Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era

Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era

by Benjamin Goossen


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During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the global Mennonite church developed an uneasy relationship with Germany. Despite the religion's origins in the Swiss and Dutch Reformation, as well as its longstanding pacifism, tens of thousands of members embraced militarist German nationalism. Chosen Nation is a sweeping history of this encounter and the debates it sparked among parliaments, dictatorships, and congregations across Eurasia and the Americas.

Offering a multifaceted perspective on nationalism's emergence in Europe and around the world, Benjamin Goossen demonstrates how Mennonites' nationalization reflected and reshaped their faith convictions. While some church leaders modified German identity along Mennonite lines, others appropriated nationalism wholesale, advocating a specifically Mennonite version of nationhood. Examining sources from Poland to Paraguay, Goossen shows how patriotic loyalties rose and fell with religious affiliation. Individuals might claim to be German at one moment but Mennonite the next. Some external parties encouraged separatism, as when the Weimar Republic helped establish an autonomous "Mennonite State" in Latin America. Still others treated Mennonites as quintessentially German; under Hitler's Third Reich, entire colonies benefited from racial warfare and genocide in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Whether choosing Germany as a national homeland or identifying as a chosen people, called and elected by God, Mennonites committed to collective action in ways that were intricate, fluid, and always surprising.

The first book to place Christianity and diaspora at the heart of nationality studies, Chosen Nation illuminates the rising religious nationalism of our own age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691174280
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Benjamin W. Goossen is a scholar of global religious history at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Chosen Nation

Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era

By Benjamin W. Goossen


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0




In my youth it was a generally accepted fact that we Mennonites were not native Germans, but rather of purely Dutch origin, and that through the charity of the princes and God's merciful guidance, we found an entirely new homeland on German soil.


A visionary and a nation-builder, Hinrich van der Smissen was fond of looking backwards. The Hamburg-Altona pastor, who at the end of the First World War was nearing his seventieth birthday, had presided for more than four decades over the unification of Germany's Mennonites. Editing newspapers, heading educational institutes, and chairing national conferences, he worked tirelessly to inspire cooperation among the far-flung congregations of the German Empire. As he told it, these efforts had begun in 1871 — the same year that Germany became a country. "Prior to this time," van der Smissen recalled, "we [Mennonites] had only banded together in loose and scattered groups." A modest conference had formed in the Prussian east. Some contact was growing between the northwestern congregations. And there were stirrings in the south, among Mennonites in Baden, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg. But it was only in 1871, with "the new establishment of the German Empire, that these efforts in our congregations received a more promising outlook." Inspired by the larger political unification of the German states, "we, too, in our Mennonite circles, initiated the first attempts to utilize the newly created situation to our own purposes, and to forge the weak ties that had developed between us into a Union that would span the entire empire."

Not until the late nineteenth century, according to van der Smissen, did some Mennonites begin to associate their confession with Germanness. Prior to this time, few members drew on the language of German nationalism to describe their religion. In part, this reflected the geographic and cultural barriers separating the congregations in German-speaking lands. Members in these areas were generally divided into three separate populations — east, northwest, and south — each with vastly different histories, theologies, rituals, and legal codes. If they took spatial appellations at all, individual communities were more likely to identify as Prussian, Bavarian, or Palatine than as German. When they did cooperate with coreligionists beyond their own regions, they typically engaged populations outside German lands, whether in France, Imperial Russia, the Netherlands, or elsewhere. In fact, as van der Smissen recalled, a majority of Mennonites in the German states, especially those in the east and northwest, believed they had Dutch origins and were not "native Germans" at all. Similarly, most of those in the south held collective memories of "Swiss" ancestry. It was only through the passionate, painstaking work of activists like van der Smissen that a common narrative based on German nationality began to emerge. Influenced especially by German nationalist Protestants, as well as by broader Enlightenment notions of citizenship obligations, proponents of this account began to distance themselves from coreligionists in the Netherlands. Although the Low Countries had long provided Mennonitism's cultural and intellectual center, activists in German lands aimed to furnish a new global capital. Claiming that most members of the confession had radiated outward from these regions, they identified German-speaking congregations in other countries as representatives of a worldwide German Mennonite diaspora.

While German nationalist Mennonites such as Hinrich van der Smissen portrayed the growing association between their religion and their nationality as natural and almost inevitable, this process was in fact contingent and highly contested. As viewed from the beginning or even the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of a specifically German-Mennonite nexus would have seemed just one of many possible outcomes, and in later years, observers continued to find it as surprising as it was new. Even steadfast supporters like van der Smissen expressed astonishment at their project's successes, lauding the pervasiveness of an outlook that would have been inconceivable to their own grandparents. Of course, such self-congratulatory sentiments offered too clean a picture. Despite the grandiose terms in which these nationalists touted the emergence of a German Mennonite "imagined community," this idea always held more power for a few dedicated activists than it did for the majority of its alleged members. Far from a unique and monolithic outgrowth of modernization, nationalism offered merely one new means of conceptualizing collective belonging. It joined regionalism, localism, religion, and many other forms of affiliation that had been available to Mennonites for centuries and that continued to exist alongside and even within nationalism over the ensuing years. Just as all of these categories were themselves fluid, the concept of German Mennonitism held various meanings for different observers. Interpretations of Mennonites' nationality were always subject to negotiation, and individuals adapted and modified them, supplemented them with other loyalties, or even rejected them outright.


