Mennonite history has been addressed by many authors, each with a different point of view

This post highlights five studies about Mennonite history.

Memories related to history are fluid and malleable, a product of social construction.

Personal memories are also characterized by fluidity and malleability.

Between fiction and nonfiction is a borderland where the two genres co-exist.

1.0 Waterloo Mennonites: A Community in Paradox (1989)

Waterloo Mennonites: A Community in Paradox (1989) by J. Winfield Fretz presents a sociological overview.

Having been reading about Amsterdam, I was interested to read a reference, in Waterloo Mennonites, to that city.

In particular, the author notes that in the mid-seventeenth century, the rise to wealth and power of Mennonites in Amsterdam gave rise to consequences – in particular, a turn toward secularism – that a Mennonite pastor found alarming. The latter pastor is described (p. 85) as expressing his alarm as follows:

His baptist-minded contemporaries [in Amsterdam], he was convinced, were “pro­ceeding in [their] pilgrimage in the absence of the Lord” and were being seduced by Satan. Whereas a century earlier Satan had come in undisguised malevolence, as a persecuting “roaring lion,” now he was coming as a ”kind, pleasant, even divine messenger,” as the bearer of safety and luxury.

In his book, which I have discussed at previous posts, Geert Mak also describes (pp. 68-9) the prosecution including executions (involving burning at the stake, beheading, hanging, and drowning among other means) of Anabaptists and Mennonites in Amsterdam in the sixteenth century.

Distinctive farming practices

J. Winfield Fretz speaks (pp. 181-82) of distinctive farming practices brought to Canada by Mennonites from Europe including “the huge two- and three-storey barn style and the familiar earthen banks that lead to the second-level driving floor.”

I’m always keen to corroborate such a statement. An article at the Blackburn Architects, P.C. site notes that, according to Sally McMurry, professor of history at Penn State University, it’s generally agreed the bank barn form “originated in the Prattigau area of Switzerland and migrated to Pennsylvania with German-speaking Swiss people in the late 18th century, although there are a few earlier examples.”

Other websites dealing with the history of barns concur that bank barns appear to have originated in Switzerland. I will be interested to verify that it was specifically Mennonites (and not a more general category of Swiss or German immigrants) that brought the barn bank form to Canada.

Individualism

In discussing changing family structures, J. Winfield Fretz refers to individual­ism as a key feature of contemporary society.

Fretz notes (p. 139) that in contemporary life, breakfasts are often rushed, lunches are taken at school or work, and family meals at home are not an everyday occurrence. The author credits this to “a society that is highly committed to constant social and technological change; to the pursuit of material advancement and the satisfaction of individual goals of physical comfort and pleasure.”

“This emerging individualized family system,” he adds, “is the product of contemporary industrialized culture. It is the family’s response to an economic system that has exalted individual freedom above values of family, church, and community. Unbridled individual­ism has come to be accepted as normative both socially and ethi­cally.”

Changing attitudes

Fretz notes (pp. 297-8) that:

Over the centuries, the shift in public attitudes toward Men­nonites moved by stages from alienation to toleration to total acceptance. Until recent decades, many members left their church ashamed of their Amish or Mennonite identity. Today, however, many of those individuals or their descendants proudly claim or even boast of their sectarian heritage. Mennonite farmers who a few decades ago were characterized as self-conscious, rustic, and culturally backward are today pointed to as staunch pioneers and sturdy citizens contributing to the welfare of the community.

The author refers, as well (p 311), to Finlay G. Stewart, a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Kitchener, whom he describes as noting that “the Mennonites have the independent thought producing strong civil leadership locally and in the broad­est national sense.”

Stewart is also quoted as remarking that “You can’t leg­islate integrity. It is not by chance that this is a unique community. I am proud to pay tribute to the Mennonite folk.”

Authoritative leadership structure

I was interested in the author’s comment (p. 100) that the authoritative leadership structure of conservative and moderate Waterloo church groups does not offer opportunities for free discussion of controversial issues, a situation that may contribute to groups responding by forming new groups; Fretz notes:

This authoritative leadership structure may have contributed to the formation of small splinter groups and new congregations. The conservative churches have no open forum for free discussion of controversial issues, no mechanism for giving or receiving criti­cism from the congregation as a whole. The existing channels for criticism are through the ordained leaders at the spring and fall inquiry sessions prior to communion. It is ironic that the conser­vative Mennonites who so highly respect and observe tradition should so largely deny in practice the concept of the priesthood of believers, while the progressives, who treat tradition more lightly, should be devising ways to expand the concept of the priesthood of believers in actual practice.

