Review of Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)

Review of Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 266 + xiv Pp., ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

From the outside, the Christian tradition of Anabaptism, of which Mennonites are the largest branch, is often known simply for its German ethnicity and its pacifist theology. In Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, Benjamin W. Goossen employs post-structuralist history to carefully and thoroughly dismantle these notions. “If Mennonite theologians could both justify and oppose pacifism, if Mennonite nationalists could both embrace and reject Germanness, it makes little sense to think of either category as coherent, limited, or unchanging” (4). Rejecting traditional definitions of religion and nationality, Goossen depicts Mennonites as a socially constructed and historically situated collectivity forged through processes of contestation, their identities continually (re)negotiated in response to the course of modern German history. Needless to say, his differentiated portrayal of Mennonites unsettles several cherished myths: that Mennonites were thoroughly German (their Dutch roots notwithstanding), that Mennonites were marked by pacifism, or that Mennonites were apolitical. It also asks hard questions, such as whether Mennonitism was or is based on heredity or belief? The result is a thought-provoking examination of Mennonite identity centred on Mennonites’ fluid relationship with Germany from the time of nineteenth-century nationalism and political unification to the present.

Chosen Nation argues that “Mennonitism should not be understood as a single group—or even as an amalgamation of many smaller groups.” Rather, the book seeks to uncover “what the idea of Mennonitism has meant for various observers” and “how and why interpretations have developed over time” (7). Goossen’s transnational history argues that Mennonites appropriated German nationalism when it was in their interest to do so and suppressed or abandoned it when it became problematic. Into the 1800s, Mennonites had commonly understood themselves to be a global confessional community. As the century wore on, however, they began to portray themselves as “archetypical Germans” (13). As Emil Händiges, the long-time chairman of the progressive Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Empire (established in 1886), put it, “Do not almost all Mennonites … wherever they may live—in Russia, in Switzerland, in Alsace-Lorraine, Galicia, Pomerania, in the United States and Canada, in Mexico and Paraguay, yes even in Asiatic Siberia and Turkestan—speak the same German mother tongue? Are not the Mennonites, wherever they go, also the pioneers of German language, customs, and culture?” (13). Whether the Mennonites in these far-flung locales—or even in conservative congregations in the new German Empire—understood themselves as the promoters of German culture was another matter entirely.

For Goossen, the free-for-all of Mennonite identity-building (“collectivism”) was “constrained by the situations in which they found themselves” (16). Over the course of seven rich chapters, he guides us along the twisted road of Mennonite identity formation. Initially, around the time of the formation of the German Empire in 1871, Mennonite activists like Hinrich van der Smissen (despite his Dutch name!) developed “a common narrative based on German nationality” (19). They drew together Mennonites from three non-German regions—north German Mennonites with roots in the Netherlands, South German Mennonites with connections to coreligionists in Switzerland and Eastern France, and Prussian Mennonites living in former Polish and Lithuanian territory—who had been loosely connected by migration, commerce, marriage, and a long memory of religious persecution (fostered by the influential Martyr’s Mirror). This nascent German identity was fostered by print publications, by participation in political and military activity, and by improved communications—not least through congregational address books linking churches throughout the unified German territory (31). During these early years of Imperial Germany, there were three important developments: German replaced Dutch as the language of Mennonitism; the notion of a Mennonite diaspora was invented (further entrenching the notion of Germany as the movement’s homeland); and Mennonites became closely associated with agriculture and traditionalism (never mind the urban modernity of many of their intellectual leaders).

One key point of conflict, and the reason many Mennonites resisted this narrative of Germanness, was the notion that pacifistic Mennonites should enter military service in Imperial Germany. Whether in fighting or in noncombatant roles, military service was a means to improve Mennonite standing in the new Germany and attaining full civil liberties for their congregations. Many Mennonites rejected this political transaction, however, and emigrated. (Russian Mennonites faced a similar quandary after the passage of a draft law in 1874, and about 18,000, or one-third, emigrated to North America.)

