The Philosophical Legacy of Robert Friedmann

Maxwell Kennel

Robert Friedmann was born into a Jewish family in Vienna on June 9, 1891, and by the time he was twenty-three years old he had earned an engineering diploma and aspired to continue his education. His father, Dr. Peter Friedmann, was a physician and wanted Robert to become an engineer or physicist. But at the beginning of World War I in 1914 Robert Friedmann’s life took a different turn, and he became an officer, and eventually a lieutenant at the Italian front, in the army of Austria-Hungary for four years until 1918. Following the collapse of Austria-Hungary after WWI, in 1920 Robert Friedmann enrolled at the University of Vienna where he studied history and European philosophy, completing a dissertation on German philosophy in 1924, and then teaching for the next thirteen years at various colleges and technical schools in Vienna.1

Robert Friedmann (Provided by Author)

In November of 1938, during the Anschluss when Austria was being annexed by Germany, Robert Friedmann was imprisoned by the SS, just after the Kristallnacht on the morning of November 10. He writes of his imprisonment in a pseudonymous account published in the Neue Wege.2 After twelve days of imprisonment he and his wife were mysteriously released, and in the early days of 1939 Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi fled Austria, first spending six weeks in Switzerland and then staying in Sussex before immigrating to the United States. Friedmann’s arrival in the United States was orchestrated by Roland Bainton, a professor at Yale University, and after a short stay at that institution Friedmann connected with Harold S. Bender.3 Bender recalls the moment when Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi stepped off of the train in Goshen, Indiana, and into a new life “at 10:30 pm on a warm July night in 1940.”4 New to the United States, the Friedmann family attended Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, although Robert and Susi had joined the Reformed Church before leaving Europe. From 1940 to 1943 Robert Friedmann was a visiting lecturer and research fellow in Anabaptist Studies at Goshen College, but in 1944 his wife Susi died after a serious illness.

From 1945 onward Robert Friedmann taught at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Although he had become interested in Anabaptism in the 1920s when he was working on Hutterite codices,5 and although he authored over two hundred articles on theological and historical themes in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Friedmann had a long-standing interest in European philosophy and literature, particularly German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche and literary figures like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. This interest endured from his doctoral studies in the early 1920s to his time at Western Michigan College (later renamed Western Michigan University) where he taught introductory courses in history, philosophy, and ethics.

During that time, Friedmann taught a philosophy course on ethics and values called “Design for Living.”6 This course is exceptional for many reasons, not least of which is that few Mennonites taught philosophy courses in the 1950s.7 Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross recalls that Friedmann would diligently prepare for his lectures, but then would use only a few written notes instead of following his prepared material.8 His course called “Design for Living” was taught from 1948 to 1960, but in the middle of that time, in 1954, after the end of the school term, a student approach him and gave him a copy of his lectures that she had typed out. This came as a great surprise to Friedmann, and he used the opportunity to edit the text for publication, revising and rewriting the original oral lectures so that they would read well as a book. Unfortunately, Friedmann’s efforts to publish the manuscript as a book in 1956 were met with failure, and presumably he gave up on the manuscript in favor of other projects.9

Shortly before his death in 1970, Robert Friedmann gave copies of two book manuscripts to his friend Leonard Gross, with the hope that he would publish them. The first manuscript is one that he is well known for: The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation, published by Herald Press in the Studies in Anabaptist Mennonite History Series in 1973. The second book manuscript, however, was Design for Living. Unlike Theology of Anabaptism the manuscript for Design for Living was rejected for publication by the Mennonite publishing house. In a letter dated March 13, 1972, an editor for Herald Press wrote to Leonard Gross, stating that they would not publish the manuscript because of the “limited market,” adding: “Now this sounds commercial, but if we can get no one to buy the book then no one will read it and it lies on our inventory shelves and this is not very pleasing to the publisher.”10 And so the manuscript for Design for Living sat in the Mennonite Church USA Archives from 1972 onward, being cited only a handful of times by Levi Miller and J. Lawrence Burkholder.11

In 2013 I began a research project on the relationship between Mennonites and philosophy, part of which meant I went looking for any use of philosophies or philosophers by Mennonite thinkers. After reading about Friedmann’s manuscript in J. Lawrence Burkholder’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ in the Mennonite Encyclopedia I acquired a digitized copy of Design for Living from the Mennonite Church USA Archives.12 In 2015 I began to work on an edited version of the manuscript, and by early 2017 I had secured a contract to publish the book with Wipf and Stock. While in contact with Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross and his sons John and Martin, I began to prepare the manuscript for publication, editing the text and adding some additional references. The more I worked on it the more I realized that the manuscript contained a wealth of insight into the very existential questions that initially spurred me toward graduate work in Religious Studies and the Philosophy of Religion. A scholarly exercise in doing editorial work on an old manuscript soon became part of my own moral convictions. In reading Friedmann’s lost manuscript I became convinced of its value because of its combination of Anabaptist and Mennonite values with the works of secular, philosophical, and literary figures.

Friedmann’s insight in Design for Living is that the good life is about regard, concern, service, and love.13 Friedmann wants to educate the heart, and he begins by citing Ezekiel 36:26 and its promise of a new heart of human flesh rather than a cold and inflexible heart of stone (1). His first goal in the book is to make more sensitive the hearts of his readers without avoiding the challenges and complexities of life, and the seriousness of the task of living. Design for Living implores the reader to examine their values and priorities – and Friedmann defines values as those things we prioritize and put first, those things we spend our time and energy on, and those things we sacrifice other things for. For Friedmann the most important concern that we ought to have is for the meaning of life, and he thinks that the quest to understand life’s meaning requires a reorientation of the heart and the mind amidst the violent conflicts of the world (2-3). Friedmann calls out to his readers, arguing against apathy and disinterest, contending that life is about more than gaining personal pleasures like money, sex, or power (11-19), and challenging the hegemony of self-interest (20-23). Against hedonism and conventional morality, Friedmann pushes his reader to move beyond mere reception of values, and toward intentional living (23-26).

Friedmann begins by establishing a minimum ethics: a basic moral standard to which all people ought to be held. At base he argues that we should be decent to each other (26-29), although I worry that language of ‘decency’ is still too embedded in the colonial project of propriety and education. Friedmann argues within a western Jewish and Christian paradigm, suggesting that his reader should consider the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule to be basic standards of secular morality (29-36). For Friedmann, without these foundational guides we are already missing something, and he argues that we cannot afford to be indifferent, given the seriousness of our task to figure out what exactly it means to live, and to discern what is morally required of us (37-40). For Friedmann, mutual responsibility is basic, and without it we cannot ascend toward the goal of a truly meaningful life.

Preparing his reader for the ascent to his positive answer, chapter 2 of Design for Living insists that the reader look outside of themselves and consider the needs and suffering of others in the world that we share. Through confession (chapter 3) and an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulty of life (chapter 4), Friedmann builds a four-part framework upon which he argues we should scaffold our moral life, our religious life (if any), and our everyday life. Anticipating objections with a substantial preparatory section, Friedmann provides four steps that build upward toward the meaning of human life. He begins with Regard, which “means to take the other person fully as a person” (119). When we look at another person, we need to see them for who they are, rather than reducing them to an object or dehumanizing them by considering them to be less than ourselves. This is the first step, required of all people so that those from different backgrounds can live well together, both politically and socially. The next step is Concern, which “affirms our interrelatedness, our belonging together” (119-120). Concern means that we not only understand the other as a person, but that we take another step toward them by caring for them. I can see someone else as human, but it may take some effort, self-awareness, and education of desire to feel care toward them. The third step requires the first two. Friedmann writes that “service presupposes the two earlier steps: regard for the fellow human being as a person, and concern for this fellow person and their affairs by an inner participation. In service these steps now become activated into a doing” (120). When we act on our care for others by actually serving them and taking care of them, then we move to Friedmann’s penultimate step on the ladder of human meaning and purpose – his design for living.

The final step on the ladder is Love, and Friedmann understands that love cannot be commanded or legislated without defeating its aspirations. For Friedmann, love “is the crowning of all endeavors to fill life with value and meaning and to be interrelated with our fellow people.” (120). After presents his fourfold principle in summary, Friedmann concludes the book with a postscript that begins with a quotation by H.E. Fosdick: “Life consists not simply in what heredity and environment do to us but in what we make out of what they do to us.” (169).

These issues are not abstract for him, for he struggled to find work in America after he fled Austria in 1940, and many of his job applications were rejected because he was a refugee. The Mennonite Church USA Archives preserves papers that document his struggle to find work in a culture that was suspicious of European immigrants. Prejudice lived then, and it does now. Friedmann saw this and understood it. But he did not become bitter and resentful, despite the difficulty of trying to support a family on a low income. Without resorting to a cheap redemption narrative that covers over suffering and violence, and contrary to contemporary politics of resentment, Friedmann became resilient and turned his negative experiences into fuel for a critical and positive philosophy of human values, encouraging his students at Western Michigan University to consider their social responsibility for those around them.

