new Mennonite Life logo    September 2004     vol. 59 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Not Totally With Honor: US Mennonite Church Responses to Soviet Repression

by Levi Miller

Levi Miller is director of Herald Press, a division of Mennonite Publishing Network. A new edition of his book "Our People: The Amish and Mennonites of Ohio" was published in 2004. The research for this article was done in preparation for a conference called "Khortitsa 99" which was convened in the Ukraine in May of 1999.

As a young person in the 1950s, I recall reading a story by Barbara Smucker called Henry's Red Sea. It was a moving story of how Mennonites had fled the Soviet Union during the end of the Second World War. They were trapped in Berlin, hoping to escape to the West and eventually to Paraguay.

In the story, the Mennonite exiles hold a worship service and Peter Dyck, their leader, prays, "Help us to forgive the communists of Russia, to love them as Christ commanded us to love our enemies." The young protagonist "caught his breath when he heard these words. They were the reason why Grandma prayed for the soldier who shot Grandfather. She was trying to love and forgive an enemy." His grandmother then read the story of how God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea to freedom. This was the story of Mennonite colonists from the Ukraine who had retreated with Hitler's armies in the 1940s at the close of the Second World War and then were trapped in the Soviet sector of Berlin.(1)

Prior to this story appearing in print in the mid-fifties, it had traveled widely in storytelling to large Mennonite audiences. Paul Toews observes that "Nothing so dramatically indicated the American interest in the well-being and experience of the Russian, Danzig, and Polish Mennonites as the speaking tour of Peter and Elfrieda Dyck in the fall of 1947." The Dycks spoke to around forty-five thousand people in the United States and roughly sixty thousand in Canada.(2)

This Second World War story was written during the beginnings of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War, which lasted for most of the second half of this century, is the context for this study on American Mennonite responses to Soviet repression.

The story was published in 1955, two years after the death of Premier Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in the United States. The Soviet Union was in the middle of major leadership change, and the United States was at the height of its anticommunist efforts. The next year, US Mennonite Harold S. Bender and Canadian Mennonite David B. Wiens made a goodwill trip to the Soviet Union in order to try to visit and help their co-religionists. But they had little success and much disappointment because they could not visit a single Mennonite settlement in the Soviet Union.(3)

How did a small religious group in the United States respond to the Soviet repression of their co-religionists during the Cold War?(4) The primary group studied here is the Mennonite Church (MC), also called the "Old" Mennonites, distinct from the Mennonite Brethren and the General Conference Mennonite Church, both of which had many members whose families had emigrated from Russia and the Ukraine. This Mennonite Church group of Swiss and South German European origins had lived in the United States mainly east of the Mississippi River for over two centuries. If Henry's Red Sea, this children's story of heroic escape, is representative of mid-century interest in and empathy for the plight of the Mennonites in the Soviet Union, it would not eventually carry the day through the second half of the century. American Mennonites had deep feelings for the thousands who were killed or exiled within the Soviet Union during the first half of the century, and their relief effort response led to the formation of the largest service organization among them--Mennonite Central Committee. But during the second half of the century it was harder to respond: fewer people could emigrate; the Soviet Union was a closed society to Americans, and the Mennonite co-religionists seemed far away. Furthermore, church peace leaders revised their understandings on how to respond.

By the sixties and seventies, the reality for many MCs changed. The suffering of the Mennonites now became understandable, if not justified. From sympathy with the plight of the "suffering brethren" in Russia, the interpretation was transformed to view them more as cautionary lessons on what happens to people when they become too rich or choose the wrong side of a political argument. Thus, in Lenin's famous omelet image, the Mennonites became a part of the eggs, which needed to be broken. The facts were quite well known about the suffering of the Mennonites, but the mood in the country, especially among students and the academy, had changed.

