Some modern writers have considered the early Anabaptists to be forerunners of Marxian Communism (K. Kautzky, Die Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus. . . ; Erich Kuttner, Het Hongerjaar 1563). Even the Mennonite historian K. Vos was somewhat inclined toward this interpretation, while his Dutch colleague W. Kühler claimed to have evidence that a great number of the early Anabaptists belonged to the middle and upper classes. B. H. Unruh dealt with this problem in "Die Revolution und das Täufertum" (Gedenkschrift . . . , 1925: 1947), and Robert Kreider investigated the "Vocations of Swiss and South German Anabaptists" (Mennonite Life, January 1953), coming to the conclusion that "landowner and peasant, patrician and servant, master and apprentice were baptized together."
Many writers did not distinguish between the peaceful Anabaptists who later became known as Mennonites and the radical wing which ended with the catastrophe of Münster and the Batenburgers. To what extent even the two latter could be considered forerunners of modern Communism is a matter of opinion. Nevertheless the theme of the Münsterites and other radicals of the Reformation has not only been a matter of investigation of scholars and a welcome label for contemporaries to be used for all who deviated from the Catholic and Protestant established religious systems, but it has also been a favorite subject for novelists and dramatists to the present day (Mennonite Life, April 1952: 86-87).
One of the common charges leveled at the early Anabaptists in the contemporary polemical literature, which appears repeatedly from the very beginning in Zürich in 1525, both in the court trials and disputations, and in attacks in pamphlets and books (Zwingli, Bullinger, Melanchthon, et al.), is that they taught and practiced communism, i.e., community of goods. Grebel and Manz had to defend themselves against this charge in their first trial in 1525, and Melanchthon makes it a major point in his Underricht wider die Lere der widertauffer of 1528, before either the Hutterite or the Münsterite practices could have been the ground for the accusation. Actually the early Swiss and German Anabaptists taught and practiced the sharing of their goods to support the needy brethren, but they never taught nor practiced community of goods as an ethical principle or as a socio-economic order. Their principle of Christian mutual aid, misunderstood or misrepresented by their enemies, was probably the cause for the charge of communism.
Among the peaceful Anabaptists who have survived persecution, the Hutterites deserve mention. They are Christian "communists," practicing a community of goods which they base on strictly Biblical principles, having nothing in common with Marxian materialistic philosophy. They practice a voluntary group communism, in contrast to a state communism established and maintained by force as the only permissible way of life.
A large percentage of the Mennonites in Europe have been forced to confront Communism in our day. The Mennonites of Russia have been under Communism for the longest period of time and have suffered most. After the NEP period, when Stalin introduced the present rigid totalitarian Marxist line, liquidating private ownership, forcing all farmers into collectives and the kulaks into slave-labor camps, and breaking up the social and religious life and educational system of the Mennonites, it became apparent to most of the Mennonites in Russia that there was no room for a Christian democratic form of life in a Stalinist-Marxian society. Their petition to the government of Moscow in 1924 to grant them certain basic freedoms which they considered a minimum for the maintenance of their way of life was ignored (Smith, Story of the Mennonites : 505). Some were so fortunate as to escape Russia at this time, while those that remained lost not only all the rights once given to the Mennonites of Russia but also all basic freedoms of any modern society.
At a Russian Mennonite congress in 1917 the relationship between Socialism and Christianity was discussed. One speaker stated that Christianity was not tied directly to any economic system whether socialistic or capitalistic, while another maintained that socialism was more closely related to Christianity than capitalism, although Christianity and socialism were not identical. Whatever the attitude of the Mennonites was toward socialism, they soon found out that there was no bridge between Christianity and Russian Marxian Communism. After World War I some 35,000 Mennonites of Russia, one third of the total number, escaped and found new homes in the Americas, mostly in Canada. During World War II about 25,000 Mennonites were evacuated from Russia to the West, of whom nearly two thirds were forcibly repatriated by the Russians and sent to Siberia and one third ultimately found their way to Canada or South America, a few remaining in Germany.
