Mennonites Accept and Contest Military Service in the German East: A Sesquicentennial Series
The Mennonite elders visiting Berlin to lobby for the retention of their military service exemption met with Crown Prince Frederick one hundred fifty years ago today and also with Hermann Wagener, a conservative activist who was also Otto von Bismarck’s good friend. A major impact of this visit was the Prince’s advice not to emigrate to Russia if they wanted to avoid the draft since it would soon be implemented there as well. As a result a portion of the Prussian Mennonites started investigating possibilities in the United States and two groups ended up moving to Harvey County, Kansas, and Gage County, Nebraska. Behind the scenes, an aide of the king, likely Generalmajor Heinrich von Tresckow, followed up on yesterday’s meeting with the elders by sending a memo today to the Acting Minister of War Podbielski and Minister of the Interior requesting they find a mutually agreeable solution to the petition the elders had written on the twentieth.1
The Crown Prince, the only son of King William I, would have been only thirty-six years old at the time of their meeting and had already been married for ten years to Victoria, the oldest daughter of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. He became Emperor Frederick III upon his father’s death in 1888 only to succumb to throat cancer a few months later, passing the throne to his son William II who ruled until the demise of the Empire in 1918. Thus 1888 is known as the year of three emperors. Frederick was more progressive than either father or son and opposed to many of Bismarck’s policies. His slightly more liberal tendencies did not extend, however, to supporting Mennonites who wanted to evade military service since he wished the monarchy to respect the law and the principle of equality.
Their audience began at 1:30 p.m., presumably at the Crown Prince’s Palace near the Royal Palace on Unter den Linden Street. Peter Bartel reported that Johann Toews, the elder of the Ladekopp congregation, again served as the group’s spokesperson. Toews noted that the imperial military service law was a sad and fearful imposition. His Majesty would know that as the delegates of the Mennonite congregations they had come to seek refugee with the ruling dynasty in the hopes that royal mercy could lift them out of the clutches of that law.2
The Crown Prince responded to this group of older peasants, “But children, I will not be able to help you, because the law is higher than even the king.” He continued that he sympathized with their situation and hoped the king would find a way to soften the force of the law. That comment provided an opening for Toews to ask for a lengthy time limit.
“For what?” the Crown Prince asked. To prepare for emigration was the answer.
“And where would you go?” he asked next.
Johann Wiebe, the elder of the Fürstenwerder congregation, replied, “Your Royal Majesty, to the southern states of the Russia.”
“Oh my, then make sure you keep a path open for your children to return, for Russia will soon implement what we have here and then you will be sorry.”
Gerhard Penner, elder of the Heubuden congregation, tried a different tactic, repeating the same claim made to the king that they were loathe to emigrate and would do anything within reason the state demanded as long as it did not violate their conscience. Peter Bartel, the elder of the Gruppe congregation, followed up with a specific proposal, namely that the congregations would found and fund military hospitals in their midst to care for wounded or ailing soldiers both in times of war and peace but it had to be under the leadership of the congregations. When the Crown Prince asked in clarification if they expected the army to sent patients to them, Elder Johann Penner of the Thiensdorf congregation replied affirmatively.3
The insistence that this form of alternative service be performed under the control of the church is an early articulation of this principle of Mennonite autonomy from the state and the military that later was implemented in Russia before World War I as the forestry service and in the United States during World War II as Civilian Public Service, suggesting these anti-democratic Mennonite traditionalists nonetheless had something in common with progressive Mennonite institution builders in those other two countries. The Prussian groups did go on to found hospitals in Beatrice, Nebraska, and Newton, Kansas, so that one can see the remnants of a witness against Prussian militarism in twenty-first century Beatrice Community Hospital and Newton Medical Center.
The conversation with the Crown Prince now turned to theological questions, with the Crown Prince asking about the size and location of the Mennonite congregations, the age of people being baptized as adults, and how they dealt with the issue of not swearing oaths. That was actually regulated by a Prussian edict of 1827 that allowed for affirmation, but the elders instead referenced the presumably similar arrangement of the Moravian Brethren, a Pietist group the Crown Prince was acquainted with that would have been better known than Mennonites.4
They closed out their conversation with a discussion of each elder’s home village and an exchange about the level of ice on the Vistula River, a perennial source of concern as ice jams frequently caused flooding. Peter Bartel was left with a favorable impression of the Crown Prince and his support, although there is nothing else in the historical record to support the idea that Frederick desired to help Mennonites.5
By 5 p.m. the elders were visiting with Hermann Wagener, who had been the founding editor of Prussia’s most important conservative newspaper, the Kreuzzeitung, and was now a member of the lower house of the Prussian parliament, a key conservative leader, and important confidant of Bismarck. He had been supportive of the elders when they met with him earlier on the twentieth and had asked the elders to report everything they talked about with the Crown Prince. They now reported that conversation and Wagener left them with words of encouragement that everything would work out acceptably.6
The Mennonites were swimming in deep political waters here and it is hard to know if they were being manipulated or taking advantage of the wider currents around them in a fairly sophisticated way. The Crown Prince and Bismarck were political enemies and there is no evidence that Wagener really cared about the Mennonites. So perhaps they were dupes in high-level Prussian intrigues, spying on the Crown Prince for Bismarck without understanding what was going on. On the other hand, they did implement Wagener’s suggest to use the issue of the Mennonite tax to focus a conversation on their problems in the favorable terrain of the House of Lords. They actually went on to pay the tax for another couple of rounds and to create the impression that the government was still considering their case. While never a realistic option, they had with Wagener’s help created media attention about their plight, so perhaps they were savvy political operators who understood that asking for unequal treatment in being let out of the draft meant they were better off supporting monarchists than liberals.7
SEE OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
- Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 17, 1867
- Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 18, 1867
- Five Mennonite Elders Meet with Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, Oct. 24, 1867
- Mennonite Elders Meet with Minister of Interior Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, Head of the Ministry That Administers the Draft, February 20, 1868
- Mennonite Elders Meet Acting Minister of War Podbielski While the House of Lords Debates Their Special Tax, February 21, 1868
- 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
- This note is referenced in the reply of 29 February from the two ministers to the king, Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz Berlin (GStA), Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), Tit. 332T (Militärpflicht), no. 5 (Acta betreffend die Mennoniten), vol. 1 ((1819-1868), n.p. ↩
- 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), 77. ↩
- Ibid., 78. ↩
- Ibid. On oaths, 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), 111-5, 267. ↩
- Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 78-9. ↩
- Ibid., 79. ↩
- Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 198-204. ↩