Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2021. 337 pp. $39.95 CND (paperback). ISBN-13: 978-1487525545.
In 2015, in my capacity as a member of the executive board of Mennonite Church USA, I was the chair of the Resolutions Committee for the July delegate assembly in Kansas City. Earlier that year, months before our national convention, I got a call from an unidentified number. “Hello, this is Isaac,” I answered. Without warning, the person on the line began to lambast me for allowing, in my role as chair, a resolution to be scheduled for presentation to the delegates that included our acknowledgment of Christian antisemitism. The person quoted a line from the church document that the delegates would be considering in the summer: “We acknowledge the need for repentance of our own complicity in the history of violence committed by Christians against Jews.” I explained that my committee had determined that the resolution met all of the requirements, and that our executive board had approved the language of the paragraph in question as appropriate for consideration by the delegate body. Confidently, the man told me that Mennonites were not complicit in anti-Jewish violence and certainly did not play a role in the Nazi atrocities of World War II—alleged atrocities, he added.
Shocked and bewildered by his claim, I tried to argue that Christians in the West haven’t finished reckoning with the complicity of our traditions in the Holocaust, that our ancestors in the faith failed in their solidarity with Jews, and that we need to remain vigilant in how Christian anti-Judaism sneaks its way into our theologies. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he cut me off. “You’re not even a real Mennonite. You’re not from our people.” Then he hung up.
Over the past twenty years as a member of the Mennonite church, I’ve discovered that my ecclesial siblings who are able to trace their lineage from a long line of Mennonite descendants are always having to engage in the complicated work of sorting through the relationship between their ethnicity and their faith, their biological genealogy and their church commitments. For them, the one has everything to do with the other, which means the inclusion of people like me involves a double-take at their own sense of belonging, a rethinking of what they mean when they claim a Mennonite identity. Are they Mennonite because of their baptism, their church membership? Or are they Mennonite because of the plight of their great-grandparents? Perhaps a little of both?
For most Mennonites, my claim to membership in the Mennonite tradition is welcomed as good news, as an affirmation of the faithfulness of their biological ancestors. For them, my existence as a non-ethnic Mennonite is a sign of a healthy tradition, evidence of a Christian people capacious enough to include believers beyond the ethnic family. For others, however, like the man on the phone, my presence in the church—further, my leadership position—pushes them beyond the limits of their tolerance, which leads to their entrenchment in a church identity that is also a racial identity. My Mennoniteness doesn’t extend down far enough, certainly not into my bloodline, especially since my biological family comes from an other-than-European land: I am of a foreign blood and soil, according to the caller.
The recent historiographic turn to consider Mennonite complicity with the horrors of the Nazi regime in twentieth-century Europe drops us into the heart of these negotiations of identity. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen’s edited volume, European Mennonites and the Holocaust, invites us into important conversations not only about Mennonite culpability but also Mennonite identity. On the one hand, this is the book I can now recommend to Mennonite Holocaust deniers. I’ve met one such man, and I imagine there might be others. On the other hand, as a non-European Mennonite, I wonder how the authors in this collection consider my identity as implicated in their narratives.
The argument of the book, as a whole, is for (ethnic?) Mennonites to come to terms with their (our?) involvement in the Holocaust. The editors make the ethical import clear with the Bible passages they chose as epigraphs: “When you offer many prayers, I am not listening,” they offer, citing God’s condemnation from the first chapter of Isaiah. “Your hands are full of blood!” They also include the words of judgment from Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” In their introduction, the editors comment on their selection of these passages to frame the book: “The biblical epigrams at the beginning of this book refer to Mennonites who collectively have blood on their hands but cannot fit that image into their self-understanding.” They shift pronouns from “their” in this sentence to “we” in the next. “We see ourselves as sheep doing good in the name of Christ, not as goats deserving judgment” (18). These subtle shifts in subjectivity occur throughout the book without attention to the complications of representation regarding who speaks on behalf of whom, as well as the complexities of claiming an other’s moral obligation to receive such storytelling as an articulation of their own identity.
Those complexities aside (I will return to them later), the violences documented in the book are horrific. The authors recount stories of people who participated in the Nazi genocide, as well as stories of people who looked away while communities of Jews were displaced and massacred. The histories retold in these pages range from active complicity to passive benefit. As a reader, the book unnerved me—the accounts of the way that racial violence takes hold of an entire society and the ease in which the nonresistant could remain quiet in the land while their neighbors disappeared.
