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Last updated March 17.

March 17, 2014 issue

Peaceful, even unto death

By James C. Juhnke

The centennial of the First World War (1914-1918) is approaching. Duane Stoltz­fus, communications professor at Goshen College, anticipates that landmark with a book centered on the experience of four conscripted Hutterites from the Rockport Colony in South Dakota.

Two of them, the brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer, died at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas after severe mistreatment and torture at Alcatraz. The army clothed Joseph’s dead body in the military uniform he had refused to wear while alive.

The book is based on thorough research into primary documents — letters the conscripts wrote to their families, court- martial transcripts and military records. Stoltzfus consulted the substantial secondary literature on the martyrs of Alcatraz, as well as the history of Hutterites since their origins in the 16th century and the developments in government policies regarding conscription.

The result is a remarkably complete, but not exhaustive, account of the context of the dark side of American wartime military mobilization, financing and conscription.

In 1914 there were about 2,000 Hutterites in 16 colonies in South Dakota and two in Montana. They were economically successful, growing in numbers and acquiring more and more land. In 1918 jealous American patriots, inflamed by popular hostility against German-speakers and pacifists, stole cattle from the Hutterites, sold the cattle in town and used the money to buy bonds. In the face of such hostility, some colonies made plans to move to Canada.

An irony of the story is that the top administrators of the American military system in World War I were enlightened progressives who intended to promote the high ideals of liberal democracy.

Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War, had been a progressive politician and a quasi-pacifist in his view of military conflict. Col. Joseph Garrard, commandant at the Alcatraz prison, organized his prison on modern scientific principles to achieve the high goal of prisoner rehabilitation and redemption. The designers of the military training camps across the country applied techniques of urban planning designed in the prewar Progressive Era to make cities attractive and livable.

One lesson of Pacifists in Chains is that exigencies of warfare tend to undermine the ideals and to corrupt the practices of the greatest idealists in a democratic nation.

It is heartbreaking to read of the accidental and the intentional miscarriages of justice. The four Hutterite conscripts were all married men with children and should have been exempted from military service. But they, with scrupulous honesty, recorded on their registration forms that they were not the “sole support” of their families. They lived in a community that would take care of their dependents. Had they arrived at Camp Lewis a few weeks later, they might have been given farm furloughs — a system put in place belatedly after the military draft was under way. Had the operations of the court martial system actually worked to fulfill the intentions of the War Department, these religious objectors would not have been tortured.

The willingness of these Hutterite conscripts to suffer unto death was prompted by their awareness of their Anabaptist martyr heritage and by their belief in an unbridgeable gulf between God’s people and the evil world.

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  • This is the problem with organized religion. Their relentless focus on the past. Can one get warmed by a painted fire?

    - Peter (mar 17 at 11:09 a.m.)

  • To enter Heaven we have to be born again according to Christ Can anybody truely say Christ was not a pacifist He clearly taught nonviolence This is not a painted fire but the living fire of the Word of God clearly

    - william (mar 17 at 6:21 p.m.)

  • Hello James,

    How can I get a copy of Dirk`s Exodus? I looked and could not find one. We want to do a play of this here in Mexico.

    Thank You, Jason

    - Jason (may 27 at 9:32 p.m.)

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