2.0 Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (2008)

A second study, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (2008), by Marlene Epp, a social historian, presents a feminist perspective on Mennonite history.

At the Stratford Public Library, this book is shelved among books dealing with feminism rather than being shelved with books dealing with Mennonites. However, a digital search for books about Mennonites, Marlene Epp’s book will turn up.

It’s ironic, however, albeit not surprising, that this book is not shelved alongside other books about Mennonite history. I am reminded of a study, entitled Human Rights in Canada: A History (2016), which addresses the history related to such matters.

The opening paragraph in the introduction (p. 3) to Mennonite Women in Canada (2008) sets the scene:

Katie Funk Wiebe, a woman whose life and writing have inspired much of my thinking on Mennonite women, once described the important texts in Mennonite history as seeing women “mostly through a low-lying fog.” [1] Indeed, women’s invisibility in ‘mainstream’ historical texts was often cited as a crucial impetus to the agenda of women’s history. As recently as 2004, two well-established women’s historians commented that they sometimes “become depressed” at the difficulty of inserting women into the traditional historical narrative. [2 ] One doesn’t need to look far to find numerous examples where the fog was and is particularly low and thick. In some accounts of Mennonite pioneers and immigrants in Canada, women are starkly invisible, although we know women were surely there.

Remarriage

The book explores (p. 109) the question of remarriage, for Mennonites settling in Canada after the Second World War:

Mennonite churches generally approved of remarriage for a surviving spouse, provided that an appropriate period of mourning was observed (though this might be barely several months). But for post-Second World War immigrant ‘widows’ who were unsure about their husbands’ fate, hopes to marry again posed significant difficulties. Between the peak years of post-war migration, 1947 to 1949, widows represented 15 percent of the total number of immigrants registered with the Canadian Mennonite Board of Coloniza­tion. This number is not insignificant, given that the number of married immigrants (20 percent) and number of single adults (23 percent) were only slightly higher and included both men and women; at the same time, the number of widowers was negligible. These refugee widows, many of whom were quite young, experienced the ambiguity of their own personal strength, independence, and resourcefulness, having led their families through tremen­dous hardship and tragedy, and the weakness and dependency attributed to them in community attitudes. Particularly for those who had lost their husbands in the Soviet purges of the 1930s or during the war, their marital status remained in a grey area, most women having received no confirmation of their husband’s death. Many of these ‘widows’ chose never to remarry, either holding out hope that their spouse would be found alive, or eschewing the hierarchical gender relations that another marriage would impose on them.

Hierarchical gender relations

I was taken with the expression “hierarchical gender relations” at the concluding sentence of the previous quote. The term sums up well what this book, which I have been reading with interest, is about. Among the topics that Marlene Epp addresses, in this context, is the history of Mennonite women’s efforts to gain a role in decision making within Mennonite congregations.

3.0 Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (2001)

In Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (2001), Geert Mak describes (p. 143) the level of tolerance that characterized life in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century:

While Calvinism was the recognized religion of the State, that was the extent of its power in Amsterdam, for the city’s merchant mentality was still diametrically opposed to any form of religious coercion. Rembrandt was allowed to choose not to be a member of any church at all, and, uniquely in Europe, marriages contracted other than in church were recognized by the city administration as legally valid and regarded as quite normal. “Apart from Jews, Anabaptists are living here in all freedom, as well as Mennonites, Sozinites, Arrians, Borelists, Enthusiasts, Libertines, Sceptics, and Spinozists”, wrote the Swiss military man Stoppa in a French pamphlet. [12 ] A comment which Amsterdammers took as a compliment.

4.0 Women Talking (2018)

Women Talking (2018) is a novel by Miriam Toews.

A blurb reads:

A major work by one of our most beloved and esteemed writers, the novel is based on real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and raped in the night by what they were told were “ghosts” or “demons.” Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. It takes place over 48 hours, as eight women hide in a hayloft while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the perpetrators. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man invited by the women to witness the conversation – a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women talk. By turns poignant, furious, witty, acerbic, tender, devastating, and heartbreaking, the voices in this extraordinary novel are unforgettable.

