Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age – Interview with John P.R. Eicher
Earlier this year, the monograph “Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age” by John P.R. Eicher was published by Cambridge University Press, in the Publications of the German Historical Institute Series. We talked with the author about the origins of his book, the role of institutions for diasporic groups and links between his research and today’s world.
Your book follows two communities of German-speaking Mennonites, one composed of voluntary migrants and the other of refugees, across four continents between 1870 and 1945: Why did you chose to study these two groups in particular, what spurred your interest when you first came across them?
John Eicher (JE): The Mennonites, who originally emerged from the 16th century “Radical Reformation,” have a long history of nonviolence and political noninvolvement, so my interest in Paraguay’s Mennonites was initially piqued when I learned that they were at the geographic center of the Chaco War. Waged between Paraguay and Bolivia between 1932 and 1935, the Chaco War was South America’s bloodiest conflict in the 20th century. For a group of Mennonites to be in the middle of this dispute meant that they had to make hard decisions about which side, if any, they would support. Digging deeper, I realized that there were actually two groups of Mennonites who arrived in the Chaco in the 1920s and 1930s, the Menno Colony and the Fernheim Colony. The Menno Colony Mennonites migrated from Russia to Canada in the 1870s to escape the Russian government’s late-nineteenth century modernizing and nationalizing initiatives (i.e. “Russification”), and then migrated from Canada to Paraguay in the 1920s to escape similar pressures from the Canadian government (i.e. “Canadization”). Alternately, the Fernheim Colony Mennonites remained in Russia until the 1920s and readily adapted to Russia’s modernizing schemes, but were forced to flee their homes as “kulaks” in 1929 in the face of Stalin’s first five-year plan. Now refugees, the future residents of Fernheim Colony spent several months in the polarized political atmosphere of the late Weimar Republic, until they were relocated to the Chaco wilderness by the North American Mennonite aid organization Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The MCC’s hope was that the groups would help each other as fellow Mennonites, but given their separate histories, they actually shared little in common. In any case, the Menno Colony Mennonites refused to help the Paraguay war effort while the Fernheim refugees saw it as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to their new homeland. Further divisions came along when the Menno colonists refused to have anything to do with German Nazism, while the Fernheim refugees courted the Nazi regime and viewed its conquest of the Ukraine as a ticket home.
Let’s talk about the links between these two groups: What kind of connections between the voluntary migrants and the settlement of refugees existed, given that despite their diverging motivation for their mobility they were still all German speaking Mennonites in the diaspora?
JE: The groups shared the same language, religion, and even had some family connections, so it would be easy to assume (like the MCC did) that the groups shared an affinity via their historic links. However, history is a story, and even if two stories share similar reference points, the lessons people draw from them can be vastly different. So it was with the Mennonites of Paraguay. The Menno Colony viewed the modernizing and nationalizing efforts of the Russian and Canadian states as new chapters in an old story of “worldly” governments trying to infiltrate and corrupt their loyalty to God. Alternately, most Fernheim colonists viewed the rise of the nation-state as a necessary unfolding of God’s plan to integrate humans into national communities. Since the Fernheim colonists were refugees without a homeland or a shared collective story, the idea of a “national community” had an obvious appeal. Besides, they adapted to Russian nation-building efforts in the past, actively supported Paraguay in the Chaco War, and courted the Nazi movement in Germany. The Menno Colony therefore looked on the Fernheim Colony with suspicion, while the Fernheim Colony pursued their own group unity, via Paraguayan nationalism and Nazism, more than unity with their “ignorant” and “backward” co-religionists in Menno Colony. It wasn’t until after WWII that both groups came together to help more Mennonite refugees coming from Europe. The arrival of these refugees, and the failure of German National Socialism, allowed the Menno and Fernheim colonies to finally begin a shared story of Paraguayan Mennonite cooperation and unity.
In your book, you also analyze how governments and aid organizations used diasporic groups for their own purposes – portraying such nomads as both enemies or heroes in national and religious mythologies. Could you give some examples of how these processes and interactions manifested?
JE: Right, governments and aid organizations, such as the MCC, often used the groups as rhetorical “assets.” What I mean to say is that government officials publicly invoked a range of features about the migrants and refugees—their nationality, Christianity, “whiteness,” etc.) to compel their home populations to think of the nation in a certain way—as a “modernizing” nation (Canada) or a nation that helps its ethnic brethren (Germany). For example, in the 1870s, Canadian officials welcomed the Mennonites to the prairie as modern farmers and hardworking “Germans” to break new land for the nation. Fifty years later, and after that task was accomplished, the state viewed them as anti-modern sectarians because they refused Canadian public education. It should also be mentioned that Mennonites shared a hand in this paradox: They wanted to incorporate their economic activity into the nation, but not their culture or their communities. So they had to migrate where they could again leverage their cultural assets (religion, nationality, and race) in exchange for special treatment. So Mennonites weren’t just victims of this process. They learned to speak to the concerns of government in ways that made them appear valuable. A final example: the refugees that became the Fernheim Colony lived in Russia for about a hundred years before 1929. Before that, they lived in an area of Prussia that was formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and before that, they lived in the Dutch Low Countries, where Menno Simons founded the denomination. So what were they—Russian? German? Polish? Dutch? Well, when they spoke to the Russian government in WWI, they were “Dutch” (not German!), but when they spoke to the German government in 1929, they were German (not Russian!). So the rhetoric around migrants and refugees is something we really must pay attention to, both what governments are saying about these groups and what these groups believe about themselves.
If we now look at today’s refugee and migration movements: What did you find were the differences and similarities in your research between today’s migrants and refugees and those you were studying between 1870 and 1945?
JE: Good question. There are plenty of similarities and differences, but to build on my previous answer, I think we have to remain sensitive to how governments talk about mobile populations. We often falsely imagine that mobile populations, especially refugees, have some sort of shared identity. The fact is the only thing most refugees share in common is their precarious position in our system of nation-states. Ostensibly, the Fernheim refugees shared a great deal in common with each other, but as I mentioned earlier, they did not share a group narrative, which made all the difference. In today’s world, we may read about “Syrian refugees,” but that phrase represents a remarkably diverse group of people. There are Muslim and Christian Syrian refugees, there are “Syrian” refugees that actually originated in Iraq, there are Syrian refugees of all classes, levels of education, and with connections that may extend around the world. The same thing goes for so-called “Mexican” immigrants to the US, many of whom originated from across Central America. So the impulse to homogenize migrants and refugees as some sort of recognizable collective is still there. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between then and now is that in the early-twentieth century there was still frontier land (i.e. land occupied by indigenous populations) in the Americas, and states wanted settlers to incorporate that land into national spaces. However, in the twenty-first century (and in combination with de-industrialization), countries are less inclined to view mobile populations as resources for expanding the nation’s territory, building it’s wealth, and as agents of modernization.
John Eicher is an Assistant Professor of History at Penn State Altoona where he teaches courses in the histories of modern Europe, Latin America, and Western medicine. Areas of special interest include borderlands, colonialism, nationalism, migration, religion, environmental history, and medical history.
He is currently working on his second book project, which is titled “The Sword Outside, the Plague Within: Influenza, War, and Religion, 1918-1920”. It compares rural and religious interpretations of the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic in Europe. During the 2020-21 academic year, he is holding a Marie S. Curie Fellowship at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in Freiburg, Germany. In February 2020, his prize-winning dissertation was published as a book titled “Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age”, with the German Historical Institute’s Cambridge University Press series.