The Mennonite Heritage Museum and Park in Henderson, Nebraska, is hosting a traveling peace exhibit that features the famous Hutterite war resisters who were tortured to death by the American army during World War I. The traveling exhibit, titled “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” opened at the museum on Sunday, July 21,, and will be available for public viewing until mid-September.

A propaganda war poster designed to foster popular support in the U.S. for fighting in World War 1
A propaganda war poster designed to foster popular support in the U.S. for fighting in World War 1 (Poster by Harry R. Hopps in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

According to a news report in the Grand Island Independent last week, the exhibit focuses on the peace witnesses of Americans who were opposed to the otherwise immensely popular war effort. The courageous people who openly opposed such things as the bond drives after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the enactment of military conscription, and the denial of freedom of speech against the war effort risked mob violence against them by “patriots” who supported the war. They also risked imprisonment by the federal government.

The news reporter expresses a sympathetic understanding for the purposes of the exhibit by noting that it displays the “prophetic insights and the personal courage” of the peace protesters during the war. The reporter adds that the exhibit also may suggest some parallels to the culture of violence and warfare that persists in the world to this day.

A couple of cells in Alcatraz (
A couple of cells in Alcatraz (Photo by Jacob Kearns in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The10 themes that embody the exhibit are focused upon the cell in Alcatraz prison where four Hutterite men were imprisoned in 1918 for refusing to fight despite having been drafted into the army. The news story published last week doesn’t provide details about the ordeal the Hutterites endured but, in brief, the four young men who were drafted into the army in early 1918 refused to cooperate with the army in any way.

Unlike some of the other peace people, who were willing to serve in supportive roles in the armed forces so long as they were not required to carry weapons, the Hutterites held their peace witness in absolute terms. They refused to wear uniforms or accept any orders from army officers. As a result, the four men were sentenced to long terms in Alcatraz, located in San Francisco Bay.

United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas
United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas (Photo by Americasroof in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

For several months they endured humiliating torture at the hands of the army. Then, the army decided to move the men to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. There the tortures were resumed—the details are grim—and two of the men soon died due to the inhuman treatment. They were tortured to death for their absolutist beliefs in nonresistance, in not resisting evil, in living peacefully.

It isn’t clear from the newspaper account how much detail the exhibit provides about the Hutterite story but it does appear as if it gives some insights into various ways of resisting the urge by the United States to solve problems through warfare. The museum is located on the main highway leading south from the Interstate 80 interchange into Henderson itself. Admission is free.