There is no better way to turn a religious minority against a nation than by maligning, detaining, and excluding them. While Donald Trump claims his ban on immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries will make Americans safer, history suggests that nativist policies will backfire. Consider the case of perhaps the world’s least likely national security threat: pacifist Mennonites.
Members of mistreated groups—whether Mennonites a century ago or Muslims today—can and sometimes do turn on hostile governments, often with alarming speed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, no one would have associated Mennonites, a small Christian group dedicated to nonviolence and charitable works, with hate speech or mass murder. At the time, most Mennonites lived peaceable existences in rural, German-speaking enclaves in Europe or North America.
When the First World War generated a global wave of anti-German and anti-pacifist sentiment, however, tens of thousands—especially those in Central and Eastern Europe—turned to militarist German nationalism.
The shift was as swift as it was shocking. “We have imbibed the notion of pacifism with our mothers’ milk,” a respected Russian Mennonite leader named Benjamin Unruh wrote in 1917. “It is a Mennonite dogma.” Yet by the Second World War, Unruh had become a prominent Nazi collaborator, aiding ethnic cleansing programs that deported Poles and murdered Jews to make way for “Aryan” Mennonites.
How could diehard pacifists turn their backs on the peaceful teachings of their faith?
Mennonites like Unruh, who had once considered violence an unforgivable sin, could be found in military units across Hitler’s empire, including on the killing fields of the Holocaust. Unruh’s own home community near Crimea—once a bastion of pacifist theology—became a model colony under Nazi occupation, generating propaganda for dispersion across the Third Reich and providing a pipeline for young men to join the radical Waffen-SS.
Demonizing Muslim refugees today grants legitimacy to a violent fringe—one already on the lookout for recruits. These are the same tactics that, in the months before the Second World War, prompted a small number of disaffected Mennonites from places as diverse as Canada, Paraguay, Brazil, Poland, and the Netherlands—as well as my own hometown of Newton, Kansas—to travel to Germany to support Hitler’s war machine.
Most Mennonite congregations worldwide, even during the darkest days of the twentieth century, retained their pacifism. And today, the global church has taken steps to address its partial legacy of German racism. This history nevertheless demonstrates how individuals or communities can discard peace-loving traditions; by the height of Nazi expansion, one fourth of the world’s Mennonites lived in—and frequently praised—Hitler’s Germany.
Scapegoated by nativist politicians, members in Eastern Europe and sometimes beyond saw the Third Reich as a refuge from humiliation, deportation, torture, and travel bans. Despite the harrowing experiences of more than 100,000 Mennonites in the Soviet Union—where families faced civil war, famine, and ethnic cleansing—countries like the United States generally closed their borders to the destitute. Canada, which in 1917 had disenfranchised its entire Mennonite population, likewise banned refugees at various points during the 1920s and 1930s.
Letters and diaries show how some pacifists, denigrated in the East and barred from the West, became radicalized. One man recalled the shame of imprisonment in communist Ukraine. “So, you’re a German?” a Bolshevik interrogator asked, before beating him senseless. Secret police particularly targeted Mennonites who had tried to emigrate, accusing them of “carrying out of counter-revolutionary fascist activities”—even though most initially had little enthusiasm, let alone contact, with Nazi Germany.
“I was no enemy of the Soviets,” another victim of wrongful arrest reported, “but now that I’ve come to know them, you’ll find I’m a true enemy. Now I’m a Hitlerite, a fascist unto death.”
Targeting immigrants and refugees from war-torn Muslim countries gives terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda exactly what they want. Just as twentieth-century governments across Europe and the Americas needlessly alienated their Mennonite subjects and excluded Mennonite migrants, President Trump’s grandstanding harms those among the world’s least threatening and most vulnerable populations, in turn making all of us less safe. This is how to radicalize a peaceful minority.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in May from Princeton University Press.