Mennonite Elders Meet King William I, February 25, 1868

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

One-hundred-fifty years ago today was the crucial day in the Mennonite Elders’ visit to Berlin. At 8 a.m. they were informed that they would not be allowed to talk to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He was implacably opposed to reopening the issue of their military service exemption and, although the Mennonites did not know it, without his support nothing could change in the law itself via a legislative route. By 1:45 p.m. they were in the palace where they met King William I in the hopes that relief could come from the traditional route of depending on royal mercy and a favorable executive order.

What was happening behind the scenes to lead up to this day is fairly clear now but only as a function of recent research. H. G. Mannhardt, the pastor of the Danzig Mennonite Church from 1878 to 1927, argued later that the Prussian cabinet, which led the initiative on most laws, had met and decided to ignore the Mennonites already on February 20.1 He was right that the key decision was taken by the cabinet and not the king, but wrong on the date as the published records do not record any meeting of the cabinet that day at all. The only two meetings that dealt with Mennonites according to the minutes were December 21, 1869, dealing with a petition to revoke the restrictive Mennonite Edict of 1789, and January 25, 1874, when the Mennonite Law of that year that mostly lifted the 1789 Edict was approved by the cabinet before going to the Prussian Parliament.2

One important event of February 20 was the drafting of a petition by the five elders in Berlin for an audience with the king. They wrote in part, “It seems unfathomable to us that a vote of the Imperial Diet can abrogate the confession of faith of an entire religious community. It seems unfathomable to us that a vote cast against us only because we demonstrated loyalty to the king in recent elections can annul the Charters of Privilege granted by Your Majesty’s ancestors and that we can be expelled from the dear fatherland that had provided us with protection and tolerance up to now. In spite of all the dangers arrayed against our conscience we and our congregations will not let the hope sink that Your Majesty will not abandon us and we beseech Your Majesty in their name to grant us most mercifully an audience so that we can personally lay our requests and wishes at your feet.”3 The fact that these traditionalist Mennonites voted conservative was indeed a reason for liberals in both the Confederation and Prussian Parliaments to reject any special deals for them.4 Around 1 p.m., just as they left the meeting thanking Friedrich Bloemer for his support in the debate of February 22, a messenger found them with a note that the king in response to their petition had granted them an audience at 1:45.

8.1 Theophil von Podbielski

Theophil von Podbielski

The actual behind the scenes cabinet decisions were made by circulating memos to develop a policy that the majority of the cabinet could support. This process came to a head at this time, when on February 21 Acting Minister of War Theophil von Podbielski and Interior Minister Friedrich zu Eulenburg wrote to Bismarck to report an impasse between the War Ministry, which ironically want to see Mennonites exempted, and the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft and wanted Mennonites included. Bismarck sided with Eulenburg at some point over the next month, ending the debate in the cabinet.5

8.2 Friedrich zu Eulenburg

Friedrich zu Eulenburg

Our five elders, of course, had no knowledge of these developments and pinned all their hopes on their meeting with the king. They had about forty-five minutes notice, so they hurried back to their hotel to prepare both by changing clothes and spending time in prayer. Once at the palace, they were led by servants through a succession of rooms until an adjutant lined them up in one room. Then he placed both hands on the double doors in the room and stared intently through the gap into the next room. After a long wait, “suddenly he threw both doors open and backed up quickly and the king and the adjutant on duty entered. As fast as lightning the king stood before us and addressed us softly, ‘Children, what can I do for you?’”6
Johann Toews, the elder of the Ladekopp congregation, spoke for the group, introducing them, outlining the problem, and expressing the hope that the king could rescue them from this sorry state of affairs. The king declared that it was his intention to protect everyone’s conscience, since his fathers and he had always respected their confession of faith, “but I cannot violate the law.” Nonetheless he assured them he would find a way forward that would protect their conscience. Toews pressed him, noting that if any type of military service was required of them, they would emigrate and he asked that they be granted an extension of time free from the draft in order to get their affairs in order before they left.7

The king then turned to address each of them personally. When it was his turn, Gerhard Penner, the Heubuden elder, said, “Your Majesty, we will offer everything materially possible in order to preserve our freedom of conscience.” The king replied, “I am not in anyway opposed to you, for you have always been loyal subjects, proving this even in the latest elections, as we have been pleased to note.” The king then asked when Penner had received the medal he was wearing. When told, he noted, “So you got it from me.” Which medal Penner was wearing and why he got it is unknown, but medals were a common way for the state to recognize prominent citizens for services rendered or anniversaries in office.8

Johann Wiebe of Fürstenwerder also had a request for the king. He asked if it would be okay for the Mennonites to petition the Imperial Diet to alter the military service law. The king assured him that everyone has the right to petition the government. Wiebe replied, “We thank you most subserviently for lifting our worry that we would act against Your Majesty’s wishes by petitioning against a law that you have signed.” The king talked to the others, and then asked Peter Bartel at the end if they all lived close together, to which Bartel replied they lived about seventy-five to ninety kilometers apart (ten to twelve Meilen). Then the king got into a brief conversation with Johann Wiebe about where he lived, in Preußisches Königsdorf between Elbing and Marienburg. The king knew the area, so after this exchange of pleasantries, they were dismissed.9

The king’s assertion that he was bound by the law was perhaps the most telling comment. The Prussian constitution was only eighteen years old at this point, that of the North German Confederation, not even one. So the king and these elders certainly remembered a time when his word and their willingness to pay money settled this issue. Now parliaments, public involvement and public opinion, and new-fangled ideas about equality and nationalism limited the king’s ability and desire to protect these Mennonites, who were both loyal subjects and political allies who voted the way the king wanted. Tomorrow the elders would talk to his son, Crown Prince Frederick, in an effort to assure this newly limited royal favor continued into the future in case they would have one in Germany.


  1. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 102. 
  2., 99, 165-6, 342-3. For context and details, 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), 200-212, 269. 
  3.  Geheimer Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), Berlin, Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), 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 ( Juli 1862 – Dez. 1869), 188.  
  4. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 210, 303n79. 
  5. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 199-200. 
  6. 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), 75-6. 
  7. Ibid., 76-7. 
  8.  Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 189-90. 
  9.  Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 77. 

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