At its best, this is exemplary of the underground tradition of philosophical and secular humanism in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. As I looked into his life, I found that Friedmann’s identity was much more complex than it is often presented, and cannot be fully captured by the Mennonite name. Throughout his career Friedmann’s identity shifted and changed and I explore some of these changes in my preface to Design for Living.14 But there is more work to be done exploring the complexities of Friedmann’s self-understanding. He identified as a “Jew who sides with Christ” in the 1930s, he situated himself between religious socialists and Anabaptists in the 1950s, and he regularly attended a Quaker meeting in his late life.15 In a footnote to his work on Hans Denck, Clarence Bauman makes an intriguing suggestion:

Robert Friedmann, more than any other Anabaptist scholar, recognized in his own educated heart [a reference to the first chapter of Design for Living, which Bauman read] the implicit Jewishness of Anabaptist spirituality, though in his writings he himself hardly dared to make this connection explicit – possibly for personal reasons – and, instead, identified the genius of Anabaptist ‘existential Christianity.’16

It is not out of the question, then, to consider Bauman’s suggestion that Friedmann’s identity may have been more than just primarily Mennonite, but also may have been akin to the Jewish Marrano phenomenon. Elsewhere, in a forthcoming book chapter titled “Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies”, I argue that complex identities like Friedmann’s must be considered within the scope of Mennonite Studies, both because they challenge the dominant narrative of Mennonite identity from within and because they show the entanglement of philosophical and secular sensibilities within a Mennonite figure.


Maxwell Kennel is a PHD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where he has taught courses on religion and violence and methodological approaches to the study of religion. He has published articles on postsecular approaches to time and history in Studies in ReligionTelosrhizomes, and Political Theology, and articles on Mennonite topics in Literature & TheologyMennonite Quarterly Review, and Journal of Mennonite Studies. In 2017 he edited Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann’s manuscript Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love (Wipf & Stock), and in 2021 he will edit a special issue of Political Theology on Mennonite Political Theology. His dissertation is on ontologies and epistemologies of violence in the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite philosophical theologians, and the late work of philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. 


1. Robert Friedmann, Das Harmonieprinzip in der Metaphysik, ein problemgeschichtlicher Versuch, dargestellt an Haupttypen [The Principle of Harmony in Metaphysics: A Study in the History of Philosophy] Doctoral Dissertation, University of Vienna, 1924. 128 pp. Examined by J. Döller, F.E. Suess, and R. Much. A copy of the dissertation can be found in Box 20 of the Robert Friedmann Papers, housed in the MCUSA Archives, in Elkhart, Indiana.

2. Robert Friedmann (pseudonym Peter Worb), “Gott shuf den Menschen nach seinem Bilde [God Created Man in his own Image].” Neue Wege (1939): 335-337. Trans. Elizabeth Bender. Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 174-176.

3. “Conversations with Robert Friedmann,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 141-173.

4. See Steve Nolt, “The Spiritual Journey of Robert Friedmann,” (https://8thstmennonite.org/?page_id=3777).

5. See his description in Robert Friedmann, “Ein persönlicher Bericht als Vorwort,” in Die Schriften Der Hutterischen Täufergemeinschaften: Gesamtskatalog Ihrer Manuskriptbücher, Ihrer Schreiber, Ihrer Literatur 1529-1667. Zusammengestelt von Robert Friedmann, unter mitarbeit von Adolf Mais (Hermann Böhlaus, 1965).

6. For his lecture notes see Box 60, 4/48 “Ethics, Design for Living Course” and 4/49 “Design for Living,” Robert Friedmann Papers.

7. See the brief survey of Mennonites who taught philosophy courses in Delbert Weins, “Philosophy and Mennonite Self-Understanding” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Calvin Wall Redekop with Samuel J. Steiner (London: University Press of America, 1988), 117-135.

8. See Leonard Gross, “Foreword: Robert Friedmann: His Life, His Philosophy,” in Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), x.

9. The Friedmann Papers collection, Box 28, contains reader reports for the publisher Rider and Co. (then an imprint of Ebury publishing, which is now a part of Penguin), dating from June 1956. Of the two reports, one recommends publication and the other recommends rejection. Presumably, the manuscript was rejected by Rider and Co.

10. Box 25. Letter from Herald Press to Leonard Gross, dated March 13, 1972.

11. Levi Miller, “Leo Tolstoy and the Mennonites.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998) 163-180.

12. I have since written an update to this entry: “Philosophy” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Philosophy (April 2020).

13. Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel. Foreword by Leonard Gross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), page references in-text.

14. “Discovering the Other Friedmann,” in Friedmann, Design for Living, xv-xx. (https://maxwellkennel.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/dfl-excerpt.pdf)

15. Astrid von Schlachta, “Robert Friedmann—Searching for the Meaning of Faith for the World,” in Robert Friedmann, Hutterite Studies: Celebrating the Life and Work of an Anabaptist Scholar. Ed. Harold S. Bender. 2nd Ed (MacGregor, Manitoba: Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, 2010).

16. Clarence Bauman, “Denck’s Spirituality,” in The Spiritual Legacy of Hans Denck: Interpretation and Translation of Key Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 44, note 139. I am grateful to Jamie Pitts for bring this to my attention.

Surprising finds: Mennonites in Mexico and archives of movement

Kat Hill

The National Archives in Kew, London seems an unlikely place to find records for Mennonite history; Mennonites have never been a major presence in the UK and the London Mennonite Centre closed in 2010.1 But documents are funny things and end up in odd places. On a visit to check out some material related to early modern migrations, I typed in ‘Mennonite’ to find a series of documents held by the Foreign Office and the Dominions Office, relating to Mennonites in Mexico and Europe in the twentieth century.

FIgure 1: The National Archives, London, Image from https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/project-alpha-building-an-archive-for-everyone/

One cache of documents deals with British discussions about European Mennonites who were part of the complex negotiations over displaced persons and refugees after the Second World War.2 Others discuss emigration plans after World War Two.3 One very rich collection, and the focus of this piece, relates to the back and forth conversations in the 1930s between Mennonite communities in Mexico, the British Consulate, and Mexican and Canadian authorities.4 Some items are official reports of government representatives, others handwritten scrawls by individual Mennonites. The documents reveal a story about changing definitions of identity, shifting borders and nations, and movement in the interwar period, and how Mennonites tackled these challenges. Focusing in on these allow us to examine the way in which citizenship changed as the British Empire disintegrated and as states and nations redefined themselves. And it also reminds us of the complex archival remnants which are the legacy of movement and migration.

FIgure 2: One of the folders with documents related to Mennonites in Mexico, THe ational Archives. Image Kat Hill.

Moving to Mexico

Around 8000 Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to head to northern Mexico in the early 1920s. Demands placed on Canadian communities by a series of governmental acts, including the use of the English language in schools and compulsory attendance at recognized educational establishments, drove some Mennonites to seek out a location where they could avoid these restrictions.5 After investigating possibilities in several south American countries, they were able secure privileges from Álvaro Obregon, president of Mexico.

But in the 1930s, dissatisfaction set in. The threat of similar restrictions on schooling and Mennonite ways of life from the Mexican authorities, as well as increasing violence and conflict with indigenous Mexican communities, prompted restlessness and thoughts of migration. Some talked of a return to Canada, but in a letter to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke, P.H. Peters also mooted the possibility of transplanting communities to Australia.6 As they considered the possibility of return, Mennonites asked for British passports: Canada was an independent British Dominion. In the end, a mass return to Canada never happened, but the stack of papers housed in south west London give glimpses into the decisions, negotiations, and the lives of theses communities in myriad ways.7

New Languages of citizenship and movement

As some Mennonites in Mexico sought to return to Canada, they navigated a political landscape of shifting nations, empires and states which deployed novel and emergent vocabularies about citizenship and migration in the interwar world. Many nations hardened their borders and tightened up controls after World War One, at the same time as economic transformation and political upheaval caused mass movement of people, with rising numbers of refugees and migrants.8 Vocabularies reflected this reality. Writing to Gerhard D. Klassen in April 1936, the Acting British Consul-General J.D. Murray listed the evidence needed for British nationality, talked about naturalization, and underscored the importance of authorized documentation.9 In October of the same year, the Canadian Department of External Affairs made it very clear that a medical officer and immigration official had to assess any returning migrants to stop the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals.10

Figure 3: Extract from Laurent Beaudry’s letter to the British Consul-General, 29 October 1936.

