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This book poses two questions: How do mobile populations fashion collective narratives as nations, religions, and diasporas? Specifically, how did German-speaking Mennonites – a part of the larger German-speaking diaspora – conceive of themselves as Germans and Christians during the era of high nationalism? I answer these questions by tracing the movements of two groups of Mennonites between 1874 and 1945. One was composed of 1,800 voluntary migrants, the other of 2,000 refugees. Both groups originated in nineteenth-century Russia, took separate paths through Canada and Germany, and settled near each other in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco between 1926 and 1931. The settlement of voluntary migrants was named the Menno Colony. The settlement of refugees was named the Fernheim Colony.
During the twentieth century, large groups of people, united as nation states, engaged in a fevered quest to draw imaginary lines across the globe. National populations and territorial boundaries consecrated the inexorable triumph of homogenization as a social imperative and “progress” as a moral imperative.
Chapter 1 follows the movement of voluntary migrants from the Russian Empire to Canada to Paraguay between 1870 and 1926. It shows that members of this cohort underwent a contentious process of integrating state citizenship and Mennonite unity into their collective narratives or rejecting it in favor of local narratives that prized religious separation. The chapter makes three contentions: First, it shows that Canadian officials transitioned from identifying Mennonites as enterprising and valuable German-speaking settlers in the 1870s – when they were promoting a narrative of Canadian national expansion – to identifying them as insular and subversive German-speaking dissidents in the 1920s – when they were promoting a narrative of Canadian national cohesion. Second, it demonstrates how Canada’s Mennonites developed contrasting narratives about Canadian citizenship. Associative Mennonites believed that God willed them to carve out a place within Canada’s national narrative. Separatists believed that God willed Mennonites to accept perpetual migration as a necessary burden of faith. Third, it contends that separatist Mennonites harnessed modern transnational technologies – such as transportation, communication, and financial systems – to secure the transchronological goal of living as early-modern subjects. In other words, separatist Mennonites used the tools of nationalism and modernity in an attempt to flee from them.
Chapter 3 examines the colonies’ evolving group narratives through three lenses: their interpretations of the Gran Chaco, their actions during the Chaco War (1932–35), and their interactions with indigenous peoples after the war. The Menno colonists arrived in the Chaco with a stable and coherent group narrative. They drew on biblical stories with comic plot progressions to interpret their situation. A comedic plot takes the narrative shape of a U, wherein a period of hardship is followed by a happy resolution. They believed the toils of resettlement were essential tests of their faithfulness to scripture. By contrast, the Fernheim Colony was formed out of a group of disparate refugees and arrived with a tragic understanding of their group narrative. This type of story takes the shape of an inverted U, which rises to a point of crisis before plunging to catastrophe. Fernheim colonists therefore debated how they would give their tragic narrative a happy resolution – whether independently, collectively, or with the aid of outsiders (the Paraguayan government, indigenous people, or Mennonites abroad). This chapter argues that each colony’s collective narrative – as faithful nomads and as displaced victims – led them to make profoundly different choices and kept them separated throughout the 1930s.
Chapter 5 compares the colonies’ opinions about the Nazi Party in Germany and its bid for transnational vösch unity, which I label “(trans)National Socialism.” The Menno Colony’s communal understanding of Germanness made vösch propaganda about Hitler’s “New Germany” unappealing. They rejected all forms of nationalism as worldly attempts to thwart their cultural-religious isolationism. The refugees of Fernheim Colony, by contrast, shared little communal unity owing to their diverse origins and looked to Nazi Germany and its overseas aid organization, Volksbund fä Deutschtum im Ausland (VDA), for inspiration. They believed that the highest goal of vösch unity was promoting communal unity, and created a youth group, called the Jugendbund, and a newspaper called Kämpfende Jugend. Resembling other German–speaking communities in Latin America, the two colonies – which seemed identical to visiting Nazi observers ’ held vastly different interpretations of völkisch nationalism at the height of the Nazi bid to establish transnational German unity in Latin America. Latin America, for its part, presents a unique context for studying the Nazis relationship to Auslandsdeutsche because it held the allure of being the last prospect for German cultural and economic expansion, but was impossible for the German state to invade.
