Ep. 48 Mennonites and Nazis pt. 2

If you still believe there were good Nazis and bad Nazis, here is the story of a couple of bad ones.

Heinrich Wiens may have been the most repugnant Russian Mennonite Nazi of all. Born in the wealthy village of Muntau, in the Molochna colony in 1906. At age 25 he gave up a promising career as a dairy inspector and resettled in Danzig (Gdansk) and joined the Nazi Party and the SS. His career included numerous promotions and medals but one day as a secret agent in the Sicherheitsdienst he lost a secret courier package and was demoted to the mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzkommando, which followed behind the front lines ensuring the correct ethnic mix of survivors.

By the time SS captain (Hauptsturmführer) Heinrich Wiens arrived in the resort town of Pjatogorsk in the northern Caucasus, he had already been conducting killing campaigns on his own for several months. The usual process of registering, assembling for transport to a “new” location, and the killing in a gas van had been carefully followed. For his killings in the Kislovodsk area [43°54’21.24″N, 42°43’39.86″E], Wiens had selected a giant tank trap near the glass factory as a suitable mass grave. Eighteen hundred Jews from Pjatogorsk [44° 2’59.62″N, 43° 2’22.69″E] assembled at the freight depot and travelled a short distance to the glass factory. Here they were forced, fifty at a time, into a three-ton van and poisoned with carbon monoxide.[1] Vans were used to assuage the psychological burdens of the Einsatzkommandos, often middle-aged family men “disturbed most of all by the endless shooting of women and children.”[2] The Jews of Jessentuki and Georgijevsk followed soon after. “A Soviet investigative commission for the war crimes trials conducted after the area had been reconquered by the Russian troops claimed to have disinterred some 6,300 people at the glass factory near Mineralnye Vody.”[3]

* * * * *

Jacob “Jack” Reimer was a Mennonite through and through, born in Halbstadt, Molochna in 1918. Like Gerhard, he was a child of the revolution, his family property expropriated and forcibly collectivized, his parents were kulaks, and Jack found himself, like Gerhard, on the outside looking in. He drifted south to the Caucasus where he attended school and eventually joined the Communist party and enlisted in the Red Army. He rose quickly in the ranks and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant 447th Infantry Division. He had arrived. Unfortunately so had the German troops who “surrounded his unit. He, along with a number of other officers, changed into civilian clothing in order to report back to his army on German movement.”[4] But he was captured and when he saw how poorly the Germans treated Russian prisoners, he called up his “German Mennonite heritage, and soon was assigned to train non-Russian POWs in the art of ethnic cleansing… .[5]

Reimer not only trained “hundreds of Holocaust perpetrators” he also deported Jews to death camps and was implicated in the mass shooting of Jews. “Reimer and several other Volksdeutsche NCOs led a group of twenty to thirty Wachmänner[6] on an operation to murder Jews . . . [in a] wooded location some fifteen kilometers from the edge of Lublin. [He] escorted small groups of Jews to a shooting pit, [where] . . . SS officers and Volksdeutsche NCOs, including Reimer, clubbed their 200 to 300 victims into a mass grave and gunned them down at close range with submachine guns.”[7]

We’ll return to Jack Reimer in a future episode. Don’t forget his name or what he did.

* * * * *

By the summer of 1943 the tide had turned against the Third Reich, the German army was ordered to retreat and arranged to take with it the remaining 350,000 Russian Germans who wished to leave. Included in this mass migration were 35,000 Mennonites.[8] By mid-March 1944, as military prospects deteriorated further, SS-Leader Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s trusted right-hand man, oversaw the movement of all remaining ethnic Germans from occupied Ukraine and Transnistria to a German-annexed Polish territory called Warthegau.[9] For Mennonites the great irony is they were returning to practically the same region from which they had emigrated to Russia a century and a half earlier.

* * * * *

In North America today, many Mennonites are hearing about their forefathers’ participation in the Holocaust for the first time. In April 2018 at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, conference-goers took a cold hard look at the swastika-wearing elephant in the room.

