Book review: ‘A Witness in Times of War and Peace’

Jan 30, 2017 by

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The subtitle of this memoir, “The Story of Gerhard Hein, a Mennonite Pastor Who Served in the Wehrmacht During World War II,” suggests why it was published now in English 35 years after it was first written in German and originally intended just for family and friends.

"A Witness in Times of War and Peace"

“A Witness in Times of War and Peace”

Currently in North America there is a great deal of interest about German Mennonites’ activities during World War II. Hein’s life story provides only brief answers to the question of why a Mennonite pastor would join Hitler’s army, but offers a lot to think about in terms of how a broader historical context and set of life experiences influence both individual decisions and the direction of a larger Mennonite community. His son Wilfried, who immigrated to Canada in 1970, provided this able English translation.

Gerhard Hein was born in 1905 in Ufa, Russia, near the Ural Mountains to parents whose families had emigrated from Prussia to the new colony of Altsamara in the 1860s. The Communist Revolution of 1917 did not impact this community immediately, but by 1925 conditions were so bad that Gerhard immigrated to Germany, receiving baptism in the Mennonite Brethren congregation in Ufa right before he left. He ended up at the Bible School of the mission agency Light to the East in Wer­nigerode, where he had relatives.

The impact of Soviet rule on his family is briefly documented. Of his 10 siblings, two immigrated to Canada in the 1920s, six died prematurely, some in exile, due to Communist rule, and two for the most part lived out their lives in the Soviet Union. This scattering of the family and the Mennonite community he grew up in is an important lesson of the book, as later in life Hein documents his travels to Canada and South America. Everywhere he goes he finds relatives, friends and acquaintances from Russia, revealing a worldwide Mennonite community based on common background and shared suffering that is fading from memory today.

From Wernigerode, where he completed the language requirements to study theology, he undertook a course of studies in Protestant theology at the universities of Göttingen, Tübingen, Münster and Leipzig. He went to Münster in the fall of 1929 to study with Karl Barth, who was already then a prominent opponent of German liberal theology and would soon became the most important German theologian to oppose Hitler.

He did his required pastoral internship with Christian Neff, the originator of the Mennonite Encyclopedia and Mennonite World Conference, in the Palatinate village of Weierhof from 1931 to 1935, a longer-than-usual time dictated by the lack of any openings for Mennonite pastors. In 1935 he was able to take the pastorate at Sembach near Kaiserslautern in 1935, which also made possible his marriage to Lydia Hege, a local Mennonite girl, after a long courtship.

At this time he also became a German citizen and wrote a couple of articles for the Mennonite press defending the importance of the Old Testament for Christians in defiance of a movement among some Nazis to expunge these Jewish books from Christianity. The German texts are provided in an appendix along with a bibliography of his published theological and historical articles.

In Russia Hein had been targeted as a German; in Germany he was seen as a Russian. Wanting finally to fit in played a role in his willing acceptance of his draft call-up in 1940. He spent one year in France as a clerk for the air force and then the rest of war on the eastern front as a translator for the army. Relatively little is said of his wartime experiences, which only make up one of the eight chapters in this book. He notes seeing a train full of Jews in Romania but dwells more on the destruction of German settlements they passed through in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Hein returned to his wife, two sons and the pastorate in Sembach. He was involved in organizing a retirement home and new settlement in the neighboring village of Enkenbach for Mennonite refugees from West Prussia. In 1954 he took over as editor of the German-language journal Der Mennonit, which had been started by North American Mennonites after the war in order to re­invigorate the scattered German Mennonite community. Harold S. Bender convinced him to edit the fourth volume of the German-language Mennonite Encyclopedia, since Bender relied on this source to a large extent for his own English version.

Hein and family moved to Berlin in 1958 in order to have more time for his writing and research while pastoring a smaller congregation. It meant, however, that they were intimately involved in the Cold War confrontations in Berlin, including hosting children from all over the region in the Menno-Heim, the guesthouse that served as the church building, on the weekend when the Berlin Wall went up in August 1961. They needed to figure out how to get children home to their parents across the wall even as some parents were trying to leave East Germany for the West. The stress of working two half-time jobs became too much in 1965, and the family moved back to the Palatinate and a pastorate in Monsheim, where he remained until his retirement in 1973.

After the war an important part of his story included working with young people and working ecumenically. Far from sticking narrowly to Mennonite circles, Hein engaged and cooperated with Protestant pastors where he was pastoring. Yet his Mennonite faith and Bible school background were also always incorporated in his work and in this book, with occasional references to Bible verses and prayers that guided him and his family at crucial junctures.

Hein’s memoirs provide an insider perspective on crucial junctures in 20th-century German Mennonite history and demonstrate how environmental and social factors interact to influence theological decisions.

Mark Jantzen is professor of history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., and the author of Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880.

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