Mennonites and national socialism

German soldiers in Eastern Europe, 1939

German soldiers in Eastern Europe, 1939

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is an international relief and development organization on behalf of Mennonite congregations in Canada and the U.S. The organization was working in Germany prior to and during the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s, and then again after the German armies were defeated in 1945.

That history was described in the Fall 2021 issue of Intersections: MCC theory and practice quarterly.  The introduction states that, “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?”  

To help answer those questions, MCC invited twelve historians and writers from the United States, Canada, and Europe to conduct research in its archives, which it opened to them. The resulting 68-page publication contained twelve articles. What follows here is a summary of material contained in Intersections, along with some additional brief context which I am providing.

MCC and German governments

MCC was created in 1920 to deliver humanitarian assistance to Mennonites in the Soviet Union (mostly in Ukraine) who were suffering in the wake of revolution and civil war. In the years following, thousands emigrated to a variety of countries including Paraguay, Brazil, and Canada. The government of Weimar Republic provided staging centres for the migrants and loans to cover costs, which Mennonite organizations agreed to repay, with interest.

In 1933, the Nazi party narrowly won an election and promptly used violence and thuggery to suspend democracy and install Hitler as a dictator. The Nazis held odious racial theories, which glorified the Aryan race and demonized others as sub-human, including Slavic people and Jews.

MCC’s humanitarian work continued but now the organization had to deal with a Nazi government. Information gleaned from the archive indicates that MCC relied upon a few influential Mennonites in Germany to represent their interests. Some of those people were also ardent fascists and anti-Semites.

Mennonites in Ukraine

The Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938 and Poland in 1939. The German and Soviet governments had surprised everyone by negotiating a non-aggression pact just prior to the war in September 1939. Despite that agreement, Germany launched an attack upon the Soviet Union in 1941. German armies moved quickly into Ukraine which was home to about 35,000 Mennonites. They had been invited there as settlers by Russian Empress Katherine the Great in the 1780s.  

They had suffered depravation following the Russian revolution in 1917, not to mention the Stalin-induced famine in the early 1930s and the Great Purge later in the decade. It featured show trials, executions, and banishment to Siberian labour camps. When the Germans arrived in Ukraine 1941, most Mennonites welcomed them as liberators.

Spoils of war

Central to Nazi ideology was the concept of Lebensraum (living space), which held that Germans needed territory in Eastern Europe to grow and thrive. The Nazis seized property from Jews and Slavs and planned to settle German speakers on stolen land. The Nazis looked upon the Mennonites in Ukraine as ideal for this project, and even promised to bring back some of those who had earlier fled from Europe to the Americas. 

One of the articles in Intersections is titled, MCC and Nazism, 1929–1955. It was written by Benjamin W. Goossen, who was a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University. He is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. Goossen writes: “The Third Reich had considered these German speakers to be racial Aryans and had provided most of them with the spoils of genocidal warfare, including clothes, goods and housing taken from Jews or other murder victims.”

Mennonite flight

By 1943, the German invasion had failed, and their armies retreated to the west, with the Soviet Red Army in hot pursuit. Many Mennonites in Ukraine withdrew to Germany along with the Nazi forces. Immediately following the war, MCC re-established itself in Europe and its staff worked tirelessly to identify Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union and arrange for them to migrate to Canada or South America. The fear was that if not accepted for migration, they would be deported back to the Soviet Union to face harsh treatment.

According to Intersections, “MCC had already committed to helping Mennonites in Germany before assessing what opinions they might have held toward National Socialism or investigating what roles they had played in the war.”

Mennonites from Ukraine faced several hurdles. United Nations rules specified that emigration was not open to ethnic Germans. Nor was it open to people who had fled to avoid falling into the hands of an allied army, the Soviet army in this case.

Pleading the case

Intersections says that MCC countered these regulations with three main arguments. “First, MCC insisted that most of the refugees were not Germans but members of a distinct Mennonite ethnicity. Second, it alleged that the migrants were persecuted in the USSR like the Jews under Hitler. And third, it claimed they ‘were brutally treated by the German occupation authorities’ and thus ‘did not receive favored treatment.’” They were described as long-suffering displaced persons rather than a group whose members had benefited from the German occupation. MCC, when it encountered hurdles from the UN-affiliated refugee organizations, lobbied with high-ranking American officials.

‘Providential salvation’

As Intersections describes it, through MCC’s efforts a story was born. “Over the following decades, MCC continued to advance narratives about the providential salvation of persecuted refugees from the Soviet Union, further covering over the complex, multifaceted ways these and other Mennonites had collaborated with or benefited from Nazism.”

In 2021, MCC’s leaders knew that the revelations in Intersections would be difficult to confront. They wrote: “We acknowledge that for some readers the events discussed over the following pages are deeply personal and possibly painful, related to family histories of displacement, migration and post-war service. We invite all to read through this issue carefully, observing the complexities, nuances and ambiguities of this history.”

A good resource

Much has happened since the special issue of Intersections was published in 2021. There has been other writing and reportage, academic conferences, and workshops, but Intersections remains a good resource for beginning to understand this complex and fraught history.

Reader’s note

My wife belongs to a Mennonite church in Ottawa, and I often attend services with her. It was in that way that I became aware of the story. This article is a revised and shortened version of one that I wrote for Forum, which is the newsletter/magazine of Ottawa Mennonite Church.

Photo credit

National Archives and Records, U.S.A.

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