World War (1914-1918)

Revision as of 18:11, 5 May 2015 by RichardThiessen (talk | contribs) (Corrected typo.)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Great War (World War I) in 1914-1918 was a dramatic turning point for Mennonites in Europe and North America, as it was for Western civilization generally. In central and western Europe (Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany, and Galicia) Mennonites had largely abandoned the teaching of nonresistance in previous decades. A Prussian Cabinet Order of 1868, still in effect in 1914, allowed for noncombatant military service, but this service was not significantly different from regular service. By September 1915 some 2,000 young Mennonites were in German military service. About 400 died during the war. The military destruction, defeat, and ultimate dismemberment of Germany wrought havoc for Mennonite life as well as for the prospects of German Mennonite unity. The Versailles treaty separated about half the formerly German Mennonites into the countries of France (Alsace), Poland, and the Danzig Free State.

A comparison and contrast of the Mennonite war experiences in Russia and the United States illustrates the variety of possible nonresistant responses within totalitarian and democratic nations involved in total war. Church membership in both countries was about 75,000 and growing; both enjoyed unusual vitality in church and community life in the prewar years. Mennonites in Russia and in North America had maintained their commitment to the doctrine of nonresistance and had benefited from functional agreements with their governments which exempted them from direct military service. In Russia the Mennonite involvement with the war was immediate, intense, and purposeful, but ultimately tragic in its results. In America the Mennonite involvement was delayed, diffused, and confusing, but ultimately invigorating for Mennonite peoplehood. The Russian Empire suffered humiliating international invasion and defeat (1,700,000 dead), domestic political revolution, civil anarchy and war, and the inauguration of a new Communist order. The United States entered the war late (April 1917), lost relatively less treasure or manpower (115,000 dead) and emerged as a victorious world power with stable government. After the war Russian Mennonitism declined while North American Mennonites played an increasingly dominant role in world Mennonite affairs.

When Russia declared war on Germany in August 1914 the German-speaking Mennonites in Russia moved quickly to declare allegiance to their Russian fatherland and to offer noncombatant goods and services which would aid the war effort. About 14,000 Mennonite men were mobilized during the war. Half of these served in forestry service (Forsteidienst), an alternative service program which Mennonites had funded and administered since 1881. Others worked in the Red Cross or medical corps to provide health care for wounded soldiers on the western front and the Turkish front. Mennonites established hospital facilities and collected funds for relief of soldiers’ families. The expenses of the service program reached a peak of 1,000,000 rubles per month. Perhaps 100 or more Mennonites in the medical corps died at the battlefront or were victims of disease. Factors contributing to the success of the Mennonite noncombatant contribution included patriotic feelings for the Fatherland in peril, a desire to be of Christian service as Good Samaritans to those who were suffering, and the need to deflect criticism of German-speaking colonists and to demonstrate that Mennonites were worthy to keep their special privileges. The relative cultural homogeneity and administrative unity of Mennonites in Russia made it possible to organize quickly and efficiently, although it was in behalf of a losing cause. By mid-April 1918 the victorious German armies occupied the Ukraine area where the original Mennonite settlements were located.

American Mennonites confronted the war belatedly, after the Russian armies had surrendered and the Russian Mennonite contribution to the Fatherland was concluded. American Mennonites were culturally diverse and administratively decentralized. They had no generally accepted alternative service program for draftees and no generally recognized war-related but non-military service agencies to make use of benevolent wartime contributions. The United States government prosecuted the war as a righteous democratic crusade and depended upon local communities to inspire patriotic fervor. The government raised money for the war not primarily through taxes but rather through a series of "voluntary" war bond drives. Mennonites often resisted war bond purchases, but they also often bought bonds either willingly or after severe local pressure. Mennonite young men were conscripted into military training camps upon the government's promise that they would not be coerced into combatant service against their conscience. The War Department in fact intended to persuade as many pacifists as possible to join the war crusade. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker deliberately delayed the provision of noncombatant service opportunities for the men in training camps to allow time for conscientious objectors to be converted to the military crusade. Although reliable figures are unavailable, it is likely that more American Mennonite young men abandoned their nonresistant heritage and joined regular national military service than did Russian Mennonite young men before the Russian defeat. About 150 American Mennonite young men were court-martialed and imprisoned for refusing military orders. Some accepted noncombatant service in the medical corps or quartermaster corps (supply and support services). Late in war a few were allowed to work on farm furloughs. The war ended before a satisfactory alternative system could be worked out, but the steadfast witness of the young men who refused to take up weapons in World War I paved the way for the more favorable Civilian Public Service Program in World War II. Civilian Public Service was remarkably similar to the Russian Mennonite forestry service under the Tsars.

As German-speaking pacifist people, Mennonites in both Russia and the United States were unfairly attacked for alleged treasonous identification with the German enemy. Some Mennonites in both countries indeed had been drawn to German cultural nationalism in decades before the war, but seldom to German militarism and imperialism. A group of Russian Mennonite intellectuals had been to Germany for higher education. In the war years before America declared war on Germany, some American Mennonites who had immigrated in the 1870s and 1880s expressed German sympathies by collecting war relief funds for the German Red Cross. Other American Mennonites, e.g., historian C. Henry Smith, were outspokenly anti-German and blamed Prussian militarism for starting the war.

