group issuing a statement challenging racism – as opposed to instituting segregation – was a 1948 statement by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference in which they declared their opposition to “prejudices and discrimination against minority groups.”8 In keeping with broader national trends, few white majority Protestant groups issued any statements against racism until after the Federal Council of Churches issued their declaration of the same in 1946. In that year the FCC declared that “the pattern of segregation in race relations is unnecessary and undesirable and a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood.”9

Prior to the 1955 Mennonite church statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the previous year’s Supreme Court Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, a study group meeting at Laurelville Mennonite retreat center in 1951 had released a general statement on Christian Community Relations that included a short section calling for action against “racial discrimination.”10 That same year, Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishops C. K. Lehman, J. Paul Graybill, and Amos Horst were tasked with drafting a statement on “racialism,” but the Bishop board failed to act upon or promote the “tentative statements” developed by the three bishops.11

The 1955 statement deserves its reputation as the principal document that defined the parameters of Mennonite theology and practice in response to – employing the language of the day – “race relations.” In addition to reviewing the biblical texts supporting racial unity, the statement declared racial prejudice and discrimination a sin, confessed complicity in that sin, and called for full integration of all congregations and church institutions, robust teaching on the evils of racial discrimination, and a “ministry of reconciliation” focused on correcting “the evils of racial intolerance within our society.”12

That same year Bluffton College in Ohio released a statement encouraging racial integration and advising students to carefully consider the “potential richness” and “painful consequences” of interracial marriage, a topic that received frequent and near universal attention by white people at that time.13

List of Twenty-Two Race-Focused Statements by Mennonites – 1940-1979

  1. 1940 Virginia Conference segregation statement
  2. 1948 Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference statement on race
  3. 1951 Laurelville Study Conference on Christian Community Relations
  4. 1951 Lancaster Conference Bishop board statement on race (limited action)
  5. 1955 Mennonite Church statement on race – The Way of Christian love in Race Relations
  6. 1955 Bluffton College Statement on race
  7. 1959 General Conference Mennonites: A Christian Declaration on Race Relations
  8. 1960 Lancaster Conference Statement on Race Relations
  9. 1961 The Christian In Race Relations Statement/Paper
  10. 1963 Mennonite General Conference statement on Reconciliation
  11. 1963 Mennonite Brethren Statement on Race and Baptism
  12. 1963 IN-MI statement on race Relations
  13. 1964 MCC Statement from Words to Deeds in Race Relations
  14. 1964 EMC Faculty Statement on Race Relations
  15. 1964 MCC Peace Section statement on race discrimination and human rights
  16. 1964 Virginia Conference Statement on Race Relations
  17. 1967 Virginia Conference statement overturning segregation
  18. 1969 Mennonite Church General Conference Statement on Urban-Racial Concerns
  19. 1969 Lancaster Conference Statement on the Black Manifesto
  20. 1971 Minority Ministries Council Statement to the Mennonite Church
  21. 1971 Lancaster Conference Statement on Racism
  22. 1976 Liberty and Justice Workshop statement

The 1960s then erupted with a host of statements – more than half of the total examined here – in response to national events and presidential prompting. In keeping with the efforts spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to gain passage of a civil rights bill and President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, civil rights address, white church leaders across the country – not just white Mennonites – issued race-focused statements and developed new race relations programs.14 In 1963 and 1964 alone, Mennonites generated seven official statements including denomination-level pronouncements by the General Conferences of the Mennonite and the Mennonite Brethren churches. In addition the faculty at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, released a statement against the “evils of racial discrimination” in 1964, the same year that Virginia Conference called for full integration of all their institutions.15 Yet they did not at that time address their existing mandate to segregate the sacraments. They would not overturn those segregationist dictates until three later when they did so in 1967.16

Through the end of the 1960s, all of the statements generated by Mennonites had been in direct response to national events or political promptings. Although the correspondence around those statements and the articles and letters to the editor that filled that pages of church periodicals in those years of racial tumult and unrest pointed to much hand wringing and genuine discomfort on the part of the white Mennonites who wanted to do better, this set of race-focused declarations consistently shied away from naming the racial make-up of the church itself. In short, none of the statements up through the 1960s specifically talked about the problem of racism as a white issue for which white people needed to take responsibility.

In contrast to the relative silence of Mennonites about white involvement in racism, others outside the church did name white responsibility for racism. White civil rights leaders and activists like Anne Braden, Juliette Morgan, Will Campbell, Clarence Jordan, and many others had long been calling white people to recognize the particular role they played in perpetuating a racist society. In the Mennonite community, African-American minister and civil rights activist Vincent Harding famously challenged white Mennonites in 1967 to confront “the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness.”17 Yet, the vast majority of the statements authored and released by white Mennonites rendered their own racial identities invisible and therefore unexamined.

