Edgar Metzler’s “Let’s Talk About Extremism” (1968).

Let’s Talk About Extremism

Edgar Metzler

Originally published as Edgar Metzler, Let’s Talk About Extremism. Focal Pamphlet Series No. 12 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968).

© 2021 by Edgar J. Metzler. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2021 by Maxwell Kennel.

Edited by Maxwell Kennel

Editorial Introduction

In 1968 a Mennonite pastor and peace worker named Edgar Metzler published a short booklet in the popular “Focal Pamphlet” series published by Herald Press – a series that includes other more widely read works by Mennonite historians and theologians like Harold S. Bender and J. Lawrence Burkholder. The brief preface on the inside cover gives some indication of its purpose and audience in the context of the American Mennonite experience during the late 1960s.

This pamphlet is prepared to stimulate the Christian’s peace testimony. Christians need constantly to return to the Bible to discover the message of the gospel. This message must be translated into living terms by every generation. The S. F. Coffman Peace Lectures are sponsored by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church. They are financed by an individual who has an interest in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the social needs and the international tensions of the world in which we live.

Metzler’s text is situated amidst the international tensions alluded to above, particularly racial tensions and violence in the United States during the Vietnam War era. The pamphlet is titled Let’s Talk About Extremism, but what the author means by the term “extremism” calls for explanation, some of which the author provides in the first section of the text below.

Although other pamphlets in the series were more widely read, Let’s Talk About Extremism has only been cited a few times since it was published – most recently in a survey of definitions of radicalism and extremism.1 The lack of scholarly or public engagement with the text in the years since it was published is a problem that I hope to remedy in this edition.

In short, the argument of the pamphlet is that how we think about the relationship between extreme or opposed positions – whether they are political, religious, social, or a combination of all three – matters deeply. For Metzler, ways of thinking and knowing, or what scholars call “epistemologies,” are just as important for the Christian peace witness as more visible manifestations of violence like killing or war. Whereas Metzler refers to “extremism,” today we tend to refer to the problems he addresses by using the term “polarization.” In response to these problems, Metzler calls his readers to consider how hard oppositions between liberals and conservatives are clarified when we think about not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we express what we think.

But rather than staying within the bounds of the liberal-conservative opposition, Metzler enjoins his readers to reframe their vision of extreme positions by measuring ways of thinking against a different standard, asking: “Is this way of thinking closed or open?” Drawing attention to the presence of closed-mindedness at all points on the political spectrum (a pattern recently explored by Francois Cusset), Metzler advocates for openness. Against racist, nationalist, and religious prejudices, Metzler values a kind of open-mindedness that is able to listen to the other, take in new information, and charitably engage with “extreme” perspectives. By contrast, the closed mind is reactive, reliant on questionable second-hand sources, and unable to be moved. This is not to say, however, that Metzler advocates for a kind of passive middle way that sits between extremes and attempts to remain neutral on matters of justice. Rather, Metzler helps his readers to avoid the pitfalls of both polarization and neutrality.

One further benefit of how Metzler frames his argument for openness is that he leaves open the question of how this openness is authorized or validated. For Metzler himself, it is the peaceful figure of Jesus Christ who is the model for a more open epistemology. But Metzler leaves open the possibility of taking on his perspective without confessing Christian faith. Metzler’s resistance to oversimplification, selectivity, black and white thinking, appeals to fear, authoritarianism, and so forth, are critical values that can resonate with the priorities of Christians and religious ‘nones,’ secular and confessional Mennonites, and anyone who is concerned with the problems of our shared world. For this reason, perhaps anachronistically, I would characterize Metzler’s work as “postsecular” – where “postsecular” names a way of thinking that challenges the claims to superiority made by both religions and secularities.

One final point that makes Metzler’s work important today is his critique of conspiratorial thinking. His conversation with an alienated congregation member, as described in the final pages of the pamphlet, is a model for how to openly and critically engage with those who are given to conspiratorial thinking, while seeing through the content of such arguments to the narratives of rejection and victimhood that lie beneath. In a time when conspiracy theories are becoming more influential, concomitant with a decline in public trust and trust in expertise, I think it is essential to consider Metzler’s reminder that beneath the “extreme” positions of those who believe in conspiracy theories is often a common human desire to be heard and recognized. Again, this is not to say that Metzler’s work is a resource for those who would, in the name of ‘free speech,’ give an open platform for hate (for example, the conspiracism and violence of far-right groups). Instead, his concluding comments point to the deeper social roots of present political problems, and provide practical ways of challenging violent ways of thinking.

Editorial Note

In the digitized edition below I have made very few editorial interventions. I have left the original text entirely unchanged. My only additions are the footnoted references for the quotations provided by Metzler and some references to resources. Paragraph breaks, headings, and numbering have been preserved, along with older usage (ex. ‘catalog’). References to original page numbers appear in square brackets.

I am especially grateful to Edgar Metzler and his son Michael Metzler for their permission to publish this online edition of the pamphlet, and I want to acknowledge not only their support but also their conviction that this historical document still has much to teach contemporary readers.

Original Author Note

“Edgar Metzler was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, where his father, A. J. Metzler, served as pastor for a number of years. He was graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and received his BA and BD degrees from Goshen College and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Goshen, Indiana. The latter degree was received in 1961. During 1966-67 he studied at the Graduate School of International Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. Before he became pastor he served for two years as associate executive secretary on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the ministry in 1957 when he became pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario. where he served until 1962. He was Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section from 1962-66. In 1967 he with his family joined the United States Peace Corps as Program Officer in Nepal. He has served on the Peace Problems Committee, later the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of Mennonite General Conference. He has written curriculum for Uniform Sunday School Lessons and articles for various publications in the areas of peace and social concern.” 2

Introduction

Have you ever called anyone an extremist? Or have you thought that someone was one? What did you mean? Likely you meant that he had certain ideas, patterns of thought, styles of expressing and discussing ideas, or actions which you considered to be unreasonable or irresponsible.

But that’s your judgment. He may think the same of your ideas and the way you support and express them. Extremism is thus not a very useful term. It is vague and difficult to define precisely. It is relative. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. Nevertheless, the term is in common use in our society. The term usually appears in the discussion of political and social policy and programs. In church circles the discussion may be intertwined or overlaid with religious and doctrinal issues.

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In Search of Peace: A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites

Editorial Introduction

The pamphlet reproduced below was first published by the U.S. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section in 1976. Collecting papers from a 1974 conference at Koinonia Mennonite Church in Clinton, Oklahoma, In Search of Peace: A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites was a challenging document when it was first published, and it remains so today. The brief chapters below, which readers can navigate to using the table of contents links, will be relevant for historians who concern themselves with Mennonite life in North America during the 1970s, for Mennonite theologians who are search for anti-racist resources in the tradition, and for peace workers and advocates who are interested in the history of Mennonite activism, especially in relation to the Mennonite Central Committee’s Minority Ministries Council.

In a letter from the MCC Canada offices in Winnipeg, Daniel Zehr, director of Peace and Social Concerns, recommends the pamphlet, warning that “To the extent that we white Mennonites have unwittingly or consciously become part of the oppressor, much of what is written here will be disquieting.” My hope in preparing this online edition is that by making its contents accessible this text can resume its disquieting task of unsettling the social and epistemic violence of white supremacy – especially following the Trump administration’s egregious “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” of September 22, 2020.

