Journal Note: MCC and National Socialism

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 28, Number 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2022)

Journal Note: MCC and National Socialism, Intersections: MCC Theory & Practice Quarterly 9, no. 4 (Fall 2021)

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Over the past five years, much have been discussed and written about the activities and experiences of Mennonite Christians in the Holocaust. The problematization of Mennonite history and memory related to the Holocaust began with a 2017 Toronto workshop assessing the work of Gerhard Rempel and then a 2018 Conference at Bethel College. In the forefront of this debate has been Benjamin Goossen, whose book Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, and numerous articles have highlighted the complexities of Mennonite identity and Mennonite collaboration.

More recently, scholars have begun to examine the entanglements of the Mennonite Central Committee–the church’s relief and development agency–in Nazism and the Holocaust. A November 2021 roundtable of historians discussed the MCC, refugees, and the legacies of National Socialism, and built on the fall 2021 issue of Intersections: MCC Theory & Practice Quarterly. It is that special issue of the Intersections that this note attends to. Compiled by Alain Epp Weaver, it contains twelve short articles:

  • “MCC and Nazism, 1929–1955,” by Benjamin W. Goossen (3-12)
  • “MCC and Mennonite emigration from the Soviet Union, 1920–1932,” by Esther Epp-Tiessen (13-17)
  • “Benjamin Unruh, Nazism and MCC,” by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast (17-27)
  • “MCC and Nazi impressions of Paraguay’s Mennonite colonies in the 1930s and 1940s,” by John Eicher (27-32)
  • “Between German fascism and U.S. imperialism: MCC and Paraguayan Mennonites of Fernheim during the Second World War,” by Daniel Stahl (32-35)
  • “From care to rescue: MCC in the face of the persecution of Jews in France (1939–1945),” by Stéphane Zehr (36-40)
  • “John Kroeker and the backstory to the ‘Berlin Exodus,'” by John Thiesen (40-45)
  • “Facing the future, reinterpreting the past: MCC’s solutions for successful Mennonite immigration after the Second World War,” by Erika Weidemann (45-50)
  • “Defining the deserving: MCC and Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union after World War II,” by Aileen Friesen (50-54)
  • “National Socialism and MCC’s post-war resettlement efforts with Danziger Mennonites,” by Steven Schroeder (54-60)
  • “MCC’s resettlement of the Dutch war criminal Jacob Luitjens,” by David Barnouw (60-62)
  • “Hands under the cross: MCC and the post-war construction of German Mennonite peace identity,” by Astrid von Schlachta (63-68)

As Rick Cober Baumann, Ann Graber Herschberger, and Alain Epp Weaver note in their introduction:

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches that seeks to share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice—such a mission is diametrically opposed to the racist, genocidal program of Nazism. Yet, as recent scholarship has highlighted with renewed focus, MCC’s humanitarian efforts from the late 1920s through the mid-1950s to help Mennonites from the Soviet Union migrate to the Americas were entangled with National Socialism and its legacy in multiple, complex ways. What were these entanglements? What are we to make of them? (1)

The articles that follow are short summaries of the research of scholars from Canada, the USA, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The articles are richly illustrated and include both source citations and guides to further reading. Topics taken up in the various articles include:

  • interactions between Mennonites and the Hitler regime relating to the resettlement of refugees from the Soviet Union (which include the activities of Mennonite Nazi Benjamin Unruh),
  • pro-Nazi sentiments and ideological conflicts in the Fernheim Mennonite colony in Paraguay,
  • the observation of Nazi genocidal policies in wartime France by MCC workers, and efforts to rescue Jewish children,
  • the resettlement of displaced Mennonites–many genuine refugees but some with ties to Nazism and the Holocaust–from the Soviet Union through Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War.

This research interrogates the postwar narrative among Mennonites “of the dramatic and providential escape of desperate Mennonites in post-war Europe from the threat of deportation back to the Soviet Union and the exodus-like passage of these Mennonites through a Red Sea of danger to the promised lands of the Americas” (3). Seventy years ago, the MCC helped propagate that narrative. Now, it is promoting scholarly research that explores the much more complex reality behind that story. And the goal is not merely academic, but comes with the expectation of further response by the organization. The result is an excellent example of partnership between church organizations and scholars to pursue the truth of the past, even at the cost of soul-searching in the present and redress in the future.