How to Catch a Mennonite Nazi

Ben Goossen

Recent revelations that Mennonites participated in the crimes of National Socialism seem to fly in the face of common beliefs about this historically pacifist Christian denomination. Mennonites today are often advocates for peace. So what are we to make, for example, of a forthcoming book from the University of Toronto Press entitled European Mennonites and the Holocaust? A gulf looms between what we believe we know about peaceful Mennonites in the twenty-first century and what historians have begun revealing about the entanglement of a substantial minority within that same community with National Socialism during the 1930s and ‘40s. How can we bridge the gap? One path is to ask why this story has not been widely told until now. Who hid it and how?

After the Second World War, the primary narrative that Mennonite leaders in Europe and North America crafted about their churches’ activities in the Third Reich emphasized repression and hardship. The denomination’s leading aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), worked during the late 1940s and early 1950s to help resettle thousands of European Mennonites who had become displaced as a result of the war. MCC relied on financial and legal assistance from larger refugee agencies affiliated with the United Nations in order to pursue this task. In dealing with their United Nations colleagues, MCC officials insisted most of their wards “were brutally treated by the German occupation authorities” and “did not receive favored treatment.”1

One of Mennonite Central Committee’s star witnesses was a refugee named Heinrich Hamm. Like tens of thousands of other Mennonites who had experienced the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, Hamm was from Soviet Ukraine, and he had retreated westward with German troops in 1943 to avoid again coming under communist rule as Stalin’s Red Army advanced. Five years later, Hamm had become an MCC employee, helping to run a large refugee camp in occupied Germany. Hamm wrote down a version of his wartime experiences that aligned with MCC’s overall message that its charges deserved aid. MCC’s Special Commissioner in Europe passed to United Nations officials Hamm’s story of evacuating from Ukraine to more western areas:

It is quite an erroneous idea to think that all Mennonites were brought to Poland to be settled on farms. I and my family came to a camp Preussisch-Stargard in the Danzig area. Immediately representatives of various works and concerns came to fetch cheap labour. I had to work in a machine factory where I remained until the end of the war. Besides the four Mennonite families many Ukrainians, Frenchmen and Poles worked there also. There was no difference in the way these various national groups were treated.2

Heinrich Hamm, 1944. Source: A3342-EWZ56-CO27, NARA.

The efforts by Mennonite Central Committee to portray refugees like Heinrich Hamm as victims of Nazism were largely successful. Based on statements from MCC officers and many migrants themselves, refugee agents affiliated with the United Nations believed that “the majority of those [Mennonites] who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war had not come voluntarily to that country. They were deported alongside other Russians to be used as slave labourers.”3 As another evaluation concluded, Mennonites were fundamentally “an un-Nazi and un-nationalistic group.”4 MCC ultimately succeeded in relocating most of the refugees under its care with United Nations assistance to new homes in West Germany or overseas, mostly in Canada and Paraguay.

But should we, like United Nations refugee agencies seven decades ago, trust statements written after the Third Reich’s fall by Mennonite individuals such as Heinrich Hamm? When he wrote his account for MCC, Hamm was fifty-four years old. He was not some young hothead. He was a leader in the Mennonite church. He was an MCC employee with deep ties to the denomination’s respected aid community on both sides of the Atlantic. Hamm should have been as trustworthy as anyone MCC could have put forward to speak truthfully and extensively about the experiences of tens of thousands of fellow Mennonites in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. The United Nations took Hamm at his word. We today, however, should take a more skeptical look.

I have been following Heinrich Hamm’s wartime paper trail for the past seven years. It is not easy to track the movements of someone so mobile as Hamm. I now know that Hamm was born in Tsarist Russia in 1894. He served as a medic in the First World War and took up arms as part of a Self Defense unit during the Russian Civil War, abandoning pacifism like many other young Mennonite men. When Bolshevism emerged victorious, Hamm lost his farm near the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhe. He and his family moved to another city, Dnepropetrovsk, after Stalin’s rise. Hamm continued working in Dnepropetrovsk after the Nazi invasion of 1941. He eventually left Ukraine with his family, and in 1944, they settled in a village called Stutthof on the Baltic coast.

Another document I encountered while researching Mennonite history prompted me to suspect that the postwar autobiographical sketch Hamm penned for MCC might obscure more than it revealed. This other document had been written shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Ukraine by an “Ethnic German Heinrich Hamm.” Preserved in the records of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, the six-page typed manuscript tells of horrors experienced under “Jewish-Bolshevik rule.” It argues that the USSR repressed Ethnic Germans more than other groups. It describes how young men were shot or deported and how mismanagement brought economic ruin to all Ukraine. The author was unsparing in his conviction about whom to blame:

This is how the Jewish Bolshevik beasts destroyed German families [during communist times]. The expression ‘beasts’ is not even correct, since animals kill for the sake of nourishment, while these Jewish murderers and misbegotten bastards kill and annihilate for sport, practicing the worst kind of cruelty as their life’s handiwork.5

Could these be the words of a later MCC employee? An upstanding pillar within the worldwide Mennonite community? When I first saw this document, I was not convinced it had been written by the same Heinrich Hamm. Hamm was a common surname among Ukraine’s Mennonites and Heinrich a common first name. Surely there were multiple Heinrich Hamms. Nor was I sure that the author was even Mennonite at all. His report to Nazi officials mentioned other people with names common among Mennonites, but the document referred only to “Ethnic Germans,” not to Mennonites explicitly. Given the repression of Christianity in the Soviet Union in the proceeding decades, perhaps the author no longer identified with what had likely been his childhood faith.

