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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?

Review of Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

by Aileen Friesen

Aileen Friesen is the inaugural recipient of the Fretz Fellowship at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario. She has written on the experiences of Mennonites in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, including on the relations between Mennonite and Muslim communities in the Russian Empire. Her forthcoming book with University of Toronto Press explores the role of Russian Orthodoxy during the colonization of Siberia. She is currently working on a history of Mennonite mobility and migration during the long 19th century.

This ambitious study raises new questions on the role of nationalism in the formation of a global Mennonite identity. Benjamin Goossen challenges the idea of an ephemeral Mennonitism, instead highlighting its contingent nature in the face of the challenges of modernity.

If Mark Jantzen offered the first comprehensive explanation of the complicated process by which Mennonites in Prussia began to identify as “German” (in Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880), Goossen furthers this narrative by showing how nationalism offered Mennonites living in Germany and elsewhere a host of new tools for navigating state-building, revolution, and war. As Goossen demonstrates, Mennonites deployed ideas of nationalism and peoplehood not only defensively, in protection of their own religious beliefs and community boundaries, but also offensively in promotion of global fantasies of Mennonite superiority. While much of this story involves leaders and activists based in Germany, the book extends its reach into Mennonite communities in Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and Latin America as it explores how “the rise of German nationalist discourse” influenced “the development of Mennonitism as an imagined global collectivity” (201). Such a focus forces us to look beyond faith and familial ties to more unsavory factors such as ethnic nationalism and racial discourse that contributed to the formation and deepening of Mennonite global ties.

The book, divided into seven chapters, chronologically explores the ways in which “religious and national cosmologies are negotiated at each moment”(4). By focusing on how various church and community leaders have interpreted Mennonitism over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Goossen draws attention to how Mennonites participated in and reacted to a changing political landscape that emphasized the saliency of national identities.

In the first chapter, Goossen focuses on how Mennonites in Germany began to distinguish themselves from their Dutch coreligionists and articulate an affinity with the German nationalist movement. Although these groups maintained their cooperation in missionary activities in Java, Goossen maintains that some Mennonites had already started to envision a Mennonite diaspora tied together by a shared German nationality. While such thinking was not widespread among Mennonites, Goossen convincingly draws our attention to the role of Mennonite print culture, specifically Mennonitische Blätter, as a forum for creating connections between Mennonites separated by geography.

Over the next two chapters, Goossen explores how Mennonites addressed the minefield of issues created through the unification of Germany and its early state-building policies. In contrast to Jantzen’s study, which places interaction with the state at the heart of his analysis, Goossen focuses less on the political process that shaped Mennonite engagement with a German national identity and instead emphasizes how Mennonite activists waged a cultural war through the invention of a past that not only laid “claim [to] a place in the national culture” but also contended that Mennonites “represented the German national character more perfectly” than other groups (69).

While chapter two presents a highly aspirational version of Mennonitism, chapter three reveals that the reality was far less glamorous. Despite the formation of the Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Empire to advocate for the community and marshal resources in support of uncovering this glorious Mennonite past, many Mennonite congregations proved uninterested in supporting such an association and remained unconvinced by the “recently invented concept of German Mennonitism” (74-5).

While Goossen shows that “diasporic ideas and rhetoric entered Mennonite discourse” by the mid-19th century (37), he argues that it was World War I and its aftermath that allowed Mennonites to “consolidate the idea of a global Mennonite community” (120). For Goossen, the “Russian Crisis” lies at the heart of this story, as the plight of Mennonites in Russia inspired their coreligionists in the Americas and Europe to engage in relief work and facilitate the exodus of thousands from the Soviet Union.

While Goossen views the arguments over identity that preceded these migrations and the variety of “nationalist tales” spun to various governments to convince them to open their borders as “help[ing] to build a transnational consensus,” arguably the roots for such cooperation had already been sown, as Mennonite congregations around the world began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to organize into regional and national bodies. These bodies, at least in the Russian and Canadian cases, arose not out of a sense of nationalism but rather to address issues of interests of the community that could not be fulfilled through their local congregations. In fact, one could argue that at least some Mennonites outside of Germany embraced a German identity as a form of protectionism against the incursion of outside forces. This is a theme that at time feels absent from Goossen’s compelling narrative. While he acknowledges that Mennonites “harnessed nationalism for their own purposes” (3), the evidence provided emphasizes those who wielded nationalism in service of nationalism.

The next two chapters focus on Mennonite encounters with Nazism. As little research on this topic exists in the English language, these chapters will be of special interest. While Mennonite involvement with the Nazis, as well as their interest in the ideas of National Socialism, have been documented in many ways, Goossen’s interpretation represents a reckoning over Mennonite involvement with the Nazi regime that has been long overdue. Goossen provides a solid base for further research by elucidating the ways in which Mennonites in Germany attempted to harness the Nazis’ racialized version of nationalism for their own aims. It is striking how this reliance on racial nationalism betrayed the weakness of the German churches as they cooperated with the regime, in part, to maintain confessional autonomy and limit losses from their ranks (125).

The story then moves to Ukraine, where the occupation during World War II saw the elevation of Mennonites as Volksdeutsche, the denigration of their Slavic neighbors, and the annihilation of the local Jewish population. As Goossen poignantly notes, a number of German Mennonite activists (many of whom had been born in the Russian Empire), enthusiastically returned to Ukraine to aid local Mennonites, often relying on the help of Nazi officials. Goossen writes that people like B.H. Unruh “learned to see the[se] issues separately, compartmentalizing genocide from the ways it benefited their own objectives” (156). This sentence hits right to the heart of Mennonite activities during the war years – leaders often looked the other way as the destructive and inhumane policies of the regime facilitated the achievement of their goals.

In the last chapter, Goossen explores what he terms Mennonite Central Committee’s “brand of religious nationalism” (199), as workers attempted to save thousands of Mennonites from repatriation to the Soviet Union. While not everyone will be convinced by the characterization of MCC’s work under this banner, he raises many important issues about the complications encountered by MCC as its workers hustled the system to procure the necessary finances and connections to move these refugees out of Europe. Goossen’s strong narrative produces an engaging read. He asks relevant and sophisticated questions that challenge depictions of Mennonite global connections as having been forged under benign circumstances. He convincingly demonstrates that the engagement of Mennonites in the German lands with nationalism had reverberations globally.

While it is refreshing to read a treatment of racial discourse among Mennonites (which too often has been hidden through the use of the category of ethnicity to describe the non-religious elements of the Mennonite community), this book would have benefited from engaging in a more direct conversation with scholarship on Mennonite identity; for instance, James Urry’s None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889, a compelling treatment of Mennonite peoplehood as a function of being and belonging, which has minimal references to nationalism. As well, interspersed in the text, Goossen reminds us that not all Mennonites supported these ideas – yet without these dissenting voices, it is difficult to assess how nationalism interacted with competing loyalties. Despite these critiques, this book is a significant scholarly contribution that will inspire debates for many years to come.