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In 1998 white supremacists assembled in Toronto to hear Ingrid Rimland, a doyenne of neo-Nazism. By then in her early sixties, Rimland was highly regarded for having embraced the nascent World Wide Web as an organizing tool for white supremacy. From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, Rimland’s site, Zundelsite.org, served as a clearinghouse for Holocaust denialism and fascist news, blasting daily “Z-Grams” into the dark corners of the web.
Celebrations of white “ethnicity” are rarely if ever innocuous.
Even before creating Zundelsite.org, Rimland had been a pioneer of white identity politics, and when she took the podium that day, she explained that she would be discussing her evolution as an “ethnic” writer. It will likely surprise many readers that in her lecture, Rimland credited her embrace of white supremacy to her upbringing as a Mennonite, a faith generally associated with pacifism and agrarianism.
With the far-right surging worldwide, historians have come to better appreciate that the taproots of racism reach deep into local contexts. Rimland’s life and writings help demonstrate how an individual’s turn toward intolerance always reflects a personal journey, how white supremacists mine biography for the stuff of bigotry. Although factors such as economic recession, mass migration, and democratic malaise can conjure favorable conditions for far-right populism, we know that the paths societies take on the road to illiberal rule are always specific. That means we will never again see a country exactly like Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. But by the same token, we also know that no country or person or religion is immune from the pull of the far right.
Rimland’s biography cautions us that all celebrations of white “ethnicity” must be received skeptically. When viewed in historical context, they are rarely if ever innocuous. For white Mennonites in the United States in particular—who often continue to think of themselves as an “ethnicity”—Rimland’s example should sound warning bells about the dangers of continuing to embrace this identity.
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The Mennonite denomination of Christianity, with approximately two million members worldwide, is best known for the principle of Christian pacifism. During the sixteenth-century Reformation in Europe, early Mennonites, part of the larger Anabaptist movement, faced persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike. Thousands were beheaded, burned, or impaled for refusing to baptize their children into state churches or otherwise serve earthly rulers. Today a minority of Mennonites, like the Amish, avoid certain elements of modernity such as cars, telephones, and higher education and are ultraconservative, patriarchal, and homophobic. Most are not, however, and the church has a considerable liberal contingency, of which I count myself a part.
Moral institutions such as Christianity can provide important centers for ethical decision-making. At their best, they are critical to the life of a healthy democracy and are arguably analogous to democracy itself. Progressive Mennonites such as myself understand politics as the work of living together. We practice a faith that fosters debate and that seeks to hear each person’s voice. Our congregations make their own rules and guidelines through democratic vote, and we are committed to inviting all members to preach, teach, and hold leadership roles. This kind of political engagement usefully combats the apathy and individualism of our current neoliberal culture.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking whether the relationship between Rimland and Mennonitism is as surprising as it might appear on the surface. In recent years, Christianity has often seemed more a counterpart to far-right activism than a bulwark against it. Racist, anti-immigrant groups around the world justify their actions through various brands of Christian nationalism. In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald Trump. Many Mennonites undoubtedly did the same.
Perhaps the most egregious of the denomination’s failings has been our propensity to excuse and even foster white supremacy. Ethnic parochialism would be familiar to Scottish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, or Italian Catholics. But white Mennonites’ chauvinism is in a class of its own. Despite (or possibly because) most Mennonites worldwide are now people of color, white churchgoers often uncritically identify as “ethnic” members, whose European ancestors allegedly survived centuries of persecution by marrying only within the faith.
Rimland credited her embrace of white supremacy to her upbringing as a Mennonite, a faith generally associated with pacifism and agrarianism.
Racial exclusivity is what Rimland most valued about her Mennonite heritage. “I never knew that anybody would want to be a mongrel,” she once told an interviewer. Rimland’s epic novel, Lebensraum! (1998), portrays the denomination as an “ethnically savagely besieged community.” The main character, a blond and blue-eyed girl named Erika who is loosely based on Rimland, is less a person than an archetype. In Rimland’s telling, “her script was set more than four centuries ago. Her ethnic roots go deep into the soil of martyrdom.”
I, too, was raised to think of myself as an “ethnic” Mennonite. Both my parents’ families could trace membership in Mennonite congregations to the Dutch Reformation. Our forebears, so the story went, were German-speaking farmers who migrated in the late eighteenth century to a part of Imperial Russia that is now Ukraine. Catherine the Great had promised them religious freedom, exemption from military service, and financial benefits. In exchange, Mennonites pioneered the steppe for a hundred years. But in 1874, the Russian Empire instituted universal conscription, prompting a third of its pacifist Mennonite subjects to relocate to North America.
