Ep. 18 Mennonites embrace the German Army

Vladimir Lenin, the new ruler of Russia, found himself fighting two separate wars: a world war including Canadian and American soldiers in Siberia and a civil war which included everyone else in Russia. He called time-out on the world war to focus on the shambles at home. In the ensuing peace treaty he lost Russia’s claims to Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania and a province in the Caucasus.

Regions Russia lost in the Treaty_Brest-Litovsk with Gerhard

Russia’s losses in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

By the time Lenin withdrew from World War One, the German army had churned through the Mennonite villages in Khortitsa and Molochna, if not most Mennonite villages in Ukraine including Gerhard’s village of Nikolaipol.

One might well wonder what welcome an armed force would receive when it came face to face with a city of purported pacifists, people who enshrined non-violence in their confession of faith five hundred years earlier, people who were incapable of spilling human blood. Would they shun the soldiers? Turn their backs? Would the Stille im Lande people remain “in the world but not of the world?” I guess you had to be there to know what really happened on the afternoon of April 19, 1918 when two German officers arrived in Halbstadt to let the residents know a company of German soldiers would arrive shortly.[1]

Large crowds had gathered at the train station to greet the new arrivals, delayed for several hours, they learned, by a tumultuous welcome in the [Mennonite] village of Lichtenau. When the train arrived in Halbstadt at 5:30 p.m., cheering onlookers waved an overjoyed welcome.[2]

The cause of the delay in Lichtenau? The execution of three Ukrainian prisoners in full view of the jubilant throng.[3]

We are German

Abraham Friesen, in his 2006 exposé of Mennonite privilege in Russia, quotes Peter Braun’s assessment of the arrival of German troops in the Mennonite villages: “Our joy was certainly sincere and our welcome of them heartfelt.” “… we showed them all the love and friendliness of which we were capable.”[4]

It is hard to believe that the man [Peter J. Braun, see Episode 17] who seven years earlier tried to convince the tsar of Mennonites’ Dutch ancestry would now write this in his personal correspondence: “Nevertheless, we had achieved inner clarity as to who we really were. In spite of being separated from the German race all these years, we have drunk the last dregs of suffering. Whatever may come, this recognized truth has profoundly penetrated our consciousness, and we both desire and intend to cherish and assert our Deutschtum (Germaness) now more than ever…[5]

At the height of their despair, however, the political winds began to shift: the Romanov dynasty fell from power and was replaced by a provisional government. In 1918 German armies moved into Ukraine; suddenly Mennonites were Germans.[6]

Whatever respect Russians favourably disposed to them still had for the Mennonites now was gone.[7]

The reader may now take a moment to pick his or her jaw from the floor. Jubilation? Cherish and assert our German-ness? That’s a far cry from “in our blood flows not a single drop of German blood.” The Dutch gambit was a sham. What credibility remained for the Mennonites? Who could now take them seriously? As a group, they had exposed their true nature, not only to the government officials, but to their Ukrainian and Russian neighbours. If ever there was a time to return the name of Menno Simons to others more worthy, surely this was it. At some level Mennonite clergy/industrial/estate leadership must have known the slide into oblivion had begun.

Cossacks on patrol

Hell’s Angels on patrol.

They had been on the slippery slope for some time. After the 1905 revolution estate owners used Cossacks as security guards. Think Hell’s Angels on horses.

Although their [Cossacks] bravery and loyalty were admired by the ruling establishment, they were feared by peasants and workers because of their brutality in the suppression of any kind of opposition to the establishment and they were infamous for their antisemitism.[8]

These guards could beat and even kill for such minor offences as unauthorized pasturing on estate lands.  Sometimes, Mennonites themselves meted out justice.  Urry and Loewen write that, “Landowners, usually with the acquiescence of the local authorities and police, hunted down horse thieves, tracking suspects to villages…”[9]

Sometimes houses, and even whole villages, were burned in retribution.  Set into this context the slide into armed “self-defense” was not a “peculiar aberration” of the civil war but rather an extension of pre-existing practices.[10]


Lenin assassination attempt

Assassination attempt on Lenin.

To call the political landscape unfolding in 1917 chaotic would be a gross understatement. The Bolshevik party had snatched power in a bloodless coup, but now the heavy lifting was to occur and blood was sure to flow. After an assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, the Bolsheviks redoubled their efforts, and the period became known as the Red Terror. Party leaders called for “merciless mass terror against all opponents of the revolution.” Thereafter the secret police, then known as the Cheka, executed many thousands simply by virtue of their social status. If you owned land, if you were educated, if you were a professional, if you were a civil servant, if your hands were soft…no questions were asked. The head of the Cheka said: “We stand for organized terror, this should be frankly admitted. We judge quickly… Do not think that I seek forms of revolutionary justice—we are not in need of justice now; this is war…”[11]

But it is one thing to snatch power and quite another to gain control. Bolsheviks needed an army. When the supply of workers volunteering to fight evaporated, peasants were conscripted, often at gunpoint.[12] This became the Red Army.

