Germany North

Language: German

Religions: Protestant 34%, Roman Catholic 34%, Muslim 3.7%

Population: 81 million

Capital: Berlin

Mennonites in Germany?

AMG ; AMBD ; BTG ;

‘Equal rights for all Confessions of Faith‘

Author: Ulrich Hettinger
Translator: Jennifer Otto 

Hermann von Beckerath (1801) was born into a Mennonite family of weavers in Krefeld.  In 1815 he began training as a banker and within a few years he gained a leading role. Driven by a rigorous work ethic and ambition, he rose to the pinnacle of the Krefeld upper-class within two decades. Von Beckerath founded his own bank, sat as a member of the Krefeld city council, was president of the chamber of commerce and, after 1840, became one of the leading liberals in the Prussian Rhein territories.

 

From 1843–1845, a period of increasing political conflict between citizenry and  authorities, von Beckerath sat as a member of the Rheinland parliament.  He dealt with toll and trade issues and advocated for the legal emancipation of Jews and dissidents, and for liberal reforms within the Prussian state. He became particularly popular through his debates during the first united session of the Prussian parliament in 1847, where he vehemently supported the proposal  for a constitution for all Prussians. ‘My cradle stood on my father’s weaving stool‘:  with these famous words he confronted the Prussian nobility in parliament. Like the other representatives of Rhenish liberalism, von Beckerath stood for a liberal restructuring of the Prussian monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.

 

After the revolutionary events of March 1848, von Beckerath became a member of the Frankfurt National Assembly and also served as Finance Minister. He advocated in favour of the establishment of a German democratic republic, without Austria, under Prussian leadership. When the Prussian king finally refused the Kaiser’s crown designated for him, von Beckerath, deeply disappointed, resigned from parliament. After the revolution, he remained a member of the Prussian House of Representatives until 1852.  In later years, he withdrew from Prussian politics completely and dedicated himself to business and local politics. Hermann von Beckerath died in May 1870, shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war.

 

Von Beckerath’s ideas and actions were shaped by Mennonite pietism, liberal-constitutional values and a deep-seated Patriotism  This is best reflected in his support of the Prussian monarchy and his appeal for equal rights for all Confessions of Faith, but also in his vehement support of compulsory military service, which he found an essential counterpart to liberal rights and freedoms, a position he reaffirmed even against the opposition of his ‘orthodox‘ co-religionists.

 

Unification of German Mennonites

Authors: Corinna Schmidt, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

There are Mennonite congregations in various North German cities. Most of them are situated in or near Krefeld or Hamburg, but there are also congregations in Berlin, Neuwied, Bielefeld and various other places. Fourteen of these are united in the Union of German Mennonite Congregations established in 1886 (In German abbreviated to VDM), with around 2.100 members.

 

Working to establish community

The VDM brings Mennonites in northern Germany together. Pastors meet to discuss theology and their local concerns. The needs and concerns of youth are addressed by youth workers, who organise camps and special events for children, teens and young adults. There is also an organisation that addresses women’s issues. The VDM als provides training for lay members who are engaged in the church.

 

Cooperation with other churches

Representatives of the VDM were present at the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948. Among German Mennonites there was a strong desire to seek greater unity between the various Christian churches after the horrors of WWII To this day Mennonites are convinced of the need for Christians to seek affiliation with each other, in order to resolve conflicts nonviolently and make the world a more peaceful place. The WCC now includes nearly 350 churches with about 550 Million members. Mennonites are linked to Christians in the entire world and similarly to a wide variety of churches in Germany. Member congregations of the VDM are also members in the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK). In these dialogues Mennonites have become convinced that they can learn from other churches, and have experienced that Mennonites have an important contribution to make as well.

