Ep. 19 An Army of Mennonites???

The period of peace generated by the German army was brief and reserved only for the German settlers. Mennonites made the most of it. At a cost of 300 truckloads of grain per day, the Ukrainian government asked the Germans to stay after Russia withdrew from the world war to help keep the Red Army out. While Ukrainians no doubt resented sending their grain to Germany, how much greater must have been their resentment on seeing the penal missions of the German army, often led by Mennonites, as they attempted to recover their belongings from the peasants?

The peasants wished they would have the chance to keep everything they had gotten from their wealthier neighbours. It was so nice to sleep on these cozy pillows, the like of which they never had before. And it was so bright by the light of these good kerosene lamps … And these good horses, it was such a pleasure to work the fields with them … the most bitter anger [a peasant] felt was when the former rich landowner came accompanied with foreign soldiers and demanded his property back … Not only the livestock, but all other articles had to be returned. It seemed funny at times to see and hear how these rich women went to the houses of the poor and demanded back their pillows, lamps, chickens, pets and jars. Here is where the real hatred was engendered … We, including myself, did not realize that by being tolerant and willing to part with some of our earthly possessions, we could perhaps have saved many lives later on.[1]

John Xydias, a Russified Greek capitalist then resident in Odessa reports:

The reprisal expeditions were marked by hangings and shootings. Executions dispensed with any sort of proceedings; the venom of the landlords cared not a jot for it, and the German officers gladly washed their hands of any show of a trial. They shot and hanged without any pretense of trial, often not even bothering to check the identity of the ‘defendant.’ The landlord or his agent had merely to declare that such and such a peasant had been involved in confiscation of his estates for the ‘culprit’ to be summarily executed’. Victims of this Austro-German repression included [Nestor] Makhno’s mother, whose house was burned, and his invalid brother, Emilian, who was executed in front of his children. While thousands were shot or hanged, others, such as the Jewish activist Lioba Gorelik, were beaten to death.[2]

The real issue underlying the differences between Ukrainian peasants and German settlers was land, and Mennonites had plenty of it. These peasants were descendants of Cossacks and had always “regarded the Mennonites as invading colonists who had taken their land on the heels of Tsarism.”[3] The average peasant landholding in pre-revolutionary Ukraine was 16 hectares with the poor holding far less.[4]  The average kulak landholding was 26-30 hectares [like Gerhard’s family], while Mennonite colonists often owned farms of 176 hectares or more.[5] Peasant landholdings in Mennonite regions were much lower than in the rest of Ukraine, averaging 8.9 hectares per household in 1908. One third of peasant households farmed less than one hectare.[6]


Mennonite Selbstschutz unit2

A company of the Mennonite militia – the Selbstschutz from the villages of Blumenort, Tiege, and Ohrloff, ca. 1918. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives. This is the only picture of the Mennonite army to be found on the internet.

Within four days of the German army arriving in Halbstadt [47°12’27.38″N, 35°35’49.06″E], Molochna’s “capital city,” Mennonites had organized an armed defense unit called the Selbstschutz (means self-defense) and by May 18, 1918 four more villages in Molochna colony also had their own armed units. Mennonites shed their nonresistant principles as quickly as they shed their Dutch heritage.

Even before German troops arrived, Mennonite emissaries contacted the German army and requested weapons. Now Mennonites had all the weapons they wanted, and professional military training.

By the end of June German military officials were demanding to know whether the Mennonites would raise a defense force and if not they were to offer “the names of all congregations which opposed this military measure in any way.”[7] The squeeze was on.

Gerhards Journey Google Earth

Readers: I have included the coordinates of most places on Gerhard’s Journey. Many no longer exist or exist under different names. Follow along on your own map or pop the coordinates into the Google Earth search bar and you’ll be on your way.

You might wonder where the Mennonite leadership stood on pacifists raising an army. Mennonite leaders met for three days in the village of Lichtenau and debated new testament Christianity versus old testament Christianity while German officers guarded the doors. G. Rempel pointed out it was only because of their privileges they could claim to be pacifists. They had never seriously considered the thought of suffering or martyrdom.[8] At the end of the conference, in typical Mennonite fashion, there was no agreement. Those who still felt a twinge in their Menno Simons gene could decide for themselves.[9]

All men between the ages of 19 and 25 were to report for drilling exercises and in some villages men up to the age of 40 also volunteered.[10] “On the village green there were drills in the German fashion: the various weapons which could be found were shouldered. German officers, non-commissioned officers, sergeants and other adventurers drilled our lads to their hearts’ content, whereby the German anthem was sung with great enthusiasm…”[11]

A cavalry unit of 10-12 men and a machine gun unit stood guard in every village, with the Germans supplying guns and ammunition.[12]

General Erich von Ludendorff

General Erich von Ludendorff

In the evenings the soldiers played music and danced and performed acrobatic feats in honour of General Erich von Ludendorff, leader of the German war effort in World War One. Everyone was entertained as noted by diarists Dyck and Baerg:

The civilians [Mennonites] took part in these activities enthusiastically… I am not aware that any cultural activities took place. The most important thing was to drink beer, which our youth were thoroughly introduced to…[13]

What must the Germans think of us? A number of important people have already criticized the conduct of our girls with the German officers. The noble and true womanly pride seems to have been lost in this generation of women … That has been proven by the latest Ludendorf [sic] festival (At present there are a great many of these so-called Ludendorf [sic] festivals in Russia, given by the German soldiers in order to raise spirits. Their success has been enormous. The major ingredients of these festivals are marching music, soccer, and dancing.) There are probably lots of Mennonite women who don’t take part, and perhaps the above mentioned are only the sad exceptions. Nevertheless, the disgrace seems to fall on all.[14]

Mennonites had given up the last characteristic that could have distinguished them from other German settlers, their  refusal to bear arms, stubbornly preserved over the centuries, and these folks were wallowing in the shame of beer drinking and dancing.