Living in a country recently torn apart by revolution and coming from an independent Dominion of the British Empire, Mennonites in Durango and Chihuahua encountered the structures and institutions of the British, Canadian and Mexican authorities. They also looked back to their lives under Tsarist rule before they had emigrated west at the end of the nineteenth century. The documents lay bare the reality of living lives across borders and regimes. Jacob Klassen, who wanted a British passport, was born in Lekopol, Russia in November 1876, and naturalized in Canada in 1908, with papers to prove this. He counted as a British subject, and his wife and child, born in Saskatchewan in 1923, could also be included in this definition as long as records of the marriage and birth could be verified. Being a British subject mattered when dealing with the authorities, but it remains unclear how important this categorization was for the Klassen family’s own sense of belonging.11 The demands of citizenship and the language of nationalism also hint at some of the tensions in new classifications which did not always sit easily with Mennonite conceptions of community. Being a national subject was at odds with many of the ways in which Mennonites perceived themselves as separate communities who resisted the demands of nations and states. Yet these games of belonging mattered in official discussions. Writing to Pyke, Cornelius D. Fehr signed off as ‘Your very friend and British subject’ and gave his passport number, appealing to Pyke’s emotional and national loyalties.12

Documenting identity

Klassen and Fehr’s cases underscore the reality that movement between regimes and authorities required the right papers. Different regimes had different ways of indexing identities, whilst Mennonites themselves kept their own records. The archives reveal the way in which the requirements of documentation by nations and states intertwined and often clashed with the record-keeping practices of Mennonites communities. Mennonites requesting the right of return to Canada and negotiating for British passports had to prove the dates and locations of births and marriages. John P. Wall, Mennonite representative for the Durango church, wrote to Pyke in April detailing responses to Pyke’s questions about the documentation kept by the Mennonites. Their original records had stayed with the church in Canada, but they did have copies.13 Even if Mennonites could prove the details of births or marriages from their own church records, registered with the Mennonite elders, these may not have been verified by the various local authorities and would not be considered proof in their own right. The question of children who had been born in Mexico and to a couple whose marriage may not have been recognized by the relevant authorities was particularly fraught. Pyke wrote to W.C. Rempel of the Blumenort church to say that for children to be considered legitimate, he needed an endorsement from the Mexican authorities that any marriages were legally contracted and officially recognized as such by the Mexican authorities. The official date had to predate the birth date of any children.14

As Fehr’s signoff in his letter to Pyke indicates, definitions of identity inscribed on papers and forms were complex and confused. A Mexican identity card for Margarethe Dyck reflected the entanglements and compromises across cultures, citing her nationality as Canadian but her religion as Mennonite; the identity card itself was of course written in Spanish for the Mexican authorities.15 What these differences meant for lived experience and subjectivities is harder to uncover, although Fehr’s letter hints at the way in which ideas about belonging changed and could even be used by Mennonites. As they have always done, confessional belief, birthplace, language, and culture all shaped notions of belonging, but these practices and expressions were also applied in new ways as they intertwined with the demands of national sovereignty.

Migrant lives, culture and violence

Finally, the documents reveal something of the migrant lives of Mennonite communities, both in the contents of their letters and the materiality of the documents themselves. The very fact these records have ended up in London in The National Archives, with other documents residing in Mexican and Canadian archives and others undoubtedly in family collections, bears witness to the types of archives which resulted from migration. Each document, too, in its physicality tell us story. We can contrast the neatly typed missives of the authorities and official, sometimes adorned with offhand marginalia, with the poorly expressed hand scribbled note of an individual Mennonite.16 Archivalities always tell their own stories.

Figure 4: Extract from Gerhard D. Klassen’s note to the British Consul-General, 21 April 1936.
Figure 5: Marginal Note by Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs

There are of course silences in the records and stories not told. This is a record of men and their negotiations – the women and children who are talked about so often in the documents do not feature as individuals. A marginal note on a letter from the Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs reveals the dismissive attitudes: on the subject of wives and unmarried children joining family heads established Canada, exempt from certain immigration conditions, he merely writes ‘Presumably does not arise!’17 And there is the deafening silence of what local Mexican communities made of the presence of Mennonites in their landscape, who also battled for land and rights, or who entered into violent altercations with the neighbors who remained very distant despite their physical proximity. But this remarkable set of documents, in their detail and their silences, their contents and their materiality, give us a window onto questions of land, movement, violence and identity which continue to be asked in the present day.18


[1] Harriet Sherwood, ‘UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/16/uk-mennonites-end-sunday-services-after-numbers-dwindle, accessed 16 April 2020.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), FO 1050/1565; FO 1043/2579; FO 945/480.Packet_Emails_2010

[3] See for example TNA, FO 371/126537.

[4] TNA DO 35/679/7; DO 35/814/8; FO 723/720; FO 723/721.

[5] Luann Good Gingrich, Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2016),15; Royden Loewen, Village Among Nations: Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 19162006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 40–79.

[6] TNA, FO 723/271, 2 June 1935, P.H. Peters to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke.

[7] Other places also featured as suggested destinations. For more details on the discussions over a possible return and the situation in the 1930s see Loewen, Village Among Nations, 120 –165

[8] See for example Daniela L. Cagliotti, ‘Subjects, Citizens, and Aliens in a Time of Upheaval: Naturalization and Denaturalization in Europe during the First World War’, The Journal of Modern History 89 (2017), 495–530; John Torpey, ‘Coming and Going: On the State Monopolization of the Legitimate ‘Means of Movement’, Sociological Theory 16.3 (1998), 239–259; Claudena M. Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford: OUP, 1995).

[9] TNA, FO 723/271 28 April 1936, J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General to Gerhard D. Klassen.

[10] TNA, FO 723/271 29 October 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[11] TNA, FO 723/271 16 September 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[12] TNA, FO 723/271 2 April 1936, Cornelius D. Fehr to Pyke to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[13] TNA, FO 723/271, 6 April 1935, John P. Wall to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General.

[14] National Archives, FO 723/271, 28 March 1936, Joseph Pyke British Consul-General Pyke to W.C. Rempel.

[15] Janzen, Liminal Sovereignty, 20.

[16] TNA, FO 723/271, 21 April 1936, Gerhard. D. Klassen to J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General.

[17] TNA, FO 723/271, 18 February 1936, Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[18] See for example Rebecca Janzen’s recent piece, ‘Mexican Mennonites combat fears of violence with a new Christmas tradition’, The Conversation, 11 December 2019, https://theconversation.com/mexican-mennonites-combat-fears-of-violence-with-a-new-christmas-tradition-127982, accessed 19 April 2020.

Russian German Baptists in the Bolivian countryside: Reflections on youth migration to and local incorporation in Bolivia

Anna Flack

Like every evening at 5 p.m., the teenagers Martha and Hilda had to milk the cows. I joined them to make the time pass by faster. Martha told me about her wishes: braces to straighten her teeth and a visit to Germany. Due to their family’s financial situation, she did not expect to see her wishes come true. Work here was hard. The girls were milking cows already for five years, although they did not want to. Whereas the girls and their mother would like to return to Germany immediately, the father strictly wanted to stay in Bolivia, Martha said.

Livestock farming: chickens and cows. Photo by the author.

Starting with this description of the situation recorded in my field diary, I would like to present and reflect on my exploratory two-week field trip to the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia at the end of July 2019. As I am just at the beginning of my postdoctoral project, I had no narrow observation focus when I went to my field research.

I want to briefly outline the general idea of my project: Taking the migrations of my relatives, who moved to Bolivia in 2011 after having lived more than twenty years in Germany, as a starting point, I would like to explore and reconstruct exemplarily the life paths, migration motives and belongings of globally migrating Russian Germans.1 The transnational dimension of Russian German’s past and present provides much potential.2 At least in the German-speaking scholarship, there has not been devoted much attention to Russian German’s onward migrations to further countries yet. Apart from Russian Germans’ migrations between Russia and Germany actually there can be observed at present the quantitatively rather insignificant phenomenon of further migrations to the Americas. These further migrations primarily concern Russian German Mennonites and Baptists. They are attracted by Russian German congregations and colonies from Canada to Argentina that have been in existence – depending on their location – for some decades to over one hundred years. Starting from 1874, these Mennonites had left the Russian Empire when their privileges had been removed, among others concerning religious freedom and exemption from military service. Others left after the Russian revolution in 1917, and during the Second World War when they were resettled by Nazi Germany and later moved overseas as part of Mennonite refugee resettlement schemes.3

What I do not want to research are the very conservative and isolated Old Colony Mennonites who migrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas one hundred years ago.4 My research focuses instead on a village in Bolivia and its Russian German Baptist population, mainly having moved here from Germany within the last two decades, after having left the (former) Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

As the introductory description of the situation shows, it can be interesting to read my empirical data – which is based on participant observation and biographical interviews – through the lens of family and youth migration and integration. That is what I intend to do in this contribution.

