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A window into Antisemitism and Nazism among Mennonite in North America, Part 1

posted by Tim Nafziger on 07/30/07 at 09:56 AM

This week, in a web exclusive, John Kampen wrote a column entitled “Mennonites, Judaism and Israel-Palestine” in response to the the open letter written by the Mennonite Church USA delegation to Israel-Palestine. Kampen notes, among other things, that the open letter did not include a “concerted effort to come to terms with our relationship with Judaism” and calls on the Mennonite church to make that effort as we become more directly involved in working for peace in Israel/Palestine. Kampen goes so far as to suggest that an apology for Mennonite anti-antisemitism and involvement in the Nazi movement may be in order.

What have Mennonites in North America done or said that would be worthy of apology? Besides some rumors about Mennonites in Paraguay, I'd never heard much about Mennonites sympathizing with the Nazis, but a friend of mine recommended an unpublished dissertation by Frank Epp entitled An analysis of Germanism and National Socialism in the immigrant newspaper of a Canadian minority. So this week I went to the Mennonite Historical Library, found a copy of Epp's dissertation on microfilm and spent a few hours in front of one of those old microfiche readers.

What I read shocked me.

Epp studied Der Bote, an independent German language Mennonite newspaper whose main audience was recent Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Epp did a quantitative analysis of the amount of cultural, racial and political content relating to Germanism in the paper from 1931 to 1939. These three components were at the core of National Socialism (Nazism), although it is important to point out that while all Nazis were Germanists, not all Germanists were Nazis What was this agenda? Epp measured the number of column inches of content for each area of Germanism and whether the perspective was favorable or unfavorable to that area.

Area # of Column Inches Favorable # of Column Inches Unfavorable
Cultural 3620 6
Racial 1989 183
Political 4751 1893

(Epp, 73)*

So Mennonites writing in Der Bote were overwhelmingly supportive of a Germanist cultural and racial identity and strongly supportive of a Germanist political agenda. Now if this were all the data we were presented with we could easily claim that Mennonites were enthusiastic for Germany, but dismiss the connection with Nazism. However, along with this quantitative analysis, Epp offered an extensive summarization of the cultural, racial and political content in Der Bote, both favorable and unfavorable. I'll offer a few excerpts from each of the racial and political content, which is the most relevant to our discussion.

Racial Germanism

Much of the racial content in Der Bote centered around asserting the Mennonite racial identity as German, despite their origins in the Netherlands. In one article Walter Quiring said, "...our mother is Germany, our brothers and sisters in the flesh are German all over the world." (Epp, 108) This conclusion lead to a clear ethnic prioritization:

Blood identity had to be preserved for reasons of a more significant Canadian citizenship, for reasons of a more adequate identify with the German nation, for reasons of participation in the spiritual, intellectual, and political struggles of the times, and for the purpose of tapping the German sources of virtue and strength. For these and other reasons, also mixed marriages with other races were to be avoided, because they inevitable led to degeneration, as was being demonstrated among the Mennonites of Brazil already six years after immigration.

- Epp summarizing articles by Deutsch-Kandischer Bund, Gerhard Toews, and Walter Quiring. (Epp, 110-111)

The racial theology underlying these claims of a German racial identity will be familiar to those who have studied racist and White Supremacist ideology:

The biological theory and theological doctrine of race taught that God had ordained the division of the human family into racial groups and that the mixture of these groups was as wrong as it was harmful. A mixture of racial types was degenerating physically and also spiritually. The greater the distance between blood types the greater the harmful effects of mixing the types. God made the white race and God made the black race but th mixed breeds came from the devil.

-Epp summarizing an article by Walter Quiring, "Artfremdes Blut ist Gift," Der Bote, April 15, 1936 (Epp, 104)

Of course, not all writers agreed, pointing out that Mennonites identity as a church was more important than that as a people, but as the table above shows, this perspective was found in a small minority of writers, less than 10 percent. And when they did write, they were clearly on the defensive.

Political Germanism

The writers in Der Bote favorable to political Germanism watched Hitler's program in Germany with enthusiasm. According to them he was bringing security, economic prosperity and morality to Germany:

Girls no longer painted their lips and cheeks, and how beautiful they looked! Papers no longer advertised birth control methods which before Hitler's time had been openly discussed by the young people. Jews, responsible for much promiscuity (in one school a Jew had taken the virtue of 400 girls -- this the parents had confirmed) were being disciplined.

