In Paraguay and Beyond, Mennonites Seek to Come to Terms With Nazi Collaboration

German-speaking Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union with indigenous neighbors near the Fernheim Colony in northwest Paraguay in 1930. Photo courtesy of Archiv der Kolonie Fernheim (Filadelfia, Paraguay)

Violence tore through this close-knit, traditionally pacifist community on the night of March 11, 1944. All the more remarkable, its perpetrators and victims were all Mennonites. And they all belonged to rival Nazi factions.

Since the end of the Second World War, Mennonite-Nazi collaboration has largely been ignored, forgotten or intentionally repressed. In Paraguay, members of Mennonite congregations were forbidden from discussing the matter.

In Paraguay and beyond, the Nazi episode has been taboo for adherents of this Christian denomination that was founded in 16th-century Europe on principles of nonviolence and nonparticipation in politics.

Not until the 1980s, when an international search for Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele brought unwanted attention to the German-speaking Mennonite colony of Fernheim in Paraguay’s remote Gran Chaco, did that taboo begin to weaken.

Now Mennonites and others are probing that past in a series of conferences, the most recent of which took place last weekend in Filadelfia, administrative center of the colony.

Spiritual healing, reconciliation and multigenerational guilt were prominent themes at the latest conference, titled “The Racialist Movement and National Socialism among the Mennonites in Paraguay.”

Some 200 participants gathered near the site of a brawl that had taken place exactly 73 years previously. They sought to bring into the open, contextualize and interpret events that remain painful even after they have mostly passed from living memory.

“Many have asked, why have a conference on this topic, more than 70 years after the events,” said Uwe Friesen, head of the Society for the History and Culture of the Mennonites in Paraguay. In his opening address, Friesen characterized the gathering as offering “the possibility of new understanding.”

Interest for this dark chapter in Paraguayan Mennonite life comes at a time when the global church is beginning to uncover a larger history of Nazi collaboration.

In 2015, the first academic conference on the topic took place in the German city of Münster, site of the 1534 Münster Rebellion that was crucial to the founding of the Mennonite faith. Historians revealed substantial pro-Nazi movements among communities in Canada, the Netherlands, Paraguay and Brazil. By the height of Hitler’s power, one-fourth of all Mennonites worldwide lived in the Third Reich.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service