As an outcome of World War II and the extension of the Iron Curtain westward, all Mennonites of Danzig, Prussia, Poland, and Galicia were evacuated from their homes and countries. Some were taken to Russian slave-labor camps, some perished, and most of the others are still living in western Germany. Nearly 2,000 have found their way to North and South America, particularly Uruguay.
About 120,000 Mennonites have been affected directly by Communism, most of whom have lost their homes and other property. This number constitutes about one third of the Mennonites of the world. The number that was affected indirectly was much greater. All Mennonites originally coming from countries now behind the Iron Curtain have lost relatives. Those who left Russia since World War I have lost all their property and many family members.
In the Far East it is China where Mennonite missions have been affected by Communism. All missionaries have left China and it is impossible at this time to determine how much of their work has been destroyed. -- Cornelius Krahn
Writing in the 1950s, when communism was seen in monolithic terms, Cornelius Krahn pointed out that one-third of all Mennonites had been directly affected by communism through the loss of homes, life, and property, and many others were affected indirectly. Further, the communist success in China had meant the end of Mennonite missions there. It is a fair generalization to say that for a major part of the Mennonites of Russian and Prussian background in North America, communism still tends to be equated with anarchy, with Stalinism, with war and suffering.
This perception has remained, due to the continued persecution of "our own people" (relatives and Mennonites in the Soviet Union), due to the information about the Khrushchev campaign to eliminate religion, and the ongoing information about prisoners of conscience and less extreme forms of discrimnation. Mennonite perceptions were influenced by the anticommunist movements in North America and popular fears of communist expansion that fed the Cold War.
Initial interpreters of the Soviet communist impact, e.g., B. H. Unruh, writing in the 1930s, tended to see in Nazism (National Socialism) a bulwark against communism, which led him to reformulations of Mennonite distinctives that allowed military participation against this evil. In the 1950s such scholars as J. Lawrence Burkholder, Donovan Smucker, and Melvin Gingerich analyzed communist philosophies in the context of Mennonite efforts to articulate a peace position in the midst of the Cold War. The general Mennonite attitude to communism remains a major obstacle to developing a peace practice with integrity, since the fears engendered by personal and group trauma, plus the propaganda impact of western Sovietology which remains heavily partisan, has caused many Mennonites to vote for politicians of the peace-through-military-and-nuclear-strength school, while seeking personal exemption from military service or supporting peace efforts in Asian, African, and Latin American settings.
Nevertheless, both the communist practice and Mennonite perceptions of it have changed to some extent. Mennonite workers encountered communist societies firsthand through relief and development work, and thus were forced to compare differences between the Soviet Union, East European countries, and Central America. The usual approach was to maintain a political neutrality, for example, to witness to peace in Vietnam by giving aid and being present with personnel before and after the change of government in 1975.
Thus far, Mennonite reflections on communist diversity, or efforts to understand communism's persistent appeal to underprivileged peoples, have resulted in an emphasis on the possibility of Christian witness in word and deed in communist societies,but communist or even other socialist theories of development (an essential part of communist self-understanding) have not been taken seriously by Europe and North America. Growing experience in Eastern Europe and China through exchange programs has led to some ecumenical dialogue with churches now forced to be voluntaristic churches in an aggressively secular society. Mennonite congregations were present in the following communist countries in 1988: Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Ethiopia, Angola, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mennonites working in development efforts outside and, as part of the Three Self movement, China. -- Walter Sawatsky
Kauffman, J. Howard and Harder, Leland, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 1975: 143-144.
Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. Newton, KS, 1950.
Stumpp, Karl. Bericht über das Gebiet Chortitza. Berlin, 1943.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 655-656; vol. 5, pp. 172-173. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and Walter W. Sawatsky. "Communism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C65418.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius and Walter W. Sawatsky. (1988). Communism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C65418.html.