Research Report: Ben Goossen on Mennonites, Nazism, and the Holocaust

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 1 (March 2021)

Research Report: Ben Goossen on Mennonites, Nazism, and the Holocaust

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Since the publication of his widely acclaimed history of Mennonite identity, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), Ben Goossen has published a fascinating series of short articles on the collaborative blog “Anabaptist Historians.” Collectively, these posts offer a disturbing window into the complicity of Mennonites in the Nazi occupation of the East and the Holocaust in Ukraine and South Russia.

Most recently, in January 2021, Goossen posted “How a Nazi Death Squad Viewed Mennonites,” drawing on documentation from Einsatzgruppe C to describe how Nazi mobile killing units who engaged in the mass murder of Jews in Ukraine reacted when they came across welcoming Mennonites in the region which included the Chortitza settlement: “The murder team immediately began integrating these ethnic Germans into its operations, distributing Jewish plunder and placing trusted men in positions of local authority.” Goossen goes on to discuss the interpretation of Nazi documentation and also explores the case of Amalie Reimer, a Mennonite women who spied for the Soviets then appealed to the Nazis for protection–successfully, for a time. Finally, he turns to a consideration of the ways Mennonites were drawn into the Holocaust, using the slaughter of Jews in Zaporizhzhia, near Chortitza, as an example.

In “How to Catch a Mennonite Nazi” (October 2020), Goossen details his painstaking research into the backstory of Heinrich Hamm, a Mennonite refugee from Ukraine who ended up as an employee of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in a refugee camp in Germany. In his account of his experience of displacement and flight, written in 1947 when he was 54, Hamm portrays himself as a victim of Nazism, like many Mennonites did. Mennonites like Hamm were portrayed as “un-Nazi and un-nationalistic,” yet Goossen retraces his journey from Ukraine to the Baltic region, Denmark, and Germany, showing how he condemned “Jewish-Bolshevik rule” in Russia and praised the Nazi “liberation from the Jewish yoke of Bolshevism.” (This was written around the time Hamm lived in Dnepropetrovsk, within a month of the murder of ten thousand Jews there.) Goossen explains how Hamm misrepresented other aspects of his wartime experiences, downplaying his connections to Nazism and his involvement in the exploitation of Jewish forced labourers. Ultimately, he became “a paid employee and spokesperson” for the MCC in Germany.

In August 2020, Goossen posted “Himmler’s Mennonite Midwife,” using material from the newly published diaries of Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of German Police, to explore this leading Nazi’s connections to Mennonites. In his capacity as Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Ethnic Stock, Himmler was eager to work with Mennonites, who the Nazis considered especially racially pure. (Goossen writes extensively on this in Chosen Nation.) In “Himmler’s Mennonite Midwife,” Goossen explains how Himmler sought to meet with “the leading representative of Mennonites in the Third Reich, Benjamin Unruh.” In fall 1942, the two met, and Himmler passed on greetings to Unruh from a Frau Helene Berg, long “a pillar of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine.” The post details the interest of Himmler in Mennonites as the foundation of German colonization in Ukraine, and the ways Mennonites benefitted from the Holocaust and Nazi imperialism.

In “Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg” (December 2019), Goossen explains that “Mennonite leaders and others affiliated with the church actively repressed evidence of Nazi collaboration and Holocaust participation,” demonstrating his case using the testimony of Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers at trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg after the war:

Benjamin Unruh’s postwar claims of helping Jews and of opposing genocide are not supported by the extensive correspondence preserved in his personal papers, government archives, or other sources. In fact, he appears to have hastened the turn toward extreme antisemitism in Mennonite church organizations in the Third Reich. Unruh contributed financially to the SS already in 1933, and in the same year, he personally quashed a request by two Jewish physicians for Mennonite help in leaving Germany. During the Second World War, Unruh collaborated with various Nazi agencies to aid Mennonites while these same offices expropriated and murdered Jews and others.

As for Reimers, she vouched for the character of a member of Einsatzkommando 6–one of the the mobile killing units slaughtering Jews in Ukraine. She benefitted from the protection and aid of this unit, but pretended not to know much of the Holocaust that was unfolding around Kryvyi Rih and Chortitza, her home.

Another of Goossen’s fine posts is “Mennonites and the Waffen-SS” (June 2019), in which he explores the subject of Mennonite perpetration in the Holocaust, but examining Mennonites in the Waffen-SS (Armed-SS), and particularly a cavalry regiment of 700 men from the Halbstadt colony in Ukraine. Heinrich Himmler’s Special Commando R (“R” for Russia), drawn from Mennonites in Halbstadt,  was tasked with offering welfare to ethnic Germans in the region, but also partnered with Einsatzkommandos and thus “participated in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews and other victims across Eastern Europe.” It was also engaged in partisan warfare in the region, and in other aspects of the war further afield. Goossen concludes:

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.

Hitler’s Mennonite Physicist” (March 2019) discusses the work of Abraham Esau, the Mennonite who “headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.” Goossen explains his journey into the Nazi Party and his rise to the top of nuclear physics. Captured by the Americans and then imprisoned in the Netherlands, Esau later took advantage of the willingness of MCC workers to believe a fellow Mennonite, and once released, received aid from the organization. Eventually, he took up a university position in Aachen, Germany, though not without controversy, since other leading scientists knew he was tainted by his Nazi past.

Finally, or perhaps I should say “first,” in December 2018, Goossen posted “The Kindergarten and the Holocaust,” in which he described a Mennonite Kindergarten in Einlage, Ukraine. This “Nazi showpiece” was refurbished by military engineers and SS agents, because of the high number of young Mennonite children in the area with “German blood.” Nazi papers profiled the Kindergarten, and Goossen demonstrates how these kinds of sources open a window into Mennonite daily life under Nazi occupation. As Goossen describes it:

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites. Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza. Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.” Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.

He concludes, noting that–in contrast to the “blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away”–Nazi officials highlighted the Einlage Kindergarten in their propaganda, and intended it “to show Nazism’s radiant potential.”

These seven blog posts–short articles, really, for they are well-researched with copious citation–offer profound insights into the significant relationships between Mennonite individuals and communities and the Nazi forces which conquered and occupied Ukraine. Mennonites collaborated, benefitted, and then obfuscated their knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust.