Chosen Nation

Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era

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Benjamin W. Goossen
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $49.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691174280.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Benjamin W. Goossen’s Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era critically describes the history of Mennonites in Germany throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and narrates the ways in which they used nationalism to develop problematic identity constructions of global peoplehood and other utopian and colonial visions.

In chapter 1—“Becoming German”—Goossen describes the beginnings of the relationship between Mennonite and German identities—a relationship that moves unevenly between competition and identification in the different time periods and geographical locations that the book catalogues. Exploring Mennonite revivalism in Germany and the beginnings of overseas Mennonite missionary activity, Goossen notes the influence of “diaspora” language in German Mennonite self-understanding, and further links this language to Mennonite colonialism. As some German Mennonites began to accept nationalist language, Goossen argues that the “ready-made arguments” and “offensive weapon[s]” of nationalist thinking began to serve Mennonite self-understanding in the late nineteenth century and onward.

Chapter 2—“Forging History”—sees the story of Mennonite nationalism in Germany unfold through controversies about military service, and the Mennonite valuing of authentic German identity in the political environment of the Kulturkampf. Goossen notes that by identifying Anabaptist history with German history, Mennonite scholars situated and legitimated their religious identity in the nationalist culture of Germany. Chapter 3—“Raising the Faith”—furthers this investigation by exploring the tensions between Mennonite nationalism and accusations of political indifference, and the intertwining of family and homeland language with the nationalism of German Mennonites. This chapter also includes a fascinating discussion of Mennonite masculinity in Germany, exemplified in the archetypes of the soldier and the pastor.

Chapter 4—“World War, World Confession”—brings the discussion into the twentieth century and the context of World War II in which German Mennonite identities struggled and competed in the developing context of modernity, globalization, and industrialization. This chapter includes a section on the Mennonite state in Paraguay—an example of Mennonite nation building that was called “a state within a state.” Chapter 5—“The Racial Church”—then frankly addresses the varying roles of Mennonites in the Third Reich, including Mennonite anti-Semitism and Mennonite membership in the Nazi party. Chapter 6—“Fatherland”—continues this discussion by first narrating a disturbing meeting in 1942 between Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh and Heinrich Himmler, and then by discussing Mennonite religious revival and other activities during the Holocaust. Chapter 7—“Mennonite Nationalism”—then rounds out the book with a detailed examination of post-war repatriation.

Although I am not a historian, and therefore not qualified to comment on the historical value or accuracy of Goossen’s extensive archival work, I am able to engage with and critique some of the underlying methodological and philosophical assumptions of this book. Chosen Nation is about identity and the unfolding of the particular confluence of two identities (Mennonite, German) over space (the changing geography and political landscape of Germany) and time (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Consequently, the framing of the discussion of historical events and particular stories, evident in the introduction and conclusion of the book—and interspersed throughout—betrays a particular orientation toward the question of identity that bears exploring.

One might say that Chosen Nation explores a particular manifestation of the intersectionality of identities, and the conflicts and syntheses of identities that seem contradictory at first—given the popularly understood Mennonite rejection of state power—but which also conceal strange accords, including the way that the German nationalistic language of belonging fits with Mennonite language of diaspora or chosenness. Goossen goes to great lengths throughout the book to persuade his readers that “static understandings of collective identity are untenable,” and these identities are “socially constructed and historically situated.” These descriptions of collective identity persist throughout the book, and are in continuity with Goossen’s goal to “tell a history of religion without religions, [and] of nationalism without nations.” Indeed, Goossen uses the diversity of Mennonite collective identity to make a point about collective identity in general, stating that “Mennonitism exposed collectivism as decentered, multivalent, and fragmentary.”

On one hand, swearing off talking about nations and religions as being in any way singular identities is a piece of refreshing honesty about the ways in which broad categories really do not do the hard work that scholars or popular writers alike expect of them. For example, calling a group “Christian” does not really suggest anything concrete about that group’s political views. On the other hand, the disavowal of all singular identity risks repeating the same sorts of symbolic and linguistic violences that have led historians and cultural critics away from confessional historiography and toward the more dispassionate and distanced kind of social history that accounts for power relations and political environments, favoring stories of common people over histories of victors. If the problem with the confessional historiography of the Mennonites who believed in a singular origin of Anabaptism is that it was too beholden to the values of their proponents—and too interested in maintaining their unity—then it is worth considering whether the values concerning identity in Chosen Nation also affect its object of study in a similar but inverse way. Where Mennonite confessional historiography construed Anabaptist history as having a single origin and stable essence, Goossen’s book risks the other extreme concerning Mennonite identity: an emphasis on the decentered and multiple character of identity that is symptomatic of postmodern values (many of which I deeply sympathize with, to be clear).

I believe that honesty about the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of methodological orientation is important, given that histories are inevitably written by those with interests and ethical stances. Goossen’s ethics, which I sympathize with, motivate him to critique the various violences of Mennonites in Germany—Nazi, anti-Semitic, colonial, etc—but my caution would be that the supposedly-correlative ontology that treats collective identity as necessarily multiple and disparate—to the point that it is incoherent to speak of it in singular terms—may not serve the interests of that same critique of violence.

Chosen Nation is a breakthrough book that addresses a vital topic of interest in great detail, and surely it will be put to the test by historians of the Mennonites. Furthermore, it has the potential to rekindle old conversations about the crises and fatigues of identity in religious communities, given that history is a major source of insight and direction for those communities, and for this reason—in addition to its historical research—it is an impressive and illuminating work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maxwell Kennel is a doctoral student in religious studies at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin W. Goossen is a scholar of global religious history at Harvard University.

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