I wondered, moreover, what should I make of the virulent antisemitism of this wartime Heinrich Hamm? Most published literature I had read about Mennonites in Ukraine claimed that they had not been particularly antisemitic. One historian characterized anti-Jewish prejudices among this group as “relatively benign.”6 But Hamm’s antisemitism was unrelenting. The report stated that Hamm lived in Dnepropetrovsk. Less than a month earlier, Nazi death squads shot ten thousand of that city’s Jews.7 The murder of Jews around him made Hamm’s concluding remarks chilling: “Only those who experienced [Soviet tyranny] can fully grasp the phrase, ‘Liberation from the Jewish yoke of Bolshevism,’ in its truest sense.”8 He finished by praising Hitler and all German soldiers.

This map shows the movements of Heinrich Hamm and his wife, Anna, from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union until their emigration to Canada. They lived in or near Dnepropetrovsk (1941-3), Litzmannstadt (1943), Stutthof (1944-5), several refugee camps in Denmark (1945-6), Birkenfeld (1946-7), and Gronau (1947-8). Map adapted from Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire (New York: Penguin, 2008).

My next clue was a 1943 letter—also penned by a “Heinrich Hamm”—posted from a refugee camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. This letter seemed to provide a link between the Hamm who had denounced Jews at the height of the Holocaust in Ukraine and the man who subsequently worked for MCC, claiming after the war that Mennonites were an un-Nazi group that suffered under the Third Reich. The author of this letter was clearly a Mennonite. He had relocated westward with other Mennonites from Ukraine to escape the advance of the Red Army. The author said he had traveled from Dnepropetrovsk, and details of his story overlapped with the account written two years earlier for Nazi occupation officials by a man of the same name in the same Ukrainian city.

The 1943 letter convinced me that Heinrich Hamm was not only a practicing Mennonite; he was a denominational leader. It also confirmed that this man—who would go on to work for MCC—was implicated in Nazi crimes. Hamm and his family were among the first Mennonite refugees to be relocated from Ukraine to Nazi-occupied Poland after the contraction of the Eastern Front. Temporarily housed near the city of Litzmannstadt in the wartime Wartheland province, Hamm wrote to a contact well connected with other Mennonites across the Third Reich. Copies of his letter soon circulated widely among the country’s church leadership. Part of Hamm’s letter even appeared in print, helping inspire humanitarian support for the refugees arriving from Ukraine.

Hamm reported that he and fellow refugees from Ukraine had been well received in Wartheland: “Upon arrival, we experienced unexpected love and a moving reception. Our camp—if it can even be called that—lies in the forest near Kirchberg (14 km. east of Litzmannstadt) and consists not of barracks encircled by barbed wire, as many expected, but of beautifully appointed houses (formerly for Jewish summer vacationers).” Hamm acknowledged that not all were satisfied with their new quarters. But he disparaged complainers as racial dregs. The “true Germans,” he wrote, “thank God and the Führer daily with tears in their eyes for the great privileges they enjoy.”9 In his view, the best Mennonites were those most thankful to receive plunder from murdered Jews.

Far from receiving criticism from Germany’s Mennonite leadership, Hamm’s 1943 letter helped integrate him into the local denominational fold. Mennonites who had lived in Germany since Hitler’s rise to power had enjoyed the privileges of racial hierarchy for over a decade. That these same advantages would be extended to fellow German-speaking Mennonites from Ukraine in the form of homes and goods taken from Holocaust victims seemed only natural by the middle years of the war.10 Hamm was intimately acquainted with Mennonite life in Ukraine, and he had ties to occupation officials.11 When religious leaders from Germany traveled to Poland in 1944 to meet with Nazi politicians about new waves of refugees from the east, they first consulted Hamm.12

By early 1944, Hamm and his wife, Anna, had moved from the formerly Jewish summer camp near Litzmannstadt to the coastal town of Stutthof, two hundred miles to the north. Stutthof had a longstanding Mennonite population, including one of Anna’s aunts. In Stutthof, Hamm became friendly with a prominent Mennonite businessman named Gerhard Epp. Prior to the First World War, Epp had worked in Russia, and he remained greatly interested in Mennonite coreligionists from the Soviet Union. Epp offered Hamm a job in a large machine factory that he owned and operated. This was the very establishment that Hamm would later mention in the memo he wrote for MCC, claiming he was coerced into providing cheap labor for greedy German war profiteers.

Closer inspection reveals Hamm was neither a lowly laborer nor does he seem to have opposed war profiteering that actually did occur in Epp’s factory. Three years after the Third Reich fell, shortly before boarding a steamship bound for Canada, Hamm wrote a long letter to his two sons. They had been serving in German uniform, and both had gone missing in the last months of the war. Hamm did not know when or if he would ever see his sons again. But he left his letter with a local Mennonite leader for safekeeping, hoping that if either of his sons ever resurfaced, they would read it. Hamm’s letter is dated July 23, 1948. He signed it just days after authoring his exculpatory memorandum for MCC. Writing privately to family, he told a very different story.

