A chapter of 20th-century German Mennonite history that has been predominantly glossed over, received attention in back-to-back workshops by historians on July 22 at the Mennonite World Conference assembly.
Ben Goossen of Cambridge, Mass., spent six years studying Mennonite identity and German nationalism. Using archival material in North America and Europe, the doctoral student at Harvard University says the rise in Mennonite ethnic identity was built on and supported the rise of Aryanism and the Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) movement.
Already by 1933 “racial biologists” seeking to define ideal specimens of humanity had examined Mennonites in Europe and the Americas. Goossen said Mennonites submitted willingly and produced extensive racial knowledge by delving into genealogy. He showed an image of a 1934 Mennonite ancestor list carrying the image of a swastika rising from the sea, illuminating a brighter dawn.
“The general consensus was surprisingly uniform,” Goossen said. “The Mennonites, according to these scientists, were more Aryan than the average German.”
Goossen said Mennonites found the “science” appealing because it was useful. On the Eastern Front, Mennonites who remained in their genetically pure colonies, in what is today Ukraine, were happy to see the cruel Bolsheviks pushed back. Based on their experiences, they were happy to leave the Soviet Union, following their Wehrmacht liberators on the Great Trek west.
When they arrived in places such as occupied Poland, they received special rights as ethnic resettlers, accessing homes and farms taken from Poles or murdered Jews. Goossen said SS documents cite “Mennonites were the outstanding example” of avoiding kinship with their surroundings.
“For 400 years they had essentially created a racially pure community with pure blood lines,” he said. Nazi propagandists were also impressed by Mennonites’ ability to prosper in pockets around the world while retaining a German language and identity.
When the war ended, the population of Germany was devastated. Mennonite Central Committee set up a refugee program to help people flee Europe. But after claiming all those benefits based on German ethnicity, someone had to prove Mennonite refugees were not Germans. United Nations guidelines excluded Germans from refugee programs because they were considered to be the war’s instigators.
“But MCC had an answer,” Goossen said. “According to MCC they were not Germans at all, but Mennonites.” Goossen said MCC postwar relief coordinator Peter Dyck stated Mennonites were neither German nor Russian.
“This was false,” Goossen said. “Virtually all Mennonite males fought in Nazi regiments, whether they volunteered or were forced.”
After the war the idea of “Mennonite ethnicity” blossomed and grew, transitioning from what had been a religious identity. Things progressed to the point where one can be considered “Mennonite” despite not being a member of a Mennonite church.
Goossen said the distinction has managed to persist. Most German or Dutch names, complexions and ancestral backgrounds are still considered—just under the surface—“more Mennonite” than others.
“It’s important to understand that playing ‘The Mennonite Game’ [and celebrating traditionally Germanic ethnic relationships] means having something in common with Nazi race scientists,” he said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Astrid von Schlachta, president of the German Mennonite Historical Society, described her group’s project to collect memories and accounts of German Mennonites living under and participating in National Socialism. While a few books have been written on what is still a difficult topic to discuss in many circles, von Schlachta said there is much more that needs to be done to appropriately document what took place.
“There were a few articles in the [German Mennonite History Newsletter] in the last few years. Very controversial,” she said. “But that is good that it starts conversation.”
As a next step, a conference on Mennonites and National Socialism is planned this September in Münster, the beginning of what von Schlachta hopes will be more conferences to come.
See more coverage of the Mennonite World Conference assembly.
Though I acknowledge that the relationship between Nazi Germany and the Russian Mennonite community in Eastern Europe is a topic that deserves more attention, I find the lack of nuance in the recent Canadian Mennonite article on the topic appalling. It makes two points that I strongly disagree with, mainly: 1) the Russian Mennonites in eastern Europe at that time were not refugees but actually Nazi collaborators and as such MCC committed emigration fraud in classifying them as refugees and 2) that the Russian Mennonite cultural identity is actually just an extension of Nazi ideology.
The first point fails to acknowledge the enormous power difference between the Mennonites and the German and Russian states. The Russian Mennonites had been subject to cultural genocide under the Russian government and welcomed the German army as liberators. After the Germans retreated Mennonites that had stayed in German occupied territory feared summary execution if the Russian army caught up with them. My understanding is that after the war the Mennonites were distrusted by the Americans as potential Russian sympathizers and there was a desire to send them back to Russia. Had it not been for MCC’s negotiated exit plan they likely would have been sent back to face forced labor and execution.
The second point callously falls into the academic trap of explaining all aspects of a topic in terms of the author’s thesis. In doing so Russian Mennonites are treated as a monolith and that monolith is limited to those that fled Russia via Germany during the Second World War. It fails to acknowledge the migration to Manitoba in the 1890’s, the people who fled the Russian revolution in 1914, and those that left Russia by many other routes following the second world war. It also fails to acknowledge that the Mennonite separation from those around them has its roots in 200+ years of persecution across Europe and that throughout that time Mennonites had close ties with some of their neighbors notably the Jews.
