This article examines a group of men with Mennonite backgrounds, who served as perpetrators in either the SS or Wehrmacht, focusing on the religious status that they claimed, which was either Mennonite, Gottgläubig, Protestant, or unlisted, and the factors that played a role in their religious choice as well as their decision to serve in the German armed forces. These factors include increased militarism among European Mennonites, survival tactics of the Mennonites, German nationalistic feelings, Antisemitism and difficult situations in the Soviet Union such as collectivization, violence, and anti-German sentiments. This article explores not only how these factors influenced these men, but the Mennonite community as a whole. Examining these men and the factors that influences their decisions in such difficult and unique circumstances is important because it offers a look into an often untold story in Mennonite history, which runs counter to the main ideals of nonresistance.
Studies investigating the Holocaust have widely accepted the categories of people involved as
perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Some research has even begun to add a fourth category:
rescuers.1 Tremendous work has been done on investigating the conditions and factors around those involved in this mass genocide, such as the work of Raul Hilberg, who stated that
These three groups were distinct from one another and they did not dissolve in their lifetime. Each saw what had happened from its own, special perspective, and each harbored a separate set of attitudes and reactions.2 Making these distinct groups was crucial especially when authorities were attempting to bring justice to such horrific events. Often when drawing these lines, certain organizations were labeled as perpetrators, such as the SS, while others were generally deemed as having
clean hands, as was the case with the Wehrmacht. Many scholars point out, however, that these categories are not always easily distinguishable. Doris Bergen references an image of a public hanging in Poland, stating,
This photograph reveals the proximity and interaction of people we might categorize as 'perpetrators, victims, and bystanders' of the Holocaust.3 Hilberg also mentions that even within the classifications, the men did not fit a distinct pattern, that they had different backgrounds, thought processes and reactions to the task at hand.4 Although the initial desire is to fit those involved in the Holocaust into these distinct categories and it may be vital in gaining a full understanding of the occurrences, further analysis often reveals that these lines are not so easily drawn.
Common belief when looking at Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust is that they took a stance against the Nazis and would be classified as rescuers or bystanders. Much scholarship supports this attitude. Horst Gerlach stated,
It can be demonstrate that...people of Mennonite heritage...most likely did not participate in the atrocities and denunciations committed at Stutthof.5 Bergen also tells the story of a boy in Ukraine who saw the murder of a group of gypsies,
Later someone came around the town to distribute clothes taken from the murdered people. According to the eyewitness's account, no one in that particular Mennonite (and ethnic German) community wanted anything to do with booty won in such a way.6 More recent research, however, has revealed that this is not the only side to the Mennonites' story. Some men of Mennonite background collaborated with the Nazis, in some instances taking active roles in the Final Solution.
Small groups of Mennonites were involved in the Holocaust, serving in the SS or in the regular army, and participated in the murder of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. It is generally unusual to think of a Mennonite playing such a role so it is important not only to look at the part that they played in the Holocaust but also the outside influences and culture that would have led them into such a task. There are a number of different cases of men who were Mennonites. All of the men came from quite similar backgrounds in the Ukraine or Danzig area and yet their religious status differed noticeably, according to how they registered themselves under four different categories of religion: Mennonite, Gottgläubig, Protestant, and unlisted. Such a study brings up the question of why exactly these men would choose to declare statuses other than Mennonite on their papers. In exploring the factors that would influence the decision the men made in what to claim their religion to be, the push toward Gottgläubig by Heinrich Himmler seems to be a key factor. Another issue to consider is that Protestant is very likely to be a broader and more acceptable term under which Mennonite would fall.
Despite the fact that these men chose different religious statuses, they were all still products of the Mennonite community. Such a category begs new questions, such as what different circumstances and conditions would lead these men to serve in either the Wehrmacht or the SS, regardless of the fact that such actions fell short of the pacifist beliefs of the Mennonite people. There are a number of factors that may have had an influence, the first of which is that these men did not move away from their beliefs at all because of the decrease in pacifism in European Mennonites already in the years before World War II. Many Mennonite men also did not want to serve in such a capacity or expect to commit such crimes, but they felt it was necessary in order to survive. Some of these men had strong nationalistic feelings toward Germany and felt as if it was their duty to serve in order to show their loyalty to their fatherland. Struggles with collectivization, violence, and the suppression of faith in the Soviet Union made many men view Germany as their liberators once the German army occupied the Mennonite villages as well. It is important to not overlook one final explanation for why some Mennonites might enter the Wehrmacht or SS, which is that at this time many Mennonites had strong antisemitic feelings.
The Holocaust is one of the most tragic events that occurred within the twentieth century. The Nazi party that was the foundation of the terror fed off of already established beliefs of antisemitism and fear of communism. One particular example, which occurred in 1933, was the burning of the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin. This event perfectly demonstrated what Hitler did to gain the power that he needed to launch such massive operations of genocide. Hitler blamed the burning of the Reichstag on the communists, and took action against many communist men, such as arrests, shootings, and even opening the first concentration camp to imprison them. This small step led to another and another, and by the end of the Holocaust there were an estimated six million Jews dead. This does not take into account the communists, Poles, gypsies, handicapped, homosexuals and many others who also lost their lives at the hands of the Nazi powers.7
Before analyzing the Mennonites and their beliefs and actions it is important to clarify who is considered a Mennonite. This particular paper is going to focus not only on practicing Mennonites but also on ethnic Mennonites. This includes those who would classify themselves religiously as Mennonites as well as those who may not have considered themselves to be Mennonite in religion but who had a Mennonite background. A portion of the men examined in this paper do not claim to be Mennonite therefore they will be considered strictly ethnic Mennonites, because when asked their religion they responded as either Protestant or Gottgläubig, which is translated as
believers in God. Men who
renounced Christianity but still confessed a fundamental belief in God chose this option.9 This was a common choice among members of the Nazi party. Beginning in 1936, with increased tension between the churches and the Nazi party, more members began to leave the church. This movement was most prominent in the SS, but could be seen throughout the party. In the SS alone from 1936 to 1938 there was a 7% increase in Gottgläubigen while those of Protestant faith experienced an even greater decrease.10 The choice to claim Gottgläubig was more often than not a sign of dedication to the Nazi party.
