Mennonite Elders Meet Acting Minister of War Podbielski While the House of Lords Debates Their Special Tax, February 21, 1868

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

Although Mennonites would be the subject of two different debates in the Prussian House of Lords during the Elders’ stay in Berlin, they concentrated on meeting cabinet ministers, the crown prince, and the king instead of lobbying members of Parliament. Accordingly, on this day one hundred and fifty years ago, they met with three cabinet members while conservatives in the House of Lords were arguing for reinstating their exemption as a way to pursue pro-monarchist political goals.

They first met at 9 a.m. with Heinrich von Mühler, Minister of Culture, whose agency had oversight of education and the churches. Their conversation was apparently short, with Peter Bartel reporting only that they heard the same story from him, that they were unlikely to escape the clutches of the military service law.1 The minister had dealt with Mennonite matters before, so their concerns were not new to him, but he stood more with the nationalists than with the monarchists who were Mennonites’ best allies.2

6.1 August_von_der_Heydt_(1801–1874)

August von der Heydt (1801–1874)

By 10 a.m. they were in the offices of the Minister of Finance, August von der Heydt. Bartel noted frankly that “he was very solidly against us.” He saw no way around Mennonites adjusting their scruples to accept military service. He tried to comfort them with the story of his own mother, who had her own scruples against sending her sons to the military. She had even gone to see the king to ask that they be exempted, but to no avail. With time she got over her reservations and he hoped the Mennonites would as well. He was from a Reformed family and had attended a Moravian Brethren high school in Neuwied, a city with a prominent Mennonite congregation, so he likely also knew about the group before meeting them. Nonetheless, as a staunch liberal, equality before the law would have been his guiding principle.3

6.2 Eugen_anton_theophil_von_podbielski

Eugen Anton Theophil von Podbielski

The next meeting at 11 a.m. took them to the offices of Acting Minister of War Theophil von Podbielski. Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war who had engaged Mennonites in a lengthy theological discussion during their visit in October, was on an extended leave due to illness. The Acting Minister assured them he had been informed about their case. He said arrangements would be made to take care of them and that he thought they would find the solution acceptable. He added that Prussian Mennonites “would not have faced such serious challenges if we would have been united in living out our faith instead of being splintered apart by so many internal divisions.” He mentioned that it was particularly difficult for the Mennonites’ case that several petitions from “our people (or nation)” (Volk) had arrived “asking that we be subjected to the draft.”4

The use of the word Volk here, meaning both people and nation, by the Acting Minister of War to describe Mennonites was not uncommon either for officials or for Mennonites themselves.  The lines between peoples and nations were not drawn as tightly at this point in multi-ethnic Prussia as they would be later. Yet the term does suggest the ambiguity that both Mennonites and officials felt in this encounter over whether Mennonites were willing to give their highest allegiance to Germany, or to put it differently, which “people” were really their “people.”

The petitions from Mennonites asking to be drafted that von Podbielski referred to could have included the one dated May 30, 1867, from Mennonite Pastor Carl Harder in Neuwied, mentioned in the first two posts in this series. In addition, already on April 11, 1867, the church council of the Mennonite congregation in Emden had petitioned that they be allowed to fulfill all the duties and enjoy all the rights of other Prussian citizens.5 Emden was part of the Kingdom of Hanover, which had been annexed to Prussia in 1866, and the Mennonites there strongly preferred military service to facing extra taxes or restrictions on buying real estate. On August 7, 1866, a number of landowners from the Vistula Delta, apparently both Mennonites and non-Mennonites, made a similar appeal to the House of Lords, which rejected their petition at that time.6 One can perhaps sympathize with officials who, when presented with conflicting demands from Mennonites, decided not to take them too seriously.

On this day there was also a lively debate in the House of Lords over accepting the proposed budget for the kingdom. One of the sticking points was striking the communal tax Mennonites had paid for their military exemption from the income side. One of the Mennonites’ most fervent supporters in this debate was Adolf Senfft von Pilsach, who was well-connected to the royal family and also had talked with the elders.7 Peter Bartel did not record meeting him until later in their trip, raising the question of how complete his account is.8

Senfft-Pilsach in any case started his lengthy intervention on behalf of the Mennonites with recounting an anecdote from his conversation with them. “When their delegation visited me in order to impress the seriousness of the matter on my heart, all of them peasants, one of them asked me, ‘Do you really think that our King and Lord no longer has the power to uphold the Charter of Privileges that his forefathers granted us?’” Senfft-Pilsach went on to cast the matter as a serious issue of conscience best left to the king. He also reported that he had asked if they would not be willing to serve as non-combatants. The reply was that once the Charter was violated, their position would depend on the whimsy of the Minister of War at the time, not law. The Mennonites concluded that “if the power of the state is so great that it can ignore a legally binding Charter, it will not hesitate to step over this much lower barrier as well.”9 Events soon proved these traditionalist peasants to be astute observers of nationalist politics.

Finance Minister von der Heydt, who had just spoken to the Mennonites that morning, was the main speaker in favor of revoking the Mennonite tax. In his comments he also gave his own, quite different, account of their meeting. He opened by noting that he had assured the Mennonites that ending the payment of the tax would not prejudice the final decision on whether their Charter was still valid, but since they were not exempted from the military any longer, he thought it would be an injustice for them to continue paying it. “I did, however, tell them that if they feel bound by conscience to pay the tax, I would be willing to accept it.” This comment provoked laughter from the lords.

Von der Heydt hastened to add that he thought the matter serious and had only hoped to be accommodating. He said he had told them paying the tax now was an injustice, but if they wanted to pay it voluntarily, he would ask for royal permission to do so. He concluded that he did not want to get anywhere close to supporting the Mennonites’ wishes and that the tax should be revoked.10 At the end of the session, the budget of 159,757,064 Thaler without the Mennonite tax of 5, 600 Thaler was accepted by a wide margin.11 Mennonites had lost this symbolic battle, but a specific petition to reinstate their exemption would be debated the next day while the elders visited Justice Minister Adolf Leonhardt.

6.3 Book Illustration based on photo by Wangemann

Book Illustration based on photo by Wangemann

The spiritual component of this day was listening to Berlin Mission Society Director Hermann Wangemann preach in the Andreas Church on the natives of Africa (Kaffern).12 The church was on Andreas Street near what is now the East Train Station, but was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II and the ruins were removed by the Communist government of East Germany. Most of these Elders would have been active supporters of the Danzig Mission Society, a related organization, explaining their interest in this particular church service.


  1. 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), 74. 
  2. On Mühler’s earlier interactions with Mennonites, 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), 157, 166. 
  3. Bartel, “Beschreibung, 74, 
  4. Bartel, “Beschreibung, 74. 
  5. Geheimer Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), Berlin, Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), Tit. 332t (Militärpflicht), no. 5 (Die Militärpflicht der Mennoniten), vol. 1 (1819-1868), n.p. 
  6. GStA, HA I, Rep. 77, Tit. 31 (Mennonitensachen), no. 2 (Die in Ansehung der staatsbürgerlichen Verhältnisse der Mennoniten vorgenommen Anordnugnen, desgl. wegen Behandlung der Mennoniten-Gemeinde in Danzig nach der Reoccupation dieser Stadt), vol. 9 (1862 Juli – 1869 Dez.), 226-228. 
  7. The connection ran through his more famous brother, 
  8. Bartel records a meeting at 10 am on February 24 to thank Senfft-Pilsach for his efforts, “Beschreibung,” 74-5. 
  9. Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 21. Februar 1868, 207-8. 
  10. Ibid., 208-9 
  11. Ibid., 212. 
  12. Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 79. 

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