- Epp summarizing Oswald J. Smith, "Mein Besuch in Deutschland," Der Bote, October 28, 1936. (Epp, 132)

Along with spreading immorality, writers in Der Bote held Jews responsible for the spread of Communism and even the founding of Communism, claiming that Karl Marx was Jewish:

Those who had experienced the revolution in Russia also were sure that Jews had been largely responsible. There was some discussion about the existence of world conspriacy or an international Jewish plot but the Protocolls of the Elders of Zion (sic) were taken seriously...

- Epp summarizing C. F. Klassen, D. H. Epp and A. Reimer. (Epp, 140)

In this way various writers favorable to Hitler's program justified his targeting of Jews:

All of this progress, of course, was not possible without a direct attack on Germany's internal enemies, Communism and Jews, the handmaidens of Communism. One of the greatest achievments of Adolf Hitler was halting the advance of Communism.

- Epp summarizing Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, M. Q., and H. Goerz. (Epp, 133)

Jewish connections with Communism were given as one reason for supressing them. Another reason given was their dominant position in German affairs and their determination to destroy the German people. Their predominance in medicine, law, press, and literature were not due primarily to intelligence but to a determined effort to seze power and to use Germany as  the base for achieving the international Communist revolution.

- Epp summarizing C. F. Klassen, G. Hege, H. H. Schroeder, A. Kroeker and Eugen Kuehnemman. (Epp, 140-141)

C. F. Klassen hailed the coming of Hitler as a man "who gathered the national idea, who had the courage to clean up the social-democratic rot, the Communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews." (Epp, 258)

Of course there were also those who had the courage to challenge this view of National Socialism. Dederich Navall had spent 10 years living in Germany and called anti-semitism "hocus-pocus":

While he acknowledged the terrible error of the Bolshevik leaders, he said it was ridiculous in talk (sic) about Jewish world rule. In Russia the facts of the matter were that the Jews had suffered more than any other race had suffered from the revolution. To explain the revolution on racial grounds was absurd. During his 10-year stay in Germany, Navall said that he had discovered the German sources for this oversimplified explanation of history. An international religious fellowship [such as Mennonites], he said, had no reason whatsoever to participate in the Verhetzung (hate propaganda).

- Epp Summarizing Navall, "Gegen die geistlose Juden-hetze," Der Bote, April 12, 1933. (Epp, 274-275)

Unfortunately, Navall and others who opposed the Nazis wrote less than 30% of the total column inches compared to over 70% in favor of political Germanism.

Epp concludes his dissertation by looking at whether an analysis of Der Bote accurately reflects the mood among immigrant Mennonites at the time. He deals with a number of arguments claiming the voices supportive of National Socialism were marginal and disproportionately represented in Der Bote, but concludes:

In spite of these possibilities the writer concludes that the immigrant newspaper was a fairly representative reflection of the Mennonite immigrant mind, which, in the 1930s was very strong on nurturing and preserving cultural Germanism, as essential to the Mennonite way of life, strong also in its identification with racial Germanism, and though ambivalent on the question by and large also sympathetic to the political Germanism of the Third Reich. (Epp, 291)

Why did Mennonites identify so strongly with Germanism? There were likely a variety of economic, cultural and historical reasons that could fill a second doctoral thesis. One major event worth noting is the aid that the German government gave to 5,000 out of a group of 13,000 Russian Mennonites trying to escape the USSR in 1930. Epp reports that the German government gave the refugees six miilion Reichsmark, including 200,000 from the personal treasury of Hindenburg, then president of Germany. This generosity came at a time when Germany was at its worst economically and left a major impression among the wider Mennonite community, but the Russian Mennonite emigre community was especially grateful to Germany.

What happened to the antisemitic ideas among Mennonites after World War II? What do these attitudes and writings mean for us today? I'd invite your responses in the comment section below and next week I'll be back with Part 2 of this article.

* Page numbers in parenthesis throughout this article refer to the page numbers in Epp's dissertation.

Nafziger_tim_2_thumbnail Tim Nafziger is passionate about gathering people with shared values to work together for change in our communities and our world. One such space is Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) where he works as interim assistant director. Tim lives with his wife Charletta in the Ojai Valley in southern California where they connect with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministires. Tim has written chapters in Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship; Fear or Freedom?: Why a Warring Church Must Change; and 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq. His photo portfolio is at timnafziger.com. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @tim_nafziger

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  • Posted by ChrisFJ at Wednesday, August 01, 2007 at 05:28 AM

