Blazing New Trails in Mennonite Historiography

At this early stage it looks like 2006 is going to be a stellar year in Mennonite publishing history. Memoirs by two important writers have been released: Rudy Wiebe and Harry Loewen, to add to the significant publication of two major historical works by James Urry and Abraham Friesen - here under review. Both are the product of many years of research and bound to be provocative, perhaps even controversial. Both blaze new trails in Mennonite historiography.

Urry's volume is historical social anthropology at its best. It is both comprehensive and narrowly focused in that he spans the centuries from the founding of the Mennonite church in the sixteenth century to the maturation of a segment of the worldwide community in the 1980s, while concentrating nearly exclusively on the process and character of its politicization in the practical and theoretical realms. Matters of faith and doctrine are only peripherally treated when they involve the overriding concerns of politics both internal and external. The practices of piety, missions and evangelization, childrearing and socialization, pure economic and social developments are covered only when they relate directly to the process of politicization. He traces the intricate relationship between a pacifist ethno-religious community, increasingly aware of a unique peoplehood, and the various forms of governing authority appropriate to the various epochs. But this historical evolution of church-state relations is only covered for one important segment of the worldwide community, namely those who migrated from Holland to Poland-Prussia in the late 16th century and then those from the Danzig region who emigrated to Catherine the Great's "New Russia" on the lower Dnepr in the late 18th century. Then he moves along with several waves of immigrants from Russia to Canada, mainly Manitoba and finally Winnipeg, the city with the largest Mennonite population in the world. Mennonite communities in the Americas and other continents who did not come by way of the Russian sojourn are hardly mentioned. For instance, those Mennonites who stayed behind in the Netherlands and those who remained in the Vistula Delta when a small group migrated to Russia, and those who developed an independent existence in South Germany and Switzerland also formed specific church — state relationships important to Urry's overall thesis, but we discover very little about how their forms of this politicization process developed differently from the one traced by the author. By moving his analysis with the particular group he is interested in from Europe to Russia and then Canada, the author leaves behind some important developments in the church-state relationship he highlights.

Thus the period of the rise and fall of fascism and the Nazi Party, especially for German Mennonites and the so-called Volksdeutschein occupied European countries is almost completely ignored, except for some brief mention of the fact that many Canadian Mennonites were strangely attracted to Nazi ideology and defended the Third Reich in public forums. It is not generally known that there were Mennonites deeply involved in nearly every branch of the Nazi movement in Germany and several other countries and that a surprising number of young Mennonites joined the SS and regular army, frequently before formal compulsion was applied. This period arguably was the highpoint of Mennonite involvement in the politics of the day. Very few, however, involved themselves with the Marxist parties and Soviet Communism. Fuller treatment of this aspect of Mennonite peoplehood would have made for a more complete picture of politicization for the no longer "quiet in the land." Admittedly, to fill all of these purported loopholes would most likely have required a book twice the size of this 440 page opus. But one should nonetheless realize that Urry's book is a brilliantly organized and executed analysis of a significant segment of the Mennonite community involved in the game of normal political discourse and practice, not the whole in all its parts.

As for the things the book actually does, it does very well indeed. Setting up a dramatic structure which leads off in the introduction with a discussion of the apolitical "quiet in the land," he ends up with a politically involved "loud in the land" in the conclusion. Then in chronological order, each chapter in turn takes up the central issues of an epoch and develops in detail how the problems emerged and how they were dealt with by both sides, the pacifist group and the powers that be. In the initial two and a half centuries, starting in 1525, confessions and magistrates dominated the discourse, including the famous apolitical Schleitheim Articles, positing a sharp division between the corrupt outside world of power and the defenseless flock of the faithful. Gradually Mennonites followed other groups and composed self-defining confessions, which for the most part rejected service as magistrates, but usually emphasized obedience to rules and decrees issued by magistrates, as long as they did not deviate from the Word of God.

With some obvious overlapping in time parameters, the next chapter deals with the mandates issued by nearly all rulers against the Mennonite deviants and traces the slow progress toward acceptance with full rights enshrined in so-called Privilegia around 1800. The third epoch, stretching from 1750 to 1874, is labeled "Revolutions and Constitutions" and focuses still on Western Europe. Mennonites were partially involved in nearly all the political currents and cross-currents of this tumultuous time, characterized by numerous revolutions and several constitutional liberal attempts at reform and unification, especially in Central Europe. To the surprise of many, two Mennonite representatives were elected to the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, although they seemed to be moved more by nationalism than pacifism and made no attempt to argue for exception from military service or avoidance of legal oaths.