The Mennonites first immigrated to Prussia from the Netherlands around 1530 in order to escape religious persecution. In 1521, Emperor Charles V proclaimed an edict against heretics, but it was after 1530 when the persecution began to increase to levels that sparked larger movements to Prussia. The emergence of the Mennonite church in Danzig was in the mid-1500s, with the first documentation of these people being referred to as Mennonites in the 1540s, and Menno Simons visiting Danzig between 1547-1552. The first documentation of an established church is from the 1560s. Newcomers in 1567-1568 brought conflicting views over matters of church discipline, which resulted in a schism. The Flemish, which made up the majority of the Mennonite population were stricter when it came to matters of discipline, while the Frisians were more lax.13
Although these Anabaptists left the Netherlands for more religious tolerations, their life in Danzig and the surrounding area was not without opposition. The traditional religions already established in this area were Lutheran, the Reformed, and Roman Catholic. Although the Mennonites were tolerated as a sect, they would not be granted citizenship unless they converted to one of the three
old traditions. This remained the case until the 1800s.14 They often faced restrictions aimed at them by not only the King of Poland, but also the City Council of Danzig and the Third Order, which represented the citizenry. The overwhelming feeling was that the Mennonites were merely tolerated, and not accepted because they were part of a sect. Through the end of the seventeenth century, they constantly experienced restrictions and lived in fear of being severed from their livelihood.15
The First Partition of Poland in 1772 gave West Prussia to Frederick the Great, but Danzig remained with Poland until the second partition in 1793. The Mennonites welcomed this change in the hopes that the church would be able to enjoy the religious protection under the Prussian King. Their nonresistance, however, still suffered even under the new religious toleration. Frederick II issued a Charter of Privileges for the Mennonites on March 29, 1780, which ensured freedom from military service, of religion, and to practice trades. After his death, however, Friedrich Wilhelm II issued a new edict. This
Edict Concerning the Future Establishment of the Mennonites in All Royal Prussian Provinces, Excluding the Duchy of Silesia, July 30, 1789, although it still allowed exemption from military service, severely limited the purchase of rural lands, which was a repercussion for their pacifist beliefs. It was around this time that the emigrations to Russia under Catherine II began.16
A new set of struggles emerged during the 1800s when Napoleon's army approached Danzig. The army destroyed the Frisian church in Neugarten in 1806, and only portions of the church could be saved. The two congregations joined in 1808, which proved difficult because of the differences between their ideas of discipline, especially around the topic of marriage outside of the church. This time marked the beginning of the
Seven-years suffering under foreign occupation, and was a time of great economic difficulties for the Mennonite people.17
Revolutions began to emerge throughout Europe in 1848, in Italy, France, Prussia and Austria. Frederick William IV used the royal army to quell these rebellions, which triggered a response by the people, who formed citizen militias. These served the purpose of keeping the royal armies in check and allowed a voice for the people who sympathized with the militias. The Mennonites felt the pressure to participate in these militias. The West Prussian Mennonite Congregations held a meeting to discuss what actions should be taken, and agreed to permit participation as long as the men did not carry weapons or wear military emblems. Of course, such stipulations basically forbid them from joining, so another meeting was held in Danzig, and through majority vote, 65 to 36, the men were permitted to participate and bear arms.18
Another blow to the Mennonite congregations occurred in 1867. The King of Prussia passed a new conscription law, which stated that all male inhabitants were subject to military service and all charters of privilege were suspended. The King made an amendment the following year, allowing the Mennonites to serve as drivers, medics, clerks, or craftsmen. The Mennonites held meetings in 1869-1869 to decided whether or not to stay. Some left for America, while the others decided that noncombatant service did not violate their beliefs.19
The political history of Mennonites in Ukraine was constantly changing. In 1763, Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, extended an invitation to the German people, including Mennonites, to enter Russia and settle the vast expanses of land that she had available. Many accepted to escape from the situation in Prussia. The Mennonite people in particular were welcomed because they had a reputation for being good and respectable farmers. She gave the Mennonites a guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to govern their own villages, communities, and colonies, and exemption from military service.20 This agreement was confirmed on September 28, 1800, when Paul I, Catherine's son, granted the Mennonites a Charter of Privileges.21 The charter allowed the Mennonites to live in very isolated communities, away from the rest of Russian society.