A haunting site, around which three chapters revolve, is the district of Zaporizhzhia in what is now Ukraine, where, upon Hitler’s seizure of the region, his soldiers methodically eradicated the Jewish population. “In total, in the Zaporizhia region, more than 14,000 Jews and 10,000 POWs and around 600 Roma were murdered,” Dmytro Myeshkov writes in chapter 7. “When the city of Zaporizhia was occupied by the Germans in October 1941, the Jewish population numbered 1,841 persons. By spring 1942,” he continues, “they had all been murdered” (210). That same spring, across the river from the mass executions, the beleaguered remnants of the historic Mennonite settlement in Khortytsya, now liberated from Soviet repression, gathered for an Easter service—their first in a decade, Aileen Friesen recounts in chapter 8. “Even though the [Jewish] massacre did not happen close to the church,” she writes, “it is not hard to imagine that rumours about this event drifted to the Khortytsya side of the Dnieper River” (230).
I followed one of Friesen’s endnotes to a 2015 interview with a survivor of the Zaporizhzhia massacre. In the video, Leonid Lerner recounts the gruesome cruelty of that day—March 28, 1942, he remembers, the first day of Passover. “In spite of everything,” he says, “the Jews were preparing to celebrate Pesach.” German soldiers went door-to-door, interrupting the holiness of the day, and forced Jews to march to the outskirts of the city where they were lined up on a hill and ordered to take off their clothes. Lerner says he can’t forget his little brother’s face when a soldier pierced through him with a bayonet. “And I still remember his eyes.”1
Each number added to the millions of killings during the Holocaust points to an unimaginable terror—one atrocity sloughed upon another, mounds of death. “A statistical compilation of those slaughtered in a pogrom,” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in 1944, “conceals its essence, which emerges only in an exact description of the exception, the most hideous torture.”2 European Mennonites and the Holocaust reaches through the numbers into the events, into the lives of the perpetrators of violence, into their communities. The book attempts to describe the hideousness of history.
The tension within the book has to do with whether the individuals who were complicit in the atrocities were Mennonites—and, relatedly, if their identity as Mennonites implicates those of us who claim Mennonite identity today. To stick with the chapters on Zaporizhzhia for a moment, Myeshkov pinpoints the obscurities involved in incriminating a perpetrator’s identity in the act of violence:
In each case one must ask which characteristic or bundle of characteristics is decisive or sufficient for identifying this or that person as a Mennonite. The profound changes that took place in the Mennonite community in Ukraine and Crimea as a result of social upheavals during this era only make the task more daunting. Violent modernization accelerated the changes in Mennonite identity and exacerbated the generational conflict that was already developing in the early twentieth century. (218)
Some aspects of the past are more knowable than others. Historians make the best of the available archives in their attempts to capture a person’s identity. Myeshkov is honest about the difficulties involved in positing a person’s Mennoniteness. In Friesen’s chapter, she locates in the archives a self-identified Mennonite resident of Zaporizhzhia who joined the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi secret service, as an intelligence officer—Jacob Fast who “listed his religion as ‘Mennonite,’” according to the German immigration and naturalization office (238). Friesen carefully documents how a person identifies their Mennonite identity. At the end of her chapter, however, she gestures toward the widespread involvement of Mennonites as informants who cooperated with the German forces, noting that after the German defeat, under Soviet interrogation, Nazi soldiers and agents named local collaborators who had “Mennonite” surnames—“men with Mennonite last names,” Friesen writes, who were “intimately involved in the violence perpetrated during the occupation” (241). In this case a surname was enough, according to Friesen, to imply Mennonite identity.
