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C. Henry Smith Lecture: Tortured Hutterites left legacy of peace

In the cemetery at Rockport Colony, South Dakota, are the small, rectangular grave markers for Joseph and Michael Hofer, each bearing one of the brothers' names, his birth and death dates and, in capital letters beside each brother's name, the word "MARTYR."

The Hofers were so designated by their fellow Hutterites-a communal branch of Anabaptists-following their imprisonment at Alcatraz and what the church regarded as torture and death at the hands of the U.S. Army in 1918, at the close of World War I.

Dr. Duane Stoltzfus, a professor and chair of communication at Goshen College, told the conscientious objectors' story in the C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture Feb. 28 at Bluffton University.

Off to Camp Lewis

Farmers whose church had taken a pacifist stance for 400 years, Joseph and Michael Hofer, along with a third brother, David, and Joseph's brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf, were summoned for service nonetheless in the spring of 1918.

On May 25, leaving wives and children behind, they boarded a military train bound for Camp Lewis, Washington, where recruits from the western half of the country were training. "The Hutterites were determined not to participate in the military, but they had been drafted and wanted to cooperate as long as they could, hoping for an assignment they could accept," Stoltzfus said.

Tension between the Hutterites and their neighbors had been growing since the Americans entered the war the previous year. In addition to their refusal to buy war bonds, the Hutterites spoke German-the language of the enemy. "On the very day that the men left for Camp Lewis, South Dakota had banned the speaking of German in schools and churches, one of many efforts to ensure loyalty to the United States," the Goshen professor noted.

The Hutterite men's black dress and beards also contributed to the tension. On the second day of the train trip to Washington, a group of soldiers knocked on the door of the compartment where the Hofers, Wipf and a fifth Hutterite draftee had been sequestered.

The soldiers said they only wanted to talk and, when the men inside eventually relented and cracked the door open, they "stormed in," Stoltzfus said, hauling the Hutterites off to cut their beards and much of their hair.

"For the men with shears, it was a harmless and patriotic way to get the Hutterites to look the part of soldiers-'free barbering,' they called it," he pointed out. "For the Hutterites, it was a frightening introduction to life in the U.S. Army."

Writing to his wife Maria about the experience, Michael Hofer said "Our savior has indeed said that they will come to us in sheep's clothing, but in truth they are ravenous wolves."

Stoltzfus explained the government's rationale for giving pacifist draftees no option for civilian service. "In sending all drafted men to military camps," he said, "President Woodrow Wilson and Newton Baker, the secretary of war, were confident that they could persuade everyone, including members of the historic peace churches, like the Hutterites, to do their part for the Army and the nation. Men who didn't want to carry a gun might, as soldiers, drive an ambulance or cook in the kitchen."

"Wilson and Baker also envisioned the army as a melting pot," he added. But less than 24 hours after their arrival at Camp Lewis, the Hutterites had already been singled out for their refusal to fall into formation and to fill out a card with the heading "Statement of Soldier." They insisted they weren't soldiers, so they couldn't complete the card, line up with other men as soldiers or wear a soldier's uniform, Stoltzfus said.

The Hutterites, he continued, "were committed to their own worldview in which two kingdoms, one of God and one of the world, stood in conflict. They believed they could not contribute to the nation if it meant having to wear a uniform and serve in the Army. ... The Hutterites and military officials were talking to one another across kingdom walls."

The Hofer brothers and Wipf also "had the misfortune of arriving at Camp Lewis just as commanders across the country were intent on using trials to send a message to conscientious objectors and just before Secretary Baker opened the way for farm furloughs," said Stoltzfus.

Accused of disobeying orders, the four men went on trial and were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor at Alcatraz, then a military prison.

At the end of July 1918, the four prisoners-chained together in pairs-traveled by train down the coast to Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay.

On arrival at the cellhouse, each was instructed to take a bath and put on prison dress. "When the men refused to put on the Army clothing," Stoltzfus said, "they were led down a flight of 14 stairs to the basement of the prison, a place of solitary confinement known as 'the hole.'" There, they entered a pitch black cell 6.5 feet wide by 8 feet deep.

"For the first four and a half days, the Hutterites received half a glass of water each day, but no food," he said. They "slept without blankets on the cement floor that was wet from water that oozed through the walls."

Guards had left a uniform on the floor for each of them, but, as Wipf recalled later, "we had decided to wear the uniform was not what God would have us do. It was a question of doing our religious duty, not one of living or dying-and we never wore the uniform."