Moving on to the second section of the book we arrive in Russia, familiar terrain for those who have read Professor Urry's earlier book on the sweeping transformation of the Mennonite commonwealth, None But Saints(1988). Here he develops the amazing progress of power and privilege under the benevolent tsars up to the Revolution 1905. There is no one in the field today who can match Urry's potent and penetrating analysis displayed in this and the following two chapters, more narrowly focused on the period between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, entitled "Constitutionalism and Solidarity," and the devastating period of the civil war and agonizing 1920s somewhat mildly labeled "Autonomy and Ideology." The Mennonite participation in the process of democratization and revolutionary transformation is exemplified by the election of two representatives to the Duma. Urry examines their performance and its effect in detail. This is the heart of the book, showing Urry in full bloom, writing the epitaph of the Russian Mennonites for our generation. It demonstrates why the best Mennonite history should be written by non-Mennonites who carry none of the usual encumbering emotional baggage generated by internal dissent and external challenges - such as Stalin's murderous collectivization.

What follows in the final section of the book on Canada is not merely an epilogue. It is the conclusion of the Russländer'spowerful effect on the Mennonite community delineated in excruciating detail and with knowing panache. He is no stranger to Canadian history, since he has a long-range study of a Mennonite town known as Grunthal under the microscope and knows the Canadian Mennonites and Canadian politics as well as any American or Canadian scholar. First discussing the background in Manitoba at the turn of the century (1890-1920), he zeroes in on his favorite historical actors, the immigrants from Russia known among the diverse Mennonite groups of Canada as the Russländer, whose domination of the scene is pervasive and politically potent in the period from 1923 to 1940. The penultimate chapter deals with the ramifications of "peoplehood," Urry's unique contribution to the elucidation of identity. His focus is on the interplay of political party and "ethnicity" in Manitoba between 1927 and 1974. Finally, this analytical journey comes to rest in the Mennonite microcosm of Winnipeg, where he examines the forces of polarization in conflict with the effects of partisanship between 1921 and 1980. The process by which the quiet became the loud in the land is perhaps best illustrated by the astonishing incident where a Mennonite educator, George Epp, was challenged in the courts by a fellow Mennonite candidate for being ineligible to hold a political post on account of being a minister of the gospel. Epp, a proto-typical conservative anti-communist, was a Russländerwho came to Canada via Paraguay.

There are a few Schönheitsfehlerwe could mention, although they are so rare and minor that the overall impact of the book is hardly affected. In the European section, Urry fills out the meager sources on Mennonite political activity with excessive summaries of fairly common historical facts and their meaning. Only labored phrases suggest that Mennonites may perhaps have been affected as well by some general political trend. Peter and Heinrich Braun, both important writers in Russia were not brothers, but cousins. This is of some importance in the chapter's main argument. The Canadian section frequently degenerates into a recitation of minutiae about mechanical or methodological issues of minor importance. The treatment of revolutions, especially the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Bolshevik seizure of power, is at times rather more sympathetic than scholarly objectivity would perhaps require, avoiding almost completely the violent and anti-democratic aspects impacting religion in general and Mennonite believers in particular. In a future edition of this book, James Urry might want to consult John Lie's Modern Peoplehood(Harvard, 2004) and Roger Smith's Stories of Peoplehood(Cambridge, 2003) to place his evolving view of Mennonite peoplehood in broader philosophical and political perspective.


Who are the Mennonites? That is the central question of Abraham Friesen's at times polemical book, In Defense of Privilege. It is based on a lengthy tract published by one of the author's favorite Russian Mennonite writers, Peter Braun, to persuade the government that Mennonites were of Dutch rather than German extraction and should therefore be exempt from the confiscatory land policies during World War I. Both profound and profuse, Reformation scholar Abraham Friesen, now supposedly in retirement from the University of California at Santa Barbara, has produced a literary monument for those valiant souls who sought to save the Russian Mennonite Commonwealth from the incursions of a beleaguered tsarist state determined to destroy their cherished privileges, religious freedom, and in fact their physical existence. Intellectual history in the broad sense and firmly anchored in exhaustive analysis of primary documentary sources from a large variety of archives, including Russian repositories, this closely reasoned work will require patience and stamina to read and digest.

