Das Mennonitische Zentralkomitee in Paraguay 1930-1980.
What would nation-building look like if done by Mennonites? Although the author does not use this terminology, this book is an account of the unique instance of a church-related N.G.O., Mennonite Central Committee, building both a Mennonite mini-nation and dramatically influencing the larger surrounding nation, Paraguay, over the course of fifty years. The author hits the highlights expected by those who know the basics of this story: two waves of refugees from Russia; the work of Robert and Myrtle Unruh; the Transchaco Highway; the "Million Dollar Credit." This is a fairly conventional telling, not breaking new ground, but bringing material together in one account that has not necessarily been available in quite this way before. It is also something of a combination of several of the author's previous books, since he has already written, for example, on the Transchaco Highway, Hospital Km 81, and the Unruhs.
The book starts with the Mennonites of Russia in the early twentieth century, in order to set the stage for the origins of M.C.C. Then we turn to the first wave of refugees to Paraguay (where the Menno Colony already existed without M.C.C. help) and the difficulties of early settlement. Chapters cover Fernheim's early economic development and the split to form the Friesland Colony. There is a very long chapter on the volkische movement, a particularly contentious development that brought the colonies into direct contact with the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Four chapters cover the 1947-1948 immigration, with an extended retelling of the Berlin exodus story, the arrival in Paraguay during a revolution, and the founding of the Neuland and Volendam colonies. There is a sprawling chapter on economic development promoted by M.C.C. in the 1950s and 1960s. A final chapter leads readers into the jungle of Paraguayan Mennonite institutional acronyms, following the track of many projects and organizations initiated directly or indirectly by M.C.C, leading up to the final official handing over of M.C.C. projects to local control in 1980. It is somewhat problematic that at several places the text is simply lengthy quotation or close paraphrasing from single sources, for example in chapter 1 from Heinrich Gorz's Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten.
The book originated in 2013 as a project of ACOMEPA, the administrative association of five of the major Mennonite colonies, but the author refers back to an earlier incident as an impetus for at least some aspects of the project. He describes a workshop at the 2009 Mennonite World Conference about M.C.C. in Paraguay at which the talk turned to the volkische (Nazi-influenced) movement in the Fernheim Colony in the 1930s and 1940s, and the alleged M.C.C. involvement in it. Ratzlaff quotes M.C.C. administrator Edgar Stoesz, also present at the workshop, as saying "Is that all that M.C.C. has done for you?" thereby questioning why this topic came to the forefront out of all of the varied facets of M.C.C. activity. Not being an insider to the Paraguayan Mennonite community, I am not clear whether this linkage of M.C.C. with the clashes of the 1930s and 1940s is widely shared in Paraguayan Mennonite popular memory or whether it is the author's personal concern.
Ratzlaff spends an eighth of the book discussing matters that have little to do with M.C.C--namely, the volkische movement and the infamous March 11, 1944, riot. This has been an area of the author's ongoing research interest for decades, but his understanding of it seems eccentric and conspiratorial. I find this a troubling aspect of the book. Ratzlaff wants to represent M.C.C's and its representatives' opposition to Nazi influences in the Mennonite colonies as a black mark on M.C.C's reputation. He suggests that the M.C.C. workers in Paraguay were in active and ongoing contact with the U.S. "secret service" and brought about the arrest of the two most prominent Fernheim Colony leaders. He refers to the "latest research by Jakob Warkentin" (102) in the U.S. National Archives to support this claim, but this is disingenuous. The documents obliquely referred to here were fully explored in my book, Mennonite and Nazi? (1999). Anyone who has looked through the U.S. embassy files, as I have, will see that the embassy had a wide variety of detailed information about Nazi-sympathetic activities around Paraguay, including in the Mennonite colonies, much of which came through non-Mennonite channels.
What is mystifying is why the author wishes to see opposition to Nazism as a failing on the part of M.C.C. He refers in a similar vein to a few earlier incidents, such as a visit by (Old) Mennonite Church missionaries from Argentina in 1940 who spoke out against Nazism. Why wouldn't M.C.C. and its representatives have resisted Nazi sympathies among the Paraguayan Mennonites? Why wouldn't they have opposed local leaders who openly and vigorously espoused an ideology that preached violence and racism? And, one might ask, why would the author be defensive of past leaders who openly and vigorously espoused an ideology that preached violence and racism?
Part of what leads Ratzlaff astray is his Menno-centric approach to the story. At the same time that the Paraguayan government was interning the two Mennonite leaders in 1944, under pressure from the U.S., they also interned non-Mennonite Nazi-sympathizers from elsewhere in the country. And all over Latin America national governments took similar actions, at U.S. instigation, against "German interests." These steps were not directed specifically against poor, helpless Mennonites, and the U.S. and Paraguayan governments did not need M.C.C. to do their "dirty work" for them. The world did not revolve around the Fernheim Colony. A Menno-centric tendency also characterizes much of the rest of the book. We do not get any real sense, for example, of how the major economic development activities in which M.C.C. was involved connected with local Paraguayans, especially the Spanish-speaking elites (such as the dictator Alfredo Stroessner). Here, it often seems that Mennonites were the only actors in their story.
The author lists several goals and purposes for the book (11-12), but two are clearly the most important for him: first, that the Mennonite establishment in Paraguay would likely not exist without the work of M.C.C. over the decades and, second, that his readers should find M.C.C. to be an example of good works--an encouragement to further good works. Despite my criticisms, the book does accomplish the goal of describing the decisive influence of M.C.C. in Paraguay. Inspiration to further good works will depend on the individual reader. It should at least be a spur to further research on Mennonite "nation-building."
JOHN D. THIESEN Bethel College
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|Author:||Thiesen, Dohn D.|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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