August 2018 Guardian article: Women Talking (2018)

An Aug. 18, 2018 Guardian article is entitled: “Miriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them.'”

The subtitle reads: “Between 2005 and 2009, more than 130 Mennonite women were drugged and raped by men in the community. In new novel Women Talking, the ex-Mennonite tells their story.”

An excerpt reads:

Miriam Toews describes her latest book as an “imagined response” to crimes perpetrated against Mennonite women in Bolivia. Toews (pronounced “Taves”) grew up in a small Mennonite town called Steinbach in the prairie province of Manitoba, Canada, somewhere that wasn’t as closed to the world as the Bolivian colony but was still rigid and righteous – a place for an aspiring writer to flee, as Toews did, at 18.

She was living in Toronto, in 2011, when a trial revealed the horrific extent of these crimes: between 2005 and 2009, more than 130 women had been repeatedly anaesthetised with a sedative spray meant for animals and raped in their homes at the ultraconservative Bolivian Manitoba Colony. The women would wake bloodied and aching, but when they spoke up, they were told that perhaps the devil had attacked. Or maybe nothing had happened, and these tales were merely an invention of “wild female imagination”.

“I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women,” says Toews who, like the Mennonites in Bolivia, is descended from the Molotschna colony in what is now Ukraine. “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.”

5.0 Chosen Nation: : Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (2017)

I was interested to come across Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (2017) by Benjamin W. Goossen.

A blurb for the book (see link in previous sentence) reads:

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the global Mennonite church developed an uneasy relationship with Germany. Despite the religion’s origins in the Swiss and Dutch Reformation, as well as its longstanding pacifism, tens of thousands of members embraced militarist German nationalism. Chosen Nation is a sweeping history of this encounter and the debates it sparked among parliaments, dictatorships, and congregations across Eurasia and the Americas.

Offering a multifaceted perspective on nationalism’s emergence in Europe and around the world, Benjamin Goossen demonstrates how Mennonites’ nationalization reflected and reshaped their faith convictions. While some church leaders modified German identity along Mennonite lines, others appropriated nationalism wholesale, advocating a specifically Mennonite version of nationhood. Examining sources from Poland to Paraguay, Goossen shows how patriotic loyalties rose and fell with religious affiliation. Individuals might claim to be German at one moment but Mennonite the next. Some external parties encouraged separatism, as when the Weimar Republic helped establish an autonomous “Mennonite State” in Latin America. Still others treated Mennonites as quintessentially German; under Hitler’s Third Reich, entire colonies benefited from racial warfare and genocide in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Whether choosing Germany as a national homeland or identifying as a chosen people, called and elected by God, Mennonites committed to collective action in ways that were intricate, fluid, and always surprising.

The first book to place Christianity and diaspora at the heart of nationality studies, Chosen Nation illuminates the rising religious nationalism of our own age.

Review in Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Click here to access a September 2017 review of Chosen Nation in Contemporary Church History Quarterly >

An excerpt reads:

Goossen argues Mennonites were implicated in the Holocaust, in part by fashioning narratives of Aryanism that justified antisemitic laws and “implicated the confession in policies of internment, expropriation, and genocide’ (123). SS Chief Heinrich Himmler met extensively with Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh, and established an SS Special Command R to comb the Ukrainian countryside for Mennonites to resettle in Wartheland, even as SS Einsatzgruppen were combing the Ukrainian countryside for Jews to round up and kill. As ethnic Germans, Mennonites were rewarded with social services and material goods, such as the clothes, shoes, and homes of murdered Jews. As Goossen puts it, “welfare and mass murder were two sides of the same coin” (149). In the Nazi vision for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, pure-blood Mennonites were the ideal German settlers who could colonize (for them, resettle) Ukraine. SS leaders singled out Mennonite settlements like Chortitza and Molotschna as model German towns. Alfred Rosenberg described his visit to the former as “the most moving moment of the entire trip” he made through occupied Ukraine in 1942 (152). For these Mennonites, the war served to spark a religious and political revival, in which they gained status and power in the occupied territory. They complied with and at times participated in the Holocaust, occasionally as killers but more often as the inheritors of land expropriated from Jews among whom they lived (164).