I say that the fall into the academic trap is callus as it fails to acknowledge the enormous hurt suffered in the 20th century by the Russian Mennonite people. The survivors of the many disasters they faced often exhibit symptoms of PTSD. They are often unwilling to talk about what they went though, and there are well documented cases of them being told by other Mennonites that they were complaining too much when they did share. In this context the 'Name Game' and rise of Russian Mennonite nationalism can be as easily interpreted as a broken peoples struggle to re-establish some of the community ties they had lost. As a member of the targeted community I find the Canadian Mennonite article personally very hurtful, and request that future treatments of the subject make some attempt at empathy.
Member at Erb St Mennonite Church
PHD Candidate in Mechanical Engineering (Nanotechnology)
P.S. Rogalsky as a Mennonite name likely originates in Prussia from intermarriage with the Jewish community.
I read your response and I would agree that it was hurtful to write about Mennonites who were persecuted. I knew some Russian Mennonites. Thank you for your thoughtful but needful response!
The point of view, as described in this article, seems as judgemental as a controversy about Willing Executioners by another Harvard dissertation. It may be, that Harvard scholars, sometimes write an onus position, that proves more meaningful on the rebuttal. In that case we may hope the dissertation will continue to mature.
James Neufeld, Winnipeg
Scholar Gerhard Rempel published an article in the MQR in 2010, a part of which was published in The Mennonite and is available online. It is entitled "Mennonites and the Holocaust: from collaboration to perpetration." Gerhard indicates that some persons who identified as Mennonite committed holocaust atrocities, including the gassing of Jews, during the Nazi era. It is an "open secret" on the campus of CMU that some students have grandparents and older friends and relatives who served with the Germans, not just in the regular German army but also as officers in the S.S., the elite soldiers and leaders of the Nazi movement who were very much involved in holocaust atrocities. This is a painful and horrific incident in our past. Like the aboriginal residential school abuses perpetrated by the Mennonite Church, it is time for us to own up to the hurtful abuses of our past. As a pastor, I believe that confession and repentance are necessary in order to allow opportunities for God's healing to occur. Let's support our academics in exploring more fully the painful, honest truth that Mennonites can be not only victims, but also perpetrators of abuses in the WWII era. In naming this ugly reality we can seek to repent and rebuild relationships with those who have been harmed by the actions of the community we love.
I find it difficult to understand how I can repent for another's sin. I can, and do, regret that it happened but I can only repent for MY sin. I happen to be ethnically Mennonite and came to a Mennonite village in Canada as a DP in 1948 when I was seven. I vaguely recall the wagon trek through Ukraine, and the train through Poland into northern Germany. It had nothing to do with NAZI sympathy, only fear of Stalin's regime. You may find it interesting to know that, until his passing, I was married to a very good man~~who happened to be Jewish. In any case I think I can forgive only what is done to me and repent for only what I have done.
My mother and her family were subjected to kulak relocation in 1929. The NKVD banged on their door in middle of the night. The older boys tried to intervene and were shot dead. The police then took my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother (age 13) and five other younger children 400 kilometers north of Ignatevo colony into the Ural Mountains to subsist or die of starvation. My mother and 2 children and grandmother survived. They were chased around Russia and couldn't settle any place. Her large Mennonite family shattered and dispersed. They suffered terrible starvation and lack of decent shelter. The Germans were indeed a saving grace for them and the only way some could leave Russia was as German POWs. Ironically, when the family arrived at the refugee camp, they were persecuted by some Germans for being Russian. Their only hope was to immigrate to Canada and in 1949 that was accomplished though the Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. Who can live under the gun like that and not make the best choice at the time for themselves, even with the so-called "enemy"? You do what you do because it's either that or die.
I think if anyone would learn about the atrocities that were committed against the Ukrainian/Russian Mennonites and other Ukrainians by the Communists, then that person would refrain from passing judgment on them for believing the Wehrmacht to be a deliverer. For that is what the Germans were to them. I was a Mennonite for ten years. I did not fit in. We left to return to our Catholic church. But I respect the Mennonites.
I find the idea of "Mennonites" collaborating with the horrendous Nazi apparatus despicable. The best I can say: they are not true Mennonites but apostates and should be regarded as that--apostate. Some pious Mennonites will try to justify their behavior, which is sad.
Perhaps T. Snyder's book "Bloodlands" would help shed light on the terrible ethical ambiguities faced by German-Poles, Polish-Ukrainians, Germanic-Ukrainians and the many other permutations of ethnicities living in lands contested by two totalitarianisms: Nazi and Communist. Snyder argues the two ideologies learned from each other, a symbiotic relationship that was an orgy of death, suffering, deprivation and chaos. Jews and Poles and Germans and Poles were simultaneously victims, and perpetrators by degree, with the Jewish people occupying the place of distinction of having no haven, only enmity.
Jews were not perpetrators - they were victims of Nazi genocide, with six million Jews being murdered, as I am sure you know.
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