National Socialism (Nazism) (Germany)

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At the beginning of the 19th century German Mennonites finally gained full citizenship. This shift in status -- along with the growing nationalist sentiment, the economic success of the German Mennonites, and their respect of their neighbors -- encouraged social integration. The traditional Anabaptist detachment from state and society was being lost. By the beginning of the 20th century, government was often being understood as belonging to "God's order," thereby meriting far-reaching obedience. Another outside influence was 18th and 19th century Pietism, for which personal sanctification had a higher priority than centering one's life around the congregation. In addition, Luther's teaching on heavenly and earthly authorities was gaining acceptance. As religion became privatized, nonconformity was deprived of its significance. Assimilation into a more prevalent religiosity was also accompanied by the abandonment of nonresistance and a readiness to take on public office. In National Socialism (Nova Scotia, Canada), the growing willingness to bear arms was based on the commandment to "love thy neighbor," with "neighbor" understood here as a term of proximity rather than universality. Mennonites were politically inexperience -- as were most Germans. With the loss of World War I behind them, they were not in a position to resist the growing national resentment or the vengeful slogans; in many cases, National Socialist propaganda fell on fertile soil.

Mennonites in West Prussia were particularly affected by the results of World War I. Their "home" was divided between three states, so that if they wished to come together as a whole they were faced with the borders of Germany, Poland, and the Free State of Danzig (Gdansk). Anticommunism—a basic tenet of National Socialism—was strengthened among German Mennonites through awareness of nearly 30,000 Mennonite refugees from Russia, as the Bolshevik Revolution had led to the destruction of many blossoming Russian Mennonite communities. Also, Mennonites were like many Germans in not accepting the Weimar Republic with its cumbersome democratic-parliamentary procedures, even though the Weimar constitution had fulfilled their longstanding desire for the separation of church and state. But party maneuvers, libertarianism in the press, and frequent public and political scandals left Mennonites open to Hitler's promise to create a "strong new order." His appeal to idealism and community, and his emphasis on "positive Christianity" also met with approval. The burning of the Reichstag, the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz), the boycott of Jewish businesses, or the construction of concentration camps could have been "danger signals," but either they were not perceived as such or Mennonites repressed such uneasiness as it arose. And while the Weimar Republic's economic policies had led toward the demise of German agriculture, Hitler's plan for "national self-sufficiency" opened the way for economic recovery in the farmlands; the Law on Entailed Estates (Erbhofgesetz) and governmental regulation of debts ("breaking the bonds of capitalist usury") were also important in this regard. As farmers, most Mennonites profited from these policies.

Mennonites also differed little from their fellow Germans in their endorsement of Hitler's "seizure of power" on 30 January 1933. Many of them were swept along with the prevailing enthusiasm, this trend continuing until 1940. The persuasiveness of Hitler's manifold successes was so penetrating that the apathetic and the skeptical were pulled into the mass intoxication. On 10 September 1933 the Konferenz der ost-und-west-preussischen Mennoniten sent Hitler their salutations: "It is with profound thankfulness that our Conference senses the vast ascendancy which God has granted our Volk through your endeavors; for our part, we pledge our joyful collaboration in the reconstruction of our fatherland from the power of the Gospel." By that time, the board of trustees of the Vereinigung der Mennonitengemeinden im Deutschen Reich (Vereinigung) had already waived any claim to conscientious objection—voluntarily and without any provocation. The board explained that "in case compulsory military service is reintroduced, German Mennonites no longer wish to lay claim to any special privileges." This official position was widely endorsed, and was mentioned in many articles in various Mennonite periodicals. Contrary to their custom, a politicizing process was encroaching upon many Mennonites.

The Deutsche Christen (DC)—who advocated "the Gospel and Volksverbundenheit [national solidarity] of National Socialism"—started recruiting among Mennonite congregations in 1933, impressing many. The Konferenz der ost-und-westpreussischen Mennoniten twice called upon its members to exercise restraint in regard to the DC. Originally, the regime had wanted to see all denominations enrolled in one "confessional front" as a vehicle for carrying through its Führerprinzip (authoritarian principle) and Gleichschaltung (coordination of public, private, and legislative corporate bodies). With this policy in mind, representatives of the Vereinigung and the Verband badisch-württembergisch-bayischer Mennonitengemeinden (Verband) met during the winter of 1933-34 to work out a unification of German Mennonites based on a common confession. These efforts remained unsuccessful, and Mennonites evaded the regime's intention to introduce the Führerprinzip and Gleichschaltung. However, this did not have any consequences, since the government had already lost interest in the Gleichschaltung of the numerous smaller groups in German society, and the DC—the protagonist in this matter—had fallen into disfavor.

In the following period, youth work was intensified. A full-time youth worker (Jugendwart) was employed in 1935 by the Konferenz süddeutscher Mennoniten (KSM) and the Konferenz der ost-und-westpreussischen Mennoniten. In bringing the youth in the congregations together, the Judgendwart's role was to counter the influence of various National Socialist youth organizations. A number of retreats and youth conferences were organized, and a periodical, Die Mennonitsche Jugendwarte, was published regularly. Also, five nationwide Mennonite gatherings (Deutsche Mennonitentage) took place between 1935 and the outbreak of the war; these were intended to strengthen the sense of community among Mennonites. In addition, both conferences attempted to emphasize a specific Mennonite identity in appealing to the Party and to government bureaucracy to accept a "pledge" in place of an oath, although, admittedly, these efforts had more to do with an exchange of terms ("I solemnly promise" as opposed to "I swear") than with an uprising of conscience.

Once the initial excitement had subsided and the ideological claims of the National Socialist regime were becoming clearer and clearer, some Mennonites started to withdraw and a small number criticized certain government policies. A circle of young adults had formed a Rundbrief-Gemeinschaft ("circular letter society"), and used these circulars to discuss questions about faith, nonresistance, and the National Socialist ideology. Comments critical of the regime surfaced in the process; not surprisingly, the Rundbrief was discontinued in 1937 through indirect pressure by the Party. Gemeindeblatt, the periodical of the Verband, was closed down in 1941 after a Christmas meditation by Christian Neff described the war as a sin, as treading upon God's honor. Shortly thereafter all periodicals were discontinued because of a shortage of paper.

Despite anti-church propaganda, in operation since 1935, congregational life continued in its accustomed manner: worship services were held (although attendance went down in some congregations); communion was celebrated; younger sisters and brothers were taken into the congregation through baptism; and deacons, preachers, and elders were selected and consecrated for their respective tasks.

During the Third Reich, German Mennonites safeguarded the existence of their denomination, yet in that process they defended neither the gospel nor their Anabaptist heritage. They were tested by National Socialism and succumbed to its temptations because their theology was not based on solid ground. As a result, the Bible was interpreted to suit the demands of the times. Through a reorientation of their values—which was unconscious and certainly unconsidered—the gospel came to be understood as in line with the "system." As a consequence, rather than the world being Christianized, the gospel was secularized.


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Author(s) Diether Götz Lichdi
Date Published 1987

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Lichdi, Diether Götz. "National Socialism (Nazism) (Germany)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 21 Mar 2019.

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Lichdi, Diether Götz. (1987). National Socialism (Nazism) (Germany). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 March 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 616-618. All rights reserved.

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