In the village of Tiege in the Zagradovka colony, A.A. Wiens reports:

In the month of May in the village meadow, the first big target practice by Mennonite youth took place. But there was no work for this Selbstschutz. Why, the Germans were there. Over the summer it stayed peaceful. [15]

Josephine Chipman, in her 1988 master’s thesis, asks the one question that seems to have eluded everyone:

…if the Selbstschutz was purely defensive in character, as many Mennonites claimed, why was it necessary to begin organizing and training it during the German Occupation? Given the welcome they extended to the Occupation troops, it would seem that many, if not most, of the Mennonites believed that the Germans were in the Ukraine to stay. Why then the need for “self-defense”?[16]

Abraham Friesen, In Defense of Privilege, provides the answer.

The decision to form a Selbstschutz caused considerable internal dissention and turmoil in the colonies; its actions, however, destroyed Mennonite credibility in regard to their repeated assertions to both the Tsarist and provisional governments that they would sooner suffer violence than inflict it; that no matter what happened, they refused to shed human blood. Indeed, said the Russians, Mennonites refused to shed their blood in defense of the motherland which they claimed to love so fervently; but in defense of family and property they had no qualms whatsoever about shedding blood. Their nonresistance was as much of a sham as had been their “Dutch argument.” They really were Germans, and bloodthirsty ones at that; sons of wealthy land owners fighting for privileged status in an alien land.”[17]



[1] Schroeder, George P., Miracles of Grace and Judgement, Lodi, California, by the author, 1974, quoted in Chipman, Josephine, The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine 1918-19, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, 1988, page 100.

[2] Skirda, A. (2004) Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, Trans. P. Sharkey, Edinburgh & Oakland, CA: AK Press. Quoted in Foster, Wayne, The Makhnovists and the Mennonites: war and peace in the Ukrainian Revolution, blog post May 25, 2011, https://libcom.org/history/makhnovists-mennonites-war-peace-ukrainian-civil-war, Accessed October 18, 2016.

[3] Patterson, Sean, Makhnovists and Mennonites: Intersecting Histories, Unacquainted Narratives (unpublished paper) presented to the East European Genealogical Society, Winnipeg, Manitoba, October 21, 2009.

[4] Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), page 122 quoted in Patterson, op. cit.

[5] Darch, The Makhnovshchina, p. 144; Gerhard Lohrenz, Fire Over Zagradovka (Steinbach: Gerhard Lohrenz, 1983), p. 21 quoted in Patterson, Makhnovists and Mennonites, op. cit.

[6] Darch, The Makhnovshchina, p. 144 quoted in Patterson, Makhnovists and Mennonites.

[7] Minutes of these proceedings reprinted in John Toews, ed. Selected Documents: The Mennonites in Russia from 1917-1930 (Winnipeg, MB: Christian Press, 1975, 406, quoted in Klippenstein, L. The Selbstschutz: A Mennonite Army in Ukraine 1918-19, Dnipropetrovsʹkyĭ nat︠s︡ionalʹnyĭ universytet im. Olesi︠a︡ Honchara, page 178.

[8] Klippenstein, Lawrence, op. cit., page 179.

[9] This meant that participants in the Selbstschutz would not be punished. Punishment in the Mennonite social structure included banishment and excommunication thereby hindering the recipient’s ability to survive.

[10] “Hier Kurz Etwas”, B.B. Janz papers quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 109.

[11] Epp, J.P. The Mennonite Selbstschutz in the Ukraine – An Eyewitness Account, Introduction and translation by J.B. Toews, Mennonite Life, July 1971, page 139.

[12] Klippenstein, op. cit., page 176.

[13] From the diary of Peter J. Dyck, July 4, 1918, edited by John P. Dyck and published as  Troubles and Triumphs 1914-1924: Excerpts from the Diary of Peter J. Dyck, Ladekopp, Molotschna Colony, Ukraine, 1981 quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 110.

[14] Baerg diary entry July 23, 1918 quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 111.

[15] Letter from A.A. Wiens to B.B. Janz, Anfang des mennonitischen Selbstschutzes wie ich ihn miterlebte, B.B. Janz papers as quoted in Chipman, op. cit., page 110.

[16] Chipman, op. cit., page 104.

[17] Friesen, Abraham, In Defense of Privilege – Russian Mennonites and the State Before and during WWI., Kindred Productions, Winnipeg and Hillsboro, Historical Commission of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2006, page 282.

4 thoughts on “Ep. 19 An Army of Mennonites???

  1. Pardon my ignorance:
    Is this a commonly known narrative (self-defense) of the Mennonites within the Mennonite world? Is it being taught anywhere, churches or schools?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Among Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1920s, the story is very well-known – at least among Mennonites who know anything of their history. The Churches with large numbers of Mennonites from this migration expected the men who fought in the Selbstschutz to repent. It wasn’t a dirty little secret so much as a deep shame – this is the shame that is speaking even in some of the quotes cited here. It could be argued that the blame for the Selbstschutz should be broader and cultural and that the young men alone shouldn’t have had to bear all of the blame for failing to live up to the pacifist ideals. But it is not the case that there was no communal soul-searching whatsoever. I expect it might have been different for the Mennonites and former-Mennonites who stayed in the USSR as their communities were broken apart and they couldn’t come together communally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree the Selbstschutzlers themselves shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, or even most of it. Mennonite leadership needs to wear that. Mennonites have compromised their pacifism in a number of ways wherever they have gone and still maintain it is a core belief. The Selbstschutz was not just a one-time boo-boo never to be repeated, but simply another step in the path to the militarism that came so easily a few years later. How do you roll that back to pacifism?


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