A village in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

I will present the different perspectives, experiences, meanings and wishes of my relatives’ six children as I perceived them during my field research.5 By doing this, I will outline some major topics emerging from the gathered empirical data. Therefore, this work-in-progress paper primarily constitutes an ethnography. Following Nina Glick Schiller, I focus on the local perspective to analyze “multiple pathways of local and transnational incorporation.”6 Applying this theoretical framework, it is also possible to avoid methodological nationalism. Ideally, this ethnographic paper will contribute to evolve and sharpen a research question for my planned postdoctoral project.

Due to data protection and research ethics the children’s names are anonymized. At the time of my field research, the four first born children are in their late twenties. The two last born daughters are teenagers.

Heinrich and Georg

Heinrich and Georg were already adults when the father decided to migrate to Bolivia. From the beginning, neither of them wanted to leave Germany. Georg finished school in Germany and tried his luck to find an apprenticeship. The company where he passed an internship wanted him to work without payment until the beginning of the apprenticeship. Georg rejected that offer and joined his family in Bolivia. Heinrich, too, repeatedly tried to establish himself professionally in Germany. In the following years, he moved between Bolivia and Germany several times, accumulating debts.

Other Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood, who had left Germany for Bolivia, told me that their adult children either stayed in Germany when their parents and younger siblings migrated, or they returned to Germany, especially for education and work purposes. Having grown up and having attended school in Germany, it was difficult to leave the former life and friends and to imagine a future perspective in the overall foreign Bolivian countryside.

The only asphalted road in the village. Photo by the author.
A residential district in the village. Photo by the author.

Heinrich’s and Georg’s experiences show that the family constitutes a kind of “safety net.” If the children fail their professional efforts in Germany, they can return to their family, even if they live on another continent.

When I visited the family at the end of July, Heinrich was already planning to return to Germany. He wanted to seek an apprenticeship. To earn money for the flight ticket, Heinrich worked for some other emigrants, also Russian German Baptists like them.

Heinrich’s case shows, on the one hand, that migration challenges the family relationship. The eldest son has to decide whether to continue living with his parents and siblings – as he did all of his life – or to return to familiar Germany, where he would have to start his own life from scratch. In the past, the parents had to decide whether to acquire debt to enable their son (repeatedly) to join the family in Bolivia, thus exacerbating the family’s financial situation. On the other hand, Heinrich’s case indicates the importance of a “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” in the Bolivian village for economic reasons. This neighborhood is also very important for the rest of the family, as will be further detailed later. To earn money for his return ticket to Germany, Heinrich works for people who talk in his mother tongue German and live in his neighborhood. In fact, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” had been one of the major reasons why the family had moved to this particular place and not to another with better infrastructure or more fertile soil for agriculture, for example. Heinrich’s father has known some of the neighbors since his childhood in the Soviet Union. Thus, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” guarantees local incorporation – in a social as well as in an economic sense. We can call it an ethno-religious network.

Shipping containers in front of a recently migrated Russian German Baptists’ house. Photo by the author.

Georg, at present, plans his future in Bolivia. He has married a local Mennonite woman. His wife originates from a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. She is a descendant of Mennonites who left the Russian Empire about one hundred years ago. She has never lived in Germany. Thus, Georg is integrating in Bolivia by founding his own family. Furthermore, by the support of his brother-in-law, Georg started his own business and is now able to earn his and his wife’s living. Georg’s example illustrates the influence of local and regional relationships on the decision to stay. What is important to mention here is the fact that his social network consists of other Russian Germans, or rather Mennonites. Although Georg does not practice a religion, the ethno-religious group seems to be the most important reference point for private contacts. Further contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians exist, but primarily due to Georg’s business.

Rudi

Third-born Rudi presents a largely different case in comparison to his elder brothers concerning his attitude towards the emigration. He had been curious about living in Bolivia. Besides his thirst for adventure, another push factor for his consent to the migration seems to be the fact that he too, like his brothers, failed to establish himself professionally in Germany.

During my field research Rudi presented himself as a passionate livestock farmer. He told me the cows’ names and showed me the fences he had built. Rudi had been the first to migrate to Bolivia. He had wanted to prepare everything for his family when they would follow some months later.

Cattle. Photo by the author.

Moreover, Rudi expressed his lack of understanding concerning his brothers’ disinterest in learning how to fix motorcycles or how to drive and operate a tractor and other machines. He had learned everything by trial and error, as he proudly explained to me. It was obvious that Rudi did not waste a single thought on returning to Germany, even though the family suffered severe economic setbacks. Rudi is convinced that he could realize a big business here.

However, apart from the economic setbacks, there are some other issues Rudi complained about. Since the neighbor’s sons moved to Germany to complete an apprenticeship, Rudi had no more friends. He was not interested in personal contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians. Furthermore, Rudi complained that even the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” was not reliable at all. For example, he would never again lend a machine to one of his neighbors, because they did not take care of it. He also complained that people cannot trust each other.

Fences. Photo by the author.

For Rudi livestock farming in Bolivia meant a life plan, despite the many and severe financial setbacks. He is locally incorporated insofar as he can do the work he likes as he likes. Concerning Rudi’s social incorporation, another picture emerges. The “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” that was so fundamental for the emigration decision, for the mutual support of the emigrants and for coping with the daily life in the Bolivian countryside, does not fulfill Rudi’s requirements for reliable friendships. The temporary return migration of his peers for educational and professional reasons results in a reduction of local friendships and thus a lack of local social incorporation. Nevertheless, apparently, Rudi’s social requirements seem to be secondary, whereas work is more important for him to feel comfortable in Bolivia.

Judith

Judith, the eldest daughter, was not with us when I visited her family in Bolivia. Some weeks before my visit, she had followed the example of the neighbor’s children and had moved to Germany to find an apprenticeship. As I already mentioned, many of the Russian German Baptist young adults in their neighborhood choose this option to develop a future perspective – not necessarily in Germany, but rather in Bolivia. I was told the story of a young man who finished an apprenticeship as surgical assistant in Germany and now runs his own doctor’s surgery in Bolivia. Officially the surgery belongs to a native Bolivian doctor.

Judith’s example indicates the significance for more or less recently emigrated Russian German Baptists to maintain transnational ties to the country of origin. Germany obviously is still very important for the emigrants to (try to) establish an existence in Bolivia. As the Bolivian labor market seemingly does not offer the opportunity for professional training, but requires to work self-employed, and, in some cases, due to the lack of Spanish language skills, the maintenance or establishment of social networks in Germany is perceived as a valuable resource. In this context, a religious social network can be very crucial. By joining a Baptist youth club back in Germany, Judith can network and thus maybe enhance her chance to get a professional training faster. At least the Baptist youth club helps her to find accommodation until she will be able to stand on her own feet, to cope with her homesickness and to reintegrate in Germany.

Tractor imported from Germany. Photo by the author.

Indeed, I would even go so far to say that if there were no transnational networks and the possibility for the emigrants to return temporarily to Germany and complete a professional training, earn some money (as I heard from other families) or buy machines (as my relatives did), many of the Russian German livelihoods in Bolivia would not be capable to persist or at least to maintain a living standard more or less comparable to that they got used to in Germany. These Russian German Baptist emigrants probably would have to adapt to the survival strategies of Mennonites without German citizenship or of other local inhabitants. In short, one has to be able to afford the emigration from industrialized Germany to rural Bolivia.

Martha and Hilda

Martha and Hilda are teenagers and the two youngest children. When the family migrated to Bolivia, Martha had only started to attend school. Due to their young age at the migration, both of them have relatively little memories of life in Germany. They are the only family members who attend a Bolivian school. Thus, they speak Spanish on a high level. That is why they often have to help their parents with communication. Moreover, the girls are responsible for milking the cows, feeding the calves, selling milk, doing the everyday grocery shopping together with their mother and cleaning up the house. To sum up, the family structure is rather conservative and patriarchal. Everyday tasks are separated along gender. While the mother and daughters are engaged with cooking, cleaning and milking, the men work outside the house with cattle and metal. Decisions are taken by the father, but the sons have the right to give instructions to the girls, too.

Classroom in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

In general, Martha and Hilda did what they were told. However, I could perceive some kind of resistance. For example, they regularly delayed the milking of the cows that had to be done twice a day, always at the same time. After a short period of adaptation to my attendance, they regularly complained – even in the presence of their father – that they did not want to milk the cows anymore and that they wanted to visit Germany. Furthermore, the girls complained that they were never allowed to meet with classmates because they are indigenous Bolivians which means collas and cambas. Martha and Hilda complained having to wear skirts instead of trousers due to religious reasons and having to attend services and bible groups with their parents.

