‘Muted Voices’ conference recalls Hutterite martyrs

Memorial service at National World War I Museum recognizes conscientious objectors

Oct 23, 2017 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The tale of four Hutterite conscientious objectors who refused even to wear a military uniform, let alone serve in the U.S. Army during World War I, is well known in Hutterite colonies and many Anabaptist circles.

Their story was recounted in unprecedented and dramatic fashion in a far different setting Oct. 21 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

Two of the men, Joseph and Michael Hofer, ultimately died due to their refusal to kill based on Christian principles. Their descendants consider them martyrs.

Young people representing Hutterite, left, and Bruderhof communities lay flowers in remembrance of all who died out of conscience in World War I Oct. 22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. The stone commissioned in remembrance of Joseph and Michael Hofer cites Luke 9:24, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” — Tim Huber/MWR

Young people representing Hutterite, left, and Bruderhof communities lay flowers in remembrance of all who died out of conscience in World War I Oct. 22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. The stone commissioned in remembrance of Joseph and Michael Hofer cites Luke 9:24, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” — Tim Huber/MWR

“Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today” took place at the museum Oct. 19-22.

Beyond religious objection, the conference covered diverse forms of dissent by women’s suffragists, socialists, populists, teachers and racial minorities, to name a few.

Conference organizer Andrew Bolton of the Community of Christ said he first read of the Hutterites’ experience in 1987 in England.

“That is the story that allowed this diverse coalition, secular and religious, all kinds of Anabaptists and those wonderful Quakers as well” to come together at this conference, he said. “This coalition has grown because of the story.”

Interspersed with a cappella singing by the combined youth choirs of Baker and Silverwinds Hutterite colonies in Manitoba, Hutterite educator and storyteller Dora Maendal and Goshen (Ind.) College communications professor Duane Stoltzfus recounted the four men’s objection at Camp Lewis in Washington, followed by ill treatment in military prisons.

After explaining their faith barred them from taking the life of another person or wearing the clothing of someone who does, the Hofers, their brother David and Jacob Wipf were each sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor at Alcatraz U.S. Military Prison in San Francisco.

“They developed a rash and couldn’t even fight off the insects because their hands were chained on the bars above their heads, so they were lifted on tiptoe,” said Maendal of the damp and cold dungeon that held them. “Sometimes they were beaten, and there is an account of Michael falling down unconscious at one point. The brothers felt this isolation very, very keenly.

“They were silent in their letters, except that they did not expect a good outcome.”

Dora Maendal of Fairholme (Man.) Hutterite Colony and Goshen (Ind.) College communication professor Duane Stoltzfus share the story of four Hutterite conscientious objectors Oct. 21 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

Dora Maendal of Fairholme (Man.) Hutterite Colony and Goshen (Ind.) College communication professor Duane Stoltzfus share the story of four Hutterite conscientious objectors Oct. 21 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

Stoltzfus said the small cells were in complete darkness, and workers left uniforms on the floor, which were untouched.

“The cumulative effect was a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “Four men who sought to neither harm nor injure anyone at any turn had ended up hanging in chains, a treatment that President Wilson himself would describe as barbarous or medieval.”

They eventually were transferred to Fort Leavenworth (Kan.) Disciplinary Barracks, where Joseph and Michael Hofer died from illnesses attributable to and worsened by their living conditions and treatment. Joseph’s wife, Maria, was warned by telegram that his days were numbered but arrived too late to say goodbye.

“She walked past the commander’s desk and found a coffin, opened the lid and found her husband dressed in the military uniform of the U.S. Army,” Maendal recalled. “ ‘You would insult my husband if you dress him in death in the uniform he refused to wear when he was alive,’ she said.”

Eighteen days after the Armistice was signed, he died on Nov. 29, 1918. His brother Michael died four days later, and brother David was released a day after that. Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered the release of 113 COs the following January, but Wipf wasn’t released until April.

By the time Wipf returned to South Dakota, many of the colonies had moved to Manitoba and Alberta. There were 18 colonies in South Dakota and Montana in 1918. By the spring of 1919, only seven remained.

Remembering all

On Sunday morning a memorial service was held in the museum to remember all who resisted, dissented and suffered in the war.

Taking place on a glass bridge above 9,000 poppies, each representing 1,000 lives lost during the war, conference attendees and visitors honored not just the Hutterite Hofers. The ecumenical service honored the thousands around the world — religious and secular — who out of conscience refused to fight in war.

A Hutterite woman takes a photo before a memorial service honoring conscientious objectors to World War I Oct. 22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

A Hutterite woman takes a photo before a memorial service honoring conscientious objectors to World War I Oct. 22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — Tim Huber/MWR

As the 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial tower loomed imposingly through skylights overhead, the Hutterite choir again sang gentle songs of Christian love and unity. In the shadow of the massive stone monument to service in war, a humbler stone was unveiled, commissioned to remember the faithfulness of Joseph and Michael Hofer, who paid the ultimate price for refusing to take another’s life.

“It is each generation’s sacred duty to ask, What does this mean?” said Ian Kleinsasser of Crystal Spring Colony in Manitoba. “Our purpose today is not to memorialize those who have endured great suffering on account of their faith but rather to raise stones of remembrance so the principles of nonviolence and peace can be passed on to future generations.”

The stone will join others of similar size and smaller in the memorial’s Walk of Honor outside the entrance. Conference organizer Andrew Bolton said there is a chance another stone honoring Mennonites who died at Fort Leavenworth could join it on International Conscientious Objection Day on May 15.

War’s numbers, names

  • During World War I, roughly 3 million men failed to register for the draft in the United States.
  • More than 300,000 who registered didn’t report for duty.
  • 3,090 conscientious objectors refused orders.
  • 596 conscientious objectors were held in detention at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
  • 504 conscientious objectors were court-martialed.
  • At least 29 conscientious objectors are known to have died in detention in the United States, often as a result of poor living conditions and diet, and hard labor in the disciplinary barracks.

COs deaths in Kansas

Some conscientious objectors who died at Fort Leavenworth have been identified:

  • John Bergen, Mennonite (1918)
  • Reuben Eash, Mennonite (1918)
  • Henry E. Franz, Mennonite (1918)
  • Charles W. Bolly, Brethren Church (1919)
  • Daniel B. Flory, Nondenominational Christian (1919)
  • William S. Gillmore, Nondenominational Christian (1919)
  • Joseph Hofer, Hutterite (1918)
  • Michael Hofer, Hutterite (1918)
  • Johannes M. Klassen, Mennonite (no date)
  • Samuel Mast, Amish (1918)
  • John Quiring, unknown (1918)
  • Walter Sprunger, Mennonite (1918)
  • Daniel Teuscher, Mennonite (1918)
  • Mark R. Thomas, International Bible Students Association (1918)
  • Ernest D. Wells, Christadelphian (1919)
  • Daniel S. Yoder, Mennonite (1919)

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