This week marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, sometimes referred to as The Great War. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, setting events in motion.
Mennonites still living in Russia at that time experienced significant changes to their way of life. At the start of the war, their loyalty to Russia was demonstrated through their involvement in alternative service, support for the Red Cross, and other humanitarian initiatives. However, their use of the German language left them suspect in the eyes of Russian officials. This led to suspicion and mounting pressure related to the privileges negotiated with Russia prior to the start of the Mennonite migration from Prussia, which is today Poland.
It was during this period that the Russian Revolution erupted, further increasing tension between Mennonites and Russians. Bandits, such as the notorious Nestor Makhno, caused untold suffering and grief through their campaigns of murderous pillaging in the villages. The persecution was so extreme that some Mennonites banded together to create a defensive force, the Selbstschutz, to protect villagers from these bandits. Unfortunately, this initiative was not particularly successful.
November of 1917 saw the arrival of Communism in Russia. Many Mennonites had experienced considerable success in agriculture and business in the pre-war years. Communism turned many of these farms and businesses into government-owned collectives, in some cases also exiling their previous owners. This new regime created an environment devoid of most of the freedoms promised earlier to the Mennonites at the time of their immigration.
The start of World War I also had a heavy impact on Mennonites living in Canada. On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary, thereby also binding Canada to the war effort. As an immigrant group who spoke the same language as the German enemy and also shared cultural traits with Germany, these Mennonites experienced the sharp anti-German sentiment of Canadian public opinion. They were also directly affected by measures such as the censorship of German-language publications under the War Measures Act of 1914 and disfranchisement via the Wartimes Elections Act of 1917, which denied the voting rights of many recent immigrants from enemy countries as well as conscientious objectors.
The Mennonites’ belief in non-resistance and their exemption from military service by Order-in-Council in 1873 resulted in even greater public resentment, particularly after the introduction of conscription in August 1917. The Mennonite exemption from military service was eventually upheld by the Canadian government, as the result of a prolonged effort on the part of Mennonite churches and their leaders to have Mennonites recognized as conscious objectors.