Grocery store in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

These and other examples show Martha’s and Hilda’s more or less latent resistance against the patriarchal family structure. They openly expressed their dissatisfaction with their obligations in conjunction with the livestock farming, their longing for more independence and their wish to go to Germany, at least temporarily. Concerning local incorporation, it can be said that Martha and Hilda – unlike their brothers – would like to deepen their friendships with their indigenous classmates, but are not permitted to meet them outside the school. Their contact with Bolivians is reduced to school and to the economic sphere, when Martha and Hilda sell milk or buy groceries. Moreover, as they have to stay at home and help in the household, Martha and Hilda in general seldom have the possibility to keep friendships, even with their “Russian German Baptist” neighbors. Due to the conservative family model and gender roles the teenager girls’ local incorporation is made more difficult.

Preliminary “final” remarks

These have been the six perspectives of one family’s children that, in my opinion, provide much and diverse information on youth migration to and integration in Bolivia and the potential for further research. In conclusion, concerning local incorporation it can be said that friendships and economic relations are primarily concentrated on the Russian German Baptist neighborhood. Secondly, the family maintains relationships in different areas of life with local Mennonites living in and around homogenous colonies. Personal contact to indigenous Bolivians, collas and cambas, thirdly, is generally in most cases not considered desirable and therefore reduced to an indispensable, mostly economic level.

Concerning transnational incorporation it can be summarized that the maintenance or the establishment of transnational relationships can be an important resource with regard to educational, professional and economic aspirations. The use of the relatively new communication technology of smartphones and especially of WhatsApp plays a crucial role for the maintenance of transnational relationships. Although Baptists in Germany generally refuse for example to watch television, the use of smartphones with all of its possibilities is accepted. Each family member has his and her own smartphone. Among other things, they maintain (or revive) contact with relatives and friends in Germany and other migrated relatives in North America.

What is also interesting here is the fact that the transnational lifestyle of seemingly most of the Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood seems to be an obstacle for local incorporation. Stable, long-lasting relationships cannot emerge due to the constant migration flows.


  1. Concerning the family biographical approach cf. C. Wirth, Memories of Belonging. Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United States, 1884-Present (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015).
  2. Cf. V. Dönninghaus, J. Panagiotidis, H.-C. Petersen, “Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika,” in ibid., eds., Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018), 7–27.
  3. Cf. e.g. C. J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History. 3d. ed. (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993); B. W. Goossen, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  4. Cf. e.g. R. Loewen, Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016); L. Cañás Bottos, Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation making, religious conflict and imagination of the future (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  5. The following descriptions are based on Anna Flack’s Field Diary, written from 22nd July until 4th August 2019, in Bolivia.
  6. N. Glick Schiller, Beyond Methodological Ethnicity. Local and Transnational Pathways of Immigrant Incorporation (Malmö: Willy Brandt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, 2, 2008), 2; N. Glick Schiller, A. Çağlar, “Towards a Comparative Theory of Locality in Migration Studies. Migrant Incorporation and City Scale,” in, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, 2 (2009), 177–202.

Russian German re-migrants’ and stayees’ belongings: Everyday food practices in Western Siberia

Anna Flack

Led by the central research question of which resources re-migrants and stayees use for the construction of belongings, in 2015 I conducted participant observation and topic-centered interviews at a three months field research in Western Siberia with Russian Germans. 1 According to the Russian Federation’s latest census by 20102, approximately one eighth of Russia’s dispersed German minority lives in the Altai region. Thus, I made my way to Barnaul, the capital of this region. Not, as one might expect, to the German national district (немецкий национальный район) with the village of Halbstadt as administrative center.

Source: Google maps.

As a cultural anthropologist/ European ethnologist3, I conceive belongings not as static as that implies an often essentializing understanding of culture. More precisely and differentiated, culture can be defined as the total of human practices, products and articulations. This includes, inter alia, individual and collective, theoretical and practical, historical and mythical expressions. Culture then means practices, objects and institutions.4 To be able to research cultural continuities and changes it is necessary to focus on concretely observable phenomena. Such phenomena are obvious, often unreflected everyday practices, e.g. concerning language, living, clothing, music, religion and last but not least food. By examining the everyday practices of food and drink, I realized a practice-oriented approach following Judith Butler’s concept of performative construction of belongings.5 Consequently, I understand belongings as a preliminary result of constant construction and negotiation processes.

Boršč – “typically Russian” soup with smetana (sour cream) and pickled cucumbers. Photo by the author.

In three case studies, I illustrate the parallelism and relation between cultural continuities and changes. Moreover, there can be shown the plurality, situativity and entanglement of, even contradictory, belongings. In the following, my findings will be summarized and illustrated by empirical data on three subjects called Marina, Kat’ja and Mrs Müller.6

In everyday life as well as on holidays still dominates a Soviet “conservatism of taste” (“Geschmackskonservatismus”).7 Continuing subsistence farming and eating salat oliv’e8 on holidays are examples that give proof of the persistent effectiveness of Soviet values, norms and action patterns until the present.

Subsistence farming in an allotment garden. Photo by the author.

The accompanying cultural changes can be conceived as, on the one hand, processes of detraditionalization and, on the other hand, processes of (re)traditionalization. In all my case studies a selective influence of a Western, globalized lifestyle can be observed. Examples include the consumption of coffee (instead of tea, the Russian national drink), pizza and sushi. This indicates an orientation along Western lifestyle and a detraditionalization of daily life.

Symbols of a globalized lifestyle. Photos by the author.

The retraditionalization that manifests itself in a return to ethnicity and/or religiosity can also be interpreted as an answer to Soviet and Russian hegemony. At the same time, retraditionalization can be a reaction to global cultural influences. Soviet/ Russian hegemony and the global cultural influences potentially compromise individuality and/or an ethnocultural belonging.

So called “national dishes“ (e.g. Strudel, Riebelkuchen) and Marina’s as well as Kat’ja’s choice of profession as German language teacher can be interpreted as an expression of their “symbolic ethnicity.”9 This means that they can feel a nostalgic ethnic belonging and be proud of their ancestors’ traditions without practicing these traditions (regularly) on their own. Much more important than the cultural everyday practices are ethnic symbols as e.g. consumer goods, especially food and drink.10

Strudel. Photo by the author.

In Kat’ja’s case the (re)traditionalization served the re-migrants’ reintegration into Russia. By adopting the Russian Orthodox faith and practicing fasting and praying, the subject reintegrated into Russian society. In the Russian perception, being Orthodox is equal to being Russian in an ethnocultural sense.11 The Russian Orthodox faith also gains special significance because Kat’ja became Orthodox by baptism just before the Aussiedlung12 to Germany. Thus, the baptism can be interpreted as a rite de passage.13 Baptism guarantees an emotional closeness to (Orthodox) Russia despite the territorial distance. Furthermore, the (re)traditionalization is rather an “invention of tradition”14 than a supposed return to a lost tradition.

Russian Orthodox icons above the dining table. Photo by the author.

Interestingly, Kat’ja’s great-grandmother has had “some kind of German faith, she even always prayed in German.” The subject then remembers that the great-grandmother’s congregation was Baptist. But what is most important here is the difference making and the demarcation of a “Russian” and a “German” faith.15

In Mrs Müller’s case reintegration was achieved the other way round, by a globalized lifestyle indicating detraditionalization. Food products (e.g. instant garden herbs, special fries salt, sweetener) brought to Russia by relatives living in Germany help the subject to compensate perceived limitations in her “new old home.”16 Hence, the subject copes with the undesired re-migration, which was initiated by her husband, and the inconveniences of life in the Russian countryside by consumption.

Self-made fries. Photo by the author.