Although the Mennonites experienced periods of great affluence in Russia, they began to face challenges to their Mennonite structure in the late 1800s. Russification pressures began to increase and between 1879 and 1899 Russian became the official language of instruction in Mennonite schools. Also in 1870, a military conscription law was passed, and it was only after intense dialogue between the Mennonite leaders and government officials that an exception was made which would allow the Mennonites to work in the Forestry service. For some Mennonites this was unacceptable and many resettled to America, while others accepted the terms and remained in Russia.22
The Mennonites lived under the Czarist rule until political turmoil surfaced in the early 1900s. The February Revolution of 1917 brought this period to an end and introduced the Provisional Government. This government did not last long however, because the next Revolution was only months later. The October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, which marked the beginning of a period of chaos and disorder for the Mennonite people.23 The Mennonites were not able to experience much relief until 1941, when Ukraine came under the control of Germany, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union.24
This study examines the instances of eight men who grew up in the Ukraine and had a Mennonite background as well as three men from the City-State of Danzig who were also from a Mennonite background. The particular colonies in Ukraine that these men came out of were the Molotschna colony, the Memrik settlement and Spat, which were both founded by the Molotschna Mennonites, and the Chortiza colony. In Prussia, the villages were Baarenhof, Karthaus, and Petershagen, which were all part of the Free State of Danzig. On their naturalization papers, three men were listed as Mennonite, three men had Gottgläubig listed, two men listed Protestant, and three men had records that were incomplete in that they did not list any religion at all. All of the men were born between 1903 and 1919, with the exception of Johann Siebert who was born in 1929. Five men in this study were involved in the SS, while the other six were members of the Wehrmacht. At least three of the men served in the Soviet Army before they joined the Germans, and everyone joined the Wehrmacht or SS by 1941, again with the exception of Siebert, who is believed to have joined in 1945. Five men mentioned that they or their families had to flee or were exiled at some point because of Soviet persecution.
The documents from which the majority of this information was gathered from are archival documents, which provided basic background on the men. Some documents were from the Einwandererzentralstelle, which was the Central Office of Immigration. These documents were mostly Stammkarten or Personalfragebogen, which were forms or questionnaires that provided personal details about the person's family history, personal history, or current living situations, although one was an excerpt from a birth and baptism registry. These were used in the process of naturalization to gain citizenship to Germany, which many of the men underwent because of an order that Hitler issued in 1943. This order allowed all ethnic Germans who were in the Wehrmacht, German police, Waffen-SS, or Organization Todt to apply for German citizenship. Other documents were official SS correspondence and letters from Camp Commandants or Officers in the army. Although these documents give solid information on the basic facts for their service in the army, they fall short on the more specific details of the men's service.
In the case of Jack Reimer, the documents are from his court case in the United States. They contain more personal testimony about his experiences during the war, which is unique from all of the other men examined in this paper. The shortcomings of this form of information are that it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Reimer often gives contradictory information about his service in the SS and his experiences during the war. It is important to keep these things in mind when examining these men, because there are still gaps in the story.
On September 11, 1913, Jakob Janzen was born in the city of Kalinowo, Ukraine, which was at that time part of the USSR. Kalinowo was part of the Memrik Settlement, which had been founded in 1885 by members of the Mennonite Molotschna colony. Just three years before Janzen was born, the membership of the Memrik and Kalinovo Mennonite church was a total of 3,019 people.26 According to the information from the records of Janzen's registry with the army, Janzen is listed as having grown up in a
German settler family. His father was listed as Jakob Janzen, his mother as Maria Reimer, his grandparents on his father's side as Jakob Janzen and Katharina Berg, and on his mother's side his grandfather was Franz Reimer. When asked for his family's current residence, he stated that his family members were evacuated to Siberia. All of these relations as well as himself he listed as Protestant.27.
He had an education, attending the Volkschule (elementary school) from 1923-1929, the Mittelschule (high school) from 1932-35, the Deutsche Hochschule (German University) from 1935-1937 and the Russische Hochschule (Russian University) from 1937-1939. He then became an elementary school teacher, teaching Russian and German. On September 12, 1941 the German army drafted him as a soldier. He held the rank of Obergefreiter and served in the supply/Tank Battalion 543. During his service he received an Eastern Front Medal. He gained German citizenship on May 23, 1943, under the decree of 1943.
It is clear that he has a Mennonite history, when you look at the typically Mennonite names of he and all of his family, and that he was living in a Mennonite settlement. It is important to keep in mind that Mennonite settlements were generally quite removed from the rest of society and usually contained only those of similar ancestry. Although Mennonite is not mentioned in his paperwork, it could be because he had chosen to be more generalized rather than specific in listing Mennonite.
Johann Siebert was born in Waldheim, Ukraine, on September 28, 1929. Waldheim was settled around 1837 by Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites, along with another village, Dosidorf.28 Waldheim was a part of the larger Mennonite Molotschna settlement.29 His father's name was Friedrich Siebert and his mother's maiden name was Aganete Bartmann. German was his main language but he could also speak Russian and he attended a German school as a child. He was a farmer's apprentice. He had citizenship both in Germany and in Russia. He listed his religion as Protestant. It is unclear exactly when Siebert joined the army. His Wehrstammkarte mentions a membership or classification with the year listed as 1941, which appears to be when he joined the Hitlerjugend, and then in March 3, 1945 he appears to have joined the Wehrmacht, at the age of sixteen.30
Aron Regehr was born on September 20, 1914, in Sparrau, which was also a village in the Molotschna colony. Aron lived in Sparrau and attended the German elementary school in Sparrau from 1921 to 1925. In 1926 his parents moved to Pordenau, which was about twelve kilometers away from Sparrau, and was still within the Molotschna colony, where he attended the local German school until 1928. He then helped his father on the farm and from 1932-1934 he worked in the collective as a farm hand. He stated,
Due to the large and severe Bolshevik measures, my parents fled to the Caucasus in the German settlement of Kasbeck.31 There he also worked on the farm again until 1936 when he worked for the next five years as a horse breeder. He married Irma Franzen on April 20, 1941, and together they had one child. Irma went missing on August 30, 1941. He gives little information about his ancestry other than that his mother's maiden name was Tissen.
