From the burden of war to preaching peace
On Christmas Eve, 1941, in the front lines of a World War II battlefield, a young German officer named Siegfried Bartel had an experience that changed his life.
One of his soldiers was operating a listening device on the frozen no-man’s land between the enemy trenches. Bartel took the earphones, and heard, clearly, the Russian soldiers on the other side singing Christmas carols.
His thoughts flashed back to Christmas celebrations with his family. Were the enemy soldiers also remembering such family times as they sang about the birth of Christ? “Were they also wondering what ‘peace on earth’ meant during times of war?”
According to his memoir, Living with Conviction: German Army Captain Turns to Cultivating Peace (1994), the pacifism Bartel eventually came to “cherish” was born at that moment.
Bartel grew up in a pious Mennonite home in Prussia. Military service had ceased to be an issue for Prussian Mennonites, so in 1937, at age 22, he enlisted in the army. He was a committed Christian, and felt sure he was doing God’s will.
Bartel moved up the ranks quickly. He received the Iron Cross for bravery under heavy fire. He had close encounters with death. But his “darkest hour” came when he gave the order to execute a young man who had alerted partisan groups to the activities of Bartel and his unit. Little did he know, he writes, “that the guilt and pain of that action would go with me throughout the rest of my life!”
After Germany’s defeat, Bartel’s thinking, too, “lay in shambles.” He carried a “heavy burden” of doubts about his war experience and sometimes envied his many friends who had died.
In 1951, Bartel, his wife Erna, and their sons immigrated to Canada, where they farmed for many years in Agassiz, B.C. He became involved in various kinds of public work, including service on the board of Mennonite Central Committee for many years. When MCC Canada began dialogue on capital punishment in 1972, Bartel began to assess his past and search for biblical answers to his struggles.
“It became crystal clear,” he says, that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – had to be taken literally.
On November 11, 1988, at the general meeting of MCC Saskatchewan, Bartel spoke publicly about his change in convictions.
“After pleading guilty before God, I had received unlimited freedom to teach and to preach,” he writes. “My nightmares – seeing that young man standing before God, pointing his finger at me – were gone.”
Although some of the pain would remain, “admitting guilt, speaking publicly about failure, sin, and forgiveness” led Bartel to “such wonderful freedom…to move forward with God and to continue serving God’s people.”
Besides writing his autobiography, Bartel subsequently travelled to many churches and schools to tell his story and preach peace. Today, nearly 95 and recently widowed, he can no longer do this. But he remains involved in Eden Mennonite Church, Chilliwack, B.C., where he’s a member, and in Harrison Gospel Chapel, the nearby church he attends. And, he declared in a recent phone conversation, he’s still passionate about the message of peace.