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.