How Woodrow Wilson Persecuted Hutterites Who Refused to Support His War

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Woodrow Wilson had no qualms about jailing people he disagreed with. His persecution of the Hutterites can attest to that.

Lawrence W. Reed -

Campaigning for President of the United States in September 1912, “progressive” icon Woodrow Wilson said something that would gladden the heart of any libertarian:

Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of the government. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.

That was two months before the election that Wilson won. He garnered slightly less than 42 percent of the popular vote in a four-way contest. Over the next eight years, he proved to be the most repressive, anti-liberty president to ever occupy the White House.

The humorist Oscar Levant could have had Woodrow Wilson in mind when he said of an unnamed politician, “He’ll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.” The man who extolled the virtue of resistance to government encroachments on liberty did not govern accordingly once in office.

Wilson jacked up taxes and spending, resegregated the federal government, supported the “science” of eugenics, foisted a central bank on the country, signed Prohibition into law, fastened an extensive range of controls on the economy, squashed civil liberties, injected America into a disastrous European war, imposed conscription, created a monstrous propaganda machine (the Committee on Public Information) to intimidate Americans into supporting the war, and endorsed a bad peace treaty that guaranteed future conflict just so he could secure his cherished “League of Nations” fantasy.

What Wilson’s administration perpetrated on the Hutterites of the upper Great Plains (primarily North and South Dakota), ranks near the top of his dastardly sins. It is a story largely forgotten but one so unforgivable that it deserves a retelling. How can lessons be learned from events if we flush them down the memory hole?

The Hutterites derive their name from founder Jacob Hutter, a 16th Century Anabaptist leader from the Alpine region of what is now western Austria and southern Germany. Fleeing one repressive regime after another, they moved around Europe before migrating to America in the late 1800s. The wide-open, sparsely settled Dakotas were especially attractive to them because there they could establish rural, self-sustaining farm communities and practice their faith unmolested. Or so they thought.

For decades, the Dakota Hutterites lived in peaceful isolation. Other Americans may have thought them odd but they posed no danger. Indeed, a core element of their faith was (and remains to this day) a radical pacifism.

Hutterites will not take up arms. “A basic tenet of Hutterite groups,” writes John A. Hostetler in his definitive book, Hutterite Society, “has always been non-resistance, forbidding its members from taking part in military activities, taking orders from military persons, wearing a formal uniform (such as a soldier’s or a police officer’s) or paying taxes to be spent on war.”

Hutterites were persecuted in Europe for their pacifism. They sought refuge in America to escape tyrants anxious to dragoon them into fighting or financing their endless wars. In his book, Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites During the Great War, Duane C. S. Stoltzfus cites a portion of a letter to President Wilson written by Hutterite ministers which stated,

Our history is written with blood and tears; it is largely a story of persecution and suffering. We have record of over two thousand persons of our faith who suffered martyrdom by fire, water, and the sword.

Once America entered World War I in April 1917, it would be déjà vu for the Hutterites. Egged on by propaganda from Washington, anti-German sentiment swept across the country. Hostetler writes that,

…the attitude of the public quickly shifted from indifference to hostile intolerance. Suddenly a people were discovered who spoke German, who refused to lend money to a benevolent government, and who withheld their young men from military service.

Wilson signed the Selective Service Act into law in May 1917, setting the stage for the administration’s inevitable conflict with conscientious objectors, for whom no provision or exception was made. A quarter century later during World War II, objectors were offered alternative service, but not under Wilson, the “compassionate” progressive.

At induction centers where young men reported for military duty, Hutterite men were pressured both physically and psychologically. This passage from Hostetler’s book will leave you wondering how such a travesty could ever occur in the land of the free and the home of the brave:

At Camp Funston some of the men were brutally handled in the guardhouse. They were bayoneted, beaten, and tortured by various forms of water “cure.” Jakob S. Waldner, who retains an extensive diary of his experiences in the camp, was thrown fully clothed into a cold shower for twenty minutes for refusing a work order. After such cold showers, the men were often thrown out of a window and dragged along the ground by their hair and feet by soldiers who were waiting outside. Their beards were disfigured to make them appear ridiculous.

One night, eighteen men were aroused from their sleep and held under cold showers until one of them became hysterical. Others were hung by their feet above tanks of water until they almost choked to death. On many days they were made to stand at attention on the cold side of their barracks, in scant clothing, while those who passed by scoffed at them in abusive and foul language. They were chased across the fields by guards on motorcycles under the guise of taking exercise, until they dropped from sheer exhaustion. In the guardhouse they were usually put on a diet of bread and water. Such experiences were common to all sincere conscientious objectors, including Mennonites and those of other religious faiths.

