Fall 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 2 · pp. 201–3 

Book Review

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

John D. Thiesen. Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 1999. 329 pages.

Reviewed by Calvin W. Redekop

From an historical perspective, two of the most significant social/cultural factors that determined the nature of the Mennonite settlements in the Paraguayan Chaco were the long-standing hope that the Mennonites might be able to resettle in Canada, and the conflict as to whether the Mennonite refugees who had been settled in Paraguay were German, however vaguely understood or defined. {202}

This book deals with the second significant issue, namely how Paraguayan Anabaptism/Mennonitism related with the German culture, Volk, and nation. As is generally known, this topic has been rather studiously avoided. For example, an official history of the Colony Fernheim, 50 Jahre Kolonie Fernheim, published in 1980, concludes with a time line of important events. For the years 1943-44 it states only that a cooperative store was established in Lopez de Filippis and that Bernard J. Wall was elected Oberschulze for four years. Unless the reader knows the story, one would not guess that these two events were integrally related to the so-called “Nazi” saga in the Chaco.

John Thiesen, archivist at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, begins with an “Author’s Preface” in which he attempts to provide the essential faith of the Anabaptist/Mennonites and a brief history of the two main Mennonite ethnic traditions, but expands mainly on the Dutch/Prussian/Russian sector to prepare for the main theme.

In chapter one, a brief overview of the events leading to the Nazi period in Germany is presented, including an attempt to define German citizenship, German culture and ethnicity, and how they relate in the context of Hitler’s obscene pontification. The implications of this for the Volksdeutsche in areas outside of Germany, especially in Russia, offer important insights for later Mennonite life in Latin America. Chapters two and three describe the migrations of Mennonites to Mexico and Brazil, which though informative, are not as relevant to the Nazi theme in Paraguay.

The basic discussion begins in chapter four, the period between 1930 and 1936, in which the social scene is described, especially among the youth. Thiesen includes particularly the roles Fritz Kliewer and B. H. Unruh performed in the emergence of a German-sponsored “Jugendbund” (90). In chapter five, the author discusses the economic and organizational conditions that laid the groundwork for the confrontation between Nazism and the historic peace position of the Mennonites.

Then in chapter six, entitled “Renewed Determination, 1936-1943,” Thiesen analyzes the central issue that was coming to a head among the Mennonites: were they “Volkstum” or “Christentum?” (129). According to Siemens, editor of Mennoblatt, “Fernheim’s illness now was ‘politics’ ” (130). A very complex polarization developed, including that among religious leaders, congregations, colony officials, younger professionals—some of whom agitated for a return to Germany—and business entrepreneurs.

Chapter seven, “Paraguay 1943-1944, The End of the Voelkish Movement,” describes the confrontations peaking on the March 11, {203} 1944, fracas which involved physical beatings and threats with pistols and shotguns. Legiehn, the Oberschulze, and Fritz Kliewer, the German-educated Ph.D., were ordered to leave the colony. Slowly there began the process of recovering the historic “way of the cross” in Guy Hershberger’s terms.

The concluding chapter, “Interpretation,” provides a helpful overview of the various ways the Nazi period has been understood. There is basis for every interpretation. I believe the economic dynamic needs to be addressed to a much further extent.

Mennonite and Nazi? is very well documented and argued, the most extensive and comprehensive tome in English, including U.S. official documents not heretofore presented. However, much of the original material is available in German, such as Peter P. Klassen’s Die Deutsch-Voelkische Zeit in der Kolonie Fernheim, John Postma’s “Fernheim, Fernes Heim?” and Gerhard Ratzlaff’s masters thesis, among others. These present the events more graphically and “existentially.”

Among the mistakes indicating lack of editing are the repeated misspelling of Mennoblatt and Menno-Blatt (on page 231 the correct Mennoblatt finally creeps in between incorrect spellings in the preceding and succeeding paragraphs), confusing and inconsistent use of Philadelphia and Filadelfia, misspelling of Asuncion (139), and discussing the Bible school, for example, before it is introduced or explained (150).

The issues raised in this book are as wide as the question of Christianity and culture, church discipline, and the use of power. This book provides much basic material for the ongoing discussion of these questions.

Calvin Redekop
Conrad Grebel College,
Waterloo, Ontario