During their last 36 hours underground, with prison officials determined to break their resistance, each man's hands were crossed one over the other and chained to bars in the door. "The chains were drawn up so that only their toes touched the floor, a technique known as 'high cuffing,'" Stoltzfus said. When guards led them upstairs and into the outside yard after nearly five days underground, they couldn't put on their jackets because their arms were too swollen.

The Hutterites rotated into and out of the dungeon during their four months at Alcatraz. Stoltzfus explained that military law forbade keeping convicts in the dungeon longer than 14 days at a time, and required that they receive a normal diet during the interim time between trips back to a bread and water diet in solitary confinement.

That punishment, he noted, had nearly been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in an 1890 case in which a Colorado murderer had been held in isolation for a month awaiting execution. "World War I provided more evidence that solitary confinement was a medieval practice," he added, pointing out that authorities closed the isolation cells at Alcatraz and elsewhere.

"As members of a communal group, the Hutterites must have felt the isolation with an extra burden," Stoltzfus said, "but the men are silent in their letters home, except to suggest that death is in the offing."

Wrote David Hofer to his wife, Anna: "We all do not expect to see each other in this world anymore, the way it seems now, but we should not despair, with God's strength we hope to overcome, as we have promised God, we trust in him. He's the only one who can help us, as he did in olden days."

Finally, to Fort Leavenworth

Three days after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice ended the war, the Hutterites left Alcatraz, still in chains, aboard a train to the Army's main disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Arriving at 11 p.m. on Nov. 19, they were hurried up a hill to the military prison, where they were separated for the first time since their arrival at Camp Lewis six months before. David Hofer and Wipf were placed in solitary confinement, standing in chains nine hours a day, while Michael and Joseph Hofer were hospitalized, gravely ill.

Prison authorities notified family members in South Dakota, and their wives reached Leavenworth on the evening of Nov. 28. Barely able to communicate, Joseph Hofer died the following morning. Guards wouldn't let his wife, Maria, see her husband in his coffin, but she demanded permission from the head officer, who relented. "When the lid was opened, she found Joseph in death dressed in a military uniform that he had steadfastly refused to wear in life," Stoltzfus said. "Michael Hofer died a few days later."

"To the Hutterites, the men were martyrs, who died because of mistreatment at the hands of the state while remaining true to their religious beliefs," he said. "The Army listed the official cause of death as pneumonia, brought on by influenza."

David Hofer was immediately released to accompany his brothers' bodies home to South Dakota. Wipf remained in solitary confinement, but several days after the Hofers' deaths, Secretary of War Baker ordered that prisoners no longer be chained standing to the bars of cells, Stoltzfus noted. Wipf was finally released in April 1919, nearly 11 months after his arrest.

In retrospect

"The experience of the four men contributes significantly to one of the darker chapters of this period of American history, when a wartime patriotic fever and a widespread suspicion of all things German fueled attacks on conscientious objectors and others who did not rally to the cause," said Stoltzfus.

"But their tale, distressing as it is, does not follow a simple script, neatly dividing the cast into heroes and villains," he continued. "We can see why the Hutterites became absolutist objectors during the war and feel empathy for the men in the face of their sufferings. At the same time, we can appreciate the challenges set before military commanders and guards who followed a different set of orders and, by their worldview, could not understand why these men would not contribute to the national cause, if only by pushing a broom.

"The Hutterites were part of a stream of Americans who, during World War I, when it was easiest to fall in line, stayed true to their religious convictions," he said. Those conscientious objectors asked their neighbors, Washington politicians and Supreme Court justices what it meant to have freedom of religion and expression.

And over time, he maintained, the answer came back, "We can do better," resulting in a strengthened First Amendment and a more robust Constitution.

Stoltzfus, who holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University, earned his bachelor's degree in English from Goshen and has taught there since 2000. He serves as adviser for The Goshen College Record, as well as copy editor for The Mennonite Quarterly Review. He previously worked as a reporter and editor with several newspapers in New York and New Jersey, including The New York Times.

The C. Henry Smith Peace Lectureship honors the late professor and Mennonite historian who taught at Bluffton for 35 years, from 1913-48, after spending 10 years at Goshen. The lectureship is awarded each year to a faculty member from one of the Mennonite colleges, with priority given to Goshen and Bluffton faculty. The chosen faculty member must prepare a lecture that promotes the Mennonite peace stance and present it at Bluffton and Goshen.