Mennonite & Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933-1945

Harry Loewen

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 3 (Fall 2000)

John D.Thiesen, Mennonite & Nazi? Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933-1945. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, co-published by Herald Press, 1999.

This is an important book on a dark and controversial period in Mennonite history. The author and Pandora Press are to be congratulated on their courage to publish it.

In the preface John Thiesen sets out the book's purpose: "The main question running through the book is: 'Given a long heritage of pacifism plus resistance to the political order and relative withdrawal from it, why did some Mennonites in Latin America fall for Nazism so easily?"' (18). Thiesen's answers to this question are based on an examination of the historical and cultural background of the Russian Mennonites in South America and a careful reading of the available sources, many of which are used here for the first time.

Among the reasons for South American Mennonites' sympathies for and involvement with Nazism, especially among those groups who settled in the Chaco, Paraguay in the early thirties, Thiesen lists several historical factors: the Mennonites' tragic experiences of Bolshevism; Germany's willingness to assist Mennonites in their escape from the Soviet Union; the harsh South American economic conditions, coupled with the hope of some to return to Germany or even to their former homeland in the Ukraine. Not only did Germany provide the refugees with a temporary haven in 1929, but it also helped the settlers in South America to establish themselves economically, educationally, and culturally. That Mennonites considered themselves German and wished to preserve their German language and culture made them a natural (and some might claim all too willing) audience for Nazi propaganda.

According to Thiesen the Mennonite soil was well prepared for Nazi ideology before 1933, the year the Nazis came to power in Germany (104). All that was needed was influential leaders among the Mennonites who would sow the seeds of Nazism and cultivate its growth. In Germany, Benjamin H. Unruh and Walter Quiring had a powerful influence on the Mennonites in Brazil and Paraguay. These men sang the praises of the Nazi regime and presented Hitler as the savior from Communism. In Paraguay the educator Fritz Kliewer and the chief administrator of the Fernheim Colony, Julius Legiehn, welcomed and promoted the Nazi regime and ideology. They argued that Mennonitism and National Socialism were natural allies for the good of all things German (Deutschturn) and Christianity. This in spite of Hitler's alleged denial of the possibility: "One is either a German or a Christian. You cannot be both" (25). Kliewer and Legiehn performed their völkisch work in the schools and with the youth of the colonies with an almost religious zeal.

There were individuals and groups who either opposed the Nazi movement or remained indifferent to it. While some among the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites were drawn toward Nazism, Old Colony and Alliance Mennonites were not much affected by völkisch ideas. Other Mennonites, including some church and community leaders and a number of North American Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) personnel, believed strongly that Mennonite faith-principles and Nazi ideology were mutually exclusive. The involvement of MCC was seen by some as "American motivated" and consequently resented by the völkisch group. Toward the end of the Second World War, with Germany's defeat and Paraguay's siding with the victorious Allies, the Nazi movement in South America came to an abrupt end. Kliewer and Legiehn were expelled from the colony by the Paraguayan government. In 1947 Canadian MB leader B. B. Janz sought to bring about a reconciliation between the two groups, but as Thiesen notes: "The Latin American Mennonites' encounter with National Socialism left a lasting legacy of bitterness..." (226).

Thiesen's book has caused a stir, especially among some South American Mennonites. Peter P. Klassen, author of Die deutsch-völkische Zeit in der Kolonie Fernheim, Chaco, Paraguay, 1933-1945 (1990), in a letter to Thiesen objected to the word "Nazi" in the title. Mennonites in the thirties and forties, according to Klassen, spoke of "National Socialism" and "völkisch," not "Nazism," and considered Germany positively; it was the country that had helped them in their distress at the hands of Soviet Communism. Gerhard Ratzlaff, in a review, feels that the author should have been more sensitive to the feelings of Paraguayan Mennonites. He finds some of the book's photographs and expressions like "violent call to arms" (91) will "hurt the feelings of an inside reader" (Mennonite Life, Dec. 1999, 40). Both critics agree, however, that Thiesen has generally been objective and fair in his interpretation of a painful period.

Thiesen's interpretation of why South American Mennonites so easily fell prey to Nazism, while generally correct, does not consider sufficiently the role that pacifism – or the loss of it – played. His book demonstrates that pacifism was the one traditional principle which kept the wehrlos (nonresistant) group, as opponents of the völkisch movement were called, from falling in line with Nazi ideology. Throughout Mennonite history groups that adhered to the principle of nonviolence were able to resist the pressures of governments and society, whereas those who abandoned this principle, as happened in nineteenth and twentieth-century Germany and elsewhere, were more easily assimilated in society, with a subsequent loss of traditional biblical principles.

Thiesen observes in the end that the "best concise interpretation of the whole encounter [with Nazism] comes from a person who had a hand in triggering it in the first place, Walter Quiring" (226). Thiesen quotes from a 1953 letter of Quiring to B. B. Janz in which the writer speaks of the German people, including himself, who "let themselves be deceived by Hitler" and states that "Hitler was the misfortune of the German people" (226). In my view, this does not explain what happened nor does it sound like genuine contrition and a change of heart. Many former Nazis and their sympathizers spoke thus, and one still hears such statements, also among Mennonites. They are attempts, frankly, to blame a dead man for the evil of Nazism and to pose as victims rather than as participants in that evil. There are, fortunately, Mennonites today, especially among the young, who have gone beyond the likes of Quiring and see Nazism for what it was.

This well-written, attractively produced book with its copious sources and notes belongs on the shelf of all serious students of Mennonites' encounter with National Socialism.