Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay advocates a new approach to the study of "Mennonite ethnicity." Rejecting older narratives of white Mennonite ethnic identity as generated by cultural isolation, it instead depicts ethnicity as contested and situationally contingent. Focusing on the emergence of a discourse of "Mennonite ethnicity" in the late 1940s, the essay traces the linkages between Nazi racial scientific practices--especially as appropriated by Mennonite genealogists in the Third Reich--and their reformulation by Mennonite Central Committee during the postwar era as a means of helping Mennonite refugees migrate from Europe to the Americas. Arguing that M.C.C.'s deployment of the language of "ethnic Mennonitism" constituted a systematic denial of the collaboration of tens of thousands of Mennonites with National Socialism, it suggests that today, similarly, invocations of "Mennonite ethnicity" undergird notions of white supremacy within the church.

In early 1950, the Mennonite church leader and historian Harold S. Bender published in these pages a review of the German-language periodical Reports from the Genealogical Association of the Danzig Mennonite Families (Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes der danziger Mennoniten-Familien). Appearing in Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1944, the Reports had provided detailed information on the research and activities of the country's fast-growing Mennonite genealogical community. "One of the striking developments in Germany under Hitler," Bender noted, "was the great growth in interest in family history and genealogical research." As the longtime dean of Goshen College Biblical Seminary certainly knew--having himself spent significant time in the Third Reich, completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Heidelberg in 1935 and serving as a Mennonite Central Committee liaison to the Nazi government as late as 1940--that explosion of ancestral studies in Hitler's Germany had not been limited to Mennonite citizens. Across the Fiihrer's "racial state," blood purity laws and racialist activism, as well as more than a decade of government propaganda, had elevated genealogy from the margins of social consciousness to a celebrated, nationwide practice. "This interest naturally had a strong response among the Mennonites," Bender informed readers of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, "because in Germany as well as elsewhere the Mennonites have a strong sense of family loyalty, and Mennonites are members of the church largely because of their family ancestry." (1)

Readers today might be surprised to learn that Bender was not critical of these developments. Decades of scholarship since then have demonstrated the close links between genealogical enthusiasm in the Third Reich and Nazi policies of racial exclusion, including the systematic persecution and murder of millions of European Jews. (2) For most citizens of Nazi Germany, including the vast majority of its Mennonite population, genealogy provided a valuable means of proving Aryan ancestry, simultaneously granting individuals capable of demonstrating "pure" Germanic heritage access to generous political and welfare benefits, while also entrenching racism as a normal category of social division. (3) And yet for Bender, family research as practiced under National Socialism could and should be disentangled from its cultural context, viewed as separate from and even superior to the unabashed racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism from which it had largely emerged. The seminary dean and avowed pacifist did not believe that ancestral research and fascist politics were inherently intertwined. Indeed, he found it "encouraging" to discover that Mennonite genealogical research had not fallen in 1945 with the Third Reich. Welcoming the transformation and incorporation of a major tenet of National Socialist ideology into mainstream Mennonite culture, he reported with approval that "a permanent interest in family history remains among the Mennonites in Germany, even after the Hitler regime has long since passed away. …

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