IN DEFENSE OF PRIVILEGE: RUSSIAN MENNONITES AND THE STATE BEFORE AND DURING WORLD WAR I.
KINDRED PRODUCTIONS, 2006.
As this book’s title suggests, Russian Mennonites were a privileged people. In place of compulsory military service, men were allowed to do forestry work. Many were also privileged because they owned a lot of good land, acquired in part from landowners who could not pay their workers after the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s.
In the years before World War I, however, the tsarist government, which wanted to place all Russian citizens on equal footing, threatened Mennonites with the loss of their military exemption. To make matters worse, the government also threatened them with the loss of their land, since it regarded them as Germans, and Germany was rapidly becoming Russia’s enemy.
Much of this book deals with the apparently incon- sistent Mennonite response to these threats.
Hoping to see their exemption from military service maintained, the Mennonites insisted that, contrary to what unfriendly outsiders suggested, they were not a “sect” stemming from the Reformation’s violent revolutionaries at Muenster. Rather, they were a nonresistant Christian group with a pre-Reformation heritage. (While the first part was true, the second was not, as later historians have shown.)
The Mennonites’ sometimes-violent response to bandits and the Bolsheviks in the two years prior to 1920 was not, however, consistent with their claim to nonresistance. Simply put, when it came to defending their country they were nonresistant, but when it came to the preservation of their wealth and the safety of their families they were ready to resort to violence.
Hoping to keep their land and, somewhat later, hoping to emigrate, the Mennonites now also claimed to be Dutch rather than German in origin. It was even suggested that as people of Dutch heritage they left their Polish/Prussian homeland because it was becoming too German.
But when it suited their purposes, both during the German occupations of south Russia in 1918 and from 1941-1943, and during their desperate attempt to emigrate via Moscow in 1929, they were prepared to see themselves as Germans and to seek Germany’s help. After World War II those who had made it to the West once again found it advantageous to claim Dutch ancestry.
This book also deals extensively with the tensions created by the “Baptist” behaviour of the Mennonite Brethren, shown especially in their support of evangelism among Orthodox Russians. Other Mennonites feared this activity might lead to the loss of the Mennonite privileges.
Two Mennonite Brethren figure prominently in the book. The first is B.B. Janz, then an emerging leader and always a man of consistency. He urged that the Mennonites live by their nonresistant teaching, no matter how difficult the circumstances. The second, Heinrich J. Braun, is not as well-known in Canada because Germany became his new home. His many involvements included the Raduga Press, which created evangelistic literature for the Russians.
In Defense of Privilege may be seen as too critical of Mennonites, who often needed to find their way in very difficult circumstances. When one is of mixed heritage (in this case Dutch and German), how wrong is it to claim the heritage that best suits the occasion, especially when one’s life may be at stake? When faced by those who would do them harm, how wrong is it to use force to defend one’s loved ones? It’s easy to give quick answers.
On the other hand, this book may also be seen as a call in defense not of privilege but of consistent Christian living and continued faithfulness in evangelism, both “in season and out of season.”
Although somewhat repetitive, this 520-page book is very informative, thoroughly researched, and abounding in background information and context. Those familiar with the Russian Mennonite story will find their understanding of the period enhanced and clarified. Others may wish to begin with a more basic history.
ED LENZMANN IS A RETIRED WINNIPEG TEACHER AND VOLUNTEER AT THE CENTRE FOR MB STUDIES.