Mennonite Central Committee has released the findings of its research on the organization’s historical entanglements with German National Socialism (or Nazism) and its legacy before, during and after the Second World War. Articles examining this history are available in the fall 2021 issue of Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly.
Over the past few years, several pieces have been published about Mennonite complicity with National Socialism and the Holocaust as well as Mennonite antisemitism. To improve MCC’s understanding of its part in this history, the organization invited 12 historians from Canada, the United States, France, Germany and the Netherlands to conduct archival research during early 2021.
“Truth-seeking and truth-telling are essential parts of MCC’s commitment to peacebuilding,” says Ann Graber Hershberger, executive director of MCC U.S. “We want to approach these tasks honestly and non-defensively. At the same time, we recommit ourselves to standing against all forms of oppression, including racism, colonialism and sexual violence.”
The research highlights complicated and painful parts of MCC’s institutional history.
Following the Second World War, MCC’s efforts to resettle Mennonites from the Soviet Union were challenging and deeply ambiguous. MCC recognized that Mennonites were facing an uncertain and hostile future. Now living in Germany and having accepted German citizenship, Mennonites feared deportation back to the Soviet Union. This added extreme urgency to MCC’s work. Through a variety of narratives, MCC successfully persuaded Allied governments and other governing bodies to allow Mennonites to migrate to Canada and South America.
Through this effort to resettle more than 12,000 refugees, MCC downplayed and covered over Mennonite participation in Nazi military bodies. MCC assisted a number of Mennonites who had collaborated with and benefited from Nazism, including some who committed war crimes and participated in the Holocaust.
As well, MCC’s financial debt to the German government for the transportation of Soviet Mennonites to Paraguay in the early 1930s meant that MCC became a debtor to the Nazi regime when it came to power in 1933. MCC turned to Benjamin Unruh, a displaced Mennonite from the Soviet Union living in Germany and a committed Nazi, to negotiate with the Nazi government regarding this debt.
Other parts of the historical research outline how MCC worked in wartime France to rescue Jewish children from death camps. It also details how MCC sought to cultivate a commitment to peace and nonresistance in a Paraguayan Mennonite colony where pro-Nazi sentiments were on the rise.
In response to these research findings, MCC will take several actions. Over the coming months, MCC will develop internal staff training on antisemitism. MCC will also undertake a process of consultation to determine how to further respond to the research findings. MCC welcomes counsel from Anabaptists and others until March 2022. Recommendations and comments can be sent to email@example.com.
“We recognize that MCC is a human institution, which means we are far from perfect. By examining the places where MCC has fallen short, we continue to learn, grow and become more Christlike,” says Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of MCC Canada.
“We know that for some MCC supporters, these findings may be difficult to absorb,” he continues. “Many individual family histories are caught up in this narrative. We offer this research with open hands and hearts, knowing that it captures just a fraction of the Mennonite story.”
Further discussion about this—and other aspects of the research—will occur at the “MCC at 100” conference, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, and at a roundtable event, “MCC, Refugees and the Legacies of National Socialism,” on Nov. 4. Both events will be hosted by the University of Winnipeg and sponsored by MCC. These events are open to the public with pre-registration.
MCC initiates research into historical connections with National Socialism
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Benjamin Unruh (front row, third from left) stands with refugee representatives in Moelln, Germany, circa 1930. Unruh, a displaced Mennonite from the Soviet Union living in Germany and a committed Nazi, negotiated with the Nazi government on behalf of MCC regarding a debt the relief organization owed. (Mennonite Heritage Archives photo)
Laura Kalmar summarizes the fall 2021 issue of Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice, the issue which deals with Mennonite Central Committee’s examination of its past interactions with Nazism, the National Socialist Party of WW II era Germany. Rick Cober Bauman (MCC Canada) offers an apologetic for past MCC actions, saying that “MCC is a human institution which means we are far from perfect. By examining the places where MCC has fallen short, we continue to learn, grow and become more Christlike.” While this may be so in theory, it is much more difficult in practice despite the 500 years or so of Anabaptist/Mennonite history. I do think that examining MCC’s relationship with National Socialism has to be seen in the context of the larger Mennonite historical narrative, especially the building of empire of Mennonites in the Ukraine since 1789, and the reasons why Soviet Mennonite emigres suffered their particular persecution.
Reading the articles provided by the authors/historians in Intersections regarding the relationship of MCC and National Socialism reveals familiar themes and patterns which arise within the Mennonite historical narrative over time. Themes such as the Mennonite church’s hopes for a chiliastic (heaven on earth) entity/identity. A second pattern revealed is that our (Mennonite church) faith/theology is situational and subject to change, conditional. A third pattern emerges of leadership betrayal of the faithful through deception and lies. A fourth theme which is challenged by the MCC easy/uneasy relationship with National Socialism is one of identifying MCC and Mennonite Church as a “peace church.”
Chiliasm or millennialism is the idea that there will be a paradise here on earth prior to Jesus’ second coming, a “New Jerusalem” as portrayed by John of Patmos in Revelations 3:12. John Eicher (Penn State) writes in MCC and Nazi Impressions of Paraguay’s Mennonite Colonies that MCC leaders such as Harold S. Bender reasoned that with Mennonite colonies ensconced in Paraguay, a “new era” of Mennonite history was imminent, a “transnational solidarity” of the Mennonite faith/culture of an imagined global Mennonite body/state. Eicher makes the point that Nazi leaders envisioned a similar “homogenous” entity of Germanic groups globally and that National Socialism was supportive in establishing the Paraguayan Mennonite colonies because of this.