 

Faith and Peace

The VDM wishes to demonstrate that the message of Jesus Christ can be good news for everyone. Mennonites believe that our faith in Jesus Christ has a great deal to do with openness, tolerance, social commitment and peace. Faith motivates us to help others. For this reason the VDM established the Mennonite Peace Centre in Berlin, which works for peace in the neighbourhood and with the socially disadvantaged. There is room for everyone in our Mennonite congregations. We work to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. The VDM encourages its members to think deeply about their faith and at the same time to become active in their communities.

 

Tolerance and Freedom of Religion

Authors: Fernando Enns, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

In Germany religious groups are free to exercise their faith without state control, as long as they do not contravene the constitution. This means that Mennonites can exercise their faith without restriction and can attend their church services without fear of state repression. This was not always the case.

 

Mennonites under pressure

The Anabaptists of 500 years ago were highly critical of the church and its close cooperation with political power. Consequently, many Anabaptists refused to participate in wars or swear oaths. Adult baptism was a further expression of this conviction, ensuring that the only church members would be Christians of conviction. To opponents of Anabaptism these ideas posed a great danger to the cohesion of society, and the Anabaptists faced severe persecution.

Over time this opposition relaxed. Mennonites were no longer persecuted in all parts of the German Reich, although they were obliged to celebrate their church services in private rooms. They did not enjoy the same freedoms as others, and they tended to settle in those areas where they were tolerated, though with severe restrictions by political rulers.

 

Equal rights for all

Their own painful past experience was a crucial reason why early Mennonites called for religious tolerance and religious freedom. This liberal philosophy has remained an integral part of their congregational mindset in northern Germany. A well-known Mennonite who advocated for these values politically was Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870), He  was elected to the parliament in the first German national assembly of 1848 in Frankfurt and served briefly as finance minister. He pleaded in favour of equal rights for Mennonites, who until that time still did not possess all the rights that other citizens had. In exchange, he asked his fellow Mennonites to accept the duty of military service. In order to guarantee full religious freedom and citizenship, he was willing to sacrifice the principle of nonresistance (conscientious objection).

 

Freedom without violence

After WWII it took a long time before Mennonites in northern Germany returned to their stance of nonviolence. In 2009 the Union of German Mennonite Congregations adopted the ’Declaration on Just Peace’. The freedom of religion and of conscience that Mennonites formerly demanded for themselves is now something that they acknowledge for all members of their congregations. They also speak out publically, so that this same tolerance might be exercised toward all other religions and creeds.

The Pax Boys – Our angels of peace

Author: Isabel Mans
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

‘They were angels to us‘, said a woman who witnessed their activities. These peace angels were young men from the USA who refused to perform military service after World War II and were sent to Germany to help its rebuilding. They performed a peace service with the aid agency Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

 

Love as a Philosophy of Life

Roger Hochstetler  came to Germany in 1951 to show his solidarity with the Germans. Although Germany had caused much suffering in the world, Hochstetler felt a connection to his Christian brothers and sisters in Germany. Most Americans of the time hated the Germans, but Hochstetler said ‘Love was always my philosophy of life. We built houses to help the victims of war‘. The Pax Boys built settlements for Mennonite refugees from Prussia and Russia and new Mennonite congregations were founded there.

 

Ambassadors in the Name of Christ

The Pax Boys came to Germany in the 1950s ‘in the name of Christ‘, which is the motto of MCC. They wanted to be ‘ambassadors of peace‘; they lived in simple accommodations, declined wages and even paid $75 a month in order to be a part of this project. Dwight Wiebe wrote:

 

Peace means a time for healing, caring and repairing. ... I arrived in Europe in the 1950s, where I met 30 young Pax Boys, ages 18 to 22, who had come to Germany to put their Christian faith into action. All of them came equipped to be ambassadors of peace.

 

Without prior instruction or professional assistance they dug cellars and foundations and constructed houses with only basic tools. Local newspapers reported with surprise that they would build homes for strangers – their former enemies.

