World War (1939-1945) - Germany

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Under the totalitarianism of the Nazi regime (National Socialism) men and women were drafted to various duties expected by the state and the Nazi party. Those duties were enlarged in the course of the war and their observance was carefully surveyed by the Gestapo (secret service). These orders were obeyed partly by conviction, partly by fear, partly by indifference. The obedience was smoothed by the continued propaganda. No Mennonites resisted conscription. After the war Mennonites, as most Germans, withdrew into their privacy; the enthusiasm for any kind of public service or any kind of political utopia was low. The "skeptical generation" became predominant for 20 years.

Unlike the experience of World War I there were no food shortages or epidemics. The people suffered from the devastation of air raids. In the summer of 1943 the Anglo-American forces gained superiority in the air. Saturation bombing began with Hamburg that year and continued until the bombing of Dresden in 1945. They dropped more than 1,500,000 metric tons of bombs; about half a million people, mostly women and children, died. Two million apartments were destroyed and about 7.5 million became homeless. Notwithstanding, experts agree that the Bombenterror (terror from bombs) supported the Allies' victory minimally. Since most of the Mennonites were rural people they did not experience air raids as a rule. However, the Mennonites in Hamburg, Berlin, Ludwigshafen, Emden, Krefeld, and Heilbronn suffered from the bombing: Their congregational centers were destroyed or heavily damaged and many of their members lost their housing and had to seek shelter in the countryside.

The occupation of Germany began with the conquest of Aachen in October 1944 and was concluded with the ceasefire on 8 May 1945. The West Prussian catastrophe was assured when intense cold allowed the Soviet tanks to cross fields and frozen rivers beginning 12 January 1945. The population, poorly informed and not prepared for evacuation, began a desperate attempt to reach safety somewhere in the West. Among them were about 35,000 Mennonites: (1) 12,000 West Prussians and (2) more than 20,000 Ukrainian refugees who had been temporarily settled in the Warthegau. Most refugees trekked with wagons, hay racks, and bicycles. Many were sooner or later overtaken by the Soviet army. An unknown number, mostly children and aged, died from starvation, exhaustion, and diseases. A few were killed by the invading soldiers—victims of cruelty. Some refugees crossed the Baltic Sea by boat and landed in Denmark or Schleswig-Holstein. Some of the Red Cross boats were torpedoed, taking their passengers to their deaths. The refugees lived for up to seven years in camps and some suffered extreme hardships before they received new homes and subsistence income. The Mennonites in southwestern Germany were able to remain in their homes, and, although they suffered some material losses, their base of livelihood remained intact. Most of them tried individually to render assistance to refugees and victims of air raids.

The reconstruction started very slowly. Relief organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) were allowed into Germany only in the spring of 1946. MCC started with feeding programs for children; continued with the distribution of food and clothing, organized the emigration to Canada, Paraguay, and Uruguay; assisted with the construction of settlements for West Prussian refugees in Wedel, Espelkamp, Bechterdissen, Enkenbach, Neuwied, and Backnang and established neighborhood centers at Heilbronn, Kaiserslautern and Berlin. About two-thirds of the German Mennonites were refugees seeking new homes, new congregations, new livelihoods, and new spiritual nurturing. About 2,000 West Prussian (one-sixth of the total number of refugees) found new homes in those settlements. In addition 10 new congregations were established by mostly West Prussian refugees. Older West German congregations, e.g., Hamburg, Emden, Krefeld, and Neuwied experienced new life through the West Prussians. Not all newcomers settled in the neighborhood of a congregation. Many of them joined another denomination. Very few West Prussians were able to resume farming; most of them had to make their living outside the traditional Mennonite limits and visions.

The general impact of the war in the postwar period were: (1) Anxiety about survival and coping with hardships during a time of breakdown not only of the nation and people, but also of ideals. The prewar way of life was replaced by conflicting feelings of survival—guilt and shame; (2) The punishment period of the allied victors ceased in 1947 with the approaching Cold War. The West Germans as well as other Europeans received help and encouragement from the United States. Europeans’ energy awakened and eventually they thought less about their catastrophic experiences and repressed individual and collective guilt and began to look forward gladly to stability and material success.

The Mennonites had unique experiences in addition to those of the general population: (1) The various influences from the American Mennonites were stimulating; the MCC relief work drew forth, besides gratitude for assistance, a sense of commonality and awareness of shared models for the Christian life. Personal contacts via church leaders and MCC and Pax volunteers; international exchanges, including the Intermenno trainee program for young adults; and student exchanges that brought German students to North American Mennonite colleges and seminaries all helped to open minds and to teach some kind of solidarity. (2) The "Anabaptist Vision" with its Nachfolge ("following after," discipleship) theology had a constructive and consolidating impact. It was suited to encourge Mennonite identity and activate the members' involvement in the church. (3) Due to the emerging Cold War and the American influence the peace witness became a major issue in the 1950s. After the war the overwhelming attitude of the Germans was: never war again, never an army, never any weapons! This changed gradually with the Cold War. With American assistance German Mennonites began to take a stand in the ongoing discussion. (4) The debate concerning the Mennonite attitudes towards Nazism stirred heavy emotions but helped Mennonites realize that as Christians they could not rid themselves of the past. To acknowledge that most Mennonites had sympathized with the regime was painful. (5) The Mennonite World Conference fostered a desire to take part in the worldwide Mennonite fellowship. (6) The urbanization of most Mennonites caused a far-reaching social change. They now had to learn how to resist the temptations of pluralistic ideologies and to contextualize their Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in a non-Christian environment.


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Author(s) Diether Götz Lichdi
Date Published 1989

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Lichdi, Diether Götz. "World War (1939-1945) - Germany." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 6 Jul 2022.

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Lichdi, Diether Götz. (1989). World War (1939-1945) - Germany. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 940-941. All rights reserved.

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