Ep. 21 When “pacifists” go to war

Nestor Makhno and his band of anarchistic communists were not only plowing their fields, they were seeking converts. The wealthiest Mennonite colony, Molochna, was where his ideas about inequality were first imprinted on his youthful psyche, and it was close at hand.

Makhno_group

Makhno and his men.

Reports of Makhno’s approach reached the colony when fleeing villagers from Schönfeld [47°48’52.03″N, 35°55’35.79″E] arrived in fall of 1918.[1] They lived 30 kilometres from Makhno’s headquarters and on a Sunday in late October the arrival of 150 Makhno soldiers was the subject of that day’s sermon. After a quick vote the men of the village went home, returned with weapons, and prepared to defend Schönfeld. Makhno did not attack them that day but asked them to give up their weapons, which they did the next day.[2]

With the Germans gone, Mennonites knew they would either have to fight or submit to the revolution taking place all around them and they were not ready to submit. The villages of the Molochna colony were nearest to Makhno’s headquarters and were the first to cross the line. It seemed the decision to relinquish pacifism had already been made.

It was also characteristic of those days when the individual had to make a decision one way or another that the more prosperous farmers were generally more in favour of the Selbstschutz than the landless and the poor (among the Mennonites).[3]

Meetings in the various villages of the Molochna colony to discuss next steps ended with the same result. At Rückenau [47°6’29.52″N, 35°47’32.84″E], just 60 kilometres from Makhno’s home town of Hulyaipole [47°38’54.16″N, 36°16’4.26″E], the men wanted to organize an armed posse to recover their stolen goods.[4] At nearby Rudnerweide [47° 3’53.28″N, 36° 9’54.58″E] an objector was threatened with death.[5] At Rosenort [47° 4’45.17″N, 35°36’54.75″E] Peter Bergmann was kicked out of a meeting for advocating reliance on God.[6] In neighbouring Blumenort [47° 4’19.86″N, 35°35’44.22″E] a conscientious objector was beaten until he changed his mind[7] and at Alexanderthal [47° 8’58.15″N, 35°50’21.20″E] an officer of the White army chaired the meeting.[8]

Mennonites were going to war.

molochna map really good red lines

Molochna colony.

Although Mennonite leaders had given tacit approval for their young men to bear arms, Mennonite historians have been unable to describe exactly how the Selbstschutz [literally means self-defense] was formed. Who elected the committee – nobody knows. Eyewitness J.P. Epp provides an enlightening insight into Mennonite decision-making:

Throughout the centuries Mennonitism developed an organizational talent which at times is downright secretive, more derived from instinct than the task at hand – like one finds in ants, bees and termites. For example one comes to a Mennonite conference with hundreds of delegates. One consults, proposes, talks, resolves, in spite of the fact that everything has been regulated and decided long before by a few brethren.

…What did they call themselves? One would think a militaristic or even patriotic name. Wrong! A name was selected which encapsulated the strongest expression of Mennonite self-esteem – Wirtschaftskomitee [business committee – my translation]. Who would see anything non-Mennonite or suspicious behind such a name? No one.[9]

Kocynder_nr_29_1921_Selbstschutz

This page in a Polish magazine expresses how people felt about German Selbstschutz. The cutline reads: This is what “German self-defense” looks like to the defenseless rural population in the western counties.

Each district appointed small sub-committees (also known as business committees) which completed the preparations for war. Trenches and fortifications were built; infantry, cavalry, mounted infantry and unified service branches organized; machine guns and a light field battery were set up; a medical corps was established and a staff for discipline and court martial was chosen.

The Gnadenfeld business committee authorized men to visit the White Army headquarters in the Crimea to get weapons and ammunition. Epp writes:

From the Sevastopol arsenal we received whatever we desired of the German war materials which the Germans left behind during the disarmament. We took five train carloads of arms, munitions, four machine guns, field telephones, hand grenades, steel helmets, spades, picks, etc. In all we had 1,125 hand weapons.[10]

The Selbstschutz militia mustered 3,000 men, including 300 cavalry and 20 companies of infantry. Several infantry companies were from nearby non-Mennonite German settlements, and several officers were from the German military who had chosen not to return to Germany, but the commandant of the Selbstschutz was a Bulgarian-Russian man. In time, Russian officers of the former tsarist army assumed leadership roles in the Selbstschutz.

