History: White supremacist’s racist ‘faith’

Aug 28, 2017 by

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More than 5,200 miles separate Charlottesville, Va., from the now-disappeared Russian Mennonite col­ony of Molotschna. But according to the geography of racial and ethnic hatred, they’re located virtually next door to each other.

As recent events have demonstrated, it’s a neighborhood that’s shamefully well-populated. And during the 1970s and ’80s, a Russian Mennonite immigrant was one of its most notable residents.

Ben Klassen in 1991

Ben Klassen in 1991

Ben Klassen was born in 1918 in the village of Rudnerweide in Molotsch­na. Not only was he born into a Mennonite family, his Mennonite experiences were foundational to his development as a leading white supremacist.

Like millions of others, Klas­sen’s family suffered through the well-known political and social chaos, including a devastating famine, following the March 1917 downfall of Tsar Nicholas II. The Klassens were part of a group of Mennonites that embarked for Mexico in 1924 to establish a new colony. When that failed, they relocated to Herschel, Sask., a year and a half later.

It was a traumatic experience for young Ben. He and his family were practically forced out of Russia. Their Mennonite faith prevented them from protecting themselves and their way of life. Then he was dumped on Sas­katchewan’s barren prairies and had to endure winters of frigid temperatures and long nights.

Compounding these injustices were Klassen’s size and age. Already small in stature but quite intelligent, he jumped from sixth to eighth grade in his one-room country school. So he was always quite a bit younger than his classmates.

All these factors combined to give him a chip on his shoulder that never stopped growing.

In 1938, 20-year-old Klassen read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It provided him a scapegoat and set his life’s course. “[Mein Kampf] brought home to me the overwhelming fact that the Jews controlled the world, and that they were now, and had been for centuries, our most dangerous and sinister enemies,” he wrote in Against the Evil Tide.

Klassen attended Mennonite-affiliated Rosthern (Sask.) Junior College and earned an engineering degree from the University of Manitoba, then worked in Canada for several years. In 1945 he moved to California, where he had a career in real estate and patented a wall-mounted electric can opener.

He moved to Florida and began to apply his racist, conspiratorial views in the 1960s. A fervent anti-Communist (as many Russian Mennonites were), he joined the John Birch Society. He became a supporter of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, and served as Florida chair of his presidential campaign in 1968.

By then, Klassen had served a term in the Florida House of Representatives, which only strengthened his views and took him ever further to the fringes. He tried to start several political parties, including a National White Party.

But Klassen came to believe something more than a political apparatus was needed. “We needed moral values that reflected the heritage of our own great White Race, not that of the g–d— parasitic Jews,” he wrote in his autobiography.

An atheist who never joined the Mennonite church or any other religious group, Klassen considered Christianity a Jewish façade. But he was proud of the white genetics and work ethic of his Mennonite background.

Klassen established his “racial religion” in 1973 with the publication of Nature’s Eternal Religion and the founding of the Church of the Creator. The book was the first of the movement’s “holy books.” The second and better-known title was The White Man’s Bible. The belief system, called Creativity, claims that whatever benefits white people is good.

It was a striking contrast to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which profess Christian faith, albeit one that proclaims whites are God’s chosen people.

Through the 1980s, the Church of the Creator became known for its violence. Klassen coined the word “rahowa,” short for racial holy war, which attracted some of the most hard-core bigots. In one of the most publicized acts, COTC “reverend” George Loeb murdered an African-American in 1991 and was sentenced to life in prison.

The victim’s family subsequently sued the COTC. In an apparent attempt to limit a judgment against him, Klassen in 1992 sold the COTC headquarters compound in North Carolina to neo-Nazi William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, which influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Klassen committed suicide the next year by swallowing four bottles of sleeping pills.

Despite its founder’s death, the COTC remained a force through the 1990s. In 2003 the Southern Poverty Law Center still considered it the second most important neo-Nazi group. But in the 21st century it was gutted by infighting, defections, expulsions and the arrests of members for violent crimes. Today the organization exists as the Creativity Movement, a shell of what it used to be.

Klassen’s impact, however, is still evident. A former COTC member is neo-Nazi blogger and activist April Gaede, the great-granddaughter of Russian Mennonite immigrants to Kansas in the 1870s. Gaede named one of her daughters Dresden Hale: Dresden for the German city leveled by Allied bombing in World War II, Hale to honor Matthew Hale, who took over Klassen’s organization in the mid-1990s and is now serving a 40-year prison sentence for trying to solicit a hit man to kill a federal judge.

Another former member is George Burdi, aka George Eric Hawthorne, founder of the influential Resistance Records, a rec­ord label of white supremacist rock music. A current Creativity adherent is Craig Cobb, who has made headlines for buying properties in North Dakota and Nebraska in attempts to start white-only communities.

Given Klassen’s Mennonite origins, it’s a reprehensible legacy.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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