Hamm’s letter to his lost sons told of his final days in Stutthof, before the Red Army’s advance forced him to flee with his wife and her aunt, along with thousands of other Mennonites and non-Mennonites by ship across the Baltic to Denmark. In the winter of early 1945, Soviet air raids wrought havoc on nearby large cities like Danzig, driving city dwellers to the countryside even as others arrived pell-mell from the east. Gerhard Epp shipped his machinery west and converted his factory into a makeshift refugee camp. Hamm reported that Epp and his entire staff worked frantically to save the needy. The packed factory halls offered good targets for Soviet airmen, Hamm reported, and every bomb that struck the establishment killed or wounded hundreds:

The great number of bodies and the frozen ground made it impossible to bury them, and so specially appointed commandos for clearing away bodies brought these to the concentration camp for gassing [Vergasung].13

This casual reference to an unnamed nearby concentration camp is curious. Hamm seems to have expected his sons to understand the reference. Having visited their family in Stutthof before their final deployment, Hamm’s sons would have known about the large Stutthof concentration camp, which had been established in 1939 in connection with Germany’s invasion of Poland and which over the next five years would become a major site of slave labor and murder in Hitler’s empire of death. Gerhard Epp’s factory had grown along with this concentration camp. Epp served as a general contractor for the camp, and he leased hundreds of prisoners to produce armaments in his factory. Jews and other inmates were the true cheap labor. Hamm helped oversee their slavery.14

Hamm later expressed regret for the death and dying that pervaded the Epp factory in Stutthof. Yet he explicitly named only German victims of Soviet air raids, not Jewish concentration camp prisoners. “[M]uch, much blood of innocent women and children flowed on Epp’s land,” Hamm told his sons. “Uncountable, nameless dead… No one asked who they were, where they came from, nothing was recorded.”15 One wonders about the goal of this private postwar accounting. Was Hamm helping himself forget about Jews worked to the bone in Epp’s factory by recalling refugees he and Epp tried to save? His use of the word “gassing” suggests this possibility, since bodies of refugees could have been cremated, whereas exhausted Jews would have been gassed.

The administrative office of Gerhard Epp’s factory in Stutthof where Hamm worked from 1944 to early 1945. Hundreds of inmates from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp performed slave labor for this Mennonite-owned establishment, which produced munitions for the war. Source: Bruck Family Blog.

What is clear is that the Mennonite-owned factory in Stutthof was a place of terror. For hundreds of prisoners enslaved there, the factory’s Mennonite managers were responsible for much of that terror. It is also clear that after the war, Hamm tried to distance himself from this responsibility. He instead emphasized the suffering of his own family, which fled Stutthof in April 1945. As they crossed the Baltic under cover of night, a Soviet submarine torpedoed their ship. Hamm praised God for allowing the damaged vessel to make it to Denmark. The family remained in Denmark for the next eighteen months. Hamm emphasized his gratitude for the comfort he found during these lean times through worshiping with fellow Mennonite refugees and other Christians.

Hamm remained in touch with Mennonites in multiple countries during the early postwar years. From Denmark, he wrote to relatives in Canada, who published his communication in a church newspaper. Letters and material goods soon arrived both for the Hamms and other Mennonites in the area. Hamm coordinated this aid, disbursing dozens of food packets from North America to fellow refugees. When his family received permission to leave Denmark for Germany, they lived with Mennonites in Bavaria. Eight months later, the director of a Mennonite Central Committee refugee camp in Gronau, near the Dutch border, invited Hamm to be his deputy. Hamm took the job, and he worked for MCC in Gronau for nearly a year until leaving to join relatives in Canada.

Tracking Heinrich Hamm and his wartime activities has taught me that catching a Mennonite Nazi is hard work. Piecing together Hamm’s past took many years of laborious sifting through thousands of pages of historic documents. I found pieces of Hamm’s story scattered across half a dozen archives in four countries. The reason this search took so long and required such effort is that Hamm did not want me or anyone else to know his full tale. Collaborating with Nazism made sense to Hamm during the Second World War, when he denounced Jews in Ukraine, lived in housing confiscated from Holocaust victims in Poland, and helped to administer a factory run with slave labor in Stutthof. After the war, Hamm was not fully honest even with his own sons.

The rewards of studying Hamm’s complete wartime trajectory—not just what he wanted others to learn afterwards—are substantial. Hamm and his colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee wanted United Nations-affiliated refugee organizations and other interested parties to think that any collaboration by members of the denomination with National Socialism was exceptional and insignificant. They implied that if some young men had perhaps gotten carried away, surely this was because they had been drawn away from their faith during earlier experiences in the Soviet Union through the atheist policies of Bolshevik rule. This narrative may seem compelling if we only consider documents written after the war. But wartime records do not corroborate this story.

