World War (1939-1945) - Soviet Union

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World War II is commonly described as the period of armed conflict between September 1939 and May 1945. However, for the peoples of central and Eastern Europe the beginning of that tragic period is not quite as distinctly set off from the "state of peace." In the two largest European dictatorships (Germany and the Soviet Union), the war against the individual citizen started in the early 1930s, and in the Soviet Union that war was as costly in human lives as the later international conflict. The impact of the Stalin terror on Soviet society was devastating. In the Ukraine especially the German, Ukrainian, and Mennonite minorities suffered, but Stalin had alienated the majority of his people and even his army just before the war started.

The tragedy of the Mennonite experience during these years is not yet fully documented. All Mennonite churches were closed by 1934-1935, and by 1938, in the Chortitza colony, 43.5 percent of all Mennonite fathers were in prisons or in forced labor camps (concentration camps). In Zagradovka 51.5 percent of the fathers were missing, and in the Baratov villages 70.2 percent were missing. On the average we can say that 50 percent of Mennonite families lost their provider during these years. The spiritual leadership perished and the few isolated church leaders who survived, lived a life of constant fear.

In Western Europe the Mennonite community was relatively well informed about the suffering of Mennonites in the Soviet Union, and there is no doubt that that knowledge influenced the mood of the Mennonite community when it faced the polarization of European politics before the war. The issue of military service was no longer a serious object for discussion, but political affiliation was something else. A few Mennonites were impressed by the social programs of the Right, some decided that the political Right was the lesser evil, but the options were very limited. Thus, most European Mennonites were caught by the turmoil of the events and were dragged along.

When World War II started, all Mennonites were shocked, because on the Rhine and on the Volga they realized that this would be a very trying experience. The Mennonites in the Soviet Union feared for the lives of their loved ones in the labor camps and prisons. Furthermore, although Mennonites in the Soviet Union had stubbornly and successfully defended their nonresistance position until 1935, with the closing of all churches they had no institution to influence their young men, and 50 percent of their families were without fathers. The impact of this situation was frightening. It became obvious that individual families were not equipped to hold out against the impact of the flood of atheistic propaganda. Morals were declining in spite of the really courageous and admirable effort of Mennonite mothers. And thus, when in early 1940, for the first time large numbers of Mennonite young men were drafted into the army, there was no longer any resistance. The spirit of the Russian Mennonite community had been broken, and when, on 22 June 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union faced each other at war, Mennonites knew that they were confronting the greatest danger since the 16th century.

On 16 August 1941, 70 Mennonite villages of the Crimean Peninsula were evacuated by train with a few hours' notice. On the same day all Mennonite communities west of the Dnieper River were evacuated under NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) "protection." However, the majority were overrun by the fast-advancing German army before they could cross the Dnieper bridges. On 19 August 1941 all villages on the west bank of the Dnieper River were in German hands.

The 56 Molotschna villages and other settlements on the east side of the Dnieper suffered more severely than those on the west bank of the Dnieper. In September, before the German army overran this area, all Mennonite men between 16 and 65 were rounded up and marched off to unknown destinations. Then the evacuation of women and children began, but only 23 villages were evacuated before the arrival of the German army. At this point we estimate that at least 50 percent of the men perished, but the loss of life was also high among the evacuated women and children.

The advancing German army gave the impression of calm and order. This army had worship services on Sundays and permitted churches to open their doors again. Hope grew that the Mennonite community could survive. Between August 1941 and October 1943 an active church life developed in the villages that had survived. Young people were baptized in large numbers, the church came alive and it was amazing how a community whose leadership potential had been depleted to the bare bones, suddenly found renewed strength. The reality of the nature of Hitler's regime came to these communities slowly, when the political arm of the system reached the occupied territory.

