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Mennonites seek to come to terms with Nazi collaboration

German-speaking Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union with indigenous neighbors near the Fernheim Colony in northwest Paraguay in 1930. Photo courtesy of Archiv der Kolonie Fernheim (Filadelfia, Paraguay)

FILADELFIA, Paraguay (RNS) Violence tore through this close-knit, traditionally pacifist community on the night of March 11, 1944. All the more remarkable, its perpetrators and victims were all Mennonites. And they all belonged to rival Nazi factions.

Since the end of the Second World War, Mennonite-Nazi collaboration has largely been ignored, forgotten or intentionally repressed. In Paraguay, members of Mennonite congregations were forbidden from discussing the matter.

In Paraguay and beyond, the Nazi episode has been taboo for adherents of this Christian denomination that was founded in 16th-century Europe on principles of nonviolence and nonparticipation in politics.

Not until the 1980s, when an international search for Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele brought unwanted attention to the German-speaking Mennonite colony of Fernheim in Paraguay’s remote Gran Chaco, did that taboo begin to weaken.

Now Mennonites and others are probing that past in a series of conferences, the most recent of which took place last weekend in Filadelfia, administrative center of the colony.

Spiritual healing, reconciliation and multigenerational guilt were prominent themes at the latest conference, titled “The Racialist Movement and National Socialism among the Mennonites in Paraguay.”

Participants of the Fernheim conference mingle outdoors during a break on March 11, 2017, in Filadelfia, Paraguay. Photo courtesy of Ben Goossen

Some 200 participants gathered near the site of a brawl that had taken place exactly 73 years previously. They sought to bring into the open, contextualize and interpret events that remain painful even after they have mostly passed from living memory.

“Many have asked, why have a conference on this topic, more than 70 years after the events,” said Uwe Friesen, head of the Society for the History and Culture of the Mennonites in Paraguay. In his opening address, Friesen characterized the gathering as offering “the possibility of new understanding.”

Interest for this dark chapter in Paraguayan Mennonite life comes at a time when the global church is beginning to uncover a larger history of Nazi collaboration.

In 2015, the first academic conference on the topic took place in the German city of Münster, site of the 1534 Münster Rebellion that was crucial to the founding of the Mennonite faith. Historians revealed substantial pro-Nazi movements among communities in Canada, the Netherlands, Paraguay and Brazil. By the height of Hitler’s power, one-fourth of all Mennonites worldwide lived in the Third Reich.


RELATED: Mennonite Church coming apart over sexuality issues


The Münster conference was organized by Germany’s Mennonite Historical Society — itself founded in 1933 in part to support racialist research in the new Nazi state. President Astrid von Schlachta, professor of history at the University of Regensburg, called the event “a truly historical meeting.” The gathering “represented an open and nuanced discussion, in which we judged without condemning the context and experiences of Mennonites in the Nazi period,” she said.

Mennonite settlers in Paraguay’s Fernheim Colony, as refugees from the Soviet Union, were susceptible to Hitler’s platform of nationalism, anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism. Here, the Neufeld family celebrates a silver wedding anniversary in 1930. Photo courtesy of Mennonite Library and Archives (North Newton, Kan.)

Given Fernheim’s formerly pro-German stance — along with the arrival of thousands of Mennonite migrants from postwar Europe, including known war criminals — Nazi hunters considered the colony a likely hideout for Mengele. (He was eventually found dead in Brazil.)

Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union had established Fernheim in 1930, receiving humanitarian assistance from the German government. Three years later, a majority were effusive in their praise for Hitler.

“With great excitement, we German Mennonites of the Paraguayan Chaco too participate in the events of our dear Motherland and experience the national revolution of the German race,” colony leaders wrote in a letter to the Fuehrer.

Nazi officials proposed that they return to Europe, citing Mennonites’ alleged blood purity.

Already, racial anthropologists had tested the Fernheim settlers, finding them more Aryan than the average German. Eighty percent were reportedly prepared to renounce pacifism and join Hitler’s “Home to the Reich” program, an undertaking thwarted by the outbreak of war.

