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Mennonite, German question complicated

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I am Mennonite. Am I German? It is a question that has often been asked and has, at various times, been controversial.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that being Mennonite has, and continues to have, both ethnic and religious dimensions. There are many who have become Mennonite as an expression of their faith and the idea of Mennonites being German is foreign to them.

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The Mennonite World Conference reports there are more Mennonites in Africa than in North America and certainly they are not German.

There also are the Swiss Mennonites, whom we find mostly in Ontario and the Northeastern U.S., for whom this question has its own answers.

Our question here then is much narrower. Should the Mennonites in Manitoba be considered part of the German ethnic group in the province?

Mennonites have migrated to Manitoba from the Russian Empire in the 1870s, from the Soviet Union in he 1920s, as refugees after the Second World War, and as return migrants from Latin America.

In the aftermath of both wars, many Mennonites left Manitoba and many of their descendants have returned from places such as Paraguay, Mexico and Belize.

All these Mennonite migrant groups trace their origins to the Dutch-North German areas of Europe during the Reformation of the 16th century. Mennonites were set apart from other reformation groups by their practice of adult baptism -- a radical idea for the time. Most of them would have been Dutch. Persecution in the Netherlands and the greater tolerance of Polish rulers brought Mennonites to the lowlands of present-day Poland, where religious separateness and a need for close co-operation in draining the swamps of the Vistula delta eventually produced an ethnic group.

While the "high" language of church continued to be Dutch, the language of everyday became Low German, an amalgam of Dutch, Saxon Low German, local Prussian and the occasional loan word from Swedish and other European languages.

When the area came under the control of the Prussian kings in the 18th century, the "high" language for Mennonites became German. After 1789, further migration to Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, solidified German as the language and Dutch disappeared from Mennonite identity. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Mennonites steadily became more German.

There were bumps along the way. After the Russian Revolution, Mennonites tried to reconstruct a Dutch identity to escape the legacy of being the enemy during the First World War, an attempt that was controversial in the community. Again after the Second World War, when Mennonite refugees in Europe were in danger of losing their United Nations status as displaced persons, Mennonite historians were called upon to make the case that Mennonite identity was Dutch, not German.

In Canada, the First World War also was a challenge to the German identity Mennonites here had come to embrace and many Mennonites reverted to becoming Dutch.

In Winkler, for instance, 80 per cent of its 458 citizens considered themselves German in the 1911 census. In the 1921 census, 86 per cent of Winkler's 812 residents claimed they were Dutch.

So are Mennonites still German? There is likely still not a simple answer. There are, however, general patterns that shed light on the question. Among Germans, there has often been a distinction between Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) and Reichsdeutsche (Germans from the German state). To the extent Mennonites are German, they tended to be ethnic Germans. The Mennonites of the 1870s were more isolated, not touched as much German nationalism, and hence more "ethnic" as opposed to "national" Germans.

Their descendants who have lived here ever since have the longest exposure to mainstream Canadian society and culture. Their identity is less German, more "Mennonite." The later immigrants to Canada were more German in a national sense. The 1920s immigrants from the Soviet Union had embraced modern Germany, its literature and ethos to a considerable extent, while the refugees of the post-Second World War era had been saved from Bolshevism by Hitler. Those Mennonites who went to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s deliberately chose geographic isolation in northern Mexico and the Gran Chaco and, not surprisingly, their school and church language remained German while the language of everyday continued to be Low German.

The descendants of these Mennonites refer to themselves as "Germans" (dietsche), even though for most there is very little knowledge of or connection to Germany.

Maybe we will have to acknowledge that our ethnic identity is not part of our DNA as much as we sometimes think. Being Mennonite and German is somewhat contextual. Mennonites, like many other Canadians, cloak themselves in an ethnic identity in those contexts where it suits them.

Mennonites can be German, they could be Dutch (although less and less so), but they can also be something else. A colleague at work, who is Dutch, leaves no doubt about his ethnicity when the Netherlands is playing soccer.

Who would Mennonites in Manitoba cheer for in a soccer match? Probably not the Dutch or Germans. Some would cheer for Paraguay; most would identify most clearly with the Canadian women's soccer team.

Hans Werner is a professor of Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J6

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