In their description of the criteria for who counts as a Mennonite, the editors outline “overlapping possibilities” of identity, which includes the status of a person’s genealogy. “A simplistic approach is to assume that a Mennonite is someone with a ‘Mennonite name’ who comes from a ‘Mennonite family’” (12); “A cultural approach casts a wide enough net to include those whose grandparents and parents were Mennonite, even if the person in question never entered a Mennonite church” (14). Doris L. Bergen, in her brief introduction to Gerhard Rempel’s chapter, provides a full-throated defense of this biological approach to Mennonite identity. “It is second nature and a kind of game to spot ‘Mennonite names,’” Bergen writes about her experience of growing up in a Euroethnic Mennonite community. This method “implies a practical approach that, in my assessment, turns out to be the most historically sound way to deal with the challenge of defining who counts as a Mennonite for purposes of studying ‘Mennonites and the Holocaust’” (38).3 This most historically sound approach, which Bergen notes as a kind of game that Euroethnic Mennonites play with each other, occurs throughout the book. The irony, of course, is that this method of determining Mennonite identity mimics the Nazi racial logic of peoplehood—“the importance of the biological background of existence,” as Horst Quiring, a Mennonite minister and theologian in Berlin, lauded the Nazi commitment to the “mightiness of the blood” (131).4
In chapter 2, James Irvin Lichti writes about the sinister complicity of this so-called “Mennonite game” with Nazi ideologies of nativism:
The seemingly innocuous habits of genealogy and “the Mennonite game” dovetailed all too tidily with these racial notions: a susceptibility to Nazi racial ideology ran through German Mennonite congregations and surfaced even in periodical content. Nazi propagandists used this racialized version of Mennonite history to their own ends, promoting the “racial purity” of Mennonite communities throughout the world in racial periodicals, popular novels, and a feature-length studio movie. (88)
Blood kinship as Mennonite belonging proved admirable to German racial anthropologists. This likeness troubles Litchti, who seems to worry about the perpetuation of conceptions of Mennonite identity that correlate to Völkisch constructions of peoplehood.5
I acknowledge that my own Mennonite identity is ecclesial; while Hinojosa and Francisco surnames are familiar to me, I don’t know anybody named Jantzen or Wiens. My Mennoniteness has everything to do with the relationships I’ve formed according to congregational membership. Strangely, the editors of this volume do not include this as one of their many criteria for a person’s identification as a Mennonite. (The category they call “theological identity” has to do with the subjectivity of belief rather than the objectivity of baptism and church membership—see pages 12–17.) Despite the editors’ omission of this identity, several of the authors demonstrate their careful research in determining whether a person was baptized or joined a Mennonite church. For example, this concern is central to Alle G. Hoekema’s chapter on Dutch Mennonites.6
This is not to discount the storytelling and historical research documented in the book. The “Mennonite game” approach to historiography investigates a person’s situatedness in a familial clan, and many of the authors of these chapters engage in the intimate work of revisiting uncomfortable truths about their own family stories. “Many of the scholars in this volume have a personal involvement with their subjects,” the editors disclose, “though not all have chosen to discuss those ties” (19). For these reasons the book is courageous. The authors offer us a profound gift in their remarkable bravery—confession of their progenitors’ complicity in what was done and left undone, to interrupt the repression of legacies of harm that take hold of our lives.
In chapter 6, for instance, Colin P. Neufeldt recounts his grandparents’ (and their community’s) willingness to benefit from the Nazi occupation in Poland: “These Mennonites had witnessed Nazi brutality toward the Jews, yet they chose to continue working for the Nazi authorities” (184). In chapter 11, Hans Werner notes his father’s military involvement: “My father fought as a solider both for the Red Army and for the Wehrmacht (the regular German Army)” (294). In the concluding chapter, Steven Schroeder wrestles with his heritage as a descendent of Mennonites from the Danzig area who engaged in military duties: “My grandfather and many other relatives served in the German military, and I remember the portraits of them in Wehrmacht uniforms that hung on my grandparents’ walls” (308).
To narrate these violences is courageous work, an example for all of us who have not had the fortitude to unfold our family stories, to lay out an unflinching account of the iniquities of ancestors in order to enable repentance. Schroeder ends his chapter with an invitation for other Mennonites to join his family’s Mennonite identity, to engage in an ethics of atonement: “Regardless of our respective religious views and practices, our cultural affinity to Mennonitism, or our last names, this is our heritage—a heritage that impacts our personhood, our engagement with the people around us, and the broader world” (315). This is quite the assumption, in terms of speaking for anyone and everyone who considers themselves Mennonite—as if Schroeder’s genealogy subsumes mine, as if I am required to find a place in his family tree in order to belong in the Mennonite story. A generous interpretation would involve a decision to hear in his declaration, despite the colonial overtones, a petition for others to bear the burden of his heritage with him, to take his assertion as a plea for solidarity—his cry as an appeal for companions so that he would not have to suffer alone the guilt he feels for his family’s history.