The views of the MCs were not inconsequential to the larger international Mennonite community because they viewed themselves as the main carriers of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement out of which Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish emerged. Although all the groups made these claims, the MCs in the United States had in Harold S. Bender a scholar and leader who was the president of the American Society of Church History. His address "The Anabaptist Vision" in 1943 profoundly shaped the Mennonite world during the second half of the century. They had the largest institutions and resources to make the claim that they were the main carriers of Christian discipleship, community, nonresistant agape love.(5)

Increasingly the view was that the Russian Mennonites had received what they deserved. If they suffered, one had to understand the reasons for this suffering. One reason was that the colonists in these areas had become too rich; second, they had become complacent in regards to their spiritual lives; third, they had been sympathetic to the Nazis when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union during the Second World War; fourth, they had left nonresistance or pacifism during the twenties and had formed Mennonite self defense groups, thus joining in the civil war; and finally, the Mennonites had been arrogant or racist in considering themselves superior to their neighbors.(6)

In 1984 some Canadian Mennonites made a movie, And When They Shall Ask, as an attempt to explain to future generations the experience in the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The movie was widely shown in Mennonite communities in the Unites States as well. Although the film is nuanced and gives voice to many stories, one woman expressed regret and guilt toward the way the Mennonites behaved, saying "They [Mennonites] all got servants from the Russians and they should have evangelized them all. And they didn't. They let them be servants and did not even treat them like a Christian should many times."(7) This woman shared both streams of the Mennonite guilt: lack of Christian evangelism and lack of social justice.

A generation later my niece Sarah Kratzer remembers seeing the film as an elementary student in Kidron, Ohio. It was an "exotic, scary tale about people who were obviously in great danger (the little peasant girl underneath the wagon and her doll haunted me for days), but certainly I didn't identify with the people or feel a spiritual kinship with them. I also remember my mother reflecting on how the Mennonites in Russia had gotten so wealthy and unconcerned about their neighbors that 'their peasants literally ran them off their lands.' In my mind, I imagined a scenario resembling a slave revolt in the Deep South before the American Civil War, the slaves running their hated white masters off the plantation."(8)

Although the MCs did not make many political statements prior to the Second World War period, some difference is seen in their references to the democratic West and Soviet communism by the end of the 1940s. They are increasingly seen as morally equivalent. To what extent the American Mennonites had been influenced by the Soviets having become allies with the Western democracies in defeating Germany and Japan is probably not known. But in 1947, Gospel Herald, the weekly of the Mennonite Church, would carry an editorial called "Love the Russians," in which it is acknowledged that the Soviet Regime was "terribly wicked… as many of our Mennonite people have known and even now know by experience." But after acknowledging that "the Bolshevists did murder hundreds and exile thousands of people whose only crime was their Christian faith," a lengthy paragraph defends the principles of communism with this conclusion. "But communism as an economic order, detached from all political association, need not rouse even the protest of Christians… The Christian Church might live as freely in a communistic order as in a capitalistic order." The editorial brings Anabaptist and biblical support for this conclusion. The Hutterites are a spiritually related group, and "we have not condemned our Hutterian brethren as being unchristian in their denial to the right of private property. In fact, when we read New Testament commands that tell us to put the welfare of our brother ahead of our own, we may have difficulty in defending the principles and methods of our accepted economic order."(9)

By 1965 the minutes of the MC Peace Problems Committee had moved beyond moral equivalence of two economic systems to seeing anticommunism in the United States as the problem.(10) Now the warnings were against aligning with the anti-Communists. Such views may have had some rationale given the broad brush with which U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy had painted communist influence in the United States. But the net effect of being against anticommunism was that it left little room to criticize the atrocities which Communists had committed. Now the language of Hitler--the strongest symbol of evil in the 20th century--was applied to anticommunism as fascism.