The transforming of everyday food practices illustrates not only Russian Germans’ heterogeneity, but also the heterogeneity of belonging resources in general. Food and drink serve as a mirror of these different resources which are used for the conscious and unconscious construction of belongings. In interaction with other individuals there exists more than one belonging discourse. Belongings are manifold and fragmented. Therefore, they are constantly negotiated and situationally emphasized. In a postmodern society, apart from ethnicity subjects make use of and combine different resources, experiences, social imaginations, and orientation patterns to create a lifestyle that fits best their needs for belonging, individuality, and peculiarity.17


  1. My Ph.D. thesis has been submitted in March 2019 and therefore is not yet published.
  2. Cf. Institute of Demography of the national research university “Higher School of Economics”, Demoskop Weekly. URL: demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/census.php (25.2.2016). According to official census data, in 1989 in the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic lived 842.295 Germans. 127.731 of them lived in the Altai region. In 2002 597.212 Germans lived in the Russian Federation. 79.502 lived in the Altai region. Cf. Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), Census 2010. National composition of the population according to the subjects of the Russian Federation. [Национальный состав населения по субъектам Российской Федерации]. URL: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/perepis_itogi1612.htm (12.6.2017). According to the 2010 census, there live 50.701 Germans in the Altai region. In overall Russia, 394.138 people stated a German ethnicity.
  3. In Germany, Europe and North America the disciplines underlied different influences, conditions and developments. Therefore, we do not always mean the same when using similar or identical terms. Cf. e.g. C. B. Brettell, “Theorizing Migration in Anthropology. The Cultural, Social, and Phenomenological Dimensions of Movement,” in C. B. Brettell, J. F. Hollifield, eds., Migration theory. Talking across disciplines. 3d edition (New York: Routledge, 2015), 148–197; C. Markom, “Geschichte der Migrationsforschung. Interdisziplinäre Verflechtungen,” in M. Six-Hohenbalken, J. Tošić, eds., Anthropologie der Migration. Theoretische Grundlagen und interdisziplinäre Aspekte (Vienna: facultas, 2009), 29–49.
  4. Cf. P. M. Hejl, “Kultur,” in A. Nünning, ed., Metzler-Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. 4th edition (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2008), 267; cf. A. Reckwitz, Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien. Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms (Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2006), 75; G. Hirschfelder, “Europäischer Alltag im Fokus der Kulturanthropologie/Volkskunde,” in S. Conermann, ed., Was ist Kulturwissenschaft? Zehn Antworten aus den „Kleinen Fächern“ (Bielefeld: transcript, 2012), 151; A. Hütig, “Dimensionen des Kulturbegriffs,” in J. Kusber, M. Dreyer, J. Rogge, A. Hütig, eds., Historische Kulturwissenschaften. Positionen, Praktiken und Perspektiven (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 116.
  5. Cf. J. Butler, Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991); J. Butler, Körper von Gewicht. Die diskursiven Grenzen des Geschlechts (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1995); H. Bublitz, Judith Butler zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2013).
  6. With the exception of Barnaul, places and persons are anonymised due to data security and research ethics. Cf. H. von Unger, “Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Grundsätze, Debatten und offene Fragen,” in H. von Unger, P. Narimani, R. M’Bayo, eds., Forschungsethik in der qualitativen Forschung. Reflexivität, Perspektiven, Positionen (Wiesbaden: Springer 2014), 15–39.
  7. Cf. U. Tolksdorf,“Strukturalistische Nahrungsforschung. Versuch eines generellen Ansatzes,” in Ethnologia Europaea 9 (1976), 64–85; cf. U. Tolksdorf, “Das Eigene und das Fremde. Küchen und Kulturen im Kontakt,” in A. Wierlacher, G. Neumann, H. J. Teuteberg, eds., Kulturthema Essen. Ansichten und Problemfelder (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993), 187–192.
  8. Russian Salad. Cf. I. Makoveeva, “Olive (Olivier),” in Tat’jana Ė. Smorodinskaja, ed., Encyclopedia of contemporary Russian culture (London: Routledge, 2007), 436.
  9. H. J. Gans, Symbolic ethnicity. The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 2, 1 (1979), 1–20.
  10. Cf. ibid., 8–10.
  11. Cf. K. Rousselet, A. Agadjanian,“Pourquoi et comment étudier les pratiques religieuses?,” in Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest 36 (2005), 6; A. Agadjanian, Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning. Orthodox Christianity and Post-Soviet Experience (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2014), 18–20, 59; I. Hartwich, “Die Rolle der Religion in Russland. Von Atheisten zu gläubigen Christen”, in Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (bpb)), 3.2.2011. URL: http://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/russland/47992/religion (4.9.2017).
  12. Aussiedlung means a migration regime introduced by the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II that allowed people of German descent living in the (former) Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to migrate to Germany and to be recognised as German citizens. The basis is a personal confession to the German Volkszugehörigkeit. This implies a confession to the German descent, language, upbringing and culture. Cf. Federal Displaced Persons Act (Bundesvertriebenengesetz (BVFG)).
  13. Cf. A. van Gennep, Les rites de passage (Paris: Picard, 1981).
  14. E. Hobsbawm, T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  15. The significance of the Lutheran faith for a subject of the generation of experience is further regarded in A. Flack, “Methodische Überlegungen über Generationenunterschiede in einer nahrungsethnologischen Feldforschung in Russland. Erkenntnisgewinn durch Scheitern,” in S. Scholl-Schneider, M. Kropp, eds., Migration und Generation. Volkskundlich-ethnologische Perspektiven auf das östliche Europa (Münster: Waxmann, 2018), 193–222.
  16. Cf. A. Flack, “Hühnernudelsuppe, Pel’meni und Pommes frites. Ernährung, Identitäten und Lebensstile von remigrierten SpätaussiedlerInnen,” in Migration. Jahrbuch des Bundesinstituts für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa 24 (2016), 279–308.
  17. Cf. A. Appadurai, “Globale ethnische Räume,” in U. Beck, ed., Perspektiven der Weltgesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), 21; A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); O. Brednikova, “„Eigentlich bin ich Russe, aber manchmal trotzdem auch Deutscher“. Die deutsche Gemeinde in St. Petersburg,” in I. Oswald, V. Voronkov, eds., Post-sowjetische Ethnizitäten. Ethnische Gemeinden in St. Petersburg und Berlin/Potsdam (Berlin: Berliner Debatte Wissenschaftsverlag, 1997), 78–79; G. Hirschfelder, P. Pollmer, “Ernährung und Esskultur. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven,” in Aktuelle Ernährungsmedizin 43 (2018), 46.

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Willi Peters (1940-2016), Siberian Mennonite Minister

William Yoder ( Gvardeysk/Moscow) and Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein (Winnipeg)

Introduction

The Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite settlements in New Russia became the so-called ”mother colonies” of all the subsequent settlements in New Russia (later Ukraine). Their total population by the end of WWI is said to have reached about 110,000. They spread out widely in Central and southern Russia and began to look elsewhere in the search for more land.

They did not begin to settle in western Siberia until 1897. The first to do so, as far as we know, was the J. J. Hildebrand family who moved to Omsk in that year. They founded an agricultural machinery business there. Families seeking land for farming then followed and to make a long story short, began to establish settlements westward from Omsk along both sides, north and south, of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to the southeast somewhat in another cluster of villages that were at first oriented toward the old city of Barnaul, and then, settling east and south shifted their attention more to the much closer and newer city of Slavgorod located on a southward stretching spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. A later expansion of these village settlements took some thousands of persons to an area on the north bank of the Amur River, around Blagoveschensk. A settlement at Pavlodar west of Slavgorod sprang up also.

Eventually, all these areas came under Soviet control also, but the villages of these larger communities remained relatively free of physical damage resulting from World War II. Hundreds of persons were forcibly resettled to northern prison and work camps during the war, with many dying there, and others managing to return to warmer southern communities. Some were reunited with their families on their return, with others were deprived of reunions.

In this process of resettling, many found themselves in Siberian and Central Asian new and former urban areas to attempt more permanent resettlement and community reorganization. One of the sites which acquired a large new congregation of Mennonites, with membership ultimately over four hundred was the city of Novosibirsk. Bernhard Sawatzky was an early pastor of this congregation in the 1970s. It belonged to the so-called kirchliche (lit. church) branch of the larger Soviet Mennonite body in the USSR.

Minister Willi Peters (1940-2016) Novosibirsk, Siberia

Right: Minister Willi Peters and his son Andrei with Ben Falk, MCC volunteer at Neudachino, Siberia (1993). Photo : Lawrence Klippenstein

Willi Peters was born in the Ukrainian Mennonite colony of Chortitza on April 30, 1940. Times were highly volatile, so Willi had little chance of growing up in Ukraine. After the massive German attack of June 22, 1941, an edict of the Supreme Soviet issued on August 28 that year decreed that all ethnic Germans in western USSR would be deported eastward away from the approaching Wehrmacht.

By 1942, the year after the German attack, Willi’s family found itself in Tayshet in Central Siberia. This city is a critical junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway 245 miles east of Krasnoyarsk. Willi’s father, Jakob, had been forced into the Trudarmee (forced labor camp) and consequently spent years as a logger in the forests of Tayshet region. However, the family was exceptionally fortunate in one respect: Jakob’s wife Maria, nee Toews, with their children, were allowed to live with him in Tayshet.

The family remained subject to the Soviet military regime ((kommandatura) until its dissolution in 1956. At that time the family was permitted to move southeast-ward to the industrial city of Angarsk, founded in 1948 near Irkutsk. It was there that young Willi received his education as an electrician. He remained an electrician for the rest of his life.

Willi’s future wife, Maria Gunther was also born in Chortitza in 1941. Her family was among the 313,000 Germans overtaken by the German army moving into the Soviet Union before they were evacuated eastward. Maria, along with her brothers and sisters then fled westward along with the Wehrmacht now retreating, in 1943-44. Maria’s father disappeared during WWII and was never found.

