by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When Ben Goossen began researching his book on Mennonites and German nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, he thought he would mostly be living in the past.
Goossen was at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum Aug. 27 to give a presentation based on his book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press earlier this year.
Goossen grew up in Kansas and is now a doctoral student in global religious history at Harvard University.
Speaking to a packed house in the museum, Goossen noted, “I thought this [research] would be primarily historical, about things relegated to the distant past.
“I thought we had moved beyond protests, marches, torchlight parades by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, the killing of peaceful protestors – sadly, that isn’t the case.
“I think it’s important to start with the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville [Virginia, Aug. 12-13] as the backdrop to this presentation.”
In the talk he called “Are Mennonites German? Religion and Nationalism in the Global Diaspora,” Goossen began by noting: “It seems that Mennonites, traditional pacifists, would have had little or nothing to do with violent, nationalist movements. Sadly, this is not true.”
He went on to give several examples from the first half of the 20th century.
One was J.J. Hildebrand, a Russian-born resident of Canada who, in 1933, called for excluding people of diverse races from mingling with white European Mennonites, and who sought to establish a fascist Mennonite state in Australia (which turned him down).
Another was Benjamin Unruh, a Mennonite from Ukraine who became the Third Reich’s major consultant on Mennonites, and who once claimed that “the vast majority of ethnically German Mennonites stand on the side of Adolph Hitler.”
One of Goossen’s slides, which is also in the book, shows Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi philosopher and the Reich minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, speaking to a large crowd of Mennonites in Chortitza colony in Ukraine in 1942. Some of the residents hold Nazi flags while others give Nazi salutes.
The Nazis held up these Mennonites as prime examples of “the idyllic agrarian lifestyle of German colonists” in eastern Europe, Goossen said.
Much of his presentation was devoted to his own personal experience doing research in the Mennonite colony of Fernheim in the Chaco of Paraguay.
His interest in Fernheim, particularly, stemmed from his learning that about 80 percent of its colonists were deeply interested in National Socialism in the 1930s, stating their willingness to “resettle unconditionally” in Nazi Germany.
He met a 92-year-old man who shares his last name, Goossen, and bears a tattoo of the Waffen SS, dating from the Nazi occupation of eastern Prussia.
“Growing up, I remember hearing snippets about the Mennonite colonists in the Chaco,” Goossen said, “people coming from Europe, eastern Europe, the U.S. and Canada … to form [what some called] ‘a separate Mennonite nation.’
“H.S. Bender [and other Mennonite leaders of the 20th century] saw the colonies as ‘a Mennonite state’ in the middle of the Paraguayan Chaco.”
The language they used was reminiscent of Zionism, he said, speaking of the creation of a state where any and all Mennonite refugees could come.
That illustrates some of the paradox of Mennonites’ relationship with German ethnicity and German nationalism.
Particularly in the first decades of the 20th century, “even as Mennonites in Germany wanted to assimilate into German nationalism, their co-religionists in Russia and the U.S. wanted to assimilate into those countries and cultures.
“During World War I, U.S. Mennonites were called ‘cowards’ because of their pacifism and ‘traitors’ because of their German language. Mennonites began to claim in all kinds of ways they were not German.”
Several decades later, as officials from Mennonite Central Committee were working to help tens of thousands of Mennonites leave Europe after the fall of the Third Reich, they insisted Mennonites had never collaborated with National Socialism – though Goossen’s research clearly shows they had, and that MCC officials and others covered it up “for political reasons,” to get their own people out.
Bethel College’s Mennonites and the Holocaust conference, March 16-17, 2018, will examine this and many of the other topics addressed in Goossen’s book and other, similar research.
As Goossen returned to his consideration of white nationalism as raised by recent events in the United States, he recalled his visits to Fernheim, where he met a family named Friesen who showed him warm hospitality and friendship.
One of his students at Harvard, looking at a photo of Goossen with the Friesens, said, “You look like you could be a member of their family.”
“I had the right name. I spoke the right languages, used the right idioms, knew the right culture.”
“It was conflicting, to be cashing in on my own cultural heritage and privilege while I was researching the history of white nationalism.”
He also pointed out that the whole idea of “German Mennonite” is deeply at odds with the demographic reality of Mennonites and Anabaptists now – the majority live in the global South.
He continued, “Mennonite engagement with white nationalism can’t remain only internal, only within the church. This is not a topic about which we can be complacent, as Charlottesville shows. We have a responsibility, and an ability, to bear witness.”
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
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