An Analysis of Some Bruderhof Traits

by Ramon Sender Barayon

Where does the Bruderhof's need for absolute control over the individual come from? Erich Fromm, in his classic "Escape From Freedom," defines authoritarianism as "the tendency to give up the independence of one's own individual self and to fuse one's self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking." He equates authoritarianism with the sado- masochistic personality, and also points out that this personality type was typical of the lower middle class in Germany. One ex-member said to me, "Nazism did not just spring up out of nowhere. It was all there before Hitler, who just brought it to fruition. And it was in the Bruderhof character."
In Eberhard Arnold's outspoken criticism of the National Socialist party, it is not the trait of blind obedience which he despises, but the blind obedience to Hitler. Generations of authoritarian parents had prepared the German people to follow unquestioningly wherever Hitler led them. "All authority comes from the Heavenly Father" became "All authority comes from Daddy" and finally, "All authority comes from the Fuhrer." Alice Miller, in her incomparable study of the "Poisonous Pedagogy" entitled "For Your Own Good," quotes Hitler's heir apparent, Rudolph Hess:
"We note with pride that one man remains beyond
all criticism, and that is the Fuhrer. This is because
everyone senses and knows: he is always right, and he
will always be right. The National Socialism of all of us is
anchored in uncritical loyalty, in a surrender to the
Fuhrer that does not ask about the why in individual
cases, in the silent execution of his orders. We believe
that the Fuhrer is obeying a higher call to shape German
history. There can be no criticism of this belief".
If I insert 'Papa Heini' for 'the Fuhrer' and 'Bruderhof' for 'German,' the correlations become obvious.
In A Child Of Hitler, Alfons Heck writes:
"Ours was a male-dominated society: woman and girls
played a sharply limited role. The Nazis followed the
German tradition that a woman's place was in the
kitchen, church and bedroom. Her first function, almost
raised to a dogma by Hitler, was to be a mother and a
guardian of the hearth. Hitler was indifferent to women
joining the party; not a single one rose to political
"To applaud anyone by clapping hands was a break
of discipline in the Hitler Youth, which discouraged
excessive worship of any individual except Adolph
Hitler, our deity...
"No political organization in the history of the world sang
as much as the Hitler Youth; it was a tool to bind us
together in the common cause of Germany as well as
a form of relaxation. When we were assembled in large
numbers, its effect was hypnotic, as our leaders well knew."
Another quote from the same author:
"We, a civilized, humane people, had allowed ourselves
to become indifferent to brutality committed by our
own government on our own citizens. At best, that
seemed to make us cowards, at worst brutes ourselves.
And yet, I never once during the Hitler years thought
of myself as anything but a decent, honorable young
German, blessedwith a glorious future."
Compare this to the following statement written by an ex-member:
"I can recall many times when, with hindsight, I can
see now that I took part in acts towards others as a
'united' member which I am quite convinced I
would never have done to them as an individual. This
has left me with an absolute determination never again
to surrender my 'individuality' to a group."
A listing of the major traits of German Nationalism match up easily with Bruderhof equivalents:

   Nazism				Bruderhof
racial purity 			spiritual purity
militarism  			spiritual militancy
child indoctri-			"Clean out the rats'
	nation			nest of the 4th grade."
loyalty to the 			loyalty to the Word 
	Fuhrer       		Leader (Servant)
propaganda  			carefully tailored
	      			reports to members
ejection of non-		ejection of heretics
1000-year Reich			The Kingdom of God
blind obedience 		blind obedience
hierarchy of     		hierarchy of 
	privilege          	privilege
Aryanism    			Heini-ism
will          	"		attitude"
discipline   			church discipline
intolerance of   		intolerance of
    dissent   	 		    disunity
Joyful work for 		Joyful work for 
   the new race			the Kingdom
Strength-Through- 	 	the institutionalization of joy

A definition of the "Strength-Through-Joy" organization from an essay entitled "Songs & Nazis" by Vernon L. Lidtke ("Essays On Culture And Society In Modern Germany"):
"Every Nazi organization perceived the value of
communal singing. In 1934, 'Strength-Through-Joy'
called for the special 'Abendsingwochen' (evening
song weeks) for workers and others. Singing was
also sponsored in shops and factories. By August,
1934, reports came in from more than 300 localities...
of singing sessions in which large numbers of workers
had participated. In a corset factory in Doeblin (Saxony)
between 60 and 150 female workers were said to be
so enthusiastic after the initial singing week that they
held open singing hours at the end of the working day...
There was no doubt, as one 'Strength-Through-Joy'
commentator said, that 'music education is becoming
a political task.'"