Berhard Dick who was 23 years old when the Selbstschutz first went into battle notes with regret that the first two missions, Chernihivka [47°11’26.89″N, 36°12’59.17″E] and Blumenfeld [47°33’17.80″N, 35°54’32.02″E] “were outright attacks and not mere defensive actions. They have to be condemned.”[11]

When students of Halbstadt’s commerce school heard Makhno’s men were in the Russian town of Chernihivka, only ten miles from a Mennonite village, they got their guns and commandeered a train.[12] By morning Selbstschutz units from other villages joined them and during the ensuing gunfight over thirty Makhno men were killed and only two Selbstschutz men. Makhno barely escaped.[13] Several Selbstschutz detachments liberated “ a good deal of liquor and other goods”[14] from Chernihivka. A month later, Makhno’s retribution was to surround the village of Blumenfeld. The next night 300 Selbstschutz cavalry arrived and secretly guided the fearful villagers through enemy territory to the safety of the Molochna colony.[15]

By January 1919 White Army officers controlled the self-defense forces of the Molochna colony and the Mennonite force had become a subsidiary of the White Army, enemies of both Makhno and the Red Army. One night the White Army officers suggested a search of the Russian villages south of the colony. Five “bandits” were taken prisoner and upon returning to Gnadenfeld, the Russian officers shot the prisoners in the graveyard and the Mennonite moral compass was spinning madly.

Gnadenfeld

For several weeks the Selbstschutz held its own against the anarchists but by the end of January 1919, Makhno joined forces with the Red Army a fact unknown to the Mennonite army. Six hundred Selbstschutz men had fortified themselves behind a wall of dirt, straw and manure[16], holding back what they believed to be a force of 3,000 anarchists at the village of Blumenthal, 40 kilometres northeast of Halbstadt. They didn’t realize in addition to the 3,000 anarchists they were also facing the 42nd Division of the Red Army.

Here is Jacob Thiessen’s account:

The intermittent shooting did not bother us too much. Machno [sic] was unsure of himself; he did not know how many men had come to the support of Blumenthal, neither did he know what arms we carried or possessed. When the wall was finished we were confident we could keep a very large force of bandits at bay without too much trouble. Machno’s ragged band by now numbered 3,000 men, but they were afraid to advance across a large flat piece of prairie in front of us. They would have no protection whatsoever. To test our strength, they made several half-hearted attacks, led by their machine gun carrier forces but these carriages gave little protection to his men on foot … Before the machine gun carriers could turn around, we killed the horses that pulled them, thus pulling the sting of the attackers before they could become dangerous. The attack ended in a complete rout. Machno lost many men, judging from the dotted appearance of the prairie before us. We felt comfortable and quite unconcerned.

Blumenthal

Blumenthal at the top of the map.

The second morning we were rudely awakened by the heavy bass voices of big cannons. The very first shot that landed sent a whole house flying in all directions, leaving a crater big enough to house fifty men. Shot after shot was fired at us from cannons eight miles away and we could not answer that fire.

Our small cannons (two of them) were disabled within an hour and our machine guns were useless at long range.

The wall, such excellent protection against rifle and machine gun fire, was completely useless against big cannon fire. When the enemy forces began to advance we saw with consternation that we were now dealing with an army of about 10,000 men all dressed in the Red Army uniforms of the North.

Suddenly silhouetted against the skyline stood the figure of an armed Red soldier. Most of us froze in our positions, doing nothing.

“To what regiment do you belong?” the Red soldier shouted. “Give the password!”

“To hell with your password,” shouted Bill [one of the Mennonites] and fired at the standing figure. The soldier dropped and then the whole slope came to life.

Their fire was fierce and we lost more men in that first hour than we lost in the entire campaign against Machno. Now we had to fight with our backs against the wall. There were no commands, there was no talk, just heavy breathing and incessant loading and firing, and when we could see the shining brass buttons on the Red soldiers overcoats, our machine guns went into action. The big guns were still but the small arms fire increased in ferocity, occasionally accented by the boom of exploding hand grenades. For about fifteen minutes it was nip and tuck, and then the enemy retreated, but started shelling us again from a distance.

