The issue of whether to use violence or words came to a head for the German-speaking settlers of the Mennonite colonies in southern Russia in 1918. Should they abandon four hundred years of tradition upholding non-bearing of arms in time of war or defend themselves against the vicious enemy at their door—the vicious anarchistic Makhno bands?
These bands consisted of hundreds of released prisoners and an untold number of unhappy, miserably poor, landless peasants. They murdered, looted, burned and raped at will. Mercy was not part of their vocabulary.
When the Mennonites arrived in south Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great, to settle the rich farmlands along the Dnieper and Molotschna rivers, they had her promise of freedom from bearing arms in time of war for “perpetuity.” What more could they want?
They came. They saw. They settled, developing thriving, self-sustaining communities, enclaves, if you will.
For the next century their young men fulfilled their civic cuties in alternative service such as forestry work. My father spent three years as a medic with the Russian Red Cross during World War I.When the new regime was unceremoniously ushered in under Lenin, that type of service was no longer an option. All previous promises of privileges became null and void.
Now, in 1918, the Mennonite colonies were faced with the threat of being murdered willy-nilly by the anarchist or picking up guns and resisting. The Red and White armies raged back and forth, and this group, referred to as the Blacks, did as they pleased without government restraints.
The decision on the part of some Mennonites, as I wrote in my previous blog, was to form their own armed self-protection units, or Selbstschutz. This is well-documented in history books. Is there a lesson for us today as gun violence increases and people are urged to protect themselves?
David G. Rempel, in his excellent account of his early life in the village of Rosenthal in the Old (First) Colony in Chortitza, has a thorough discussion of the self-defense issue. (See A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union 1789-1923). Rempel received his Ph.D. from the University of Stanford and taught at the College of San Mateo as well as serving as military historian to General Dwight Eisenhower. I can only summarize his thoughts here. He writes that the Mennonites chose to take up arms and kill for several reasons;
The German occupation troops of the previous year encouraged young men’s “protective instincts and manliness.” In other words, you weren’t macho if you didn’t fight. According to Rempel, the German military dispensed two wagon-loads of rifles, ammunition, hand grenades, and even one machine gun in his area of Nieder-Chortitza. They likely did the same in other places.
The Mennonites believed that nonresistance was no longer a viable option with an enemy that wouldn’t negotiate and relished using force. With an unstable government, if they didn’t quell banditry now there would probably be “future outbursts of long-simmering Ukrainian peasant hostility.”
Another concern was the question: Was the teaching of nonresistance biblically based or only a tradition? If it was only a tradition (we do this because it was always done before), they needn’t abide by it.
This particular concern was discussed at a meeting held in 1918 in Liechenau, Molotschna as were all other aspects of historic Mennonite nonresistance. They learned that not all early Anabaptists held to a nonviolent approach. There had been variance in conviction even then.
They decided to remove “pious” language from their resolution, which at the same time removed its soul. They decided to not coerce the conscience of any member who thought differently on this question. It became a rational argument unsupported by biblical views. The reality of kill or be killed erased the privilege of being nonresistant.
Removing theological language from the argument, the backbone of Mennonite beliefs, meant the congregations and individuals no longer had the strength of a unified body to uphold their views. The way was open to take up arms.
Rempel’s own view is that they did not hold to their nonresistant stance because churches and schools had failed to teach basic Mennonite beliefs and history for many years. “Might not a deeper foundation in our historic beliefs have lessened the aberrant acts of many and saved us all from some of the retributive horrors later inflicted by the Makhnovites?”
He writes that many people struggled with their faith during these desperate times when innocent people were being murdered, women raped, and many other unconscionable acts of brutality committed. Later, Canadian and U.S.-born Mennonites wondered how the Mennonites in Russia could have lost their faith, resorted to self-defense, and despaired during a period of “blackest anarchy.” Some writers refer to this as the “Russian dance of death” and the Selbstschutz as a blot on Mennonite history.
Rempel’s response is straightforward: “What do you know of such traumatic experience? And what assurance do you have that your faith would have been firmer, or that you would have offered the other cheek?”
Rempel thinks there is another lesson for people today. He writes, “Why …. did a group [the Mennonites] which championed the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and so many other personal freedoms, refuse to support the most elementary rights for the native citizenry, even the cry of Russian sectarians for freedom of worship and their right to conscientious objection? Unfortunately, with hindsight, we can see that the Mennonites’ blindness to the plight of their neighbors also made them blind to the tragedy that would ultimately befall them.”
His book upholds the need to combine words with deeds of love, with speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, with supporting the weak, needy, and downtrodden. Simply said, words of negotiation fail when not supported by deeds of love. Then the weak pick up the sword. It is interesting to speculate what difference it would have made if all Russian Mennonites, not just a few, had been known for their love for the Russian peasants.