Hamm was a leader at the heart of Mennonite institutional life in Europe both during and after the Second World War. He and his family had certainly suffered under the Bolshevik regime. There is no question that he and tens thousands of other Mennonites experienced atrocities in the Soviet Union, and that this history of suffering conditioned their positive reception of National Socialism. Indeed, Hamm’s wartime writings show that he considered his support for the most heinous crimes of Hitler’s state to be directly related to his own efforts to aid fellow Mennonites. Hamm saw Jews and Bolshevism as being part of a single evil cabal that threatened his ethnic and faith communities, and he welcomed Nazi efforts to redistribute Jewish plunder as welfare.

Understanding Hamm’s wartime activities also helps to clarify the significance of Mennonite Central Committee’s European refugee operations. Were we to consider only MCC’s postwar reports to bodies like the United Nations, we might assume that the denomination’s premier aid organization was acting in good faith—that leaders were unaware of the Nazi collaboration of refugees like Hamm. But this reading cannot be supported. In a very literal sense, Hamm was MCC, a paid employee and spokesperson. And that was precisely the point. The very purpose of MCC’s refugee program was to assist people facing legal or material hardships because of their associations with Nazism. Employing wartime leaders like Hamm provided valuable expertise.16

Catching a Mennonite Nazi is not easy. It is not the kind of thing most people can accomplish in their spare time. It is only possible because of the enormous resources that states, universities, and churches have put into building and maintaining archival collections. Accessing these files often requires professional skills, such as the ability to read multiple languages. Guessing when a historical person may not have been telling the truth requires familiarity with what scholars have already written. And following up on such hunches frequently demands financial support from competitive grants. At a time when the humanities are increasingly under pressure, it is more important than ever to affirm the value of institutional support for deep investigative research.

The reach of the far right is often longer than we think. It has included influential leaders within the Mennonite denomination, including in its best-known humanitarian aid organization, MCC. That knowledge alone should justify robust support for strengthening commitment to academic scholarship in our current time of resurgent global intolerance and repressive authoritarianism.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Laureen Harder-Gissing for providing sources for this essay and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.


1 C.F. Klassen, “Statement Concerning Mennonite Refugees,” July 19, 1948, AJ/43/572, folder: Political Dissidents – Mennonites, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France (hereafter AN).

2 Quoted in ibid. Hamm signed other documents on MCC’s behalf while working at the Gronau refugee camp. For example, Heinrich Hamm to Walter Quiring, September 29, 1947, Cornelius Krahn Papers, box 5, folder: Walter Quiring Correspondence 1946-50, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

3 Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, “Mennonite Refugees from Soviet Russia,” AJ/43/49, AN.

4 Martha Biehle to Herbert Emerson, August 9, 1946, AJ/43/31, AN.

5 Heinrich Hamm, “Schilderung vom Volksdeutschen,” November 12, 1941, Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm, T-81, roll 606, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA). Subsequent research confirms that this report was written by the same Heinrich Hamm who later worked for MCC. In ibid., for example, the author identified his father-in-law as David Schröder. David Schröder was also listed as Hamm’s father-in-law in genealogical materials submitted at the time of his (successful) application for German citizenship in Litzmannstadt. Heinrich Hamm, “Feststellung der Deutschstämmigkeit,” October 11, 1943, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A33420-EWZ50-CO46, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada. Notably, Hamm listed “men[nonite]” as his religious denomination on multiple documents submitted to Nazi offices. See for example a racial evaluation completed in Preußisch Stargard: “Hamm, Heinrich,” February 1, 1944, A3342-EWZ56-CO27, NARA.

6 Harvey Dyck, “Introduction and Analysis,” in Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 47.

7 SD, “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, R 58/219, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.

8 Hamm, “Schilderung vom Volksdeutschen.”

9 Heinrich Hamm to Franz Harder, October 6, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, Reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA (hereafter LoC). Hamm’s contact, Franz Harder, was a Danzig-based genealogical researcher. Since 1942, Harder had been helping Hamm to compile a genealogical list proving his Aryan ancestry—a document useful for Hamm’s wartime employment in Nazi-occupied Ukraine as well as his eventual application for German citizenship. Hamm’s letter came to the attention of the leadership of Germany’s two largest church conferences via Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung and Verband, October 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS). It subsequently appeared in print as Heinrich Hamm, “Die Umsiedlung der Volksdeutschen aus Dnjepropetrowsk im September 1943,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbands Danziger Mennoniten-Famlien 8 (December 1943): 3-4.

10 Thousands of Mennonites in Ukraine had already received gifts of clothing and household goods taken from Holocaust victims, including Jews shot by mobile killings squads in Ukraine as well as others deported to industrial-scale concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Some Mennonite families in Ukraine had also moved into houses made available by the murder of previous Jewish residents. Privileges provided by Nazi occupiers to Ukraine’s Mennonites thus already depended on mass expropriation of supposed non-Aryans, so in 1943 when the retraction of the Eastern Front forced tens of thousands of Mennonites and other Ethnic Germans westward, the redistributive welfare practiced by Hitler’s functionaries again relied on plunder acquired through large-scale racial crimes. The Governor of the District of Galicia, for example, wrote during high-level debates about where to resettle Mennonites from Chortitza: “New settlements can currently only be facilitated through radical removal of the local population with no possibility of return…. In the longer term, around 20,000 hectares [50,00 acres] for settlement purposes could be made available through use of the former Jewish properties that are now under German administration.” Otto Wächter to Rudolf Brandt, October 21, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.