We knew we were finished, it was only a question of time, and manner of the final defeat. When night came enemy forces advanced as far as they could, surrounded us, and prepared for the night. The end would come with dawn. The final doom was only a few hours away. We prayed fervently to God for help but knew that the attack would be sudden, short and fierce. We did not have many bayonets and in hand to hand attack we did not have a prayer of a chance. There had to be another way besides fighting. We decided to take our chances and break out during the night.

Our cavalry of twenty-five horses lined up behind the wall of straw, dirt and manure on the west, the retreating side. All were armed heavily with hand grenades. The rest of us lined up behind them on wagons, with the machine gun carriages flanking us. At the given signal we all fired our guns at the enemy lines, and the twenty-five horsemen galloped westward through the broken enemy line, throwing hand grenades right and left. Pandemonium broke loose on the enemy side. The Reds fled into the darkness as if driven by evil spirits. This they had not anticipated, nor were they in any way prepared for it. The breach was made, and we hurried through it as fast as we could, shooting with our rifles to the right and to the left. Was our shooting effective? Did we hit anything? Hardly. The blind firing in the darkness added to the pandemonium that already seemed to reign among the enemy forces. …

Several of our young men were wounded in the night attack but not by the fire of the enemy. Some of our grenades dropped too close and the small, flying grenade splinters found their mark on our own men.[17]

The Selbstschutz retreated to Tiefenbrunn [47°17’50.61″N, 35°40’18.90″E], a non-Mennonite German village on the northern edge of the colony, with the Red Army in pursuit. But it wasn’t safe. The village lay in a shallow depression and in no time the Reds surrounded the village and placed their cannons in strategic positions. A villager guided the Selbstschutz men to a tunnel used to transport loam for making bricks. The tunnel exited in a gully 150 yards outside the village. The men, followed by the remaining villagers, snuck out through the tunnel and headed for Waldorf and Koorkoolak, two other non-Mennonite German villages. These were well fortified for defense with a high brick wall and tall trees for cover. After the Reds levelled and burned Tiefenbrunn they surrounded Waldorf and Koorkoolak. Impressed with the defenses the Reds sent four negotiators to the Selbstschutz officers in hopes of sparing any further bloodshed. The White Army officers in charge of the Selbstschutz took the negotiators into a barn, shot them and buried them in a manure pile.

When the negotiators didn’t return, the Red Army unleashed its weapons. The Mennonites were outnumbered and out-gunned. The officers released the men, and each one was left to save himself as best he could. “The retreat that night is difficult to describe. Entire villages left everything behind and fled in wagons just to save their lives. Many of these refugees were hacked to pieces by the bandits on the way.”[18]

Jacob Thiessen lived to tell the tale but, “of the 95 students of my class, only 25 were alive when I left Russia in 1923, and none of them died a natural death.”[19]

This story is far from over. After the fall, comes vengeance.

 

NOTES

[1] Patterson, Sean David, The Makhnos of Memory: Mennonite and Makhnovist Narratives of the Civil War in Ukraine, 1917-1921, University of Winnipeg, 2013.

[2] Klippenstein, L., The Sebstschutz: A Mennonite Army in Ukraine 1918-19, Dnipropetrovsʹkyĭ nat︠s︡ionalʹnyĭ universytet im. Olesi︠a︡ Honchara, page 181.

[3] Dick, Bernhard J. Something About the Selbstschutz of the Mennonites in South Russia July, 1918-March, 1919, Translated and Edited by Harry Loewen and Al Reimer, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 4, 1986, page 138.

[4] Klippenstein, L., op. cit., page 182.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Epp, J.P. The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine – An Eyewitness Account, Introduction and translation by J.B. Toews, Mennonite Life, July 1971, page 140-141.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dick, op. cit., page 138.

[12] Klippenstein, L., op. cit., page 185

[13] Fast, “Errinerungen”, page 7 quoted in Chipman, Josephine, The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine 1918-19, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, 1988, page 136.

[14] Epp, J.P., op. cit., page 140.

[15] Klippenstein, L., op. cit., page 185.

[16] There is something very Mennonite about hiding behind the manure pile, but I can’t put my finger on it.

[17] Thiessen, Jacob, We Are Pilgrims, unpublished manuscript, Aberdeen, Sask., no date

[18] Dick, op. cit., page 141.

[19] Thiessen, Jacob, op. cit.

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