    I don't know about Mennonite history, but I know that one of the interesting things about Nazi Germany was the widespread support amongst many 'normal' people for the Nazi regime. Why would 'normal' people support such a nasty regime? A reason I see value in is that they had such a tough time after WW1 and the Treath of Versailles. Not only did Germany suffer economic hardship at the hands of the victor powers (people would have to take wheel-barrows full of money just to buy bread due to hyper-inflation), but also emotional hardship - the Treath of Versailles put the blame for WW1 on Germany, even though all the countries involved in the war were as bad as each other. I think this combinaiton of treating people wihtout love and keeping them in poverty can explain to a signifcant extent why 'normal' people would support a regime that promised to care for them (even though they also were cruel to others), and that promised economic growth. I think this analysis is relevant today when it comes to how our governments treat other countries, e.g. through trade laws that keep the wealthy countries excessively rich and the poor countries painfully poor. Or as in Palestine where economic suffering is combined with emotional cruelty. The end result of treating people in an unloving manner can be to create less-loving people, such as happened to the Mennonites during the Nazi period.

  • Posted by PA Mennonite at Wednesday, August 01, 2007 at 03:35 PM

    Do we need yet another reason to feel guilty as a people? My impression from San Jose 2007 was that we have no identity left. It has been robbed by constant self derision and feart of offense towards anyone. Jesus was not afraid to say what he believed. Is it possible that we have lost focus of our goal through self-incrimination? Is our focus all the ills of the past and none of the joy? This is what seperates MC USA, right here on this page.

  • Posted by Everett at Thursday, August 02, 2007 at 04:15 PM

    This is excellent stuff, Tim. We can also look at more recent evidences. I recall a major Mennonite leader coming to our MYF at Neffsville (Pa.) Mennnonite Church to talk about Judaism. He told us point-blank that the Holocaust was God's will because the Jews killed Jesus. This was in 1966!

  • Posted by victor1 at Sunday, August 05, 2007 at 12:54 AM

    Tim, congrats on your research. What makes it all the more disturbing is that young Mennonites are unaware of the Nazi era in Mennonite history. Can you imagine how it looks for Jews, who faced a partly Mennonite fueled final solution in the 1940's to see Mennonites still holding hands with those proposing final solutions today? http://mcc.org/news/news/article.html?id=190 There are so many Christian dictators in our world that Christians (particularly Mennonites who know what suffering under tyrants is like) should hold to account - but for some reason we'd rather focus on the lone Jewish totalitarians. I think the title of your post names this accurately. Here is the translation of an apology from the German Mennonites 50 years after the fact: >>>> On May 8, 1995 we commemorated the end of the war (WW II) and thought about what this day means to us Mennonites in Germany today. Many of us experienced and suffered through that turning point then as a catastrophe. Looking back we recognize that the end of the war was foremost a liberation from a criminal regime, despite the suffering that we ourselves went through. Most Mennonites in Germany as the result of a long development succumbed to the temptation of the National Socialism and gave up their peace witness. They saw their duty to their own people as more important than the connection to their Mennonite brothers and sisters in the Netherlands and in Alsace. The Dutch brothers and sisters who suffered under the German occupation and mourned numerous losses could not count on the compassion of the German Mennonites much less their help. During the years of war German Mennonites took over the farms of exiled farmers in the Lorraine and in Warthegau (I don’t know what the English word for this region is). Mennonites of all professions were involved in the system at that time. And almost all Mennonites were silent about the national socialist crimes against the Jews and many others. Those who were critical of the National Socialism saw also no way out. (I guess in the sense of stopping it.) With the words of the Lord’s Prayer we ask for forgiveness. We do not understand these examples as belated critic. We believe this look into the past is necessary to learn from this part of history. Thus we regret that the dealings with National Socialism and its consequences were so long neglected for fear of conflict and because many German Mennonites were affected (hit hard) by the war themselves. Others believed that they didn’t have to apologize because they did not participate in crimes directly. Today we realize that we as Christians and part of the Mennonite brother- and sisterhood should have made known our shame and consternation. For us the years after the end of the war and after the suffering of the exile turned into undeserved good years of rebuilding. We could experience that neighboring countries who were enemies during the war grew together and encounter one another now with respect and friendliness. We are thankful for that. But in light of this background of the past we observe the events of today and feel heavy because of the growing lack of relationships and direction, the growing egotism, hate of foreigners and willingness to use force. To meet these challenges adequately we want to orient ourselves on the word of God and the inheritance of our Anabaptist fathers and mothers. Thus we want to emphasize especially the following viewpoints: Public confession through mission and peace witness Emphasizing the brother and sisterhood beyond the worshipping community and our own nation/people Willingness to accept foreigners and not to exclude anyone A responsible lifestyle for the protection of creation. Lamentations 3:22 >>>> There is also a stunning article somewhere in one of the Mennonite academic journals about how MCC helped Nazi Mennonites get out of Germany and avoid prosecution.

