Mennonites reckon with the Holocaust
May 29, 2018 8:24 AM   Subscribe

"Mennonites entered Nazi consciousness in 1929, when 13,000 refugees descended on Moscow, clamoring to leave the Soviet Union. In Germany, the National Socialist Racial Observer took up their cause." [Graphic images]
Mennonite experiences of and involvement in the Holocaust differed widely. We know that a handful of individuals actively participated as executioners and concentration camp guards. We also know that a substantial percentage of Europe’s Mennonites benefited from and often sympathized with aspects of Nazism. Around 120,000 people, or about one-fourth of the denomination worldwide, lived under Nazi rule at the height of Hitler’s expansionism. Generally categorized as members of the Aryan racial elite, Mennonites sometimes received goods taken from murdered Jews or moved into their vacant homes. Others leased slave labor for their farms and factories, or otherwise profited from genocide. ...

In 1945 when the Third Reich collapsed, church institutions on both sides of the Atlantic worked to suppress allegations of Mennonite collaboration. ... Receptive bureaucrats developed an erroneous impression that huge numbers had performed “slave labour” for the Nazis, while the New York Times reported that they suffered “as the Jews.”

Denialism has marked public discussions ever since. While other Christian denominations began self-scrutiny decades ago, conservative strategies—such as emphasizing Mennonites’ own hardships, referencing “Germans” instead of “Nazis,” and refocusing on Bolshevik atrocities—have depressed engagement for generations in Paraguay, Canada, and Germany.
posted by clawsoon (28 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
(Should there be a trigger or content warning for some of the pictures? Apologies for not thinking of that.)
posted by clawsoon at 8:25 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


My Mennonite grandmother's family fled the German Confederation in the 19th century, but they still identified as German and spoke German in the home (US). She and my Grandfather traveled separately to Germany to "help" after the war, and I've always been a little curious as to the circumstances surrounding that trip.

This definitely increases that curiousness . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 8:34 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Yes, please. The very first still is NSFW/NSFL.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:34 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]


[Added warning.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:37 AM on May 29 [5 favorites]


Generally categorized as members of the Aryan racial elite, Mennonites sometimes received goods taken from murdered Jews or moved into their vacant homes. Others leased slave labor for their farms and factories, or otherwise profited from genocide. ...

Hmm. What’s that ellipsis in the FPP yada-yadaing?
Yet many Mennonites also suffered. Life in wartime could be brutal, not least in German-occupied Western Europe, where some Mennonites joined the resistance. A number were executed or sent to concentration camps for political activities or for possessing Jewish heritage or cognitive disabilities. And a small but important subset—primarily in the Netherlands and France—hid Jews.
Cool framing, bro.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:42 AM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this article. The Stutthof camp is my personal area of interest--many survivor testimonies describe being sent to work on local farms, some of which were run by Mennonites. I hadn't heard the Mennonite version of the story and am looking forward to learning more.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:44 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


I'd be interested to hear about the conversation that took place at the "Mennonites and the Holocaust" conference; the link in the article is broken.
posted by Orlop at 9:47 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Here's an article from someone who attended the conference: How Mennonites reckon with our history in the Holocaust

I found it a pretty interesting read, because she pulls in a lot of threads of not just how the conference went (the description of the sole Jewish attendee's experience in particular), but also how this has echoed through the years to current history.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:55 AM on May 29 [5 favorites]


I should clarify my objection. The Mennonite angle is only relevant from a Mennonite perspective of Mennonite history as presented to a Mennonite audience. That’s the only reason it focuses on Mennonites, who were by all accounts — including this one — no different from any other “Aryan” Germans in Germany at the time. Take that specific Mennonites-talking-Mennonites-to-Mennonites context away, and suddenly it reads to a wider audience like Mennonites were some kind of special league of Super-Nazis (because why else focus on them?), rather than merely German farmers who happened to be of a minority religious bent. This is not helped by the excision of the full range of Mennonite experiences of the Holocaust in the FPP.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:01 AM on May 29 [9 favorites]


Possibly another piece of context: Nazi–Soviet population transfers
posted by XMLicious at 10:20 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


One Mennonite's experience under Soviet and Nazi rule is found in Path of Thorns (reviewed by Goosen here). Another interesting paper on Mennonites in Ukraine in the 20's and 30's is to be found on Carl Becker Papers site. It touches on the Mennonites of 1929 who wanted out. Some succeeded, others did not - the Soviets apparently had ambivalent views of Mennonites and their work ethic, and this episode was a major embarrassment for the government, who didn't embarrass easily. Of those who remained, some were denounced as kulaks and disappeared, others moved into responsible positions on the collectives. Living under totalitarian regimes demands difficult choices.