Brief Outline

The Preface by Hubert Schwartzentruber sets the stage for the pamphlet by pointing to the framing idea of the conference from which the contributions are drawn: “Peace is meaningless unless we work to end the reasons for violence.” His closing line ought to resonate even more deeply during this unprecedented year of protest against police violence: “Until there is justice there will be no peace.” Chapter 1 then provides “A Native American View” of peace and justice from Lawrence H. Hart, in which the author argues for a de-mythologizing revision of white history to account for the peace work of American Indians – a task that Hart has since undertaken in his work through the Cheyenne Cultural Center.[1] Following Hart’s call to active peacemaking, Chapter 2 offers “An Afro American View” by Tony Brown. Brown too calls for active peacemaking, while speaking against the racism of the American military and calling for critical peace education against the appeal of the military life. The “Chicano View” provided by Lupe De Leon, Jr. in Chapter 3 further resists American imperialism and militarism, calling members of historic peace churches to “go beyond mere humanistic values and incorporate the values of ‘carnalismo’ into our ethics.” Lastly, Chapter 4 by editor Emma LaRocque outlines “Dynamics of Oppression,” clearly presenting the complex problems of oppression, colonization, and suffering in terms that would have been – and may yet be – accessible to a wide readership of both laypeople and academics. My hope in providing this digital edition is that its contents would be read and considered again today, just as MCC and the authors hoped in the 1970s.

Editorial Note

The following is a faithful copy of the original pamphlet. I have preserved the spelling and paragraphing of the original, and indicated pagination in square brackets where the first number refers to the page that has ended and the second refers to the page that follows (excluding blank pages like page 4). I have corrected only a few typos (‘acheive’, ‘succesful’, ‘agressively’, ‘suffiency’) and I have retained the use of underlining that appears in the original. I am happy to provide a PDF scan of the document for anyone who is interested. With the exception of the bibliographical entries, I have also silently updated the spelling of the editor’s name to accord with how it appears on her current faculty profile (which in the document reads ‘Emma LaRoque’). I have also provided a few footnotes with references to sources used in the text, as well as slightly updated contributor bio notes below. Lastly, I would like to thank Joel Nofziger for his editorial efforts, and Laura Kalmar from MCC Canada for permission to reprint this resource.

Bio Notes

Dr. Emma LaRocque (now professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba).

Hubert Schwartzentruber (served with his wife June Schwartzentruber at Bethesda Mennonite Church in St. Louis, and then on the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries).

Lawrence H. Hart (a traditional peace chief of the Cheyenne Nation and founder of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma).

Tony Brown (a baritone singer and peace advocate who teaches at Hesston College and directs the Peacing It Together program).

Lupe De Leon, Jr. (a Mennonite minister and Chicano activist, former co-executive secretary of the Minority Ministries Council, a project within the Mennonite Board of Missions until 1973).

In Search of Peace

A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites

Emma LaRocque, Editor.

Originally published in 1976 by the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section (U.S.).

2020 online edition prepared by Maxwell Kennel (PHD Candidate, McMaster University).

Contents

Part I. Peacemaking From My Perspective

Preface by Hubert Schwartzentruber

Chapter 1. A Native American View by Lawrence H. Hart

Chapter 2. An Afro American View by Tony Brown

Chapter 3. A Chicano View by Lupe De Leon, Jr.

Part II. Responding to Oppression

Chapter 4. Dynamics of Oppression by Emma LaRocque

Questions for Discussion

Bibliography

Endnotes

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Himmler’s Mennonite Midwife

Ben Goossen

Long-lost datebooks of Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler from 1943 through the end of the Second World War have recently resurfaced and been published. Upon opening the new volume, which clocks in at more than a thousand pages, I was startled to see that the first entry—for January 1, 1943—describes meetings between Himmler and the leading representative of Mennonites in the Third Reich, Benjamin Unruh. Historians had previously known about this encounter from letters that Unruh penned for fellow Mennonite churchmen following a three-day summit with Himmler at the commander’s SS headquarters in East Prussia. Himmler’s date calendar confirms Unruh’s reports in striking detail, offering new insight on Mennonites’ relationship with the Nazi state.1

The newly published Himmler diaries show clearly why the powerful head of the SS wanted to meet with a delegate from the Third Reich’s Mennonite denomination during the darkest days of the Nazi assault on Jews and other perceived enemies, when Hitler’s territorial control of much of Europe was at its height. Unruh had been seeking such a meeting with a high-level Nazi like Himmler for years—unsuccessfully. Yet in the autumn of 1942, it had been Himmler who had reached out to Unruh to invite him for a tête-à-tête.2 “Guess whose greetings I bring for you from Russia?” Himmler asked Unruh when the two men broke bread. “For example, from Frau Berg,” Himmler continued, naming an elderly midwife he had recently met in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.3

The German war artist Heinz Hindorf sketched an elderly Mennonite woman (Maria Dyck, born 1867) in the Chortitza settlement in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943. The Mennonite midwife Helene Berg lived in the larger Molotschna colony to the southeast. Source: Mennonite Life 13, no. 2 (1958): 55.

Hearing Himmler utter the name Helene Berg must have been a remarkable moment for Unruh. The eighty-four-year-old midwife had long been a pillar of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine, where Unruh himself had been a prominent leader prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Unruh, an ardent anti-communist, had been exiled to Germany after the formation of the Soviet Union. The midwife Berg, meanwhile, had remained behind with another 100,000 Mennonites in the fledgling USSR. Unruh had watched with horror from his adopted homeland of Germany as coreligionists in once thriving Ukrainian colonies like Molotschna faced hardship upon hardship: famine, collectivization, deportations, and executions.

Unruh’s separation from Berg and the other Mennonites in Ukraine had lasted for two decades. During this time, Unruh worked tirelessly to publicize their plight in the Soviet Union, which—especially after the rise of Joseph Stalin—targeted religious groups, once wealthy people, and communities of German heritage with brutal violence. Unruh assisted thousands of Mennonites to leave the Soviet Union, and he helped organize food and clothing drives for those who stayed. Sharing a conspiracy theory with the nascent Nazi movement about communism being a Jewish plot, Unruh recognized a potential partner. In 1933, he welcomed Hitler’s rise to political power.

Unruh made his first financial donation to the SS in 1933, but another decade would pass before he met in person with the notorious head of this violent organization.4 During this period, Unruh chose to remain stateless, never applying for German citizenship, which he felt might harm his ability to advocate for downtrodden Soviet Mennonites on the international stage.5 He became the official representative in Germany of several major denominational aid organization abroad. His dealings with high government officials also rendered him an invaluable asset for Germany’s own Mennonite churches, which he increasingly came to represent in the eyes of Third Reich bureaucrats. Yet not until the Second World War did Unruh achieve the full influence he sought.