A delegation of Hutterite ministers traveled to Washington in August 1917, hoping to advise President Wilson personally of their concerns. The most they got was a meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, who blew them off with meaningless assurances and did nothing. The guilt for what happened next lies not only with the men who personally perpetrated the deed, but also just as surely with the administration that allowed it to happen and that cared nothing for those to whom it happened.

At Fort Lewis, Washington, four Hutterite men reported as ordered but refused to sign admission papers or put on army uniforms. For their sincere, faith-based convictions, they were tossed into the guardhouse for two months, then sentenced to 37 years in prison. Hostetler reveals,

They were taken to the notorious military prison at Alcatraz, attended by four armed lieutenants who kept them handcuffed during the day and chained by the ankles to each other at night. At Alcatraz they again refused to put on military uniforms. They were then taken to a ‘dungeon’ of darkness, filth and stench and put in solitary confinement out of earshot of each other.

Four months later, the men were remanded to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to serve out the remaining years of their sentences. The abuse heaped upon them there was unspeakably worse than at Alcatraz. Two of the men—brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer—became so ill from the experience they required hospitalization. Their wives, suspecting the worst, traveled by train to Kansas to see their husbands. Citing Hostetler once again,

After losing a day, the women arrived at midnight to find their husbands nearly dead. When they returned in the morning, Joseph was dead. The guards refused his wife, Maria, permission to see the dead body. In tears, she pleaded with the colonel and was finally taken to the casket only to find that her husband’s body had been dressed in the military uniform he had so adamantly refused to wear. Michael Hofer died two days later. The wives and a few other relatives accompanied the bodies to their home community, where their enormous funeral seared Hutterite minds with the price of true apostolic faith.

All through the summer and fall of 1918, the Hutterite colonies in the Dakotas and Montana suffered intolerable abuses from local citizens and officials for their German ancestry, their opposition to military service in general, and their refusal to buy the government’s Liberty Bonds in particular. Their sheep and cattle were seized and sold at auction to purchase the bonds their rightful owners would not buy. Finally, the Hutterites did what they had been forced to do so many times before: Nearly the entire population of Hutterites in America—an estimated 11,000—left the country. They migrated to Canada.

What did Woodrow Wilson say or do about the atrocities against the Hutterites? Sadly, just about nothing. Historian Stoltzfus reports that when businessman Theodore Lunde published pamphlets about what occurred at Leavenworth, Wilson tried to silence him and the journalists he was collaborating with:

…Wilson urged Attorney General Gregory to consider charging Lunde with treason for publishing criticisms of the government. “There are many instances of this sort and one conviction would probably scotch a great many snakes,” the president said.

Wilson had no qualms about jailing people he disagreed with, even after the war was over in November 1918. With Wilson’s full support, the Palmer Raids rounded up thousands of Americans in 1920—the vast majority of them for no greater offense than opposing the Wilson administration.

So what are we to make of Woodrow Wilson and his administration’s conduct toward the Hutterites?

In a 2012 article, Stoltzfus opines,

In Washington the highest officials in the land set in motion a series of actions, carried out by subordinates, that in isolation may have seemed measured and appropriate. The cumulative effect was a miscarriage of justice. Four men who sought neither to harm nor injure anyone at any turn ended up hanging in chains, a treatment President Wilson himself later described as “barbarous or medieval.”

Wilson apologists will point to the President’s “barbarous or medieval” comment and absolve him of any guilt. I don’t buy it. He was well aware of the coercion that was underway under his administration’s auspices. Being the collectivist “progressive” that he was, he thought compulsion would “unify” the country in favor of a war honest people had good reasons to oppose. As to his belated condemnation of the Hutterite persecution, this is the same power-hungry cynic who told us “the history of liberty is the history of resistance” and then used his power to wipe resistance out.

I have written before about judging people of the past by current standards that had not yet been fully developed in their day. That practice is called “presentism” and it is manifestly unfair. Is it then unfair to criticize Woodrow Wilson for his repression against the Hutterites?

Absolutely not.

In the America of 1918, there was no evolving societal perspective on the right or wrong of religious persecution. Everybody with an ounce of conscience knew it was wrong. Jailing peaceful people because their religious values conflicted with state policy had been a settled issue since 1776. Opposition to religious persecution was one of the country’s most important founding principles. Religious liberty is embedded in the Constitution, which Woodrow Wilson swore an oath to uphold. Criticizing him for violating his duty amounts to judging him not only by today’s standards, but those of his own moment, and those of 1776, as well as the rules of the position he held.

While your “progressive” history professor was telling you how idealistic, reform-minded, forward-thinking and “for the people” Woodrow Wilson supposedly was, did he or she tell you about the courageous Hutterites who stood up to his heavy-handedness?

If not, then give that professor a call. Demand a refund.