Here is a section of a chapter on the political situation in the Mennonite colonies in south Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution 1917-19 and thereafter from D.M. Hofer’s book Die Hungersnot in Russland, which I have been translating this winter. The threat of being murdered in their beds was so dire, some Mennonites decided they had no option but to pick up guns to protect themselves, their families, and belongings. The 400-year tradition of non-bearing of arms was set aside to kill and be killed.
In April of 1918 the German military established itself [in south Russia], with plans to remain for five to ten years. Their efforts and energy were directed toward identifying the Bolshevists and restoring peace and order. The stolen goods were returned and the thieves punished. Because those who had done the robbing were mostly Russians and the ones being robbed were Germans, the Russians now suffered a great deal at the hands of the German military. It is only natural, therefore, that hatred against the Germans by the Russians as a people was urged and stirred up. When the news began to be spread that the Germany military would be withdrawing because of unrest in Germany, many people were filled with fear and anguish because it was clear that after the Germans left the heavy-handed power of the Bolshevists would again be felt.
Unfortunately these fears were fulfilled. While the German military was in power, headquartered in Taurien, groups of bandits under the leadership of Makhno [leader of an anarchist group] organized in the area of Alexandrowsk and targeted isolated economic enterprises and little villages, robbing and often murdering the inhabitants. It was apparent that these bands of anarchists with their terrifying actions would find their way into Molotschna after the Germans left. Therefore the Molotschna inhabitants decided to organize an armed Selbstschutz (self-protection) army to protect life and belongings from the anarchists.
The Mennonites were deeply conflicted about the issue. On the one hand they had maintained a 400-year tradition of non-bearing of arms in time of war. On the other, they faced the practical question of reconciling how to deal with the heavily-armed Makhnovites and basic principles of their faith regarding bearing arms. This question had already been discussed earlier when the German military attempted to get small self-protection units organized among the Mennonites. It was also the main subject of debate at the Allgemeinen Mennonitischen Bundeskonference in Lichtenau in the summer of 1918 where a resolution was passed to remain steadfast to the position of non-bearing of arms based on the witness of their forefathers Now [with heavily armed bandits at their gates] they were faced with the decision: To take up arms or to remain nonresistant.
The arguments offered became more heated and urgent. One person told stories of assaults on defenseless women; the number of refugees was increasing, among them women with gunshot wounds to their breasts and chopped-off limbs. Children were being killed in their mothers’ arms. They decided to fight. Some persons who only a year ago believed that nonresistance in all cases was the right position had changed their thinking entirely because of the experiences of the last year. Against their conscience, they had concluded that if circumstances required them to do so. It was their duty to take up arms on behalf of their own people for the cause of what was right and righteous, for freedom and law. They decided to fight with a weapon in their hands.
In their 400 years of history the Mennonites had never lived through anything similar to what was happening in their midst—organized bands of lawless, armed men completely disregarding the laws of the land maintaining order, causing the peaceful populace to live in fear for their lives. Though the many years of undisputed tradition was the reality, it was being set side. This issue forced many Mennonites, especially those of the younger generation, to pick up arms to protect the lives of their loved ones and the honor of their mothers, wives, and sisters. This change of thinking was not a great surprise, but took place with full awareness and after a difficult inner struggle for many.
We don’t want to judge or condemn. We don’t know what we would have done in similar circumstances. However, when one tries to reconcile their decision with the sixth commandment given by God and the teaching of Jesus to Peter, it is hard to understand. In his book Wehrlos? Rev. G.A. Peters from Ladekop writes as follows:
About three to four months ago the Selbstschutz held back a front consisting of about 100 werst of Makhnovites, but the pressure by the bandits reinforced from the North became too strong at the end of February 1919 so that the Selbstschutz, small in number and insufficiently armed, couldn’t hold out any longer. The last decisive battles were near Blumental where the members of the self-protection group fought for five days without interruption or reinforcements against a fiend ten times larger. These battles so depleted the Selbstschutz men that they fell down out of sheer exhaustion and had to give up further resistance.
With this defeat the fate of the Mennonites was determined. Whoever had the means fled to the Crimea. On February 26 the Makhnovites invaded the Molotschna area. Nearly all inhabitants of the 27 Lutheran villages in the Prischib district as well as the people from the villages from Halbstadt to Lindenau fled because they feared mass murder. When they were given the assurance that as peaceful people they had nothing to fear, many refugees returned.
These roving bands [Makhnovites] soon vented their hatred toward the Germans freely and aroused the lower Russian classes against them. The Mennonites were blamed for everything, including the increasing inflation, but especially for the organization of the Selbstschutz. A whole row of young men from the Selbstschutz were shot on the spot where they were found or hacked to pieces with swords. Others lost their lives in the area of the cities Melitopel and Berdjansk in gruesome fashion. Mennonites were arrested by the dozens, cruelly tortured, ridiculed, and often beaten until they lost consciousness and then doused with cold water. Many were whipped with iron rods, gun barrels, and leather boot straps until their flesh hung in shreds. Many were crippled for life.
In addition to this the Makhnovites brought more than ten thousand Russians into the Molotschna, divided them among the villages, and demanded they be housed and fed. They issued the stern warning that if the Russians complained about their treatment the most severe punishment would be meted out to the Mennonites according to laws established by the revolutionary government. What that meant the Mennonites knew well enough. Many of these Russians took advantage of every opportunity, demanding money, means of travel, and rich cooked and roasted food.
Part III One scholar’s analysis of why the Mennonites forsook their tradition of non-bearing of arms.