sophia_sol: drawing of Combeferre, smiling and holding up a finger like he's about to explain something (Default)
content note: discussion of nazis and antisemitism

This is a book about the history of nationalism (and attending fascism/racism/nazism) within the Mennonite confession. A good book, but a hard read - both because of the academic writing style and because of the uncomfortable contents.

Too much of Mennonite history is presented kind of as a hagiography: look at all the ways our ancestors have nobly suffered over the years for their morals and their faith! I think this is an important reminder that we are not exempt from sometimes being really terrible too, just because we also have a history of having been persecuted.

Mennonites like to think we have always been separate from the world, but during the general rise in nationalist sentiments in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Mennonites went right along with it. Of course, what nation we were being nationalist for varied: are we German, or are we Dutch, or are we Russian, or are we our own Mennonite nation? The answer to this question swung in various directions depending on political expedience.

And along with the rise in nationalism came a decreased commitment to pacifism within the Mennonite community (at least in Europe), which was really surprising to me, but perhaps shouldn't have been. I've always been taught that pacifism is one of the doctrines that sets the Mennonite denomination apart from other denominations. We're one of the Historic Peace Churches and all! But among some groups there was all sorts of frantic back-pedalling from the historic association of Mennonites with nonresistance, arguing that if one is really committed to being part of your country then of course you must be willing to defend it (which means fight in your country's army, whatever that army happens to be doing, even if it isn't technically defense). Including one suggestion that doing so doesn't break with what the original Anabaptists meant by their pacifism, because defending your country isn't the same thing as spreading your faith by the sword. Wow.

And then we get to the Nazi era and the political expedient of what to be nationalist for swung more firmly towards being German. After all, we were held up as the Aryan ideal! More pure than most Germans, maintaining this purity even when living in diaspora! There's even this whole alarming discussion about how we were seen as the anti-Jew: a wandering people, but the good ones.

I've noticed some parallels between Jewish identity and Mennonite identity before, and it was kind of awful to see that the parallels were brought up historically by Nazis to support antisemitism, when that is the opposite of how I would personally use the parallels.

Of course not all Mennonites - not even all Mennonites who lived in Germany - repudiated pacifism or supported Nazism, but a really disheartening number did. I have a Nazi relative namechecked in this book, even. And Mennonites personally materially benefited from the genocide of the Jews, with land and other possessions. We were complicit in the atrocities perpetrated, and in some cases actively participated in the atrocities.

And then of course in the post-war period there was a whole bunch of denial of germanness (we're not German, because that would mean being stuck in post-war Germany and being held accountable, and we're not Russian, because that would mean repatriation to the Soviet Union and that doesn't sound like a good idea, so let's try out claiming being Dutch! And if that doesn't work then obviously we are our own Mennonite nationality!) as well as denial of any culpability. And Mennonites did a pretty good job of distancing our reputation from both of these things - I mean, the popular conception of Mennonites these days is of technology-avoidant North American farmers. And we did a great job of denying it internally too. Even now if you check out GAMEO (the online Mennonite encyclopedia), the article about one strongly pro-Nazi Mennonite I looked up says nothing about all his Nazi-supporting activities and instead talks about the many ways in which he was a wonderful person who did wonderful things. Gross.

It's interesting to me, the way that this book demonstrates a link between nationalism and the sense of being part of a global Mennonite church body. I've always seen the latter as a positive thing: instead of being insularly focused on other Mennonites who are Like Us, we are reminded of our connection with many different kinds of Mennonites all around the world. And I think it is a positive thing these days when we're actually willing to admit people of colour as being equal coreligionists instead of only counting the white people, but it definitely did not start with a goal I would personally find laudable.

Anyway, the book does manage to end on a positive note, which is impressive given the general tenor of most of the content of the book. It ends by reminding us that, as Mennonitism has had a multiplicity of shifting identities and priorities in the past, so it continues to change now and can continue to do so into the future, and we are not bound by the awful things Mennonites have been and done in the past - we can be better.

Which is a timely reminder, given that we are living in an era when Nazism is rising again. It's time to be better than our past!

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