According to the agreements at Yalta signed early in 1945, the USSR was permitted after the war to repatriate former citizens of the USSR from refugee camps in Western Europe. The 200,000 ethnic Germans forced to return eastward included Maria’s and siblings who had been waiting in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia. Maria’s mother was then forced to eke out a subsistence living for herself and her children working as a maid for military officers in Berdsk, south of Novosibirsk.

By the late 1950s, the Mennonites of Central Siberia knew the whereabouts of many members of their faith in the region. In the early 1960s, Willi Peters began a search for a spouse and ended up making repeated treks to Berdsk. Willi and Maria married in October of 1967; the couple immediately moved back east to Angarsk. Their three children were born there: Anna in 1967, Andrei (Heinrich) in 1970 and Katarina in 1974.

For Mennonites Angarsk had only house gatherings where they could worship, so the family chose to move to Berdsk in 1976. Almost immediately the Peters joined the large Mennonite congregation meeting in a renovated private house at Ulitsa Proyektnaya 13 on the western fringe of Novosibirsk. Here the minister at the time was Bernhard Sawatzky (savadskii). The congregation registered since 1967, had nearly four hundred members meeting in its chapel. The group was connected to forty smaller gatherings in Tomsk, Berdsk, Barnaul, and other sites throughout the region.

Church services in Novosibirsk took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Mennonite Brethren congregations were strong to the west of Omsk, but Novosibirsk was by far the largest gathering of kirchliche (lit. church) Mennonites in the area.

Willi first became involved in the congregation by singing bass in the Novosibirsk choir, with his son Andrei joining in 1983. After the choir director’s emigration westward in 1988, Jakob Dirksen succeeded him as leading minister, in Novosibirsk. However, the emigration to Germany had been in high gear since 1986, and Dirksen who already perched on packed suitcases accepted his new calling with reluctance. However, after Dirksen’s departure in early 1990, fifty-year-old Willi Peters was ordained and commissioned as the new leading minister in May. Since Willi had only begun preaching in 1986 and had not previously served as a minister, his appointment was not entirely without dissent.

Why did Willi and Maria not join the trek westward? “We saw staying as God’s calling,” Andrei explained briefly. “My parents were convinced that we had been called to remain here and serve others who had not left. We were not called to be where life was most comfortable, but where God wishes to use us.” Andrei believed that his father was called because of his wide acceptance as a convinced Christian. He thought it was easy for his father to get close to his people. He was a gifted counselor and knew how to converse with people. People felt the love of God in presence, Andrei pointed out.

Retired seminary professor Walter Sawatsky has noted that ninety percent of Russia’s Mennonites, roughly one hundred thousand persons, moved to Germany during the last great exodus. The movement was a nearly fatal blow for an ongoing Mennonite presence in Russia. Sawatsky added at the same time that immigrants to Germany formed numerous relief/mission agencies and church associations for Russia, which became the primary Mennonite support lasting until present times.

Sawatsky noted further that Mennonite church bodies in Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and MCC had long tried to walk alongside those who could not leave Russia. The Peters family had also served as a lightning rod drawing Mennonites who were seeking contact with brothers and sisters in Siberia.

Willi stopped working when his firm collapsed in 1990. After 1990, his family received support from family and church members who had left and settled in Bielefeld, Germany. He visited Germany several times after 1990. In January 1997, Willi made a most memorable trip when he and Nikolas Dueckman from the Evangelical /Mennonite Brethren congregation in Marianovka near Omsk, attended the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Calcutta, India.

When the Novosibirsk house caretaker moved to Germany in 2005, Willi, Maria, and Andrei had moved into the former church quarters. As of 2018 only daughter Katarina, who is single, remains in the family apartment in Berdsk. Anna and her two children have also moved from Berdsk to the Novosibirsk church home.

The end began to arrive for Willi when he suffered his first stroke. His son, Andrei, had been assisting him pastorally since 1997 and was consequently ordained as a second minister on September 29, 2000. Two additional strokes and a heart attack followed. Willi became less and less able to fulfill his ministerial duties. He continued to meet people in a friendly manner as he was able but passed away quite unexpectedly on April 20, 2016. After his funeral in Novosibirsk two days later, he was buried in Berdsk where his parents were also interred.

Through deaths and emigration, kirchliche Mennonite ministries have shrunk considerably in Siberia since 1990. Andrei continues to serve as leading pastor in the local congregation at Novosibirsk, also attempting at the same time to maintain with other smaller groups in Artyemsk, Barnaul, Grishevka, and Orsnyak.

The even smaller group in Neudachino lost its leading pastor, Gerhard Neufeld, when that entire family of two dozen or more persons moved to Germany also. This group remains independent, having virtually no contact with the Novosibirsk congregation, officially, and also does not relate significantly to the local Evangelical/Mennonite Brethren congregation. The sermons of the kirchliche remaining small group are read from a book by a member of the congregation.

That the entire Peters family should remain in Russia to carry on its life together and maintain their mission as found possible, is a very rare phenomenon. Willi’s sister (a second Maria Peters) and Maria’s sister, Anna Gunther, now reside in Bielefeld. A kirchliche Mennonite mission outreach ministry, directed from Bielefeld, remains active in the Orenburg area of the Urals region. Willi Peters’ devotion to his church, his Christian integrity, and sense of duty in good times and bad, and periods of illness and adversity, his refusal to abandon a Mennonite remnant of believers, remain the lasting testimony of his life.


A version of this story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta Chronicle. Learn about their work at mennonitehistory.org


Resources:

Harms, Wilmer A., ed. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K (Hillsboro: KS , Hearth Publishing, 1998).

Klippenstein, Lawrence. A series of articles on Mennonites in Siberia in Mennonitische Post, 2011- 2013, Steinbach, Manitoba.

…… “The kirchliche Mennonites in the USSR,” Mennonite Historian, Vol. V. December, 1979, 1-2, and Vol. VI, March, 1980, 2-3.

Rahn, Peter, Mennoniten in der Umgebung von Omsk (Vancouver, B.C.: by the author, 1975).

Savin, A.I. and Paul Toews, comp. and ed. Ethno-Confession in the Soviet State. Mennonites in Siberia, 1920 – 1989. Annotated List of Archival Docunents. Translated by Olga Shmakina and Liudmyla Kariaka (Moscow and Fresno: Russian Academy of Sciences and Center for MB Studies, 2008).

Sawatsky, Walter, “From Russian to Soviet Mennonites,” in John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia.1788-1988. Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1989), 299-339.

Yoder, William, News releases from Moscow for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 2000-2019. See especially release of news dated November 14, 2018.

Suspended Movement

It was originally my intention to study Anabaptists as religious refugees during the first few decades of the Reformation. Though the notion of early modern religious refugees is well-developed, for a long time it was largely a reference to the itinerant ‘Calvinist international’ that Calvin himself wrote into existence from his position in Geneva.1 Though recent works have advocated for an expansive and inclusive re-imagining of the term, the traditional tripartite structure of Reformation scholarship still lingers–and narrows our focus to those identifiable as Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists. I wanted to think about what it would mean for “Anabaptists” (broadly construed) to be included in this expanding concept of early modern religious refugees.

Yet in seeking to capture the movement of groups who are visible, in the early modern bureaucratic sources that I use, which reflect only in moments of stasis, it was pointed out to me that I was thinking more about the meaning of potential movement rather than movement itself. As I sorted through evidence in the archives of Westphalia and East Frisia, I often found Anabaptists immersed in legal negotiations about economic conditions–resisting or contesting their own dispossession, and negotiating the extra taxes they bore. Though these are often hostile sources, they illuminate the precarities and practicalities of material survival for marginalized religious groups during the early modern period.

I took my first archival trip in the summer of 2016 to visit Emden, in East Frisia, and to follow the work of Timothy Fehler.2 Dr. Fehler had included a reference to Mennonites paying Schutzgeld (literally “protection money”) in Emden, and I was eager to see what I might glean from these registers of “Mennoniten.” To give a brief glimpse into the scale of these documents: in 1601, there were 166 individuals or families who paid Schutzgeld.The total amount collected is given as 943 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten. A later entry indicates that an additional sum of 400 gulden was paid for the Mennonites’ share of the protection of the city, and sent directly to the city treasurer–bringing the final amount remitted to 1343 gulden, 8 schap and 10 witten.4 In comparison, the chief preacher of the Große Kirche, Menso Alting, had received a generous annual salary of 600 gulden in 1595.5

Of those listed in the 1601 account, seven are Jews–denoted by the simple appellation “the Jew” after each of their first names. The seven Jewish men are scattered throughout the various collection groups, and pay obligations which appear to be calculated in the same manner as those of the Mennonites. If the collection units denote neighborhoods, then the possibility of Jews and Mennonites living together is certainly intriguing. Yet, as both were required to pay this extra protection money to live within the city, it is possible that this relationship was more of a bookkeeping convenience than anything else. In any event, the fact that these two groups were combined on bureaucratic lists speaks to a developing sense of a religious ‘other’ in the minds of Calvinist city leaders.

