Five Mennonite Elders Meet with Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, Oct. 24, 1867

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

The passage on Friday, October 18, 1867, of the military service law of the North German Confederation explicitly stripped Mennonites in Prussia of their exemption and led to an immediate response from Mennonite leadership in an attempt to restore it. Six days later, on Thursday, October 24, five Elders from the rural Vistula Delta congregations were in the office of the Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, seeking his support for reinstatement. The encounter led to a lengthy theological discussion over the nature of salvation and won the Mennonites a long-term supporter at the highest level of government in what turned out, however, to be a futile project. Von Roon might have been the last Minister of War to engage Mennonites theologically anywhere, an interesting measure of changes in both governments and Mennonites since then, if true.

3.1 penner

Elder Gerhard Penner

Mennonites found out about the October 18 vote the same day. Wilhelm von Brauchitsch, the representative from Elbing-Marienburg district, which had the highest percentage of Mennonite voters anywhere in German lands, telegraphed Elder Gerhard Penner of the Heubuden congregation to relay the news. For unknown reasons he was not in the chamber that day during the debates, but obviously knew about the vote. He advised the Mennonites to send a delegation to Berlin immediately to lobby the Bundesrat, the council of ruling princes in the Confederation that served as the second legislative body, to veto or amend the law. Von Brauchitsch was possibly so solicitous of traditionalist Mennonite concerns because while voting had only come to Prussia in 1848, Mennonites had not taken to the ballot box in large numbers until the 1860s and voted overwhelmingly for the conservative von Brauchistsch, even though the liberals ran a Mennonite named Warkentin from Königsberg against him.1

Five Elders were selected at a meeting of the wider leadership held on Wednesday in the village of Koczelitzki, and they left immediately on the train to Berlin. This village was the home of Gerhard Penner, the acknowledged leader of the rural congregations and the most ardent opponent of military service, so presumably the meeting was at his house. He was appointed part of the delegation and was joined by Johann Toews, Ladekopp, Johann Wiebe, Fürstenwerder, Peter Bartel, Gruppe, and Johann Penner, Thiensdorf. Upon arrival, they checked into the Hotel Alexander Großfürst at Friedrich St. 57, likely close to intersection with Leipziger Street. All the important offices of government would have been within reach of a ten-minute walk. They went to visit a friend, Guthke, who worked in the trade ministry. He was a “believer” who was always helpful in explaining the political situation to them and in making connections. Many of the rural congregations would have had a strong interest in missions and an affinity for Pietism, so making connections with Lutheran Pietists was common.

On the morning of the 24th the delegation went first to visit von Brauchitsch, who got them into the Reichstag, which took up deliberations starting at 11:20 am. The delegation then listened for a couple of hours to debates and votes on fees in the postal system and sea-borne trade with Italy. The Chancellor of the North German Confederation and of the Kingdom of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, was not in the house that day.2

Von Brauchitsch had arranged for them to meet with Minister of War von Roon at 2 p.m., where they were received warmly. Johann Toews explained their situation and asked that the minister make it possible for their exemption to be restored. Von Roon told them that changing the law was not something he could do, but he thought an arrangement could nonetheless be worked out and encouraged them not to lose heart. He then continued by suggesting that Mennonites could agree to work as medics in the army. Both sides would give a little and things could work out fine that way. Peter Bartel asked if medics had to wear sidearms, which von Roon affirmed. Although they would not be firing them, they had to wear them to honor the king, Bartel recounts von Roon as clarifying. Bartel replied that in such a case Mennonites would have to humbly decline to serve in the military since carrying weapons was against their beliefs.3

3.2 Albrecht Graf von Roon

Prussian war minister Albrecht Graf von Roon

This assertion led to a lengthy theological conversation over non-resistance. Finally von Roon grabbed Bartel’s coat lapel between two fingers and asked him, “So what do you think of me, since I carry weapons in war, regarding my salvation?” Compelled to reply, Bartel said, “We think about that the way Paul described the issue of eating meat offered to idols in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul told them to feel free to buy any meat offered in the market, but when they are told that the meat had been offered to idols, they should not buy it, for it will be accounted to them as sin. That is how we think about waging war. We have learned with our mother’s milk, so to speak, and been taught by our parents and spiritual leaders, that according to God’s Word going to war is a sin. So for us it has become a matter of conscience and if we go to war it will be accounted to us as sin. You, your Excellence, and others like you, have been taught with your mother’s milk that going to war is defending your fatherland and a holy duty, so that it is not idol worship for you. Therefore it will not be counted as sin for you and your comrades.”

“So you will allow me into heaven,” von Roon replied, which Bartel and the others affirmed. Von Roon assured them he was satisfied with their answer and would do what he could to help them out. He thought something could be worked out and shook their hands before dismissing them.4

Although Bartel’s account of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8 was somewhat garbled, it was typical of these conservative rural elders that they argued directly from the Bible and not from current politics, philosophical ideas, or the issue of human rights and preserving their religious freedom. Equally striking is a minister of war who is concerned, at least on the face of it, of getting into heaven. The delegation spent a little time sightseeing in the capital the next day and a couple hours listening to parliamentary debates before returning home that day yet. Since von Roon had told them nothing could be done, they did not linger any longer.

Unfortunately for Mennonite interests, Bismarck quickly shepherded the law through the Bundesrat, not wanting to leave opportunity for amendments of any kind.5 The final step would be to secure the signature of the king, which happened on November 9, setting the stage for the next event in moving Mennonites closer to military service and the next sesquicentennial blog post.

See Other Posts in this Series


  1. For a general overview, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 193-200. Additional specific details are taken from H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 99-100. 
  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. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00643.html 
  3.  Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 71. See also Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 196-7. On Bartel, see ibid., 196n20. 
  4. Ibid., 71-2. 
  5.  H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung,” 100. 

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