Poking around, I found Gerhard's Journey, the author of which recounts the life of his father and who finds much to criticize in his father's faith. For context, if not mitigation, one should read the section on the Holodomor (Grisly pictures on second link.)
posted by BWA at 12:17 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Fair points, Sys Rq. Being one generation removed from the Mennonite experience myself, the impression I got growing up was one of quiet self-satisfaction that the rest of the world was finally realizing, in the wake of disasters like the World Wars and the Holocaust, that we peaceable Mennonites had been morally right all along.

It has only been recently that a few voices have been successfully pushing against that self-satisfaction. I apologize for narrowing the scope to just the bad stuff, but it seems like there has been plenty of #NotAllMennonites pushback in the Mennonite discussion of this and other issues already, which is why it has taken so long to grapple with them in the first place. When everybody has been telling you for half a century that you're the most moral people in the world, it can be hard to listen to negatives without jumping in "but what about all the good things?"

So this is, in part, me trying to listen to the bad stuff without letting my self-satisfaction and self-defensiveness get in the way of hearing it.
posted by clawsoon at 12:27 PM on May 29 [6 favorites]


Sys Rq is right that this reflects Mennonte self-reflection (and I ought to say up front that I think it's admirable) but it's not solely an internal thing: Mennonites, as a religious community, had a communal response to Germanism and Nazism. Mennonites supported these ideologies not just as individuals, but as people with a common ethnic background, as members of a community, and as bearers of a religious tradition. The study of their communal response and participation in the Holocaust has lessons for those of us who aren't Mennonites, too, because we all have communal ties that shape our reactions to events.

Further reading: Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetration.

It's an excerpt from a longer article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review (PDF).
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:35 PM on May 29 [7 favorites]


Oh, and this: A window into Antisemitism and Nazism among Mennonite in North America, Part 1

My takeaway was that the Mennonites weren't a "special league of Super-Nazis", but there was definitely a pro-Nazi strand in Mennonite discourse even among Mennonites outside Germany who had no other reason to be influenced by Nazism.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:44 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Cool framing, bro.

There's this joke about my version of Mennonitism (Mennonite Brethren (MB)) that can extend to the group as a whole:

"A Swiss Mennonite reaches the pearly gates and is ushered in by St. Peter who offers to take him on an initial tour of heaven. As Peter walks the streets of gold he points out where the various righteous groups live - the Baptists over there, the Alliance over there, the Lutherans around the corner. As they pass a small group huddled over by a fence in a corner, Peter shushes the man and suggests he be quiet. When the man asks why Peter says, pointing at the huddled group, "Those are the MBs. They think they're the only ones up here."

As an abgefallen (fallen off, lapsed) Mennonite who grew up in a religiously conservative (not lifestyle conservatism like the Amish or other "horse and buggy" Mennonites) evangelical Mennonite denomination - the Mennonite Brethren - what I've come to see as one of our central MOs is a knack for "monetizing" faith and culture for social and economic advantage, and then telling stories that make it righteous.

If we needed land and autonomy we peddled our work ethic and willingness to do "the man's" bidding (rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's), as we did during the late 19th and early 20th century on the Canadian plains where we were important settler shock troops in the displacement of indigeneous and Metis populations. In this sort of situation we would conveniently (and hypocritically) trade our settling of the land for exemption from military service and religio-educational autonomy. We happily accepted, expected really, protection from the North West Mounted Police too. We used our religiously-declared non-resistant position as a means to spare our children from military service, while depending on an armed police force to keep us safe from the rightly angry peoples we were displacing. It's obvious to me now that this self-deception is not unique to us, but as a young Menno I was completely convinced that we were in fact the most true-hearted of Christians.