Regehr was drafted into the Soviet army on June 22, 1941, where he served in the 663 Work-Battalion. On September 12 of the same year, there was a revolt within the Battalion over rations and it disbanded. Regehr joined a group of eight men who crossed German lines and were delivered to the Regiment Headquarters. Regehr was put in a German uniform on September 17. He was used as a translator for Russian at the front lines until he was injured. He received the Eastern Front Medal and a Wound Badge for his efforts. In 1943 Regehr applied for naturalization but was denied because the authorities said that the naturalization process was currently locked and only those with special circumstances who would seem useful in some way to the German army or Waffen SS or the police would be able to go through the naturalization process. The unit that Regehr was in later requested his naturalization because there was such a high demand for translators at the front and only those who had citizenship were now allowed at the front lines. Naturalization was then granted to Regehr. At one point on his application papers, Regehr lists his confession as Protestant, but in a later instance he claims Gottgläubig. He claims both of his parents to be Protestant.32
It seems quite possible in this instance that Protestant is used as a broad term that is more widely accepted than Mennonite. Regehr recognizes his Mennonite heritage and grew up completely submersed in Mennonite culture, within the Molotschna colony. A document from the Chief of Security Police of the Immigration Center described Regehr as
an applicant of German descent. His ancestors come from a Mennonite German colony family.33 Even if Regehr did not consider himself or his family to be Mennonite by faith, they are still very much Mennonite through ethnicity and culture.
Alfred Albrecht was another possible Mennonite who claimed Gottgläubig. Albrecht was born on June 12, 1911 in Karthaus, which was a part of the Free City of Danzig. Danzig during World War II, had the largest population of Mennonites than any other location throughout the world.34 Karthaus was one of the districts of Danzig listed at having a Mennonite population.35 Before his service in the SS, Albrecht served as an office assistant for the District Administrator of Karthaus and was unmarried. Albrecht joined the SS in September 1939, but was not yet a member of the NSDAP, as he was still labeled as a candidate. The Office of the Waffen-SS listed Albrecht as a volunteer into the SS. He was promoted on April 20, 1941 and on August 31, 1941, at the age of thirty, he was asked to report to Werder, the Camp Commandant of the Labor Education Camp at Stutthof, where he held the position of SS-Sturmmann, which is better known as a Storm Trooper.36
Stutthof was a concentration camp near Danzig, which was set up in 1939 by the Waffen-SS. Stutthof began as a prison camp, which held 200 prisoners, but as the Danzig prison inmates built more barracks and expanded the camp, it grew to hold 4,500 prisoners by January 1940. Stutthof used inmate labor for all of their needs, and became self-sufficient, even making profits for the SS through economic enterprises. In 1941, Stutthof also became a work education camp, but the economic activities and profit making continued as well. What started as a 1.2-acre camp grew to 296 acres by 1944. The camp was mostly designed to contain political prisoners, but it was also expanded to include special barracks, the Judenlager, which held Jews who were transferred from overrun camps in the East. In June 1944, Stutthof was converted to an extermination camp with furnaces to burn the corpses. Between 1939 and 1945 a total between 110,000 to 120,000 prisoners cycled through Stutthof.37
Herman Falk was born on July 11, 1905, in the Chortitza Colony. Before his carrier in the SS, Falk was a cashier. He listed his current residence as Danzig. It is unclear when he made the journey from Chortitza to Danzig, but he joined the NSDAP on May 1, 1936, so it would appear that he moved sometime before this. He was a member of the Reserve Police from July 4, 1939 to October 31, 1941 and then he entered the Waffen-SS on November 1, 1941. He was appointed to the position of SS-Rottführer on April 30, 1942, which would be the highest rank for enlisted men, equivalent to Corporal. His confession of faith was Gottgläubig. He served at the concentration camp Stutthof as well.38
Another possible Mennonite was Johann Janzen. Janzen was born on January 10, 1916, in the village of Rosental, Ukraine. Rosental was a village that was part of the Mennonite Chortitza colony. His father was Heinrich Janzen, and his mother's maiden name was Agathe Krüger. He joined the Wehrmacht on August 24, 1941 and held the status of Gefreiter (corporal). On December 27, 1944, a letter was sent from the first lieutenant and ranking officer of the artillery battery requesting the recognition of German citizenship for Janzen, under the decree that Hitler made on May 19, 1943.39
Peter Janzen was born on October 7, 1919, in Münstenburg, which is near Melitopol, Ukraine. Münstenburg, more commonly known as Münsterburg, was a part of the Molotschna colony. Janzen listed his ancestral line as coming from the Neufeld and Neumann family. Janzen attended a German school from September 1926 to June 1930, and then worked as a farm hand in the collective there until October 1, 1940, when he was drafted into the Red Army. He was trained in Kaluga, near Moscow until June 22, 1941 and then went to the front lines. On July 7, 1941, he defected to the Wehrmacht. He received permission to leave the army and return to his family on May 15, 1942. When he returned home, however, his family was gone. His father, David Janzen, had died on June 16, 1941, and his mother, Anna (Schröder) Janzen had been deported to Siberia. Janzen stayed in Münstenburg for a short while and then returned to the Wehrmacht. His captain reported that he was of exceptional character and that his soldierly conduct was impeccable.40
Jack Reimer, in 1918, was born in the village of Friedensdorf, which was a part of the Molotschna colony.41 He recalled growing up Mennonite and his family being very religious. When describing his childhood he recalled that they lived by Matthew chapter five,
to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.42 Reimer grew up on a collective farm under Soviet rule and his family experienced persecution. His father was imprisoned and his brother was exiled. He and his brother and mother had to flee to another Mennonite settlement when they suspected that the two boys also were at risk for arrest. Reimer became involved at a racetrack nearby, training horses, which was his first real exposure to Russian. Reimer then decided to get a Russian education, seeing it as a way to advance within the Soviet Union. After this exposure to Russian society, Reimer joined the Red Army, beginning officers training in 1940. He quickly advanced in the army, earning the rank of second lieutenant, despite his humble circumstances growing up, possibly from joining the Komsomol or Communist Party previously. On one occasion along the Soviet-Polish border, the German army surrounded his unit. He, along with a number of other officers, changed into civilian clothing in order to report back to his army on German movement. On July 6, 1941, he was captured when the German army became suspicious that some members of the Soviet army were disguised as members of the public.43