These comparisons may appear simplistic because they can be easily applied to any other authoritarian group or religious cult. Fanaticism comes in a variety of flavors and guises, but always can be recognized by its demand that the individual's freedom be sacrificed, and also by the resulting group 'high.' In 1976 I attended a Glide Church service (a congregation famous in San Francisco for its interracial humanitarianism and its jazz band), when hundreds of Jim Jones' People's Temple followers poured into the gathering. Their glazed eyes shone brightly and they exhibited the same manic joy that burst out in Woodcrest's brotherhood at times when the group 'came clear' on an issue and felt that the Holy Spirit was acting through them. John Bradshaw identifies joy as an emotional addiction in his excellent book, Healing The Shame That Binds You:
"I frequently encounter what I call "joy" addicts. They
wear a frozen smile on their faces. They are never angry.
They laugh at inappropriate times and only speak about
happy and joyful things.
"The feeling of righteousness is the core mood alteration
among religious addicts. Religious addiction is a massive
problem in our society. It may be the most pernicious of
all addictions because it's so hard for a person to break his
delusion and denial."
Fromm points out that the sado-masochistic personality suffers from exaggerated urges towards submission and domination. A natural submission- dominance urge exists in humans as a carry-over from herd/tribe ranking behaviors. How quickly a visiting dog selects out the owner of the house or property, and displays to them a submissive attitude! Similarly, at Woodcrest, the children instinctively ranked themselves, with the Servants' sons and daughters at the top of the pyramid and the Witness Brothers' children next. Body language such as a bowed posture when shaking hands with Heini frequently occurred, or speech mannerisms such as the reported crooning sing-song of the Woodcrest women in conversations with Heini. I'm sure a trained Neuro-Linguistic observer could come up with an extensive list.
I view Heini Arnold as a charismatic, yet tragic, figure who projected his own personality disorder upon the Bruderhof movement. He triggered and amplified the swings from crisis to a joyful 'clearing' and then back to crisis according to his own mood swings. A sickly child, even his own father had warned against placing him in a leadership position and suggested that Heini train as an agriculturist. A Primavera 'sabra' explains:
"Eberhard was very insistent that Heini should
not be given a leadership role, that his son had emotional
difficulties. Heini had experienced 'visions' at age
twelve, which greatly worried his father. For all the
reasons that Heini later showed himself not to be a
good leader, at least in the opinion of some people,
his father said he should not take on that role. That
was my own father's view."
During Heini's growing-up, when the children were deciding what kind of game they would play, Hardi would make a good argument for going out and doing XYZ. But if Heini didn't want to do that, he would just climb up on some high beam and threaten to throw himself down to his death unless they did what he wanted. He was the baby boy of the family, he had always been coddled, he had always gotten his own way, and he always was able to get away with it by basically threatening to self-destruct. And that pattern continued all his life. Another ex-member compared Oral Roberts' "If I don't get twenty million, God will call me home" to Heini's version: "If you don't all repent, God will call me home." From the same sabra interview:
"Heini had episodes in the 'sixties and 'seventies of
real craziness. The term schizophrenia is a rubric term
that covers a whole number of not that closely related
maladies, some of which are clearly chemical in origin, and
some of which may also derive from bad cognitive habits. I
don't know what Heini's problem was, but my father had
the general sense that Heini was an addictive personality
and not in good control of himself. He tried to help Heini
out, but Heini responded ruthlessly, and at least to some
extent used the Bruderhof as a stage to act out his own
psycho-dramas. He was the bane of my father's existence,
there's absolutely no other way to put it.
"During the last twenty years of his life, Heini was
not a member of any individual bruderhof. He was the
Vorsteher. He didn't come to many meetings,
he only came to special mealtimes where he was the
guest of honor.Frequently >he lived in a little house
a few miles away from Woodcrest.
He was accorded a special status, and Annemarie
catered to the Heini worship. Very, very unhealthy.
And after she died in 1980, Heini really went over
the edge for the last two years of his life."
Quoting from his niece Miriam Arnold Holmes:
"Keep in mind that I'm not an objective bystander,
but rather an emotionally involved victim. But my
impression was basically that Heini had an uncanny
instinct for getting and keeping power. The reason I
use the word 'instinct' is because I truly believe it
was not a conscious process for him. He often did seem
depressed, but I think that was part of the game. He
gave the impression of being burdened by everyone's
'needs' which made him appear noble and saintly.
Because of this 'sadness,' and his warmth and charm,
he was able to gain incredible loyalty, especially
from the American brothers. It got to the point that
anyone who even so much as questioned Heini's
infallibility was excluded or sent away."
"During the 70's and '80's, Heini became more and
more withdrawn and isolated from the common
"I think that was a 'Wizard of Oz' ploy. How could a
group challenge a leader who is not accessible and
shielded by
such loyal and strong men? I also
think that Annemarie, always sensible and level-
headed, kept Heini from really going overboard.