11 For instance, a handwritten remark on a letter from Franz Harder to the German Foreign Institute identified Hamm as a confidant of Karl Stumpp, who led a Dnepropetrovsk-based commando of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Franz Harder to Deutsches Ausland-Institut, Forschungsstelle Danzig des DAI, and Kurt Kauenhowen, October 10, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, LoC. On Stumpp, see Eric Schmalz and Samuel Sinner, “The Nazi Ethnographic Research of Georg Leibbrandt and Karl Stumpp in Ukraine, and Its North American Legacy,” Holocaust & Genocide Studies 14, no. 1 (2000): 28-64.

12 “I now also intend to travel to Stutthof [prior to meeting with the political leadership of Reichsgau Wartheland] to visit Gerhard Epp and Heinrich Hamm (from Dnepropetrovsk). The latter has resettled there from Litzmannstadt. Would you come with me?” Benjamin Unruh to Abraham Braun, February 23, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh and Braun visited Epp and Hamm in Stutthof from March 23 to 25, 1944. Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

13 Heinrich Hamm to Benjamin Unruh, July 23, 1948, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.

14 Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 512-525. Although Hamm did not precisely describe his duties in Epp’s business (which he called “our factory”), he appears to have acted in an administrative capacity. “How wonderfully [God] saved us,” he remembered. “How often shards and bullets flew into our office, where I worked.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948.

15 Ibid. On the evacuation of Stutthof, see Danuta Drywa, “Stutthoff: Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007),516-520; Marcin Owsiński, “Die Deutschen in Stutthof und Sztutowo,” in Die deutsche Minderheit in Polen und die kommunistischen Behörden 1945-1989 (Paderborn: Schoeningh Ferdinand, 2017), 292-296.

16 Hamm reported that as deputy director of the MCC’s Gronau refugee camp, where he worked from August 1947 until July 1948, his major activities included establishing a catalogue of all known Mennonite refugees in Europe and corresponding with multiple Allied governments to release Mennonite prisoners of war. “The MCC was able to secure many an early release for these men [who had served in Hitler’s armies] from all Allied authorities,” Hamm wrote of his work. “How radiant with joy all these boys were when they arrived in Gronau, where they were warmly welcomed.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948. Hamm and his family remained connected to the Mennonite church and to trans-Atlantic refugee operations after arriving in Canada in 1948. See for example Hans Werner, “Integration in Two Cities: A Comparative History of Protestant Ethnic German Immigrants in Winnipeg, Canada and Bielefeld, Germany, 1947-1989” (PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2002), 111-112.

Death and Dreams in a Time of Plague

Kat Hill

Fig. 1: A memorial to the plague in Elsinore

A man in the Baltic town of Gdańsk sits at the bedside of his son and weeps. It is the morning of October 26, 1709. The young man is ailing with plague which has swept through the region. The son’s affliction follows the death of his mother a few weeks prior in early September. As the son lies dying, the door to the parlour opens and closes. The father sees no one. But the son sets eyes on his mother, bright and clear, a vision of hope who reassures him that he will soon be with her again. They talk for some fifteen minutes. The clock chimes and the door open and closes. The bright spirit of the woman is gone but she leaves behind the promise that the son will join her soon. And true to her word, the disease takes him too.1

Fig. 2: Samuel Don(n)ett, Abbildung von der großen Pest in Dantzig 1709

In 1709 deadly plague came to the Baltic regions, spreading up along trade and military routes from southern Poland, part of a larger pandemic which spread through central Asia and the Mediterranean in the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though it took time to reach the city, and despite control measures, Gdańsk did not escape. In March 1709 a family in a district of the old town fell sick, seven people died, and it was evident that the plague had come to the city. Despite this, one pastor still held a sermon to celebrate the city’s escape, perhaps a ‘super spreader’ event in today’s parlance. The disease’s inevitable growth turned into a twenty-five-week epidemic with twenty-five thousand dead in the city out of a population of only fifty thousand.2

The plague hit the Mennonites hard, as it did the rest of the city of Gdańsk. In the records kept by the Flemish branch of the Danzig (Gdańsk) Mennonite church, a total of 409 people died in this community alone in one year, with most of those deaths concentrated in the last quarter. September, the month that the unnamed man’s wife died, was particularly bad, with 6 or 7 people often dying in one day in this small community. By the end of 1709 the figures amounted to 66 men deceased, 72 women, 18 young women and 4 young men. 249 people died who are not listed separately as they were unbaptised, mostly children.3 The extent of loss is evident from the stark reality of the numbers, but rarely do we see material like this document, a letter written by the man to his relatives in Altona. It is a special testimony to experiences of death and illness amongst these Mennonites. The man lost his wife, his two sons, Johann and Cornelius, his sister Sara, his brother Johann, his brother-in-law Paul and his mother. He was left alone to contemplate his grief.

Fig. 3: Extract from the church book of the Flemish Mennonite Church in Danzig, held at the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle in Weierhof.