Reimer admitted to being afraid of the Germans finding out about his German heritage, thinking that they might hold it against him. He tried to lay low until later he learned that those of German heritage were actually being treated with more privilege as long as they had not had a chance to emigrate to Germany but had chosen to remain. In September 1941, he volunteered to serve as a translator and was soon after transferred from the Wehrmacht to the SS. The SS transferred him to the Trawniki training camp, located in Poland. The Soviet POWs in the camp went through a six-week training course that taught them Nazi ideology and German military terminology.44
Reimer ended up training Soviet POWs through military drills, as well as disciplining them, and he also played a role in carrying out the final solution. In 1943, Adolph Hitler ordered that Volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans living outside of Germany, who were serving in the German army should be able to apply for citizenship, which Reimer took advantage of.45 Reimer served for the Germans during the remainder of the war. In July 1944, the Soviets took over Trawniki, while the personnel of the camp, including Reimer, retreated. Reimer, during his retreat met a woman named Ludmila Davidovicz, who had been suspected of being a Jew, and kept her near him for the remainder of the war. He used her to his advantage in escaping through Czechoslovakia. He made sure to dispose of his military identification papers to also aid his escape. After the war Reimer worked in a U.S. Army hospital in Regensburg, Bavaria, and later used this connection to help him eventually make his way into the United States where he lived for almost forty years without any trouble. It was not until 1980 that Reimer began to come under suspicion and eventually a case was opened against him in an attempt to revoke his citizenship.46
The most controversial part of Reimer's role in the war is the fact that he may have taken innocent lives. There was one instance in Reimer's time with the SS where he might have had the opportunity to fire on inmates of the camp. It is difficult, however, to tell exactly what happened because of the discrepancies in testimonies. Reimer, throughout his trial, United States vs. Jack Reimer, was inconsistent in many of the details that he shared with his interviewers. This particular instance is one of many cases in which his story changes. The situation was that Reimer, along with SS men, were gathered around a pit, which was full of bodies. Reimer stated that he believed the bodies to be those of civilians, as he did not see any wearing uniforms. He also stated that he had no idea who they were, that
The Jewish persecution was under the strictest secrecy...at that time we had no idea who they were. We didn't even know anything about Jewish persecution. He said he just went ahead and assumed that they must have been criminals or that there was a court order to kill them.47 Reimer claimed he must have been unconscious when the men in the pit were actually killed, and said he had heard no shots during the time, and that when he came to they gave the order to fire, even though they all appeared dead. He did mention though that he thought someone might have made a motion at his or her head. Reimer stated at one point that he had not participated at all, that he fired above the bodies. At another instance however, Reimer was asked about the man who had pointed at his head. The conversation went:
You finished him off?
I'm afraid so. I don't know if I hit his head. I don't know that.
Reimer said he had to make an effort while the German was watching him. When asked if he participated in the execution of the Jews, Reimer had responded,
It seems that way.
Later Reimer says that this conversation was wrong and that he did not fire a shot at all.48
Then there were those men who listed themselves as Mennonites specifically. Viktor Fast was one of these men. Fast was born on March 3, 1919, in Spat, Crimea. Spat was a Mennonite village, founded by a group of Mennonites from the Molotschna colony, who bought land in Crimea in 1881.49 Fast's father was Cornelius Fast and his mother was Helene (Wiens) Fast. Fast claimed both himself and his parents as Mennonite in faith. According to documents included in his naturalization process, Fast volunteered to join the Germany army and moved to Germany in November of 1941. He stated that he wanted to be a German soldier because he felt like a German and wished to remain in Germany. His employer confirmed that he was hard working and had a good German attitude. The authorities took his voluntary application to be a soldier as a commitment to the German people, stating,
Fast is of German descent. [He] comes from a Black Sea German Mennonite Family. His voluntary registration to the German Wehrmacht is interpreted to be a commitment to the German people, as the old Russian Mennonites in the past were exempt from military service.50
SS member Isaak Fast similarly claimed Mennonite on his military papers. Fast was born on April 4, 1915, in Baarenhof. Like Karthaus, where Alfred Albrecht was born, Baarenhof was located in the Free City of Danzig and in the military papers on Fast it was labeled as a Protestant community. His father's name was Hans Peter Fast, born in Neumünsterberg, and his mother's maiden name was Maria Katharina Bergmann. Both of Fast's parents were listed as Mennonite as well.51 An exact date for when Fast joined the SS could not be found, but he was on record by October of 1941, signifying that he joined sometime before this date.52
Wilhelm Fast was born on December 14, 1903, in Petershagen. Petershagen was a village in the Gross-Werder district, which was in the Danzig environs.53 Wilhelm stated that he was Mennonite on his Stammkarte, which was the card on which he gave the information of his background and origins. Also on his Stammkarte, he listened his learned occupation as a roofer and his current job as a roofer and construction worker. He married Margarete Willms on August 16, 1930 and his permanent residence was Tiegenhof, located near Danzig. Fast became a Nazi party member on December 1, 1936. He was in the Reserve Police from August 1, 1939 until October 31, 1941 and joined the Waffen-SS on November 1, 1941. As a member of the SS, he was stationed at the concentration camp, Stutthof, similar to Albrecht and Falk. He held the rank of SS-Rottführer.
