Long-distance nationalism (or not)

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of John P.R. Eicher, Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

John Eicher’s impressive new book threads a narrative that extends across three continents and two centuries. Readers traverse imperial modernization and revolution in Russia, frontier development and nascent nationalism in Canada, late Weimar and National Socialist era Germany, and pre- and post-Chaco War Paraguay. The latter is the location of two major Mennonite settlements: Menno Colony (founded by Canadian Mennonites in 1926) and Fernheim (founded by Russian Mennonite refugees in 1930). A comparison between these two colonies forms the heart of the work. As Eicher persuasively demonstrates, these colonists “remained entwined in the political machinations of governments on three continents, though they lived in one of the most remote regions in the world (273).” As such, Exiled Among Nations is a welcome contribution to a booming scholarship on Latin America’s place in global migration history which includes such compelling topics as the nature of late Ottoman nationalism in Argentina and the ongoing ties between Brazil and Japan.[1] In that literature, as in Eicher’s book, evocative ideas of “return” to homelands lost often give way to profound feelings of alienation or disconnect while claims to place prove invented, tenuous or strategic, at best.

Exiled Among Nations is divided into six chapters. The first and second trace the origins of Menno Colony and Fernheim. Though the colonies share an origin and endpoint, their migrations trended in remarkably different ways that decisively shaped the actions of each group of settlers in Paraguay. Chapter 1 covers the 1870s division between Mennonites in Ukraine over Russification policies. While Mennonites found their privileged minority status anathema to a modernizing Russian Empire, they temporarily recreated those privileges as “children of a paternalistic state” in Canada. Eicher gives us a clear portrait of declining autonomy for Russo-Canadian Mennonites over schooling. “Associative” Mennonites leapt at the opportunity to contest the power of community-based Ältesten (elders) through conference organization and teacher training – negotiating, if not whole-heartedly embracing, the Canadian state’s educational policies. By contrast, “separatist” Mennonites began to investigate new settlement opportunities in Latin America.

A decade after the explosion of the school conflict in Canada, Russian Mennonites found themselves in the throes of a different crisis. Chapter 2 opens with the iconic image of thousands of desperate Mennonites arriving at the outskirts of Moscow in hopes of emigrating from the Soviet Union. Narratives of this exodus have been enshrined in popular and academic literature, forming a core narrative element of Mennonite identity. Eicher, by contrast, delves into the highly ambivalent status of those Mennonite refugees. Religious, nationalist and strategic considerations were rarely clear-cut, despite calls for solidarity or invitations to resettle emerging from Canada, the United States, Germany, Paraguay and Bolivia. The refugees were “meaningful because they were malleable,” Eicher argues (102). Communist and far-right papers in Germany, the Canadian and U.S. press, and even a proponent of independence in British India, weighed in on their status. Some Germans called for Mennonite refugees to serve as a vanguard of Germanization in east Prussia while others were barely willing to offer temporary refuge. As they later would in Paraguay, both North American Mennonites and German observers turned visits to the refugees into interrogations of their respective “Germanness” or “Mennoniteness.”

After these relentlessly globe-trotting chapters, Chapter 3 centers on the localized experiences of Mennonites in the Paraguayan Chaco. It opens with an awkward encounter. Canadian Mennonites who had deliberately chosen Paraguay in the 1920s stood waiting with their wagons to escort newly arrived Russian Mennonite refugees – who had wanted to go anywhere else – to their new (and separate) settlement. Over the next few years, each colony would struggle with a challenging environment, interact with indigenous peoples and find themselves caught up in the largest inter-state conflict in 20th-century Latin America. Yet the neighboring colonies responded in opposing ways. Eicher shows how the intentional nature of Menno Colony’s anti-modern migration shaped their environmental imaginary and led them to reject Paraguayan calls for wartime support. By contrast, Fernheim embraced its duty to support the Paraguayan war effort and framed its post-war evangelization of indigenous peoples in patriotic terms. The common challenges faced by these groups “reaffirmed their [differing] collective narrativesthemselves a product of their prior migrations (142).

Chapter 4 compares the divisions – local and transnational – faced by each colony. Menno Colony saw an internal conflict over class, landlessness and representation, which undermined its administrative authority. Desperate colonists even petitioned an exasperated Paraguayan state to intervene in its decision-making process. The bulk of the chapter turns to Fernheim, which adopted an increasingly contentious stance towards Mennonite Central Committee – the organization that had secured refugee passage and ultimately guaranteed their land debt.

MCC and self-appointed Mennonite cultural brokers like Harold Bender confronted profound differences between global Mennonites that “were theological, organizational, cultural and historical” in those years. They looked to craft a meaningful yet intelligible definition of Mennonite identity that could be easily understood by fellow brethren and nation-states alike. Eicher nods to the work of organizations like the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Armenian Relief Society that also tried to manage, transplant and explain their representative populations to world governments in an era of profound migratory crisis. For Mennonite cultural brokers also attempting to “forge diaspora,” peripheral Paraguayan colonies thus “served as petri dishes for Mennonite unity (169).”[2] Yet MCC’s role as creditor conflicted with these more idealistic aims – particularly as disillusioned colonists sought to flee the Chaco. This disappointment would fuel Fernheim’s fascination with National Socialism.

