CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 21 . . . . June 20, 2003
Initially, it seemed that The Pacifist Who Went to War would apply mainly to those interested in Mennonite history and the impact that World War II had on one Mennonite community in Manitoba. However, there is much more to see in this work. Author Rudy Wiebe provides commentary as well as historical context regarding the traditional Mennonite belief in pacifism at all costs and the problems this can cause when the country decides to march to war.
The video features two brothers: John who at 30 signed up for active duty, and Ted who was a conscientious objector. Fifty years after the war, they sit and discuss their differing responses to that time in their lives.
In 1939, Mennonite men were told by the Canadian government that they were required to help kill Germans. Due to the large number of other volunteers at the start of the war, Mennonite men were not seen as essential to the war effort. Also, Weibe points out that there had been an agreement made with the Canadian government when the Mennonites first came to Canada, that they would not be required to serve in any war. The same promise had been made to them and then broken by various countries in Europe. The Canadian government honoured the agreement during World War I, but this agreement only applied to those whose families immigrated in the 1870's. The Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1920's did not get such a promise. As this caused some confusion for the government, the expectation was that all Mennonites would either serve in the war or be registered as conscientious objectors. This was no easy task and was subject to a means test administered by a judge who did not respect the Mennonites’ principle of pacifism.
By 1940, those who qualified as conscientious objectors found themselves taken for alternative service for a period of four months. Some were sent to isolated camps, others to Rocky Mountain and as far away as Vancouver. They were to build bridges, clear beaches, and do hospital work. Away from their communities, some found the outside world eroding their Mennonite ways. In 1942, the alternative service requirements changed, and the men found out that they would be used until the war ended. Being away so long made returning to their insular home community very difficult. Anger and confusion are still evident in the men interviewed. For those not taken away, life was difficult as well. One speaker recounts the story of how two Mennonite men, overheard speaking German to each other, were spat upon by a non-Mennonite woman. One of the men had two sons serving overseas.
The community was not just split between Mennonite and non-Mennonite. The war caused a major rift in the Mennonite community as well. Those who chose to support the country found themselves shunned by those who tried to stay true to their beliefs. After the war, those who went overseas were not allowed back into their churches. They were told to repent or stay out. The vets felt no need to apologize for serving their country. As John states, "You feel sorry for what you do, but you believe in the cause. It is right and proper to serve one's country." Sadly, he sees no hope for reconciliation.
In 1999, Winkler, Manitoba, erected a cenotaph to honour those who went to war. This action took fifty years and was not greeted with enthusiasm by all. While distance and time blur things, some feel that the cenotaph is a slap to the pacifists and a monument to honour killers.
Fifty years after the war, the rift is still alive. The difficulty with which the two brothers talk about the war is heartbreaking. For the first time, Ted hears one of John's war stories. John, then a teacher, states that he could not watch his students enlist and some return to Canada maimed or dead and not get involved. Ted admits that even he sold war bonds for the government. Both agree that the lines were unclear as to what should be the proper action. John admits that he felt he had let his family down by enlisting even though they had reluctantly accepted his decision. That this is still an issue today brings out the true value of this video.
One should be able to rely on one's community, government and religion to help provide clarity and direction in life. However, due to the forced involvement in a war, for people like John and Ted, the government's decision destroys both community and religion, pitting the members against each other and at times against themselves.
The Pacifist Who Went to War is so current these days, especially as the stink of war is once again in the air and the country is divided as to the correct response. This video can by used in a variety of classes, but in particular World Religions, Philosophy, Politics, Canadian History, Civics and Law at the senior level.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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