Members of the Minority Ministries Council

It was not until 1971 that a statement emerged directly engaging with racial identities in the church. The Minority Ministries Council, then only three years old, released a statement to the Mennonite Church in which they confronted “our white Christian brothers” for not accepting them “on their terms” but instead demanding that they deny their “cultures and backgrounds” in order to become assimilated into “the main stream of white America.” They confessed that they had “accepted a ‘false kind of integration’ in which all power remained in the hands of white brothers” (the repeated male reference is notable here as well). They concluded by committing themselves to speak honestly to their “white Mennonite brothers” while seeking to develop “indigenous congregations” in which they would be the “generals” and white people the “foot soldiers.”18

In far more specific and unapologetic ways than any of the statements up to that point, this 1971 statement named the racial dynamics of the church, called for authentic engagement across racial lines, and introduced – for the first time in an official statement – voices from communities of color writing as Mennonites to their co-religionists. Although limited by the idioms and practices of patriarchy and sexism, the document did what none of the previous statements had done before. It called attention to what Paul Erb had noted back in 1955, that white Mennonites had “completely conformed themselves” to the “worldly” identity of white people. Only a direct and unapologetic wrestling with that kind of conformity would move the church forward to a more authentic anti-racist identity.

I have documented two other statements in the 1970s. One was a new statement by Lancaster Conference also released in 1971 that echoed much of the conference’s previous position paper while introducing the language of “racism” for the first time. The second one was released in 1976 by participants at a Race and Reconciliation conference in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action. This was the only one of the twenty-two statements documented here to have included women in the development of the statement; in this case Lois Leidig of Canton, Ohio, and Bev Lord of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were two of twelve signatories. Yet, neither of these two additional statements named white people or reflected on the identities of those drafting the documents.

To date, I have been unable to locate any race-focused statements by Mennonite groups in the following decade and a half through 1988.19In 1989, a joint statement by the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church entitled “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism” did take on racism directly, but again the drafters did not see fit to focus their attention on white people or name them directly.20

This tabulation of Mennonite statements on race is not intended to suggest that the passing of statements is a futile exercise. We have many historical examples of faith-based statements igniting action, changing minds, and re-directing resources.

Rather this essay argues that Mennonites have had a particular history of putting pen to paper and declaring their position on “race relations.” At key junctures, the passage of those statements challenged racial discrimination both within and without the church community. But by failing to address white people as white people, those statements fostered more assimilation than they did anti-racism.21 By demanding that African Americans, Native Americans, Latinex, and Asian American members of the Mennonite church become like white people to become Mennonite, those statements did little to change the nature, structures, and power relations within the church itself.

I await with eagerness for the day when white people in the Mennonite church will truly reckon with our conformity to whiteness. I expect that a statement may assist in that work, but the true mark of movement forward will be lived out in the collective action of white Mennonites to dismantle racism both within and without the church.


  1. Paul Erb, “Nonconformity in Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, June 7, 1955, 531.
  2. Mennonite General Conference, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” (Hesston, Kans.: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).
  3. I have been able to document twenty-two such statements. I invite amendments and additions from readers who are aware of additional statements other than those listed at the end of this article. If you know of other race-focused statements issued by Mennonite groups between 1940 and 19990, please contact me at tobin.shearer@umontana.edu.
  4. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 255.
  5. “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940).
  6. Shearer, 36-37.
  7. Ibid., 42-43.
  8. Ibid., 269.
  9. Ibid., 357-58.
  10. “Statement of Concerns of the Study Conference on Christian Community Relations,” (Laurelville, Pa., 1951).
  11. “Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes,” (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference, 1951).
  12. Conference, “The Way of Christian Love.”
  13. “Attitude of Bluffton College on Relationships between Races on the Campus,” (Bluffton, Ohio: Bluffton College, 1955).
  14. “Churches Respond to Race,” The Mennonite, August 6, 1963.
  15. “E.M.C. Faculty Statement on Racial Discrimination,” Gospel Herald, January 14 1964; Guy F. Hershberger, “Executive Secretary’s Report,” (Goshen, Ind.: Committee on Economic and Social Relations, 1965).
  16. “Minutes Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting Virginia Mennonite Conference,” in Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference Including Historical Introduction, Statistical Section with Data on Conference Members and Her Official Statement of Christian Fundamentals (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1967).
  17. Vincent Harding, “Voices of Revolution,” The Mennonite, October 3, 1967.
  18. “Minority Statement to Mennonite Church,” (Elkhart, Ind.: Minority Ministries Council, 1971).
  19. As noted above, I would invite readers to alert me to any statements not named here.
  20. http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/1989-racism (accessed October 2, 2019).
  21. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), 2.