In his presentation Dmytro Myeshkov, Nordost-Institut  in Lüneberg, Germany, “described the case of Ivan Klassen, a doctor from Molochansk (Halbstadt), who was tried and convicted by the Soviets of a number of offenses. During the German occupation, Klassen visited a hospital in Orloff with disabled people (including children) to determine whether the patients could work or not. After his visit to the site, about half of the people were executed by the Germans.” Myeshkov also discussed the role of women who acted as translators in Crimea. Apparently they received Jewish property in return for locating Jews who were then killed.[10]

Viktor Klets, of Dnipropetrovsk University, Dnipropetrovsk, Russia said Ukrainians were divided in their views of Mennonite behavior when the Germans came. Some viewed Mennonites as willing collaborators, while others say they acted like any other Soviet people. Mennonites, he said, weren’t quite German enough for the Germans[11], perhaps due to the years of “Soviet contamination” since the Revolution. In previous research, Klets identified a number of Mennonite Holocaust executioners: Ivan Frantsevich Jantsen of Dnepropetrovsk; Peter Jakovlevich Penner of Novo-Vitebsk, who served as a policeman in Friesendorf (Stalindorf), and then in the gendarmerie in Pyatikhatkakh; and Peter Frantsevich Dick who was said to beat up his victims before taking them to the shooting site. He also uncovered a Khortitsa Mennonite by the name of Wiens who served as chief of the Dnepropetrovsk Schutzpolizei school that supplied guards for the concentration camp of the city.[12]

* * * * *

Canadian Mennonites

Let’s give the Mennonites in Canada a break. In the 1930’s when Adolf Hitler appeared on the political horizon, they had no life or death decisions to make to test their pacifism, no brown-shirted thugs with clubs threatened them. They might have felt themselves on a higher moral plane, having maintained their refusal to serve in the Soviet military, even the medical corps, at the cost of everything they had built in Russia. On the dusty prairie they started over, their faith and principles intact. Many had lived in Canada for generations, others arrived more recently. Surely they could see through Hitler’s rhetoric and denounce the militaristic fervor sweeping Germany. Hadn’t they read Mein Kampf?  But …

How did it happen that a deeply religious, traditionally pacifist, and even politically aloof ethno-religious group, such as the Mennonites in Canada, could become fertile and fruitful soil for Nazi propaganda? And how could it be that a major segment of the Mennonite leaders, in particular, could find National Socialism so appealing, quite apart from efforts expended by the Nazis themselves? The shift, not always particularly gradual, from being pro-German to being pro-Nazi seemed to come easily for many Canadian Mennonites in the 1930s.”[13]

Mennos sing for nazis2

Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 1939, page 1. At bottom left Mennonite Youth Choir sings for  Nazis, at bottom right the seig-heiling[14] 

News article showing Canadian Menno singing for Nazis

Winnipeg Free Press, 15 Nov 1938, p. 23.   J. Conrad was John Konrad, an important musical leader in the province, and choir director at Winnipeg’s First Mennonite Church at the time.[15]

There’s no denying Canadian Mennonites had a direct interest in what was happening to their religious family in Europe, especially among the most recent immigrants, and the Mennonite press fueled that interest.

“Of the seven German-language newspapers published on the Canadian prairies during the thirties, five expressed pro-Nazi sentiments. Three of the five were Mennonite publications, and a fourth, Der Nordwesten, was widely read by Mennonites.”[16]

“The Mennonitische Rundschau was the largest of the Mennonite papers that presented a pro-Nazi slant and is a key source for understanding Mennonite Germanism during the 1930’s. The Rundschau … quickly became an organ of the newly-arrived Russländer, particularly the Mennonite Brethren.”[17]

Der Bote  was the most influential Mennonite newspaper and published 657 articles “discussing the ethnic, nationalistic concept of Germanism” between 1930-39. More than half the column inches published related to Nazism. Were Mennonites divided in their opinions regarding this militaristic, monolithic regime? According to the study conducted by Frank H. Epp, 83 per cent of the column inches published were favourable toward racial Germanism, cultural Germanism, and political Germanism, notably National Socialism.[18]

Editor of Der Bote for eight years, Walter Quiring, compared the Nazi vision to taking “the manure out of the social-democratic communist barn.”[19]

Holy obligation

In the new German spirit of the 1930’s, Mennonites could identify with Germans in Germany. They had been humiliated by the Soviet revolution and aftermath, Germany by the punitive Versailles treaty which resolved the aftermath of World War One. Now Germany was standing up to the bullies around them, and Canadian Mennonites were all too eager to show support.

