Mennonite Identity, Nazism, and Colonialism

For many Mennonites the concept of “Mennonite as an ethnicity” is one that’s found import. The idea has presumably gained traction because it adequately communicates a self-understanding of separation from the world: despite being citizens of a nation-state, many Mennonites feel they have a distinct identity apart from that state. As a Mennonite living in Canadian, I might be Canadian by nationality but culturally identify as a Mennonite. With this identification there’s an assumption of a shared Mennonite history, one that is shaped by a historiography that emphasizes “victimization, martyrdom, and nonresistance.”[1] These assumptions can be problematic, as recent questions about Mennonites and National Socialism are demonstrating. However, I also believe that the issues raised around Mennonites’ relationship to Nazism have wider implications.

The body of research on the Russian Mennonite link to National Socialism is growing. And it is a topic that will need to be wrestled with earnestly. Recent scholarship on this comes from a variety of circles within Mennonite scholarship. In 2007, I attended a lecture given by Gerhard Ratzlaff in which he discussed the rifts in churches caused during and after World War II between Paraguayan Mennonites on the topic of National Socialism.[2] In 2012, Gerhard Rempel had an article appear in The Mennonite entitled “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” which was itself based off an earlier peer-reviewed article from 2010. This piece offered snapshots of what Mennonite complicity with and active participation in the Holocaust looked like. In 2013, Hans Werner published a memoir of his grandfather, entitled The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War, which explores the relationship between his faither’s military service and how his Mennonite identity was constructed and articulated through those stories. The April 2018 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, which included “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther, Bendsburg, Upper Silesia, Germany” offered insight in how some Russian Mennonites viewed their role in the war effort when conscripted by the Germans.[3] Ben Goossen has explored this topic in books and articles (Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era being a notable work); recently he wrote a piece in the Boston Review which looked at the intersection of white supremacy and Mennonite identity in North America.

This is naturally a sensitive topic. Anecdotally, it is one that causes people people to adopt a defensive posture in conversations. Waldemar Janzen, an Old Testament scholar, objected Goossen’s characterization of how Ukrainian Mennonites responded to the Nazi regime in an article that appeared in Canadian Mennonite. Janzen’s critique draws upon his experience from when he was a ten-year-old child and characterized Goossen’s historiography as being shaped by “a hermeneutic of suspicion” that attempts to shape all “connections with Germans… as complicity with Nazism.”[4] Volker Horsch’s critique of an article published in an issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review does convincingly demonstrate that sometimes our readings of historical documents can be shaped by our own bias and that these biases have real consequences. Horsch pens a response to Thomas Nauerth’s article “Michael Horsch and the Rhön Bruderhof, 1936–1937: From Friend to Hostile Witness to Historical Eyewitness” (from April 2017) which attempts to temper Nauerth’s own analysis. Volker Horsch’s response offers insight into the difficulty of speaking about subjects who still have living relatives with first-hand knowledge of how these individuals understood their own actions.[5] Horsch acknowledges his grandfather’s mistakes, but also details how he believes sinister motives have been read into the senior Horsch’s bad judgement and political naivety. Horsch’s approach involves reading the same texts that Nauerth works from and demonstrating ways in which bias might have negatively coloured his interpretations.

Even those who don’t display quite the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” recognize that the Mennonite connection to the racist political regime, by necessity, complexifies how history should be told. John D. Roth, in Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be, writes that:

“Mennonites generally celebrated the advance of German storm troopers into the Ukraine and Crimea as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny…. Given the horror of their recent experiences under Communist rule, the impulse of Russian Mennonites to identify with the German cause is understandable. Yet the support that many expressed for National Socialism and their general willingness to fight in Hitler’s army adds another layer of complexity to an already painful story.”[6]

Roth’s account speaks to a sort of radicalization that happened to Mennonites under harsh Soviet rule – in the name of self-interest, it was easy for Mennonites to side with oppressors that shared the same common enemy. This is akin to radicalization that might be discussed when exploring the impact of modern foreign policy and military involvement. But, Roth’s approach in Stories is still problematic. The Soviet persecution of Mennonites is briefly discussed but the persecution carried out by Mennonites collaborating with the Nazi regime is not. Mennonites are portrayed in a passive light – they express support for Nazism, but do not participate in it. Yet, even with passive portrayal of Russian Mennonites, it’s clear that the story needs to be complexified.[7]

Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning. A popular image of Mennonite identity and history,

These historical reading are often tied to a conception of identity rooted in an essentialist reading of what it means to be an Anabaptist, broadly, and a Mennonite, more specifically. This leads to a messy relationship between theology and historiography. History does not inform readers about what one’s ancestors believed theologically; rather, history tended to be read in a way that conformed to expectations to what one’s ancestors should have believed theologically. Historian Harold Bender and theologian John Howard Yoder both articulated readings of essentialist readings of history. These readings emphasize two elements. First, that there was a stark duality between church and world which led to a theology of separation from the world; second, Anabaptists following the tradition of the radical Reformation in Zürich, were pacifist. Neither of these assumptions can be held to be universal: not among the early Anabaptist reformers, nor among the inheritors of the various Anabaptist traditions.    

As acceptance for dissident Christian sects grew throughout Europe, many Mennonite leaders were educated abroad. Russian Mennonites proved to be savvy negotiators when dealing with governments. They continually negotiated and renegotiated with the Tsarist regime to ensure their special privileges were respected; when groups emigrated to Canada, special privileges were negotiated there, too. In World War II, some Mennonites were in contact with the Nazis to portray themselves as good German peoples, rather than a possibly divisive sectarian religious minority that might endanger the homogeneity of the Third Reich.[8] This same political savviness helped Nazi collaborators flee Europe after the Second World War. In the post-war era, there was a fluidity where national identity was concerned. Mennonites, who were once proudly German and even collaborated with the Nazis, suddenly identified as Ukrainian or Polish when trying to emigrate.[9] In fact, Steve Schroeder contends that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) “went to great lengths to prove that the Ukrainians [Mennonites] were forced [participate in the Nazi regime] against their will…. even though many Ukrainian Mennonites, motivated to avenge the deaths of loved ones under Soviet rule, had volunteered for the Wehrmacht.”[10] Mennonites knew perhaps more astute and less concerned with a strict separation from the world than figures like Bender and Yoder might have assumed.

This aspect of how Mennonites worked to craft this identity is one that seems to have happened because Mennonites were, and still are, the main purveyors of Mennonite history. Ben Goossen comments that Cornelius Krahn, “a leading figure of twentieth-century Mennonitism,” had an important role in fostering a reading of Mennonite history that favours the category of ethnicity. As a historian, he helped articulate a narrative that depicted Mennonites as “an ‘ethnically’ bound denomination, whose cultural integrity and theological purity had for centuries withstood intrusions by more transient political ideologies.”[11] Nazism was an inconvenient “irritation, now past” and irrelevant against the “more immediate danger of communism;” yet, the emphasis on purity has obvious similarities to National Socialist and white supremacist understands of history and identity. In the post-war era, Krahn “helped craft a campaign that depicted Mennonites as a peaceful and persecuted ‘ethnic’ minority. The purpose of this narrative was to allege that Mennonites in Europe could not have collaborated with Hitler’s racist regime.”[12]

Yet, Krahn seems to have known this was not the case. Based on audio recording of Walter Quiring, “a Nazi propagandist [who] had worked for the SS,” and Krahn, Goosen notes that Krahn would have known about the atrocities that some Mennonites carried out during World War II. Goossen writes that in these recordings “Quiring candidly recounts his own enthusiastic participation in wartime ethnic cleansing.” Ultimately, Quiring, like many Mennonites, managed to emigrate after the war because they “obscured their war records and received UN refugee assistance by invoking the concept of ‘ethnic’ Mennonitism devised by Krahn and his [MCC] coworkers.”[13] It is also worth noting the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has an article on Walter Quiring which appears to be written to alleviate any potential controversy around Quiring. It paradoxically acknowledges Quiring’s writings in favour of National Socialism and claims that any writings have been discredited, it makes special note that Quiring taught in schools owned by wealthy Jews, and suggests that there’s no record of Quiring’s wartime activity.[14]