While apparently limited to the epoch between the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, this is not narrative history but rather an extensive and exhaustive argument, which follows the facets of a thought or idea wherever it goes, over the full sweep of Mennonite history and Russian policy. At times this takes the author far afield and explains why the endnotes take up 120 pages in small print. The notes are explanatory in nature and frequently reproduce cited documents in their entirety. What Urry does brilliantly and succinctly in 26 pages, Friesen does definitively in 520 pages!

There are five parts to this book, containing four chapters each, usually entitled with a telling quote suggesting a core theme. The first part or prologue to conflict sets the stage by showing how Mennonite leaders became historiographers in the effort to recover the past so as to be prepared with a clear sense of self to take on the government incursions. This community-wide discussion, at times degenerating into tendentious controversy, involved nearly every important Mennonite writer and leader, although in Friesen's perspective it revolved largely around his hero Peter Braun and the latter's antagonist David Epp. Since the two emerging historians also represented the two main divisions of the church, the old Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren, internal division and disagreement, at times recrimination, played a role in the effort to create a united front against the government. The debate went off into many directions, including the earliest Anabaptist visions Russian Mennonite leaders were attempting to recover. Much space is taken up here with Friesen's effort to prove that Peter Braun, not the purported David Epp, editor of Der Botschafterand chair of the Commission for Church-Related Affairs, was the real author of the famous document Kto takie Mennonity. The disputed authorship of this document was not only a key piece of evidence used in the battle against the government land liquidation, but also in every other main issue, including the recovery of a sense of the past, the Anabaptist past and early history of the Mennonites.

"It might surprise the reader to learn," Friesen states, "that a particular interpretation of Russian Mennonite racial and religious origins could become a central aspect of the Mennonites' defense of their interests before the tsarist government and be employed in one attempt after another to modify or even change the latter's public policy toward them during the years 1908 to 1917." That is only a tiny indication of the nature of the effort to recover a unified heritage in preparation for the main confrontation.

In Part II Friesen takes up the sect vs. confession issue in detail, elaborated through all four chapters, as the contestants sought to formulate a unified reply to an official attempt to redefine the Mennonites in Russia as a sect. But since the government reserved that term for groups that splintered off a main church body, the Mennonites ended up arguing that they had an independent origin distinct from the main churches, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox. David Epp's discovery of the German scholar Ludwig Keller, who had argued broadly for an independent origin of the Mennonite faith, was brought into play as authority for the contra-sect campaign. It was David Epp, whom Friesen quotes, who said unequivocally that "we can now present irrefutable factual evidence, on the basis of which we can, without fear of exaggeration, assert the following: the Christian tradition to which Mennonites adhere, existed in the Universal Christian Church earlier than the Lutheran or reformed Churches, as has been proven by the historian Dr. L. Keller."

The early promise given to the tsars that Mennonites would not proselytize among the Orthodox state church members went by the wayside, at least for the Mennonite Brethren, when the tsar issued his famous 1905 Manifesto promising universal freedom of religion and the creation of representative government. But the Duma was slow in converting the new freedoms into legislation, thus stimulating the effort to collaborate with the Russian dissidents (mainly Baptists and Stundists) in a major evangelization movement. The Raduga Press was at the center of this project and came under official scrutiny. The first professional historian of the Russian Mennonites, P. M. Friesen, made an effort to found a political party made up largely of Mennonites and other Russian evangelicals in order to give them representation in the Duma. Successful efforts were made to elect two Mennonites to the Duma. All this political activity centered around the Friedensstimmeand Der Botschafterand the former was published and edited by Raduga Press in Halbstadt. Raduga had Russian Baptist representation on the Board and this contributed to the general suspicion that Raduga was at the core of the illegal proselytizing and dissident activities, thus becoming the center of government effort to degrade the Mennonites to a sect, which deprived them of their historic privileges. No wonder Friesen devoted two chapters to the Raduga controversy, certifying that no one will probably ever have to examine this issue again.