Within these cases there are a number of different circumstances listed. Three men, Wilhelm Fast, Isaak Fast, and Viktor Fast are all listed as Mennonite on their papers. Two men, Jack Reimer and Johann Janzen do not have a particular religion listed but both clearly have a Mennonite background. Aron Regehr and Alfred Albrecht were both instances where they declared Gottgläubig. Aron Regehr even so blatantly recognized his Mennonite background and in one part his files he listed himself as Protestant but then later changed it to Gottgläubig. Jacob Janzen and Johann Siebert both listed Protestant as their faith.
The importance of the status of their religion is complex. The fact that some men listed their religion as Protestant could mean two things. The first being that despite the fact that they were clearly from a Mennonite background, they were no longer Mennonite by faith but were in fact Protestant, which would redefine them as being only ethnic Mennonites. The other option is that they were Mennonite by faith, but listed Protestant as an alternative because it would be a more acceptable status. The two main religions in Germany were Catholic and Protestant; Mennonite was not well known. Also, Protestants were more sympathetic and supportive of the Nazi regime. They made up the majority of the SS, and a 1939 report on the religion of these members stated,
One can be certain that the Protestant portion of the population displays greater appreciation for the struggle and the task of the SS, and hence is more readily recruited from than the Catholic [portion].55
Despite the support of the NSDAP by the Protestants, the relations between the church and the party were continuously declining, which was a reflection of the NSDAP's tendency to move away from religion. Although Gottgläubig was not required, it was adopted by many of the main figures of the Nazi party, such as Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich. May 1939 also demonstrated the push to get rid of religion, when pastors as well as
those Volk comrades who are strongly committed confessionally were no longer allowed to be members of the NSDAP.56 There was obvious pressure to give up one's confession, or to not be to dedicated to one's confession.
The men's listed confessions sheds light on their commitment to the Mennonite faith, as well as their commitment to the Nazi cause. For the men who listed Gottgläubig, especially those in the Wehrmacht, it could signify their voluntary commitment to serving under the Nazi power, because Gottgläubig was not required. Still, it is true that Gottgläubig was still more common in the SS than the Wehrmacht, so to be a Gottgläubiger in the Wehrmacht is even more so a sign of voluntary action. This is further illustrated by two of soldiers who defected across enemy lines to join the Wehrmacht. Furthermore, many of the men also requested citizenship to Germany. Reimer claimed that he was forced to apply, however, only a fraction of ethnic Germans in Trawniki chose to apply, which proved his deliberate application.57 This same decision would have applied to the other men as well.
Such conclusions reveal the importance of the ambiguity of Mennonite identity. While all of these men are classified as Mennonites, they come from two separate backgrounds of Mennonite populations and identify with different beliefs. There were no defining lines to determine which groups of men would resort to a certain action. Within each category of faith, there were men from both the SS and Wehrmacht, both the Danzig area and Ukraine, or who served in the Red Army or who were drafted straight to the Wehrmacht. The only distinction which held true was that only those men who were members of the SS were also party members, but even this was slightly ambiguous because these party members or party candidates were born both in Ukraine and the Danzig area. Despite all of these blurred lines and complicated distinctions, all of the men ultimately ended up in the same category: perpetrators.
Social and Economic Factor
The first argument for why these Mennonites might have gone against their beliefs is in fact that maybe they did not. The beliefs of the Mennonites began to evolve and change so much over the course of time that by the twentieth century Mennonites in Europe were not as convicted in many of their beliefs. They had begun to conform to the world around them and so lost sight of their original Mennonite faith. Hans-Jürgen Goertz argued that the Mennonites were facing a crisis around the time of World War II. They had felt a need for some time to assimilate into society, losing their nonconformity. They began to feel it necessary to prove their patriotism to those around them. They chose to do this in a number of different ways, including joining the army. Goertz asserted that the characteristics of Mennonite beliefs continued to be taught in the church, but they no longer aroused excitement and conviction among those receiving them, something that can sometimes be related to, even today in the Mennonite church.
The loss of some of the Mennonite beliefs may have begun as early as the Charter of Privileges. When the Charter was created, the Mennonites' legal status was then connected with their involvement in the church. John D. Roth argued that those born into Mennonite society at the time did not really have a choice any longer whether or not to become members of the church. It became unclear what would happen to those who opted out of the Mennonite faith because legal status was so closely connected with church membership. As time went on being Mennonite was just as much about ethnicity as it was about faith.59 Such a connection probably meant that there were increasing amounts of people who would be considered Mennonite by the state but whose beliefs did not necessarily line up with those of the Mennonite faith.
Preservation of Life
Some men felt the pressure to serve under the German military because they felt that it was a life or death matter. Jack Reimer is an excellent example of such a case. Jack Reimer was captured by the German military and so became a Soviet POW. Conditions for Soviet POWs under the power of the Germans were certainly not ideal. Throughout the entire war, the Germans captured almost six million Soviet soldiers, and over half of these men died in captivity.60 Men died not only by German orders to shoot, but also starvation played a large role in many Soviet deaths. There were in fact orders by the German commanders to give the Soviets as little food as possible. On average, working POWs were given only 15,400 calories per week, whereas their German counterparts were fed 24,203 calories per week. Along with these orders, there was also simply a lack of preparation of the German military, which resulted in deaths for the POWs. The Germans were hardly prepared to take care of themselves during the harsh conditions on the Eastern front, so clearly they were not prepared with adequate supplies to take care of Soviet POWs. Not only was there not enough food to go around, but also in the winter months, there was a definite lack of warm clothing. POWs were refused medical care to their wounded, and were forced to do a large amount of manual labor and carry out dangerous tasks, such as clearing out mine fields, due to the lack of manpower on the Germans side.61 It was conditions such as these that were the cause of the high fatalities of Soviet soldiers in the hands of the German military.