By identifying with the New Germany as it was often described in the Mennonite press, the immigrants, denied an identity and having lost all in war and revolution, could share in Germany’s triumph  and regain a sense of dignity and even destiny.[20]

Mennonites in Canada feared without the German language their “church life would dry up.”[21] German was the fountain of the faith and preserving the mother tongue[22] was a holy obligation.[23]

The key to maintaining the vision of a Mennonite wonderland such as the one they had in Russia was retaining the German language. Without a separate language, they feared the dominant culture around them would quickly assimilate whatever distinctiveness Mennonites could still muster.

Canadian Mennonite leader, C.F. Klassen, reminded the Mennonite people that “religion and Deutschtum [Germanness] were the fountains” which in past, present, and future provided the water of life for the Mennonites. Klassen was the first of the prominent Mennonite writers to hail the coming of Adolf Hitler for whom he thanked God. At last a man had been found “who gathered the national idea, who had the courage to clean up the social-democratic rot, the communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews”. [24]

Nazi propagandist Walter Quiring argued Mennonites were not a distinct religious people, but regular Germans of a slightly different religion. Mennonites, he felt, were missing the chance of their lives if they neglected the rebirth of the German nation; they would lose their Deutschtum, their religion, and their identity as Mennonites.[25]

How many Canadian Mennonites anticipated a German victory and wondered what it would be like to live in the Thousand Year Reich, dreamed of being in that privileged group? How many hedged their bets on the Nazis for fear of being left out?

Hitler worship

Pro-Nazi sentiments were most evident among Russländer Mennonites, those who had migrated to Canada during the 1920s from the chaos and oppression of Bolshevik Russia.

For many Mennonites, Hitler became a divinely-appointed figure sent to right previous wrongs and save Germany and the rest of the world from communism.

Heinrich Schroeder, a Russian Mennonite who had stayed in Germany and had not emigrated to Canada, became an ardent follower of the Nazis. A frequent contributor to Canadian Mennonite newspapers, he extolled Nazi ideas and policies, fiercely attacking anyone who dare doubt the Fuehrer’s genius and teaching.  Schroeder wrote in Der Bote “we wish for our nation an Adolf Hitler.”[26]

Jacob H. Janzen, prominent Mennonite leader and Germanist himself, promoted a more moderate view distinguishing between cultural and political Germanism, asserting that Mennonites were cultural Germans only. As well, “ We all firmly believe that Hitler is the right man for Germany, but we are becoming troubled by the way people are divinizing him.”[27]

Some tried to replicate the Nazi model in Canada. The Rundschau reported the momentary existence of a Canadian Nationalist party in the Mennonite stronghold of Winkler, Manitoba. “The ‘Canadian Nationalist Party’ was a Winnipeg-based fascist organization, led by William Whittaker, which identified with the Nazis. The group attempted to organize in the Mennonite Brethren community of Yarrow, British Columbia, in early 1934, but there is little evidence of success. On the other hand, Rundschau editor Neufeld published Whittaker’s periodical The Canadian Nationalist, as well as Nazi party-member Bernard Bott’s Deutsche Zeitung Für Kanada, which was the official organ of the German League.”[28]  On June 5, 1934 Canadian Nazis brawled with Canadian communists just outside Winnipeg City Hall vividly described in the Winnipeg Free Press:

…battling in self-defence, the Nationalists, about fifty of whom were clad in the brown shirt uniform of that organization, drew batons from their pockets and fought furiously for their lives. Knives flashed in the fast waning sunlight, heavy clubs crashed against cap-protected skulls, and huge slabs of wood were torn from the stalls of market gardeners and used as battering rams against the tightly pressing wall of snarling humanity.[29]

Der Bote provided the Mennonite perspective of the event:

The most significant aspect of the whole affair was that there was widespread sympathy among Mennonites for the Brownshirts. This seems to have been due to a general wish to see the communists “ get their just deserts.”[30]

Although overt participation by Canadian Mennonites in fascist organizations was “minimal,” they turned out in droves in Steinbach, Manitoba in 1936 to hear the Nazi propagandist Karl Götz.[31]

It should, at this point, not come as a great surprise to discover that Der Bote, the dominant organ of this pacifist ethno-religious immigrant group, stooped to the point of carrying military ads and contributions from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler himself.[32] It may be that Der Bote is the only newspaper to have published both the Schleitheim Confession, denoting Mennonites’ commitment to non-violence, as well as Hitler’s twenty-five point program which clearly spelled out the foundation for the Holocaust.