Mennonites and the Waffen-SS

Recent scholarship has illuminated the hitherto little-known involvement of Mennonites in the perpetration of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews and other atrocities committed during the Second World War. While historians have begun to describe the overall shape of Mennonite participation in war crimes, and although numerous individual stories continue to come to light, the details of how specific Mennonite communities interacted with many of the Nazi state’s killing operations have yet to be clarified. This essay offers one possible model for such studies. It examines the involvement of Mennonites in the Waffen-SS, particularly the activities of a cavalry regiment totaling about 700 men in the Halbstadt colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.1

Nazi occupiers in Ukraine organized local German-speaking Mennonites, such as those pictured here, into several kinds of military and paramilitary formations during the Second World War. The large Halbstadt colony was unusual in acquiring its own Waffen-SS regiment. Source: Harry Loewen, ed, Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchner, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2000), 106. [Caption edited 6/22/2019]

Mennonites in Germany had participated in the SS well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Some rose in the ranks, thus holding leadership positions as the Holocaust and other war atrocities began. Jakob Wiens, an agricultural office assistant in Tiegenhof, for instance, joined the SS in 1932. Wiens transferred to the Waffen-SS when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and in 1941 he headed a requisitions group in Tarnow as local Jews were forced into a ghetto. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Wiens managed a center for clothing distribution in Dnipropetrovsk, likewise a site of expropriation and murder.2 Once in Ukraine, Waffen-SS members like Wiens often came into contact with the region’s large German-speaking Mennonite population. One SS-Hautpsturmführer, Günther Fieguth, published a feature article in the newspaper Danziger Vorposten about such encounters. In addition to recognizing common surnames and making genealogical connections, Fieguth lauded the Third Reich for aiding local Mennonites “to once again stimulate the blossoming racial life of this German population.”3

Nazi Germany’s military expansion into Eastern Europe presaged enormous recruitment efforts for the Waffen-SS. The organization had begun in 1933 as the armed branch of the SS, an elite core of soldiers who served as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard. The Waffen-SS was marked by its militancy and loyalty to the Führer, including perpetration of a violent purge of the rival SA in 1934. With the outbreak of war at the end of the decade and access to populations in Eastern Europe, the Waffen-SS radically expanded. The occupied territories ultimately supplied more than half of the nearly one million men who served in the Waffen-SS at its height.4 Recruiters opened their ranks to men of a variety of perceived racial backgrounds, but they favored people they considered to be German, even if they did not yet possess German citizenship. Such individuals were known within Nazi racial terminology as “ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche).

Hitler intended “ethnic Germans” to be treated as a master race in Eastern Europe. One directive to occupational authorities read:

When girls and women of the occupied Eastern territories abort their children, then that can only benefit us. . . . since we have absolutely no interest in the growth of the non-German population. . . . Therefore also under no condition should German healthcare measures be provided to the non-German population in the occupied Eastern territories . . . . In no way may the non-German population receive advanced education . . . . Under no circumstances will the Russian (Ukrainian) cities be improved or even beautified, since the population should not reach a higher level, and the Germans will live in new cities and towns to be built later, from which the Russian (Ukrainian) population will be strictly prohibited. 5

The Waffen-SS counted among the numerous Nazi organizations charged with achieving this vision. In 1941, Himmler formed an SS Cavalry Brigade for deployment in Belorussia and northern Ukraine. Jews and others considered racially inferior were marked for immediate destruction: “If the population, treated on a national basis, is composed of hostile, racial and bodily inferior criminals… then all who are implicated in helping partisans are to be shot; women and children are to be deported; livestock and food are to be requisitioned and brought to safety. The villages are to be burned to the ground.”6 This SS Cavalry Brigade engaged in the mass execution of Jews, helping initiate the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust in the East.7

The Halbstadt colony (formerly known as Molotschna) comprised the largest settlement of German-speaking Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Halbstadt was in the war zone from the 1941 invasion until September 1942, when it became incorporated into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. This map shows the borders from November 1942, when the Nazi empire was at its height. The blue line approximates the trek route taken by residents of Halbstadt to Poland in 1943 and 1944, accompanied in part by the colony’s Waffen-SS regiment.

While Ukraine’s Mennonites entered the Waffen-SS in various ways, the most notable induction occurred in the largest Mennonite colony of Molotschna, renamed Halbstadt by the occupying forces. During the first year of German occupation, Halbstadt remained located in the war zone and thus fell under SS administration rather than under civil jurisdiction of the new Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, tasked a group called Special Commando R (“R” for Russia) with overseeing “ethnic German” affairs in areas conquered from the Soviet Union, including Halbstadt. Although Special Commando R’s main objective was to provide welfare to local “ethnic Germans,” its instructions as part of Himmler’s Ethnic German Office included cooperation with the mobile SS killing units known as the Einsatzkommandos.8 Through this partnership, Special Commando R and its “ethnic German” associates participated in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews and other victims across Eastern Europe.