It is natural, of course, that men who were in such a difficult situation, where their chance of survival was very minimal, would look for a way out. Reimer was not one who just went straight out to volunteer because he believed in the Nazis' cause. He was not looking to eliminate an entire race when he joined forces with the SS. Rather it was a matter that had he remained in the POW camp, his death would have been almost inevitable. Eric C. Steinhart describes Reimer as a chameleon, saying that he
altered his biography, thereby thriving in a dangerous milieu...Reimer's ability to reinvent himself made him the quintessential chameleon.62 This does not by any means justify his actions, but it does give insight. Human instincts are often hard to overcome, and in such a difficult situation as the one that Reimer had to face, it is never easy to determine what is the best decision, or to judge what exactly will be the outcome of such a decision. Reimer probably never imagined that volunteering to be a translator for the Germans in order to save his own life would lead him to guard duty outside a Jewish ghetto, or looking down into a pit full of murdered Jews.
Difficulties in Russia also contributed to these Mennonites being inclined to join the German army. The Mennonite struggle in Russia began in World War I. The Mennonites were very loyal to Russia, wanting to help in anyway they could, without violating their pacifist beliefs. Many Mennonites served as medical personnel, attending to the wounded Russian soldiers, while others served in the forestry service. In order to keep this program going they had to use their own money, rather than money from the state, but they were willing to do so to further show their dedication. Despite this, however, the Mennonites, along with other ethnic Germans, fell victim to hate campaigns and persecution, often times coming from the press. These anti-German sentiments not only attacked the Mennonites verbally, but also through shutting down their German-language newspapers. The German language was also no longer allowed to be used for religious instruction or to be studied in school. This was a huge blow for the Mennonites because the German language was central to their faith. A decree in 1915 proposed the expropriation of German-held land and the deportation of colonists. It was these circumstances that were the beginning of the end of the loyalty of the Mennonites toward Russia.63
The October Revolution of 1917 only increased the Mennonite distrust of the government. Once the Bolsheviks came to power they placed certain Mennonite villages, such as Halbstadt and Gnadenfeld, under local councils known as soviets. These soviets were generally made up of poorer people who resented the wealthier class and used their power to improve their own economic status, often at the expense of the Mennonites. They had the support of the Red Army troops, and on one occasion, on February 5, 1918, they commandeered goods, livestock, machinery and money at gunpoint. This event is known as the Halbstadt Days. It makes perfect sense then, when the German army arrived in the Mennonite villages in Mid-April of 1918, that the Mennonites would welcome them with open arms. They had not enjoyed their encounter with anarchy and bolshevism.64 The Germany army occupied the villages at this time because of the recent Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, passed in March 1918, which was a peace treaty between Germany and Russia, in which Germany received a portion of Russian land.
The Mennonites were relieved to have the German army take over their villages, giving them relief from the terrors of living under the Bolshevik regime.
Then came the Germans! ... Some circles feared that the enthusiasm for them would not be too high. Others asserted that it would come regardless because the pressure (Bolshevik) had been too great. So it was. It is difficult to describe how spirits soared once the Germans arrived and dispersed the Bolsheviks.65
The German army helped the villages organize Selbstschutz, which were local militia that were intended to serve as self-defense against the large-scale banditry and violence that was common at the time. Although many Mennonites were hesitant to participate in such organizations, the German Army played in active role in convincing many youth to join. The glamour of the army was appealing to the youth, as well as the fact that the troops recruited among the Mennonites to partake in drills, not requiring that they carry rifles while doing so.66
This view of the Germans as their liberators, and their interaction with the army, along with the decreasing allegiance of the Mennonites to Russia, as well as their already existing history, and the importance of the German language in their everyday lives, increased nationalistic sentiments towards Germany. Viktor Fast in just one example of a Mennonite who felt this way, and allowed his German ties to influence his decision to serve in the German army. Fast stated on one of his naturalization forms, that he wanted to become a German soldier because he felt German and wished to remain in Germany.67
The welcoming behavior of the Mennonites to the Germany army, and the participation in military drills, however, backfired when the German army withdrew in November 1918. With this withdrawal was an increase in violence and banditry, often led by Nestor Makhno. The Selbstschutz was allowed to continue to operate, even though many Mennonites were concerned by the increased militarism in the villages. When the Selbstschutz collapsed in 1919, it seemed as though perhaps the Mennonite involvement in violence was finally over, however when the white army temporarily occupied the villages in early June 1919, some Mennonites chose to join forces with them as well. These actions, despite the fact that they were by a minority of Mennonites, caused the Bolshevik government to associate Mennonites with counter-revolutionary movements, increasing the terror inflicted upon the villages.68
The sentiments of the Mennonites towards Russia were clearly no longer positive. One man stated:
The Mennonites no longer have a fatherland in Russia. We already had ample opportunity to realize this prior to the war, but now, through war, civil war, and violence we have reached the conclusion and conviction that we are only tolerated guests in Russia...The events of recent years have brought us to the point where we see in every Russian - not individually but as a representative of his nation - our oppressor, tyrant and enemy.69
