Mennonite Elders Meet with Minister of Interior Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, Head of the Ministry That Administers the Draft, February 20, 1868

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

With the passage of the military service law in the North German Confederation and its signing on November 9, most government officials and more than a few Mennonites considered the issue of the draft settled. In the interests of equality before the law, Mennonites would have to serve. However, a large portion of the Mennonite leadership and a majority of Mennonites at this point were not ready to give up. After unleashing a flurry of petitions to various government officials that largely went unanswered, the votes in both houses of the Prussian parliament in February 1868 to revoke the collective tax that Mennonites had paid since 1773 served as a platform for politicians who supported Mennonites and Mennonite leaders to continue to make their case for restoring their exemption. Since democracy had stripped Mennonites of their exemption as bestowed by kings, they took their case to the king and his ministers and to conservative politicians, but not to the court of public opinion, which was decisively set against them.1

Already on Thursday, February 13, the lower house of the Prussian parliament debated the government’s proposed budget that eliminated the Mennonite tax. Wilhelm von Brauchitsch represented the heavily Mennonite district of Elbing both in the Prussian parliament and the North German Confederation. He quoted the 1780 Mennonite Charter of Privilege at length and asked that this privilege be respected. Carl Twesten, a member of the National Liberal Party, countered that federal law trumped Prussian law and that the matter was already settled. Other representatives debated the merits of making compromises for solid citizens who might otherwise emigrate and noted that Mennonites were internally divided on the issue, since Mennonite requests had reached the house asking for military service to be imposed. The house voted to remove the tax on Mennonites in recognition of their service now. Since the debate would next be taken up in the House of Lords, von Brauchitsch wired the Mennonite leadership that they should come to Berlin to seek to influence official policy at this crucial juncture.2

The same five Elders who had been Berlin in October 1867 returned now, Gerhard Penner, Heubuden, Johann Toews, Ladekopp, Johann Wiebe, Fürstenwerder, Peter Bartel, Gruppe, and Johann Penner, Thiensdorf. They arrived in Berlin on February 18 and spend most of the next day trying to set up meetings with various ministers. The key meeting was with Hermann Wagener, a confidant of Bismarck’s who encouraged them to pay the collective tax no matter what and then sue the government for violation of their legal privilege. The morning of February 20 was likewise spent lining up additional meetings for subsequent days.3

Their efforts to meet powerful officials paid its first dividend on Thursday, February 20, at 2 pm when they met with Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, the Minister of the Interior. In the Prussian government it was this agency that oversaw the draft. Right up front he told them that there was no chance of changing their draft status. Peter Bartel saw him as sympathetic since he did not want to see them emigrate and promised to work at getting them an audience with the king. Zu Eulenburg also reported that he had written Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War, asking if noncombatant medic status might be possible. Even that was more than the law currently allowed and would be a good deal for Mennonites in zu Eulenberg’s view.4

Peter Bartel’s account of sympathy from the Interior Minister does not reflect zu Eulenburg’s actual position, leaving us to wonder if Bartel was deliberately misled or simply grasping at straws in any half-way positive remark the minister made. Behind the scenes zu Eulenburg was one of the least flexible cabinet ministers, pushing hard in a memorandum to the Ministry of War for not allowing any exemption beyond noncombatant service for Mennonites at a time when von Roon seemed to agree with the Mennonites that their Charter of Privilege was inviolable. The more conservative von Roon was happy to uphold royal privilege and support the Mennonites while the less conservative zu Eulenburg favored equality before the law although he made exceptions to the draft for other, better-connected people than Mennonites.5

Perhaps the most important meeting of the day for the Mennonites was the one they failed to organize. At 4 p.m. they tried to get an audience with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who von Brauchitsch had suggested was against their cause. Their meeting with Bismarck’s friend Hermann Wagener had given them more hope, but they could not get in to see the great man. Here again it is not clear why Bartel seemed to harbor false hopes. The report from their own representative had been accurate, Bismarck was opposed to Mennonites’ exemption, dooming their project from the start unless the king could be brought to take on his own chancellor.6

All in all, a discouraging day. Perhaps the five Mennonite farmers wandering the halls of power took consolation in the sermon they heard at a chapel service in the Moravian Brethren church that day, a Pietist denomination with which most of these five would have felt an affinity. Perhaps they, like us, pondered how to keep the faith in a world bent on preparing for war. The next day would bring a meeting with the Acting Minister of War and another raucous debate on Mennonites in a Prussian parliament, this time in the House of Lords.7


  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), 26-33, 191-218. 
  2.   The debates are from the Stenographische Berichte, February, 13, 1868, 1580-3. On Mennonite divisions see The summons from von Brauchitsch is in 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.   Ibid., 72-3. 
  4.   Ibid., 73-4. 
  5.   Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 199-200, 212-7. 
  6.   Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 72-74, Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 200. 
  7.   Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 79. 

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