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: https://www.nfb.ca/film/pacifist_who_went_to_war
|Mennonite settlers in Altona|
|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|
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|
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.
Thanks for reading,