  • Posted by victor1 at Sunday, August 05, 2007 at 01:39 AM

    This link is helpful: http://www.mcusa-archives.org/jhorsch/jhorsch2003/JamesRegier.htm

  • Posted by victor1 at Sunday, August 05, 2007 at 12:03 PM

    At the risk of a monologue I'd like to withdraw the phrase "holding hands" from the comments below. It's too vague to be helpful. Instead I think I should substitute the phrase "being used" since MCC Ontario executive director Arli Klassen basically concedes that this is the case in the article here: http://www.mbherald.com/46/07/people-1.en.html

  • Posted by timjn at Monday, August 06, 2007 at 12:19 AM

    Thanks to all of you for your responses. You've raised some very important issues. I don't think I personally have the knowledge or wisdom to address them fully, but I hope to respond in some way next week when I attempt to write Part 2 of my article. In the mean time I welcome any further comments, queries, or counsel.

  • Posted by victor1 at Monday, August 06, 2007 at 09:44 PM

    Tim, I'd encourage you to consider two things for Part 2.

    (1). First, please encourage further awareness of this history among Mennonites. Did The Mennonite cover the 1995 German Mennonite apology I posted below? I had to ask a friend to translate the apology because I do not believe it has been published in English. This betrays a lack of attention paid to the 50 years of reflection the statement represents. As the German Mennonites said, "We believe this look into the past is necessary to learn from this part of history."

    (2.) Second, I’d like you to encourage a refocusing on abuses of human dignity by Christian. When Mennonites, some of whom were Nazis, speak out against Jewish tyranny without speaking out first, and even more aggressively, against tyranny by Christians in places like Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, and Belarus or a dozen other countries (even Mennonite led Paraguay has a human rights record comparable to Columbia) I believe it makes accusations of anti-Semitism more credible. At the least it is a sign of either ignorance of comparable abuses by Christians and/or conformity to the similar selective scapegoating found in much recent church tradition. Awareness that anti-Semitism is an easily perceived tradition among many Mennonites might make some of us more cautious about vocal judgments that seem to overlook Christian crimes and our consumer complicity. Until there are no more Christian dictators it might make sense to focus upon their defamation of Jesus name rather than Israeli/Palestinian matters. Our Anabaptist tradition tells us to expect little of those outside the Church - and to expect holiness from those who claim the name of Christ.

  • Posted by victor1 at Tuesday, August 07, 2007 at 07:50 AM

    Shoot, one more thought.

    (3.) I see no problem with Mennonites continuing to host formal meetings with the contemporary voices for an anti-Semitic "final solution". No problem, that is, as long as we maintain our tradition of speaking truth to power and seeking to be a voice for the voiceless.

    I think the way Mennonites can ensure they have not abandoned these legacies in pursuit of photo opportunities would be to make the meetings conditional on these paragraphs being included in every document released by Mennonites about this dialogue.

    "As Mennonites we acknowledge that almost all German Mennonites were silent about the Nazi crimes against the Jews and many others. Worse yet, many German Mennonites became Nazis and served in their cause. With the words of the Lord’s Prayer we ask for forgiveness."

    "As we engage in dialogue with some who have proposed a new "final solution" we seek to redress our prior failure to speak truth to Nazi power and be a voice for the voiceless. We accept the broad consensus that the Iranian government is among the twenty most oppressive governments on our planet. We will openly repudiate attacks, verbal or otherwise, on the God-given dignity of any people group. In addition to our dialogue with members of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute we have also invited the participation of Iranian leaders who consistently call for respect for the God-given dignity of all people. If the Iranian government refuses to let these dissident leaders leave the country, we will leave open chairs at our conference tables representing the "voices" of those silenced by their government."

  • Posted by andy at Monday, January 30, 2012 at 06:51 PM

    Very well presented Tim. One note worth investigating and documenting is the fate of the Mennonites brought to Germany before and during WWII. As I understand it, the majority refused military service and were AS A COMMUNITY summarily executed. Men, women, and even children.
    Solid verification would certainly be appropriate.

  • Posted by emily.bronte at Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 06:01 PM

    best part of this post is Epp Summarizing Navall, "Gegen die geistlose Juden-hetze," Der Bote, April 12, 1933
    thanks
    Regards
    Emily.Bronte
    Places to Visitin Louisiana

  • Posted by sullivan at Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 07:27 AM

    There were so many attempts made by The Mennonites to gel up with the Judaism and that is why a conference has been happening. Mennonites never sympathize with the Nazis and yet the apology has been conveyed.
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