Re-Shaping the Chaco

In early 1930, 1500 Russian Mennonite refugees arrived in the Gran Chaco—a semi-arid, lowland region of dense bush on Paraguay’s western frontier.  While their new home may have seemed far-removed from the conflict that had characterized their lives in post-revolutionary Russia, only two years later these pacifist Anabaptists found themselves at the center of the largest inter-state conflict in twentieth century Latin American history. 

Anabaptist Historians readers are invited to read the complete article, “Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Placemaking and the Chaco War,” which explores the strategies that these Russian Mennonite settlers employed to solidify their tenuous claim to an unfamiliar and highly-contested landscape (Instructions for accessing the article are available at the bottom of this post).

Mennonite colonists engaged in a range of seemingly contradictory place-making practices—from the agro-environmental and the political, to the spiritual and the cultural.  Ideas of food security, seen in terms of both production and consumption, linked these diverse exercises. In the Paraguayan Chaco, these former Russian wheat farmers experimented with new crops and foodways. Although pacifists, they supplied the Paraguayan military efforts and provided food aid to wounded soldiers even as they also sent symbolic shipments of their new crops to Nazi Germany. Finally, as an ethnic group practicing endogamy and seeking isolation from their neighbors, they unexpectedly initiated a campaign to evangelize the Chaco’s indigenous population centered, in part, on reforming the latter’s ‘deficient’ diet.

These diverse practices are evident in the pages of Mennoblatt, the small German-language newspaper that colonist Nikolai Siemens published and distributed to his fellow settlers in Fernheim colony.  In Mennoblatt, colonists debated issues from the mundane to the dramatic.  An article advocating for bread produced from varying portions of sorghum or manioc flour would appear next to a reflection on Mennonite’s place in the global Volksgemeinschaft.  A discussion of the Chaco’s intense heat and the recent cotton or peanut harvest might follow an account of military troops passing through the colony or a report on the status of Mennonite’s new mission work among the Enlhet, a local indigenous group.

Published in the Journal of Latin American Studies, this article also seeks to bring the experience of Latin American Mennonites (a rapidly growing community of over a quarter of a million) into greater dialogue with Latin American history. Mennonites arrived in Latin America at times, and in places, that provide a compelling window on agro-environmental change, food security and state formation. Over the last century, they settled in frontier zones like the Gran Chaco on lands that governments considered of ‘marginal’ agricultural value. While the Russian Mennonites in question arrived in Paraguay immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, Canadian Mennonites settled the frontiers of Mexico and Bolivia in the wake of national revolutions and along Belize’s contested border with Guatemala as that small nation gained independence.

In those regions, Mennonites formed endogamous, isolated and ‘traditional’ colonies, but also became ‘model producers’ for domestic economies. In doing so, they consolidated and successfully leveraged a form of agricultural citizenship to sustain a conspicuous autonomy characterized by religious, educational and military exemptions. By turns considered ‘Russians’, ‘Canadians’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘ethnic Germans’, Mennonites benefitted from a racialized ideology of immigration as ‘whitening,’ even as their settlement was conditional upon a legally sanctioned refusal to assimilate into national society. They also maintained strong connections to their brethren throughout the Americas and Europe. This simultaneous engagement with a dispersed diaspora and distinct national identities might have represented an untenable paradox for earlier scholars of an assimilationist paradigm. Recently historians have adopted a more fluid approach to the complex, but often complementary, transnational–national negotiations among Latin American migrant communities. Finally, as one of the earliest Mennonite settlements in Latin America, the experience of Chaco colonists remains critical to understanding this evolving state–settler bargain as Mennonites—and their accompanying foodways—expanded across Latin America.

Instructions for Interested Readers:

Published by the Journal of Latin American Studies and currently available on Cambridge Core’s First View the article can be accessed for free at the link below.

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Perception, Reality, and Anabaptist-Muslim Solidarity

In a 2016 multinational survey Ipsos MORI, a United Kingdom and Ireland-based market research company, examined the disconnect between perception and reality in forty different countries in six different continents. The survey asked respondents to estimate figures such as the percentage of their nation’s inhabitants who report being happy, the percentage of homeowners, the percentage of their GDP that the country spends on health, and more.1 One particular aspect of the survey caught the attention of the Guardian: the respondents’ perception of the percentage of Muslims in their country. The respondents greatly overestimated how many Muslims lived in their country; European respondents were often off by a factor of as much as 4 (France’s average guess was 31%, compared to the actual figure of 7.5%), while North American respondents’ guesses were even further from reality (in the U.S., where Muslims represent 1% of the population, the average guess was 17%).2 These inflated perceptions of the size of the Muslim population in Western countries likely both fuel and are fueled by alarmism surrounding the so-called “Muslim takeover” of the West, though the actual statistics lend no credence to the narrative of a takeover.graphic-for-anabaptist-historians-article

