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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  • Phil Garber

    I suspect that the Menno Colony’s prosperity owes a lot to its cultural values and method of social organization. Those are not bad things in themselves and I don’t think it would benefit anyone for them to give them up. Dealing with the differences which arise from that prosperity are a challenge of course. But it’s a good problem to have because it arises from a positive social and economic achievement.

    I think we should spare the Paraguayan Mennonites the wariness expressed by the writer. The underlying assumption is that they are somehow out of place or interlopers because of their white skin. After three or more generations there, the Chaco is as much the Mennonites’ home as it is for any other Paraguayans. It is enough to know that they have earned their place there through hard work and development and that many of their neighbours benefit from their presence.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Yes, of course the colony’s prosperity is due to its social organization. That is, white Mennonites exploiting the labor of local workers. There’s nothing virtuous or laudable about a Mennonite community that operates like every other capitalist industry around the world. It’s too bad these Mennonites don’t see fit to do things differently, to create a system that distributes material resources more evenly, by (at the very least) paying employees generous wages with full benefits. If there is resentment towards the Mennonite colony by the native population, it would be totally understandable, in my view. Maybe some day the indigenous peoples will decide to take the colony properties away from the Mennonites, claiming that all of it actually belongs to them in the first place. The land was theirs. The labor is theirs. No question in my mind as to which side Jesus would be on in that transaction.

      • Conrad Hertzler

        You are a black and white kind of guy, aren’t you? I wonder how things would look if you were in charge. Everything would doubtless be fair and uncomplicated. You seem to think that it would be fair for the indigenous people to just take back their land. Of course it was theirs in the first place, no one denies that. But the German Mennonites living there now aren’t the people that took the land. So where does that leave them? Is there no justice for them? You are certain that Jesus would be fine with them being forced out of their homes and the land that they have lived on for decades being taken away and them being left homeless and destitute? Do you know Jesus in such a way that you are comfortable saying what he would want? The same questions can be asked about all other “territorial disputes” in Israel and North America and around the world. As the world population grows, we can’t continue to make this such a black and white issue. Land that belonged to one people group centuries ago can’t be just simply handed back to them and the people living there evicted. I live in Africa and see this same kind of dynamic here. It’s not simple and it’s not cut and dried and you shouldn’t pretend that it is.

        I do agree with you that the Paraguayan Mennonites could probably do better in equalizing the prosperity gap. But again, this a struggle seen all around the world and the solutions aren’t that simple. What is the answer? Communism? That never worked anywhere and even when it was tried, the economic inequalities were enormous. There are more than just economic issues at play here. There are social structures and cultural issues that make this issue extremely complicated. Again, I live in Africa and see this same dynamic. I do need to tell you that if we were to pay our National workers the same wage that a “Westerner” gets, the complications that would arise would be huge, not only for us but for them. I don’t have time or space or even understanding complete enough to even scratch the surface. So I’m just urging you to stop condemning people so harshly if you have never walked in their shoes.

      • Kennert Giesbrecht

        Clearly Charlie has very little knowledge of the Paraguayan colonies. Just by reading one article from someone who barely spent a few days in the Chaco does not make anyone an expert – or does it? And as Conrad stated, “we can only scratch the surface” in this discussion, but I can affirm (having lived in the Chaco for 30 years) that the colonies in the Chaco have not exploited the people around them. The vast majority of the “non white population” actually moved to the Central Chaco in the hope of a brighter and better future. And I am totally sure most of them would state, that they have a better life. I also know that anybody that has the will and the work-ethic (which are symbolic to many Mennonite communities) of the Mennonites, has pretty much the same opportunity in the Chaco as does any other person (color or race doesn’t matter). And there is plenty of proof of that in the colonies. The colonies actually bought tens of thousands of hectares of land (that was owned by individuals or companies) and gave it “back” to the indigenous people. They maintain thousands of kilometers of roads used by everybody – even those that don’t pay a dime to maintain them; they have built countless schools and hospitals for everybody to use – not just their own people. For decades and decades the vast majority would do a lot of the work on the farm just with there own hands – they couldn’t afford to hire workers. And if you see a lot of people from elsewhere migrating to the colonies, it’s because they get more than minimum wage here. And the resentment you talk about Charlie, comes largely because of envy and jealousy – just like it does in any other part of the world. it also comes from the lack of knowledge. Rumors always go around that Mennonites have all sorts of economic and social privileges in Paraguay – not true! They pay taxes and customs just like any other person in the country does. Maybe that’s a bit of a lie, because the colony people for the most part pay a lot more, and they are way more honest than most others in the country. Okay, those were my “scratch of the surface” comments.

  • Wilbur H Entz

    Best MWR article ever!

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