 

Tangible acts of peace

It took 5 months of work by eight Pax Boys to erect the Mennonite parish hall in Krefeld. This created a big saving for the congregation both financially and in building time. In the town of Wedel near Hamburg a parish hall and 11 duplexes were built between 1954 and 1958. By the end of the 1950s about 120 persons were living there. The Pax Boys also contributed to the youth work and helped establish the congregation in Wedel. They were a visible sign of peace in a landscape that had been destroyed by war.

 

Peace in the city of Berlin

Authors: Martina Basso, Marius van Hoogstraten

For Mennonites, peace is at the heart of our theology. But peace can mean different things in different times and places. This is why, in 2009, the Vereinigung Deutscher Mennonitengemeinden (VDM) took time to think about what the peace witness means today. As a result, they wrote a ‘Declaration on Just Peace’. In addition to a theological part, this Declaration also described practical ‘proving grounds for peace and non-violence’. That is why they also founded Berlin Mennonite Peace Center.

 

A culture of Peace

The work we do at the Berlin Mennonite Peace Center builds on this Declaration and is intended to show what a ‘culture of peace’ could look like – what being a ‘Peace Church’ in a large and diverse city, and an important capital, could entail. In the Declaration, the VDM wrote that ‘The task of peace is not restricted to ending violence. It also seeks to establish structures that will contribute to a just and long-lasting peace’.

 

What does Peace mean concrete?

For us, it means we work on the following things: Building networks to prevent violence: we accompany a network of people and organizations in an inner-city neighborhood of Berlin. We also prevent violence through sports (karate for girls), and create spaces for people of different cultures and/or religions to meet and connect. We cooperate with the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe to learn together about conflict transformation and raise awareness about the difficult situation in Zimbabwe. We also make the witness for peace known in wider society and in other churches. We organize prayers for peace and continue to look for a ‘spirituality of peace’ that crosses confessional and religious borders. We support and advise Mennonite congregations and institutions in their peace work.

 

Mennonite wandering and settling in Prussia, Poland and Russia

Author: Peter Klassen

When the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement arose in 16th century, its emphasis on adult baptism and  a theology of peace soon brought severe persecution.  A haven, however, was provided in Poland, where good farmers and skilled businesspersons were welcomed. And so a number of Mennonite communities arose, especially in the Vistula delta, a region that was remarkably tolerant in an age of religious intolerance. Here the Mennonites' skills in land drainage techniques greatly increased income from lands they quickly protected through a network of canals and dikes. Other Mennonites, skilled in business techniques, settled in the outskirts of Gdansk (Danzig) and in towns in the Vistula delta. 

 

Heretics or true believers?

Not surprisingly, sometimes charges of heresy were brought against these nonconformists, and in one dramatic setting in Gdansk (Danzig), Mennonites were asked to disprove this assertion. In 1678, with the bishop of Wloclawek (Leslau) presiding, Mennonite leaders appeared before the bishop to be questioned on various theological issues. When the  hearings were over,  Georg Hansen, minister of the Gdansk Flemish church, noted that the churches had been freed from suspicion.  At the same time, some religious authorities let it be known that they opposed Mennonite settlement. But Poland remained remarkably tolerant.

Among other valuable skills that Mennonites brought to the Vistula delta, the ability to control flooding by constructing strategically placed dikes, stood them in good stead. Following an invitation from the local landlord  of the Nowy Dwór (Tiegenhof) area, a number of Mennonites came to settle there, and soon a number of Mennonite settlements arose in the Vistula Delta. The reputation of Mennonites as farmers who could conquer the swampy lands led to numerous open doors for new settlements.

 

New soul-searching

New challenges arose when Prussia gained control of the Vistula delta. The new rulers had little sympathy for Mennonite peace beliefs, and pressure to have Mennonites serve in the army led to new challenges for the Mennonite community. Some leaders urged Mennonites in West Prussia to abandon their peace position.  Gradually, a division arose, and by the end of the 18th century, several hundred Mennonite families had moved to Russia, where Catherine II promised them freedom to practice their faith. Soon another large group of Mennonites emigrated to America.  But among those who remained in the expanding German state, more and more Mennonites abandoned their peace position.  Later, with the defeat of Germany in 1945, Mennonites joined in the effort to escape to West Germany and only very few found ways to remain in their historic home.

