This book is a collection of 24 biographical essays on
spiritual, intellectual and cultural Russian-Mennonite leaders (9). One might think of this as something like a photo album of the Russian Mennonite intelligentsia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Editor Harry Loewen will be well-known to readers of Russian Mennonite studies for his long career in the field. This sub-genre—a collection of biographies—is rather rare in Mennonite historical writing. The book is intended for the general reader, although it will be rather hard to follow for readers who do not already have a good grasp of the overall Russian Mennonite story.
In the preface and introduction, Loewen explains and justifies the particular parameters that shaped the selection of persons represented in the book. Although he does not examine the term
leader itself, Loewen posits three kinds of leadership (12–13) in the Russian Mennonite tradition: 1) pastoral leadership, 2)
practical leadership, meaning in the spheres of economics, administration, and politics (Johann Cornies is the most famous example), and 3) intellectual leadership. Although these three categories are not mutually exclusive, the focus is on the third category. Loewen argues that the eighty-year time frame covers the period when
Russian Mennonites experienced the most revolutionary changes in their history (9). The category
Russian Mennonite also has some flexibility as it is used in the book, although Loewen does not highlight this: of the 24 persons chronicled, it seems that only 4 of them lived their whole lives in Russia. At least a couple of them lived only their youthful years in the Russian environment. Cornelius Krahn and C. H. Wedel, to name two examples, only came into their
leadership roles in North America, so we see that
Russian Mennonite means something like
Russian-heritage Mennonites in several geographic areas.
It would be easy to complain that certain people were missed who should have been included (Alexander Harder, the artist, and Fritz Kliewer, South American educator, immediately came to mind during my reading), but such a criticism does not take into account the process of putting together a collection like this. Lack of sources on a desired biography, and assigned authors not producing their work in a timely way are only two of many obstacles in the way of the inclusion of an essay in the collection.
The 24 chapters are arranged alphabetically by last name of the person who is the subject. This alphabetical arrangement probably leads to some confusion for readers, since it obscures the numerous interactions among the 24 men, and also puts generational changes very much in the background. A chronological arrangement might have made the separate essays seem more coherent.
Although each of the biographical essays stands on its own, one can also try to take the measure of their character as a collection. All of the 24 chapters are about men, for example. Loewen recognizes this in his preface:
None of the individuals dealt with are women. There were few women who would have fitted the chronological or thematic parameters of this collection. The historical circumstances of the period restricted the role of women from gaining positions of power and influence in the community, even though many women received a higher education in the late Mennonite Commonwealth. While there were women missionaries, nurses, teachers, and those who served in Maedchenheime (girls' homes), the important work of those women awaits another collection. Loewen also notes the leadership roles of women during the Stalin-era terror and World War 2, after many men had disappeared into the Soviet killing and prison network. It might have been instructive to include a chapter or two on female subjects—maybe a couple of women teachers, for example—at least to demonstrate the details of how women even with higher education were excluded from the kinds of leadership allowed to the male subjects of this volume.
Two sets of brothers are among the subjects in this book. Others are related more distantly, as is so often typical of Russian Mennonite settings. Ten of the men seem to be Mennonite Brethren, with the others from the Kirchliche group; in some cases, of course, there are ambiguities and changes of affiliation. About 10 of them were from the Molochna colony, six from Chortitsa, and the rest from elsewhere. Eight of the subjects, fully a third, ended up as outsiders to Mennonite institutional and church life, which surely says a great deal about the incompatibility between the Mennonite intelligentsia and the rest of the Mennonite environment.
Although there are 24 essays, there are only 19 writers. Two authors wrote 3 essays each (James Urry, Harry Loewen), and one wrote two essays (Abraham Friesen). Twelve authors are Canadian, four U. S., two Paraguayan, and one might be labeled Canadian-U.S. Some of the writers are clearly related by family to their subjects.
How well do the subjects fit the leadership categories intended for the book? One might well ask whether B. B. Janz and C. F. Klassen belong more in the
practical leadership category (or spiritual for Janz) rather than in the intelligentsia. One might also ask if it is possible to be a
leader without followers. Are David Johann Penner and David Schellenberg really leaders when they seem to have had no impact on the Mennonite world? They seem to be included as examples of persons of Mennonite background who joined the Communists rather than as intellectuals who influenced the Mennonite community.
In a couple of places (9, 19) Loewen denies the charge of hagiography that might attach to a collection of biographies like this. Nevertheless, most of the essays are largely positive, not really fitting the
objective and critical (19) character that Loewen would prefer. This probably correlates comfortably with the intended general readership audience, who might not want to hear fondly remembered figures diminished in moral stature. The lack of critical analysis is most apparent not in connection with any stereotypical moral failings of the individual subjects but in connection with the interactions of many of them with the two most violent ideological systems of the twentieth century, Communism and Nazism.
The two essays on Communist figures (David Johann Penner and David Schellenberg) do not really explore the moral/ethical implications of the connection with the Communist system. In what ways are they implicated in the violent nature of the Soviet system? For some persons who lived through the Nazi era in Germany, their essays do not even mention any interactions (the Jakob Kroeker essay, for example). The essay on Walter Quiring by Ted Regehr seems to be the most forthright in dealing with the subject's ideological leanings. The most defensive and most hagiographical essay is the one for Hans Harder. Harder's relationship to Nazism and his activities during World War 2 have been a matter for discussion before. Here Al Reimer stridently defends Harder as someone who resisted Nazism. It is a simple fact, however, that Harder's relationship with National Socialism is far more ambiguous than Reimer portrays it: Harder signed some of his letters during the 1930s and 40s with the formulaic
Heil Hitler, for example, and Harder's willing acceptance of a position with the SS in Russia meant that he had almost no way to avoid knowing what the SS was doing in the extermination of Jews and others there. Knowing what was happening is not the same as participating, of course, and there is no evidence that Harder had any direct involvement with actions against Jews.
The Reimer essay on Hans Harder exemplifies certain weaknesses that run through quite a few of the other essays in the book. Reimer is not familiar with the current historiography on Nazism and thus his portrayal of Harder's connections with the Confessing Church and similar issues is too simplistic, too black-and-white. Greater familiarity with current historical writing on World War 2 in Europe would have made it much more difficult to defend Harder as Reimer does. Similarly, several other essays could be improved by greater attention to current historical writing about the modern European context in which their subjects lived. Reimer (and the authors of most of the other essays) relies mostly on accounts by his subject for the biographical narrative. This presents obvious problems of the limitations of autobiographical writing, which could be reduced by more use of additional sources from the subject's contemporaries. (In many cases, of course, the surviving sources on a particular subject are quite limited.) Several of the essays focus very much on their subject's literary output and somewhat short-change our understanding of the biographical context for the subject's work.
All of these issues have to be seen, of course, in light of the intended general readership for the book. The editor did not call for extensive additional research on the subjects included here. James Urry seems to balance the varying needs well, bringing his perspective as a sort of outsider-insider.
Overall, the book does meet its goal of providing for the non-specialist general reader a readable compendium of biographical essays on the most well-known figures of the Russian Mennonite intelligentsia. Many of the essays will prompt further questions in the minds of readers, which is a good outcome since it may stimulate further research and writing about these and other Russian Mennonite intellectuals.