Cut off from Germany, Fernheim’s residents disagreed about how best to maintain Nazi loyalty. A power struggle ensued that focussed on colony administration, control of the German-language schools and access to return transportation to the Reich. Young men gathered whips and clubs, and they severely beat six competitors. The unrest prompted intervention from U.S. diplomats and the Paraguayan military, ultimately leading to the banishment of several ringleaders.

Three-quarters of a century later, Friesen hopes for healing. “It is important that we consider facts, that we analyze and present events in a way that builds peace, both drawing on and propagating our Anabaptist inheritance,” he said, referring to the pacifist theology once again prominent in Fernheim.

Attendees of the symposium — which featured historians from Paraguay, Germany and the United States — agreed that local tensions should be consigned to history. They also saw the gathering as part of an ongoing conversation.

Discussion will continue at a third conference, on “Mennonites and the Holocaust.” Scheduled for March 2018 at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., the event is sponsored by Mennonite Church USA, the largest Mennonite denomination in North America.

New evidence has implicated some Mennonites in genocide. Especially in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, large German-speaking colonies drew favor from National Socialists such as Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler. Local recruits bolstered death squads, which massacred tens of thousands of Jews in and around the settlements.

Heinrich Himmler (third from right), head of the SS, at a flag-raising ceremony in the Molotschna Mennonite colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1942. Himmler and other National Socialists praised Mennonites’ allegedly Aryan blood. Photo courtesy of Mennonite Library and Archives (North Newton, Kansas)

“Mennonites have typically seen themselves foremost as victims of violence in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe,” said Mark Jantzen, professor of history at Bethel, “but we hope the conference will document and analyze a much more complex reality that places Mennonites across a whole spectrum of responses, experiences and motivations, along a range of suffering violence to witnessing it and causing it.”

Organizers have called for papers detailing cases of Mennonites aiding Jews and other targeted populations, as well as instances in which members benefited from ethnic cleansing or themselves perpetrated war crimes.

The recent gatherings in Germany and Paraguay have demonstrated a willingness among Mennonites to forgive each other. “Making peace means living out and offering reconciliation,” Friesen said at Fernheim’s symposium.

But the greater and more ecumenical challenge is the church’s responsibility toward non-Mennonite victims of Nazism. The Mennonite World Conference has recently accepted apologies from Lutheran and Catholic bodies regarding persecution of Mennonites during the 16th-century Reformation. Questions of Mennonites’ own collective guilt — during the Nazi period and beyond — remain.

(Ben Goossen is a scholar of global religious history at Harvard University. He is the author of “Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era,” to be published in May)

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  • Ask the Roman Catholic church – they seem to be OK with their past collaboration with Nazi Germany.

  • Fascinating article. First, I must state that I am a 4th generation Canadian of Mennonite descent. I had a great uncle serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during WW1 and my father enlisted in WWII, much to the dismay of the Mennonite church. Still, there is a name from the Nazi regime and the Nuremberg War Trials that shares my surname, Walther Funk. I have seen pictures of Walther Funk that have a glimmer of family resemblance, but genealogical searches show no connection. He was born 1000 km from the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine. I have found no proof of his religious background and the revulsion my father felt for the Nazi’s certainly reinforces the notion that I desire no connection. Still, this article once again raises the question.

  • Hitler attacked the Catholic Church, closed Catholic schools, thousands of priests & nuns were sent to death camps, Chaim Weizmann in 1943 (later first president of Israel): “the Holy See is lending powerful help wherever it can, to mitigate the fate of my persecuted co-religionists”. Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir also noted Pope Pius XIIs efforts to protect and shelter Jews from the Nazis.

