Ep. 2 The madness begins

Gerhard’s memoirs, written in cursive German, came to me in the form of four lined notebooks, some with more detail, some with less. He must have started over a number of times as he repeats some recollections. Occasionally he makes errors in recalling the year in which events occurred, yet he recalls to the day and hour when he was arrested.

Gerhard’s story arrives in bits and pieces as if to say: here it is, this is what I want to tell you. Sometimes it’s just a few words on the page: memories pushed into being with great effort. Like the space between the stars, there is a lot of room between the bits and pieces, but Gerhard leaves an emotional vacuum. His detachment would have made Joe Friday proud.

What was it really like? I don’t know. I wasn’t there, but you will notice I’ve leaned on the writings of those who were there in that time and place to fill in the space between the stars; others who were there corroborate Gerhard’s story. You’ll see lots of footnotes to show you where I’ve been in my research. These are the writers, historians and eye witnesses who will show us what it was really like.


This story begins with Gerhard’s birth March 11, 1911, but one has to go back a long way to understand not only the desperate straits the Mennonites and many other minorities were in at that time, but also the social and political convulsions brought about by a society in radical transition. There is no better way to understand Mennonites than to go all the way back to their beginnings and trace their steady march to oblivion.

What is a Mennonite? Where did they come from? Are Mennonites different from anyone else? These are simple questions. Who are you and where did you come from? For some Mennonites the answer to those questions was their death sentence, for others the difference between freedom and slavery.

Today Gerhard’s Journey jumps into a time machine and goes back to the beginning, where it all started: you can’t really understand Mennonites unless you go back in time. If you take the short view, you might not understand how Gerhard ended up working for the Nazis, but if you take the long view, a pattern begins to develop.


For much of 16th century Europe it would not have been wise to admit you were anything but a Catholic. Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, the Roman Empire was in its death throes and people were waking up from a great sleep. The invention of the printing press was like the invention of the internet today. It was bringing ideas and information to people who previously relied on others for the facts of the world. In the vacuum left by the Romans, princes were struggling for control of territories and peasants fought for higher wages and the right to travel. The concept of nationhood was in its infancy and questions were being asked about the Catholic church. One gutsy priest put all his issues down in writing and posted them on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. Martin Luther, a theology professor, composer, priest and former monk, made a lot of sense to a lot of people.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

He didn’t believe a person could have his or her sins forgiven simply by giving money to the church. He translated the Bible from Greek into German, wrote some hymns and thought it would be fine for people to sing in church. He believed the clergy could marry and still be true to the church. He also believed, and this really ticked off the pope, that the Bible should be “the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God.”[1] Until this time the church had been the sole provider of biblical information. Now anyone could read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. It is easy to imagine how many interpretations began to filter down to the masses. Luther was a fiery and convincing orator and his black and white view of the world appealed to many. Luther’s views spread so quickly that Pope Leo X had to issue an edict requiring Luther to back down from his ideas; Luther burned the edict publicly and fired back a passionate defense of his beliefs to the Pope. Those were heady times indeed.

Luther was excommunicated, declared an outlaw and a notorious heretic, his literature was banned and it was against the law to give him food or shelter. Anyone could kill him without consequences. Of course he went into hiding and reappeared a year later to admonish his supporters on core Christian values such as love, patience, charity, and freedom, and reminded the citizens to trust God’s word rather than violence to bring about necessary change.[2]  Luther said:

Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: “Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it.” But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear.[3]

Only too soon would Luther himself play the devil’s game. Luther opposed the Catholic ideas, but he also supported the authority of the state to maintain order. At first the peasants thought he would support their war against the aristocracy but when Luther saw the violence and destruction he called for the nobles to put down the rebels like mad dogs.[4]

Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel…

Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.[5]

In the end 100,000 peasants were dead, and Luther continued his fight against the state church by creating one of his own. Luther had begun what we call the Reformation.

Luther wasn’t the only wildcard in these early days. He had his Lutherans, John Calvin had his Calvinists, Ulrich Zwingli had his Zwinglians, the French had their Huguenots, and Jacob Hutter had his Hutterites: each with their own particular variations on Protestant beliefs. But there was one group of believers whose beliefs were more than variations, they were radical departures from the religious norm of even these tumultuous times. These were the hated Anabaptists.

Scholars today argue about the origin of Anabaptists. Some say they grew from a single source in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525, others say Anabaptism coalesced two years later when the leaders of various groups of believers gathered in Schleitheim, Switzerland to codify their beliefs in the Schleitheim Confession. Still others believe Anabaptist origins can be traced back through an unbroken chain of churches to John the Baptist.

Wherever they came from their message was well received. Anabaptists were everywhere: Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Czech.

anabaptist-drowning marie monjou

Drowning of Anabaptist Maria von Monjou, 1552

The most controversial belief of the Anabaptists was that members of the church should be baptized as adults and not as infants. Conrad Grebel was one of the original shapers of Anabaptism. He believed “…true faith … is not a matter of being born into a belief because of what your parents profess, or of having it imposed on you because you happen to live in a certain place. It is the voluntary community of believers who have freely entered it as responsible, thinking adults through the symbolic act of baptism. Thus, infant baptism is meaningless; the only true baptism has to come later, when the act can be understood as a conversion and as a true commitment to God.”[6]

The word “anabaptist” means to re-baptize; these re-baptizers believed the Catholic and Lutheran practice of baptizing babies was not only pointless, but unbiblical, therefore true Christians needed to be baptized again as adults. Luther did not take kindly to disagreement, especially on such a fundamental issue as baptism. Welcome to the Radical Reformation, courtesy of the Anabaptists. Whereas Luther believed church and state should be separate, but that citizens owed obligations to both, “Anabaptists denied any such obligation. As the self-proclaimed Elect of God, they acknowledged allegiance to no authority but their own: not to the city, not to the state and certainly not to any established Church, be it Roman or Lutheran.”[7] This Anabaptist/Mennonite tendency to place themselves on a separate and privileged pedestal is a part of the DNA, and time and again they have been bruised from the fall, only to climb the pedestal again.

Philip Melanchthon

Philip Melanchthon

Luther’s collaborator and Protestant forefather Philip Melanchthon believed all Anabaptists were to be treated with the utmost severity, no matter how blameless they might appear.[8] “Anabaptism was punished as a crime against the public, not because its faith was different, but because it (in Luther’s opinion) disturbed public order through sedition and blasphemy.”[9] And of course the same Luther who earlier fretted about playing the devil’s game was now captain of the team.

The Anabaptists also believed it was every Christian’s right to stand up and speak in a church meeting. It was not solely the domain of the clergy. Luther was so opposed to this practice that he said it came from “the pit of hell” and those who were guilty of it should be put to death.[10]

Zwingli was also an Anabaptist hater – he believed their attitude toward the state was impractical and arrogant. “Because they sinned as much as anyone else, Zwingli said they were not only impossibly self-righteous but hypocrites as well. Their emotional indulgence in religious ecstasy led them to ranting demonstrations of babbling idiocy.”[11]


Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer.

How radical were the Anabaptists? How high did they set the bar? Anabaptist Dirk Willems was condemned and “was held in a residential palace turned into a prison, from which he escaped using a rope made out of knotted rags. Using this, he was able to climb out of the prison onto the frozen moat. A guard noticed his escape and gave chase. Willems was able to traverse the thin ice of a frozen pond, the Hondegat, because of his lighter weight after subsisting on prison rations. However the pursuing guard broke through the ice yelling for help as he struggled in the icy water.” Willems turned back to save the life of his pursuer, thus being recaptured and held until he was burned at the stake near his hometown on 16 May 1569.[12]


Felix Manz

Felix Manz is considered to be the first Anabaptist martyr. In 1526 Zurich city council passed a law that re-baptizing was now a crime punishable by drowning. Ulrich Zwingli, who had his own followers, was a member of the city council and could not have appreciated the competition. Of course Manz would not back down and on March 15, 1526 he was put in a boat where the Limmat River flows calmly out of Lake Zurich along with his keepers and a Calvinist minister whose job it was to convince Manz to change his mind. But how could he, with his brother and mother on the riverbank encouraging him to suffer for Jesus’ sake?

“He was put into a boat on the river Limmat. His hands were tied, and he was made to squat down. A stick was stuck behind his knees and above his elbows to immobilize him, and he was taken to the middle of the river.

There, with his mother, brother, and his fellow “rebaptizers” (Anabaptists) shouting encouragement, he was tipped into the lake, a final death by baptism.”[13]

King Ferdinand of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia said the best antidote to Anabaptism is drowning. He called it the third baptism. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to cure the Anabaptist disease by ordering the extermination of every Anabaptist and re-baptized man and woman of the age of reason. According to The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 2, The Reformation, 1520-1559 by Geoffrey Rudolph Elton, 85 per cent of Anabaptist executions were carried out by Catholic authorities.




[1] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 3 vols., (St. Louis: CPH, 1959), 88, no. 269; M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944), 23, cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Martin_Luther, accessed September 1, 2017

[2] Brecht, Martin. (tr. Wolfgang Katenz) Luther, Martin, in Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 2:60. Richard Marius, Luther, London: Quartet, 1975, ISBN 0-7043-3192-6, 168–69. Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin, 1995, 165. Quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther

[3] Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol VII, Ch IV as quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther

[5] Jaroslav J. Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Pub. House and Fortress Press, 1955–1986), 46: 50–51. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Martin_Luther

[6] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 9 e-book edition.

[7] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 10 e-book edition.

[8] Oyer, John S., Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany, Springer, 1964.

[9] Köhler, Walther and Harold S. Bender. “Luther, Martin (1483-1546).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Luther,_Martin_(1483-1546)&oldid=145742.# Luther Favors the Execution of Anabaptists with the Sword, accessed September 1, 2017

[10] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/shockingbeliefsofmartinluther, August 5, 2015, accessed September 1, 2017

[11] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 11 e-book edition.

[12] Oyer, John S., Kreider, Robert (1995). “Compassion For The Enemy”. The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen College. Retrieved 2010-04-14. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Dirk_Willems, accessed September 1, 2017

[13] Pavao, Paul, “Felix Manz: Anabaptist Radical Reformer and Martyr,” Christian History for Everyman. Greatest Stories Ever Told. 2014. http:// http://www.christian-history.org/felix-manz-martyrdom.html, accessed September 1, 2017


3 thoughts on “Ep. 2 The madness begins

  1. Pingback: Oh, look. Another Disillusioned Mennonite

  2. It’s really hard to give a good sense of the ethos of the sixteenth century in a short amount of space. Especially for a very general audience. I applaud you for trying. It is very difficult for anyone in the modern world to understand something like infant baptism as being a cause worth dying for. As you’ve portrayed it, this is much the same as the history I learned in Mennonite school (though I’m not sure how the fall of the Roman Empire fits in here). It very much emphasizes leaders. One of the challenges in the more recent scholarship is making sense of evidence suggesting that Anabaptism is better understood as a popular movement or movements than as something that can be understood by looking strictly at the leaders. This is again difficult because it is hard for us to put our heads in a place that was so impassioned about matters of religion.

    Liked by 1 person

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