Germany’s Mennonite leadership had begun trying to win an audience with Himmler or another top Nazi official in 1937. This was arguably the single most dangerous year for Mennonites’ own legal position as a tolerated denomination operating openly in the Third Reich. In 1937, several threats to Mennonite independence arose simultaneously. In that year, Nazi authorities expelled a small group of Anabaptists known as the Bruderhof. Party censors grew suspicious of Mennonite ties to coreligionists abroad, especially those who espoused pacifism (a theological position that Germany’s Mennonites abandoned). Most concerning to Unruh and his colleagues, two separate Nazi Party chapters had questioned whether members could keep Mennonite church affiliation.6

Keen to demonstrate the compatibility of Mennonitism and Nazism, Unruh and his church allies pursued every avenue. Unruh pressed Mennonites’ case as part of two delegations to the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.7 Such efforts contributed to a ruling that “Mennonites can also be members of the NSDAP.”8 Yet issues persistently arose, especially opposition in various Reich services to exempt Mennonites from swearing oaths. Church leaders mulled a direct appeal to the Führer.9 Those with personal connections to his deputies, including Rudolf Hess and Himmler, approached these men by letter. But they met limited success. In 1938, the SS even temporarily banned Mennonites, news that reportedly “landed like a bomb” among one ministerial group.10

What changed Himmler’s mind? The SS chief had personally rejected an appeal from Mennonite leaders to allow the marriage of a preacher’s daughter with an SS man to go forward. Himmler insisted on both unusual blood purity and intense ideological commitment from female as well as male members of his SS “clan community.” In 1938, he clearly felt that “The foundations of the Mennonite sect are in no way reconcilable with the worldview of the Schutzstaffel.”11 Yet four years later, he had amended his position. The outbreak of World War II and Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe brought the large colonies in Ukraine to Himmler’s attention. “I have been in the Ukraine and seen the people there,” he reportedly told Unruh. “Your Mennonites are the best.”12

Himmler had once feared that Mennonites could contaminate the SS gene pool. His embrace of Mennonites in Ukraine during the Second World War, conversely, stemmed from a new belief that members’ blood could prove valuable for the new Aryan order that the Nazis hoped to build in Eastern Europe. When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they discovered hundreds of thousands of German speakers living in Ukraine, including some 35,000 Mennonites. Himmler and other leading Nazis saw these local people as a “master race” that had previously been repressed by Jews and communists under Soviet rule. Himmler dispatched death squads to Ukraine to murder the region’s 1.2 million Jews, including those in Mennonite areas.13

The Nazi conquest of Ukraine cheered Unruh and other Mennonite leaders in Germany, who had long prayed for the demise of Bolshevik tyranny over coreligionists to the east. Unruh dispatched numerous letters to his old friends in Ukraine, asking for news. Among those he reached was the midwife in Molotschna, Helene Berg. This elderly woman told Unruh of her great joy in being liberated from Soviet rule. Berg’s letters described the horrors of communism as well as the new privileges that German speakers like herself received through racial warfare. Like many residents of Molotschna—which the Nazis renamed Halbstadt (a more German name, to their ears)—Berg studied Nazi propaganda and developed good relations with agents of occupation and genocide.14

A map of prewar German-speaking settlements in Ukraine (shaded black) and of areas the Nazis planned to Germanize during and after World War II. The striped area around Crimea encompasses possible borders for the hypothetical “Gotengau.” Extant settlements like Halbstadt (formerly called Molotschna and located just north of Melitopol) were either to be relocated to Gotengau, included within an expanded version of it, or built up as racially pure “strongholds” in regions otherwise populated by Ukrainians and Russians. Source: Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 264.

From late 1941 through mid-1942, Himmler enthusiastically read the reports of his functionaries as they murdered Jews and distributed aid to German speakers like Helene Berg. The Holocaust of bullets in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory soon peaked, and the weight of the genocide shifted to centralized extermination camps in occupied Poland.15 The geographical boundaries of the Nazi empire were nearly at their zenith—and the regime’s wartime administrative machinery for Ukraine expanded apace. By September 1942, the Halbstadt colony where Berg lived had come under the territorial jurisdiction of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Day to day activities in the settlement, however, remained under SS rule. Himmler himself would soon make an appearance.

Himmler met Berg during a six-day tour of southeastern Ukraine that spanned late October and early November 1942. The SS chief had recently held meetings with Hitler about Germanizing Ukraine, including discussions about Halbstadt and other Mennonite colonies. Himmler had given the task of envisioning Eastern Europe’s racial reorganization to Konrad Meyer, a scholar and SS officer. Meyer drew up a secret master document, General Plan East, according to which populations from Halbstadt and elsewhere would form the kernel for a new Nazi province called Gotengau. Himmler’s meetings with Hitler yielded a bevy of new ordinances for Ukraine. These, and his trip to Halbstadt, constituted the first practical steps toward the hypothetical Gotengau.16

Himmler arrived in Halbstadt at 4:30pm on October 31, 1942. He had just come from Crimea and was traveling with a retinue of high-ranking SS men. The colony’s own SS administrators had planned a full schedule. During an “Ethnic German Evening,” local youth performed a pro-Nazi pageant. Himmler then delivered a speech to village mayors, proclaiming that they would receive German citizenship and material restitution for their hardships under communism. The next morning, Himmler spoke to a general assembly (with marches from Nazi youth groups and paramilitary formations), and he visited workshops and an educational institution.17 The SS chief reportedly inducted hundreds of Mennonites into the Waffen-SS and bestowed several honors.

The midwife Helene Berg appears to have numbered among Himmler’s honorees, likely on the morning of November 1. Subsequent correspondence shows that Himmler granted her a monthly pension from SS coffers of 100 Reichsmarks.18 He chose to celebrate Berg “as a midwife, who brought over 8,000 Ethnic German children into this restless world.”19 In her eighty-four years, Berg had certainly not performed thousands of births with any express intention of expanding the biological stock of an Aryan master race. But for Himmler, this had been the result—as essential a service to Nazism as could have been rendered by any male soldier. Berg’s example justified to Himmler’s thinking the future subjugation or removal of all Halbstadt’s remaining non-Germans.

The SS architect Heinrich Himmler toured the Mennonite colony of Halbstadt in southeastern Ukraine in 1942. Among those pictured here are German Red Cross nurses who had come to Ukraine during the war. Himmler exhibited interest in matters of health and racial hygiene while visiting Halbstadt, including meetings with a local doctor named Johann Klassen and with the midwife Helene Berg. Source: Mennonite Heritage Centre, Photograph 351-2.

Himmler’s meeting with Benjamin Unruh two months later concerned plans to import Germans from abroad and to murder or expel other peoples so that much of southeastern Ukraine would be a pure German territory along the lines of the Halbstadt colony. Over three days at the Hochwald bunker in East Prussia from December 31, 1942 to January 2, 1943, Himmler dined or otherwise conferred with Unruh on six occasions. His diary shows that others present during the encounters included leading SS figures responsible for perpetrating genocide in Ukraine, for forging Ethnic German policy, and for long-range racial engineering.20 Unruh subsequently relayed Himmler’s desire to acquire more German Mennonite settlers from the Americas. “The highest importance was placed on the resettlement,” he reported, “which should be executed very generously.”21

Unruh welcomed Himmler’s vision of bringing thousands of Mennonites from the Americas for colonization in Eastern Europe, alongside other German-speakers from locations as far-flung as Palestine and Italy. Unruh had already helped arrange modest migrations of his coreligionists to the Third Reich from Brazil, Canada, and Paraguay. Sponsoring much larger waves after the war would serve Nazi objectives and Unruh’s own. When speaking with Himmler, Unruh leveraged such prospects against more immediate religious concerns. Himmler agreed to allow ordination of Mennonite elders in Ukraine, and to consider exemptions from swearing oaths. Meanwhile, he redoubled efforts to ensure the region would be “totally Germanized, that is, totally settled.”22

Nazi losses on the eastern front thwarted Himmler’s dreams for a racial Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine. The SS began evacuating German settlers in 1943. As the Red Army retook Ukraine by 1944, Himmler simply shifted colonization schemes west.23 Most Mennonite refugees found new lodging in Nazi-occupied Poland. Benjamin Unruh, now receiving a monthly salary from the SS, oversaw their contacts with high Nazi offices.24 Among his concerns was finding a suitable home for Helene Berg, who had traveled by wagon from Halbstadt to Poland and was living in a transit camp. Unruh’s SS handlers were well aware of Himmler’s personal interest in this midwife, and they helped arrange her transfer to a Mennonite home for the elderly in the city of Marienburg.25

