Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fighting Two Wars: Canada's Mennonite Communities and WWII

     The majority of stories related to both world wars involve those directly involved or affected by the conflict. However, it is not very often that we discuss those who chose not to be involved for reasons of Pacifist beliefs. While this can certainly be a sore subject for some, it is important to recognize that holding such ideas and acting upon them at a time when an entire nation urged otherwise also created lasting problems for those who did. One of the most significant Pacifist groups in Canada at the time was the Mennonites, a group familiar to readers from Elgin County who of course will recognize the large Mennonite community in Aylmer, Ontario. Members of these communities ultimately faced two wars between 1939 and 1945, and the one at home proved to have as big an impact for them as the one in Europe.

     Information for this post comes from a National Film Board documentary called "The Pacifist Who Went to War". If you're interested, here's the link:
Mennonite settlers in Altona
     The film focuses on Mennonite communities in Southern Manitoba, namely the towns of Altona and Winkler. It tells the story of brothers John and Ted Friesen, sons of a Mennonite deacon. John enlisted in the air force and served overseas, while Ted made the decision to object. Neither brother felt anger or resentment towards the other, but reluctantly accepted the differences in life experiences that had led to those decisions.

Ted (L) and John (R) Friesen

     Unlike the experience of the Friesen family, when Canada entered WWII in 1939, the decision about whether or not to participate caused a major rift among Mennonites. The fundamental teaching of the Mennonite Church is to "love thy neighbor," which was a clear divergence from the Canadian government's call for volunteers to 'go kill Germans'. Previously, the Canadian government had agreed to exempt Mennonites from military service, which was one of the conditions involved in their immigration from Russia and settlement in the Canadian west.
A certificate proving a Mennonite's exemption from military service, 1918
     However, this agreement was discarded during the Second World War. This caused the Mennonites to divide into two groups and appeal to the government: the first group refused any participation in war, while the second was willing to accommodate to a degree. On Christmas Eve 1940, the government described alternative options for military service, though objectors had to personally plead their cases in order to gain Conscientious Objector status. Such cases in Manitoba were presided over by a Judge Adamson, who rarely allowed the men to speak at their trials and asked them the loaded question, "If someone broke into your house and threatened your family, what would you do?'"

     Further complications arose from the Mennonites' German ethnic background. Some actually sympathized with Hitler based on the image he was presenting to the world in the 1930s, and Low German was spoken by some in the communities. The other non-Mennonites in the towns fueled an atmosphere of suspicion towards them, and the social pressure ultimately caused about half the population of young Mennonite men to break tradition and join up.
Manitoba Mennonite Peter Enbrecht gets his wings as an air gunner
     Mennonite boys overseas were not supposed to participate in sports with fellow soldiers for recreation, but many did anyway and sustained numerous injuries while trying out boxing for the first time. When they were told by officers that they were in for the duration of the war, the church sent Mennonite ministers over to join them.

     Back at home, family members of those who had enlisted on their own free will faced discrimination from the rest of the community. Special War Bonds designed for non-military purposes such as the Red Cross were created and sold for Mennonites.

     After the war, the sons who had stayed home to farm were considerably wealthier than those who had served, due to the government's program for food production. Most Mennonites were horrified to hear of the Nazi atrocities, but some denied they even happened. Ultimately, the destruction that resulted from the war meant that it had accomplished nothing, and it reinforced why the Mennonites wanted nothing to do with war.
     Some families with sons who had returned from war were shunned by the Mennonite Church and communities. The church would accept those servicemen who repented, but most did not. The veterans felt no need to apologize for what they did because their service was a difficult, sobering experience which they ultimately did not regret. In the years following the war, no one talked about the subject of Pacifism, though it is supposed to be a central aspect of Mennonite faith. It took fifty years to build the cenotaph pictured above in Altona to commemorate the town's veterans. Divisiveness persists even today, with some people gathering to commemorate veterans while others host conscientious objector gatherings based around religion. There are mixed feelings about whether or not Mennonites will ever fully be reconciled on the issue, though distance and time seem to make things easier with every passing year. Ultimately, the changes brought about by war had as significant and lasting impact on these Mennonite communities, regardless of whether or not they all actively participated.
     Thanks for reading,


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