Menno Simons’  Hiding Place

Author: Hans-Jürgen Goertz
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

On the north side of the village of Bad Oldesloe in Germany there is a whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof under a majestic linden tree, the Menno Kate. The Kate stands as a memorial to the last years of Menno Simons (1496-1561), the namesake of the Mennonites. After Menno was expelled from the city of Wismar in 1544 he found shelter in the estate of Wüstenfelde, where he could work on his publications in peace, writing to his congregations and discussing controversial issues of church discipline with fellow church leaders.

 

The secret printing press

Menno Simons lived on the Fresenburg estate with a group of Anabaptists who had been permitted to live at a nearby estate. The village of Wüstenfelde was later destroyed during the Thirty Year’s War, and so it is not clear whether the Menno Kate was rebuilt on exactly the same site or not, or perhaps even survived the war. He may have lived right in the Menno Kate when he was supervising the printing of his works. He was permitted to use the printing shop in the spring of 1554 and the summer of 1556. In spite of the general prohibition on printing Anabaptist literature, we know that four of his books, including his famous Foundation Book, were published in this time frame. Menno remained in Wüstenfelde after the printing shop was closed. He died there on January 13, 1561 and is said to have been buried in a cabbage patch five kilometres from the Menno Kate.

 

From hide-away to museum

Since 1902 a memorial stone and a bronze plate honour the memory of Menno Simons at the Menno Kate. The cottage is a listed historical monument. It is leased by the Union of German Mennonite Congregations and cared for by the Mennonite Historical Society of Germany. In the 1960s it was restored and turned into a small museum, displaying books, maps and images from the lively history of the Mennonites. It opened in 1986 and after further renovation it has been available to visitors since 1999.

 

Symbols of reconciliation

The aged linden tree that was supposedly planted by Menno himself is called the ‘Menno-Linde’. Several years ago Mennonites planted two beech trees, one in Wittenberg and one near the cottage. Both trees reaffirm the recent act of reconciliation between the Lutheran churches and the Mennonites.

Ecumenism – For Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

Author: Fernando Enns
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

From the very beginning of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century it was important to Mennonites to develop good relationships with other churches. They were involved in founding the World Council of Churches (WCC), which is now a fellowship of 350 churches with about 550 million members worldwide.

 

War is contrary to God’s will

The establishment of the WCC was a response to the horrors of two world wars. The churches acknowledged their failures, and especially the German churches confessed their guilt. Accordingly, the WCC declared that ‘war is contrary to God’s will’. Since then, the ecumenical movement has campaigned for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The other churches in the WCC have shown great interest in learning more about the theology of the ‘historical peace churches' and Mennonites have had the opportunity to communicate their position in many ecumenical discussions.

 

The Decade to Overcome Violence

During the 8th General Assembly of the WCC in Zimbabwe (1998) a Mennonite delegate initiated the idea of a ‘Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches for Peace and Reconciliation’, which the assembly embraced enthusiastically. Searching for methods to overcome violence became a central activity of the ecumenical movement, in theological and ethical thinking as well as in practical activities. The Mennonites were now faced with the challenge of clarifying their own position on peace and violence and communicating their theology to other Christian churches.  A Mennonite Peace Centre was established in Berlin, and the comprehensive paper ‘A Declaration on Just Peace’ was written.

 

A Pilgrimage of Just Peace

The Decade to Overcome Violence lead to the next General Assembly of the WCC (South Korea 2013), deciding to establish its new and comprehensive programme for the coming years: ‘A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’. Again Mennonites were integrally involved in its realisation. The goal is to examine more deeply the spiritual roots and sources of Christian faith for the formation of a just and peaceful world, to provide Christians with new insights and dimensions for their involvement in the political and social life of their communities. This will hopefully lead to the conviction that the gospel has a transformative power – even in the midst of violence and injustice.