In the end, whether Berg was grateful for Himmler’s attentions is difficult to know. As the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, surely the comforting words shared by Unruh rang hollow: “Every birth is so difficult and the birth of a new Europe especially.”26 With the Red Army bearing down on Marienburg, most of the city’s able-bodied Germans fled. They abandoned Berg and the other residents of the home for the elderly. Over the next eighteen months, Berg witnessed atrocities committed against the few Germans who remained, including the rape of her caretaker. By the time Poland expelled her to western Germany in mid-1946, Berg had little incentive to talk about Himmler, dead for over a year.27 Yet she appreciated renewed contact with “dear, good Beny.”28

The history of Himmler’s Mennonite midwife reflects a troubling intersection of denominational activism and Nazi genocide during the Second World War. For Himmler, Helene Berg and the thousands of ostensibly Aryan children she had helped deliver constituted both past and future of a violently cleansed utopia, free from Jews and other so-called racial aliens. Mennonite leaders like Benjamin Unruh participated in this project, alternately sharing Himmler’s vision or using promises of future cooperation to attain their own religious goals. And what about Berg herself? The archival documents by and about her suggest intriguing new directions for research about Mennonites, reproduction, and the elderly under fascism—topics still waiting to be explored.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for providing sources and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.


1. The papers, discovered in a Moscow archive in 2013, have been published as Matthias Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors: Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1943-1945 (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2020). Another section, covering the years 1941-1942, had already been found in 1990 and appeared in print as Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999). On Unruh’s meeting with Himmler, see Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-156.

2. This invitation came on the recommendation of an SS officer and longtime scholar of Mennonites named Karl Götz, whom Himmler planned to install as the head of the Overseas Department of the Ethnic German Office after the war. Götz, who had known Unruh since 1934, apparently tried to establish a meeting between Unruh and Himmler for November 1941. Götz seems to have written to Unruh again in September 1942—during the period when Himmler and Hitler were conferring with advisors about Ethnic German policy in Ukraine. At this time, Unruh provided documents about Mennonites to Götz, who passed this information to Himmler. Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Hein, July 25, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany, hereafter MFS. Himmler’s staff then reached out to Götz on October 2, 1942, asking for Unruh’s address. Geheime Staatspolizei to Karl Götz, October 2, 1942, T-81/143, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter NARA). On Götz, see Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173-206.

3. “‘Notizen”’ über die Unterredung des Reichsführers SS Heinrich Himmler mit dem Verteter der Rußlanddeutchen in der Ukraine, Südrußland, Professor Dr. Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, Karlsruhe/Baden, an Sylvester 1943 im Hauptquartier Himmlers, in dessen Wohnwagen,” n.d., Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.

4. Unruh’s 1933 financial contribution made him a Supporting Member of the SS with the membership number 168,232. Benjamin Unruh to Walther Kolrep, January 30, 1940, Benjamin H. Unruh Papers, box 2, folder: Misc. Unruh Papers, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

5. Until Unruh received his invitation to visit Himmler in November 1942, he had been trying unsuccessfully through civilian channels to receive permission to travel to Nazi-occupied Ukraine to meet with Mennonite coreligionists. In September 1942, he even applied for German citizenship as a means of greasing the bureaucratic wheels. Ernst Kundt, “Einbürgerung von Professor Dr. B.H. Unruh,” September 8, 1942, R 127518, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin, Germany. Just as Mennonite leaders in the Third Reich struggled to gain the attention of prominent Nazis during the 1930s, however, Unruh was unable to reach wartime Ukraine for primarily religious purposes using civil service contacts. Commenting retrospectively on his 1942 rejection by the East Ministry, Unruh recalled: “At this point, it was entirely clear to me that one path alone could lead to my goal [of reaching Ukraine]: namely through the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom [Himmler].” Unruh to Hein, July 25, 1943. Unruh never actually reached Ukraine: he planned to visit in early 1943 after his visit with Himmler, but unfavorable military conditions other factors consistently delayed his trip until the late summer, at which time the SS had begun evacuating Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies due to Red Army advances.

6. This was a new development given that Mennonites with church membership had been joining the Nazi Party since 1920. Around August 1937, NSDAP Ortsgruppe Rom temporarily stripped Paul Reymann of his membership. Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. At nearly the same time, a Nazi Party court in Tübingen questioned the membership of a Mennonite farmer named Daniel Schneider. Emil Händiges to Arbeitsausschuß der Vereinigung, September 24, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS.

7. Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, and Gustav Reimer visited the Brown House on July 6, 1938. During the meeting, Unruh emphasized: “As a church we unconditionally support the [Nazi] Party. In West Prussia and Danzig, the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the Party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Hendrik van Delden, Benjamin Unruh, Gustav Reimer, and Daniel Dettweiler attended another meeting at the Brown House on March 16, 1939. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, April 14, 1939, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: 1939, MFS.

8. Ruling of NSDAP Kreisgericht Celle I, May 12, 1938, quoted in Goossen, “‘A Small World Power,’” 204.

9. Mennonite leaders contemplated writing to Hitler in August 1937. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, August 31, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS. Church leaders again considered contacting Hitler in August 1943 regarding the use of oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Emil Händiges to Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, and Abraham Braun, August 17, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Instead of approaching Hitler, however, Unruh pursued the matter through his contacts with Himmler, who ultimately approved Mennonites’ exemption from oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, February 28, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

10. The precipitating case concerned a proposed marriage between SS member Heinrich Krüger and a Mennonite woman, Erika Driedger. The head of Germany’s largest Mennonite conference reported on the rejection of this marriage by Himmler: “The communication of the decision landed like a bomb in the ministerial assembly in Kalthof on June 16, 1938, especially since numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as [Nazi] Party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. Himmler’s decision reflected a recommendation from the head of the Reich Main Security Office that “members of this sect cannot simultaneously be members of the SS clan community.” Chef des Sicherheitshauptamtes to Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes, April 9, 1938, NS 2/220, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. Quick action by Mennonite churchmen ensured that by 1939, members were once again admitted to the SS clan community, albeit with some suspicion.

11. Händiges to Dettweiler, et al., June 23, 1938. On marriage and the SS “clan community,” see Gudrun Schwarz, Eine Frau on seiner Seite: Ehefrauen in der “SS-Sippengemeinschaft” (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1997).

12. Quoted in Diether Götz Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977), 141.

13. Himmler met with detachments from Einsatzgruppe D in September 1941 and Einsatzgruppe C in October 1941, shortly before these death squads began wholesale murder of Jewish men, women, and children in and around the two largest Mennonite colonies in Ukraine: Molotschna and Chortitza, respectively. Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 533, 537. See Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549.

14. One letter from Halbstadt reported: “Naturally Frau Berg, despite her advanced age…inquired about everything; including in the political realm. She has studied the Führer’s [Mein] Kampf with appropriate interest.” Berg reportedly also met with Karl Stumpp, whose East Ministry commando worked to identify and register Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews.Hans Spittler to Emil Händiges, May 7, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS. Berg herself reported meeting with an Einsatzgruppe member (“Among the first Germans [to arrive during the 1941 invasion] was SS-Mann [Heinrich] Wiens, originally from Muntau [Molotschna], who must once have been your student.”), and she deployed casual antisemitism in her correspondence with Unruh. Berg reported that religious life in Molotschna had not yet fully recovered from the Bolshevik period; in her church, “the praying [by a Baptist minister whom Berg disliked] is terrible, all mixed up such that one imagines oneself displaced to a synagogue [Judenschule].” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. April 1942, quoted in Benjamin Unruh, “Nachrichten aus Rußland,” May 22, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS.

