Controversial & Personal: Mennonites at War!

Feature photo: Senior Curator Andrea Klassen speaks about a portion of the exhibit. These YouTube clips are hidden and can only been seen when you visit the exhibit and scan the QR code. The MHV has provided boosted wifi (and password) to enable visitors to watch each video. I found this invaluable. Klassen herself expands on some stories, and other scholars and experts, or in some cases family members speak up and share on other portions of the exhibit. There are many QR codes scattered throughout and I listened to them all. Highly recommend! 

Mennonites at War might be my all-time favourite title of any exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. I like a good, bold, frankly-told story that leans all the way into the truth, unflinchingly. And this title absolutely goes for it. There are several ways you can read into the title, of course — is it about Mennonite who went to war, at war with outside forces, or at war with each other? The answer is yes. All this and more.

At least here in the Steinbach area (for me, this “area” includes all of Hanover and also Rosenort — I’m not sure if that’s offensive?) I’ve collected in my memory many instances where I encountered a deep discomfort, a deep pain, and deep division with regards to Mennonites and war. Personal family stories about local men who went to war and upon their return, were hurt by their churches, who went on to reject the “Mennonite” moniker. For some, this meant legally altering their last name so as to not be easily identified as a Mennonite — as a final wave goodbye to any and all association with Mennonites. Of course from the other side, we have the Conscientious Objectors who did not go to war and instead performed alternative service. These men faced their own conflicts.

Mind you, I never really asked more in-depth questions. I could always sense the discomfort and anger when this topic would arise in casual conversation and I’d avoid it. However, if someone next to me would’ve asked more pointed questions, I certainly would’ve leaned in for the answers!

So I was excited to explore this exhibit at the MHV. It’s a collection of personal stories with unique and surprising artefacts and it takes a deep dive into that uncomfortable intersection of Mennonites with war.

On the MHV website you’ll find a subtitle for this exhibit: “Explore the lives of martyrs, migrants, soldiers, and objectors.” True to form, the story begins in the 1500s with the torture of Anabaptists…

It includes an actual tongue-screw. This was screwed into the offending Anabaptist’s tongue to stop them from preaching everywhere. It looks harmless enough until you realize that screw literally went through the tongue. *shudder*

To be honest, I was kind of all over the place, taking in this exhibit. There were compelling historical photographs, such as this urgent moment during the Great Trek when Mennonites were fleeing war in Russia.

Some Mennonites served in the medical corps as a way to fulfill their duty, yet not kill.

Here is Henry Wiebe of Winkler, who fought in World War ll. That’s his tank behind him. There is a war memorial in Morden that mentions his name.

We can see the pressure Mennonites were under to go to war, as illustrated by this political cartoon that called Mennonite conscientious objectors “slackers” and “shirkers” for not fighting.

Fascinatingly, there is also an example of a fella who was both happy to fight, and happy to claim “Mennonite” as his religion. I think this might point to a question that I personally struggle with — honestly, I don’t always know what it is to be a Mennonite. I think I’m not the only one. I think this has been a factor for a very long time.

Here are C.O.’s at Riding Mountain. Many National Parks were built in part by Conscientious Objectors!

A quote that may cause some people to react.

My face after I had taken in all the portions of the exhibit. So many stories and perspectives to consider and absorb!

Mennonites at War is open until November 14th, so hurry! And, I’ll leave you with a link that brings you to an introduction to the exhibit by Andrea Klassen (who you see on the feature photo for this post): here is the link, please click this!

Related posts: 

We’ve Seen ‘The Last Objectors’ 4 Times

5 Questions with ‘Mennosploitation Filmmaker’ Andrew Wall

Hygge Moments at the Mennonite Heritage Village