Combatant or Alternative Service Work (ASW) in Canada Civilian Public Service (CPS) in the United States
The Second World War in the United States and Canada came upon the Mennonite populations unexpectedly, as did conscription and the need defend our Pacifist beliefs.
Many North American Mennonites had left Europe, Netherlands and Russia in search of a country where they would be exempt from military service. WWII brought this dilemma back into the homes of Mennonite families across North America.
Men between the ages of 15 and 35 had a choice, enlist in the war effort or become a Conscientious Objector (COs).
Entering the war as a combatant while socially acceptable for none Mennonite society, enlistment meant rejection by their Mennonite community and family upon returned home (Schmidt, 2013) from war. It also meant that while in overseas service they were without spiritual and family support (Muir, 2013).
Muir (2013) writes that “as many as 4,500 Canadian Mennonites enlisted in this country’s military forces between 1939 and 1945 (p. 6).
Mennonite’s made up 63% of the 9,000 COs in Canada in March 1994 (Schmidt, 2013). Becoming a CO came at a cost as they were ridiculed and treated with contempt by their none Mennonite friends and neighbours. They were seen as cowards willing to hide behind the skirts of women and braver men: letting others risk death to ensure their freedom. The Mennonite COs in Canada were for the vast majority of German descent and this compounded the abuse that they suffered. In Canada COs were sent to Alternative Service Work camp where,
“They [CO’s] are not allowed to sleep out of camp, except at infrequent intervals, and they work 8 hours per day for 50c, out of which they have to buy everything except food and lodging, and keep their families if they are married.” (Siemens, 2013) COs were to service a four month term in the alternative service camps (Gingerich, 2009)
Mennonite men during WWII could either:
- Enlist in a just war against a dictator who was killing Mennonites in gas chambers as well as Jews and
- While at war find their spiritual and familiar community conspicuously silent and unsupportive
- Upon return from war face excommunication from the Mennonite Church
- Become a CO and submit to either ASW in Canada or CPS in USA where
- During their period of service they received support both emotionally and physically from their families and church communities while suffering abuse and mistrust from the none Mennonite community.
- When released from service returning to a supportive Mennonite Community and the continued mistrust of the none Mennonite community.
As a Mennonite woman living in 2013 my children and grandchildren are not faced with having to make these same choices however this may not always be the case. Where do I stand on the issue of pacifism? I believe that wherever possible and at whatever cost we need to support peaceful solutions and stand witness to the cruelty of war giving aid to the oppressed.
And I am troubled by the challenge C.S. Lewis presents pacifism, that it supports the cause of the oppressor. That through peaceful action and standing witness the tyrannical oppressor will move forward the agenda of war with impunity. Is this not what the world saw in 1994 with the Rwanda Genocide of its Tutsi Population?
Today is Remembrance Day and I believe we as Mennonites need to continue to struggle with our pacifism and the impact it has on ourselves and the world for both good and evil.
Gingerich, M. (2009, March). Alternative Service Work Camps (Canada). Retrieved November 10 2013, from Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online: http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Alternative_Service_Work_Camps_%28Canada%29
Muir, R. (2013). Let nobody judge them. Canadian Mennonite, 6-11.
Schmidt, M. (2013, November 10). Mennonite WWII Service Alternative Service. Retrieved from University Fraser Valley: http://app.ufv.ca/fvhistory/studentsites/wwII/mennonitewwIIservice/alternativeservice.html
Siemens, K. (2013, 11 10). WWII Mennonite Menace. Retrieved from University Fraser Valley: http://app.ufv.ca/fvhistory/studentsites/wwII/mennonitemenace/page3.html