As a historian of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, the idea of a misunderstood and oft-maligned religious minority, whose numbers are thought be much larger than they actually are and whose rise is thought to pose a demographic threat, is very familiar to me. It is far more difficult to make an exact demographic breakdown of Europe in the sixteenth century than in the present day. Moreover, religious identification is further complicated by the fact that Anabaptists operated largely underground in the sixteenth century, and the term Anabaptist itself was used primarily as an epithet rather than a form of religious self-identification. Nevertheless, while Anabaptists formed significant clusters in several regions, their overall numbers in German and Dutch-speaking lands (where the movement primarily took root) were undoubtedly relatively small. In his 1972 monograph Anabaptism: A Social History, Claus-Peter Clasen analyzed the numbers of reported Anabaptists in early modern Switzerland, Austria, and South and Central Germany, and concluded that they were numerically insignificant; even in the city of Ausgburg, which had the largest Anabaptist congregation in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s, the Anabaptists comprised only 1.2% of the city’s population.3 On the basis of his quantitative analysis, Clasen concluded that “the Anabaptist movement was so insignificant that it is misleading to use the term Reformation at all” and that “[the Anabaptist movement] cannot be called more than a minor episode in the history of sixteenth-century German society.”4

Clasen’s analysis drew criticism from other Reformation scholars. The accuracy of his numbers is difficult to gauge, and he omitted the Netherlands entirely from his quantitative analysis, despite the presence of a vibrant Anabaptist movement in the region. However, regardless of the accuracy of his numbers, Clasen forgot to account for the fact that the historical significance of religious minority groups rests less on their actual numbers than on their perceived numbers and the threat their contemporaries believe them to pose. As Sigrun Haude persuasively argued in In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s, “numbers are only part of the story…[Anabaptists] had a bearing on the era through their sheer existence and perceived menace.”5 The numerous anti-Anabaptist edicts issued at both the imperial and the municipal level from the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in 1525 and throughout the sixteenth century attest to how seriously Protestant and Catholic authorities took the threat of Anabaptist growth.

Other parallels between the experience of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and twenty-first century Muslims in the West come to mind. Both groups are and were far from ideologically homogeneous, yet members of both groups are and were frequently conflated with their most radical and dangerous co-religionists. Critics such as Lambertus Hortensius, whose Tumultus Anabaptistae (Anabaptist Tumults) circulated in various Latin, Dutch, and French editions well into the seventeenth century, printed and disseminated lurid tales of Münsterite violence and sexual excess long after Anabaptist groups with revolutionary impulses had largely disappeared.6 Then as now, feared religious minorities faced the difficult challenge of attempting to assimilate while still staying as true as possible to their religious values, even as the general public often made false assumptions about these values.

It is a lonely and at times dangerous path to be a visible part of a religious minority that members of the public and even lawmakers perceive as a threat to the status quo. The many stories of early modern Anabaptist martyrs attest to this, as do examples of modern Islamophobic laws and acts of violence. As people who are intimately acquainted with their religious forebears’ history of persecution and marginalization, modern-day Western Anabaptists are in a unique position to empathize and stand in solidarity with other religious minorities as they face public suspicion and hostile political administrations. This is already happening in many ways, as the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States and Canada works to welcome Syrian refugees in partnership with local Mennonite congregations and even Hutterite colonies.7 2017, with the new incoming administration in the United States, the upcoming federal elections in Germany and France, and a contentious Conservative leadership race underway in Canada, poses new challenges for Muslims and other religious minorities in the West. Particularly in light of the events of the last week, including Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the tragic shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec by far-right nationalist Alexandre Bissonette, solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities is needed more than ever. It is my hope that more and more Anabaptists will commit to standing in the gap and becoming the sorts of allies their forebears might have wished for.

 

Image Source:

Duncan, Pamela. “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows.” Theguardian.com.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows (Accessed 10 January 2017)

 

Footnotes:


  1. Ipsos MORI, “Perceptions Are Not Reality: What the World Gets Wrong,” Ipsos-mori.com, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3817/Perceptions-are-not-reality-what-the-world-gets-wrong.aspx, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  2. Ipsos MORI; Pamela Duncan, “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows,” Theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  3. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 27. 
  4. Clasen, 29; 428. 
  5. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation During the 1530s (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 150. 
  6. See, inter alia, Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1548); Lambertus Hortensius, Oproeren der Wederdoperen: Geschiet tot Amsterdam, Munster, en in Groeningerlandt (Amsterdam: Samuel Imbrechts, 1660); Histoire des Anabaptistes: Contenant Leur Doctrine, Les Diverses Opinions qui les divisent en plusieurs Sectes, les Troubles qu’ils ont causez et enfin tout ce qui s’est passé de plus considérable à leur égard, depuis l’an 1521 jusques à present (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702). 
  7. Meghan Mast, “Hutterite Help: A Refugee Sponsorship Story,” MCCCanada.ca, https://mcccanada.ca/stories/hutterite-help-refugee-sponsorship-story, accessed 17 January 2017.