The letter underscores the physical impact of a devastating illness but also the power of emotional deterioration. These experiences paralleling one another. Both seem to break down the boundaries between the spirit and the body, the dead and the living. Visions abound in the story that the man relates to his relatives. The unnamed man described the worsening state of his son saying that he ‘raged’ or was delirious, using the verb ‘rasen’ suggesting he had lost his senses. However, the son’s delirium was mirrored by the derangement of the father who wept at his son’s side and was distraught. His grief had some of the same symptoms of his son.4 And it was in a dissociative state, in a dream, that the father’s grief led to visions which mirrored the fevered conjurings of his son. His brother-in-law Paul appears to him three times—once after his wife’s death, once after his son Johann’s, and once in the summer of 1720. On the second visit, the spirit of Paul says:

“Your son Johann has also come to us. I cannot describe to you the joy, which your wife had with little Cornelius, when she saw Johann arrive.”

These visions and visitations are a strange mix of emotional and physical derangement, disassociation and altered states of consciousness when margins become blurred at moments of stress and conflict. The dream-state seems to be a way in which this man expresses his deep loss and grief, his despair contrasted with the joy of his dead family.5 Telling stories seems to soothe his pain. He retells the dream narrative in his letter but dreams themselves can also be seen as subconscious stories we tell ourselves. The father weeps but Paul tells his brother-in-law that, “Our spirits coalesced in love ( he uses the verb ‘verschmelzen’) and there was the greatest joy.” In the dream where he can contact the other world, the father can touch the blessed happiness of the afterlife. The whole letter is steeped in anguish and despair but also hope and love. Does narrating the pain in these tales ease his grief, or merely make him relive it?

The visiting spirits bring knowledge hidden from living men. The mother’s spectre seems to know who will die, although the brother-in-law Paul is only able to give notice of who has arrived in his spiritual world and does not have news of the future. The man even confesses he had made a strange pact with his relative, a pact which looks something like a devilish deal to know the unknowable—what life after death was like. The writer interjects a warning that this should not be copied by others. There is no suggestion that the pact was to be frowned upon in his case but dealings with the world of spirits were dangerous. That the spirits and dreams coincide with the striking of the clock makes it read like a ghost story and there is an otherworldly element to the narrative.6

The powerful interaction between the living and dead is perhaps surprising in a Mennonite letter, but the vision painted evokes a world of light, love and truth. The brother-in-law’s spirit describes the afterlife as if there were first a waiting room, a cavern to which he goes before he is transported to the community of the blessed. The spirit stresses that the wonderful place he now inhabits is the kingdom of the elect. Yet he also reminds his relative that human action on earth could not affect one’s fate beyond the veil. All the weeping and sighing is useless unless there is an inherent unity with the elect.

The father seems to have a longing for death; there is a glimmer in the letter of the transformation that comes with dying and his desire to join the elect.7 Perhaps he just wished to be with his family again but there was a clear sense of the unity of the true community in the afterlife. The son Cornelius also has a moment of joyous realisation when he feels the symptoms of illness and sees his mother. He shouted:

‘‘Dear father, thank God, I am also now so ill, now I will die, and be with my dear mother. O, if I were only already there.’

These are not the words of a man filled with fear and worry but of expectation at being reunited with his mother. There is something deeply touching and personal in these confessions, the suggestion of the tension in the joy the father should feel in the knowledge that his dead family are in the community of the elect and his conviction that he will perhaps soon join them. After all, he is part of the true church on earth. But yet the letter suggests he is not fully comforted; at the level of individual experience, the chasm still remains between the living and the dead.

This is a profoundly moving letter written in a moment of crisis, laying bare the grief and loneliness of a man nearly all of whose family have died and left him on earth. This is also why it so revealing as it throws up questions about the interplay between death and life, presence and absence, the individual and the community, grief and hope. But it is also in these moments of loss, suffering and emotional crisis that we can examine the threads that kept Mennonite communities together. Particularly striking, is the brother-in-law’s description of the marvellous number of those in the afterlife – more than the sand at the sea or the stars in the sky. The widower without his children though remains, as he says, completely alone.


1 ‘Copeij eines Schreibens aus Danzig’, 1720, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Small Archives, Box 1733, Folder 2.

2 Karl-Erik Frandsen, The Last Plague in the Baltic Region 1709-1713 (Copenhagen, 2010), 26. On the plague in Danzig see also E. Kizik (ed.), Dżuma, ospa, cholera. W trzechsetną rocznicę wielkiej epidemii w Gdańsku i na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1708–1711. Materiały z konferencji naukowej zorganizowanej przez Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Gdańska i Instytut Historii PAN w dniach 21–22 maja 2009 (Gdańsk 2011) and the contemporary account Johann Christoph Gottwald, Memoriale Loimicum, Oder Kurtze Verzeichnüß, Dessen, LoimicumWas in der Königl. Stadt Dantzig, bey der daselbst Anno 1709. hefftig graßirenden Seuche der Pestilentz, sich zugetragen, Nach einer Dreyfachen Nachricht, aus eigener Erfahrung auffgesetzet und beschrieben (1710).

3 H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origjn and History from 1569-1919, trans. Victor G. Doerksen, ed. and annotated Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen (Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 2007; co-published with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario).

4 Hannah Newton, ‘The sick child in early modern England, 1580–1720’, Endeavour 38.2 (2014), 122–129.Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4330552/

5 On sleep, dreams and visions see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT, 2016); Janine Riviere, Dreams in Early Modern England (London and New York, 2017).

