Mennonite Elders Meet Justice Minister Leonhardt While Ultra-Conservative Lords Use Mennonites as a Wedge Issue to Stage a Rebellion Against Bismarck, February 22, 1868

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

Saturdays are not what they used to be. One-hundred-fifty years ago today the Prussian government was experiencing just another work day and the Mennonite Elders seeking to regain their exemption from military service were continuing their rounds of cabinet ministers. The House of Lords of the Prussian Parliament was also in session, although they finished shortly before 1 p.m.

Prussian politics had faced a crucial turning point earlier that week. The House of Lords, more conservative and traditional than the lower house, had nonetheless approved Chancellor Bismarck’s proposal to use money from the central treasury to fund certain expenditures of the new Prussian province of Hannover, which had until a little over a year ago been an independent kingdom. The setting aside of the dynasty there was seen as a revolutionary act by an otherwise reactionary chancellor and also intervened in the traditional budgeting measures of Prussian provinces. Most in the Conservative Party backed this measure, but others were vehemently opposed so that this vote taken just a few days earlier marked the beginning of the National Liberal Party that split off from the Conservative Party. Thus Mennonites’ exemption became a proxy in this conservative civil war.1

The official business conducted by the five Mennonite Elders on this day occupies only a few lines of Peter Bartel’s report. They met with Justice Minister Adolf Leonhardt, who was from Hannover and thus not likely to know much about Mennonites. Bartel reported that he appeared empathetic but that he claimed, correctly, this issue was one for the Ministries of War and the Interior to sort out.2 Oddly no other activities are reported for the day by Bartel, not even a church service. Since the main reason for their trip was to see how their petition to the House of Lords would play out, it seems likely they attended that debate, which was at the end of the session, and for whatever reason, Bartel did not report it. They did make the rounds to visit and thank supporters in the House of Lords before they left Berlin, so at least they were clearly well informed of who said what today.3

Mennonites were on the docket on account of this petition that the elders had sent in: “The House of Lords should prevent the implementation of the military service law passed by the Imperial Diet which, if it came into effect, would pronounce a sentence of expulsion from the country over all true believing Mennonites, and should also provide in the future for the protection of Mennonites’ freedom on conscience by upholding their military service exemption.” The standing committee for dealing with petitions had worked up a recommendation to support this petition and ask the government to consider implementing it. The debate involved about a dozen speakers.

The debate was opened by the chair of the petition committee, von Brünneck. He noted that universal military service had been the law of the land since 1814 and Mennonites had been exempted all that time. He claimed it was unthinkable that nineteenth-century Prussia should be as religious intolerant as the France of Louis XIV that had driven out the Huguenots. Indeed, he claimed, “religious freedom and freedom on conscience is the milk on which the Prussian state was raised.” Without it Prussia was not Prussia anymore. Mennonites moreover had offered to care for wounded soldiers at their own expense. For all these reasons, the committee was unanimous in its support of their petition.4

Most of the support for the Mennonites came from ultra conservatives who were angry at Bismarck for breaking monarchical tradition by annexing other kingdoms to Prussia and subsuming Prussia under the weight of a new imperial government that circumvented nobles. Adolf Senfft von Pilsach, who had also spoken for Mennonites the day before, mocked the idea that Mennonite soldiers were indispensable to the state, noting only 140 Mennonites per year would be drafted. “If Prussia cannot survive without them (and it has fought wars with honor for so long without Mennonites), then I have to confess we might as well give up all hope.”5

7.1 Hans v_Kleist-Retzow_1862

Hans von Kleist-Retzow

Hans von Kleist-Retzow was one of the top ultra-conservatives. As a Pietist he would have been more open to Mennonites’ religious pleading than most other politicians. Bismarck was married to his niece and they had roomed together as young men. Nonetheless, he was ready to challenge the position of Bismarck’s government by giving full-throated support to this petition. He was especially upset that the new-fangled North German Confederation was able to dictate to Prussia how to do things, in American terms he was backing state rights over a new federal government.6

Additional support came from two less-well-known speakers, Friedrich Bloemer and Ludwig von Rittberg. Bloemer stressed the legal rights of the Mennonites. When others said it was pointless to take up an argument that had been decided elsewhere, he countered that if the Mennonites had the right to uphold their privilege, which he thought they did, that right should trump worries about practicalities.7 Here one can see the echo of conservative disquiet with Bismarck’s trampling of the rights of the non-Prussian ruling families he had deposed.

A cabinet minister gave the first speech in opposition to the petition, signaling the uphill struggle Mennonites faced to obtain relief by visiting this group of politicians. Minister of Commerce Heinrich Friedrich von Itzenplitz was the first to note that the military service law was a confederation law and none of Prussia’s business.8 When the elders finally got to meet him three days later, Bartel reported he was quite “cold” to their problems.9

7.2 Otto von Camphausen

Otto von Camphausen

Liberal politicians and their knowledge of liberal Mennonites were the other main source of opposition to this petition. Heinrich Ondereyck from Crefeld noted that Mennonites there were happy to serve.10 Otto von Camphausen, who would become the Finance Minister the next year and was part of a famous liberal political family, backed the need for a strong central government over the stodgy rights of traditional states.11 Count Botho zu Eulenburg was exasperated by the idea that not serving in the military could be protected by law. Thus the issue was not a matter of tolerance, but of what deserves to be privileged. “Imagine, gentlemen,” he argued, “a religious society that had a stance against paying taxes to the state.” That privilege could not stand. On the matter of military service, “the entirety of developmental history of nations and states argues against” such privilege, even if it is painful for those who now fall under the necessity of state duty. The progress of equality was for Eulenburg inevitable and he therefore made a motion that the petition be passed on to the government for its information, not consideration, the difference between the House of Lords asking the government to address or ignore the issue.12

At the end of the session, Eulenburg’s amendment was defeated and a majority voted with the petition committee to defy the wishes of the government and ask that Mennonites’ military exemption be restored.13 Mennonite supporters carried the day in the interests of freedom of conscience, preserving this traditional community instead of forcing them to emigrate, and, above all, to signal for the first time that some conservatives would break with the royal government, an unheard of, if toothless, reproach to Bismarck on the relatively safe Mennonite issue.

SEE OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES


  1.  Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 198. 
  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), 74. 
  3. Ibid., 74-5. 
  4.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 222. 
  5.  Ibid., 223. 
  6.  On Hans von Kleist-Retzow, see https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz42684.html#ndbcontent. Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 223, 234. 
  7.  Ibid., 225. 
  8. Ibid., 223. 
  9. Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 75. 
  10.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 224. 
  11.  Ibid. On Camphausen, see https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz7817.html#ndbcontent 
  12.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 224-5. On Eulenberg, see https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz13845.html#ndbcontent. 
  13. Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 226-7. 

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