Other loopy ideas

Many Canadian Mennonites felt the best way to prevent the loss of the Mennonite essence (Mennonitentum) would be to establish a Mennostaat, an autonomous German Mennonite state.

Canadian Mennonites expressed a variety of opinions regarding the German state from “the importance of the German identity in perpetuating the Mennonite Volkstum[33]  to renouncing “traditional Mennonite principles such as nonresistance and even incorporation into the German Reich.” [34]

Hindrances like the principle of nonresistance were to be cast off, the divisions within Mennonitism would be ignored to ground a single “Volks-church” of “racially pure Knights of the Third Reich.”[35]

J.J. Hildebrandt

J.J. Hildebrand

J.J. Hildebrand proposed that Mennonites establish a separate political and economic community in a distinct territory where they could control all aspects of their affairs and exclude outsiders, particularly groups which threatened their continued “racial purity.”  He even asked the government of Australia if northern Australia was available for colonization.

When Hildebrand proposed his concept of a Mennonite state in 1933 his ideas obviously fell on sympathetic ears. His vision of a separate Mennonite order was clearly based upon his experiences of the pre-revolutionary Russian Mennonite commonwealth. In exile the Mennonite commonwealth was increasingly being spoken of as having been a “state within a state” and a golden age when as a people Mennonites had been fulfilled.[36]

Early in 1934 Hildebrand became a member of the Winnipeg branch of the newly formed Nazi Deutsche Bund Kanada and in 1938 received an award for loyal service to the Bund and the Nazi cause from the Volksbund für das Deutschtum im Ausland (League for Germandom Abroad) in Berlin.[37]

H.H. Schroeder proposed establishing 100 settlements in Germany in the form of a “traditional colony of Russian Germans.” As in Russia, these settlements were to be rural villages and would conform to Hitler’s stated ideal of racially-pure frontier colonies, “rassereine Randkolonien.” [38]

A suggested name for the first colony was Friesenheil, a Christian-Nazi-Mennonite colony located somewhere in Germany. The name combined Frisia, the homeland of some original Mennonites and Heil Hitler, the typical German greeting of the time.[39]

Understandably, the pro-Nazi focus of Mennonite media caused some concern among the local population, and as the war drew near Mennonite immigrants were under suspicion. Some Mennonite churches were raided by police and searched for weapons and several others were vandalized and burned. In Coaldale, Alberta, a watchman was posted at the church doors. This pushback from the larger community allowed Mennonites once again to play the martyr fiddle:

Although the war was thousands of miles away, we felt the ungrounded mistrust towards us as new immigrants with a strange tongue.[40]

It was as if they had no idea what was happening in the world. On September 9, 1939 the country to which they had fled for safety declared war on Germany and would become military allies with the country which had broken them, and would in time play an important role in defeating their beloved homeland. What bitter irony!

 

NOTES

[1] Rempel, Gerhard, Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, MQR 84 (October 2010) page 546.

[2] Christopher R. Browning, Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (Teaneck, N.J.: Holmes & Meier, 1991), page 57 cited in footnote 110 of Rempel, Gerhard, op. cit., page 544.

[3] Rempel, Gerhard, op. cit., page 547.

[4] National Archives, Berlin Document Center, A3342 EWZ-W, Reel H027 cited in Schraag, Alyssa, Peace or Persecution: Mennonite Involvement in the Holocaust, Mennonite Life, Summer 2012 Vol. 66

[5] Rempel, Gerhard, op. cit., page 538.

[6] Wachmänner were Hiwi (volunteers), often ethnic Germans, who performed grisly duties at all major killing sites of the Final Solution.

[7] Steinhart, Eric C., The Chameleon of Trawniki: Jack Reimer, Soviet Volksdeutsche, and the Holocaust,‛ Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23 (2009), 245, fn. 70-74 cited in Rempel, Gerhard, op. cit., page 539.

[8] Epp, Marlene, Moving Forward, Looking Backward: The ‘Great Trek’ from the Soviet Union, 1943-45, Journal of Mennonite Studies VoI. 16, 1998, pg 61

[9] Schmaltz, Eric J., The “Long Trek”: The SS Population Transfer of Ukrainian Germans to the Polish Warthegau and Its Consequences, 1943-1944, https://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/articles/journals/schmaltz.html accessed April 20, 2017

[10] Anabaptist Historians blog entry dated March 20, 2018, accessed April 12, 2018.