Ukraine’s approximately 35,000 Mennonites comprised slightly more than ten percent of the 313,000 “ethnic Germans” that Nazi occupiers counted in German-occupied Ukraine, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and the nearby war zone.9 Around 25,000 “ethnic Germans,” of which a majority were Mennonites, lived in the more than ninety villages of the Halbstadt colony. Special Commando R reported that to a higher degree than in more western regions, “the German settlements of Mennonites on the Molotschna [River] and in the Gruanu area (Mariupol) have been evacuated and destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”10 Communist authorities had deported around half of Halbstadt’s residents beyond Soviet lines on the eve of the German invasion. Less than a third of remaining adult “ethnic Germans” were male. Special Commando R began organizing 1,200 of the colony’s men and boys into paramilitary “Self Defense” units, a practice typical within German-speaking settlements across Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.11

The first steps toward the induction of Halbstadt Mennonites into the Waffen-SS began in the context of jurisdictional disputes between the German Army and the SS. The Army had been recruiting local Mennonites to serve as translators for its operations against the Red Army on the nearby Eastern front. Then, in early March 1942, the head of a Tank Group, Ewald von Kleist, ordered the formation of three “ethnic German” cavalry units (Reiterschwadronen). These were to be used as guards in the Halbstadt area, and weapons and uniforms were provided by the Army.12 A Mennonite named Jacob Reimer, then a teenager, later recalled that the mayor of his village had called a meeting of all men of fighting age and requested volunteers. “The principle of non-resistance was forgotten,” Reimer wrote after the war, “and the men felt it their duty to assist in the struggle against the fearful oppression we had been subjected to for so long.”13

Special Commando R informed Heinrich Himmler of the Army’s intrusion into the affairs of its subsidiary, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt, which was responsible for administering the colony. Himmler, who styled himself the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Race, was eager to cement SS control in Halbstadt. He forbade the new cavalry units from being taken out of the area, emphasizing: “They are not under Army jurisdiction.”14 At Himmler’s instruction, the soldiers were placed under the jurisdiction of SS-Obergruppenführer Hans-Adolf Prützmann, who oversaw police and anti-guerilla activities across Ukraine and south Russia. While the regiment remained a standard “Self Defense” force for several months, it was reorganized within the Order Police in late 1942 and joined the Waffen-SS in early 1943, receiving new commanders and uniforms.15

Himmler broadly intended the region’s “ethnic Germans” to be involved directly in Nazi Germanization and ethnic cleansing efforts. Potential rivals were informed: “The Germans in the East are to take up arms as a totality. They are to be aids to the police.”16 Military trainers belonging to the Waffen-SS provided intensive education to the Halbstadt regiment.17 The Mennonite Jacob Reimer reported that his cavalry training consisted of technical drills, such as horse and weapons handling, as well as anti-Semitic propaganda and other ideological content. One high-level directive for training “ethnic German” cavalry soldiers for service with the Waffen-SS explained that the goal of such instruction was “to free the ethnic Germans from spiritual burdens and disappointments and to educate them into good comrades and uncompromising fighters.”18 In practice, this meant a willingness to kill unarmed victims.

The Halbstadt regiment’s exact activities require additional inquiry. The soldiers’ duties are known to have included protecting the colony from robbery, military deserters, and general unrest, as well as guarding bridges, roads, and train lines against sabotage. Members also supervised the construction of military installations, such as new barracks for themselves in Tokmak, likely using forced labor. Available sources do not indicate the extent to which the regiment may have engaged, like other “ethnic German” cavalry units, in the liquidation of Jews or Red Army prisoners outside the colony. SS task forces had already murdered 36 Jews in Halbstadt prior to the regiment’s formation. But cavalry members were expected to kill any Jews remaining in the colony or encountered elsewhere. On at least one occasion, the soldiers willingly did so.19 They may also have participated in the murder of 81 Roma.20

The regiment was certainly involved in extensive warfare against so-called partisans. These “partisans” may have included armed bands who opposed the German occupation, but records of anti-partisan campaigns conducted by the SS include murder tallies of tens of thousands of unarmed men, women, and children. The first months of the Halbstadt units’ operation coincided with the initiation of a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in nearby Crimea, which the Nazis eventually planned to incorporate into a new German province. Hitler ordered the deportation of Russians and Ukrainians from the peninsula as well as the murder of all people considered racially or politically dangerous.21 Fueled by violence in Crimea and elsewhere in the region, southern Ukraine remained an area of anti-partisan activities until December 1942.22

Halbstadt’s “ethnic German” cavalry regiment and other members of the colony gathered to celebrate the visit of Heinrich Himmler in late 1942. Source: Horst Gerlach, “Mennonites, the Molotschna, and the Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle in the Second World War,” Mennonite Life 41, no. 3 (1986): 7.

Jurisdictional clashes between the SS and Nazi civil authorities erupted in September 1942 as the Reich Commissariat Ukraine expanded to include Halbstadt and surrounding areas. Erich Koch, the governor of the newly enlarged wartime province, sought control over police activities, putting him into conflict with the SS leader Hans-Adolf Prützmann.23 Koch expressed concern over the application of collective punishment to whole villages in retribution for partisan attacks. Koch and Prützmann met for a tense discussion. During the encounter, Koch tried to bend Prützmann’s troops to his authority, while Prützmann insisted that he was answerable directly to Himmler.24 Himmler, then in Italy, took Prützmann’s side in a letter to Koch, and he promised to look into the matter shortly.25 Upon return to the region, Himmler traveled with Prützmann through Crimea and southern Ukraine, including a visit to Halbstadt on October 31 and November 1, where they inspected the “ethnic German” cavalry units.26