6 On dealing with the discernment of spirits see Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New York, 2007); Laura Sangha, ‘ “Incorporeal Substances”: Discerning Angels in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, in Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2012), 255–277; Elizabeth Tingle, ‘Ghost Stories: Noël de Taillepied’s Pischologie ou apparition des esprits (1587) and the Rehabilitation of Purgatory in Late Sixteenth-Century France’, in Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (Abingdon and New York, 2015), 175– 196

7 On grief and suffering in Protestant theology see Ronald K. Rittgers, ‘Grief and Consolation in Early Modern Lutheran Devotion: The Case of Johannes Christoph Oelhafen’s Pious Meditations on the Most Sorrowful Bereavement (1619)’, Church History 81.3 (2012), 601-630.

A Visit to a Mennonite Community in Germany, 1881

Mark L. Louden

In the history of popular writings about the Pennsylvania Dutch, their culture and language, Phebe Earle Gibbons (1821–1893) occupies a place of importance. Born into a prominent Hicksite Quaker family in Philadelphia, Gibbons received a relatively good formal education for a female of her era. In 1845 she married a farmer and physician, Joseph Gibbons (1818–1883), from Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, where they made their home. Among their many activities, Joseph and Phebe brought out an important progressive Quaker periodical, The Journal: A Paper Devoted to the Interests of the Society of Friends. Phebe, in addition to raising five children, became a prolific journalist who in 1869 wrote an essay, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, garnering national attention. This essay was reprinted along with several others in an anthology that was first published in 1872 and then in two expanded editions in 1874 and 1882. Gibbons’s book was reprinted in 2001 with an extensive introduction by Don Yoder.

In 1881 Gibbons traveled to Europe and spent some time visiting Mennonites in Germany, writing letters home that were published in the Lancaster Intelligencer. Below is one of these letters, describing her visit to the Mennonite community at Kühbörncheshof located near the community of Katzweiler, which is ten kilometers north of Kaiserslautern in the Palatinate. The Kühbörncheshof congregation was founded by Swiss exiles in 1715 and is still active today. Gibbons’s letter appeared in the September 21, 1881, issue of the Intelligencer. The spellings of some of the place names have been amended to reflect how they are written today.

Exterior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923214

Among the Mennonites
Comparisons of Germany and Lancaster County
Glimpses into the Social Life of the Bavarian Farmer
Kühbörncheshof, near Katzweiler, in the Rhenish Palatinate, Bavaria, Germany
August 28, 1881

It is now Sunday morning, and at about half-past nine there is to be a meeting in the Mennonite meeting house in this small settlement. The people call it Gottesdienst, or God’s service. It holds about an hour.

Like our people in Lancaster County, these were originally of Swiss origin. The names here, or belonging to the community, are Lattschar, Rink, Weber, Koller, Bachmann and Schowalter; of which it will be noticed that the greater part are also found in Pennsylvania.

My last letter to you described my visit to Krefeld, where the Mennonite community are living in that manufacturing town. Here, however, in this little settlement, the people are farmers, living on their own land, and seeming to have prospered, much like our people at home.

I am now tarrying in the city of Speyer, on the west side of the Rhine, in Southern Germany; and hearing of this community, or settlement, I concluded to visit it. First I was to take the rail to Kaiserslautern, and there take the post-omnibus for Katzweiler, a village at a distance of about five miles. I was told to stay there over night on Saturday, and walk out to the Mennonite community in the morning. However, as I remembered the ways of our people at home, I bethought myself that it would be better to make myself known in the evening before, as there might be some distance to go to meeting, or some arrangement to make which it would be more agreeable to have planned over night. And it was fortunate for myself that I did so.

Having been left by the post-wagon at Katzweiler, at a small public house, the landlord had just consented to send me over in charge of a young girl, when he caught sight of two of the Mennists with a wagon. On the road I had seen a party of market women coming home in a wagon drawn by cows, a common sight in this country, but these Mennonites had good horses and were very polite in arranging a seat for me on a large bundle of straw. Some of the people on my journey who had learned that I am from America seemed to be quite interested in me, while I found persons about as good at asking questions as the Yankees at home. Thus in one of the towns I passed through I went into a shop to get something. I had spoken of being in a hurry for the omnibus, and the man wanted to know “Where are you going?” I said, “to Katzweiler.” “Have you relations there?” “No, sir.” “What did you come from France for?” “I did not come from France.” As I spoke German poorly, or perhaps used some French words, he inferred that I was from France.

I had asked the young Mennonites, of whom I have before spoken, to what house I would better go in the settlement, and when they drew near they said that I should go to their house. The house was good sized and very well built; not, however furnished with rag carpets, like so many of our farmers’ houses at home, but with sanded floors and stone.