In 1961 and 1962, both the General Conference and the Mennonite Church made statements on communism and anticommunism. Although these were not boilerplate statements of the political left, what stands out in viewing them today is how much they attempt to be even handed in approaching and evaluating the two parties. Coming out of a free church tradition, the attempt is not to align the church with any political structures and ideologies. The majority of the Mennonite Church resolution dealt with anti-communism, stating that "although we teach and warn against atheistic communism we cannot be involved in any anti-communistic crusade which takes the form of a 'holy war.'"

If there was any question as to the intent, "our word of warning must go out particularly against current use of the pulpit, radio, and the religious press, in the name of Christianity, for this purpose." Nonresistant Christians "must be clearly and unequivocally divorced from any and all advocacy of force and violence, either physical or intellectual."(11) True pacifism moved to the intellectual level and would not even think negative thoughts toward Russian communism. I recently reviewed the Mennonite community magazine Christian Living which during the sixties had many Soviet family articles--portraying these households as a healthy Russian edition of Good Housekeeping. The net effect was to see the two systems as having a moral parity and politically to align the denominational leadership with the anti-anticommunism movement of the latter half of the century.

If an American Mennonite oral tradition has it that the Mennonites in the Soviet Union may have deserved a good part of their sufferings, a review of every issue of the Gospel Herald, the weekly publication for the Mennonite Church, found no evidence of such direct blame during this period.(12) Rather, the paper showed much sympathy towards the Russian Mennonites in the years after World War II when many were trapped in Germany. What such a study also reveals, however, is that what is printed about communism, wealth, the Cold War, social justice and revolution provided a climate to keep the oral tradition alive and well. What follows are examples of these views.

On a personal level, Gospel Herald readers were encouraged to respond to communism in their prayer life. Laura Showalter, in a lesson on how to pray for people or things they were against, used as an example of bad prayer one that asked God to stop communism or to bring trouble to them. "Turn them back from their purpose of disturbing our peace and prosperity" was not a good way to pray about the communists, counseled Showalter.(13)

Because of the concern that anti-communism could lead to militant actions and out of a desire to keep all attitude as loving and peaceful as possible, MC leaders in the United States tried to recognize the best in communist ideology and practice.

J. Lawrence Burkholder, professor of Bible and philosophy at Goshen College, was even convinced that the church had some work to do to catch up with communism. "Communism has spread because of its concern for economic justice.… As Christians we must become more critical of our own economic and social practices…. Are we really prepared to show the world what is the Christian answer to the problem of economic injustice?"(14)

In the same way that an earlier generation had used an idealized and theoretical Anabaptism as a standard against which to measure the contemporary Mennonite Church, so an idealized Communism was used as a standard against which to measure the Western democracies. Economics professor Carl Kreider spelled out five things that communism stood for that made it so successful and attractive to people in the Third World countries: peace, land to the farmer, the end of colonialism, economic development, and promise of political power. Kreider hypothesized that "if communism succeeds in the world today, it will largely be because Christians have failed to carry out the gospel."(15)

Perhaps the most noble reason that many American Mennonites lost interest in the fate of the Russian Mennonites and re-interpreted their history was their understanding of pacifism. They did not believe in participating in the military and they wanted to avoid a Third World War. Samuel S. Wenger, an attorney from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, made the point most clearly: "So in our day--here in America, 1960--the question is: Can a Christian participate in preparing himself not only to kill, but to be a participant in a course of action which will result in the destruction of the entire human race?"(16) Wenger then proceeded to make a strong case for biblical nonresistance to war.

And one did not need to be a pacifist to be concerned about a Third World War emerging out of the Cold War. Many Americans, whatever their belief about pacifism or communism, did not want to heat up the Cold War into a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. Making a big issue of Soviet persecution of Christians was seen as giving legitimacy to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. The unpopular Vietnam War with its identification with fighting communism led many MC leaders to join the political left as a way to avoid war and especially avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Now America was viewed as an expansionist military power and the Soviet Union as sympathetic to peace and justice. The Soviets, after all, did not have troops in Vietnam. In this context, sympathy for the repression of religious minorities who had lived in the Soviet Union seemed a misplaced emotion.