During late 1942 and early 1943, members of the Halbstadt regiment traveled into the war zone for operations far from the colony. One unit was reportedly decimated in anti-partisan actions in the Don area.27 Others may have aided the transportation of fellow “ethnic Germans” from Donbass, Caucasus, and Kalmykia. More than 3,000 German speakers from the eastern settlements of Mariupol, Grunau, and Kharkiv had already been relocated to Halbstadt.28 The SS planned to bring thousands more from the war zone, accommodating newcomers through the expulsion of local Ukrainians.29 From January through mid-March of 1943, Einsatzgruppe Halbstadt moved nearly 10,000 “ethnic Germans.” Battle losses on the Eastern Front changed SS plans, however, and most refugees were sent on to Poland rather than settled in Ukraine. That 2,500 fled back into the war zone hints at the violence of even allegedly humanitarian actions.30

Mennonite men in Ukraine continued to be inducted into the Waffen-SS during 1943. The Eastern Front’s deteriorating state and ongoing atrocities behind German lines had fueled local opposition to the occupation, and in June, authorities once again declared southern Ukraine to be a zone of major partisan activity.31 Two months later, Himmler ordered the recruitment of 1,200 men from Halbstadt and the non-Mennonite Hegewald colony.32 In part, this reflected Himmler’s desire to keep fighting-aged “ethnic Germans” from being conscripted into the Army after its defeat at Stalingrad.33 He intended new recruits to form a regiment with a cornflower as its insignia within the SS Cavalry Division (recently expanded from the SS Cavalry Brigade), still engaged in murder to the north. By September, this division moved to southern Ukraine, where it joined the German retreat to the Dnieper River, near the largest Mennonite colonies.

Although the trek of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” from Ukraine to Poland in 1943 has been remembered as a movement of mostly women and children, Mennonite men in the Waffen-SS and other armed units accompanied the refugees, participating in acts of violence along the way. Source: Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 120.

The Nazi military continued its halting retreat into the Reich Commissariat Ukraine as Stalin’s Red Army pushed westward. Rather than allowing Mennonites and other alleged Aryans to fall back into Soviet hands, the SS planned to move all “ethnic Germans” west into zones of safety. In September 1943, occupiers relocated 67,000 “ethnic Germans” west of the Dnieper River. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment assisted in transferring their colony’s 28,500 residents beginning on September 12.34 Traveling by train and in wagon treks comprising between 4,000 and 8,000 people, they were initially quartered in areas around the Kronau colony (which had a large Mennonite population) in homes taken from Ukrainians. In Prützmann’s overly optimistic view, the Halbstadt Mennonites could remain there permanently.35 But the Red Army continued to advance. Between late October and early December, the treks again moved west to the Polish border, settling for several months with other refugees in the region around Kamianets-Podilskyi.

The westward trek of Ukraine’s Mennonites with the SS constituted an unmitigated stream of violence against other peoples. One Halbstadt native justified the requisitioning of homes from Ukrainians for “ethnic German” use in his memoirs: “That is a radical solution to the housing question, which truly amazes us, but it is war; life is harsh and we, too, have become harsh.”36 Cavalry member Jacob Reimer—who changed his name to the more Aryan-sounding “Eduard”—recalled how his unit combed through forests, marching between the trees in straight lines with orders to kill partisans on sight. Reimer’s regiment burned villages and shot civilians. In a letter to Himmler, Hans-Adolf Prützmann reported that the “ethnic Germans” remained in good spirits despite their itinerancy and deprivations. He assessed that they were eager to remain under German rule, and he commended the Halbstadt group for being highly cooperative.37

In March 1944, the Halbstadt refugees moved westward yet again. As Ukraine fell to the Red Army, the colony’s former residents crossed into Poland, many traveling by train from the city of Lemberg (Lviv) to Litzmannstadt (Łódź) in the Nazi wartime province of Warthegau. There, SS employees processed them as immigrants to the German Reich, sifting them through racial lists, granting citizenship, and assigning them to transit camps or to houses and farms requisitioned from Jews and Poles. The Halbstadt cavalry regiment, meanwhile, began to be disbanded piecemeal. Jacob Reimer and most of his fellow soldiers were sent to Hungary, where they joined the SS-Cavalry Division, which had been reassigned from Ukraine.38 This division fought in Transylvania before being destroyed in the siege of Budapest by early 1945.

The history of the Halbstadt cavalry regiment demonstrates the involvement of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the machinations of the Waffen-SS during the German occupation of Eastern Europe. Mennonites’ induction into this organization and their activities within it reflected the broader maneuverings of the Nazi war machine and the fate of the Eastern Front. Little of this context has survived in collective Mennonite memory. After the war, Mennonite refugees in war-torn Germany had strong incentives to deny involvement in war crimes, a process aided by church organizations. Most notably, the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee told tales of innocence while helping to transport refugees, including former Waffen-SS members, to Paraguay and Canada. Coming to terms with Mennonite participation in the Third Reich’s atrocities remains a task for the denomination.

