Legacy of a South American Mennonite state

Settlers’ colonialism still shapes German-speaking communities of Paraguay

Apr 18, 2016 by and

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EBENFELD, Paraguay — Rain woke me in the night. The roar on the tin roof drowned out the frogs, if any were still singing. Only the thrashing of palms cut across the downpour. In the morning I learned that schools were canceled. It was too muddy to drive.

German-speaking Mennonites attend Sunday worship at a village church in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. — Ben Goossen

German-speaking Mennonites attend Sunday worship at a village church in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. — Ben Goossen

I was staying last month in an outlying village of Menno Col­ony, a 90-year-old German-language Mennonite settlement in the center of Para­guay’s rural Gran Chaco. Comprising 60 percent of the country’s land, the Chaco holds just 2 percent of its population. A five-hour bus ride from the capital, Asunción, took me along half-maintained roads through miles of low-lying bush, natural clearings broken by bottle trees and stands of hardwood quebracho.

“Rain days” have been common this year. With wet El Niño conditions, schoolchildren in Menno Colony are used to attending Saturday make-up lessons. Life is orderly for the Chaco’s 15,000 white, “ethnic” Mennonites. They take pride in the high standards of their educational institutions as well as their farms, industry and churches. Residents identify efficiency as a key wellspring of their wealth. Indeed, they earn an average of $42,000 a year — 10 times the Paraguayan per capita income.

I was lucky to be hosted by the intrepid Uwe Friesen, head of the Paraguayan Mennonite Historical Society and owner of a mud-ready pickup. With school buses off the usually bone-dry dirt roads, we motored our way through deep muck, passing green cattle pastures and ripening orchards, eventually arriving in the administrative center of Loma Plata. Friesen gaves me a tour. He showed me the town’s museum and archive, its large milk-bottling plant and a string of beautiful brick churches. I learned about the settlement’s collective land-holding and financial system, its Cooperativa.

Menno is a “colony” in no idle sense. Like two other Mennonite settlements in the Chaco, plus another two in the country’s more populous eastern region, it forms a self-contained administrative unit. In addition to cultural and infrastructural public works, from radio programs to trash removal, the Cooperativa and related institutions formally own all colony land. Members pay dues to ensure prosperity in a region where the national government has limited oversight. A ledger system allows most economic transactions to occur without cash. One local described Menno as a “state within a state.”

A land with ‘no culture’?

This is not a novel characterization. Although few remember it today, Paraguay was once the site of a global Zionist-like movement.

“We envisioned a future Mennonite state,” U.S. church leader and Mennonite Central Committee representative Har­old S. Bender informed the second Mennonite World Conference in 1930, referring to international efforts to relocate more than 100,000 coreligionists from the Soviet Union. “A particular advantage of the Paraguayan Chaco,” he explained, “is the fact that no culture exists there. There is no danger that the Mennonites, with their German culture, will disappear into a foreign culture.”

Though Bender’s words sound strange, even fantastic, today, they would have resonated with tens of thousands of Mennonites scattered across three continents during the interwar years. In the wake of the First World War, global Anabaptism seemed under attack. Congregations in North America faced assimilationist pressures, nonresistance was illegal across most of Europe, and in Stalin’s Soviet Union atheist Bolshevism threatened the very existence of the Old World’s largest Mennonite population. Where could persecuted Mennonites find a homeland?

Mennonite nationalism

Growing up in Kansas, among the descendants of Russian Mennonites, I had for years heard tales of Paraguayan settlement. I knew the country had long provided a haven for ultraconservatives from Canada, who already in 1921 secured special immigration privileges from a government eager for white, Christian settlers. Further waves arrived from Soviet Ukraine and Siberia, as well as Poland, and later, the remnants of Hitler’s wartime empire. Beginning in the 1950s, my own great-grandfather, along with other North American investors and aid workers, helped these migrants transform the Chaco, modernizing its little-developed “wilderness.”

