Work Camps, Europe

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The Mennonite work camp movement is a particular adaptation of a phenomenon which has numerous precedents, including the following: (1) the idealistic flank of many socialist movements (e.g., the Israeli Kibbutzim and European socialists), as well as the labor movements related to socialism; (2) national political parties and governments which attempted to enlist especially the young; (3) religious movements (e.g., the Student Volunteer Movement and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, more recently, such new religious groups as the Unification Church); (4) other religious groups, e.g., the Unitarians and the Society of Friends (Quakers), who, through the American Friends Service Committee, conducted various types of work camps since World War I. This latter provided the closest connection for Mennonite activities (Lehman, Unruh, Kehler).

The central dynamic of the international work camp movement was the expression of idealism through practical assistance and a learning-growing experience for the participants (Gillette). The work project was normally clean-up work in parks, recreation areas, or war-torn communities; reconstruction of damaged or destroyed buildings (schools, churches, recreation centers); and various aspects of community organization and service (Gillette). The work camp movement received its main impetus from World War I and World War II, especially in Europe, but it spread to other parts of the world as well, e.g., Asia. These were religious and humanist responses to human need. The burgeoning of the work camp movement after World War II is illustrated by the existence of the "Coordination Committee for International Voluntary Work Camps," sponsored by the youth Section of the United Nations Educational Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), headquartered at Paris for many years in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963 for example, this coordination committee assisted more than 20 work camp organizations operating in Europe to conduct more than 100 work camps. Among these camps were some sponsored by Mennonitischer Freiwilligendienst (Mennonite Voluntary Service, MVS), an inter-Mennonite program organized by Dutch, French, German, and Swiss Mennonites (Redekop).

Although it has often been assumed that Mennonite youth serving on a voluntary service basis was a rather pure Mennonite idea, Mennonite participation in the work camp movement undoubtedly received some inspiration from the worldwide movement, especially through connections with Friends Service Committee activities. The idea was in the air during and after World War I. The Friends Ambulance Unit in France in World War I, the Friends Reconstruction Unit in France, and the Near East Relief, in which Mennonites participated, provided some connection. During and after World War II, the emergence of Civilian Public Service Camps and the voluntary service program in mental hospitals were also a direct result of developments not limited to Mennonites.

But the work camps sponsored by MVS developed most fully toward the work camp movement. It began with Mennonite Central Committee’s program to send Mennonite youth from Mennonite colleges to Europe in 1948. These volunteers helped in projects like the one at Espelkamp in Germany (Brunk). The Pax program (1951) sparked more support (Bender). As many as five or six work camps were conducted for a number of years, beginning in 1950 and continuing on into the 1970s. Projects were supported not only in Germany, but also in The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, and other countries.

These camps were composed mainly of non-Mennonite youth, but the goals reflected MCC’s serving "in the name of Christ." The objectives included the desire to serve human need in a practical way and to interact with youth of other backgrounds and cultures to witness to the Anabaptist and Mennonite faith and to learn from other perspectives as well. Hundreds of young people benefitted greatly from the program, and the program was finally terminated because of lack of pressing human needs. Mennonite work camps are still occasionally organized on a very specific basis, such as assisting in a building renovation or rebuilding of an inner-city church building and the like. See also Camps; Development Work; Peace Education; Relief Work; Service


Brunk, Emily. Espelkamp. Frankfort a. M.: MCC, 1951.

Bender, Urie. Soldiers of Compassion. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969.

Gillette, Arthur. One Million Volunteers. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

Kehler, Larry. "The Many Activities of Mennonite Central Committee." Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (1970): 298-315.

Lehman, Martin C. The History and Principles of Mennonite Relief Work: An Introduction. Akron: MCC, 1945.

Redekop, Calvin. "Development of Voluntary Service in Europe." Gospel Herald (22 January 1952).

Unruh, John D. In the Name of Christ. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1952.

Unruh, Wilfrid J. "A Study of Mennonite Voluntary Service Programs." Report prepared for Institute of Mennonite Studies, Associated Mennonite Biblical Semi­naries, Elkhart, IN, 1965.

Author(s) Calvin W Redekop
Date Published 1989

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Redekop, Calvin W. "Work Camps, Europe." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Aug 2021.,_Europe&oldid=143457.

APA style

Redekop, Calvin W. (1989). Work Camps, Europe. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 August 2021, from,_Europe&oldid=143457.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 936-937. All rights reserved.

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