Rimland first made her name in the late 1970s with a novel, The Wanderers, that told of those German-speaking Mennonites who remained behind in Eastern Europe. The novel focuses on three generations of women who live in the Soviet Union before and during World War II, along with their subsequent migration to Paraguay. Rimland knew this history firsthand. Her earliest memories, from the late 1930s, were likely of Stalin’s Great Terror and its effects within her Mennonite colony, Molotschna, where a mere two generations earlier, members of my own family had lived. Soviet agents deported Rimland’s father in 1941, after which she lived with her mother and grandmother. During World War II, these women and their community cheered the arrival of Hitler’s forces. Rimland drew on her personal experiences when writing passages in The Wanderers about Mennonites leaving Ukraine in 1943 with the retreating Germany military.
A Christian press, Concordia, published the first edition in 1977, and Bantam Books issued a mass-market paperback the next year. The Wanderers was a critical success, receiving favorable reviews and winning the California Literature Medal Award. Mennonites also liked The Wanderers. Some quibbled with factual details, but many praised Rimland’s pathos. Her promotional circuit snaked through denominational strongholds in Kansas, Manitoba, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. My maternal grandmother still recalls its vivid portrayal of suffering in the Soviet Union.
Reviewers of The Wanderers assumed that, unlike her characters, Rimland did not personally hold the Nazis in high esteem. In a personal essay published in 1979, however, Rimland described how “the German Wehrmacht swept through our streets and into our hearts.” In a similar 1980 piece, she wrote about “the Eastern holocaust of 1945 when Berlin was put to the torch, when left and right of us the Wehrmacht was scythed from the earth.”
The modest success of The Wanderers fell far short of Rimland’s hope for a meteoric rise, and afterward she flailed as a writer. Working as a school counselor in California, she contributed freelance columns to the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. Her articles reveal a craving for fame and fortune. In a fawning review of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987), Rimland likened the real estate developer to the character John Galt of Ayn Rand’s anti-egalitarian novel, Atlas Shrugged. Both Trump and Galt exhibited “boundless inner strength and sharply focused talent—iconoclastic in ethics, hard-working, impatient with trivia, loving excellence for its own sake, hating controls on ambition and drive, having megadreams of what mind and money can buy.”
As Rimland entered late middle age with little to show for her toil, she began inventing scapegoats. She returned again and again in her mind to the one shining moment of her career: The Wanderers. Rimland developed a conviction that, from the beginning, vindictive Jews had sabotaged her endeavors. She claimed that The Wanderers was on its way to stratospheric success—but then someone at Bantam, “a Jewish publishing house,” noticed the novel’s positive portrayal of Nazi soldiers. Ostensibly, all remaining copies were shredded. “Here was this great big groundswell,” she alleged, “and the next thing, it was done. It was wiped out.”
• • •
Reviewers of The Wanderers wrongly assumed that, unlike her characters, Rimland did not personally hold the Nazis in high esteem.
Rimland’s fortunes were about to change. In early 1994, the Institute for Historical Review, a California-based clearinghouse for anti-Semitic scholarship, published a glowing review of The Wanderers, which Rimland had recently expanded and reprinted at her own expense. The Institute, founded in 1978, was then at the peak of its influence. It favored a pseudo-intellectual style and used the euphemistic term “revisionism” to describe its mission of undermining mainstream consensus about the Holocaust. The Institute’s review highlighted with approval the “ten percent” of controversial new material Rimland had added to The Wanderers.
Later that year, in September 1994, the Institute for Historical Review hosted its twelfth International Revisionist Conference, with Rimland in attendance. It was there that she would have her fateful first meeting with Ernst Zündel, a neo-Nazi German expatriate who ran a far-right press out of his fortified “bunker” in downtown Toronto and who had already been jailed for hate crimes.
Zündel impressed Rimland, and she was delighted to be interviewed for his television program while he was in California. In the footage, Zündel’s flattering questions visibly thrill Rimland, who neatly slots her religious background and fiction into his line of white supremacist inquiry. “Mennonites who created a community in Russia were totally, totally German,” she explains. Moreover, Hitler had been a liberator who “brought into our colonies the values that we had always held dear, namely the family cohesion, the pride in race, which was part of my upbringing.”
