Ben Goossen argues that German-speaking Mennonites of the 20th century had a sense of Mennonite nationality and that this concept of Mennonites as a “chosen nation,” a people with a distinctive heritage, culture and ethnicity, was influenced by the racist ideas of the Nazis. He says he began this study in an effort to understand his grandfather, a retired Mennonite minister from Kansas, who was devoted to the church but who also identified himself as a “proud Prussian.”
The 20th century was a time of global connections with the formation of Mennonite World Conference and international Mennonite publications. Goossen sees this as evidence of a cohesive peoplehood and the concept of one tribe. He also points to the growing interest in preserving a Mennonite heritage, suggesting that genealogical studies, family reunions, historic atlases and church directories prove that Mennonites were interested in preserving their ethnicity and racial purity.
He quotes Peter Dyck of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who worked with refugees in the 1940s, as saying, “These Mennonite refugees are neither ‘Russian’ nor ‘German,’” and that Mennonitism is not just a religion but it embraces “all that which culture, language, tradition and a distinct way of life implies.”
Goossen argues that because MCC accepted an ethnic definition of Mennonite when it resettled refugees in Paraguay, ethnicity was profoundly important to Mennonites.
Probably most disturbing is Goossen’s suggestion that Mennonites were Nazi sympathizers. While he acknowledges that the Amish and traditionalist Mennonites had little admiration for Hitler, he points to various individuals who were overtly pro-Nazi. Especially between 1941 and 1943, when the Germans had taken over Mennonite villages in Ukraine, he declares that Mennonites widely benefited from Nazi rule, sometimes receiving goods that had been taken from murdered Jews. He points out that some Mennonites joined Nazi killing squads while others joined the German army, and many became naturalized German citizens.
I appreciated the first part of Goossen’s book as he describes how Mennonites in Germany responded to the rising nationalism of the German states in the 19th century. He gives a vivid picture of how the Prussian Mennonites were more urban and educated than Mennonites from the southern German states. They were also more militaristic and were the first Mennonites in Germany to drop pacifism. Whether or not to join the regular army was considered a personal choice, not a basic principle of the faith.
The latter half of the book was more disturbing. It caused me to consider deeply whether Goossen could be right and my experience of the Mennonite world was just a rose-coloured illusion. Could he be right that if Mennonites “strip away the ethnic trappings of their faith, they are left not with a core of values, but with a process”?
In the end, I found his arguments unconvincing. While he obviously has studied a lot of European Mennonite history, too much of his argument involves the turbulent years between 1941 and 1943. He gives lip service to the profound anti-Soviet feelings of Mennonites in Ukraine but seems overly eager to see their actions as pro-Nazi.
While I have a deep fascination with genealogy and recognize that I come from a distinctive religious culture, those things are not the basis of my faith. In my Mennonite tradition, what binds the tribe together is the foundation of Jesus Christ, not culture or ethnicity, and certainly not race.
I would encourage others, especially historians and theologians, to read this book and carefully consider their own response to Goossen’s argument.