Chapter 6 shows how the Fernheim Colony’s collective narrative reached a point of crisis in 1944 as colonists transitioned from thinking that they should remain in Paraguay, as per the wishes of the MCC, to thinking that they should relocate to Nazi–controlled Eastern Europe. The latter, of course, was not to happen. Yet the stress, rupture, and violence caused by the quick reversal of the colony’s collective narrative – from an anticipated comic outcome to a tragic one – was quickly forgotten as Fernheimers devised a new narrative of continuity after the war. Aiding the creation of a new, centripetal Fernheim narrative, the MCC redoubled its efforts to draw the colonists into its narrative of global Mennonite unity. It dispatched volunteers to improve the colony’s healthcare and infrastructure and monitor colonists – attitudes about Nazism on behalf of the US government, which the MCC fully cooperated with during the war years. Meanwhile, the Menno Colony carried on as it had before the war. It remained free of ideological strife and had zero interest in relocating to Europe. Combined with Chapter 5, Chapter 6 indicates that Latin America ’ German–speaking communities exhibited a wide range of attitudes toward the Nazi state, from political indifference to overwrought anticipation.
Chapter 2 examines the discourse between governments, aid agencies, and the press concerning the Mennonite refugees who fled from the Soviet Union to Paraguay via Germany and China between 1929 and 1931. Although the Soviet, German, and Canadian governments, the German press, and aid agencies in Germany and North America cast the situation as a refugee “problem,” this chapter contends that it gave each entity a valuable opportunity to assign broader meanings to the refugees, advance a range of agendas, and define their own constituencies along the lines of class, nationality, or religion. This chapter also shows that the refugees were aided and inhibited by their national, religious, and economic identifications, which left them with an ambiguous collective narrative about who they were as a group. Consequently, this chapter contends that outsiders’ interpretations provided the Fernheim Colony refugees with new ways to collectively understand themselves as heroes, victims, Mennonites, Germans, and Paraguayans.
Chapter 4 looks abroad – to Canada, Germany, and the United States – to examine how the Mennonite colonies found themselves in the crosshairs of a range of competing Mennonite nationalist narratives. In particular, the chapter focuses on the US-based aid organization the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which helped relocate the Fernheim colonists from Germany to Paraguay. The MCC viewed the colonies as an opportunity to create a Mennonite territory that was theologically and organizationally connected to a global Mennonite confession. In its evolving idea of “Mennoniteness,” the basis of this linkage involved Mennonites sharing a few, definitive tenets – such as mutual aid and nonviolence – that could be historically justified and concisely articulated to non–Mennonites. Yet there were competing interpretations of the “Mennonite nation.” Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and Canada advanced notions that Mennonites should fuse their narrative with a German nationalist narrative. Yet Paraguay’s Mennonite colonists also elicited the fear that far-scattered Mennonites would lose their Mennonite or German-Mennonite heritage or refuse to join a Mennonite or German–Mennonite nation. The term “Mennonite,” as this chapter demonstrates, represented more than a religious confession during the interwar years, but stood alongside other nascent nationalisms vying to win the loyalties of an often–indifferent constituency.
How do groups of people fashion shared identities in the modern world? Following two communities of German-speaking Mennonites, one composed of voluntary migrants and the other of refugees, across four continents between 1870 and 1945, this transnational study explores how religious migrants engaged with the phenomenon of nationalism. John P. R. Eicher demonstrates how migrant groups harnessed the global spread of nationalism to secure practical objectives and create local mythologies. In doing so, he also reveals how governments and aid organizations used diasporic groups for their own purposes - and portraying such nomads as enemies or heroes in national and religious mythologies. By underscoring the importance of local and religious counter-stories that run in parallel to nationalist narratives, Exiled Among Nations helps us understand acts of resistance, flight, and diaspora in the modern world.
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