This is the checkered and inconsistent ideological pattern of our past, and I think it makes this "outing" of some of us as Nazi-sympathizers important for the community (such as it is today). We are a self-righteous bunch and it's important for us to see that we're complicit in the shit of the world. So while I am interested in and not at all surprised by this material, I appreciate Sys Rq's observation about the framing of the post. It might just be a symptom of being Mennonite. We kind of think we're special. Even when some of us are outed as Nazi-sympathizers.

Shhh. Talk amongst yourselves.
posted by kneecapped at 2:26 PM on May 29 [15 favorites]


I'm genuinely curious how exemption from military service and Anabaptist pacifism in general reconciles with the photo in the article of members of a Mennonite Waffen-SS squadron.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:33 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


kneecapped: evangelical Mennonite denomination - the Mennonite Brethren - what I've come to see as one of our central MOs is a knack for "monetizing" faith and culture for social and economic advantage, and then telling stories that make it righteous.

My background on my father's side is also MB, though we had fallen much further down the Evangelical hole by the time I came around.

If we needed land and autonomy we peddled our work ethic and willingness to do "the man's" bidding (rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's), as we did during the late 19th and early 20th century on the Canadian plains where we were important settler shock troops in the displacement of indigeneous and Metis populations. ... It's obvious to me now that this self-deception is not unique to us, but as a young Menno I was completely convinced that we were in fact the most true-hearted of Christians.

Another example along these lines is the Mennonites who got (how?) Japanese berry farms in British Columbia when the Japanese were interned during WWII. T.D. Regehr talks about it in his third volume of "Mennonites in Canada". Regehr says that - at least so long as berry prices remained high - they were happy to tell themselves that God was rewarding them for their hard work and humility.

A culture of silence about negative things hasn't helped, either.
posted by clawsoon at 3:12 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


elsietheeel: I'm genuinely curious how exemption from military service and Anabaptist pacifism in general reconciles with the photo in the article of members of a Mennonite Waffen-SS squadron.

It doesn't, and that's part of the reason why all of this has been purposefully forgotten until recently.

The reasoning that they gave themselves was that they had suffered terribly under the Communists (and, yes, they had, as prosperous German farmers living in the Soviet Union under Stalin), and the Nazis were their best defense against the Communists. That's rather thin in light of the atrocities committed. Reading more of the links that people have posted, it sounds like some of them grew rather proud of being valorized by the Nazis.
posted by clawsoon at 3:26 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this post, clawsoon. Thank you as well to Sys Rq, Joe in Australia, BWA, zombieflanders and kneecapped for providing additional perspectives and reading materials.
posted by zarq at 7:33 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]


kneecapped: ...as we did during the late 19th and early 20th century on the Canadian plains where we were important settler shock troops in the displacement of indigeneous and Metis populations.

I'm partway through the story of Gerhard that BWA linked, and it sounds like we played the same role in displacing the nomadic Nogai people in Russia.
When the Mennonites complained of Nogai raids or thefts, government officials indiscriminately punished and killed the suspects without due process.
Mennonites weren't alone in their intolerance, but it's also clear that their principles were no bar to taking advantage of the violence of others. That's what Gerhard's story of - collaboration with the Nazis? I'm not there yet - seems to be building toward.

I find myself switching uncomfortably between "we" and "they" in this discussion.
posted by clawsoon at 5:24 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]


From the series that BWA linked:

Mennonites and Nazis pt. 1, mostly about Mennonites in Prussia and the Ukraine.

Mennonites and Nazis pt. 2, about both eastern Europe and the response of Russian Mennonites in Canada to the Nazis.
posted by clawsoon at 9:09 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


As a Mennonite with one MB parent and one MC parent who went to one MCUSA college and lives in the town that contains another, I'm having one of those metafilter masquerade moments where I feel like I probably know some people in this thread in real life and am a second-to-fourth cousin to everyone I don't know.

