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Trading Our Birthright

by Berry Friesen (May 5, 2017)

(The third of three posts inspired by my recent travel in Poland)

“How many Mennonites live there today?”  is the usual response when I describe my recent travels to northern Poland, site of history's broadest and most sustained effort by Mennonites (apart from the Netherlands) to live as an identifiable faith community.

“Zero,” is my sad reply; “Mennonites have not lived in northern Poland since 1945.”

Here’s the skinny.  In 1945, Soviet armies swept through Poland, pushing back the occupying Nazi German forces.  Most of the 10,000 Mennonites who had lived in northern Poland moved west with the retreating German army; others fled north across the Baltic Sea to reach safety in Scandinavian lands.  Soviet forces took some into custody and deported them to labor camps in Siberia; a few were granted refugees status and resettled in other countries during the years after the war.

Thus ended the 400+ year presence of Mennonites in Poland.

This raises more questions.  How did Mennonites living in northern Poland become so strongly identified with Germany?  Why did the defeat of the Nazis make Mennonite existence in Poland untenable?

Such questions require chapter-length answers, such as you will find in Peter J. Klassen’s Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia, published in 2009, John Friesen's "Mennonites in Poland:  An Expanded Historical View," published in 1986, and Mark Jantzen's Mennonite German Soldiers, published in 2010. But I’ll make a small start.

1. Starting in the 1530s, several ethnic/cultural streams created the Mennonite community in Poland.  The largest contingent—perhaps half—consisted of Dutch and Flemish Anabaptists fleeing persecution from what today are the Netherlands and Belgium.  Smaller contingents of Anabaptists came from Switzerland, Austria, Moravia and Germany.  Over time, Anabaptist-minded Poles, Prussians and Lithuanians also joined, as did some Swedes.

Together, these disparate peoples developed a common “Mennonite” culture rooted in distinctive religious practices (no infant baptism, no participation in the military, no oaths) and a shared dialect of the German language.

2.  The peculiar (some would say obnoxious) religious practices of these Mennonites fostered a marginal social identity and continuous friction with the authorities (kings, princes, Lutheran and Catholic bishops, civic burghers, guild leaders). Although occasionally this friction resulted in the eviction of the Mennonites from one geographic area or another, generally what saved the day was the fact that Mennonite economic productivity put money in the pockets of the ruling classes.  This stasis held for over 300 years, from the 1530s until well into the 1800s.

3. During the 19th century, following Napoleon’s wars, a new political paradigm became dominant in Europe.  Large nation-states replaced the patchwork of smaller kingdoms. Universal military service became the norm.  People began to think of themselves as individuals with rights, existing as citizens within egalitarian political structures.

As these identities became paramount, other group-based identities (such as church) became secondary.

Poland did not exist as an independent state during the 19th century.  At the same time, German statelets were merging into a centralized government and one particular statelet—Prussia—became dominant. A portion of the Mennonite community (my ancestors included) emigrated to Russia early during this era, hoping to escape the demands of a nationalistic, centralized state; other Mennonites emigrated to the US.

The Mennonites who stayed in northern Poland adapted to the new paradigm, which by 1868 included compulsory military training and service (albeit with the option of not bearing arms). Mennonite men began to think of themselves as “German” in a broad sense and as autonomous individuals in a narrow sense, capable of deciding for themselves whether to serve the state in a combatant or a noncombatant role.  Yes, they continued to be “Mennonite,” but the relevance and authority of that identity began to recede.

4.  During World War 1, two-thirds of Mennonite men reportedly participated in the German army as combatants, one-third as noncombatants.

Famously, the clergy of Danzig selected a Mennonite pastor, H. G. Mannhardt, to speak to the public at the dawn of that war.  Mannhardt described the war as a “struggle for liberty” against the unjust hostility of enemies filled with “envy and hatred” and “destructive rage” against a righteous Germany.  He expressed gratitude to God for the German nation and called upon his audience to be ready to fight and die for the fatherland.

5. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) recognized Poland as a major nation-state.  However, as a way to “settle” competing Polish and German claims, it placed Danzig and the Vistula River Delta under the authority of the League of Nations.  Mennonites living on the Delta strongly supported German rule.  When Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 and promised to bring Danzig and the Vistula River Delta back under German control, Mennonites were pleased.

When World War 2 came along, Mennonite men expressed their German identity by joining the war effort as military combatants.  Six years later, when the war was in its final stage and the Soviet army rolled west through Poland, there was little doubt about the “identity” of Mennonites:  they were active supporters of the Nazis.

With all of this in mind, visiting Danzig (now called Gdansk) and the Delta was for me a melancholy experience.  In part, the melancholy was related to mistakes Mennonites made, mistakes that eventually led to their departure.  And in part, the melancholy was related to similar mistakes we Mennonites are making now here in the US.

Of course, today we are even further along the road Mennonites in northern Poland began walking in the 19th century.  Like them, most of us are convinced national identity is important; we are proud of our American citizenship and believe our government’s purposes and methods are generally well-intentioned and deserve our support.  Even more than they, we are apt to see our personal identities as fundamental.  Thus, we describe ourselves in terms of gender or genderlessness, race, sexual orientation, political preference, educational and professional achievement, musical and artistic tastes, all cherished aspects of our individualized identity projects.

As for religious faith, we have come to see it primarily as an adjunct to these personal projects. “Church” is important and good so long as it provides a spacious canopy to affirm the identities and lifestyles we have constructed.  Yes, we accept its role in challenging us to live out our identities with greater love and integrity, but rarely do we recognize its authority to call us to a new way of living.

Religion aside, my forbearers from the 16th - 18th centuries would have been astonished by the naiveté of our worldview.  They understood the arbitrary authority and the deception of the ruling powers; further, they understood their own vulnerability (physically, emotionally, spiritually) as individuals vis-a-vis those powers.  And they recognized the potential of faith-based communities to create an alternative social and political reality, one strong enough to endure state oppression and the travails of life, yet truthful enough to create the conditions for shalom.

Nevertheless, over time, they gave up their birthright (see Genesis 25:29-34) in order to become free and autonomous citizens of Germany.  Aren’t we doing this again, here in the USA?