The Russian government's anti-Germanism campaigns demonstrated that Mennonite alternative service programs, no matter how generous, could not bridge the cultural gap and win the trust of the Russian people. The government closed German-language publications, forbade German-language advertising or public speaking, outlawed meetings of Germans outside churches, and required russianization of place names. Most alarming was a series of land liquidation laws, made increasingly stringent from 1915 to 1917, which seemed to threaten the legal basis for Mennonite acquisition and ownership of land. Military defeats at the front accelerated the Germanophobia and fostered local attacks on Mennonite interests. Mennonites protested that they were loyal Russian citizens, that they were contributing sacrificially to the national effort, and that they were originally of Dutch, rather than German, background. By the time of the German occupation of the Ukraine (mid-April 1918) the Mennonites had suffered so severely under the anti-Germanic attacks of anarchists and Bolsheviks that they welcomed the German army as liberators. This imprudent fraternization with the enemy, together with the subsequent Mennonite organization of a military self-defense (Selbstchutz) force to protect local villages in the civil war and anarchy that followed the Russian surrender to Germany, compromised Mennonite claims to Russian citizenship and to the practice of nonresistance in the coming years.

America’s wartime anti-Germanism was more diffused. President Woodrew Wilson’s policies fostered anti-Germanism even as he maintained an official pose of enlightened democratic liberalism. German-speaking Mennonites might have suffered as greatly as did their Russian counterparts if Germany had militarily defeated and invaded the United States in a manner similar to the German defeat and invasion of Russia. A national "Committee on Public Information" whipped up public hatred of all things German, and an Espionage Act (1917) and Sedition Act (1918) set the stage for restriction of civil liberties. Two Mennonite leaders, Samuel H. Miller of Ohio and Lewis J. Heatwole of Virginia, were tried and convicted under the Sedition Act. At the local level American super-patriots forced Mennonite schools to stop teaching German, terrorized pacifists into purchasing war bonds, burned church buildings (Oklahoma and Michigan), and a college administration building (Tabor College in Kansas, though arson was not conclusively proven), and forced Mennonites to fly the American flag. The Hutterites were especially victimized in military prisons and war bond drives. About 1,000 Hutterites migrated to Canada as a result. An additional 600-800 Mennonites, nearly all of Dutch-Russian background, migrated to Canada to escape wartime pressures. Anti-German and anti-pacifist sentiments were less severe in Pennsylvania and among Mennonites who had immigrated earlier and had acculturated more fully to American ways.

While the war devastated the Russian Mennonite economy, it enriched American Mennonites through high prices for agricultural products. American Mennonites gave money, including war bonds, to church agencies in unprecedented amounts. Church institutions and relief and missions programs thus benefited from the war. Some Mennonite young men joined postwar Quaker reconstruction units in France. A famine after the Russian Revolution and civil war (early 1920s) led to the creation of a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), whose prodigious relief efforts in the Ukraine were in part a product of pent-up energies and resources generated by the war.

The American Mennonite experience showed that war could be invigorating for a nonresistant people whose nation triumphed and who suffered enough persecution to remind them of the first principles of their religious heritage. But excessive persecution could destroy a people. Russian Mennonite wartime experience revealed the vulnerability of an ethnic pacifist subculture in a country which lost a war and which was convulsed by revolution and anarchy. Even in countries where Mennonites had abandoned their pacifism by the 20th century, the moral bankruptcy of Western civilization represented by World Wars I and II and the nuclear arms race helped ensure that the issue of nonresistance in the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage would be relevant on the world scene and critical for Mennonite identity in the future.


Hartzler, J. S. Mennonites in the World War. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1921.

Juhnke, James C. Building the Denomination. Scottdale, PA, 1988: Ch. 8

Juhnke, James C. Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 The Mennonite Experience in America, vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989.

Klippenstein, Lawrence. "Mennonite Pacifism and State Service in Russia: A Case Study in Church Relations 1789-1936." PhD dissertation University of Minnesota, 1984.

Luebke, Federick C. Bonds of Loyalty: German Americans and World War I. DeKalb: Northern Illinois U. Press, 1974.

Sprunger, Keith L. and others editors. Voices Against War: A Guide to the Schowalter Oral History Collection on World War I Conscientious Objectors. North Newton: Bethel College, 1973, 1981.

Sprunger, Mary. Sourcebook: Oral History Interviews with World War One Conscientious Objectors. No place:Mennonite Central Committee, 1986.

Teichroew, Allan. “World War I and the Mennonite Migration to Canada to Avoid the Draft." Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971): 219-49.

Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1982.

Author(s) James C Juhnke
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Juhnke, James C. "World War (1914-1918)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 29 Sep 2023.

APA style

Juhnke, James C. (1989). World War (1914-1918). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 938-940. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.