Book review: ‘Chosen Nation’

Jul 17, 2017 by

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In 1941, as German armies advanced across Europe, C. Henry Smith, a historian at Bluffton College, expressed his dismay at the enthusiastic support many German Mennonites had given to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist party. In light of the explicit support that German Mennonite newspapers, pastors and youth had given to the regime and its ideas, Smith wondered, “are the German Mennonites perhaps not sowing the wind which their children might have to reap in the generations to come as the whirlwind?”

In recent years we have grown closer to answering Smith’s difficult questions through books, journals and conferences that have sparked scholarly and popular interest in Mennonites and the Nazis.

'Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era'

‘Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era’

Because so much of the existing work on Mennonites in the Third Reich is in German, Ben Goossen’s new book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, is a welcome addition to the conversation.

A graduate student of the global history of religion and nationalism at Harvard University, Goossen is interested in when and how Mennonites understood themselves as Germans and when they argued for a specifically Mennonite identity. He contends that religious and national identity are constructed concepts without fixed meaning. Drawing from sources from multiple countries, he traces how Mennonites identified themselves collectively and individually and the interplay between their German and Mennonite identities.

Divided into seven chronological chapters, Chosen Nation begins with the efforts of progressive leaders, mostly from northern Germany, to shape a distinctly German Mennonite identity in the 19th century. Goossen stresses the importance of newspapers like Mennonitische Blätter in linking far-flung, German-speaking Mennonites with each other.

The second chapter presents the efforts of German scholars from within and outside the church to portray Mennonites as the “truest representation of national identity,” emphasizing the separation of church and state.

However, as Goossen shows in chapter 3, the arguments of leaders and elites often met resistance at the local, congregational level. In a parallel to the newly unified Germany, progressive leaders created the Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Empire to amalgamate German Mennonites along national lines. However, many rural congregations did not share the urban, progressive vision for reshaping family life and weakening the traditional doctrine of nonresistance.

Goossen convincingly argues that World War I and the Soviet Revolution were the catalyst for German Mennonites creating a sense of a national church. The dire reports of Mennonites’ suffering in the wake of the fall of the tsarist regime in Russia galvanized European and North American efforts to alleviate the suffering of their coreligionists. Despite many Russian Mennonites’ insistence that they were Dutch, German leaders advocated their mass migration “back” to Germany.

Mennonite Central Committee, on the other hand, proposed for refugees from the Soviet Union to join the “Mennonite state” recently formed by Canadian Mennonites in Paraguay. Goossen traces the competing claims for Mennonites’ Dutch or German heritage that activists switched between in order to secure migration out of the Soviet Union.

The next two chapters discuss Mennonites living under Nazi rule. Much of this material may be new and especially interesting for readers unfamiliar with the existing German scholarship. In chapter 5, Goossen’s analysis moves between Mennonites’ response to the Nazi party and the way that party propagandists portrayed the Mennonites as an ethnic church. Some German Mennonites were dismayed with Nazi religious policies, while others joined the party and even served in its leadership. Nazi theorists viewed Mennonites as a uniquely racial community, a view that some Mennonite leaders embraced and propagated in their communities.

Chapter 6 returns to Ukraine, where many Mennonites greeted the German army as liberators from the Soviet regime. Goos­sen’s narrative focuses in particular on activists who were born in Russia, left and then returned to help Nazi officials understand the Russian Mennonite context. He also brings to light Mennonites who served in the German army and participated in military units that carried out the Holocaust.

In the final chapter, Goossen argues that MCC relied on narratives of religious nationalism in order to save Mennonites from being repatriated to the Soviet Union after the war. Mennonites, MCC claimed, were neither Russian nor German, but a separate Mennonite nation. The legacy of Mennonite nationalism, he concludes, continues to the present, when talk of Mennonite ethnicity obscures the reality of a global Mennonite church.

Chosen Nation touches on many topics that one hopes scholars will come back to again in more detail. To what extent did the ideology of 19th century progressives influence an average Mennonite’s self-perception? Under the Third Reich, were Mennonites’ actions driven by uniquely Mennonite ideas, by ideology shared by all Germans or by the nature of Nazi rule and appalling choices over which they had no control? Published and unpublished memoirs of ordinary Mennonites from the Soviet and Nazi periods could flesh out how progressive ideology was accepted or resisted.

Scholarship in Anabaptist and Mennonite studies inevitably confronts the question of who is Mennonite. Goossen acknowledges that not all Mennonites who joined the Nazi party held congregational affiliation. Similarly, he points out that not everyone with Mennonite heritage who joined the German police forces or military were church members or even identified as Mennonite.

If neither congregational membership nor self-identification are the criteria for one to be classified as a Mennonite, is Goossen treating Mennonites as an ethnic group in the same way that Mennonite and Nazi scholars did in the 1930s and ’40s?

These questions should not be seen as criticisms, but as signs of how stimulating Chosen Nation is to read. Goossen is an engaging guide through difficult material. His voice joins the calls by other historians like Felipe Hinojosa and Tobin Miller Shearer for North American Mennonites to talk about racism in their churches in open and honest ways. One hopes that churches can continue the same difficult scholarship and reflection that European churches have begun.

Troy Osborne is associate professor of history at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

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