Rimland’s interview with Zündel inaugurated a business partnership. Financed by monthly $3,000 checks from Zündel in Canada, Rimland launched Zundelsite.org from her California home. Zündel and Rimland would later marry, in 2001, and move to Tennessee, where they lived in a romanticized chalet-style cottage, complete with a cuckoo clock. By 2003, however, Zündel had overstayed his United States visa, and after a protracted legal battle in Canada, he was deported to Germany, where he faced a lengthy imprisonment for inciting hatred.
By 1998 Rimland was already an underground celebrity, drawing an eager crowd of white supremacists for her Toronto lecture. Rimland had traveled there to promote Lebensraum!, her new trilogy. Like The Wanderers, the novel was another saga of Mennonite history, but this time Rimland openly celebrated the Nazis and anti-Semitism. In video of her speaking engagement, Rimland crafts her message around the trope of white racial persecution. “Who tells our children what we are all about?” she asks her audience.
This is when Rimland recounts her own “ethnic” conversion. It had occurred in the late 1960s. She was living in Kansas with her first husband and their two sons, taking university classes despite her still minimal English. “I one day took myself to the library of the Mennonites,” meaning the historical library and archives of Bethel College, a Mennonite school, “and started reading up on my own people.” Only through studying her heritage had Rimland learned to think of herself as part of a vibrant, superior culture. “That’s when I started writing The Wanderers,” she says.
Remarkably, Bethel College’s archive has record of Rimland’s research there. I found a thin manila folder of her letters among the voluminous papers of Cornelius Krahn, the library’s former director. An energetic archivist, editor, and historian, Krahn was a leading figure of twentieth-century Mennonitism. Like Rimland, Krahn had been born to a German-speaking Mennonite family in what is now Ukraine. He emigrated in the 1920s, achieving his doctorate in Nazi Germany in 1936. Krahn then migrated to the United States, where he eventually joined the faculty of Bethel College.
Rimland’s letters to Krahn begin in 1971 and continue through the publication of The Wanderers at the end of the decade. Most are postmarked from California. The letters detail how Rimland researched her novel after moving away from Kansas. Although she no longer lived near the Bethel archive, Rimland wished to continue reading about Mennonite history. Krahn sent numerous rare historical books as well as recent scholarship to her California address, sometimes suggesting loans he thought might be of interest. Rimland grew to consider Krahn a personal friend, and he later recommended her for a grant to research the book that became Lebensraum!
Krahn steered Rimland toward interpretations of Mennonite history he had helped develop. Krahn believed in an “ethnically” bound denomination, whose cultural integrity and theological purity had for centuries withstood intrusions by more transient political ideologies. The erstwhile Nazism of some fellow Mennonites represented for Krahn an irritation now past. Krahn himself was no fascist, but he did choose to ignore select details of Mennonite life in the former Third Reich, hoping thereby to foster a united front against what he considered the greater and more immediate danger of communism. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, he helped craft a campaign that depicted Mennonites as a peaceful and persecuted “ethnic” minority. The purpose of this narrative was to allege that Mennonites in Europe could not have collaborated with Hitler’s racist regime. Krahn pushed his message among United Nations officials in order to aid his European friends and colleagues, from whom he simultaneously solicited articles for new “ethnic” forums such as the magazine Mennonite Life.
Tales of Mennonite suffering in the Soviet Union were central to Krahn’s ideology. He portrayed the once-flourishing colonies in Ukraine as a wellspring of historic peoplehood. Meanwhile, over 100,000 Mennonites, including members of Krahn’s own family, still lived in banishment in Siberia and Central Asia. Following a thaw in the Cold War, he helped initiate a series of learning tours, in which North American Mennonites visited the Soviet Union. Rimland enthusiastically endorsed the idea: “I am so excited about the things I discover while reading about our past,” she confided to Krahn; “how much more meaningful would be a trip to the former Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine!”
More than 15,000 Mennonites who had collaborated with or accepted aid from Nazi Germany moved to the Americas. Most received UN refugee assistance by invoking the concept of “ethnic” Mennonitism.
Although Rimland never returned to the land of her birth, many Mennonites did. Indeed, my mother was one early participant. During January 1980, as a sophomore at Bethel College, she traveled with a study abroad group through Russia and Ukraine. “I am so thankful that I studied up on Mennonite history in general, Mennonite colonies, and in particular my own family stories,” she wrote in a graded trip journal. Entries also reflect U.S. anti-communism and her white denominational subculture. “Now totally Ukrainian, those small villages are nothing special,” my mother wrote, referring to areas our ancestors once inhabited. She felt that little remained “of what must have been a paradise 150 years ago.” A feminist scholar in the making, my mother was politically liberal and anti-racist. Yet she had been steeped since childhood in a culture laudatory of common heritage, food, and folkways. Her college notes record personal interest in a 1948 article by Cornelius Krahn, “The Ethnic Origin of the Mennonites from Russia.” Summarizing Krahn’s historical and socioeconomic analysis, my mother commented, “This is the best discussion of Mennonite ethnicity that I’ve encountered.”