"The reason people think of Heini as suffering from
a mental illness is because it is really hard to swallow
that this man would become so power-hungry and
ruthless. If he could become that way, we all could
too! It's easier to blame it on an illness, something
he had no control over.
"I like the analogy of manic-depression, but I think
that's all it should be -- an analogy. Clinically, he was
suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder
rather than a major mental illness. The reason I
believe he had a narcissistic personality disorder
is that he became increasingly more >self-indulgent.
He only ate the best food prepared separately
for him (He never ate in the dining room any more).
That's why he got so fat. He did an inordinate amount
of intercontinental traveling surrounded by his loved
ones. He was deeply impressed by his own 'wisdom'
and 'compassion.' He could do no wrong, nor could
any of his children. They received the best
educations, and the girls all married the cream of
the crop. The man was incredible -- to be able to
pull this off all under the guise of 'love!' People would
say that he had 'special needs' because he 'carried
so much.' But that's what they said about Jim Jones
in Guyana!"
Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Bhagavan Rajneesh, Jim Jones, Stephen Gaskin, Sun Myung Moon, Chuck Diedrich, the story repeats itself endlessly. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so every religious leader who enjoys absolute power over his followers develops the same character traits. Tragically, he himself becomes a victim of the role he portrays. An ex-sister recalls Heini walking into meetings surrounded by his phalanx of apostles. And to his breast-beating and cries of "It's all my fault!" they would chorus back "Oh no, you're not guilty!"
John Bradshaw defines two types of shame. Healthy shame "is essential as the ground of our spirituality. By signaling us of our essential limitations, our healthy shame lets us know that we are not God. Our healthy shame points us in the direction of some larger meaning. It lets us know that there is something or someone greater than ourselves. Our healthy shame is the psychological ground of our humility."
Toxic shame, in contrast, "gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being. Toxic shame is a rupture of the self with the self... It is like internal bleeding... Toxic shame is so excruciating because it is the painful exposure of the believed failure of self to the self. In toxic shame the self becomes an object of its own contempt... Toxic shame is experienced as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul... Toxic shame is the feeling of being isolated and alone in a complete sense. A shame-based person is haunted by a sense of absence and emptiness." Bradshaw points out that the sufferer escapes from this horror by creating a false self: "The layers of defense and pretense are so intense that one loses all awareness of who one really is."
Heini seemed aware of the problem when he spoke of "emptiness of the heart" not being enough, that the love of Jesus must fill the vacuum. But Heini himself fits Bradshaw's definition of the "shameless" individual:
"A third layer of protection against the felt sense of toxic
shame is acting "shameless." This is a common pattern for
shame-based parents, teachers, preachers of righteousness
and politicians. Acting shameless embodies several behaviors
which serve to alter the feeling of shame and to interpersonally
transfer one's toxic shame to another person... These behaviors
are all strategies of defense against the pain of toxic shame.
They are mood-altering and become addictive. These behaviors
include perfectionism, judgmentalness and moralizing, contempt,
patronization, caretaking and helping, envy, people- pleasing and
being nice. Each behavior focuses on another person and takes
the heat off oneself."
In Torches Rekindled, Merrill Mow skillfully shifts responsibility for the Primavera exodus from Heini's shoulders to those of the American Witness Brothers. Also he props up the image of Heini as the beleaguered, ever-loving, ailing Servant zealously protected by a stern American bodyguard from working himself to death in the cleansing of the unfaithful brotherhoods. The climax of the book describes an ecstatic reuniting with the Hutterite Church by means of Heini's self-abasement. Heini seems to be reliving his father Eberhard's own journey of uniting with the Hutterites, complete with a "splinted leg." By the final chapter of the book, he has been elevated to near-sainthood in the Upper Church, and the succession of his son Christoph to Vorsteher (bishop) nimbly defended.
Heini's death in 1982 was followed by a difficult year of power struggles over the succession. But after the community received a thorough scolding from a Hutterite Elder, Christoph was installed as Vorsteher. Thus the Arnold dynasty continues, although almost all ex-members whom I have interviewed agree that Christoph is not very bright. Some feel sorry for him. "I can't hurt Christoph," a Primavera sabra said. "I love him. Christoph is going to tumble one of these days, and he's going to tumble very, very badly. And I will be there when he does to help pick him up. The greatest law, the Bruderhof says, is love [although that love was once defined by a teenage Christoph as "the love that cuts like a knife." - RSB]. But the great battle my father had was that in practice it was actually love as interpreted by Heini Arnold with a German accent. That is the road of tyranny, and in some ways, Christoph is the greatest victim of this tyranny."
