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John Eicher, The University of Iowa, History

“Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves”: Mennonite Migrations, 1870 – 1943

My project follows the migration of two groups of German-speaking Mennonites who inhabited Russia until the 1870s, fled separately to Canada and Germany, and were reunited in Paraguay in the 1930s. Each group followed a different path to the Chaco, but they both wished to maintain communities centered on their religious faith and rural lifestyles. Mennonites proved to be skilled navigators of modern political systems, strategically assuming and discarding state loyalties and national identities in order to preserve their communal autonomy.

In the 1870s, Tsar Alexander II of Russia curtailed the privileges that enabled Mennonites to protect their private schools and conscientious objection to military service. Instead of compromising with Russian authorities, 7,000 Mennonites (roughly one in ten) immigrated to Canada’s prairie provinces, where they were granted a similar set of privileges. After World War I, their privileges were threatened once more when Manitoba and Saskatchewan mandated universal public schooling, prompting 2,000 Mennonites to immigrate to Paraguay. The Paraguayan government welcomed the Mennonites as “German farmers,” granted them new privileges, and allowed them to establish the Menno Colony in the Chaco Desert.

Meanwhile, during World War I, the Mennonites who had remained in Russia claimed to be Dutch to avoid the Tsar’s expropriation of German property. Ten years later, Soviet collectivization under the first Five-Year Plan led 5,000 Mennonites living in the Soviet Union to assert a German nationality and flee to Germany. In 1930, 1,800 of these refugees were resettled in Paraguay where they founded the Fernheim Colony, ten kilometers away from their Canadian-born co-religionists. The establishment of Mennonite colonies in the Chaco Desert exacerbated border tensions between Bolivia and Paraguay and contributed to the outbreak of the Chaco War (1932-1935), which surrounded both colonies in violence.

My approach challenges scholars who have shoehorned nationally indifferent populations into nationalist molds, or are dismissive of the power of religious faith. The project explores the fluidity of national identity at a time when Western states were at the height of nation-making, pressing homogeneity, and insisting that an individual’s nationality was identifiable and immutable. Mennonites’ use of different subject positions across multiple national borders throws into question the idea that we can construct and impose a clearly defined “identity” on religious diasporas. Instead, this project examines how diasporas draw on religious texts to create and modify their communal narratives, and how they blur the line between secular and sacred identifications. To accomplish this, I compare the strategies of adaptation and resistance to worldly powers employed by two groups of Mennonites, and how their strategies affected their reunification fifty years later. Ultimately, the project challenges conventional wisdom on national identity, the supremacy of state power, and the inexorable triumph of secular modernity.