    “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.” (Time Magazine, December 23, 1940) – Albert Einstein

    “If the Pope [Pius XII] in his Christmas message [to the College of Cardinals] had intended to condemn Hitler’s system, he could not have done it more effectively than by describing the ‘moral order’ which must govern human society. . . . The Pontiff pointed out that the foundation of the moral order is trust, ‘fidelity in the observance of pacts.’ Without trust–and this war has demonstrated the truth of his words–the coexistence of powerful and weak peoples is impossible. The moral order, he added, cannot be based on hatred, on the principle that ‘might makes right,’ on economic maladjustment, on ‘the spirit of cold egoism’ which leads to the violation of the sovereignty of states and the liberty of their citizens. The moral order, in a word, is in complete contradiction to Hitler’s order.” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 25, 1940, p. 26,2)

    Other NYT reporting documented here: http://www.catholicfidelity.com/apologetics-topics/pope-pius-xii/new-york-times-reporting-on-pius-xii-by-stephen-m-digiovanni-h-e-d/

    February 1, 1944 issue of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia was Russian “fake news” which attacked the pope and the Catholic Church as cooperators with Hitler. The NYT reported the charges but later expressed consternation that anyone could believe the charges as anything other than propaganda against the Catholic Church. The New York State Legislature voted unanimously on March 18, 1944 to deplore the action of Izvestia. Later, there would be anti-Catholic revisionism beginning with the play The Deputy which opened in Berlin in 1963 and London in 1964, written by the left-wing German Rolf Hochhuth, falsely portraying Pius XII as anti-Semetic and indifferent to the Holocaust. Jews agreed this portrayal was false and refuted it (Joseph L. Lichten of the Anti-Defamation League as well as Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide who testified Pius XII was instrumental in saving at least 700,000 and as many as 860,000 Jews from the Nazi).

  • If you care to share: Any additional trace back to Dutch heritage? Volga region Germans seem to have also been Lutheran. How did your family line wind up in Canada? Farming stock? What crop?

  • This article failed to mention that hundreds of Mennonites from Russia were murdered by Anarchist Communists and then, later, Mennonites were imprisoned by Soviet Bolsheviks. That history of persecution by Socialists may have left some vulnerable to Hitler’s evil racialism.

    Alexander Yakov, known as “Father of Glasnost” discovered that about two hundred thousand clergy (including many rabbis), monks and nuns had been executed by the Soviet regime: (reposted at link from a ’95 Reuters article) http://www.paulbogdanor.com/left/soviet/atheism1.html

    ” A Russian presidential commission confirmed yesterday that 200,000 clergy were systematically murdered under Soviet rule in a horrific cycle of crucifixions, scalpings and other ‘bestial tortures’…. The report by the Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression also found another 500,000 religious figures had suffered persecution in the decades after Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power. ”

  • Well, I do have a trace back to Prussia around 1750, but my ancestors were from the Mennonite colonies in the Dnepier river region of the Ukraine. Migratory people of course, but the name does suggest possible Dutch ancestry. My father would claim Swiss heritage, but research shows the Funk name may have originated around Austria. My great grandfather arrived in Canada as an orphan in 1878. Settled in southern Manitoba and farmed. Always assumed wheat was the primary crop. The Paraguay Mennonites mentioned in the article also arrived in Manitoba around the same time and subsequently moved south. I have no known family connections to any South American Mennonite families, but they were moving back to Manitoba in the 70’s and 80’s and had become a well defined group within the Manitoba Mennonite community.

  • My maternal grandparents were among the refugees who arrived in the early part of the 19th century. My maternal grandfather would get quite upset at the mention of the Bolsheviks, probably the only time I ever heard him curse. The Mennonite villages where my ancestors came from in the Dnepier region of the Ukraine do not exist today. Many of the village names were transplanted to the new settlements in Manitoba and I think were used again when the Paraguay settlements were established.

  • “The recent gatherings in Germany and Paraguay have demonstrated a willingness among Mennonites to forgive each other.” How nice. What about restitution for the victims? This conference, at least, should get credit for broaching a subject many people would no doubt like to ignore.

  • The point is they signed the Reichskonkordat. It was their bad luck the Nazi’s didn’t honor it. I am aware of what members of the RCC clergy and congregants did in fighting Nazis but it’s still a net loss for the church.