In 1851, the year Hinrich van der Smissen was born, there was no German nation-state. A patchwork of principalities, kingdoms, and coalitions dissected the vast expanse between the Netherlands and the Russian Empire that two decades later would unite to become the German Empire. These lands formed the rough shape of an inverted triangle. Had anyone thought to plot the location of Mennonite congregations in this territory, they would have discovered three distinct clusters, each located at one of the triangle's distant corners: northwest, northeast, and south. The northwest was home to the wealthy city congregations. Established in the aftermath of the Reformation by refugees from the Low Countries, they retained close personal and trade ties to the Netherlands. Many people still spoke and preached in Dutch, and members were often highly integrated into the business life of Atlantic port cities. Far to the east, in the former crown lands of Poland and Lithuania, lived the largest of the three communities. Known as the Mennonites of East and West Prussia, they had also arrived from the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Policymakers along the Vistula and Nogat rivers, where the majority of the region's Mennonite settlements developed, favored these migrants for their water engineering abilities. While early settlers in Poland retained religious and commercial relations with friends and extended family members in the Low Countries (Menno Simons even visited the area on at least one occasion), most eventually entered agricultural professions. Employing Dutch-style windmills and canals, they drained the swamps of the Vistula Delta and cultivated the newly won land. The third and final population, also primarily agrarian, lived in the south. Largely descendants of immigrants from Switzerland who had helped to repopulate the south German states after the Thirty Years' War, their small congregations faded in and out with related clusters across the Swiss and French borders.

While these three communities would eventually find common ground within the territory of a united Germany, it would be misleading to speak of their earlier iterations as pre-national, as though they were destined to achieve a single preordained outcome. Mennonites in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe inhabited a vastly different political landscape, and contemporary political geography structured congregations' engagement or non-collaboration with other communities. Although the first Anabaptists had preached and baptized indiscriminately across official boundaries, early Mennonite populations quickly became concentrated in a limited number of states. Because intolerant Catholic and Protestant rulers considered Anabaptists both politically threatening and religiously idolatrous, they condemned practitioners to incarceration, torture, and death. "Whoever persists in his error," the cities of Bern, St. Gall, and Zurich wrote of Anabaptism in 1527, "becomes a preacher or leader of the sect, or, having sworn to amend his ways and to desist from his error, backslides, shall also be drowned." Two years later, an Imperial Diet pronounced adult baptism a capital offense across the entire Holy Roman Empire. As the news of burnings and dismemberments emanated from places like Amsterdam, Alzey, and Strasbourg, Anabaptists learned to steer clear of these areas. Thousands fled to more lenient countries, where they found relative religious freedom in exchange for curtailed civil rights or special taxes. In 1573, for example, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth vowed that it would "not for a different faith or a change of churches shed blood nor punish one another by confiscation of property, infamy, imprisonment, or banishment." Mennonite immigrants built on such assurances, further lobbying rulers for expanded property rights and privileges, such as exemption from military service. By avoiding unfriendly states while settling in more tolerant ones, members delineated their religious space with political borders. Just as some countries were officially Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist, the boundaries of Mennonitism could also be drawn on a political map.

Nevertheless, certain forms of mobility — including migration, trade, and interregional marriage — kept Mennonites' spatial distribution in flux. Some Anabaptists' theology also placed them on a temporal continuum, positing an eternal community of God that stretched from the ancient Israelites to the second coming of Christ. By invoking their spiritual homeland in heaven, in addition to their earthly residences in Europe, these individuals imagined their place in a Christian tradition that transcended both worldly temporality and state borders. It was in part for this reason that later writers spoke so frequently about their Reformation-era ancestors, many of whom had faced persecution in Switzerland and the Netherlands. The influential Martyrs Mirror, first published in 1660 by the Dordrecht elder Thieleman J. van Bracht, became widely known among Mennonite families throughout Europe and the Americas. Its graphic accounts of more than eight hundred Anabaptist martyrs fostered a transnational sense of Mennonite peoplehood. Influenced by this and other works, most Mennonites in German lands — especially in eastern Prussia and the northwestern states — possessed strong narratives of emigration from the Low Countries. According to one 1841 history book, all the congregations in Prussia "originate from those who emigrated from the United Netherlands." A variety of traditional practices — farming techniques, for example, or certain dishes and baked goods — as well as inherited material objects seemed to confirm such accounts. The congregational library of the Danzig church contained far more books in Dutch than in any language besides German; the number of Dutch versus German books for the years prior to 1800 was nearly equal.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Netherlands had become Europe's progressive capital of Mennonite culture and theology. Persecution had largely ended by the close of the sixteenth century, and local Mennonites acquired significant religious and economic freedoms. Spurred to innovate by their relative outsider status and insulated by a tight-knit communal safety net, they soon became disproportionately wealthy per capita. Newfound riches, generated especially by the textile and shipping industries, provided the funding for elaborate churches, mutual aid societies, printing presses, and in 1735, a seminary in Amsterdam. Unlike most of their coreligionists in the Prussian east, France, Switzerland, North America, the south German states, and later, the Russian Empire, Mennonites in the Netherlands were primarily urban and had less hesitancy about participating in "worldly" spheres, including art, literature, politics, shipping, and banking. By contrast, Mennonites in German lands — especially those in the south and east — were usually more rural, less wealthy, and emphasized values like simplicity and humility. Such differences laid the groundwork for cultural clashes with coreligionists in the Netherlands, who sometimes caricatured intra-confessional tensions in dramatic or spiritual literature. In 1713, one poet criticized the "corrupt manners of many Dutch Mennonites" through the eyes of "Sister Simplicity," a fictional Amish Mennonite girl from Switzerland. Yet despite strains, works produced in the Netherlands regularly traveled east. In 1766, the Hoorn preacher Cornelis Ris published Articles of Faith of the True Mennonites or Anabaptists, a doctrinal handbook that inspired discussion among all three communities in the German states.

