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Prussian Mennonites in the Third Reich and beyond : the uneasy synthesis of national and religious myths Schroeder, Steven Mark

Abstract

The Mennonite people find their roots in the Swiss Anabaptist movement of the early sixteenth century. Both Catholic and Protestant persecution effectively dispersed the nonconformist, nonresistant Anabaptists throughout Europe in the first decades of the Reformation. A large group settled in the Netherlands, and came to be known as "Mennonites" after their leader, Menno Simons. By the mid-sixteenth century, many Mennonites had emigrated to Prussia, where they were promised military exemption and religious toleration. This study examines how the longstanding Mennonite tenets of faith, buttressed by specific cultural traditions, were slowly eroded in Prussia through the incorporation of nationalist ideals. The shifts were fueled by the Mennonites' desire to secure their place in the German nation-state and to partake in the advantages of cultural, religious and national assimilation. Over time, the Prussian Mennonites relinquished their time-honored beliefs in being "in but not of the world," in nonresistance, and in not swearing an oath to "anything under heaven or on earth." These changes became absolutely crucial to the maintenance of the Mennonite community in Prussia under Nazism, when all able-bodied Mennonite men willingly served in the German armed forces. The Prussian Mennonites succeeded in maintaining their community under National Socialism until the advancing Russian army destroyed it in 1944. The cost, however, was enormous. Just as all Germans face the continual struggle of rebuilding their nation and reforming their national identity, so too are the Mennonites faced with the ongoing challenges of rebuilding their community - physically, emotionally and spiritually. Those positively engaged in this process find themselves inextricably affected and constantly burdened by personal and popular memory, grappling, often unawares, with the politics of their representation. The conclusion to this study examines these responses of dissonance vis-a-vis the lingering questions that face the German Mennonites as they continue to deal with their own unique form of VergangenheitsbewGltigung (coming to terms with the past) within the broader German context.

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