  • My grandmother and my grandfather on my father’s side of the family were Volga Germans who immigrated from Russia just before the Bolshevik’s grabbed power in 1917. So I have a special interest in historical accounts like this.It is not surprising that individuals and communities from various Christian movements were caught up in the massive conflicts the rang through Europe from 1914-1989. And it is beyond doubt that many participated in the violence and slaughter of innocent individuals. History is messy, and I’m glad that Mennonite communities are coming to grips with these historical realities. But the challenge we all face now is making sure that genocides like what happened in Ukraine in the 1930s, to Jews throughout Europe at the hands of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Cambodians during the 1970s, and Tutsi Rwandans in the 1990s do not happen again on our watch. Sadly, I fear that we have not seen the end of genocide given human nature and the political and societal confusion of our day.

  • The Mennonite settlement in the Ukraine is part of a larger history that is too much to recount here, but briefly it involved land being offered to Mennonites and other pacifist groups by the Russian czar in the 1820’s. After he died, his successor changed the terms of the promises that had been made and started requiring military service. The pacifists were able to remain faithful to their beliefs for a while, but persecution against them steadily increased. The Mennonite exodus from that part of the world began in the 1870’s and 80’s and there were still some leaving there in Soviet times. The Molokans and Doukhobors were resettled on less favorable land and some of their descendants were able to emigrate to North America in the 1890’s.

  • After the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, some Mennonites escaped to Canada, others were murdered, deported to Siberia, or exiled, mainly to Kazakhstan.. Still others remained and struggled through or died during the Holodomor which was essentially killing by hunger. Sometimes relief got through which was sent by émigré brethren and other international Mennonite communities (and sometimes shared with non-Mennonite people who were dying in the Ukraine)…

    Although thousands of Mennonites were sent to the Gulag, if you have never read about the Holodomor, you should read about it to fix in your mind the genocide which was perpetuated on the people in the Ukraine.

  • Rexists in Belgium and Chetniks in Croatia used specifically Catholic appeals to get people to collaborate with the Nazis. The last forced conversion to Catholicism was done in 1944 by Nazi allies. Catholic Church opposition to the holocaust was the exception, not the rule. Only one national church in occupied Europe openly defied the Nazis, the Danish Lutheran Church. All others collaborated fully.

  • Major Winters of Band of Brothers fame came from a Mennonite background. I am not sure if it was one parent or both.

  • The persecution of Mennonites is constantly used to excuse bad behaviour by the Mennonites. I have grown up alongside Mennonites and I see this over and over again. How often do we discuss the actual roots of why Mennonites were persecuted? How about they were not *indigenous* to Russia? that they took land from the local people and experienced a lot of wealth compared to the local peasants? Also, how about Mennonites appropriating culture from Poland/Ukraine? For example, how often do Mennonites call “paska” Mennonite when in fact it is *not* Mennonite it is Ukrainian. Same pattern here in North America: take the land from the Indigenous, drain lakes (read the story of Sumas Lake here in Abbotsford, BC–the Mennonites drained it and ruined an entire way of life for the Indigenous peoples–that lake was their “breadbasket”, their source of fish, and their source of travel–now the local Mennonites here in Abbotsford are wealthy and the Indigenous poor). Or try going to Church alongside Mennonites and you will still see a very clear display of eugenics. . .non-Mennonites are just there to pay their tithes and support the Mennonite leadership. Oh, there is some work here to be done. Those of us outsiders who have accidentally tried to go to Church with Mennonite peoples, we know the truth. Our lives are still being ruined by Mennonite people. We find out too late that Church is not Church but a culture club, and we were never, ever going to belong. And where do we turn for justice when this happens to us? Nowhere, there’s no where to turn because Churches are free from the typical rules that apply to racial discrimination. And so much thanks to Ben Goossen, you are so brave! Thank you for speaking out, you are a true Christ-follower, a voice of justice. Thank you for being so brave to talk openly about this, it’s not easy. Thank you.

  • Yes, but the whole region was a nightmare. Mennonites were not the only people who were persecuted there. And previous oppression does not excuse current behaviour or partnership with Nazis. The Jews were constantly and horribly persecuted in that region too. And unlike the Jews, the Mennonites were welcomed into Canada, remember?