I grew up implicitly believing that Mennonites were better than other people, an experience various people in this thread have also mentioned. I have come to see that there is, shall we say, much less evidence for this view than I once thought.

I have time for Ben Goossen, who loves the church enough to call it and its ethnic-cultural penumbra on their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, which is very much the sort of thing Jesus did/encouraged other people to do. This is not related to the material in this thread, but I also have a lot of appreciation for a different group of people in the church who are trying to get us to face up to and repent of the way we've enabled and protected a lot, really a lot, of sexual abusers over the years.

Thank you, clawsoon, for this post.
posted by sy at 2:44 PM on May 30 [8 favorites]


A couple of days ago I was idly musing about how some groups of Jews and Mennonites faced loosely parallel persecutions and went on loosely parallel migrations in post-Reformation Europe, and decided to do some Googling.

I didn't expect this to be what I found.
posted by clawsoon at 3:40 PM on May 30


Thanks to those above for the clarification of the framing. For people outside the Mennonite community it adds some important knowledge. I married into a family of Mennonite descent and from personal experience, I can attest that this discussion can be a very difficult one to have.

My father in law was a Ukrainian Mennonite and was a little boy when the war broke out. Their story is a long and complicated one but I think it illustrates some of the complexities. Shortly after the war broke out, the details are obscure on this, his father was imprisoned by the Soviets for being a Nazi sympathiser (none of us really know what that means exactly). Its often been explained away as that he was "providing food" to the German soldiers but we've suspected that there was more to it. But it isn't something we can talk about. Once his father was sent off to the gulag (where he remained until well after the war) things deteriorated in the village for them so they had to make the difficult decision to travel across Europe to Germany in the hope that they might be safe. It was winter and they wandered through one country to the next. Some of his siblings didn't survive. Through the kindness of strangers and distant relatives "conscripted for Germany" they managed to make it to Germany. His mother had picked up tuberculosis and the family was separated. The siblings ended up in an orphanage in a town frequently bombed. The mother recovered and they made some connections with distant relatives in Canada and the MB church here who helped them leave Europe. He didn't see his father again until he was in his 20s. They never talked about the war and in fact his father and mother refused to talk about it. Despite that long Mennonite tradition of sharing personal histories, his parents took their stories to the grave.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:42 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]


I’m a reader of Family Life, a magazine published by an Old Order Amish publisher and aimed at an Old Order audience. An issue in 2016 had several articles onthe perils of voting. The principal article discussed the ways Mennonites in 1920s Germany were swayed by Hitler to the point of voting for him. I found it fascinating at the time to think that Mennonites would be swayed to vote for such obvious hate. Thank you, clawsoon, for this post.
posted by epj at 7:02 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Ashwagandha, your father-in-law's story sounds like it shares a lot with Gerhard's story that BWA linked to above (including the gulag and the trek west). You might find it worth a read, if you haven't already read it.
posted by clawsoon at 8:51 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Thanks clawsoon I'll have a closer look.

As a French Canadian who was raised Catholic (no stranger to cultural & religious guilt), I am always fascinated by how much guilt Mennonites seem to carry around. As my father-in-law has gotten older I've watched as he wrestles with the guilt he feels about that time and to try to make sense of his experiences & the motivations of his elders through a filter of his religious belief. Partially I think to try to heal but also to make sense of who he is in relationship with that history. I'm pretty sure that experience with his parents and his war experiences shifted his religious beliefs from the MB church he grew up in towards a more evangelical church. He still bristles if I call him a Mennonite and the joke between us is always "You're more of a Mennonite then me!".
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:52 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure that experience with his parents and his war experiences shifted his religious beliefs from the MB church he grew up in towards a more evangelical church.

I know that a large number of Mennonite Brethren ended up Evangelical, including my father's family, though I'm not sure what the dynamics were. In our case, the family left Russia for North America before WWI (in 1905, I think?), so it wasn't WWII experience that pushed them across. I didn't realize until I started reading Mennonite history how many of the last names of people I knew growing up in Evangelical churches were Mennonite last names. It was a broad social movement, especially among Russian Mennonites on the prairies.
posted by clawsoon at 11:10 AM on June 1


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