A Century Later, Conscientious Objectors Tell Their Story

Guest post by Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, author of “Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War”

On a Hutterite colony, meals are served without ceremony—and in a hurry. My introduction to Hutterite dining etiquette came several years ago on the Miller Colony near Choteau, Montana.

A bell summoned all of us to the communal dining hall. We entered a room with two long tables, the men and boys taking their places on one side of the room and the women and girls on the other. At each table the seating order was ascending, from the youngest to the oldest. As a guest, I sat near the end of the table, among the oldest men.

A farm supervisor known as the field boss offered the blessing. The meal was simple but, as a restaurant reviewer might have put it, “certified organic, sustainably produced, and locally grown.” We had potato soup as the main course, with a side of sweet sauerkraut and warm rolls with which to make bologna sandwiches, slathered in mustard.

At some point I became aware that I seemed to be the only one talking. Then I discovered why. Barely 10 minutes removed from the first prayer, the field boss rose to offer a closing grace. As people quickly filed out, men stopping to retrieve their black hats from hooks on the wall or ceiling, I still had half a sandwich and nearly a full bowl of soup to go.

In many ways the Hutterites are a people whom time has passed by—or a people who have chosen to hold fast. The meal they ate at the Miller Colony in Montana is one they might have served a century earlier, when the First World War cast a dark shadow across their colonies, which were then concentrated in South Dakota.

The Hutterites had settled in South Dakota in the 1870s at the invitation of no less than the president of the United States, Ulysses Grant. He suggested they would be free to farm and practice their faith as German speakers and committed pacifists. So the Hutterites moved to South Dakota from Russia, where the authorities were beginning to draft men into military service.

All bets were off when the United States declared war against Germany. The Hutterite men were expected to serve when drafted, if only in noncombatant positions. But even putting on a uniform to wash dishes crossed a line that the Hutterites would not breach. Two of the young men who were drafted, Joseph and Michael Hofer, were sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for refusing to serve; in time, they stood in chains in the dungeon at Alcatraz and died as prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

The Hutterites I went to visit in Montana, including the daughter of Michael Hofer, Mary Hofer Kleinsasser, who was 90 years old at the time,  were Hofer family members. The Kleinsassers had saved copies of letters that Michael Hofer had written from prison, the immediate reason for my visit. The letters offered the most personal of windows onto the harrowing journey of the men through the military system in 1918.

As the centenary of World War I approaches, the natural inclination is to consider how best to celebrate victories and sacrifices on the battlefield. In a war that dispensed suffering on a grand scale, minds go first to the 20 million military and civilian lives lost and the 21 million wounded.

The Hutterites said little in the aftermath of the war about the treatment of their young men, reluctant as always to draw attention to themselves. They neither asked for nor received an apology from the U.S. government.

Even now, the Kleinsasser family members reminded me that while Michael and Joseph Hofer became martyrs for the church, they should not be lifted above other Hutterite brothers and sisters.

“We don’t try to make heroes out of our ancestors,” said Jacob P. Wipf, the senior minister at the Miller Colony.

But the story of the war as remembered 100 years later would be incomplete without an account of young men like Michael and Joseph Hofer, who remained true to their religious convictions and, by their example, helped redirect the nation toward a more generous policy for conscientious objectors in the Second World War and in wars that followed.

stoltzfusDuane C. S. Stoltzfus is a professor of communication at Goshen College and the copy editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. He is the author of Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War, which JHU Press will publish this week.