  • *AND* the genocides of Indigenous peoples in North America. Many Mennonite peoples are farming stolen land in North America. . .and many are very wealthy and privileged because of this. Also, many Indigenous peoples did military service during WWI and WWII while Mennonites did not have to. . .

  • What this demonstrates is, no matter what hash-tag you hang on yourself as an individual, or member of a community, the truth will out by the fruit and behavior of your life.

  • Belgium’s Cardinal Van Roey excommunicated Rexists, resisted Nazi occupation, and helped save many Jews.

    The Chetniks were Serbian Orthodox.

    The Nazi-created dictatorship in Croatia forced the conversion of the Serbian Orthodox population. The Church didn’t intiate it because people must convert to the faith freely. Catholic churches were inundated with requests by Serbs to convert because the only other option was death. Amiel Shomrony, the advisor to Chief Rabbi Miroslav Freiberger of Zagreb, repeatedly praised Archbishop Stepinac, who saved many Jews and was later convicted on false charges brought by Communist authorities.

    Don’t take my word for it. Peruse old newspapers and magazines, including Jewish ones, from 1933 to 1945.

  • Why is even the slightest contacts with the Nazis, fascists, and Latin-American military dictators condemned as “collaboration” and giving moral legitimacy to evil while negotiating with Communists, including mass murderers such as Stalin and Mao, defended as prudent act of statesmanship? This seems like an odd double standard. When Hitler, not a single nation, including our own under FDR, broke diplomatic relations with him. As late 1940, Roosevelt dispatched State Dept. officials to Europe, including Nazi Germany, to see if peace could be restored.

    Did you ever read the actual text of the concordat? It makes boring reading. The pope later said that it gave German Catholics a legal platform to defend their rights against state persecution.

  • Opposition by Cardinal Van Roey, did not change the fact Rexists appealed to reactionary Catholics in both democratic representation and as Nazi lackeys.

    “The Chetniks were Serbian Orthodox.”

    1990’s ones were. The WWII ones were Croatian Catholics. Serbian Orthodox forces were called Partisans at that time. The Catholic Church in Croatia acted in concert with the Nazi collaborators.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_clergy_involvement_with_the_Usta%C5%A1e
    “atrocities at the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp were “egged on by some Franciscan friars””

    …”it is well known that many Catholic clerics participated directly or indirectly in Ustaša campaigns of violence, as is attested in the work of Corrado Zoli (Italian) and Evelyn Waugh (British), both Catholics themselves”

    “To consolidate Ustaša party power, much of the party work in Bosnia and Herzegovina was put in the hands of Catholic priests by Jure Francetić, an Ustaše Commissioner of this province.
    One priest, Mate Mugos, wrote that clergy should put down the prayer book and take up the revolver. Another, Dionysius Juričev, wrote in the Novi list that to kill children at least seven years of age was not a sin.”

    Cardinal Stepinac’s record is not as rosy as Catholic apologists claim
    http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/62/123.html

  • This may come as a surprise, but the pope and bishops do not have the word Catholic copyrighted. Earl Browder, the CPUSA chairman, actually wrote a book claiming that Communism was similar to Catholic social doctrine. According to your use of guilt by appropriation, this makes the Church pro-Communist as well. Last time, you angrily denied my claim that the Nazis, Italian fascists, and Vichyites used “separation of church and state” rhetoric to silence religious opposition. I then referred you to the diaries of Joseph Goebbles and Count Ciano. You then moved on.

    This may also surprise you but the Church’s spiritual authority over its flock is quite limited. Before Vatican II, did a Catholic bishop in Maine have the power to force a Catholic to move to Arizona? If a bishop ever made such a move, the Catholic could refuse without compromising his standing.

    The Vatican never denied that there were pro-Ustasha priests. What they denied is collective guilt that they were all guilty of collaboration anf thus all deserved to be murdered or jailed by the Tito regime.

    Also, the forced conversions of Serbs was going so poorly that the Ustasha established its own state church, the Croation Orthodox Church, as a vehicle to bring in the Serbs. It does have a Wikipedia page in English for your benefit. (If you do read the Ciano diary, you will see that Pavelic told him in 1941 that while his government had the support of many lower priests, most of the bishops opposed him.