Understanding the intellectual world of Bethel College in the 1970s and early ’80s helps explain how Rimland so easily integrated Holocaust denial with Mennonite history. Reviewing the books that Krahn sent to Rimland as she was writing The Wanderers reveals a narrative of ancient Mennonite glory, horrific suffering under communism, and redemption during the Nazi era. These themes were most explicitly united in the writings of one author, Walter Quiring, whom Rimland described as her “idol.” At Rimland’s request, Krahn put them in touch. Quiring provided comments on The Wanderers while it was still in draft, and he agreed to arrange reviews.
Krahn’s comfort in connecting Rimland with Quiring is indicative of Mennonite responses to the crimes of National Socialism. Quiring had been a Nazi propagandist and had worked for the SS. Krahn was perfectly familiar with these details, having interviewed Quiring at his kitchen table in Canada during the 1950s. In an audio recording of the encounter, Quiring candidly recounts his own enthusiastic participation in wartime ethnic cleansing. Like Quiring, more than 15,000 Mennonites who had collaborated with or accepted aid from Nazi Germany subsequently moved to the Americas. Most obscured their war records and received UN refugee assistance by invoking the concept of “ethnic” Mennonitism devised by Krahn and his coworkers.
• • •
Only recently have Mennonite communities begun to probe this history, uncovering a story of extensive Nazi collaboration and later cover-up. At the height of Hitler’s empire building, about 120,000 Mennonites—a fourth of the denomination—found themselves under Nazi rule. Nearly all gained coveted Aryan status, and tens of thousands materially benefitted from genocide. Many families received Jewish farms or businesses, clothing taken from murder victims, or houses requisitioned from deportees. Some Mennonites in Nazi uniform served as concentration camp guards and in mobile killing units.
After World War II, prominent church leaders took pains to ensure that congregations in Europe once again espoused pacifism. But no more formal process of denazification ever occurred. Only in the last four years have denominationally sponsored conferences begun to address the connection between Mennonites and Nazi war crimes. In March 2018, Bethel College hosted the most recent gathering, entitled “Mennonites and the Holocaust.” More than 200 people assembled from 5 countries. Participants openly and critically examined events that for generations have been mostly taboo or hearsay.
Racists draw their power not from the margins but by engaging narratives that are recognizable, indeed core to large groups of people.
For Mennonites, moving forward will mean dismantling the language and logics of “ethnic” peoplehood. The concept is irredeemable. Krahn and other mid-twentieth-century church leaders promoted the idea precisely to help bury the denomination’s entanglement with National Socialism, and in so doing offered Rimland a robust language for launching her career as a prominent white supremacist. In turn, Rimland’s legacy persists among anti-Semites and other extremists. The hate she spread via her website, novels, lectures, and activism helped lay the groundwork for today’s global alt-right. Among Mennonites, likewise, her reach has been long. The 2018 conference at Bethel College experienced disruption from Rimland’s former lawyer, Bruce Leichty, and two fellow Holocaust deniers. Following Leichty’s arrest by local police, he and his associates took a press lap on far-right blogs and radio shows.
It is tempting to characterize Rimland and her ilk as fringe figures, but this would be wrong. Racists draw their power not from the margins but by engaging narratives that are recognizable, indeed core to large groups of people. Rimland’s identity as an “ethnic” Mennonite was central to my own self-understanding as a young person, and it remains broadly positively connoted in my denomination. As a white supremacist, Rimland portrayed “ethnic” Mennonite history as one of myriad tales of “Aryan” persecution. This is the same logic that allows some white people to treat Confederate monuments as endangered heritage and that has prompted Trump to tweet about “white genocide.” Far-right movements spread because they harness narratives at the heart of what we think our identities are, and then use those stories to push agendas of hate.
There is no single answer to far-right extremism, which is an ever-mutating, always-specific phenomenon. Each new guise requires a tailored response. Mennonites, for example, must challenge historic exclusivity by celebrating the current diversity of their congregations, which now include members of every conceivable background. And all of us should rally around our moral institutions when they need us most. This does not mean uncritically obeying authority or retrenching tradition. Rather, equipping ourselves to interpret and challenge the injustices within and around us can stimulate the health of our public sphere. Our ability to act ethically strengthens as we recommit to being in community.
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