With the outbreak of the war, a national anti-German hysteria swept the country, leading large segments of the population to believe that the German-speaking minority in Russia was essentially a disloyal underground requiring government action to control and contain their activities. This led to the land liquidation policy, which threatened to deprive all Germans but especially the wealthy Mennonite communities of their livelihood and very existence. Part III is devoted to this threatening issue revealed by Mennonite isolation, opposition to russification, and at times desperate ploys, including bribery, to maintain their privileges. There was a general agitation stimulated by the far right against enemy aliens within, including Jews, socialists, liberals, Poles, and most importantly various ethnic Germans in the empire comprising the most influential subset in the general category of dangerous aliens. A combination of russification and the Boer War in South Africa caught the Mennonites by surprise and "awakened slumbering consciousness of their Dutch ethnicity," (p. 198) Friesen concludes. With the outbreak of the war and the anti-German phobia sweeping the country, the switch to their other point of ethnic and religious origin, the Netherlands, became politically opportune and necessary for survival. Led by Benjamin Unruh and A. A. Friesen, two members of the famous Studienkommissionon the possibilities of emigration, they conducted a wide-ranging discussion of the place of ethnic minorities in Russia. The main issue, government requisition of their lands, fortunately was interrupted by the early success of the revolution of 1917, which changed everything once again and this time forever.

In the final part of the book, the author returns to the issue of Mennonite identity, as war has a strange way of clarifying formerly obscure notions or at least debatable issues. Friesen summarizes the crux of the section as follows: "Over the years Mennonites had contended that the government could not break the promises made them in the great Privilegium; they, however, changed sides and arguments when it suited them in their time of crisis. And they did so with much greater alacrity than had the Russian government" (p. 272). Even Peter Braun the great advocate of Holländerei (preoccupation with Dutch origins), switched to being German again, as did most Mennonites. Defining themselves as an ethno-religious Völklein, derivative of the German sense of Volk(some would call it peoplehood) with broad racial implications, the Mennonites of Russia barely survived the civil war and the process of sovietization, with German aid especially for the large-scale emigration to Germany and then the Americas. During World War II they became Volksdeutsche or Ethnic Germans and were completely taken in by German if not exactly Nazi propaganda. They repeated the mistakes they made during World War I by necessary accommodation with the German occupier and lived to rue the day - or at least a large segment of them did so. Friesen makes a good stab at Mennonite self-definition in the final chapter, in the light of this crucial experience, although, as he himself admits, the process of identity formation goes on.

Throughout this erudite book there is an interesting interplay, a dynamic exchange, among personalities, ideas, and institutions, revealing less a methodology of narration than intellectual history in broad historical perspective and logical rather than chronological sequence. Because ideas are developed in proliferating progress using frequently earlier cited documents, there tends to be much repetition to the casual reader. The prose is prolix and at times verbose, putting strain on concentration and memory, but rewarding the patient reader with rich understanding. It may have been an editorial error to print the frequently cited titles of books and documents in bold thus giving many pages a distracting look and encouraging ennui. Using endnotes for normal citation purposes might have been a better idea. In a second edition, the author might perhaps want to put his final consideration of Mennonite identity in broader perspective by incorporating ideas - especially the applied notion of "ethnic cleansing" — from Terry Martin's The Affirmative Action Empire(Cornell, 2001) and Ronald Grigor and Terry Martin's collection of essays on nation-making in the epoch of Lenin and Stalin in A State of Nations(Oxford, 2001).


Comparing these two important books, one can make certain obvious points. Both are mature works by well-known authors in the prime of their careers, exhibiting two schools of thought, two political viewpoints, and two methodological approaches to accumulated facts and familiar interpretations. They do not cover the same time period or follow the same theme, but there is significant overlapping and in essence they both confront the issue of self-definition and general identity in the course of the Mennonite confrontation with the powers that be. Urry's approach is secular, analytical, and sharply critical at times. While not indifferent to the issues of piety and the practices of faith, including formal and informal theology, his prism is the socio-economic spectrum. He makes his judgments and lets the chips fall where they may. Friesen makes his arguments with passion and follows his arguments to the ends of the earth in order to disprove the arguments of those who disagree. This is most clearly illustrated in his efforts to disprove the arguments made by B. H. Unruh on the essentially German ethnic and "racial" origins of the Russian Mennonites. Friesen is a committed believer and makes his arguments in the context of a theological and spiritual ambience. His arguments therefore flow from the inner concerns of faith which determine the economic, social, and political strategies employed by the various leaders of the community. What Urry calls the "clerisy" comes out better in the end with Friesen as political leadership grounded solidly in faith and doctrine. Both approaches are necessary to fully understand the issues and values at stake for a historical ethno-religious community in confrontation with political power structures. Both studies make a major contribution to our understanding of the Mennonites in their moments of crisis and their survival in a non-peaceful world. Taken together they represent a milestone in Mennonite historiography.

Gerhard Rempel
Jupiter, Florida