Pavlo Skoropadsky, head of the Ukrainian State, (considered by most historians as a puppet regime)
lost the support of the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary, which had armed his forces and installed him in power) after the collapse of the German western front. Unpopular among most southern Ukrainians, the Hetman saw his best forces evaporate, and
was driven out of Kiev by the Directory. In March 1918,
Makhno's forces and allied anarchist and guerrilla groups won victories against German, Austrian, and Ukrainian nationalist (the army of Symon Petlura) forces,
and units of the White Army, capturing a lot of German and Austro-Hungarian arms. These victories over much larger enemy forces established Hetman Makhno's reputation as a military tactician; he became known as Batko (‘Father’) to his admirers.
At this point, the emphasis on military campaigns that Makhno had adopted in the
previous year shifted to political concerns. The first Congress of the Confederation of Anarchists Groups, under the name of Nabat ("the Alarm Drum"), issued five
main principles: rejection of all political parties, rejection of all forms of dictatorships (including the dictatorship of the proletariat, viewed by Makhnovists and many anarchists of the day as a term synonymous with the dictatorship of the Bolshevik communist party), negation of any concept of a central state, rejection of a so-called "transitional
period" necessitating a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and self-management of all workers through free local workers' councils (soviets). While the Bolsheviks argued that their concept of dictatorship of the proletariat meant precisely "rule by
workers' councils," the Makhnovist platform opposed the "temporary" Bolshevik measure of "party dictatorship." The Nabat was by no means a puppet of Mahkno and his supporters, from time to time criticizing the Black Army and its conduct in the war.
In 1918, after recruiting large numbers of Ukrainian
peasants, as well as numbers of Jews, anarchists, naletchki, and recruits arriving from other countries, Makhno formed the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, otherwise known as the Anarchist Black Army. At its formation, the Black Army consisted of about 15,000 armed troops, including infantry and cavalry (both regular and
irregular) brigades; artillery detachments were incorporated into each regiment. From November 1918 to June 1919, using the Black Army to secure its hold on power, the Makhnovists attempted to create an anarchist society in Ukraine, administered at the local
level by autonomous peasants' and workers' councils.
New relationships and values were generated by this new social paradigm, which led Makhnovists to formalize the policy of free communities as the highest form of social justice. Education was organized on Francisco Ferrer's principles, and the economy was based upon free exchange between rural and urban communities, from crop and cattle to manufactured products, according to the science proposed by Peter Kropotkin.
Makhno called the Bolsheviks dictators and opposed the "Cheka [secret police]... and similar compulsory authoritative and disciplinary institutions" and called for "[f]reedom of speech, press,
assembly, unions and the like". The Bolsheviks, in turn, accused the Makhnovists of imposing a formal government over the
area they controlled, and also said that Makhnovists used forced conscription, committed summary
executions, and had two military and counter-intelligence forces: the Kontrrazvedka, with punitive functions transferred in 1920 to the Kommissiya Protivmakhnovskikh Del (Commission for Anti-Makhnovist Activities).
The Bolsheviks claimed that it would be impossible for a small, agricultural society to organize into an anarchist society so quickly. However, Eastern Ukraine had a large amount of coal mines, and was one of the most industrialised parts of the Russian Empire.
As a revolutionary peasant leader Makhno has been called a "colourful personality" and his career "legendary". However, in the view of the German and Mennonite communities
in Ukraine, he was considered as an instigator of military ravages against innocent farmers and an "inhuman monster whose path is literally drenched with blood." He is consistently
referred to as a terrorist or bandit in Mennonite literature. At the age of 11 Makhno began working as an ox drover on the Janzen estate in Silberfeld. Here he began to develop a hatred for the ruling classes. In his memoirs he writes: "At this time I began
to experience anger, envy and even hatred towards the landowner [Janzen] and especially towards his children – those young slackers who often strolled past me sleek and healthy, well-dressed, well-groomed and scented; while I was filthy, dressed in rags,
barefoot, and reeked of manure from cleaning the calves' barn." Makhno also worked at the Mennonite owned Kroeger plant in Gulyai-Polye.