As a Mennonite without any bloodline connections to Euroethnic Mennonites, my avenue into these horrors has been my belonging within Western Christianity. I am part of a faith that facilitated the rise of the Nazi regime. The following studies over the past several decades have proven fundamental for me in understanding the sinister complicities of European Christianity in Nazism: Robert P. Erickson’s Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch; Doris L. Bergen’s Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich; and Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.7
As I read European Mennonites and the Holocaust, I thought a lot about the current religious and political situation here in the United States as evangelical Christianity has become synonymous with the quasi-fascist politics of the Trumpian movement. As a Pew Research Center study revealed last year, the election of President Trump resulted in more US citizens declaring themselves evangelical; his political campaign served as a missional event for evangelicalism, his rallies as evangelical revivals.8 We’ve been warned about such ominous possibilities; we’ve had prophets—for example, George Jackson’s dispatches from prison (“the U.S. as a fascist-corporative state”)9 and Sheldon Wolin’s discernment regarding the fascist transformation of the US political project into “Superpower Democracy,” “Inverted Totalitarianism.”10 Dorothee Sölle, was perhaps the most prescient in linking the Christianity of Nazi Germany to evangelicalism in the United States when she coined the term “Christofascism” to describe the situation on this side of the Atlantic, where a particular theological culture has produced a faith befitting those who crave political dominance.11
European Mennonites and the Holocaust certainly offers a caution to ethnically European Mennonites whose ancestors were all too willing to recognize their Mennonite identity as a racial identity in order to take advantage of a hierarchically racialized social order. That historical realization, I imagine, has affected the consciousness of their descendants who now benefit from their whiteness while making a home in the settler colonial regimes of North America. I had hoped to find more in these chapters that would extend these important issues beyond consciousness-raising work for those who are able to locate themselves in the European Mennonite family tree.
One place in the book that can spur a conversation—beyond the quasi-ethnic studies approach to the Mennonite tradition—occurs at the end of Arnold Neufeldt-Fast’s chapter on German Mennonite theology, where he hints at a diagnosis of a theological problem still operational in our churches—that is, a penchant for theologies of victory instead of theologies that cultivate a disposition of vulnerability. “Theologically, there has been a growing consensus,” Neufeldt-Fast writes, “that all Christian talk of God requires reference to God’s own Trinitarian self-definition in weakness and death for the sake of life” (140).12 This observation resounds with Johann Baptist Metz’s summons in 1981 for Christians in the West to put the brakes on triumphalist doctrines of victoriousness.13 “Christianity victoriously conceals its own messianic weakness,” he observed. “Does there not exist something like a typically Christian incapacity for dismay in the face of disasters?”14 Metz warned against a distinctly progressive Christian preference for theological narratives of victory, and instead encouraged conceptions of messianic weakness that would render our theologies vulnerable to tragedy, a posture open to the undoing of the self-assured coherence of theological narratives of victory—the undoing of narratives that confirm our own sense that we are on the right side of history, that we are always on God’s side and never in a position to be numbered among the enemies of God.15 Perhaps this direction of concern should lead us to re-examine the prevalence of Christus victor theologies within North American ecclesial life (especially among US Christian progressives),16 because such triumphalist theologies locate the faithful on the side of the victor, not on the side of the people in need of repentance and forgiveness.17 Christian proclamation should also inspire us to confess sins—to acknowledge that, for example, when we read the New Testament gospel narratives as invitations into the Christian life, we often find ourselves with the disciples who betray Jesus.
Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina (USA) and serves as the president of the North Carolina Council of Churches.
University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, “Shooting of the Jewry of Zaporozhye in the Sovkhoz Named after Stalin in March, 1942” March 1, 2022. I accessed the interview through the online collection of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, https://babynyar.org/en/library/collection/36/5186.
Note: The Ukrainian city and region commonly rendered in English as Zaporizhzhia can also be spelled (as evident elsewhere in the review) as Zaporizhia or Zaporozhye (the latter a transliteration of the Russian spelling).
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 92–93.
Here is one example among many in Gerhard Rempel’s chapter, “Mennonites, War Crimes, and the Holocaust,” where he considers a person’s blood relations as enough to identify the individual as a Mennonite: “An atrocity had been committed by the son of Mennonites near the former Mennonite settlements of Templehof, Suvorovka, Olgino, and Terek” (62).