The 1886 German Mennonite Union was slow to develop. At first, only 17 of 71 congregations joined, and most of them were progressive urban congregations in northwest Germany (71). Claiming to speak for all Mennonites, progressives portrayed conservatives who shunned the Union (and, with it, participation in modern Germany) as both nationally and religiously indifferent, and invoked fears of mixed marriages and Mennonite population decline to coerce reluctant conservatives from the South and Northeast to join the Union. In this, they achieved a measure of success. By 1914, 70 percent of Mennonites were members of the Union, and rural Mennonites even outnumbered their urban coreligionists (94).

The culmination of this Mennonite entrance into the national life of Germany came during the First World War. For Mennonites in Germany, war offered them the fullest opportunity to participate in national life, by fighting and dying for the Fatherland. Of the roughly 2,000 German Mennonites who entered military service, only one-third chose noncombatant roles. Abroad, Mennonites had little interest in supporting German war aims, but failed to convince their neighbours. Their Germanness and their refusal to fight against Germany (not out of love for Germany, but because most were pacifists) made them persecuted outsiders in Russia, the United States, and Canada. In Russia, about 6,000 Mennonite men did enter the non-combatant forestry service, while another 6,000 served in the medical corps. Many rejected any German identity, claiming that “not a drop of German blood flows in our veins” (103)!

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 mobilized Mennonites in Europe and North America to try to rescue about 100,000 of their coreligionists from the violence of the Russian civil war (97). After 1918, Russian Mennonites subject to anti-German reprisals and marauding brigands formed self-defence militias. Suffering under persecution and famine, many sought to emigrate. To do so, they adopted the language of national self-determination and of race to present themselves both as oppressed minorities and as white agriculturalists worthy of resettlement in North and South America. Goossen describes this as the embracing of “a Zionist-like form of religious nationalism” (16). “Between 1923 and 1926, 20,000 settlers—one-fifth of all Mennonites in the Bolshevik empire—relocated to Canada” (115). About 4,000 more established a “Mennonite state” in the Chaco, in Paraguay, primarily because it afforded them cultural isolation and refuge from persecution (119). Though there was still much debate about whether Mennonites constituted a “cohesive trans-state identity,” the experience of the First World War and its aftermath “consolidated the idea of a global Mennonite community” (120).

After Hitler and his National Socialists came to power and led Germany into a racialized conquest of Eastern Europe, discourses of Mennonitism shifted once more, as pro-Nazi Mennonites formulated the notion of “a four-hundred-year-old ‘racial church’—an Aryan version of the Jewish ‘antirace’—entitled to a share of the Führer’s spoils” (16). Indeed, German scientists had begun racial research in Mennonite communities already in the Weimar era, with the consent and often support of Mennonite leaders. In the Third Reich, Mennonites proved to be “more Aryan than the average German,” according to Nazi researchers, in large part because of their cultural resistance to intermarriage. They were, in a sense, racial nationalists before the fact, and not a few tried to work their way towards the Führer by campaigning for a centralized, united, hierarchical Mennonite Union in the image of National Socialism. While many Mennonites were critical of the pro-Nazi “German Christian Movement” for attacking the Old Testament and some questioned whether one could be both a Christian and a National Socialist, most were content to enter into inner emigration, focusing on the purely spiritual activities of church services and abandoning education and youth work to the Nazis (125-126). Most Mennonite officials swore oaths, and most Mennonite men abandoned non-resistance, which they viewed as a dangerous relic of the past. Mennonites adopted racial discourse, encouraged Nazi racial research which depicted them as pure Aryans (“anti-Jews”) and even adopted aspects of antisemitism, complaining about the Judeo-Bolshevik persecution of Russian Mennonites in the Soviet Union (140). Goossen notes the ways in which Mennonite intellectuals produced their own Aryanism, striving to prove their Germanness by contrasting themselves to Russians and Jews. Hundreds of articles were written to make this point in the middle 1930s (143).

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).

In recent decades, Mennonite identity has remained fluid and contested. Mission work and the establishment of new Mennonite churches in the non-Western world has prompted questions about the relationship between Germanness and Mennonitism. Ironically, while the Mennonite migration from the collapsing Soviet Union to the newly unified Germany was predicated on Mennonite claims to German citizenship, questions remain about their Germanness.

In the end, Benjamin W. Goossen’s Chosen Nation demonstrates that, over the past two centuries, Mennonite ethnic and religious identity has been anything but stable and self-evident over the past two centuries; rather, it has been constructed, controversial, and changeable.