Of course, Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire had been subject to violent expulsion campaigns for hundreds of years. Michael Driedger has emphasized the need to think about commonalities between early modern Anabaptist and Jewish experiences during the upheaval of reform, and much work remains to be done.6 As I continue to work on Schutzgeld, the idea of suspended, potential movement continues to animate my thinking, especially as I consider the Mennonites and Jews in East Frisia who needed to negotiate, and pay, to stay in their Emden homes.

  1. Heiko Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” in The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, trans. Andrew Colin Gow (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); Heiko Oberman, “Europa Afflicta: The Reformation of the Refugees,” in John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A., 2009). More recent studies advocate for, or operate on, an expansion of terms: Geert H. Janssen, The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Timothy Fehler, Poor Relief and Protestantism: The Evolution of Social Welfare in Sixteenth-Century Emden (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing House, 1999).
  3. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 54-72.
  4. Ibid., 66.
  5. Fehler, Appendix, 292.
  6. See Michael Driedger, “The Intensification of Religious Commitment: Jews, Anabaptists, Radical Reform, and Confessionalization,” in Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany, edited by D.P. Bell and S.G. Burnett (Leiden: Brill, 2006), and “Crossing Max Weber’s ‘Great Divide’: comparing early modern Jewish and Anabaptist histories,” in Radical Reformation Studies: Essays presented to James M. Stayer, edited by Werner O. Packull and Geoffrey L. Dipple (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999), 157-174.

Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

Image 1

“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

Image-2-smaller

Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

Image 3

Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

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Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

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


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

An Anomalous Defense of Anabaptist Mobility

The Zurich government’s efforts to end the long-term presence of an Anabaptist minority in their territory in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focused on the control of nonconformists’ physical mobility. The council’s anti-Anabaptist decrees, provoked in part by the movement of Hutterite missionaries in the city’s lands, obliged middling officials to collaborate in a project to segregate, enclose, or banish local dissidents from parishes across rural jurisdictions.1 Periodically, Anabaptist community members were barred from using the commons, incarcerated, or expelled. By imposing these sanctions, Swiss Reformed authorities joined governments across early modern Europe who saw in the restriction and control of movement a means to force members of religious minorities and other marginalized groups to conform.2 Their stated objective was the restoration of subjects’ obedience and communal wholeness. The violence inherent in this approach marked the everyday lives of Anabaptists living in the region over a period of decades. The more systematic implementation of this punitive regime in the 1630s and 1640s helped to permanently eliminate an Anabaptist religious culture from Zurich’s territory.

Plague Image

The burial of three victims of plague in the church yard of Zurich’s Grossmünster, 1582. From the chronicle of the Zurich canon Johann Jakob Wick, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Handschriftenabteilung, Wickiana, Ms. F 30, Fol. 11r.

In this context, it is difficult to imagine that these same authorities would forward an argument in favor of the free movement of Anabaptists through imperial territory. Yet, in a November 1612 letter to Ernst Georg, the Duke of Hohenzollern residing in Krauchenweis, this is precisely what Zurich’s burgomasters and council did.3 This piece of incongruous reasoning stemmed from the arrest and incarceration of a group of five travelers traveling east between Mengen and Rüdlingen in the duke’s jurisdiction, among them one citizen and one subject of Zurich, one of them a barber surgeon, and three Anabaptist men from Moravia, who were journeying home.4 After being held for several days, the Swiss officials reported, the party’s members had been relieved of a significant sum of money, more than two hundred ducats, before being expelled from the German territory upon the swearing of an oath not to return. The travelers’ misfortune was regrettable, the Zurichers explained, because they had only had cause to traverse Ernst Georg’s lands after being summoned by the doctor Bastian Herber to aid in his efforts to treat victims of an outbreak of plague, which had devastated the city’s territory over the previous year.5 Herber—and, putatively, the assistants he had called for—had “behaved kindly towards us,” using his God-given medical arts and enduring great personal danger. His collaborators were now returning home along a familiar route connecting Zurich and Moravia, carrying with them significant monies bequeathed to them by grateful patients.

The letter’s authors expressed some understanding for the punitive instincts of the duke’s agents. The Swiss officials themselves had been dismayed when circumstances had forced them to welcome wrong-believing adherents of Anabaptism into their territory, where they were not usually tolerated. They also knew the content of the Constitutiones of the Holy Roman Empire, under whose stipulations they assumed that the travelers had been detained and relieved of their possessions. Nevertheless, under the same legal code, the officials contended, if an Anabaptist were to pass through a German territory without spreading error, without coercing those with whom he came into contact, without transporting his property, while remaining quiet (sich still haltend), there was no cause to judge him an evildoer. Under such conditions, even a Jew or Turk could not be treated as the travelers had been. Thus, the officials requested that the confiscated money be returned to the Anabaptists and sought assurances that citizens of Zurich would have no more reason to submit further grievances.

This curious episode warrants attention, first, because it provides yet more evidence of the deep integration of Anabaptists into professional networks of medical practitioners in Swiss territories.6 These networks included local nonconformists and those living well outside the region, whose reputation and ability warranted temporary toleration of their presence in Zurich during times of desperation. Long-distance connections within this network remained viable, it seems, because of the groundwork laid by Hutterite missionaries and Swiss migrants’ ongoing need to settle outstanding financial concerns.7

Second, this case shows that authorities had no obligation to restrict and control the mobility of nonconformists. A variety of options between hospitality and open hostility remained open to them. Under certain circumstances, officials drew on available legal resources to make countervailing arguments, even in an environment in which their coercive approach, and the justifications that buttressed it, appeared to have ossified. Repeated determinations to segregate, enclose, and expel were made deliberately, despite the variety of other paths open to the territory’s governors.


  1. See, for example, “Verbot des Täufertums (1585 [1612]),” in Zürcher Kirchenordnungen, 1520-1675, ed. Emidio Campi and Philip Wälchli (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2011), 429-35. Astrid von Schlachta has argued that concerns raised by the activities of Moravian missionaries shaped the 1585 mandate. Hutterische Konfession und Tradition (1578-1619): Etabliertes Leben zwischen Ordnung und Ambivalenz (Mainz: Von Zabern, 2003), 352-53. 
  2. For a broader study of this phenomenon, see Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  3. The following account draws from this missive, found in Staatsarchiv Zurich, B IV 71, 519-22. 
  4. Leonhart Rützensdorffer was the citizen of Zurich and Conrad Bentz, from the Rumstal west of Winterthur, the city’s subject. The scribe did not record the names of the Anabaptist travelers. It is possible that the party included a man referred to as “one of our doctors” in the Hutterite Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that in 1612 an unnamed medical practitioner “had been in the city of Zurich and Swabia for over a year. God had blessed his work, and he had rendered good service to many prominent people with his medicines, especially during the epidemic in Zurich when eight thousand people died within a short time.” The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Volume I, ed. and trans. Hutterian Brethren (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1987), 598. 
  5. Otto Sigg’s study of records from the rural parish of Ossigen in Zurich’s lowlands suggests that between 35-44% of the population perished in the twelve months preceding the authorities’ letter. “Die drei Pestzüge in Ossingen, 1611/12, 1629/30 und 1636,” Zürcher Taschenbuch 99 (1979): 107. 
  6. For more on this phenomenon, see Hanspeter Jecker, “Im Spannungsfeld von Separation, Partizipation und Kooperation: Wie täuferische Wundärtze, Hebammen und Arzneyer das ‘Wohl der Stadt’ suchten,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 21-33; Roland Senn, “Wer war (Hans) Jacob Boll? Die Geschichte Zweier Täufer aus Stein am Rhein,” Mennonitica Helvetica 37 (2015): 11-44. 
  7. Given the location of the travelers’ arrest, it is likely that they were following a path well-established by Hutterite missionaries and the hundreds of migrants they recruited in Zurich’s territory. Travelers left Zurich’s territory through the northern lowlands, skirted Schaffhausen to the east, walked overland to Ulm, and then contracted water transportation downriver on the Danube. For more on this route, see von Schlachta, Hutterische Konfession, 355-56. Long after they left for Moravia, Swiss migrants returned to Zurich to address outstanding debts and claim inheritance. The Chronicle’s account of Hutterite participation in the provision of medical care highlights the fact that, because of their doctors’ faithful service to the Swiss citizenry, “the lords at Zurich [allowed] more than usual of the money inherited [by the brothers from Switzerland] to go out of the country to the church [in Moravia].” Chronicle, 598.