Unmuting silenced voices: Planning a gathering to remember those who resisted World War I




An artist's rendering of the suffering of the Hofer brothers, conscientious objectors during World War I. They were subjected to torture while imprisoned in Alcatraz, then transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where two of the brothers died. This image is by Don Peters, copyright 2014 Plough Publishing, Walden, N.Y.
Art by Don Peters, copyright 2014 Plough Publishing, Walden, N.Y.

An artist's rendering of the suffering of the Hofer brothers, conscientious objectors during World War I. They were subjected to torture while imprisoned in Alcatraz, then transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where two of the brothers died. This image is by Don Peters, copyright 2014 Plough Publishing, Walden, N.Y.

by Andrew Bolton

“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” These are the first words of British historian John Keegan in his book, The First World War. It was unnecessary because it was preventable--a local conflict that did not need to escalate. Eventually, 100 countries were involved. It was tragic because at least 10 million people died and 20 million were injured in the war, and another 50 million died from the Spanish flu epidemic that incubated in the trenches.

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What is called “The Great War” happened from 1914-18, and now we remember it 100 years later. The United States entered the war on April 6, 2017--ironically, on Good Friday that year. It was a war to end all wars, promised President Wilson, but he was not a true prophet, just a politician. The seeds of World War II were sown with World War I.

What of those who resisted? Should they not be remembered? Brethren, Mennonites, Hutterites, Quakers, and others who would neither fight, nor buy war bonds, nor fly the flag. At the time, their voices often were intimidated, muted into silence. Brethren, Mennonites, and Hutterites who spoke and worshipped in German suffered twice, both as resisters to the war and as people who were identified with the enemy.

“Conscientious objectors were the shock troops of anti-war dissent in World War I,” according to historians Scott H. Bennett and Charles Howlett. There are many moving stories of conscientious objectors in the US, Canada, and Europe. Perhaps the most moving for me is the story of four Hutterites from South Dakota. These Hutterites were part of a 400-year tradition of resistance to war. Jacob Hutter, an early leader, wrote in a letter in 1536: “We do not want to harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk of life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity.... If all the world were like us there would be no war and no injustice.” 

In 1918, three Hutterite brothers--David, Joseph, and Michael Hofer--with their brother-in-law Jacob Wipf, were absolutist objectors. They were in their twenties, married with children, and farmers with an eighth grade education. However, they clearly understood that Jesus said no to war. 

They were court martialed and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment. In Alcatraz, they were subjected to torture. In November 1918, they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where Joseph and Michael died. The authorities said they died from the Spanish flu. Their families and fellow Hutterites considered them martyrs who died from their ill treatment.

I felt called to help tell these stories 100 years later. A group from the Historic Peace Churches, and Peace History Society scholars, first met in January 2014 to begin planning a symposium. We wanted to tell the stories of those who resisted and dissented to World War I out of conscience, and help make connections for today. Bill Kostlevy organized the Brethren Historical Library and Archives (BHLA) to be a first co-sponsor of the event. We met at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, and were welcomed warmly by president and CEO Matt Naylor and his staff. As a humanitarian and personal friend, Naylor committed the museum to be the venue for the conference. This symposium, “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today,” will be held Oct. 19-22.

More than 80 paper proposals were submitted including from scholars outside the United States. Among other topics, papers include Brethren topics such as “Darkness Seems to Be All Over the Earth: Brethren Experiences in Military Camps during World War I” by Kostlevy of the BHLA; and “1917-1919: A Proving Time for Maurice Hess” by Timothy Binkley, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. This feast of papers will be an encouragement to those who are committed to a nonviolent discipleship and seek to express it faithfully today.  

Keynote speakers include Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, who will talk about American resistance; Ingrid Sharp from Leeds University in the UK, who will talk about Germans against the war; Erika Kuhlman, who will address women in World War I; and Goshen (Ind.) College professor Duane Stoltzfus and Hutterite German teacher Dora Maendal from Manitoba, Canada, who will tell the Hutterite story.

At the end of the symposium, on Sunday morning Oct. 22, a memorial ceremony for the Hofer brothers and all conscientious objectors during World War I, is planned at the museum. This will be followed by a tour of Fort Leavenworth, Kan., including the old hospital where Joseph and Michael Hofer died.

In addition, the traveling exhibition “Voices of Conscience--Peace Witness in the Great War” will premiere at the symposium on Oct. 19-22. A collaboration between Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers in Kansas City will host the exhibition for a week after the symposium ends, at Rainbow Mennonite Church. To book the traveling exhibition contact Annette LeZotte of the Kaufman Museum at Bethel (Kan.) College, at alezotte@bethelks.edu . Also see http://voicesofconscienceexhibit.org .

The co-sponsors of the symposium are headed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Peace History Society, Plough Publishing House, and the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust, with the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, American Friends Service Committee, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Bruderhof, Community of Christ Seminary, Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, Historians Against the War, John Whitmer Historical Association, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Historical Society, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Peace Pavilion, PeaceWorks in Kansas City, and Rainbow Mennonite Church.

For more information about the symposium program, keynote speakers, registration, and more, go to www.theworldwar.org/learn/remembering-muted-voices .

-- Andrew Bolton is an organizer of the symposium, “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today.”

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