Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 17, 1867

Mennonites Accept and Contest Military Service in the German East: A Sesquicentennial Series

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Mennonites were dragged into a raucous debate over the draft in the most important German parliament of the day. This debate was the first in a series of unusual sesquicentennial events in Mennonite history that will occur over the next six months. In addition to parliamentary debates on October 17 and 18, 1867, a Mennonite delegation lobbied politicians in Berlin in late October, Mennonites in the Vistula River valley became subject to the draft on November 9, 1867, another round of lobbying, including a meeting with King William I occurred in February 1868, and they were granted, and for the most part accepted, non-combatant status on March 3, 1868. A series of blog entries will mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of each of these events on the exact date over the next six months.1

Following a quick war between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866, victorious Prussia formed a North German Confederation by annexing some of the northern German states that had fought on Austria’s side and forcing the others to join the new polity. Along with Austria, only the three southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside this new German entity. By 1871, those three states had joined to form the German Empire. Elections for a new Confederation parliament were held on August 31, 1867, after Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the Kingdom of Prussia and the new Chancellor of the Confederation, had a special assembly approve the constitution he wrote for it.

1.1 paragraph 1Since the individual states retained control over most domestic institutions, the military was the main focus of the Confederation’s constitution, budget, and laws. During the inaugural legislative period of the parliament of the North German Confederation, the government proposed a law regulating the length and types of military service. The opening paragraph made provisions for three classes of citizens who should be exempted. The first was the members of the ruling families of the North German states, including the Hohenzollern family of Prussia, with the King of Prussia serving as commander-in-chief of the combined forces. The second category was for the ruling families whose territories had been annexed by Prussia in 1866 or driven from power by Napoleon in 1806. State treaties exempted these families from the draft. The third category was for those Quakers and Mennonites who were currently exempt. Whatever current arrangements obtained were to be extended and carried over into the new state.2

The government offered two reasons for including the Mennonites. The exemption was an expression of tolerance demonstrated by long-standing legal arrangements. Secondly, it dealt with an exceedingly small group of people considering the state as a whole.3 By far the largest group in this category were the 12,000 Mennonites in the Prussian east living along the Vistula River. Since 1830 Mennonites in the Prussian west were exempted if they paid an additional 3 percent income tax and refrained from buying real estate from non-Mennonites. If a territory in North German Confederation did not yet have a law dealing with Mennonites and Quakers, the government proposal was to apply that 1830 standard outlined for the Prussian west.

Starting on Thursday, October 17, 1867, the parliament debated this new military service law, attempting to standardize practices between the various states in the Confederation. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the acting Minister of War, Theophil von Podbielski, were among those seated at the table in front representing the states of the confederation. The most serious issue was the length of army service. The government wanted soldiers to serve three years on active duty while members of parliament on the left accused the government of using that lengthy service to create a force loyal enough to the crown that it could be used against domestic rebellion, as had been the case less than twenty years earlier during the revolutionary events of 1848 and 1849.4

1.2 Kryger, Hans Andersen

Hans Andersen Kryger

The debates over universal military service itself were acrimonious. Before the parliament took up the specifics of particular exemptions, they shouted down two proponents of wide-scale exemptions. Hans Andersen Kryger represented the northern most tip of the Confederation where Danes were the majority. He did not want his people drafted at all since they did not even want to be in this state. When he claimed that he could not acknowledge the legitimacy of the constitution, his speech was cut off.5

 

A subsequent speaker, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, went even further. He argued that the entire army should be abolished and replaced with a militia of armed citizens, as in Switzerland. He accused the army of being an instrument of oppression of the people, not their defender. When he prophesied the imminent demise of the Confederation and denounced it as a fig leaf of authoritarianism, he was removed from the lectern.6 He was followed by the other founder of the Social Democratic Party, August Bebel. He and Liebknecht were the only two Socialists in the parliament and the first Socialists elected to such high positions on a national stage. Bebel reiterated the call for a militia and for serving only three months of active duty instead of three years. He noted that such a long term of service meant that only a small portion of the male population would ever be drafted due to a lack of money and capacity in the army to handle everyone for such long times. Thus the majority was going to be de facto exempted. He was at least allowed to finish his speech.7