15. The economics of genocide continued to link Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with the Holocaust: Himmler ordered that clothes and household goods taken from Jews in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to Halbstadt, Chortitza, and other settlements. Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA. By November 1942, twenty-seven wagons of plunder had been sent from SS-Wirtschaftslager Lublin. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603. Similar aid actions for Ukraine’s Mennonites continued into 1943.

16. Himmler and Hitler met on August 9, 1942 at the Führer’s Werwolf bunker in Ukraine to broadly discuss Ethnic German questions for the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On this meeting and its aftermath, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 266. Himmler and Hitler met again on September 22, 1942 to discuss settlement in and around Crimea, including plans for 40,000 Ethnic Germans in Halbstadt and 15,000 in Chortitza. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 562-568. On the Nazis’ Gotengau settlement plans, see Norbert Kunz, Die Krim unter deutscher Herrschaft (1941-1944): Germanisierungsutopie und Besatzungsrealität (Darmstad: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), 72-73.

17. Upon arrival, Himmler conferred with the SS officers Hans-Adolf Prützmann, Horst Hoffmeyer, and Hermann Roßner. Then he had one-on-one meetings with SS officers Claus Selzner, Hermann Harm, and Erwin Metzner. Himmler dined, then attended the pageant and spoke to the mayors. He lodged with a Dr. Haus. Around noon on November 1, following a short lunch, Himmler departed for Zaporizhia to view the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603-604.

18. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, November 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

19. Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, December 3, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Berg’s special treatment by the SS came at the direct expense of people considered undesirable by the Nazis. The Ethnic German Office provided her with a cow and a house in Halbstadt, and when the SS evacuated this colony to a more westerly part of Ukraine in 1943, officers found a new house for Berg. The SS requisitioned such lodging by force from local Ukrainians. See for example Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.

20. On December 31, 1942, Himmler met at 2:30pm with Werner Lorenz, Horst Hoffmeyer, Benjamin Unruh, Konrad Meyer, Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, and Herman Wirth. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 660. On January 1, 1943, Himmler lunched at 2:15pm with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, Unruh, Ernst Rode, Josef Tiefenbacher, Karl Gesele, and Werner Grothmann. At 5:00pm, Himmler met with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, and Unruh. At 9:30pm, Himmler dined with Lorenz, Unruh, Bernhard Frank, and a Captain Rickert. On January 2, Himmler lunched at 2:10pm with Lorenz, Unruh, and Fritz von Scholz. At 5:00pm, Himmler bade farewell to Lorenz and Unruh. Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors, 64-66.

21. Benjamin Unruh to Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, Christian Neff, Gustav Reimer, and Henrik van Delden, January 6, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Unruh further reported: “It has been agreed that Herr Obergruppenführer [Werner] Lorenz will personally take care of our matters, naturally in constant agreement with [Himmler]…. Regarding the resettlement [of Mennonites from the Americas], which will be of unimaginable scope, I do not want to pontificate. I have just been brought into this matter, and it will likely occur as I told our [Mennonite] people when they went overseas: we will get you back again! This assurance lives in the hearts of our brethren!” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

22. Heinrich Himmler to Konrad Meyer, January 12, 1943, quoted in Czeslaw Madajczyk, ed., Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan (Munich: Saur, 1994), 256. After Meyer drafted the General Plan East in 1942, Himmler charged him with expanding this into a General Settlement Plan for all of Nazi-occupied Europe. According to Himmler’s wishes for this expanded plan, the areas envisioned for Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine were to include “all of Crimea and Taurida.” In the meantime, occupiers’ focus remained on building up smaller Ethnic German “strongholds.” In July 1943, Meyer traveled to Halbstadt to finalize plans to deport non-Germans still living there and to import urban and scattered rural Ethnic Germans from elsewhere in Ukraine. Ibid., 277-281.

23. For example, Gerhard Ritter, “Wunschträume Heinrich Himmlers am 21. Juli 1944,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 5, no. 3 (1954): 162-168.

24. Emil Händiges to Hendrik van Delden and Abraham Fast, May 27, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

25. When Unruh reported difficulties with local authorities in Danzig-West Prussia regarding the Marienburg home, an SS contact recommend that he appeal directly to Himmler: “I suggest that you explain to the Reichsführer-SS [Himmler]—it must naturally be written in a careful way—that the handling of Mennonites in Danzig and their few private wishes would not be without significance for the attitudes of the Mennonites overseas. And that it would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.” Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, ca. January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. While Unruh intended to contact Himmler about the matter, it is unclear whether the SS chief ultimately interceded. In any event, Berg arrived at the Marienburg home by March 1944, where Unruh visited her at that time. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

26. Benjamin Unruh to Helene Berg, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh offered this sentiment in response to Berg’s report that the trek from Ukraine to Poland had required “difficult, yes very difficult efforts.” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. late January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

27. Berg’s postwar recollections say nothing of her wartime encounters with prominent SS officers. After the fall of the Third Reich, she had incentives to downplay former links to Nazism and instead to emphasize her own suffering. Berg was in this respect typical of other Mennonites from Ukraine and also of Germans generally. See Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 218; Elizabeth Heineman, “The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany’s ‘Crisis Years’ and West German National Identity,” American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 354-395.

28. Helene Berg, Unsere Flucht (Winkler, MB: Winkler Printery, 1947), 18. Upon her arrival in western Germany and return to the broader Mennonite community, Berg (then around 88 years old) professed her intention to emigrate to the Americas. Whether she achieved this goal or remained in Europe requires further investigation. Benjamin Unruh spent the rest of his life in West Germany, a somewhat diminished but nevertheless celebrated figure among Mennonites worldwide. A biography by his son, Heinrich Unruh, Fügungen und Führungen: Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, 1881-1959 (Detmold: Verein zur Erforschung und Pflege des Russlanddeutschen Mennonitentums, 2009), gives a sanitized and hagiographic account of Unruh’s life. See Gerhard Rempel, “Book Review: Fügungen und Füherungen,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 2 (2010): 275-278.

Encountering Race, Creating Place, and Opening Space in the Hardings’ Mennonite House

In the early summer of 2020, I began drafting this essay about the Atlanta Mennonite House in the early 1960s as a vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonite community. Created by black Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in 1961, the Mennonite House was both the organizational center of a voluntary service unit and an influential place in the geography of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the spectacular resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outburst of violence against people of color have thrust the needs and demands for racial justice to the forefront of the American social conscience once again. In such a contemporary situation, this short article has taken on increased pertinence and purpose. Although this study remains focused on the past, it is also an opportunity to reflect and learn about our present situation. Perhaps, in this time of turmoil, with the potential for significant change on the horizon, American Mennonites and others can find contemporary guidance in the early history of the Mennonite House. Significantly, this vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonites highlights the importance of creating place and opening space for the cause of racial justice. As was the case in 1961, this process often requires institutional support, buy-in, and the funding of ideas to make a meaningful impact. To begin such a study of the Mennonite House, we must first understand the people who created such an significant place—Vincent and Rosemarie Harding.