Already the Mennonites had faced anti-German propaganda in the press during World War I and the Bolshevik revolution with all of the violence and terror that came along with that. Unfortunately their struggles were not over, because with Stalin's installation of the Five Year Plan, they had to undergo even more changes and difficulties. With the food shortages in 1927 and 1928, Stalin and the communist regime were concerned about how they could access the grain that was in the hands of the peasants. The peasants at this time were producing 85 percent of the grain and were consuming 80 percent of it. The solution that the government came up with was collectivization and dekulakization. This would allow the government to regulate the amount of grain that the peasants were required to give them, and it would eliminate the capitalist element of the peasants.70
The definition of a Kulak included not only those peasants who were well to do, but also included those who resisted the regime, such as religious leaders. This had a big impact on the Mennonites because it made it difficult for the Mennonites to continue their religious practices. Also, a large number of Mennonites were considered Kulaks and were exiled to the Urals or Siberia, with little or no provisions. Conditions in exile were extremely poor, with no food, no warm clothing with withstand winter, and difficult working situations.71
By 1936, 90 percent of households were under collectivization. The Mennonites, along with many other peasants resisted these collectives. There were different forms of resistance, but the most common forms were smaller, although they had a big impact. Many people under collectivization chose to burn their crops or kill their livestock to prevent them from falling into the hands of the collectives. These actions contributed to the second famine, which resulted in the death of five to ten million people.72
Many of the men in this study all grew up during these times of chaos. Viktor Fast, Jack Reimer, Johann Janzen, Aron Regehr, Jakob Janzen, Hermann Falk, Peter Janzen and Johann Siebert would have all been exposed to these circumstances in the Ukraine, which would have influenced their view of the Soviet Union and Germany. Based on their documents we see that these experiences had an impact on their lives. Jakob Janzen mentioned that his family had to be evacuated to Siberia, no doubt because of the collectivization or dekulakization in the Soviet Union, while Aron Regehr served as a farm hand on one of the collective farms, and mentions that his family had to flee because of
Bolshevik measures. Reimer's family also had to flee at one point. These first hand experiences of the atrocities encouraged the idea of Germany as liberators and gave a chance to fight against the nation that had put them through so many struggles. It was also an opportunity to escape from the conditions that they were currently living in.
Antisemitism also played a role in Mennonite decisions. There were a number of different places that antisemitism could really be seen. The first one is in newspapers and Mennonite publications at the time. Some of these publications included Der Bote, which was actually published in Rosthern, Canada, as well as Mennonitische Rundschau, which was the largest German-language newspaper, published in Winnipeg. There were also hints of antisemitism in articles published in the Mennonitische Volkswarte, which was a non-religious journal that, like the Mennonitische Rundschau, was printed in Winnipeg, but was sold in Germany. These newspapers and journals were perfect opportunities for men to spread the national socialist agenda as well as antisemitic beliefs.73 The editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau was notorious for being a Nazi sympathizer, and allowed a large portion of the newspaper to be filled by pro-German propagandists.74 Herman H. Neufeld was the editor from 1923-1945, and grew up Sergeyevka, Ukraine until 1917, when his family moved to Germany and then three years later to Cananda.75 Dietrich H. Epp was the editor of Der Bote and was born in the Chortiza colony. He immigrated to Canada in 1923. These men filled the pages with articles on preserving the precious German blood and the racial superiority of the Germans, as well as keeping the land pure. It is possible that because they were so recently immigrated from Europe, they brought with them sentiments that would have been shared by Mennonites still found in the colonies in Ukraine and Prussia.
Another area in which antisemitism could be seen was in classrooms of German Mennonite schools. One teacher in particular, Heinrich Schroeder, was well known for spreading antisemitism to his school children. Schroeder was born in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna but during the Russian revolution fled to Germany. Many of his class discussions resulted in negative viewpoints of Jews. One example of a conversation dealt with the German language. The students said that the language had to do with feelings, and that it came from the heart. They said that the German language was the voice of the blood, and that some people could not grasp this because they did not have any German blood. Their examples of who these people might be were the Jews. The conversation continued:
Teacher: But the Jews speak German.
Ernst: Because they moved to Germany and learned the German language.
Rudi: They learned the language, but did not feel it!
There was a small number of Mennonites who participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust, either in the Wehrmacht or the SS. This is generally an unusual position for Mennonites to take up, but can be more easily understood when looking at the situations and conditions that the men were placed in. The Mennonite men in this study were all from similar backgrounds yet chose very different religious statuses. There were a number of factors that played a part in these decisions, such as the pressure that Himmler placed on Gottgläubig and then also the fact that Mennonite would fall under the category of Protestant, which some of the men chose. These different religious statuses can give insight into the varying degrees of dedication to either the Mennonite faith or Nazi ideology.
There were also a number of other circumstances that played a role in the Mennonite men's decisions to join the Germany army at all. These factors included the increased militarism and move away from pacifism in European Mennonite villages in the years leading up to World War II, and the fact that some of the men felt it was necessary to save their lives, as was the case with Jack Reimer. Nationalistic feelings and strong German ties that Mennonites felt towards Germany also played a role, along with the poor situations in the Soviet Union which were centered around anti-German attitudes in World War I, and persecution and collectivization under the Bolshevik Regime. Antisemitic feelings among some Mennonites also played a role. All of these factors were reason for the men to feel as if, despite the fact that their forefathers were extremely dedicated to a pacifist way of life, joining the German army was the best option for them at the time. Although many of them probably did not realize it, this decision would lead them to be perpetrators in one of the most tragic events in world history.