My sister Andrea, now Sister Benedicta in the Episcopalian Order of St. Helena, remarks: "The great example of Jesus, which is overlooked by most churches, is his teaching, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' It is so easy for any group to fall into a judgmental attitude. Everything in the world grows and flourishes with love except one thing, and that is judgment. Love diminishes judgment."
The Bruderhof would reply that anyone who took the Novice vows (or the Baptism vows) must submit to the judgment of church discipline. This means that unless the fallen-away individual seeks repentance, he must remain under the stern exclusion and judgment of the group. I would submit that the moment a Novice or a member says "I quit," he effectively has resigned and must once more be accorded the same non-judgmental respect and polite regard to which any human being is entitled. And finally, members must stop hiding behind false claims of their weakness, total unworthiness, their sinfulness, and so on. Quoting from John Bradshaw:
"One of the most insidious and toxically shaming
distortions of many religions is the denial of
secondary causality. What this means is that
according to some church doctrines, the human
will is inept. There is NOTHING man can do that
is of any validity. Of himself, man is a worm.
Only when God works through him does man
become restored to dignity. But it is never anything
that man does himself.
"The theology here is abortive of any true doctrine
of Judeo/Christianity. Most mainline interpretations
see man as having secondary causality... Man's
will is effective. In order to receive grace, man
must be willing to accept the gift of faith. After
acceptance, man's will plays a major role in the
sanctification process.
"The abortive interpretation sees man as totally
"flawed and defective. Of himself, he can only sin.
"Man is shame-
based to the core."
The Bruderhof defends its militant authoritarianism because it sees itself as living messianically outside mainstream society, as a breaking- in of the Kingdom of God from another dimension, eternity itself. In this sense it does not define itself as a church with a church's need to exist within the society at large. Instead it sees itself as The Church, the empty vessel into which the Holy Spirit can pour itself only when there is total unity within the members' hearts. Thus all efforts made to achieve and maintain this unity -- and unanimity in all decisions -- take precedence over any respect for individual rights and freedoms.
I doubt if anyone in the Bruderhof would deny the validity of that last statement, except to insist that the B'hof is not 'The Church,' although "it (The Church) has come, especially when we were broken and poor before God and empty of our own ideas." In a letter quoted in Torches Rekindled, Heini states: "We are definitely not democratic, since we believe in a King, and our surrender must be without limitation." Also in the pamphlet Living In Community, A Way To True Brotherhood, by Heini and Annemarie Arnold, published by the Plough Publishing House in 1974:
""The Bruderhof demands the whole man. To
"show what we mean, we quote the satanic words
of Adolf Hitler: 'In this one thing we are like the
early Christians: we demand the whole personality.'"
When Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, he also states that "The Kingdom of God is within." I wonder if the attempt to externalize the Kingdom of God into an intentional community is not at the root of the Society of Brothers' problem? A shame-based person or group cannot 'go inside themselves' because it's just too painful. I quote from John Bradshaw's seminar on religious addiction:
"If I'm flawed as a human being, then I always
live 'out there.' What that means is that I can't
generate my own feelings of worth from within.
A healthy person can generate their own feelings
of worth from within. A co-dependent person '
needs someone on the outside to validate them.
You're not okay unless your husband loves you.
You're not okay unless everybody likes you...
You don't know how to generate your own
thoughts, your own feelings, from within. It's
a deeply spiritual disorder in the sense that a
person has no inner life. Co-dependents have
no inner life. Co-dependents become, in Terry
Kellog's phrase, 'human doings' rather than 'human
beings.' That is why I can't go in, I can't self-reflect.
It's too painful in there. I'm flawed and defective
as a human being. I can't go in there. I've got to
stay out here and perform and achieve. I'm
always being measured by my performance and
If Jesus came back today, I doubt that he would set up 'The Kingdom of God,' but instead something like 'The Democracy of The Holy Spirit.' After all, 2000 years ago, kingdoms were the norm, with few exceptions. What else could he call it then? I doubt very much that he would wield the absolute power of a despot. Whether or not one believes in the Second Coming and the Kingdom of God, every attempt to act out the myth, to set it up in advance, so to speak, must wreck itself upon those frailties to which we humans are invariably prone: absolutism, authoritarianism, all the extremisms.
The antidotes to totalitarianism are the democratic freedoms that humankind everywhere cherishes. But these are the exact ones which the Bruderhof rejects, even the brightest star in democracy's crown, the secret ballot. Why? Because as I mentioned earlier, although it bears repeating, 'The Church' is only present when the brotherhood is in 'unanimous consent.' The Bruderhof believes that all attempts to live in community by our own human efforts will fail, and only through the rulership of the Holy Spirit can it be achieved. Tragically, from most ex-members' testimony, the spirit that rules the Bruderhof is not the Holy Spirit. It is the cultic spirit of mind control and psychological abuse by the hierarchy.
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