In this time of global pandemic and international protests against systemic police brutality, thoughtful Anabaptist journalism has become more essential than ever. I am grateful to Mennonite World Review for its principled, high-quality reporting. This newspaper has cut through the kind of misinformation that has become too common in our age of rising authoritarianism. Its editors have been unabashed in spreading the fundamentally Christian message of love that Black Lives Matter.
As important as up-to-date news coverage is the slow-burn process of uncovering legacies of inequality and racism that taint our denominational and secular institutions.
Mark Jantzen’s article, “East German History an Unfinished Conversation” (June 15), exemplifies MWR’s commitment to journalism informed by history. Drawing on decades of expertise and new findings by Bernhard Thiessen, Jantzen has authored the best English overview of Mennonites’ fascinating and problematic four-decade encounter with the communist dictatorship of East Germany.
This little-known history holds relevance for Mennonites today. East Germany dissolved in 1990. Yet the trauma inflicted by that police state continues to reverberate worldwide. Recent years have seen the rise of the far-right political party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), with demographic strongholds in the former East Germany. AfD is characterized by Islamophobia and German nationalism. It is the third largest party in parliament.
A rightward shift
The 1,000 Mennonites in East Germany were part of a much larger Anabaptist population on the far side of the Iron Curtain. The majority, totaling more than 100,000, lived in the Soviet Union. Most of these individuals or their descendants have since moved to Germany, long perceived as their homeland.
Scholars have attributed the AfD’s disproportionate success across eastern Germany to the East German state’s historic refusal to adequately address the Nazi past, and poor economic integration of former socialist lands into Western capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While Anabaptist immigrants from the USSR mostly settled in western regions of Germany, it is possible they, too, exhibit disproportionate support for the AfD. No studies have been conducted to quantify Anabaptist approval of AfD policies, but the broader Russia-German community has recently undergone a rightward shift, and Anabaptists number among this group’s most conservative members.
AfD campaign workers allege affinity with many Russia-Germans’ conservative religious views, play on economic concerns to stoke white resentment and seek to mobilize feelings of German ethnic identity toward discriminatory ends.
In 2013, the year AfD was founded, I was living in southwest Germany researching a book about Mennonites and German nationalism. Visiting numerous congregations, I made many friends among the country’s Russia-German Anabaptists. Most Germans at that time considered AfD a fringe party. In Germany’s progressive west, based in a city considered a bastion of the environmentalist Green Party, the only AfD supporters I personally knew were Anabaptists from the former Soviet Union.
Lexicon of hostility
Having since traveled among Mennonite communities across four continents, I encountered disquieting echoes of the racist, misogynist and homophobic ideas I heard propounded by my AfD-supporting Anabaptist acquaintances in Germany. I visited Paraguay in 2017 for a conference about local pro-Nazi sentiment during the 1930s and early 1940s.
This symposium commendably interrogated a difficult past. Yet I also witnessed wide penetration of far-right conspiracy theories in Paraguayan Mennonite society. Seven decades after the leaders of one colony advocated relocating to Hitler’s Third Reich, a respected schoolteacher in the same community relayed fears of a supposed Jewish plot to control global politics.
Social media and disinformation campaigns by right-wing movements have helped develop a common lexicon among this subsection of Anabaptism, including in reunified Germany, rural Paraguay and the U.S. Since the police killing of George Floyd, Anabaptists I had met in multiple countries have expressed hostility via social media toward Black Lives Matter protesters and defended Confederate monuments — racist opinions filtered through websites run by far-right activists.
Three generations ago, white supremacist promises made by National Socialism split global Anabaptism. Mennonites attuned to atrocities committed in the Soviet Union proved especially susceptible to this cocktail of anti-Communism, racial science and anti-Semitism. At the height of Hitler’s empire-building, a fourth of all Mennonites lived under Nazi rule.
Today, parts of our denominations are again flocking to the far right, reframing ideas of what Anabaptism means around troubling resentments. Allegations of Christian persecution are being held up as smokescreens to justify anti-black racism.
Anabaptist journalism attuned to the rapidly changing world and challenges denominations have confronted in the past are essential to navigating this dangerous present. As MWR and The Mennonite merge in September to form Anabaptist World, I pray this new publication will continue to stand against bigotry.
Excavating our past must include investing in people of color. Mennonite Church USA has launched a Justice Fund to assist congregations committed to dismantling racism. I hope this and similar initiatives will include training and financial support for work by black and other underrepresented journalists and historians. Looking away from injustice has been made easier by the concentration of white people in these professions.
As Anabaptist World emerges into this pivotal moment in church history and global politics, I pray its readers will back robust programs to lift up voices from across our worldwide body and reconstruct our institutions to confront the sins of white supremacy.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press.