Furthermore, Communism at this point was still viewed as the vanguard of current and future revolutions. C. Norman Kraus, a religion professor at Goshen College in Indiana, wrote four articles in the early seventies, which described the technological, social, political, and theological changes in the world. Kraus saw the church as a vehicle for revolutionary change that would "trigger an explosion of resentment and suspicion among the great majority of established middle-class Americans."

"Why are they so threatened by the possibility of radical change? Is it not in part because they are afraid that change will mean more loss than gain for them? Those who have nothing… are the ones who favor revolutionary change. They have nothing to lose at worst and possibly something to gain. When middle-class American Christians instinctively react to the possibility of revolution with fear and hostility, does it not betray their identity with the affluent--the rich of the earth?"(17)

Kraus called Jesus a revolutionary who identified with the "wretched of the earth," the title of Franz Fanon's then popular Marxist gospel which urged the violent overthrow of oppressors. For Kraus, revolution meant identifying with the "wretched of the earth" and not "betraying" oneself with the affluent. He pointed out the Anabaptists as the "valid revolutionary element in the Christian message" who "challenged the accepted institutions of private property and the rights of the aristocracy to hold property at the expense of the peasants" and "demanded immediate change."(18) It did not take much imagination to see the politicized religion which Kraus was advocating as a parallel to the worldwide revolutions which were then flying under the liberationist, Marxist and socialist banners and which took their inspiration from the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

Marcus Lind, a high school teacher and bishop in Salem, Oregon, countered Kraus, claiming that Jesus was not a political revolutionary. "To this generation a revolutionary is a Lenin, a Hitler or a Castro. Since Jesus is now also dubbed a revolutionary, could we by any stretch of evil imagination say a Lenin, a Hitler, a Castro, and a Jesus? Never!"(19) Although Lind saw Christianity as bringing reform and change, he wanted to be clear that this was not support of political revolutions.

Finally, MC leaders also became increasingly fascinated and supportive of Marxist ideas and ideals. By the 1970s Douglas Hostetter would visit Cuba and suggest that "perhaps we can learn more of God who calls his people both to liberation during time of oppression and to faithfulness during the sojourn in the new land."(20) Communism was seen as a fruit of western Christian civilization, and therefore must be seen as a judgment upon it. In other words, communism had simply put to shame the Christians in their idealism for a just and equitable world. If the Christian west lived up to its ideals of a just society, there would be no need for Marxism. Another influential exponent of this view was theological ethicist John Howard Yoder who in 1961 felt so convicted as to the responsibility of Christianity towards the spread of communism that he suggested that the Christian answer to Communism should not be "You're wrong, we're right," but one of repentance for having failed "to keep the promises of the Gospel."(21) Thus what the Mennonite Christians experienced in the Ukraine was seen as a judgment of God upon them for not living up to the Christian ideals of justice and equality.(22)

The irony of Mennonites in the United States saying such positive things of a repressive ideology when their ancestors had come to the Americas for religious freedom and had for two centuries lived in moderately wealthy communities was seemingly overlooked. At its best it seemed a confession that economic equality is an issue for Christians and if one becomes richer than one's neighbor, one might influence the neighbor to become a violent revolutionary. At its worst, this reasoning seemed to legitimize the theft of land and of property, violent revolution, and the gulag.(23) A double standard emerged which allowed U.S. Mennonites to praise a Communist dictatorship from a distance, even though they did not have to live with its consequences. The Mennonites in the Ukraine who did not have this luxury suffered grievously. But this Marxist view left little room to sympathize with their plight or the plight of other Christians in the Soviet orbit.