Not until 2012, however, did I first hear the phrase “Mennonite state.” I was traveling in Germany at the time, conducting research for a book on Mennonites and German nationalism. As I visited archives around the country, paging through yellowed journals and letter collections, I looked for accounts of the growing German national sentiment among many 19th- and 20th-century Mennonites. This was for me already a familiar story. I expected to find more of the same.

Imagine my surprise, in a church archive in southern Germany, upon reading Bender’s heady essay. Here was the record not of pro-German sympathies but of a distinctively Mennonite nationalist movement, complete with territorial aspirations. Of course, I knew that this statist dream had never been fulfilled, at least not completely. Paraguay had never become home to a large percentage, let alone a majority, of the world’s Mennonites. Moreover, any legal autonomy in the Chaco was due more to the absence of state regulation than to official international recognition.

And yet, through the mid-20th century, influential church leaders continued to speak of Mennonite state-building in Para­guay. Shortly before the Second World War, a somewhat older Bender, now dean of Goshen College in Indiana — although not yet author of the famous “Anabaptist Vision” — noted that the settlements had never experienced “any application of any of the laws of Paraguay.”

After substantial engagement with Latin America through MCC, he concluded: “The Mennonites of the Chaco do constitute an absolutely independent state.”

I wondered how long this system had continued. What were the legacies of Bender’s “Mennonite state”? To what degree, in the 21st century, were Para­guay­an Mennonites still engaged in a colonial project?

An uneasy affinity

As the rain clouds cleared and the road to Loma Plata firmed up, I found time to reflect on my trip. I received generous hospitality in the Chaco not only from Friesen and his family but also from school groups, museum curators, teacher seminars, historical associations, churchgoers and colony administrators. This is a vibrant world, alive with flowering trees and Bible studies, volleyball tournaments and miniature ostriches.

“How do you like it here?” a new acquaintance asked. “It feels homelike,” I said. “It would be easy to stay.” I meant it.

And yet, I was conflicted. My feelings of appreciation, perhaps even of longing, made me uneasy. I wondered about my affinity for colonial life. Could it play into the cultural specificity — sometimes the exclusivity — of the “ethnic” Mennonite belonging I learned to know as a child in Kansas? Here, too, we eat zwie­back and verenike. Here, too, there is a “we.”

At worst, I feared that my thoughts reflected an unholy attraction, a desire for community grounded not only in Christian fellowship but also in racial homogeneity. I am not the first traveler to the Chaco to describe the colonies’ affluence in contrast to the east’s poverty, nor the first to associate their residents with the bounty of the natural world.

Images of white colonists as resourceful pioneers — not only in Paraguay but also across Asia, Africa and the American West — have long provided smoke screens for less-than-ideal relations with nearby communities of color. Like Bender’s depiction of the Chaco as empty of culture, these tropes can justify inequality or even obscure indigenous peoples’ existence altogether.

Segregated, unequal

In the Gran Chaco, people of color — whom “ethnic” Mennonites usually refer to as “Para­guay­ans” or “Indians,” even when they attend Anabaptist churches — have always comprised a majority of the population. Thousands live in or near the Mennonite colonies, including on mission settlements, established as early as the 1930s.

But despite regular contact, business ties and spiritual kinship, these populations remain deeply segregated and deeply unequal. Indigenous Mennonites work on German Mennonite farms, yet intermarriage is rare. Latin Paraguayans labor in white-owned factories, yet the wealth gap is enormous.

This season’s El Niño rains, which mean Saturday classes for white Mennonite schoolchildren, have spelled catastrophe for people of color, especially those living in poor structures in flood-prone areas. Sixty thousand are displaced.

My wariness is not reserved for the colonists alone. I, too, have traded on racial privilege. Non-Mennonite visitors would undoubtedly also have found a warm welcome in Menno. But I received special consideration because of my Dutch-Prussian surname, my ability to speak German and the color of my skin. I am a beneficiary of ancestry. Just as my citizenship in the Global North afforded me the resources to travel to the Chaco, my “ethnic” status has rendered its dynamics difficult to dislike. Whatever the legacy of Para­guay’s “Mennonite state,” it is not yet postcolonial.

Ben Goossen is a scholar of global religious history at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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