Immigrants from former Soviet Union challenge German secularism

Mar 17, 2014 by and

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BERLIN — The sanctuary is full and still. An usher walks the perimeter, opening windows first on the men’s side and then on the women’s. Behind the pulpit, to the left of the seated choir, the third preacher of the morning holds our attention. He speaks in fluent German, his words rounded by traces of Russian and Plautdietsch.

Attenders of Frankenthaler Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde, a Russlanddeutsche church near Frankenthal, Germany, fellowship after a worship service in October. — Photo by Ben Goossen

Attenders of Frankenthaler Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde, a Russlanddeutsche church near Frankenthal, Germany, fellowship after a worship service in October. — Photo by Ben Goossen

The sermon carries us to the Mennonite colonies of the early Soviet Union. Dissolved by Stalin in the 1930s and ’40s, these settlements barely exist in living memory. Yet on this Sunday morning, as we listen to stories of Bolshevik persecution, of deportation and enslavement in Central Asian gulags, they are as real as the love of Christ.

“Imagine the faith,” the speaker says, pausing to collect his emotions, “of those men who stood in the village squares to the last moment, proclaiming God’s word until the atheists’ bullets cut them down.”

I am visiting a Mennonite congregation near Heidelberg, one of hundreds established over the last 40 years in Germany by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Arriving from Kazakh­stan, Uzbekistan, Siberia and elsewhere, Mennonites and related Anabaptist groups have settled in large numbers across West German cities. In a matter of decades, Germany’s Anabaptist population has swelled from a few thousand members to as many as 100,000.

Colloquially known as Russlanddeutsche, meaning Germans from Russia, these immigrants have helped establish a new ethnic subgroup within Germany. High German is most often spoken in the home, although many adults also know Plautdietsch and Russian, as well as occasionally other Central Asian languages.

While not all congregations choose to call themselves Mennonite, they all describe themselves as Anabaptist. Influenced to varying degrees by Pentecostals, Russian Baptists and other renewal movements, they have adopted identifiers ranging from “Mennonite Brethren” and “Baptist” to “Free Evangelical.”

Seeking a place

Growing up among the descendants of Russian Mennonites in Kansas, I often heard about my own ancestors’ exodus from Russia in the 1870s to avoid military service. I also knew about later migration routes, forged in the 1920s, to Canada and Latin America. But I did not know what happened to those who stayed behind, trapped on the far side of the Iron Curtain.

When I moved to Germany in 2012, I never expected to find them here. In a country that prides itself on being at the forefront of European liberalism, the Russian Mennonites’ self-described conservatism can seem out of place. Western Europe has never been known for its toleration of religious minorities, and even in modern Germany, where memory of the Holocaust keeps buzzwords like “ecumenicalism” and “multiculturalism” on everyone’s lips, xenophobia endures.

As with other immigrant religious groups, including Russian Jews and Turkish Muslims, Mennonites have become objects of anxiety. Right-leaning Germans consider them economically dangerous and culturally foreign. Leftists decry their religious fundamentalism and emphasis on traditional gender roles. Liberal Germans have characterized women’s head coverings — such as those of conservative Mennonites and the Muslims’ hijab — as the trappings of oppression.

A plain people

A Mennonite visitor from North or South America would undoubtedly find much familiar among the congregations; they share commonalities with other “plain people” scattered from Canada to Paraguay. Yet for Europe, whose last Amish and Hutterite communities disappeared in the 1930s, the rapid creation of a relatively large conservative Mennonite population poses new challenges. Russlanddeutsche Mennonites have refused to conform to the 21st-century social and citizenship norms many Germans expect.

Immigrant Mennonites have adopted mainstream German culture only selectively. Eschewing “dangerous” elements — television, popular music and some forms of higher learning — they simultaneously champion others.

Linking Anabaptism with working-class values, they have especially embraced the country’s capitalist economic system. Large and well-equipped church buildings often testify to their financial success.

They also maintain close ties to their Russian past, regularly touring the sites of former Mennonite colonies in Ukraine, Siberia and elsewhere, as well as evangelizing across Central Asia.

Issues of childhood and education have caused clashes with the German state. In Germany, where parochial schools are almost nonexistent and homeschooling is illegal, Mennonites often feel threatened by a federal school system that teaches evolution, toleration for homosexuality and historical interpretations of the Bible.

Some congregations hold evening religion courses. Others have successfully negotiated the right to maintain private schools.

Religious freedom

Yet for all their skepticism of its worldliness, Mennonite immigrants are generally thankful to call Germany home. The country offers social, economic and, above all, religious freedoms that were unthinkable in the former Soviet Union.

After 1917, when the Russian Revolution brought their settlements under communist rule, Mennonites faced discrimination because of their faith, their wealth and their perceived “Germanness.” Today, nearly every family can tell stories of nighttime police raids, fear, starvation and summary executions. Mennonite art depicting the Soviet era features twisted bodies and anguished faces.

Pro-German sentiment is high, at least in part, because it was their ostensible German ethnicity that allowed Mennonites to leave the Soviet Union.

Beginning in the 1970s, West German “right of return” laws allowed families of “German nationality” to resettle from Soviet Bloc countries. Although neither the immigrants in question nor any of their ancestors had ever held German citizenship (Germany first became a country in 1871, well after most Mennonites had arrived in Russia), the “re-migrants” received generous welcome benefits.

Inclined to organize at the congregational level, the majority of Germany’s Mennonites have not formed a national conference or joined an existing one. Theological disagreements over personal conduct and church discipline abound. The question of immersive versus anointed baptism remains particularly divisive.

A unifying narrative

Nevertheless, these congregations’ similarities far outweigh their differences. Family ties and common last names — such as Dyck, Penner and Neufeld — as well as shared cultural and worship practices ensure dense interconnection. Especially unifying is a collective narrative of persecution under Stalin.

At the heart of Mennonite life in Germany lies a question of religion in the modern age. Despite being frequently portrayed as culturally anachronistic, Germany’s Mennonite immigrants are far from “unmodern.” Demographically strong and tenaciously religious, they often emerge victorious from encounters with hostile or regulatory actors.

The vitality of their congregational life provides a fascinating contrast to Germany’s increasingly empty state churches. In predominantly secular Europe, Mennonites are navigating a new mode of religious existence.

Ben Goossen is researching Mennonite history through a Fulbright Scholarship at the Free University in Berlin. He holds degrees in history and German studies from Swarthmore (Pa.) College.


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