How Mennonites came to understand their identity when groups left Russia to emigrate to Canada demonstrate the implications of how Mennonites read their own history. Hans Werner, whose father served in the Soviet military before defecting to the German military during the Second World War, notes that his father never told stories in which he was directly involved in the death of another. Werner speculates that the “context of the pacifist Mennonite social milieu in which he told his stories” likely made any such stories taboo.[15] Even in these sanitized war stories it seemed that the elder Werner had knowledge of Nazi activities concerning treatment of Jews and only told stories in which he looked out for the welfare of Jewish friends or acquaintances.[16] The fact that one’s social setting dictates the appropriateness of certain stories leads to a situation in which communities believe they cannot perpetrate such hate and confirm it by scrubbing contradictory stories from their own biographies.

This tendency to whitewash our own stories, but also the stories of our ancestors and their communities has potential issues with how Mennonite communities today understand their role as settlers in the North American context.

There have been multiple waves of Mennonite migration to North America. I will briefly discuss the emigration of Russia Mennonites to Manitoba to illustrates some concerns. Russian Mennonites, and other groups, came to North America to inspect prospective sites to found new colonies as it became harder to acquire new land in Russia. Upon arriving in Manitoba to inspect the land they were being offered by the Canadian government it seems to be that there was no doubt that they were being offered land that was claimed by the Métis. On June 5, 1873, the Hutterite Paul Tschetter wrote in his diary, upon arriving in Winnipeg to inspect potential farm land, that the land was currently being cultivated by “lazy farmers of mixed Indian blood,” noting at a later date that the land around Winnipeg is “owned” and settled by the “half-breed Indians.”[17] One night, the guide for the Russian delegation had to stand guard with his rifle all night out of fear that the Métis would attack the prospective settlers after he got into a “quarrel” with some Métis.[18] While it is not necessarily clear what the quarrel was about, I have heard speculation that the quarrel was about the delegations of settlers inspecting Métis land. While it is not clear that the delegations would have known about the Red River Rebellion, it is clear the the prospective settlers were aware that they were being offered lands which were already claimed by groups of people. This was seemingly justified by their view that the Métis were lazy.

Delegates at the East Reserve

After Mennonites had settled in Manitoba, members of my own family fled Soviet persecution. I am reminded by my parents that these were traumatized individuals fleeing for their own safety. They likely did not understand that they were benefiting from government policies which had dispossessed nations from their own land. They were not necessarily ignorant of such facts (though, they might have been), but how they understood race and their relationship to the state is bound to be fundamentally different from my own perspectives. Additionally, they were people desperate to leave a troubled area of the world. From my own vantage point, I can identify how their descendants benefited from government policies that valued Mennonites more than Indigenous peoples. Later, when Jews tried to flee Europe and find asylum in Canada, they did not receive the same hospitality that my family received. I cannot fault my family for fleeing Soviet persecution, nor can I pretend that I would not have made the same choices they made. But, the theological aspect of Mennonite identity and history warrants more attention. Earlier, it was discussed as problematic due to essentialist readings. It is important to note, though, that Mennonite most clearly names an identity that is entangled with a certain religious affiliation. This religious affiliation need not be used to offer whitewashed narrations of history.

Mennonite faith assumes a world in which evil exists and that all people are susceptible to be influenced by evil. Mennonite identity cannot be used to try to deflect guilt from one’s ancestors because Mennonite identity likely assumes Christian understandings of sin. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective notes that sin is the result of choices made by both individuals and communities while salvation involves “reconciliation with others.”[19] The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith likewise affirms the power of sin is at “work through political, economic, social and even religious systems” and characterized the human response to salvation as a call to “love one another and live at peace with their neighbor.”[20] Both of these confessions of faith note that the Mennonite understanding of sin and salvation involves our engagement in social processes. The refusal to acknowledge the wrongs of one’s ancestors furthers one’s enslavement to sin: one cannot be extricated from evils unless they are identified.