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


  1. On Mennonites and the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-173; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  2. Wiens held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. See his SS officer file in A3343, roll 243B, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter cited as NARA).
  3. Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” December 13, 1942, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  4. Gerhard Rempel, “Gottlob Berger and Waffen-SS Recruitment, 1939-1945,” Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 27, no. 1 (1980): 107-122.
  5. Martin Bormann to Alfred Rosenberg, July 23, 1942, T-175, roll 194, NARA. On the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Karel Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Dearth in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  6. Heinrich Himmler, “Richtlinien für die Durchkämmung und Durchstreifung von Sumpfgebieten durch Reitereinheiten,” July 28, 1941, T-175, roll 109, NARA.
  7. Jürgen Matthäus, “Operation Barbarossa and the Onset of the Holocaust, June-December 1941,” in Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 279.
  8. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, July 11, 1941, M894, roll 11, NARA.
  9. “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen im Reichskommissariat Ukraine, in Transnistrien und im Heeresgebiet,” ca. July 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  10. “Bericht des SS-Sonderkommandos der Volksdeutschen Mittelstelle über den Stand der Erfassugnsarbeiten bis zum 15.3.1942,” T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  11. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht,” March 15, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gerhard Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation and Other Stories (Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers, 1982), 50.
  14. Heinrich Himmler to Werner Lorenz, April 10, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA. Special Commando R also oversaw the recruitment of “ethnic Germans” for cavalry units in Romanian-occupied Transnistria. Unlike the Halbstadt regiment, however, these other units seem to have remained part of “Self Defense” formations outside Waffen-SS jurisdiction (although around a fourth of such soldiers in Transnistria were transferred to separate Waffen-SS formations in 1943, and most of those remaining were conscripted into the Waffen-SS in Poland in 1944). See Eric Steinhart, The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 166-169.
  15. The Halbstadt cavalry units were restructured twice while based in Ukraine. First, Himmler’s visit to the colony on October 31 and November 1, 1942, resulted in the formation being renamed the Halbstadt Ethnic German Regiment. According to a November 6 letter to the chief of the Order Police in Kiev, this occurred “in the context of the reorganization of the ethnic German Self Defense forces,” and the regiment was to be headed by an “SS leader experienced in ethnic [German] work.” Second, as reported by Hans-Adolf Prützmann on April 7, 1943, Himmler ordered that the Halbstadt regiment be transferred from the Order Police to the Waffen-SS. The SS Leadership Main Office was therefore expected to equip the soldiers. See Thomas Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division “Prinz Eugen”: Die Banater Schwaben und die Nationalsozialisitischen Kriegsverbrechen (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, 2003), 327-328.
  16. SS-Obersturmbahnführer to Gottlob Berger, July 6, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  17. “Volksdeutsche Reiter-Schwadrone,” June 5, 1942, T-175, roll 68, NARA.
  18. “Besondere Anweisungen für die weltanschauliche Erziehung,” April 5, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  19. “Molochansk,” Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=568; Harry Loewen, ed., Long Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 110.
  20. Mikhail Tyaglyy, “Nazi Occupation Policies and the Mass Murder of the Roma in Ukraine,” in The Nazi Genocide of the Roma: Reassessment and Commemoration, ed. Anton Weiss-Wendt (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 128.
  21. “Aussiedlung aus der Krim,” July 12, 1942, T-175, roll 122, NARA.
  22. “Bandenlage im Gebiet des Reichskommissariats Ukraine und im Gebiet Bialystok,” December 27, 1942, T-175, roll 124, NARA.
  23. Erich Koch to the Höheren SS- und Polizeiführer, September 10, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA. The transfer of the Halbstadt regiment from Order Police auspices to the Waffen-SS in early 1943 appears to have particularly irritated Koch, whose response suggests that this development was unusual within the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. In June 1943, Koch wrote to Himmler: “you yourself expressed the wish [during previous discussions], that local military commandos were not yet appropriate for ethnic Germans in the Ukraine, because they are supposed to be getting used to the standards of living of the Germans from the Reich. I have tried hard to fend off the formation of local military commandos and the conscription of ethnic Germans. I am thus all the more troubled that recruitment has occurred at your order [in Halbstadt].” See Ingeborg Fleischhauer, Das Dritte Reich und die Deutschen in der Sowjeutnion (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1983), 145.
  24. Hans-Adolf Prützmann, “Aktenvermerk über Besprechung mit Gauleiter Koch am Sonntag, den 27.9.42 in Königsberg,” T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  25. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch, October 9, 1942, T-175, roll 56, NARA.
  26. Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999), 603-604.
  27. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 58.
  28. Himmler to Lorenz, April 10, 1942; “Zusammenstellung der erfassten Volksdeutschen.” The total number of re-settlers was reportedly 3,296.
  29. Werner Lorenz to Heinrich Himmler, January 15, 1943, M894, roll 10, NARA.
  30. Horst Hoffmeyer, “Bericht über den Abtransport der in den Einsatzgruppen Halbstadt und Nikopol sowie der Aussenstelle Kiew aufgefangenen Volksdeutschen aus dem Kauskasus, dem Donbas, der Kalmückensteppe und dem Charkower Gebiet,” ca. mid-1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  31. Heinrich Himmler to Erich Koch et al., June 21, 1943, T-175, roll 140, NARA.
  32. Heinrich Himmler to Gottlob Berger, August 9, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  33. Gottlob Berger to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1943, T-175, roll 70, NARA.
  34. Wilhelm Kinkelin to Gottlob Berger, September 22, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  35. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, October 13, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
  36. Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.
  37. Hans-Adolf Prützmann to Heinrich Himmler, November 16, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA. An October 20, 1943, report to the SS Leadership Main Office commented on the Halbstadt regiment: “In addition to fanatical hate of the Russians, the men demonstrate an excellent ability to move through the terrain. With regard to training, they are well educated and handle weapons well.” See Casagrande, Die Volksdeutsche SS-Division, 328.
  38. Lohrenz, ed., The Lost Generation, 65-70. Research by the former Waffen-SS member and chronicler Wolfgang Vopersal suggests that by 1944, the Halbstadt regiment (then reportedly called the “1st Ethnic German Cavalry Regiment of the Waffen-SS”) totaled nearly 1,000 members. Vopersal’s findings provide further details about the regiment’s postings, leadership, and activities from March 1942 to October 1944. However, much of Vopersal’s account is based on information acquired after the war; this source is thus not fully reliable and must be used with caution. See “Volksdeutsches Reiter-Regiment der Waffen-SS,” N 756/151a, and “Fotografie von Angehörigen des 1. Volksdeutschen Reiter-Regimentes,” N 756/256a, Bd. 1, Bundesarchiv Abteilung Militärarchiv, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

