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in Paraguay, I’d never heard much about Mennonites sympathizing with the Nazis, but a friend of mine recommended an unpublished dissertation by Frank Epp entitled An analysis of Germanism and National Socialism in the immigrant newspaper of a Canadian minority.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|
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.
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.
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.