Throughout the civil war, Mahkno and his troops raided many German and
Mennonite colonies and estates in the Katerynoslav
Oblast. The larger rural landholdings of Mennonites were prominent targets due to their wealth and proximity to Gulyai-Polye. The Schönfeld colony, located adjacent to the Huliaipole area, was unique in that it consisted predominantly of Mennonite estate settlements across an expansive
area. Mennonite colonies were targeted by Makhno because, as owners of prosperous farms and estates, they were considered kulaks – wealthy farmers that exploited the labour of the surrounding, mostly Ukrainian, peasantry. Ukrainians were traditionally
hired by wealthy Mennonites as house servants and farmhands.
While prohibited by their religion from serving in the Tsar's army, many Mennonites had assisted the Russian war effort by performing national service in non-fighting roles, notably forestry and medical
units. The Mennonites' Germanic background also served to inflame negative sentiment during the period of revolution, as many Makhnovists had families who had suffered under the German-Austro-Hungarian occupation in 1918. Makhno's own brother, Emelian –
a disabled war veteran – was murdered and his mother's home burned to the ground by the occupation. The Mennonites themselves, having been stripped of their wealth and
property during the revolution, embraced the occupation who promised to re-establish them as landowners. Some Mennonites accompanied punitive detachments against the peasantry, which greatly contributed to the growing bitterness between Mennonites and Ukrainians.
In October 1918, Austro-Hungarian forces and "German colonists" burned down the pro-Makhnovist village of Bolshe-Mikholaivka and murdered many of its inhabitants. Makhno responded with a sustained campaign of retribution against
German/Mennonite colonies and estates. At the same time Makhno voiced his opposition to the indiscriminate slaughter of the colonists and established "ground rules" for occupying the colonies. Throughout 1918 a total of 96 Mennonites were killed in the Schönfeld-Brasol area. By the winter 1918–1919 most residents of the Schönfeld colony had
fled to the relative safety of the Molotschna colony.
While under German occupation, the Mennonites had been encouraged to form self-defence (Selbstschutz) units. Mennonite youth were trained and armed under the supervision of German officers. Breaking with nearly four centuries of pacifism, tacit approval of the Selbstschutz was given by the Mennonite leadership at the Lichtenau
Conference [June 30- July 2, 1918]. Intended exclusively for the defence of the colony, with the arrival of General Denikin's White Volunteer Army the Selbstschutz was gradually drawn into offensive
operations against Makhno. Later in the civil war some Mennonites also formed ethnic battalions within the White Army. The Selbstschutz was initially successful in protecting their communities against Makhno's partisans but was overwhelmed once the anarchists aligned themselves with the Red Army, which had entered Ukraine in February 1919.The Mennonites of the Molotschna colony were under joint Makhnovist-Red occupation until the Whites broke through the southern front in May 1919.
Following Makhno's devastating attack on Denikin's rear guard in September–October 1919, the Mennonite colonies
found themselves once more under Makhnovist occupation. The year 1919 saw the greatest number of Mennonites killed – some 827 or 67% of all Mennonite civil war deaths. The great majority of these occurred between October and December. During this period
major massacres occurred in Eichenfeld (Yazykovo), Blumenort (Molotschna), Steinfeld and Ebenfeld (Borozenko) and Münsterberg (Zagradovka) while under the administrative control of the Makhnovists. The Chortitza colony also suffered
a great degree of death and robbery. Despite ongoing debate and investigation into Makhno's personal culpability for the massacres, there is currently no evidence he was present
at or sanctioned these actions. According to the research of Peter Letkemann 3,336 Russian Mennonites, or three percent of their total population, died between 1914 and 1923.
Ninety-six percent of these deaths occurred in Ukraine.