A fever of patriotism and paranoia was sweeping across America. If you did not enthusiastically wave the flag and wholeheartedly back the government’s military actions across the ocean, you were suspected of being in league with the enemy—
if you are not for us, you are against us. Your troubles were compounded if you were a member of an ethnic group whose habits, accents, and surnames were different than your
American neighbors and, worse, were the same accents and surnames as those people with whom the nation was at war. Your young men were removed from your communities against their will and taken to military camps, where they were interned until the end of the war and beyond. They suffered mental and sometimes physical abuse at the hands of their captors, and were reviled and cursed for their religious beliefs. This sounds like the atmosphere that has existed recently in the United States and the situation that exists currently in Abu Ghraib prison and other places where Iraqi men and women are being detained, but it’s not. This is the situation that existed in America in 1917 and 1918, after President Wilson declared war on Germany. One of the ethnic groups under suspicion was the pacifistic Mennonites, most of whose members shared the Germanic surnames and sometimes the Germanic accents of their countries of origin. The young men forcibly removed from their homes and communities included the sons of these Mennonite families, drafted to fight in a war that their religion and upbringing taught them was contrary to the teachings of Jesus. When they arrived at the military training camps and stated their religious objections to aiding the military machine, they were cursed, had their religion impugned, and were sometimes physically assaulted and even threatened with death if they didn’t agree to assume the uniform and take up arms.
It is true that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. That is why books like Melanie Spring Mock’s Writing Peace are so important, especially for a new generation of Mennonites, most of whom have not had to face these types of extreme reactions when living their faith and tradition in a hostile world. In this work, Mock introduces us to the world as it existed during the Great War and allows four ordinary young Mennonite men to tell us, through their diaries, what their faith meant to them and how they lived out that faith in the face of great opposition.
Melanie Mock, an Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature at George Fox University, brings us an account of this period in American history from a readable, literary point of view. She has arranged her study in three basic sections. The first is an excellent, concise background on America’s entry into
the Great War and how the pandemic of paranoid patriotism put the Mennonite church (and other pacifist denominations) on a direct collision course with mainstream America. Relying on the research done by James Juhnke, Gerlof Homan, Sarah Shields, and others, Mock reminds us that to meet the great manpower demands of the war in Europe, the United States instituted a universal draft of men between the ages of 21 and 30. She recounts the struggles faced by the leaders of the various branches of the Mennonite church between obeying the laws of the land (allowing their young men to register for the draft) and holding true to the basic tenets of their religious beliefs that had as their core Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that one should turn the other cheek and not return evil for evil, that one should seek peace and understanding with one’s enemy and not offer them violence. As the church leaders tried to intercede with governmental leaders to achieve some recognition of and allowance for conscientious objection and alternative service, their young men—for the most part farm boys who may have had not much more than an eighth grade education—were left on their own to justify their beliefs to unsympathetic military camp supervisors and to decide for themselves how far they would accommodate their religious convictions to the situation in which they found themselves. It is a testament that nearly all of these young people from humble roots held fast to their pacifist convictions.
The second section, covering two chapters, concerns itself with an overview of Great War literature (mostly British), and makes a case for including Mennonite CO diaries, like those she has chosen to present in this book, in that body of literature. She spends time familiarizing us with the works of such Great War writers as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Vera Brittain and makes the interesting observation that these authors, writing as actual witnesses to the horror and carnage of that conflict, produced essentially
anti-war literature. Indeed, Mock quotes Wilfred Owen as saying that his war experiences had, he felt, made him more a Christian; in an almost Mennonite frame of mind, Owen wrote to his mother:
I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christiandom [sic]. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into a dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonor and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill … The practice of selective ignorance is one cause of the war. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code. (p. 96) The
combat writers of such literature wrote the truth as they observed it, and left it to the reader to receive (or not) its anti-war message. Mock makes the case that the conscientious objector diarists included in this book, and their camp brothers who did not leave a written legacy, used the examples of their lives in hope of spreading the anti-war message to those with whom they interacted in the camps. These men made sense of the impossible situation in which they found themselves by looking on their internment as a mission field—if they stayed true to their beliefs and lived those beliefs, they could be
peaceful witnesses, as diarist Ura Hostetler said, amid men who
practiced killing devices. (p. 185) It is very interesting to see the comparison of combat writers and pacifist diarists and how they come at the same conclusion from opposite directions.
The final section of the book is a transcription of the four diaries themselves. Mock includes a good cross section of Mennonite young men: Gustav Gaeddert was a country school teacher and a General Conference Mennonite; Ura Hostetler was a newly married farmer with an eighth grade education and a member of the (Old) Mennonite church; John Neufeld came from a long line of General Conference ministers and already had been gone from home doing mission work when he was drafted; and Jacob Meyer was a Harvard graduate, a Phi Beta Kappa, and a member of the Amish Mennonite church. (The selection of these particular men is especially interesting and important for us Kansans as Gaeddert, Hostetler, and Neufeld were all Kansans and all from the Inman area). Mock prefaces each diary entry with a brief biographical sketch of the diarist, sets in context the diary entries, and tells us what happened to the diarist after the war. She then presents the script of each diary, complete with misspellings and grammatical idiosyncrasies, so in reading them one gets the feeling that one is in conversation with these voices from the past. The diaries are footnoted to explain more fully the significant individuals and incidents mentioned.
I found the overview of Great War literature, and the attempt to justify the inclusion of CO diaries as part of that literature, a bit awkward in the context of this book. However, it was fascinating and insightful and, given that Writing Peace is an outgrowth of Mock’s research for her PhD in English, one can understand why this information is included here rather than in a separately published monograph.
The only other real criticism of the book is an editorial one: the endnotes are essential to the reading of the book but are very hard to use. The notes are arranged by
Chapter 2, etc., but that is not how the chapters themselves are named. Trying to find a footnote reference from the chapter entitled
Behind Prison Walls: The Diary of John Neufeld necessitated way too much flipping of pages and counting of chapters for ease in reading. It would have been much more convenient to have the
notes as footnotes rather than endnotes.
Writing Peace presents an extremely readable and digestible account of this slice of American history, as seen through the eyes and words of four young Mennonite men. This is my kind of history—
the facts presented in a vibrant, accessible style that can appeal to anyone. Its relevance, especially to us modern day Mennonites, is brought home to me in the fact that, even though I am neither a native Kansan nor an ethnic Mennonite, I have connections with two of these diarists: Gustav Gaeddert was a newspaper curator at the Kansas State Historical Society in the early 1940s and John Neufeld is the great uncle of one of the ministers of my church. It is important to read the accounts of those who faced these difficult choices before us, whether we are reminiscing about the bravery of our grandfathers or searching for a guide as we face the very real possibility that we will be called to declare where our faith teaches us to stand.