    You make broad charges, then when challenged, you modify them.

  • Now you are trying to change the subject and trying to bring up the sins of other groups unrelated to the issue.

    ” I then referred you to the diaries of Joseph Goebbles and Count Ciano. You then moved on.”
    Hardly moved on. You tried to hide that it was a diary entry as opposed to a public statement. Unfortunately for you, the wikipedia reference marker was still in your block quote. Your reference was as dishonest and revisionist then as it is now.

    Fact was, there was no official resistance to Nazi authority by any majority church in occupied Europe except the Danish Lutheran church. Collaboration was common. Even encouraged as Nazis typically used Christian religious appeals for recruiting non-German subjects.

    The Vatican didn’t even disavow official antisemitism until 20 years after the Holocaust ended. They also didn’t disavow the efforts of their Nazi collaborator brethren until decades after the fact. When revisionism appeared more plausible to the public and memories of the actors have faded.

    https://www.thoughtco.com/adolf-hitler-and-christian-nationalism-248189

    http://www.historytoday.com/robert-carr/nazism-and-christian-heritage
    “Nazism was advantaged by the Christian mind-set of Europeans which
    included myths of Jewish treachery and deicide. The Nazi movement
    exploited its apparent Christian agenda.”

    Also not helping you is that current successors to the Nazis, neo-nazis are thoroughly Christian in belief. They even have their own Protestant sect.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Identity

  • This is a cute little war of words you two are having, but maybe not as enlightening to the “restivus” as you think. No sir, neo-nazis are not “thoroughly Christian” in belief, unless you know a different Christ from the one I know. No sir, Christians at large do not believe in deicide, by which I assume you mean “the Jews killed Jesus”. Jesus went to the cross voluntarily as part of God’s plan. As for Pius Xll, he walked the narrow path, since the Vatican has no artillery and no massive battalions to resist an attack by Hitler’s satanic minions. The Church did what it could and the details are interesting but the notion that Her failure to stop Hitler in his tracks equates to collaboration is pure nonsense.

  • The Vatican was an early supporter of the Nazis and aided the escape of war criminals after the conflict. All official churches in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe except one openly collaborated and supported the Nazis.

    Prior to WWII the Catholic Church bought and paid for a fascist government in Spain. One which eventually murdered half a million people in that country before it ended.

    Pious has dirty hands. It would be 20 years later before the Catholic Church even disavowed antisemitic dogma.

    You want to pretend you are the sole arbiter as to who is Christian and who isn’t. But that is not ever the case with people like yourself.

    You are dishonest in wanting to ignore or deny bad acts done in the name of Christian faith. A more honest and less hateful direction would be to acknowledge such atrocities and make assurances that Christians like yourself have learned the error of such ways. Instead you just go with silly blanket denial. Essentially signing off and condoning such actions.

  • I meant Ustasha, but the term chetnik was also interchangeable for them in WWII.

    The meaning of chetnik to refer to Serbian forces started in the 1990s.

  • There was more coercion going on than collaboration. Mennonites in the former Soviet Union were living in precarious times. Both sides, Communists and Nazis were evil, and being neutral was probably life threatening. Still Mennonites were quite attracted to Nazism. And with their enthusiastic support of Trump they still seem to be.

  • –Why is even the slightest contacts with the Nazis, fascists, and Latin-American military dictators condemned as “collaboration” and giving moral legitimacy to evil while negotiating with Communists, including mass murderers such as Stalin and Mao, defended as prudent act of statesmanship? This seems like an odd double standard.–

    So well said.

    As a relative of Prussian mennonites slaughtered by the tens of thousands in the most brutal manner imaginable, having their homes and belongings stolen by bolshevik criminals, enduring rape, beatings, and if they survived a lifetime of labor in Gulags, it bothers me that their story has not (and seemingly will not) ever be told, while meanwhile other atrocities have been parlayed into multi-billion-dollar industries, tugging at the heartstrings of the entire world.

    Why? How? Communism killed well over 40million, by any objective standard, the vast majority of whom were complete innocents. And yet. . .

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