 

Academic Theology and Peace building

Author: Fernando Enns
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

In 2006 the Institute for Peace Church Theology at the University of Hamburg was established as the first academic institute for Mennonite Theology. Until then Mennonite students who wished to train for a pastorate or teaching position needed to go to the Mennonite Seminary in the Netherlands or to the USA, if they wanted to add history and theology from a Mennonite perspective to their studies.

 

Peace theology

The chief contribution that Mennonites have brought to the international ecumenical discourse is their peace theology, which is founded on the idea of nonviolence. The central theme of this theology, first taught by the Anabaptists of the 16th century, is that Christian faith should be a way of life that is marked by an active commitment to justice, peace (without violence) and the integrity of creation. This view has significant implications for all other aspects of theology: first as to the manner in which theology itself is practiced, second as to the content of theology itself. By its nature, peace theology is ecumenical and is linked to other churches, traditions and cultures, and creates a dialogue with other religions. Therefore, the Institute works closely with the Missions Academy and the Academy of World Religions at Hamburg University.

 

Peace building in the fullest sense

This understanding of peace theology should not be restricted to academic debates. If we understand violence in all its aspects  – whether it be direct (by an individual), indirect (by political or economic systems) or cultural violence (discrimination of any kind) – then striving to be freed of it must also be present in all aspects of life. The Institute began by helping to establish an ‘Interdisciplinary Working Group for Peacebuilding’, where academics from various fields work together. We created a peace education  program for students of all disciplines, in which theology and religion take on an important role. Additionally, since 2011 the Institute offers a special course in mediation. A public forum, the mennoFORUM, has been established together with the Hamburg Mennonite congregation to discuss contemporary subjects with important people in politics, economics, culture and religion. The Institute has also written a number of publications that show how peace theology and peace education have an important voice that needs to be heard both inside the academic world and in the public sphere.

Christian Peacemaker Teams Europe (CPT)

Author: Marius van Hoogstraten

Millions of people around the world live in places where armed groups, soldiers or militias are in charge of civilians' everyday lives. Millions of others have had to leave their countries and become refugees. You often hear people say that this is just the way it is. They say the only thing we can do for these people is to send our army. But that often only makes the war worse.

 

New Politics

Christian Peacemaker Teams try to look for other ways. We go to violent places to work for peace with the people that live there. Instead of using weapons, we take pictures and write things down. Soldiers and other armed groups can recognize us by our hats and vests. This makes them less likely to use violence, because they know they're being watched.

We used to think this made us very special, but now we know there are local people working for peace almost everywhere, finding creative ways to resist violence or stop corporations from destroying their land. Through articles and videos, we try to make these local, grass-roots peacemakers known to an international audience. Non-violent resistance can mean many things – for example, forming a human chain  between soldiers and protesters, or just going to school or taking your sheep out, even when the army tries to stop you.

 

Non-violent resistance

In Canada, for example, many indigenous peoples are seeing their land and way of life threatened by large corporations. Here, CPT volunteers accompany indigenous non-violent resistance. For example, when roadblocks are put up to prevent logging companies from getting their trucks into the forest. CPT-ers also teach non-indigenous Canadians about the struggles of indigenous Canadians.

In Europe, we're concerned about the violence faced by refugees. There's almost no way to get to Europe safely, because the borders are highly militarized. This means many refugees try dangerous other ways, and thousands have died on the borders in the past years, particularly in the Mediterranean sea and between Greece and Turkey.

 

The story of Christian Peacemaker Teams started in 1984 at the Mennonite World Conference. The dream was to get thousands of Christians parachuting into conflict zones. We now see it was a little self-important to think that would be of any help. Nowadays, not only Christians work for CPT, and our cooperation with local groups is at the center of our work. We support grass-roots initiatives in Colombia, Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan and Canada.