Vincent Harding joined the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1957 and was soon appointed as a pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. His entrance into the Mennonite fold was rooted in his fascination with sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whom he discovered during his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. He was drawn to the “discipleship, self-sacrificing love, [defiance of] the power of kings and rulers . . . [and] willingness to accept death rather than inflict suffering” demonstrated by early Anabaptists, and he was eager to apply the ethics of “peacemaking, reconciliation, and nonviolence” to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.1 While at Woodlawn, Vincent met Rosemarie Freeney, a public school teacher in Chicago who had been attending a congregation in the “old” Mennonite Church, another Mennonite denomination, since 1951. They were married in 1960 and created the Mennonite House in Atlanta that next summer.2

Together and as individuals, the Hardings were “involved in trying to encourage that traditional peace church community to think more fully and creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement,” and to see the “natural connection” between the Movement and Mennonite theology.3 Indeed, the Hardings’ dual identities positioned them to be effective agents for pushing Mennonites further to seek integration, practice nonviolence, and witness to society. On the one hand, the Hardings’ leadership, faith, and action within the church made them Mennonites among Mennonites. On the other hand, they were black people born outside of the Mennonite fold. This gave them a distinctive vantage point to guide white Mennonites toward their unrealized potential and criticize them for their shortcomings. The Hardings’ unique identity, personal investment in the Civil Rights Movement, and strong advocacy for Mennonite involvement in the Movement were critical in creating the Mennonite House.

Vincent and Rosemarie Harding. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

In the late summer of 1961, the Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) established a voluntary service (VS) unit at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta, Georgia.4 The Peace Section appointed Vincent and Rosemarie Harding as its first directors, and as the first black directors of any MCC VS unit.5 Such an appointment was natural, as the Hardings had long been agitating for a greater Mennonite presence in the heart of the Freedom Movement. The Atlanta unit, which identified almost exclusively as “the Mennonite House,” was formed to “witness to the Christian way of love and self-sacrifice in all aspects of life.”6 This was part of MCC’s response to the Hardings’ charge for Mennonites “to think more fully and more creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement.”7 This open-ended commission reflected the Peace Section’s recognition of the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among socially-reticent white Mennonites. Indeed, the Hardings, with the support of MCC, created the Mennonite House with the explicit purpose of establishing a Mennonite presence in the Freedom Movement and connecting Mennonite volunteers with the work of the Movement. The MCC Peace Section recognized the importance of establishing a physical presence in the South to facilitate meaningful work. By 1961, Mennonites had made progress in the way of race relations, but much of that progress had come in the form of conferences, study groups, and statements. In 1961, much work remained to be done. Boldly, the Peace Section recognized that “Christian obedience may at times lead to violation of government laws and regulations.”8 Such a statement was reflective of Mennonites’ theological and practical departure from their traditional posture of nonresistance during the civil rights era.9

The Hardings’ dual identities helped imbue the Mennonite House’s work with a respectful, just, and Christ-centered spirit of volunteerism, rather than one of ‘white savior’ patronage. “The privilege is really ours to be allowed by God and by our brothers of the South to share in so noble a climb [toward justice],” the Hardings wrote, advertising the Mennonite House. “They urge us to come, not to carry them, not to patronize them, but simply to add our own lives to the brave company of persons who believe that God calls men to a better way than the path of segregation, discrimination, and hatred.”10 The Hardings placed volunteers—often numbering in the thirties during the summer months—with local social work organizations and community centers, the nationally known Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).11

Although the Mennonite volunteers who came to Atlanta did so with a desire to participate in the Freedom Movement, many quickly were forced to face the racism and classism that existed in their own hearts and minds. Living and working in Atlanta often came as a rude awakening for the volunteers, known colloquially as VSers. Many were struck and even staggered by the realities of racial injustice in the city. The Hardings found such attitudes and feelings unsurprising, seeing that many of these volunteers came from rural, white, Mennonite communities in the Midwest and Canada. They worked diligently to enlighten their volunteers. Reflecting on her time with the VSers at the Mennonite House, Rosemarie believed that their VSers did good meaningful work and were transformed for the better while working in Atlanta.12

Under the Hardings’ leadership, the Mennonite House certainly fulfilled its charge from MCC to connect Mennonites to the Freedom Movement. But the Hardings made the Mennonite House something far more than a home and organizational office for Mennonite VSers involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It became, in Vincent Harding’s words, “a kind of Movement center.”13 In the context of the Movement, the Mennonite House was unique in that it was the only place in Atlanta where white and black people lived together in community. “That life together,” Vincent remarked, “was a project in itself.”14 In addition to the Hardings and Mennonite volunteers, dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbors, scholars, theologians, and activists spent time sitting around the Hardings’ dining room table engaging in lively discussion, debate, and reflection. Those who gathered at the Mennonite House included Staughton Lynd, director of the SNCC; Andrew Young, SCLC leader and later prominent politician; Howard Zinn, a young American historian; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a well-known civil rights activist.15 Moreover, activists from the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement came together under the Mennonite House’s roof. Among the most prominent and frequent guests at the Mennonite House were Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, who lived just around the corner. Coretta would often visit to spend time with Rosemarie and the volunteers. Rosemarie believed that Coretta found their “little community house relaxing, maybe even a bit of a refuge.”16 Most of those who spent time at the Mennonite House found it to be a place of solace, a place where white and black people alike could share their experiences, process their emotions, and grow together.

The close relationship the Hardings developed with the Kings while in Atlanta became a central feature in the Hardings’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Not long after the Hardings’ arrived in Atlanta in 1961, King approached them with an invitation to join the SCLC and “help keep this a Christian movement.”17 Throughout the summer of 1962, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, splitting their time between their Mennonite House responsibilities and the Civil Rights Movement. They did similar work with King and the Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1964.18 Rosemarie recalled that while in Albany, they “quietly encourag[ed] conversation between black organizers and sympathetic whites, counsel[ed] movement participants, help[ed] to write speeches, and participat[ed] in the mass meetings, protests and marches at the Movement’s heart.”19 Through all of this, the Hardings felt called as Mennonites to teach and converse with others about peace and nonviolence—both as a tactic for the Movement and as a personal, faith-centered way of life.20

The Mennonite House, however, did not shelter those living there from the ugly realities of racism. In the early 1960s, those on “the front lines” of the Civil Rights Movement were often emotionally spent, physically exhausted, and at times severely wounded. The Mennonite House quickly became a place of physical and emotional healing. Fannie Lou Hamer originally came to the Mennonite House because she had been “brutally attacked [and] badly bruised” while working in Mississippi.21 Instead of being taken to a hospital, Hamer was brought to the Mennonite House by Andrew Young and others for a few days of rest and healing. Moreover, while this project of interracial community-building found wide acceptance among those sympathetic to the Freedom Movement in Atlanta, it was still a place that challenged a racist status quo. One VSer recalled that police cars would often slowly drive back and forth in front of the Mennonite House, “trying to check out what was going on” in there.22

The Mennonite House, at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta Georgia. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

The Hardings had a distinct vision for what the Mennonite House should be—a center for the Movement which existed in a context far broader than that of the Mennonite community. They understood their work in Atlanta to be groundbreaking on several fronts. First, they were pushing the boundaries of how Anabaptist-Mennonite theology could be understood and practiced. Second, as Rosemarie reflected, the importance of the Mennonite House was that it “was one of the places, perhaps one of the few, where interracial conversations and community was being consciously created in the South. Our work encouraged that impulse in the life of the city of Atlanta and in the life of the Freedom Movement.”23 The Hardings surely fulfilled their commission to “witness to the Christian way of love and self sacrifice in all aspects of life” in ways that few—if any—Mennonites at the time would have.24 During their time with the Mennonites, the Hardings pushed Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and social action outward in the cause of racial justice. In terms of their work at the Mennonite House, this pioneering occurred in the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among Mennonites.

Reflecting today upon the early history of the Mennonite House, American Mennonites (and others) can find significance in what the MCC Peace Section did and did not do. The creation of the Mennonite House in Atlanta was a direct result of the early agitation of the Hardings. To a large degree, the Peace Section put their institutional, material, and spiritual support behind the Hardings’ Atlanta project while simultaneously providing the Hardings space to explore and realize new social applications of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. This space, however, was conditional and more a result of the Hardings’ constant efforts than the benevolence of white Mennonites. For example, the Peace Section demanded that Vincent Harding account for and report on how he spent his time as leader of the Mennonite House.25 Despite such limitations, it was in this place and space that the Hardings created something important not only to the Mennonite community, but also to the Freedom Movement.