1.5 Leopold_von_Hoverbeck_portrait_1878

Leopold von Hoverbeck, 1878

The specific debate on the Mennonite exemption was opened by Baron Leopold von Hovenbeck, who was a left liberal, a co-founder of the German Progressive Party, and had been a member of the commission assigned to work through the many proposals for amendments, which explains his deeper knowledge of the topic.8 He mocked the idea of calling these Mennonites “pious and non-resistant.” Instead these knaves knew that “their military exemption had significant material rewards,” namely while they paid 15 silver dimes [probably less than a week’s wages] annually per head for their exemption, their neighbors who had to compete with them were gone for three years. When they returned home, they could not afford to farm next to Mennonites who had gotten richer. “Gentlemen, this piety has an economic foundation,” he asserted. Furthermore, it was not even true that Mennonites were forbidden to serve in the military. Napoleon had made them serve as non-combatants, he claimed, and he pointed as well to a petition sent in by Mennonite pastor Carl Harder, formerly of Königsberg and Elbing, currently Neuwied, who had long argued that Mennonites could serve as regular soldiers or non-combatants, as in fact most did in the west of Prussia.9

1.6-harder

Carl Harder

Harder’s petition tellingly was titled “Seeking the Removal of Mennonites’ Military Service Exemption in Exchange for Recognition as Independent Congregations.”10 Since Harder had long accepted military service, at least for non-combatants, he was interested in leveraging this acceptance into removing remaining discriminatory laws and shoring up Mennonite distinctives in other areas. His proposal was to remove the exemption and to require and allow Mennonites to serve as medics, clerks, or artisans in the army. In exchange, Mennonites should be allowed to buy real estate, incorporate their congregations so that they could register the deeds to their church buildings, and give affirmations instead of swearing oaths. The petition was sent to the king on May 30, 1867, forwarded by his staff to the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft, on June 19, and made available to the committee that work on the military service law, or perhaps even more widely, by the government.11 The fact that more progressive Mennonites had already accepted military service both as active duty or as non-combatants made traditionalists look hypocritical to Hoverbeck and other parliamentarians and he beat the traditionalists rhetorically with a stick provided by their progressive brethren. Continued debate on the topic would bring more of the same the next day.

See Other Posts in this Series


  1.  For overviews see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 191-228; and “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1880-1890, Mennonite Life, Vol. 58, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/ 
  2.  The parliament printed word-for-word protocols of their debates that were bounded in volumes and are now available on a website dedicated to the protocols of all the modern German parliaments. The government’s proposed military service law is here, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00061.html 
  3.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00063.html 
  4.  On Podbielski, see Mennonite German Soldiers, 199, on the larger issues, ibid., 193-4. 
  5.   Ibid., 195, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00471.html 
  6.   Starting on http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00476.html and continuing two more pages. 
  7.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00479.html and continuing on the next page. 
  8.  https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz33979.html#adbcontent, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00157.html 
  9.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00483.html 
  10.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00128.html 
  11.  The petition is in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Hauptabteilung I, Repositur 77 (Innenministerium), Titel 31 (Mennonitensachen), Nr. 2 (staatsbürgerliche Verhältnisse der Mennoniten), vol. 9 (1862-1869), 220-1. See also Mennonite German Soldiers, 194n11 and on Harder’s intriguing career generally, ibid., 174-181. Asking for the right to affirm instead of swearing oaths was available to Prussian Mennonites since 1827. Since Neuwied had become part of Prussia in 1815, they should have had this right as well, making Harder’s request here a bit odd. Perhaps he was simply wanted the privilege reaffirmed, ibid., 267.  

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