The final two chapters of Exiled Among Nations contribute to a well-developed scholarship on overseas Germans and the phenomenon of “long-distance nationalism.”[3] Mennonites might strategically hold themselves up as the most German of all members of the global diaspora, but these claims could clash with other notions of Mennonite identity. Like others, Chapter 5 opens with a provocative example: the symbolic gift of Fernheim Colony’s peanut production to high-ranking Nazi officials and schoolchildren. While Menno Colony rejected any association with Germany in the 1930s, Fernheim saw a widespread embrace of National Socialism brokered by educators in the colony and German Mennonites like Benjamin Unruh in partnership with German governmental organizations like the Volksbund fä Deutschtum im Ausland. Yet as Mennonite peanuts and National Socialist propaganda crisscrossed the Atlantic, the reality of a transnational Germany identity proved as challenging as a pan-Mennonite one. Visiting German officials often left disappointed with the authenticity of Paraguayan Mennonites while the latter mobilized Germanness strategically – as one more of way of forging local unity in a disillusioned colony.

Fernheim’s fascination was met with serious concern by MCC. Yet (and here Eicher makes a rather provocative claim) “Nazi proponents in Germany, for their part bore a striking resemblance to MCC representatives who used the colonies to promote a transnational version of Mennoniteness (207).” The latter advocated a Benderian “return” to an Anabaptist vision that at best only partially captured the complexities of the Mennonite diaspora. The former pushed a “Nazi narrative of a broken German nation – unified and redeemed through völkisch solidarity” that papered over profound differences among overseas Germans (212). Though their meanings were diametrically opposed, the means of propagating “(trans)National Socialism” and global Mennonitism bore striking similarities. Unsurprisingly, both North American Mennonites and Nazi officials found much lacking in the localized community they encountered in Fernheim.

In the book’s final chapter, as German fortunes in the war changed, fantasies of Mennonite families re-settling eastern Europe ultimately collapsed into an internal conflict in Fernheim that pitted colony members (even those supporting National Socialism) against one another. This drew in not only MCC members but also U.S. officials concerned about creeping fascism and the Paraguayan state, which had belatedly signed on to the Allied cause. As Eicher argues, in a recurring theme in this work, the conflict may have involved a remarkably transnational cast, yet its evolution, and its fizzling, tell us much about decidedly local themes – the competition between a shopkeeper and Fernheim’s cooperative; generational tensions among colony youth; worries about the overreach of civil authorities. For the alarmed but confused outsider observers, “much was lost in translation as nationalist ends blurred with transnational means in a highly local situation (283).”

Exiled Among Nations makes a welcome contribution to Mennonite studies. It joins a body of scholarship that critically analyzes Mennonite understandings of, and engagement with, National Socialism (e.g., Ben Goossen, Hans Werner).[4] In its compelling structure, which weaves together the story of two distinct groups of Mennonite migrants that parted ways in Russia in the 1870s, only to reunite in the most unlikely of places (the Paraguay frontier) in the 1930s, Eicher also exposes the challenges of unifying a dispersed diaspora. The sustained comparison of how Menno Colony and Fernheim crafted narratives of belonging is an important aim. Persistent misunderstanding has often characterized the relationship between “Kanadier” Mennonites who intentionally left Russia for Canada and then migrated southwards to Latin America in the 1920s and other Mennonites who arrived in the region as refugees, relief workers and later as missionaries in the decades that followed.

It is worth noting that Exiled Among Nations covers several topics that have been the subject of detailed study, including Russification, schooling conflicts in Canada, and the evolution of the Paraguayan colonies including their relationship to National Socialism.[5] But where much of that literature is limited by national or regional boundaries, Eicher skillfully links these far-flung histories, providing us with a compelling and accessible globe-spanning narrative in the best tradition of the new transnational history. The work also notably engages current theory on nationalism, narrative, myth and diaspora, making the book well-suited to seminars exploring these themes in relation to topics as diverse as Zionism or Pan-Africanism among a readership unfamiliar with Mennonite history.



[1]  Steven Hyland. More Argentine Than You: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants in Argentina. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017. Mieko Nishida. Diaspora and Identity: Japanese Brazilians in Brazil and Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2018.

[2] Frank Andre Guridy. Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

[3] Nina Glick Schiller. Georges Woke up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

[4] Benjamin W. Goossen. Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017. Hans Werner. The Constructed Mennonite History, Memory, and the Second World War. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013.

[5] Frank H. Epp. Mennonites in Canada, Vol. 1. Toronto: Macmillan, 1974. Peter P. Klassen and Gunther H. Schmitt. The Mennonites in Paraguay, Vol. 1. Weierhof, Germany: Mennonitischer Buchversand, 2004. John D. Thiesen, Theron F. Schlabach, and John J. Friesen. Mennonite and Nazi?: Attitudes Among Mennonite Colonists in Latin America, 1933-1945. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1999.