For two years the Mennonite villages west and east of the Dnieper River lived between hope and fear. When they began to recognize the evil aspects of Hitler's outrageous policies, their fears only multiplied. They realized that under the circumstances their only hope to save their lives was in deserting everything that had been dear to them. In September 1943 the remaining inhabitants of the Molotschna villages took to the road. The Chortitza villages followed in October. Thirty-five thousand Mennonites, as well as 350,000 ethnic Germans, and well over a million Ukrainians and other nationalities attempted to save their lives by escaping to Western Europe. They reached the eastern frontier of Germany and were temporarily given shelter, but, in 1945 they had to run again. This time their fate was rape, death, and deportation. Approximately 23,000 Mennonites were returned to the Soviet Union, where they were exiled to the distant cold regions of northeastern Europe and Siberia. Many were sentenced to 10 and 25 years of hard labor. Thousands perished and were never heard of again.

However, the westward offensive of the Soviet army into Germany, which started in January 1945, affected not only the refugees from Russia. All the Mennonite villages east of the Elbe River were now deserted as the mother communities of the Russian Mennonites—Danzig, West Prussia, and East Prussia—also were lost in this tragic war. And thus, all Russian, Polish, and Prussian Mennonite communities between Volga and Elbe were wiped off the map.

After the war, those who had escaped founded the colonies Volendam and Neuland in Paraguay; El Ombu, Delta, and Gartental in Uruguay; and a small colony in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Eventually circa 8,000 immigrated to Canada, and the rest settled in Germany. After 1970 circa 20,000 Mennonites were permitted to leave the Soviet Union and to resettle in West Germany. These Umsiedler may well play a significant role in the rejuvenation of the Mennonite church in Europe.

It also became obvious that the remnant of the Mennonite church in the Soviet Union was not dead, and that the church actually experienced a revival. In the late 1980s there were approximately 55,000 Mennonites in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many of them lived in areas of their original exile, but several large colonies also survived in the Ural region and in Siberia. In 1987, in the Orenburg and New-Samara (Pleshanov) colonies, with 23 and 13 villages respectively, the church had come alive and was growing. The people had rediscovered their heritage and they were clinging to it. Two other colonies, Slavgorod (56 villages) and Barnaul (13 villages) were not yet open to tourists in 1988. A number of strong Mennonite churches have developed in Soviet Central Asia: Karaganda, Dzhambul, Dushanbe, Frunse, Alma-Ata, and a number of other towns and villages.

Mennonites in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe entered a new era, and it can only be hoped that the traumatic experience of World War II will not be forgotten.


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Pinkus, Benjamin and Fleischhauer, Ingeborg. Die Deutschen in der Sowjetunion: Geschichte einer nationalen Minderheit im 20. Jahrhundert. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1987.

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Rempel, Hans, ed. Waffen der Wehrlosen: Ersatzdienst der Mennoniten in der ÜSSR. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1980.

Sawatsky, Walter. Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981.

Wedel, Walter. Nur zwanzig Kilometer: Eine Jugend in den russischen Wäldern. Wuppertal: R Brockhaus Verlag, 1979.

Wölk, Heinrich and Wölk, Gerhard. Die Mennoniten Brüdergemeinde in Rußland 1925-1980. Fresno: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1981; Winnipeg, Christian Press, 1981. English translation as A Wilderness Journey. Fresno, 1982. Available in full electronic text at:

Zacharias, Rainer. Editor. Neues Marienburger Heimatbuch. Herford: Verlag Wendt Groll GmbH, 1967.

Countless articles on this subject have appeared in Der Bote and Mennonite Life.

Papers from a symposium on the impact of World War II on Canadian Mennonites held at Winnipeg, May 1987, were published in Journal of Mennonite Studies 6 (1988).

Author(s) George K Epp
Date Published 1989

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Epp, George K. "World War (1939-1945) - Soviet Union." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 29 Nov 2023.

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Epp, George K. (1989). World War (1939-1945) - Soviet Union. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 November 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 941-943. All rights reserved.

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