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 agreed, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun. 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 described 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 cultured 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 three other former fascists, 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, Umwege 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.

Christmas Controversy: Community Mennonite, Interracial Marriage, and a Hope from a Half-Century Ago

The Christmas pageant at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, was always a treat. The brick walls festooned with greenery. The eager anticipation of young children bursting into chatter and antics and no small bit of mayhem. Christmas carols. Advent wreaths. Food and friends and beauty. For the six years we worshipped with that congregation between 2002 and 2008, I don’t think we ever missed a pageant.

One of those years my partner played the part of Mary. A young man from the youth group played Joseph. Another year, I played Joseph, and the partner of one of our pastors played Mary. In both instances, as was the case most every year, the holy couple was interracial.

Not such a big deal, that. Not in 2018. Although commercials featuring interracial couples still ignite the ire of white supremacists and interracial couples report instances of social ostracism and harassment, interracial marriages have grown more commonplace and socially acceptable – at least as compared to 1963.

I mention 1963 because that was the year when the depiction of an interracial holy couple in Community Mennonite’s Christmas pageant did cause a hullabaloo. A big one. They had to call in the denominational heavyweights. It was not, apparently, very pleasant.

This is how it went down.


By December 1963, Community had been experimenting with integration for a little over two years. One Sunday in 1961, three African-American women attended a Sunday morning worship service at the previously all-white congregation. In 1956 when charter members had purchased property on which to construct a sanctuary, they had signed off on a restrictive covenant excluding “‘any one who is not a Caucasian’ from the premises.”1 The congregation, nonetheless, welcomed the African-American women. Despite a few bumps along the way, a core of both white and black members continued to attend. And, by all accounts, they enjoyed each other as they worshipped.2

Yet, tensions built below the surface. From the onset, some white members had raised concerns that an integrated congregation would lead, inevitably, to intermarriage. In keeping with the history of black-white racial unions, the white community has been less supportive of interracial unions than has the black community, a pattern especially true in the 1940s and 50s.3 Although white attitudes had begun to liberalize by the 1960s, the issue remained fraught in a community like Markham that was at that time in the midst of white flight. Black families had started to relocate to the community in search of a bit of suburban safety and security.4

Community Mennonite Church, Markham, Illinois, circa mid-1960s and featuring Pastor Larry Voth

In that context of rapidly changing racial demographics, a long history of white fear of interracial marriage, and a still fledgling congregation, the organizers of the 1963 Christmas pageant cast a black Joseph and a white Mary.5 The service ensued. Christmas came and went. All apparently without incident.

Then the church board met on January 17. With the start of the new year came reports on attendance (it was up), heating of the church building (it had started), and offering envelopes (they should be numbered). Then the pastor at the time, Larry Voth, invited the field secretary for city churches from the national-level home Missions Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Peter Ediger, to speak. Ediger noted that the rest of the denomination was very interested in what was happening in Markham as this small, formerly all-white congregation found itself on a journey toward racial integration. He offered a word of encouragement by noting that when a congregation is “having a struggle for existance [sic] it is a living church.”6

All seemed in order.

And then it wasn’t.

Church board chair Al Levreau read Genesis 11:1-9, the description of the tower of Babel in which “the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”7 The notes from the meeting on January 17 don’t explain what message Mr. Levreau meant to send by reading that passage. Perhaps he saw in the story of Babel’s chaos a case study to be avoided as Community Mennonite embarked on racial integration.