Several authors in the volume point to the theological contributions of Horst Quiring, a Mennonite pastor with Nazi sympathies, as an influential voice—beginning with his 1938 book Grundworte des Glaubens—in articulating a Euroethnic Mennonite identity in alignment with Nazi formulations of racial purity. “What it means to be a people has only recently become clear,” Imanuel Baumann quotes from Quiring’s book. “A people is not formed by a commonality in land, language, or history, but has its deepest foundation in the community of blood or race” (111).
For a helpful account of Nazi constructions of racial identities, see Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2003), especially chapters 5 (“Ethnic Revival and Racist Anxiety”) and 8 (“The Quest for a Respectable Racism”).
Hoekema, in “Dutch Mennonites and Yad Vashem Recognition,” includes the story of the van Drooge family, whose father, Alexander, was a Mennonite pastor. Residents of the Dutch village of Makkum, the family was involved in the underground resistance efforts against Nazi occupation and participated in clandestine operations to hide Jews and assist in their escape. I hadn’t known of this Mennonite family that had tried to convince the parents of Etty Hillesum to hide their family in the Mennonite parsonage. (When they were youth, the van Drooge parents had been students at the high school where Dr. Louis Hillesum, Etty’s father, was the director.) To read the accounts in this book—like this one about the Hillesum family—is to be entangled in the endless looping of history’s “what ifs,” the unnerving hope for alternate endings to undo the tragic, to wish for the slightest of changes that would have made all the difference in the world.
Robert P. Erickson, Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Gregory Smith, “More White Americans Adopted than Shed Evangelical Label During Trump Presidency, Especially His Supporters,” September 15, 2021, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/15/more-white-americans-adopted-than-shed-evangelical-label-during-trump-presidency-especially-his-supporters/.
George L. Jackson, Blood in My Eye (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic, 1990), 134.
Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Dorothee Sölle, “Christofascism,” The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990), 133–41. William E. Connolly, who does not seem to be aware of Sölle’s work, provides a more recent account of the effect of evangelicalism upon the US political situation in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
Neufeldt-Fast points to Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God for this line of exploration. I think Moltmann’s proposals end up instigating more problems than they solve in terms of the intra-Trinitarian relations (i.e., God in se). Alan Lewis explains the achievements and shortcomings of Moltmann’s theological project in chapter 7, “From God’s Passion to God’s Death,” of Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 197–257.
Johann Baptist Metz, “Christians and Jews after Auschwitz,” The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1981), 22.
Metz, “Christians and Jews after Auschwitz,” 25.
The editors note the following tendency among progressive North American Mennonites: “By the twenty-first century, progressive Mennonites [in Canada and the United States] had shifted from rejecting military service as a key component of a collective identity to seeing Mennonites as proponents of peace and justice claims on behalf of downtrodden minorities; this view encouraged them to understand themselves as a people always on the ‘right’ side of history” (18). Notice that the editors assume a
twenty-first-century Mennonite identity that does not already include “minorities.”
For example, J. Denny Weaver has characterized his work, The Nonviolent Atonement, as an attempt to revive Gustaf Aulén’s articulation (in 1930) of a Christus Victor theology, which Weaver renders into a theory of Christ’s nonviolent atonement. Although he notes some concerns with Aulén’s version of the Christus Victor theory, Weaver locates his own approach as a revitalization project: “I argue that a revised form of it commends itself to the twenty-first century” (J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001], 15). Devin Singh has recently pointed out that Weaver’s nonviolent atonement model depends on the logic of economic colonialism: “We need to consider the dynamics of economic annexation and colonialism that are modeled in such a narrative” (Devin Singh, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018], 184–85). Also see J. Alexander Sider, “‘Who Durst Defy the Omnipotent to Arms?’: The Nonviolent Atonement and a Non-Competitive Doctrine of God,” in The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver, eds. Alain Epp Weaver and Gerald J. Mast (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2008), 246–62.
For a brief account of the Christus Victor theory of atonement that contextualizes it within social power relations, see James Wm. Mclendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 199–203. I’m grateful to Jamie Pitts for pointing me to McClendon’s astute observations regarding how the meaning of Christus Victor theories shift according to the church’s social status—that the significance has everything to do with whether Christianity operates with majoritarian or minoritarian power within society.