Killed for Refusing to Kill: Remembering Joseph and Michael Hofer

Earlier this month passed another Veterans Day, which formerly commemorated the signing of the armistice which would end Europe’s World War the first. Often forgotten in the celebration associated with the cessation of war are the victims who suffer from its ills long after alleged peace deals are signed. The effects of WWI on the culture of the US and the world were not fully actualized as events were transpiring. If history was any indicator, the nation would find itself in the same brutish death trap just over a generation later.

Conscientious objectors at Camp Lewis, WA. Nov 1918

A violent militarism, which could be described as an antipacifism, swept the United States, with an even stronger sentiment arising in the more war-ravaged Soviet Union. One of the darkest examples of this hostility towards civilians during WWI is the treatment of pacifist Hutterites following the draft which began just over a year before the war would come to an end. While saukerkraut makers were changing their product names to ‘Liberty Cabbage’ and South Dakota was banning instruction of the German language in government schools, four members of a 400 year old pacifist, communalist Christian sect received draft notices to risk their lives in Europe for the mythical Uncle Sam. Perhaps it was by chance and perhaps deliberately that four names from an antimilitant community found their way onto the draft register. There had already been tension building between the area Hutterites and their neighbors, as the community had refused to buy war bonds the year prior.

Of the four names, three of them were brothers, all married with children, and young. David, Michael, and Joseph Hofer boarded a military train in March of 1918 headed to Fort Lewis, Washington along with Joseph’s brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf. Though their religious devotion prevented them from training or acting as soldiers, they were expecting to accept a civilian duty once at the camp. Dressed in black, with long beards and long hair, and speaking mostly in their native language of German, the four orthodox men were quickly met with jeers and insults on the train. A conductor moved them between cars, in search of the least inhospitable environment. They spent a night on the train and a portion of the next day in relative peace, before the physical attacks began. During the afternoon the following day, a group of soldiers burst into their compartment and dragged each off one by one to have his hair and beard cut. Their antagonizers justified the treatment as “free barbering”.

At the camp, the four were quickly sent to a guardhouse for not complying with orders to fill out the universal draftee form, entitled the “Statement of Soldier”. They were convicted of being insincere in their refusal to serve. At the time, there were no protections in place for conscientious objectors. Their sentence was twenty years of hard labor to be served at Alcatraz. After about three months at the camp, they were on their way to the San Francisco Bay in July of 1918.

At the prison, the Hutterites first found themselves on the wrong side of the officers when they refused to wear what was given to them as their prison dress: a United States military uniform. The received no food and little water for the first four days, and were forced to sleep on the damp concrete cell floors. Guards taunted them by offering only the uniforms as defense against the cold. They were kept in solitary confinement for stretches as long as military code permitted, and while in ‘the dungeon’, were tortured by handcuffing them to the highest bars in the cell (known as high-cuffing) so that only their toes touched the ground.

After the armistice was signed on the eleventh of November, Alcatraz became decommissioned as a military prison. Unfortunately, the cessation of hostilities abroad would not mean better treatment for the war resisters at home. The four were led in chains across the country again to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they arrived on November 19. By the time they had reached their destination, Michael and Joseph were gravely ill. As David and Jacob were led away to solitary confinement (where they would be forced to stand in chains for nine hours a day), the others were led to sick wards. Family back home were alerted to their condition, and arrived the evening of November 28. Joseph’s wife was permitted to see him after he had died on November 29. The authorities had listed his cause of death as pneumonia and influenza, passing off to nature the responsibility for his inhumane treatment at the hands of his captors. As a final insult to his faith, in his casket he was dressed in the uniform that he had refused. Michael expired a few days later. David was immediately released and returned to South Dakota. Jacob Wipf would remain caged until April 13, 1919. Following the death of the brothers, then-Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered the practice of high-cuffing be suspended.

When the brothers’ bodies were returned for burial in South Dakota, the simple marker with the name and dates typical of the Hutterites had an additional word added to the engraving — martyr.

Few know the names of Michael and Joseph Hofer, just as few know the name of Eddie Slovik, the victim of a militant fervor during the next world war. Joseph Hofer and Eddie Slovik were both 24 at the time of their death, which is the current age of Bradley Manning. How history repeats itself, as Bradley Manning’s defense has recently asserted that his pretrial treatment would qualify as torture, including that he was forced to remain awake and upright in uncomfortable postures, prohibited from exercising, and forced to sleep naked.

One of the best articles available on the Hutterites’ conscription saga is written by Duane Stoltzfus and was published in February of this year. Another telling of the story is available from an Anabaptist informational archive, and there is also an entry on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.