What was clear was that he did not approve of mixed race marriages. Not at all. Not even the hint of one in a Christmas play. With a generous dose of understatement bordering on cheekiness, the unidentified keeper of the minutes observed, “there was quite a discussion regarding inter-marriage.”8

It must have been quite a discussion. At the end of it Levreau has resigned from his position a board chair and declared that he would not return to worship services at CMC. After a unanimous vote to close the meeting, Ediger offered “a word of prayer.”9

I’ve often wondered what the conversations went like in the church parking lot after this meeting. I imagine that there was some venting. Perhaps even a bit of invective and opprobrium directed at the departing chairperson. A bit of self-righteous indignation even? Or, there could as easily have been mourning and expressed concern for the sudden separation. After all, when the congregation had weathered a previous racial controversy, Levreau had been the one to lobby for an open-door policy that set the path toward the integrated nativity scene.10 The record doesn’t say.

A month later the board met again. This time the president of the entire General Conference joined the meeting on February 15. Although Levreau did not attend – and in fact had not been visited by church leadership since his abrupt departure – board member Margaret Carr also objected to the prospect of intermarriage and grilled conference executive Walter Gering on the denomination’s position on the topic. After Carr explained her objections to both integration and intermarriage, Gering backpedaled by asserting that denominational officers had never encouraged intermarriage but that he thought black and white couples could have a happy marriage. When prompted, African-American board member William Smith explained that black families in the congregation were not interested in marrying across racial lines, an assurance that black church leaders had been stating to white Mennonites for nearly a decade.11

The controversy came to an end a month later. A delegation reported that they had met with Levreau, but that he was not willing to return unless he could influence the church away from integration. Smith replied, “As well educated as we are why do these things keep coming between us?”12 His incredulity at the prospect of a Christian brother objecting to his presence in the congregation leaps off the page across a half-century.

In response the board put their collective foot down. They voted – unanimously – to discontinue discussion about whether the church would be integrated and to declare – officially – that “Community Mennonite Church of Markham, Illinois …welcomes continued growth on a racially integrated basis.”13

History could have gone in a different direction that night. Board members could have chosen to be silent, allow the controversy to spill over into the congregation as a whole, or simply decide that the bother wasn’t worth it. Other majority white churches certainly did.14 But instead they set their faces toward an uncertain future and made the decision to continue trying to figure out what it would mean for black and white to worship together.


I chose this story to write about because it is a Christmas story, and we are in the midst of the nativity season. And also because I miss CMC’s Christmas pageants. They were a fine thing. Always a bit chaotic around the edges. Sometimes the congregation’s singing was a bit flat. It wasn’t always entirely – well – polished. But the love in that room? That was unmistakable. And the holy couple – by tradition through the first decade of the twenty-first century if not longer – was always interracial. The hope and promise of that image – however simplistic it may have been – never failed to move me.

I write this blog post on the morning of a day in which I will later denounce white nationalism at a local rally. Given the resurgence of white supremacy in our country, writing about an integrated Christmas service fifty years in the past can seem irrelevant if not naïve. To a degree, that may be true. But I also know that when I speak tonight, when I call out white nationalists for being small-minded, hard-fisted, and racist through and through, I will do so carrying a little bit of that nativity scene with me, and a little bit more of a congregation that decided to say yes rather than no to the question of integration before them fifty years ago.

  1. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.
  2. Don Burklow and Grace Burklow, “Interview with Don and Grace Burklow,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mary Ann Woods, “Interview with Mary Ann Woods,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mertis Odom, “Interview with Mertis Odom,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.2005); Gerald Mares and Dolores Mares, “Interview with Gerald and Dolores Mares,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2006).
  3. Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.
  4. Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  5. That is at least the gender arrangement recalled by one couple. The written record doesn’t specify the gender mix, just that they were an interracial pair. Given the response by certain white members of the congregation, a black male/white female combination makes the most sense. Historically, the white community has been less threatened by white male/black female pairings, in part due to the record of white slave masters raping female enslaved Africans and denying the progeny that resulted any rights of inheritance. For reference to CMC’s casting decision, see: Mares and Mares.
  6. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  7. Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.
  8. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Shearer, 167.
  11. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  12. M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kip Kosek, “‘Just a Bunch of Agitators’: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches,” Religion and American Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017).

Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.

“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1

Vanguardv1n41945Feb 1

The Vanguard, 1 no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1945)

I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2

The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4

To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5

The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9

It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.

But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.

Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.

But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.

David and Wilma Shank 1974

David and Wilma Shank, 1974

Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?

Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.

But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12

It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.

Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15

I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.

Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.


  1. David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. 
  2. “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. 
  3. James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. 
  4. Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. 
  5. Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. 
  6. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  7. A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), [2]. 
  8. Horst, 284. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. 
  11. Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. 
  12. Shank, 2. 
  13. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). 
  15. Shank, 2. 

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

Session Two: Soviet UnionIMG_20180316_145202.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Three: Mennonite-Jewish Connections20180316_153936.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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.