History: At war’s end, a last gasp of violence

Oct 22, 2018 by

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One hundred years ago next month, on Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice brought World War I to an end, ceasing the four-year-old conflagration that resulted in 40 million casualties, unprecedented destruction and reshaped geopolitics. But while news of peace generated great rejoicing in the United States, hostilities continued against some Americans.

Conscientious objectors peel potatoes at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1918. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

Conscientious objectors peel potatoes at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1918. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

On that day, instead of being discharged from the U.S. Army, conscripted Mennonite conscientious objector George S. Miller was facing a court martial at Camp Dodge in central Iowa. He was found guilty of disobeying an order and cursing the American flag. Sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, he was released in 1919.

Meanwhile, at a victory celebration in Burrton, Kan., hyper-patriotic residents turned their attention to John Schrag, a Mennonite farmer who had staunchly resisted buying war bonds. Five carloads of men abducted him and unsuccessfully tried to get him to lead a parade through town. Schrag refused, and the American flag someone tried to get him to carry fell to the ground when he didn’t take hold of it. That enraged the mob, which doused him with yellow paint and prepared to hang him.

Schrag was saved when the head of the Burrton Anti-Horse-Thief Association, brandishing his gun, pulled Schrag away from the mob and spirited him to the town jail for his protection. Charges against Schrag were later dismissed.

The prospects of religious liberty, security and opportunity had beckoned Anabaptists from Europe to North America since the 17th century. And they largely found it. But the U.S. entry into World War I made Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites despised. In an article headlined “Middlebury Should be 100% Patriotic,” the Middlebury (Ind.) Independent declared COs “not fit to mingle with the vermin of the earth.”

A central problem for draftees was the absence of a clear directive for how the military should handle COs. Instructions were slow in coming and often ambiguous. Furthermore, they could be ignored. The result was an environment that allowed harsh militaristic attitudes and unchecked patriotism to assault religious pacifists.

Several hundred Anabaptist conscripts refused to wear military uniforms and perform military activities. The consequences ranged from vigilante intimidation, such as being rubbed raw by broom-bearing soldiers, to official courts-martial.

The most extreme incident was that of Hutterite brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer. They were court-martialed in June 1918 and sent to the federal prison on Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay. There they were brutally treated, including being chained in their cells in only their underwear and fed little food and water. In November, the Hofers were transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where they fell ill, probably from pneumonia. Joseph died Nov. 29 and Michael on Dec. 2, casualties of a war that ended weeks earlier.

In addition to Schrag, at least one other Mennonite was nearly lynched. In April 1918, a mob held John M. Franz, the pastor of Bethlehem Mennonite Church near Bloomfield, Mont., next to a tree with a noose hanging from a limb when the local sheriff stopped them. Instead, the mob forced Franz to buy war bonds and dispose of all of Bethlehem’s German-language books, including Bibles.

A number of other civilian Mennonites were painted yellow, tarred and feathered and subjected to other abuses, including vandalism of their properties. Three church buildings were destroyed by arson: Fairview (Mich.) Mennonite Church, Inola (Okla.) Mennonite Brethren Church and Eden Mennonite Church, also of Inola.

World War I prompted many to flee the United States for Canada. For the Hutterites, the Hofers’ deaths were affirmation of their previous decision to move en masse to Canada. In 1917-18, almost all Hutterites, about 1,000 people, migrated to the Canadian prairies. The only ones to remain were the residents of Bon Homme Colony near Yankton, S.D. Some colonies later returned.

Additionally, 600 to 800 Mennonites relocated to Canada. For example, 85 people from Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church of Inman, Kan., moved north in April 1917. The next month, three young men from Carson Mennonite Brethren Church, Delft, Minn., also went to Canada. They left with such haste that one young man’s fiancée didn’t find out until that evening at choir practice.

The dark clouds of World War I had several silver linings. One was a new interest in service. A number of conscripts from the Mennonite Church, while in military camps, felt compelled to remedy the ravages of war. After their release, they joined the American Friends Service Commission doing reconstruction work in France.

Other MC members made financial contributions to Mennonite Board of Missions rather than buying war bonds or supporting the Red Cross and the YMCA, which were considered to be aligned with the war effort. This led to the creation of the Mennonite Relief Commission for War Sufferers, which supported work in Austria, France, Germany and the Middle East. The MRCWS became one of the founders of Mennonite Central Committee in 1920.

Another positive outcome of the war for Mennonites was the eventual birth of Civilian Public Service. With tensions again rising in Europe in the 1930s, Mennonites, having learned from their World War I experiences, joined with the Church of the Brethren and Quakers to work with the federal government to create an alternative to the draft for COs. By early 1941, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harber, CPS had been inaugurated.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.


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