A century ago, the First World War transformed the global Mennonite church. While most Mennonites in North America abstained from military service, thousands of their coreligionists in Europe–swayed by militarist ideologies and an aggressive nationalist order–marched off to the trenches of France or killing fields in the East.
Presenting research from his new book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton University Press, May 2017), Harvard historian Ben Goossen explores the entangled, tragic history of Mennonites’ encounters with mass violence on multiple continents. Taking the story through the Bolshevik Revolution and into the 1920s, Goossen shows how–at a moment when debates over pacifism threatened to snap global relationships–Mennonites across the United States and Canada, Germany and France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Austria-Hungary found new solidarity in efforts to help their “brethren in need” in the collapsing Russian Empire.
As communist soldiers, anarchist warlords, and counterrevolutionary armies swept through long-established Mennonite settlements like the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies along the Black Sea, a worldwide Mennonite welfare community began to mobilize. Aiming to save the more than 100,000 coreligionists living in the new Soviet Union from the horrors of famine and ethnic cleansing, new organizations like the US-based Mennonite Central Committee sponsored mass population transfers to the Americas. By the close of the decade, they had brought fully a quarter of all Mennonites out of the Soviet Union and helped form an autonomous “Mennonite State” in Paraguay.
Told a hundred years after the First World War put Mennonites on a global stage, this story both illuminates the worldwide dispersion of Mennonite communities today and provides a warning against the rising tide of nationalism in our own age.
Open to the public; admission by donation.