King William I Allows Mennonites to Serve as Noncombatants, Forcing Mennonites to Chose Emigration or Military Service in Some Form

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

The five Mennonite elders who had spent over a week in Berlin at the end of February had petitioned the king for an audience on February 20 and used that audience to press their case for a full exemption in exchange for additional cash or medical services provided as civilians. If that was not possible, they wanted a temporary reprieve from the draft which had been imposed by law on November 9, 1867, in order to sell their farms and households before emigrating. The result of their visit and other currents swirling in Prussian politics was that on March 3, 1868, the king signed an executive order granting them the right to serve as non-combatants, a deal that satisfied the vast majority of Mennonites while around fifteen percent ended up emigrating to Russia or the United States. This momentous cabinet or executive order is quoted here in full:

The High Royal Executive Order of March 3, 1868

Because the Confederation law On the Requirement to Serve in the Military, dated November 9, 1867, revoked the Mennonites’ former exemption from personal military service, I declare that the members of the older Mennonite families who do not volunteer to perform normal military duty shall, in accordance with your report of February 29 of this year, be trained to fulfill their military obligations as medics, militia clerks, artisans, and teamsters I hereby permit the Mennonites drafted as militia clerks to be released from firing range training. You are charged with arranging the necessary details.
Berlin, March 3, 1868
(signed) William
To the Minister of War and the Minister of the Interior
(signed) von Roon (signed) Count Eulenburg1

The tussle over how to implement the new draft law for Mennonites had involved the two bureaucracies most responsible for implementing it, the Ministry of War and the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft. War Minister Albrecht von Roon, and his temporary replacement, Theophil von Podbielski, thought Mennonites should be spared, since they believed that their religious concerns were genuine and their legal case, that royal privileges trumped parliamentary laws and even constitutions, was valid. It was, in short, a convenient way to forward their political program of maintaining monarchical power. Interior Minister Friedrich zu Eulenburg insisted that the law be followed and that the debate in the North German Confederation Diet had made clear that the lawmakers wanted the Mennonites drafted. Using the Mennonites, he could advance his political program of strengthening the rule of law over the power of the king. The tie breaker in this cabinet disagreement was Chancellor Bismarck, who did not want to be bothered with this arcane religious detail and wanted the machinery of government unstuck and moving forward.2

As a result of this political positioning and the king’s request to resolve the matter, the two ministers drafted an executive order with a copy going to Bismarck and sent it to the king for his consideration on February 29. Their rationale included many caveats. For example, only forty Mennonites a year would be drafted from the congregations along the Vistula River that opposed the draft. This was a much lower number than the one hundred and forty that was thrown around in the parliamentary debates. Since the number was so low it would be easier to implement exceptional rules. In addition, the order would treat all Mennonites in the newly expanded Prussia equally. There were not many Mennonites elsewhere in Prussia and many of them were willing to serve already, so the principle of equality everywhere could be held up without much additional risk of losing soldiers.

Exceptions were made for letting Mennonites serve as orderlies in the hospitals or as clerks. Traditionally, those jobs were reserved for soldiers who had completed their initial duty. However, since one could assume that the Mennonites would both be inclined to serve in these roles and generally exhibit good will, they would be excused from qualifying for them first. The artisans referred specifically only to tailors, cobblers, and saddlers. The teamsters would have to prove prior experience with horses and need to carry arms in any case for use if their wagons were attacked, so non-combatant does not quite capture what is offered here. Roon was skeptical this assignment would be acceptable. Nonetheless, the king signed the draft exactly as submitted by the two officials.3

The impact of this approach by politicians to dealing with Mennonites was at least two-fold. Most obviously, it gave Mennonites a third choice when confronted with military service. In addition to emigrating (or going to jail, as Johann Dyck did now and Mennonites in Prussia had done in the past) or serving outright, they could meet the state halfway by serving as non-combatants. This option opened up a divisive debate among Mennonites and met the politicians’ goal of keeping Mennonites from emigrating while training them to accept military service. In its focus on preventing emigration, it mirrored the forestry service later implemented in Russia, but given the small number of Prussian Mennonites willing to emigrate compared to Russian Mennonites who did so in large numbers even at the hint of military service, the deal Mennonites got was much worse in terms of how service was arranged, as non-combatant instead of church-related forestry service units.4

Less obvious, but reaching perhaps even deeper into the Mennonite community, was the fact that this new approach meant that Mennonites now had to make moral and theological decisions as individuals and not as a community. Leaders worked hard to keep the community together, but those who insisted that all male members serve as non-combatants ran afoul of the law. Thus all that remained for proponents of that option was education and moral suasion. Thus the executive order was reprinted by Mennonites, as in this example from 1879, and distributed widely among Mennonite congregations. Young men were now informed of their right to serve as a non-combatant and encouraged to take advantage of it. That emphasis on a right, however, sounded quite different to traditionalists, who saw it as betrayal of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. Prussian Mennonites one-hundred-fifty years ago today experienced the problem of individualism challenging a common commitment to living out church teachings that has returned again and again to disrupt Mennonite unity and witness.

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), 268. 
  2. For background and context, see ibid., 191-205. 
  3.   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., 29 February 1868. 
  4.   On Prussian Mennonites going to jail over military service, see Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 91-2, 98-100, 222-6. The laws that forced congregations to allow individual choices are explained in ibid., 223-6,  

One thought on “King William I Allows Mennonites to Serve as Noncombatants, Forcing Mennonites to Chose Emigration or Military Service in Some Form

  1. Mennonites always seem to be on a slippery slope with their pacifist claims. Thanks for this detailed account. You might be interested in my blog called Gerhard’s Journey, which follows Mennonite history and the memoirs of my father. Go to gerhardsjourney.com, scroll to the bottom and have a look. Ed

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