An understandable desire to not besmirch one’s forebearers presents a common stumbling block. This is a stumbling block not unique to Mennonites, of course. It is, perhaps, natural to want to avoid speaking ill of one’s family, religious community, or nation. Yet if sin is an assumed reality, the necessity of repentance and reconciliation is an essential response to the realization of one’s sin. The fact that sin can encompass groups, and is not just personal, necessitates that groups continue to evaluate their own history to look where sin has occurred in the past. This is done not to slander ancestors, but to reconcile for the sins that groups have benefitted from and continue to benefit from.


[1]. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950,” The Conrad Grebel Review, January, 2003: 8 

[2]. While Ratzlaff is not a contributor in Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2, this issue has a particular focus on Latin American Mennonites and their own struggles with National Socialism.

[3]. Guenther, Jakob, “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther, Bendsburg, Upper Silesia, Germany,” trans. Jack Thiessen, ed. James Urry, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 207-24.

[4]. Waldemar Janzen, “An eye-witness account of Nazi occupation,” Canadian Mennonite, April 4, 2018, https://canadianmennonite.org/stories/eye-witness-account-nazi-occupation (accessed May 4, 2019).

[5]. Volker Horsch, “Michael Horsch: A Victim of His Nationalist Sympathies? A Response to Thomas Nauerth,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 299-306.

[6]. John D. Roth, Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be, (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2006), 134-5.

[7]. Despite Roth’s tepid phrasing in this particular text, it is important to note that Roth has played a role in making this history more widely known in his role as editor for Mennonite Quarterly Review.

[8]. See: Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Nazi Regime Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 173-206. Pp. 193-206 are an English translation of The Culture of the Black Sea Germans: The Mennonites, written by an SS official named Karl Götz. The document demonstrates considerable knowledge of Mennonite history. Furthermore, pp. 200-1 specifically detail his understanding how contemporary Mennonite scholarship demonstrated the perceived purity of their German ethnicity. Goossen, in his introduction to the text, contends that the document shows signs that “several leading Mennonites in the Third Reich had a hand in its composition,”; he also notes that Mennonites were, at times, among those targeted by Nazis. (pp. 175-6)

[9]. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past,”7-8. C.f. Guenther, Jakob, “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther,” trans. Jack Thiessen, ed. James Urry, p. 209: Urry speculates Guenther might have “disguise[ed] his place of birth” to avoid returning to the Soviet Union. Likewise, Hans Werner, in The Constructed Mennonite, also references these matters when discussing his father’s attempts to resettle in Canada.

[10]. Ibid., 9.

[11]. Similar claims are made in The Culture of the Black Sea Germans: The Mennonites. However, the veracity of such a statement is questionable, at best. Russian Mennonites had contact with other neighbouring communities, such as Lutheran communities. While the Nazi regime likely would not have viewed this as an influence that lessened their perceived purity, it demonstrates that the strict separation did not necessarily exist. In the 1860s, for example, revival movements in Lutheran communities in Russia would influence some Mennonites to break away from their church communities to become the Mennonite Brethren.

[12]. Ben Goossen, “The Pacifist Roots of an American Nazi,” Boston Review¸ May 2, 2019, http://bostonreview.net/philosophy-religion/ben-goossen-pacifist-roots-american-nazi (accessed May 4, 2019).

[13]. Ibid., c.f. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950,” The Conrad Grebel Review, January 2003: 6-16.

[14]. Ted D. Regehr, “Quiring, Walter (1893-1983),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Quiring,_Walter_(1893-1983) (accessed May 16, 2019)

[15]. Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War, (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 77.

[16]. Ibid., 84.

[17]. Paul Tschetter, “The Diary of Paul Tschetter, 1873 II,” trans. & ed. J. M. Hofer, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 5, no. 3 (July 1931): 203-4. 

[18]. John J. Friesen, Building Communities: The Changing Face of Manitoba Mennonites, (Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2007), 10.

[19]. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1995), 31 & 36.

[20]. Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application¸ (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2000), 45 & 55.

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