[11] Anabaptist Historians blog entry dated March 20, 2018, accessed April 12, 2018.

[12] Klets, Viktor, The Ukrainian Mennonite Population Under Nazi Occupation, paper presented at the “Molochna 2004: Mennonites and Their Neighbours, 1804-2004” (Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, June 2-5, 2004)  cited in Rempel op. cit.

[13] Redekop, John H., The Roots of Nazi Support Among Mennonites, 1930 to 1939 A Case Study Based on a Major Mennonite Paper, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 14, 1996

[14] Ben Goossen on Twitter April 27, 2017

[15] Jeremy Wiebe on Twitter April 27, 2017

[16] Wall Redekop, Benjamin, The German Identity of Mennonite Brethren Immigrants in Canada 1930-1960, Masters’ Thesis, University of British Columbia, September 1990, page 20.

[17] Redekop, Benjamin, The Canadian Mennonite Response to National Socialism, Mennonite Life, June 1991, page 19.

[18] Redekop, John H., op. cit.

[19] Walter Quiring, “Im fremden Schlepptau”, Der Bote, XI (September 5, 1934), p. 3 cited in Redekop, J.H. op. cit.

[20] Urry, James, A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s. Journal of Mennonite Studies, [S.l.], v. 14, p. 65-80, jan. 1996. ISSN 08245053. Available at: <https://jms.uwinnipeg.ca/index.php/jms/article/view/556&gt;. Date accessed: 13 apr. 2018.

[21] Esau, D.P., “Was erwarten unsere Gemeinden von den Elementar- und Hochschulen in Religion und Deutsch”, Der Bote, XV (June 15, 1938), pp. 1-2, cited in Redekop, John H., op. cit.

[22] If Mennonites were Dutch, wouldn’t their mother tongue also be Dutch?

[23] Schellenberg, A.J., “Die provinziale Vertreterversammlung in Herbert, Saskatchewan, am 16. und 17. Juli”, Der Bote, VII (October I, 1930), pp. 3-4 cited in Redekop, John H., op. cit.

[24] Klassen, C.F., Gegen die geistlose Judenhetze, Der Bote, X (April 19, 1933), p. 2, cited in Redekop, op. Cit., page 92.

[25] Quiring, Walter, “ Mennonitisches ‘Volk’?” Der Bote, 23 May 1934, p. 2, cited in Redekop, op. cit., page 22.

[26] Schroeder, H.H., “Die Aussenpolitik des Dritten Reichesm,Der Bote, XII (October 23, 1935). p. 5 cited in Redekop,. J.H., op. Cit.

[27] Janzen, J. H., Ein Bekenntnis, Der Bote, 1 November 1934, p. 2; J. H. Janzen, Ibid., 30 November 1925, pp. 2-3, cited in Redekop, Benjamin, op. Cit., page 21.

[28] Wall Redekop, Benjamin, op. Cit., page 62

[29] Winnipeg Free Press 6 June 1934 cited in http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/ 63/winnipegworkers.shtml, accessed April 13, 2018.

[30] Um hohen Preis, Der Bote, 27 June 1934, pp. 2-3, cited in Redekop, Benjamin, op. Cit., page 23.

[31] Wagner, Brothers Bevond the Sea, pp. 46-48, 95, cited in Redekop, Benjamin, op. Cit., page 23.

[32] Der Bote, XVI (June 14, 1939), pp. 4-5. See also XIV (June 23, 1937), pp. 4-5, cited in Redekop, J.H. op. cit. page 92-93.

[33] Redekop, Benjamin, op. cit., page 20.

[34] Wall Redekop, Benjamin, The German Identity of Mennonite Brethren Immigrants in Canada, 1930-1960, Master’s Thesis, UBC, September 1990, page 57.

[35] Wall Redekop, Benjamin, op. cit., page 58.

[36] Urry, op. cit., page 68

[37] Urry, op. cit., page 71,

[38] Urry, op. cit., page 72

[39] Ibid.

[40] Minutes of the Coaldale Mennonite Brethren Church business meetings, December 27, 1940, Folder BA 501, 129. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies (CMBS), Fresno, California, cited in Redekop, Benjamin, op. cit., page 23.

 

 

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