In our contemporary situation, guidance can be found in the Peace Section leaders of the early 1960s and—more importantly—in the Hardings. We must listen to and learn from our black brothers and sisters—both within and beyond our own denominational fold; create physical place and share material resources in the cause of racial justice; and, open intellectual, theological, and social spaces so that people of color can work for justice in ways white Mennonites never can. In the early history of the Mennonite House, the creation of place and opening up of space occurred because of the agitation and hard work of the Hardings. Although the institutional and financial support of the MCC Peace Section was necessary for the creation of the Mennonite House, the Hardings were the pioneers, not the white Mennonite leadership. Today, we can and should dare to do better. In these times of turmoil, white American Mennonites must turn inward to interrogate our own prejudices, turn backward to learn from our past, turn upward to understand what our faith calls us to do, and turn outward to learn from and support those fighting for freedom and justice. In Vincent Harding’s call to those seeking to serve in Atlanta comes a powerful commission—one simple in words, challenging in practice, and worthy of striving toward. “Above all, we will seek to understand our brothers [and sisters of color]. We will seek to share their living and dying; we will seek to help them in whatever ways we can. We will walk with them.”26


1. Vincent Harding, “Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,” in Peacemakers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement, edited by Jim Wallis (San Fransisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 88; Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

2. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding’s association with the Mennonite church ended by the end of 1966. It was a schism primarily caused by Vincent Harding’s growing frustration with the degree to which his faith community would abandon their traditional nonresistance and separatism for the cause of social and political activism. The Hardings’ leadership in and break from the Mennonite community lies outside this more specific study of the Mennonite House but is nevertheless important to note. For more on Vincent Harding’s time with the Mennonites, see Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)and Tobin Miller Shearer, “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966,Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2008), https://www.goshen.edu/mqr/2008/07/april-2008-millershearer/.

3. Rachel E. Harding and Vincent Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit: An Interview with Vincent Harding,” Callaloo 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1997), 688-689.

4. Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015), https://mla.bethelks.edu/ml-archive/2015/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno.php.

5. Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015),128.

6. Quoted in Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 213.

7. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 688-89.

8. Ibid.

9. For Mennonites, the postwar era was one of acculturation and politicization. See Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties; Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). My research has located the Civil Rights Movement as the first challenge to and a significant catalyst of the half-decade long transformation of Mennonite theology and social action. See Alec Loganbill, “A New Responsibility: The Awakening of the Mennonite Social Conscience During the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1965,” Mennonite Life 73 (2019), https://ml.bethelks.edu.

10. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 205.

11. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

12. Harding, Remnants, 130.

13. Ibid.

14. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

15. Harding, Remnants, 132.

16. Ibid.,133.

17. Quoted in Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 107.

18. Ibid., 142.

19. Harding, Remnants, 156.

20. Ibid., 157.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 133.

23. Ibid., 135-136

24. Quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213.

25. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 121.

26. Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” 205.

Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today

Tobin Miller Shearer

Marie Regier wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., a little over six months after his death. She recalled a conversation in which yet another acquaintance had suggested that King’s efforts had gone “too fast.” In response, this long-time white missionary to China said she grew so angry that she saw “red.”1

Rezmerski, John C. “For Martin L. King, Jr.” Mennonite Life, July 1968, 99.

Regier was hardly the first Mennonite to have written about King. In the space of the twelve years between 1956 and King’s death in 1968, at least ninety articles appeared in the Mennonite press that either mentioned King or were written by him. Following his assassination, Mennonites eulogized him in the pages of Christian Living, The Mennonite, Gospel Herald, Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and – perhaps most surprisingly – the conservative publication The Sword and Trumpet. Representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Committee on Peace and Social Concerns attended King’s funeral and submitted reports about the event. In the year of his death, thirty-one articles appeared, almost all penned by Mennonite authors who claimed some kind of direct, personal connection with King.

In the dozen years that Mennonites engaged with King – indeed for the decade that followed and beyond – no single individual from outside the Mennonite community had more impact on the Mennonite peace position than did King. In comparison to other historically white denominations, Mennonites referred to, discussed, and connected with King to a greater and far more influential degree. Despite some who voiced concerns about King’s purported connections with communism, King loomed large among Mennonites at mid-century and served as a catalyst to substantive re-evaluation of white Mennonites’ commitment to nonresistance.

King’s Mennonite Connections

Mennonites’ connection with King was already well developed by 1956. In the pages of Christian Living readers encountered a report on the Montgomery bus boycott that emphasized the values of “love and nonviolence” at “the heart of their protest.”2 The following year readers encountered additional reporting emphasized his ongoing commitment to nonviolence, and Mennonite Paul Peachey called for Mennonite to act as “consultants” to ministers who were for the first time considering nonviolence after listening to King discuss the theology of repudiating “all force, war included” as part of their Christian witness.3

The connection between Martin and the Mennonites only solidified in the years that followed. In 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1960 tour groups sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee traveled through the South and often met with King. Following one such trip, minister Delton Franz, who later served as director of MCC’s Washington Office, couldn’t stop thinking about King’s challenge to eschew religion devoid of action, “the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.”4 At the 1959 Race Relations Conference in Chicago attended by Mennonite leaders from across the country, participants referenced King’s writings, his activism, and his witness.5 By 1960, African-American Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding had developed a relationship with both Martin and Coretta King and put plans in motion to relocate to Atlanta to found an integrated community of black and white Mennonites – Mennonite House – that was realized the following year.6 In the subsequent months, the Hardings reported on Mennonite Houses’ close proximity to the King residence, frequent consultations with King, and special assignments from King asking them to meet behind the scenes and negotiate with white moderates and segregationists alike at conflict sites such as Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama.7

Franz, Delton. “King Comes to Woodlawn.” The Mennonite, September 28 1965, 607-608.

King and Guy Hershberger

College professor and peace advocate Guy Hershberger particularly promoted King to the Mennonite world. He not only wrote about him in the church press on numerous occasions, but also hosted him at Goshen College in 1960 and attended meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.8 In response to a request from Mennonite Stanley Kreider for clarification as to whether King exemplified “good Biblical nonresistance,” Hershberger revealed the high regard in which he held King and how central he felt he was to the church’s peace witness. Hershberger wrote, “However short King’s nonviolence may be of what the New Testament requires, I would need to say that as far as public figures are concerned, King was closer to it than anyone which American history has so far produced.”9 But a statement by Hershberger just prior to his assessment of King’s historic witness drives home the point of King’s relevance specifically to the Mennonite community. Hershberger wrote, “One thing which King should cause us Mennonites to do is to take a thorough look at what we mean by nonresistance.” He also relayed an anecdote passed on to him by long-time civil rights activist and educator Septima Clark about a time that King refused to strike back at an attacker who had just hit him in the face and asked his associates to also refrain from retaliating, saying, “Don’t hurt him; he doesn’t know what he is doing; we must overcome with love.”10

Mennonites understood such stories. They were the very stock in trade of many a sermon and household morality tale that formed Anabaptist youth and adults alike. While marching in the street gave most white Mennonites pause, turning the other cheek was familiar.