They were not without their opponents.

A loose confederation of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Communist government, including landowners, republicans, conservatives, middle-class citizens, reactionaries, pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals, non-Bolshevik socialists who still had grievances and democratic reformists united only in their opposition to Bolshevik rule. [13]

These became the White Army led by General Lavr Kornilov. Having neglected their pacifism, it’s easy to see which side the Mennonites would support.

There were other armies too, such as the Green Army, also composed of armed peasants who spent a lot of time hiding in the forest, hence their name, and the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine, led by the Mennonites’ arch-nemesis Nestor Makhno. The German army was still in town. In fact, the German army had also reached Gerhard’s region with the Austro-Hungarian Second Army Corp driving through to Taganrog and Rostov by May 8, 1918.

The south of the country sank into total chaos. Active in this region were the troops of the Directory, volunteer officer units, Bolshevik units, military revolutionary committees, large insurgent groups (Makhno, Hryhoriiv), and hundreds of small groupings of peasants, bands of deserters, self-defense units created by German settlers, Entente troops, and the remaining German and Austro-Hungarian garrisons waiting to go home.[14]

Many Mennonites believed the German army had arrived by divine intervention. “This was a most welcome period of peace, a breathing space sent by God.”[15] Just who were these bringers of peace sent by God? A good example of the nature of the German army occurred near Taganrog, 50 kilometres from where seven-year-old Gerhard and his family were tending their cattle and growing their crops.


The battle in the Mius Estuary. The black lines represent the German forces.

On June 11, 1918 the Red Army landed 8,000 men on a narrow finger of land in the River Mius estuary to retake Taganrog and Rostov [47°14’20.04″N, 38°39’26.48″E]. Instead of withdrawing, Colonel Arthur Bopp and 4,000 members of the 52nd Württemberg Landwehr Brigade and the 7th Bavarian Cavalry Brigade surprise attacked. In disarray, the Red Army could only rescue between 1,000-2,000 of its soldiers from the peninsula. Bopp ordered his men to shoot all prisoners and kept only ten for interrogation after which they too were shot. There is little doubt civilians, women and children were also among those shot and buried quickly “due to the warm temperatures.” Concerns in Germany about war crimes on the battlefield forced Col. Bopp to explain his behavior, which his superiors found to be “not only humane and completely legal but also militarily necessary and correct.”[16]

Mennonites so loved having an army at their service they decided to get one for themselves. Stay tuned.



[1] Klippenstein, Lawrence, The Selbstschutz: A Mennonite Army in Ukraine 1918-1919, Dnipropetrovsʹkyĭ nat︠s︡ionalʹnyĭ universytet im. Olesi︠a︡ Honchara, 2007, p. 175.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lohrenz, Gerhard, Storm Tossed – The Personal Story of a Canadian Mennonite from Russia, Winnipeg, Man., published by the author, 1976, p.11, quoted in Chipman, Josephine, page 99.

[4] 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 277.

[5] Friesen, op. cit., page 276.

[6] Friesen, op. cit., page 271.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Loewen, Helmut-Harry, and Urry, James, Protecting Mammon. Some dilemmas of Mennonite Non-resistance in late Imperial Russia and the origins of the Selbstschutz, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 9, 1991.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Patterson, Sean David, The Makhnos of Memory: Mennonite and Makhnovist Narratives of the Civil War in Ukraine, 1917-1921, M.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2013, page 93.

[11] Excerpt from an interview with Felix Dzerzhinsky published in Novaia Zhizn on 14 July 1918, quoted in Lenin and the Use of Terror Some Important Quotations, http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Quotes/leninkeyquotes.htm  accessed November 9, 2016.

[12] Williams, Beryl, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (1987), ISBN 978-0-631-15083-1, ISBN 0-631-15083-8: Typically, men of conscriptable age (17–40) in a village would vanish when Red Army draft units approached. The taking of hostages and a few summary executions usually brought the men back. Quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Russian_Civil_War#/Creation_of_the_Red_Army. Accessed August 23, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dornik, Wolfram, Kasianov, Georgiy, Leidinger, Hannes, Lieb, Peter, Miller, Alexei, Musial, Bogdan, Rasevych, Vasyl, The Emergence of Ukraine Self-Determination, Occupation and war in Ukraine 1917-1922, Translated from the German by Gus Fagan, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, University of Toronto Toronto, ON, page 116.

[15] Dick, Bernhard J., Something About the ‘Selbstschutz’ of the Mennonites of South Russia, pg 136 JMS Vol 4, 1986.

[16] Dornik, op. cit., pages 173-179.