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Manitoba History: Review: Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War

by Susie Fisher
University of Manitoba

Number 77, Winter 2015

Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory and the Second World War. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013, 205 pages. ISBN: 9780887557415, $27.95 (paperback)

Transnational in significance and personal in nature, Hans Werner’s The Constructed Mennonite is a bold and novel work of World War II history that spans decades. Werner is Associate Professor of Mennonite Studies and Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg. In order to share the fascinating, complicated, and sometimes mysterious life story of his own father, John Werner, the author has uniquely blended his academic pursuits in oral history, comparative history, Mennonite history, Canadian migration and ethnic history, with his efforts to help remedy a “spoiled biography.” John was a Siberian-born, German-speaking Russian Mennonite, whose life intersected with major world historical events that found him in varying roles and with diverse identities in Stalinist Russia, occupied Poland, an American POW camp in Germany, and eventually rural Manitoba, Canada.

Werner’s intentions in writing this book are twofold. First, he aims to tell the life story of “an otherwise ordinary person who experienced the upheavals of the 20th century in the form of war and totalitarianism from a unique perspective” (p. 4). And secondly, he attempts to “explore the nature of autobiographical memory” (p. 5). Through individual experiences of war, death, fear, famine, work, love, marriage, and migration, alongside countless moments in varied contexts of remembering and retelling, Werner draws the reader’s attention to the myriad of ways that one man’s story sheds new light not simply on the collective memory of certain key events in World History, but on the constructed nature of such events, memories, and individual identities. As Werner’s book and his father’s story illustrate, both history and identities are carefully assembled according to selected memories, specific listeners, family relationships, and the mysterious, untold tales that lie in all of the spaces between.

Werner divides his book into three sections, each centered on stories of key life events shared by his father, and the personas his father assumed therein. Though the majority of Werner’s information was garnered from an assembly of his own memories of John Werner’s storytelling, as well as from a series of oral history interviews conducted with his father in the 1980s and before his death in 2003, The Constructed Mennonite also works creatively to replenish the voids in this complex life history—chosen or otherwise—with diligent archival and secondary research, as well as with supplemental interviews conducted with relatives. Each chapter ends with a reflective nuancing of the stories heretofore shared—a significant strength of the book and a reminder of its strength in scholarship.

In Part 1, readers learn of John Werner’s upbringing in the 1920s—particularly difficult years in the Soviet Union—in a series of Mennonite settlements on the Kunlunda Steppe. Around the time of the Boshevik Revolution, he was born as ‘Hans’ in 1917 to Johann and Anna (Janzen) Werner, and raised by his mother and two consecutive stepfathers. John/Hans’ fragmented childhood stories pivoted on his memories of poverty, abuse by one stepfather, his family’s failed escape to Stalinist Russia in 1929, his second step-father’s subsequent suicide, and his resulting role of primary support to his mother and their blended family. We also learn in Part 1 that Hans became known as Ivan Ivanevich in his life away from home, likely due to the increased presence of Stalinist forces in the Kunlunda Steppe, the Russianization of daily life, and his growing adolescent interests in state activities and Soviet ideology. Following his schooling, Hans/Ivan took on work for the Machine Tractor Station (MTS), which performed the increasingly mechanized tasks on a number of collective farms. The skills he acquired with MTS made Ivan a desirable candidate for mechanized units of the army, and in October 1938, Ivan was drafted in to the Red Army. Werner also reveals in Part 1 that Hans/Ivan had been married for three months prior to his drafting, but he never returned to Siberia, and never mentioned his marriage to Anna Loewen. The author’s efforts to piece together the stories of his father’s youth, as well as his reflections on the untold parts of his father’s past, challenge readers to think anew about the ways that guilt, separation, and loss affect the ways we construct our lives and form our identities in order to fit into new parameters.

Part 2 details some of the most vivid and dramatic of Werner’s father’s stories following his entry into the Red Army—including his combat experiences in the Winter War, his capture by the Germans, resettlement in occupied Poland, naturalization, conscription into Hitler’s German army, and yet another name change (here, he became Johann). These stories, according to Werner, “conveyed the [most] rapid transformation of his identity” (p. 91), and the most heroic of his life events. Yet, the research conducted by Werner on this sequence of his father’s accounts, and the information he discovered that was omitted (particularly concerning a possible second marriage, and the “rescue” of Jewish individuals despite dominant racist Nazi ideology), emphasize his central point: available memories are woven into stories and creatively told in particular contexts, so as to “maintain coherence” with the image of ourselves that we want to portray (p. 90). In Hans/Ivan/Johann/John’s case, stories told to his family upon immigrating to Canada in the social and cultural milieu of his postwar Canadian home in Steinbach (p. 175) were recounted within the context of Cold War terms, dominant in the postwar period, reflecting an ethic of “us versus them” (p. 126).

Part 3 considers matters of faith, love, and migration. It details stories related to Johann’s attempts to immigrate to Canada, his entry into a Mennonite faith and ethnic community by way of semi-regular church attendance, his baptism, and the connections he formed with Mennonite Central Committee for immigration assistance. Here we learn of Margarethe Vogt (Werner’s mother), a Mennonite refugee from Ukraine who later became Johann’s wife, and their subsequent migration to Steinbach, Manitoba, where the couple raised a family and became known as John and Margaret. It is in this section that readers are also made aware of the collaborative nature of memory, as Margarethe’s stories begin to inform Johann’s retelling of this part of his life. While Margarethe’s stories are not intended to be the focus of this book’s study, they are unfortunately left underexplored throughout Part 3. Further nuancing of the couple’s ethnic, religious, and emotional life, and how each of these informed the stories they together told as immigrants, would have added depth to the study’s conclusion. Also missing from this section, if not throughout the book as a whole, is a more intricate autobiographical reflection from the author regarding the extent to which his own recall influenced the writing of this text about his father. If, as Werner suggests in the end, “[w]e not only have memories of our past lives, but our memories also become autobiographical when shared with others as stories” (p. 172), then greater exploration of his own familial memories, alongside a discussion of the ways they influenced this retelling of his father’s story, should indeed be present. Such reflection might also better illuminate just what became ‘Mennonite’ about John and Margaret’s life—how their experiences of war, their memory, and their family life was constructed to fit into an existing Mennonite community in Canada.

Despite these shortcomings, this book accomplishes what Werner intended; this book is an offering of both personal and scholarly reflection on the nature of autobiographical memory, storytelling, and history. In so doing, Werner also allows his father a “certain form of immortality” (p. 8). Overall, this is a rich work of history, which will appeal to academics with interests in World War II, transnationalism, migration, and oral history, as well as to others with interests in bringing complex family histories to new life.

Page revised: 19 November 2015

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