Even the resurgent anticommunism that emerged during the seventies among New York neo-conservatives seemed to get little traction among Mennonites still enamored with Marxist inspired movements in Asia and in Central America. An exception was Allen Stoltzfus, then teaching at Eastern Mennonite University in 1976: "My greatest shame and anger followed an incident in a college class I was teaching.… Mennonite service workers from southeast Asia made a presentation. They gave a false and bucolic view of Vietnam, trivializing the persecution of the church. I asked them why Cambodia was so much worse than Vietnam. And they denied that there was a problem in Cambodia." Stoltzfus says that while 1.7 million Cambodians were being killed, "these service workers said that the stories of slaughter were American propaganda."(24)

The net effect of all of these views was that although no one was outright defending the Soviet Union for killing 30,000 Mennonites and exiling internally or externally the rest of the church community, neither were most MC leaders protesting such a regime after the Second World War. The exceptions were the conservative Mennonites and Amish who quietly began their own organization to aid the suffering Christians in communist countries such as Romania.(25) By the sixties and seventies there was little MC sympathy for the Soviet Mennonite communities which were destroyed during the 1920s-40s, and what sympathy was left was considered best placed in looking for ways of assuring human survival.

Pacifist Mennonites in the United States were caught in the cross-currents of responding to terrible oppression in the Soviet Union and yet not wanting to feed into militant anti-communism that developed in the United States in the period following the Second World War. One way to oppose the Vietnam War was to reduce the fear of communism, hence, they believed, reducing the danger of a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. Protest against the treatment of religious minorities was seen as giving legitimacy to the Cold War. Increasingly, the "suffering brethren and sisters" came to be seen as tragic victims, a somewhat wealthy exclusive community of privilege, which was removed to establish a more just and peaceful Soviet future. Instead of being suffering Christians, the Ukrainian Mennonite colonies were seen as islands of privilege that could no longer be accommodated. In the oral tradition they were considered a cautionary story for American Mennonites of what happens if Christians become too wealthy and separated from their host country.

And the same conclusion was not far away in print. Sociologist Calvin Redekop revealed that what was bothering him was "the way Mennonites are now succumbing to the seduction of wealth." Redekop then wrote to a respondent: "One reviewer said… I had overlooked the wealth of the Russian Mennonites. I think I would still dispute that they were not wealthy in the same way we are becoming, but if the reviewer is right, the fate of the Russian Mennonites, both those who emigrated and those who were forced to stay since the Stalin era, is very sobering and disturbing."(26) Although Redekop was hesitant to make the connection between Russian Mennonite wealth and their fate, the implication was clear.

By 1974 liberation theology and its Marxist-based class analysis were sufficiently commonplace among some MCs to assume that if the poor were oppressed, they would revolt against their oppressors. In this equation, the Russian Mennonites fit all too easily into the oppressor category. Whether a judgment of God or simply the victims of a predictable and successful class struggle, the Russian Mennonites should have known that if they succeeded beyond the general population economically, they were bound to incite revolution.

This latter interpretation may have given some legitimacy to the Soviet destruction of Mennonite churches and communities. The United States government should not meddle in the behavior of another government, especially if it were a just government which would not allow gross economic inequities to continue. With an American government overextended in other nations' affairs in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, it seemed logical to defend the right of a Soviet government to make its own decisions regarding what it claimed were internal affairs. Still it was a high price for a small religious community to pay in seeing so many of its members killed and the rest in effect exiled.

Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, MCs showed little interest in grappling with how to understand the history of their co-religionists in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. The greater understandings from the opening of the Russian and Ukrainian archival records and the emergence of women's historical studies are only beginning to be understood. But of all American religious groups, Mennonites are among the most historically-minded and eventually a fuller picture will emerge. Of interest will be how these findings enrich the "suffering brethren" martyr images and the cautionary stories against privilege that have characterized their responses during the past century.


1. Barbara Smucker, Henry's Red Sea (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1955), 57.

2. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996), 204.

3. Notes and letters of the October 26-November 16, 1956, Wiens and Bender trip are in the Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana, Mennonite Central Committee Reports, Russia Visit.