Mennonite Church US and Mennonite Church Canada still have a strong “millennialism” component in Article 24 in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) which states in the revelatory language of John of Patmos that “we look forward to the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem …” This kind of language/belief/theology is easily misconstrued and used for nefarious purposes by “bad actors,” as seen throughout Mennonite history in the 1535 Munster debacle and the 1889 Claas Epp Jr. New Jerusalem prophecy. The element of millennialism proposed by Mennonite intellectuals and leadership in their interaction with National Socialism in conjunction with Mennonite/German colonies in Paraguay was misguided and dangerous.
In addition to the chiliastic theme of the reporting on MCC intersection with National Socialism, it seems evident that Mennonite Church faith/theology as represented by MCC during this time was situational, as MCC leaders made decisions which didn’t reflect faith values of honesty and integrity to achieve their goals of resettling Soviet Mennonite refugees. Alain Epp Weaver, editor of this issue of Intersections, summarizes that MCC in its bid to resettle Soviet Mennonite refugees, sided politically with the Nazis by resorting to telling three main lies to the UN and US /Canada refugee organizations, 1) refugees were a Mennonite ethnic and not German people, 2) that Mennonites had been persecuted in Russia like the Jews in Germany, and 3) Mennonites had been brutalized by the Nazis.
Arnold Neufeldt Fast in Benjamin Unruh, Nazism and MCC reports how being indebted to the Third Reich due to help with financing the 1930s Fernheim Colony in Paraguay, influenced MCC to partner with Benjamin Unruh, a Nazi sympathizer. Aileen Friesen writes in Defining the Deserving: MCC and Mennonite refugees from Soviet Union after World War II, that in the case of Heinrich Wiebe – Mayor of Zaporyhzhia and facilitator with the Nazis of the death of thousands of Jewish persons, MCC still defended Wiebe’s refugee status to the UN International Refugee Organization through lies and deception. MCC’s honesty and integrity was continually being sacrificed by its representatives, depending on the situation and circumstance. Faith was sacrificed for money? Cultural kinship? For helping “God’s people?”
A third troubling theme to emerge out of this reporting on the MCC relationship to National Socialism is the revelation of just how many Mennonite leaders were caught up in the moment. The betrayal of Mennonite people/theology by Mennonite leadership, ministerial and academia, is indeed very troubling. Leaders such as H.S. Bender, C.F. Klassen, Peter J. Dyck, Orie Miller, Walter Quiring, M. C. Lehman, William Snyder, Benjamin Unruh, Cornelius Krahn, and others, all played some role in the “Big Lie,” the great deception, misrepresenting the truth and consorting with the diabolical evil of Nazism to achieve their ends/goals of refugee resettlement. Alain Epp Weaver makes the point that MCC leadership subsequently suppressed inquiry as to the extent of its collaboration with National Socialism, through denial and obfuscation.
A fourth and on-going theme of concern to emerge from this reporting is that of the identity of the Mennonite Church as a “peace church.” Clearly the ideology of “peace church” is negotiable depending on the leadership and circumstances at any given time. Clearly the claim to “peace church” is hubristic and deceptive in nature. The debacle of the MCC relationship to Nazism (one of the most violent regimes to ever exist in human history), has given the lie to the “peace church” claim throughout the Mennonite historical narrative.
Mennonite peoples have had a relationship of convenience with the ideology of pacifism. In general, the convenience has been that we are willing to profess pacifism if others are willing to do our killing for us, so that we might still benefit. This is evident in our history through payment for military exemptions in Prussia, protection of the Tsarist armies in Russia, government and military protections in USA and Canada, and through our complicity with the horrors of the Nazi regime.
So, what to make of it all? To my mind, I think that the MCC relationship with Nazism, the willingness of Mennonite church leadership to betray Mennonite peoples and values, is a mirror reflecting the recurring rot of apostasy throughout the Mennonite historical narrative. The pattern has been “to seek the promised land” after some calamitous circumstances, and then when we arrive in the stolen land (USA, Russia, Canada, Mexico), we build our empires on the backs of the poor, the Indigenous populations of these lands, espousing peace in the name of Jesus, as we violently wrest away their lands, and participate in the Mennonite version of a “gentle genocide,” the genocidal actions of the “quiet in the land.”
The prophet Jeremiah puts it “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain, prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. Peace, peace, they say, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:13-14). We claim peace while the wounds we have inflicted on Indigenous people fester. We call peace and concurrently build empires on the backs of the poor. We call peace and shun the LGBTQ in our midst. We call peace and subjugate women. We call peace and consort with diabolic regimes. We call peace for Mennonites in the Chaco in Paraguay, without a thought for the Enxet lands we stole.
As indicated by the prophet Jeremiah, there is no peace in greed and gain, only misery and injustice. Perhaps an examination of MCC complicity with National Socialism will lead to the recognition of a Mennonite history fraught with injustice and apostasy, and a willingness to turn from injustice towards justice. The choice is clear, justice or empire. Yahweh says we can’t have both.
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