Of course, Hershberger wasn’t always so sanguine about King. Back in 1959, he and MCC representative Elmer Neufeld – who would go on to serve as president of Bluffton College – attended the First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation in Atlanta. In their report, the two men compared the Atlanta conference to one run by King and his lieutenant Ralph Abernathy, noting that the two men were “not strong in administration” and therefore vulnerable to take over by stronger administrators who were “secular and no more Christian than the N.A.A.C.P.”11 Hershberger expressed wariness about anyone who engaged in nonviolence for purely tactical reasons. He wanted King to succeed as a civil rights leader because, as Hershberger wrote a year later, King was “a Christian pacifist who sincerely seeks to follow Christ.”12

Many others from the Mennonite community joined Hershberger in seeking out positive connections with King. Lancaster Conference bishop Paul Landis reported that one of the first things King said to him was, “Where have you Mennonites been?” adding, “I’ve read your Anabaptist history and theology… at the time when we needed you most you weren’t there.” Landis said King concluded by saying, “I believe a lot of what you believe … you’ve showed us the way hundreds of years ago but we need your help now.”13 Those kinds of conversations helped pave the way for the Hardings’ eventual work in Atlanta. King also took time to meet with urban Mennonite church leaders in Chicago and Cleveland, visits that stayed with those involved for years to come.14

Some Mennonites made more negative connections. The white leaders of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in New York City took exception to King’s methods in a 1965 self-study. They stated, “A church of largely white members located in a Negro community in contemporary America offers potentially greater gains for the claims of Christ than does ten civil-rights marches led by Rev. M. L. King, Jr.”15 Likewise, that same year, Pamela Mueller, a Mennonite from Arizona, wrote a letter to the editor in the pages of the Mennonite Weekly Review in which she berated the “so-called reverend or doctor,” found his actions “inexcusable,” and claimed that he was “well-known in communist circles.”16 Like the Seventh Avenue congregants, Mueller also found King’s street marching the most objectionable. In a letter written two years later, she continued to rail against King, this time calling him an “agitator.”17

King’s Legacy for Mennonites and Beyond

It was exactly this kind of reaction that had caused Marie Regier to grow so frustrated. By 1968, she followed the news. She knew that, in her words, “angry black men” had grown tired of waiting for change in the aftermath of King’s assassination.18 She most certainly would have read Vincent Harding’s essay describing the wall of racial separation in the U.S. behind which African Americans had asked King, “Why? Why do we have to love, even after beatings and rejections and deaths? Why?”19 She might have recalled the article by black Mennonite pastor Curtis Burrell who criticized King for failing to “offer the black man an identity.”20 Her writing indicates that she knew just how profound an impact King had had on the black community, the country as a whole, and Mennonites in particular. She cautioned, “It may be too late even now to stem the tide” of racial rebellion.21 King had called for action much earlier.

In the decades that followed, King continued to prove influential. Mennonite Minority Ministries Council leader John Powell wrote that King’s death prompted him to enter the pastorate and go on to serve the church.22 In 1978, a group of black Mennonites in Philadelphia marked their reflections on their experience with racism in the church by referring to the time before and after King’s death.23 During oral history interviews conducted in the first decade of the twenty-first century, numerous Mennonite leaders brought up King’s influence about their work on racism in the church.24

The story I have described here of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Mennonites offers three insights for those seeking to bear witness to King’s legacy today.

First, this history reminds us that King was controversial because he challenged the status quo. Both those who praised and those who pilloried him in the Mennonite community did so for essentially the same reason: he asked the community to do things differently. He was not satisfied with a society – or a church, whether Mennonite or otherwise – that supported and maintained white supremacy. Those involved in challenging those racist systems today should expect to encounter similar controversy.

Secondly, King found both strategic and ethical reasons to pursue nonviolence. Although new scholarship has emphasized that armed self-defense was an equally important element of the mid-century black freedom struggle, King worked hard to hold those around him to high standards of nonviolence.25 Even though he held far less virtuous values around other matters of ethical conduct such as marital fidelity and gender equity, on the point of nonviolence he had integrity worth modeling.

Finally, Mennonites found in King an example of the cherished narrative of selfless martyrdom. The eulogies that poured out after his death make that evident. But I don’t offer this element of King’s engagement with Mennonites as a historical exemplar. Although King was exhausted and depressed at the time of his death, he didn’t actively seek out martyrdom. At the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, he was getting ready for an evening of feasting and fellowship with his friends and co-workers. On this last point, we can remind ourselves that the work of anti-racism is demanding and calls not only for persistence but also for all the practices of self-care and celebration along the way that we can muster.

Taking time to remember the full breadth of King’s legacy within and without the Mennonite community offers one place to begin that process of resistance and reflection.


  1. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” The Mennonite, November 26, 1968, 732.
  2. Glenn E. Smiley, “They Do Not Walk Alone,” Christian Living, November 1956, 13.
  3. Leo Driedger, “Faith Creates Colorblindness,” The Mennonite, November 5, 1957, 697; Levi C. Hartzler, “Looking at Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, December 31, 1957, 1145; Martin Luther King, Jr., “We Are Still Walking,” The Mennonite, January 29, 1957, 71; Paul Peachey, “On January 8-10, 1957, I Attended …,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Peace Problems Committee, 1957), 1-2.
  4. Delton Franz, “Notes on a Southern Journey,” The Mennonite, January 6, 1959, 6.
  5. Guy F. Hershberger, “Report of the Chicago Race Relations Seminar,” (Goshen, Indiana: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1959), 15.
  6. Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, December 1961.
  7. Vincent Harding, “The Christian and the Race Question,” (Kitchener, Ontario: Mennonite World Conference, 1962); Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, “Pilgrimage to Albany,” The Mennonite, January 22, 1963; Vincent Harding, “Birmingham, Alabama,” (Atlanta, Ga.: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Executive Committee, 1963).
  8. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community, ed. Theron F. Schlabach, 4 vols., vol. 4, The Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996), 256; Guy F. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, June 28, 1960; “A Mennonite Analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” (Goshen, Indiana: Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship, 1962).
  9. Stanley Kreider, Letter, April 25 1968; Guy F. Hershberger, Letter, May 24 1968.
  10. Hershberger to Kreider, 1968.
  11. Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger, “First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation, Atlanta, Georgia, July 22-24, 1959: A Report with Recommendations by Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger,” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1959), 3.
  12. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” 578.
  13. Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  14. Delton Franz, “King Comes to Woodlawn,” The Mennonite, September 28 1965. My mother and father, Vel and John and Shearer, often told me the story of the time King met with church leaders in Cleveland while they served with a Voluntary Service Unit there.
  15. “Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church: Self-Analysis of Congregation in Response to Questionnaire Titled ‘Some Questions to Ask When Describing a Church’,” (New York, N.Y.: Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, 1965), 10.
  16. Pamela Mueller, “Tears and Lumps,” The Mennonite, May 18, 1965, 336.
  17. Pam Mueller, “Shook up but Different,” ibid., November 7, 1967.
  18. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  19. Vincent Harding, “Wall of Bitterness,” ibid., June 18, 1968, 426.
  20. Curtis Burrell, “Response to Black Power,” ibid., October 11, 1966.
  21. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  22. John Powell, “Among Chaos, a Place to Belong,” ibid., September 25, 1973.
  23. Katie Funk Wiebe, “Mennonites Like Me,” Gospel Herald, August 22, 1978.
  24. Ron Kennel, “Interview with Ron Kennel,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Goshen, Ind./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Calvin Redekop, “Interview with Calvin Redekop,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Samuel Horst, “Interview with Samuel Horst,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Huber and Vida Huber, “Interview with Harold and Vida Huber,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Landis; Paul Peachey and Ellen Peachey, “Interview with Ellen and Paul Peachey,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier, “Interview with Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Newton, Kans./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  25. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

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).