4. Among the many American Mennonite and Amish groups, this paper takes as its main point of reference the largest US group called Mennonite Church, sometimes colloquially called the Swiss or "Old" Mennonites. Although about 10 percent of its members have been Canadian (mostly Ontario), its membership has mainly been in the United States, living in communities east of the Mississippi River in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. This group merged in 2002 with the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada to become Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. In responding to this paper at the Khortitsa '99 conference in May of 1999, the Mennonite Brethren historians from California, Paul Toews and Peter Klassen, reported their own experiences as having been quite different, which may reflect differences among the various Mennonite groups.

5. Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944). Canadian scholar Johann Funk made the observation at the Khortitsa 99 conference (May 27-30, 1999) that the discrediting of the "Russian Mennonite" experience in the post-World War II period may have added to the hegemony of the Anabaptist Vision view of the American Mennonites.

6. The continued prevalence of post-sixties views of Mennonite suffering can be seen in Jon Christoff's letter in Mennonite Weekly Review, March 4, 1999, page 4. Similar views such as the one regarding the persecution coming as a result of spiritual laxness were carried within the exile communities as well. See for example Jacob H. Janzen, Lifting the Veil: Mennonite Life in Russia Before the Revolution (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora, 1998).

7. And When They Shall Ask (Winnipeg, Man.: Dueck Film Productions, 1984).

8. Sarah Kratzer, "Whose Story? How the American Mennonites Tell the Russian Mennonite Story, 1940-1975" (Independent study in history paper, Bethel College, 1999).

9. "Love the Russians," Gospel Herald, Bimonthly Supplement (October 1947): 643.

10. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). Powers says that when he began this research on the history of American anticommunism, he believed he was studying one of the sordid chapters of American history. When he finished, he discovered that he had studied one of the most honorable chapters of American history--which has in the public mind been almost exclusively associated with U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy or anticommunism as fascism.

11. Urbane Peachey, ed., Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978 (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section, 1980), 20-21.

12. Kratzer, "Whose Story?"

13. Laura Showalter, "Pray for Them," Gospel Herald 42 (1 March 1949): 194.

14. J. Lawrence Burkholder, "Our Attitude Towards Communism," Gospel Herald 44 (1 May 1951): 409.

15. Carl Kreider, "The Challenge of Communism," Gospel Herald 54 (15 August 1961): 712.

16. Samuel S. Wenger, "The Way of Love in This Atomic Age," Gospel Herald 43 (16 February 1960): 145.

17. C. Norman Kraus, "Confronting Revolutionary Change," Gospel Herald 63 (23 June 1970): 566.

18. Ibid., 567.

19. Marcus Lind, "Was the Lord a Revolutionary?" Gospel Herald 63 (11 August 1970): 666-667.

20. Douglas Hostetter, "Faith, Works, and the Revolution: The Cuban Church examines its Track Record," Sojourners (6 January 1977) 10-12. Another example of Mennonite positive identification with Marxism is J. R. Burkholder's chapter in Peace Betrayed? Essays on Pacifism and Politics (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1990), edited by Michael Cromartie, essays written in response to Gunther Lewy's Peace and Revolution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).

21. John Howard Yoder, "The Christian Answer to Communism," Gospel Herald 54 (29 August 1961): 757.

22. Mennonite Central Committee report on Communism, based on an international Mennonite peace conference in the Netherlands, June 9-11, 1952, MC USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

23. Stéphane Courtois, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

24. Allen Stoltzfus, "My Journey from Left to Right," Christian Living, December 2002, page 14.

25. The main post-World War II carrier of pacifist anticommunism among the Amish and Mennonites was Christian Aid to Romania that became Christian Aid Ministries, a charity that by the end of the century grew to the size of Mennonite Central Committee, and has headquarters in Berlin, Ohio.

26. Calvin Redekop, "The Seduction of Wealth," Gospel Herald 67 (8 January 1974): 35.