King William I Signs the Military Service Law, Imposing the Draft on Mennonites, Nov. 9, 1867

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

4.1 Wilhelm I

William I, King of Prussia

On November 9, 1867, William I, King of Prussia, signed the military service law of the North German Confederation in his capacity as Confederation head of state. He was also commander-in-chief of the combined military services. Mennonites were now subject to the draft with no obvious alternative outside of emigration. The parliament and the government had both agreed that religious freedom did not extend to the duty of military service since equality before the law was a more important principle. In addition, many leaders saw military service as an issue on which national unity between the peoples of the different German states could be built. A caricature of Prussian and North German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the satirical newspaper Kladderadatsch under the Latin title that roughly translates “misery loves company” showed Bismarck as a cooper making a cask out of the “boards” of the former German states. They would be bound together by common laws mostly of Prussian origin, including the Prussian Military Service Law (Wehrgesetz). Mennonites were thus caught up in a much larger project of German nation-building on the foundations of culture, militarism, and nationalism that they only dimly understood.1

4.2 Wilhelm Scholtz Misery loves company

Wilhelm Scholtz, “Misery loves company”

The signing day itself did not play a role in the Mennonites’ initial reaction. In fact, Peter Bartel’s account of the efforts of five rural Vistula Delta elders to maintain an exemption does not mention the date at all. His account jumps from the elder’s departure from Berlin on October 25 after their initial lobbying effort failed to February 17, 1868, when their local representative in parliament, Wilhelm von Brauchitsch, alerted them to the need to return to Berlin to try lobbying again.2 The next post on February 20 will take up their efforts. There are indications that the traditionalist Mennonites did not fully understand the law-making process under the relatively new constitution of 1850 for Prussia, or the one written just that year for the North German Confederation.3 The date is also not mentioned in H.G. Mannhardt’s account of these events published in 1919, where he noted instead failed petition efforts on November 4 and December 26.4

November 9 is mentioned in the executive order of March 3, 1868, that will mark the end of this series of posts. This order created a special category of noncombatant for Mennonites in the Prussian army. It noted that the law went into effect on November 9, so after that time Mennonites would have had reason to note the date. The first major Mennonite newspaper article to speak approvingly of the law was published in August 1868 and erroneously dated the entire parliamentary debate and royal signing all to that particular day.5

German historians, of course, will not be surprised to hear that after 1919 mention of November 9 is highlighted by some Mennonites. In addition to the imposition of the draft dating from this day in 1867, five other major events of modern Germany history fall on this day, making it the most important non-holiday on the German calendar. Less noticed at the time was the first event, the execution in 1848 of Robert Blum, an important leader of the Frankfurt National Assembly in Vienna. The second event was a naval mutiny and Social Democratic revolution in 1918 that toppled the Imperial government two days before the armistice ending World War I went into effect. In response to what they considered the ignominy of that event, Nazis staged first a failed revolution on that date in 1923 and then instigated a massive Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht in 1938. The Berlin Wall was forced open by demonstrators on November 9, 1989, signaling the end of Communist rule in East Germany and paving the way for German unification in 1991. The overabundance of history on this day prevented it from becoming a new holiday, so that October 3, the date of formal unification, is the official holiday marking events of 1989.6

The first time H. G. Mannhardt wrote about these events after the end of the Great War he did the equivalent of italicizing the date November 9, 1867.7 His earlier article was likely written before the end of the war and the Socialist revolution of 1918. Writing the history of his own congregation, where he reflected on the bitter German defeat, the date apparently had new meaning for him as a German nationalist who would have seen the revolutionary events of November 1918 as treason. How should we think about and commemorate this day in 1867 when Mennonites were both subjected to the draft and an important step closer to whole-hearted inclusion as good citizens in the German nation? Is it a matter of indifference or sadness, a marker of continuing oppression and illiberality, or time of relief or even joy? Where, how, and if Mennonites fit into this or that nation remain interesting and important questions to ponder.



  1. For a general overview, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 191-218. 
  2. 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), 72. 
  3. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 100-102, Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 196-200. 
  4. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung,” 100-101. 
  5. Available in English at See also my accompanying introduction at
  6. “Der 9. November in der deutschen Geschichte,” Bundeszentrale Für politische Bildung 
  7.   H. G. Mannhardt’s The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919, trans. Viktor G. Doerksen, ed. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen (North Newton, Kansas: Bethel College, 2007), 198. 

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