Ep. 22 Mennonites beg for mercy

Mennonites may have been good soldiers; many grew up on farms and were accustomed to hard work. Even Makhno is rumoured to have said so. As a military unit, however, they were laughable. Hans von Homeyer, a White Army officer, noted although the Mennonite soldiers were “brave and courageous,”[1] the Selbstschutz itself “revealed a complete lack of strategy. It focused on military objectives of no tactical value” while leaving Molochna’s capital city unprotected. [2]

General Dybenko

General Pavel Efimovich Dybenko. Look up his interesting bio.

Having lost the battle Mennonite leadership went into damage control. A team of ministers sent to the Soviet headquarters explained the Selbstschutz thought it was fighting a bandit force, not the Red Army. Commissar Malarenko ordered the Selbstschutz disbanded and disarmed within three days. “Hostages were taken according to the size of the villages and confined with threats of execution if within a specified period of time the villages failed to deliver a certain number of rifles, sabres, hand grenades and other weapons. How feverishly we searched … for rifles and munition! To save the captured hostages, people combed through wells, cellars, streams, and chaff bins. Periodically, some of the hostages were shot, especially in the upper villages.”[3] In the village of Gnadenfeld another delegation pleaded with General Dybenko for mercy. “Enraged, Dybenko replied: ‘You cursed betrayers of your fathers’ faith. For 400 years you did not bear arms, but now on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm … I will not destroy you, but my soldiers may plunder the village for three days; any members of the self-defense units which are found will be executed.’”[4]

The ignominious end of the Mennonite military came only four months after its first battle. They gained nothing and lost much. Young men offered up by wealthy landowners to protect their assets were now liable to be executed. A military tribunal in Melitopol executed 100 people each week, and many former Selbstschutz members were among them.[5] The Red Army was requisitioning food and supplies from the torn up villages which remained. Ten thousand refugees from the front lines needed care. Many former Selbstschutz members disappeared to the south to form a special German battalion in the White Army. The greatest loss, however, was the heart and soul of the Mennonite people. They had failed in the one thing they believed made them different, better, than other people. They had shed human blood. One observer estimated the Selbstschutz had killed 750 men[6], Gerhard Wiens estimates the Selbstschutz caused 3,000 casualties.[7] The emptiness of their non-resistance could not have been more profound; in plain view of the world they had betrayed their own core principles. Apologists for Mennonites stress the difficult times, the hard choices. No one knew what to do. The non-resistance of Menno Simons, however, did not account for the difficult times. The truly non-resistant went, if not cheerfully, dutifully, to their deaths. Mennonites had taken up arms before and they would again. Their pacifism when tested was less a time-honoured conviction and more an oft-repeated motto.

* * * * *

Tachanka statue in Makno's hometown2

Some say Nestor Makhno invented the tachanka by taking a Mennonite Droschke and mounting a heavy machine gun. This tribute to Makhno was photographed in his home town of Hulyaipole in 2010 [47°38’56.77″N,  36°16’3.92″E].

Meanwhile elsewhere in Russia, the battle for Bolshevik control continued. Canadian soldiers also fought and died in Siberia in a desperate struggle to keep the Bolsheviks from extending their influence to the ends of Asia. In Mennonite colonies, men were again pressed into military service, now that bearing arms no longer seemed to be an issue. In mid-June P. J. Dyck writes in his diary:

Early this morning the Red military began a hasty retreat. Hundreds of vehicles hurried towards Halbstadt [Molochna headquarters]. The soldiers even seized wagons without authorization and drove off… Horses and even some cows have been fetched from the herds in the pasture… My wife served supper to eight men yesterday, and today provided meals for eighteen men … This afternoon four riders took ten horses without so much as giving us a receipt.[8]

A few days later:

Then suddenly the first Freiwillige[9] (White Army volunteers) appeared with their characteristic red shoulder straps on their uniforms. Soon the whole street was filled with wagons, people and Droschken (carriages) with machine guns, the latter manned primarily with Mennonites.[10]

Recruiting officers ignored appeals for non-combatant service because Mennonites, it turns out, make good soldiers.[11]



[1] Chipman, Josephine, The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine 1918-19, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, 1988, page 150.

[2] Chipman, ibid.

[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 141-42

[4] B.B. Janz papers, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies Archive (CMBSA) File 1 d. H.Goossen, Unsere grosse Vaterlandsliebe, 3-4, quoted in Klippenstein, L., The Sebstschutz: A Mennonite Army in Ukraine 1918-19, Dnipropetrovsʹkyĭ nat︠s︡ionalʹnyĭ universytet im. Olesi︠a︡ Honchara, page 187.

[5] Klippenstein, L., op. cit., page 188.

[6] Lepp, A., Copie eines Briefes aus Russland, Mennonitische Rundschau, 19. Mai 1920, 7 quoted in Klippenstein, L, op. cit., note 58 page 200.

[7] Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites: war and peace in the Ukrainian Revolution, blog entry, https://libcom.org/history/makhnovists-mennonites-war-peace-ukrainian-civil-war, accessed February 19, 2018.

[8] Dyck, John P., Troubles and Triumphs, Springstein, Man., privately published, 1981 quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 154.

[9] Literally means voluntary.

[10] Dyck, John P., Troubles and Triumphs, Springstein, Man., privately published, 1981 quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 155.

[11] Klippenstein, op. cit., page 188.

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