Among these populations, Mennonites in the northwest were by far the best acquainted with their counterparts in the Netherlands. It was here that Menno, like many early Anabaptists, spent the most active years of his life — finding refuge and fertile recruiting ground across East Friesland, the Lower Rhine, and southern Denmark. Eventually securing privileges similar to those in the Netherlands, Mennonites in these areas enjoyed comparable wealth. In Krefeld, one of Prussia's most successful export cities, the manufacturing family von der Leyen amassed fabulous riches through the production of silk and linen. One commentator ascribed Krefeld's eighteenth-century boom "to the linen trade of the Mennonites." The von der Leyens exercised broad political influence and even hosted Frederick the Great in their lavish home. During the same period, Mennonites in Hamburg, despite comprising less than 1 percent of the harbor city's population, controlled an astounding 18 percent of its merchant ships and nearly half its whaling industry. Well into the nineteenth century, common religious convictions, intermarriage, and economic ties continued to link Mennonite congregations in the northwest German states with those in the Netherlands. Members read Dutch-language sermons, newspapers, histories, and theological treatises, and supplied ministerial candidates to the Amsterdam seminary. Institutional affiliations provided another bond; several congregations were members of the Netherlands' General Mennonite Conference, founded in 1811.

Congregations in other German states likewise maintained ties with coreligionists in non-German regions. Those in the Prussian east enjoyed frequent visits and letter exchanges with their relatives in the Russian Empire. And in the south German states, Amish and Mennonites maintained contact with migrants to North America, or cooperated with neighbors in Switzerland and France. But within German lands, interregional ties were comparatively weak. An average distance of more than five hundred miles separated the three groups, and leaders rarely invited delegations from other areas to discuss matters of church doctrine, discipline, or mutual aid. That most members lived in rural settings further complicated exchange. Intermarriage was rare. One study found 454 distinct surnames among Mennonites in the Prussian east, 660 among those in the northwest, and 478 in the south — few with significant regional overlap. Congregational address books provide one window onto the limitations of cooperation. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the most expansive of these booklets included congregations only in "East and West Prussia, Lithuania, Poland, and in the German colonies of the Russian Empire." Those west of Berlin were not "sufficiently well known."

It was mission work that in the 1820s first induced cooperation between all three regions. Some Mennonites had already engaged in evangelism by sending donations to organizations like the Prussian Main Bible Society. But only through contact with a Baptist preacher from England named William Angas did proselytism emerge as a pan-confessional undertaking. A former sea captain turned mission advocate, Angas traveled extensively among continental Mennonites. Invoking similarities between Baptism and Mennonitism (the first Baptists had been influenced by Anabaptist writings), he hoped to win support for a recently established mission in India. In 1821, Angas convinced Mennonites in the Netherlands to form a "Dutch branch of the Mission Society of the English Baptists to Serampur." He then visited congregations across Prussia, the Palatinate, Switzerland, andAlsace. In the south German states, Angas found willing ears among the most progressive communities, which in 1824 formed an evangelically oriented Conference of Palatine-Hessian Mennonite Congregations. Listeners in West Prussia also took up collections for the Baptists, eventually founding their own regional institutions, including the semi-ecumenical Danzig Missionary Association.


Excerpted from Chosen Nation by Benjamin W. Goossen. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Translation xiii

Introduction 1

1 Becoming German The Geography of Collectivism 18

2 Forging History Anabaptism and the Kulturkampf 45

3 Raising the Faith Family, Gender, and Religious Indifference 71

4 World War, World Confession International Violence and Mennonite Globalization 96

5 The Racial Church Nazis, Anti-Semitism, and the Science of Blood 121

6 Fatherland War and Genocide in the Mennonite East 147

7 Mennonite Nationalism Postwar Aid and the Politics of Repatriation 174

Conclusion 200

Archival Sources 213

Notes 215

Index 257

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From the Publisher

"What is so impressive about Chosen Nation is how it demonstrates that the history of a small, very unusual, and rather marginal religious group, the Mennonites, illuminates crucial themes in the development of Germany, Europe, and the modern world."—Jonathan Sperber, author of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

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