As the war turned against Germany, Mennonites in the East were evacuated en masse. From fall 1943 to spring 1944, 200,000 German colonists (including 35,000 Mennonites) made their way on foot, horseback, wagon, and train westward into occupied Poland, swelling the German population in Wartheland. Here, too, Mennonites participated in the racial categorization underway, as the Nazis sought to identify ideal German settlers (169). Ultimately, though, as the Nazi empire collapsed, 45,000 Mennonites ended up fleeing from Ukrainian, Polish, and East Prussian territory into Germany.

After 1945, as Allied officials began sorting out the tangle of displaced persons and refugees, Mennonites faced a dilemma. If they identified as Ukrainians or Russians, they risked deportation to the USSR. If they identified as Germans, they risked the charge of collaboration and made themselves ineligible for aid. At first, some tried to identify themselves as Dutch, and a few made it to the Netherlands. Others began to claim Mennonitism as an alternative to German or Russian ethnic identity, not because of an awakening of religious nationalism but as a “temporary response to historical contingencies” (175). Though the International Refugee Organization was skeptical, about 15,000 Mennonites were nonetheless allowed to immigrate to Canada in the 1950s, mostly because they were white, Christian, anti-communist, agrarian settlers (179, 181).

Mennonites and the Waffen-SS

A June 19, 2019 article by Ben Goosen at the Anabaptist Historians is entitled: “Mennonites and the Waffen-SS.”

An excerpt reads:

Nazi Germany’s military expansion into Eastern Europe presaged enormous recruitment efforts for the Waffen-SS. The organization had begun in 1933 as the armed branch of the SS, an elite core of soldiers who served as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard. The Waffen-SS was marked by its militancy and loyalty to the Führer, including perpetration of a violent purge of the rival SA in 1934. With the outbreak of war at the end of the decade and access to populations in Eastern Europe, the Waffen-SS radically expanded. The occupied territories ultimately supplied more than half of the nearly one million men who served in the Waffend-Ss at its height. [4 ] Recruiters opened their ranks to men of a variety of perceived racial backgrounds, but they favored people they considered to be German, even if they did not yet possess German citizenship. Such individuals were known within Nazi racial terminology as “ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche).

A second excerpt reads:

The westward trek of Ukraine’s Mennonites with the SS constituted an unmitigated stream of violence against other peoples. One Halbstadt native justified the requisitioning of homes from Ukrainians for “ethnic German” use in his memoirs: “That is a radical solution to the housing question, which truly amazes us, but it is war; life is harsh and we, too, have become harsh.” [36] Cavalry member Jacob Reimer – who changed his name to the more Aryan-sounding “Eduard” – recalled how his unit combed through forests, marching between the trees in straight lines with orders to kill partisans on sight. Reimer’s regiment burned villages and shot civilians. In a letter to Himmler, Hans-Adolf Prützmann reported that the “ethnic Germans” remained in good spirits despite their itinerancy and deprivations. He assessed that they were eager to remain under German rule, and he commended the Halbstadt group for being highly cooperative. [37]

A third excerpt reads:

The history of the Halbstadt cavalry regiment demonstrates the involvement of Ukraine’s Mennonites in the machinations of the Waffen-SS during the German occupation of Eastern Europe. Mennonites’ induction into this organization and their activities within it reflected the broader maneuverings of the Nazi war machine and the fate of the Eastern Front. Little of this context has survived in collective Mennonite memory. After the war, Mennonite refugees in war-torn Germany had strong incentives to deny involvement in war crimes, a process aided by church organizations. Most notably, the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee told tales of innocence while helping to transport refugees, including former Waffen-SS members, to Paraguay and Canada. Coming to terms with Mennonite participation in the Third Reich’s atrocities remains a task for the denomination.

Previous posts

Click here for previous posts about:

Military history

Colonialism

First World War

Second World War

Amsterdam

Nazi Germany

Stalinist Russia

Eastern Europe

Ukraine

A subsequent post about Ukraine is entitled:

Opening statement of Ambassador William B. Taylor to three House committees conducting impeachment inquiry, Oct. 22, 2019

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