Before supper the mother of the family (who had seven daughters and one son) asked me what I would have. I answered a glass of milk, warm from the cow. A noble glass was brought me with cake sprinkled with cinnamon. After while their regular supper was ready, and they seemed to think it not nice enough to invite me to sit down, but I desired to do so, being glad to see the manner of living. Before going to the table all the family stood a few moments as if in silent prayer, and again in the same manner after eating. Besides those already mentioned, there were a widowed aunt and the husband of one of the daughters. The latter was one of those with whom I rode home. The supper was potato soup, this being the only article of food on the table. A deep dish of soup was set at each end, and each member of the family provided with plate and spoon; some of the plates being tin. The soup contained mashed potatoes and bread, butter and herbs, but no meat. It was good. I think that one of the family said to me, “You have meat in America.” I understood that their usual food is potatoes and milk. They seem, however, to have plenty of rye bread. They also had some beautiful white bread, made for Sunday. To read of such simplicity of living it might be supposed that the people are poor. This family has, however, eighty acres, six cows besides calves, and as I have already said, horses. Food is doubtless expensive, however, butter being now about 31 cents a pound. It will be found that where people eat so sparingly they eat more frequently.

The settlement no longer has an unpaid ministry as with us. Until lately they had; but a few years ago they concluded to employ a minister. However, he is not heavily paid. He preaches by turns in three different settlements, and receives a salary of about $180, having too a wife and infant. There are larger communities, however, which pay as much as $250 to $450.

Interior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. The inscription on the wall is from Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923317

There was no organ in the little church which I visited today, and in most respects it seemed as simple as some Mennonite meetings that I have seen in Lancaster County. One marked difference is that all the prayers seemed to be read from a book. I may add that none of the women wore white caps, a few wore black caps or head-dresses, but the greater part appeared without any and with their hair very neatly braided.

The ancestors of these people came from Switzerland in 1715, and there are still small Mennonite settlements in that country.

The first who came from Switzerland to the place I have today visited seems to have built himself a log house; the country being nearly covered with wood with wild animals therein. Others joined him until the little settlement numbered eight families. But counting all in the country round belonging to this church, it is said to have ninety-four baptized persons. They baptize at age of thirteen. They are no longer in this part of Germany allowed to purchase exemption from military service; all who are drawn must serve without any exception.

There was give me today a list of most of the Mennonites communities in Europe. Some of the names in Germany will be very familiar to our people at home, such as Stauffer, Lehmann, Neff, Krehbill, Muselman, Bar and Landes.

Before closing I will add a few words on the language. As spoken in South Germany it is softened as reyer or reschen for regen, rain. Among the Mennonites I caught the sound of moryets for morgens [‘mornings’], and obits or owats for abends [‘evenings’]. It is quite probable that one familiar with the “Pennsylvania Dutch” of Lancaster County would find great resemblance in it to the language spoken among the Mennonites here.

Reference:

Gibbons, Phebe Earle. 2001. Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, with an introduction by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

On the Emden Kirchenrat, and Naming Anabaptists

An important set of sources for understanding Anabaptism in Emden are the Kirchenrat records, which were edited by Heinz Schilling in the 1980s. Though the Kirchenrat itself was established in 1544, the records did not begin for another decade due to the interruption of the Interim.1 Looking for inhabitants called before the consistory and labelled as some variation of “Täufer,” we can identify Reformed community members flirting with marginal beliefs and navigating life in Emden as it assumed its full height as a refugee city. These records begin after the rapid expansion of the city in the mid-1550s, following the influx of Dutch Calvinist refugees, and demonstrate a need to police the edges of the reformed community–precisely because there were a variety of nonconforming believers in the city.2

A few examples will give texture to this source. Johan van Bellen first appeared in the records on 15 November 1557. Subjected to instruction regarding his nonconforming beliefs, the “doepers” were identified as a source of these errors.3 Moreover, and incriminatingly, he had at least three unbaptized children. Van Bellen was something of a troublemaker; he recurred repeatedly in the records of the consistory, and was admonished for both his beliefs and actions.4 Though he was not always identified as holding Anabaptist sympathies, he was clearly an outsider – and he expressed this in a rare bit of direct speech: “So Menno Simons’ sect does not want me and you do not want me and the papists do not want me . . . ”5 Lacking any true institutional affiliations, he was brought before the consistory in an attempt to bring his religious and lifestyle choices under the aegis of a stabilizing authority.

It is important to note that the consistory differentiated between generalized “Anabaptists” and those Mennonites, Jorists and others who were identifiable as belonging to a particular nonconformist community. On 26 July 1557, we see concern that one Severin Koperslager belonged to what must have been a small but persistent community of Jorists.6 Because David Joris himself, or some of his followers, had taken to announcing the coming of the “third David” by the later 1540s, the accusation was that Severin “knew another savior.” Severin is thus forced to gainsay David Joris and denounce him as a “spirit of the devil.” Most interestingly, however, no mention is made of “Anabaptists” or baptism at all, suggesting some separation between a larger understanding of Anabaptism and these individual charismatic groups. There are two later references to suspected Jorists; one mentioned as a “Davidiorismo” in February of 1559, and one who may be a papist or a libertine or belong to the “David-Joris” group.7 Again, neither of these accusations accompany anything like a denunciation of Anabaptism, and suggest a separate category has formed for the purposes of communal discipline.

In March of 1559, the two groups arose in conversation during the same day of consistory testimony8 In a discussion about bookbinding and publishing, Cornelis Benninck mentioned the need to address Mennonite writing in Holland, while Adrianus de Kuper presented two pamphlets he wrote against “de wederdopers.” Though representatives of these groups were not present to defend themselves, the separation of one from another seems significant. That the consistory would attempt to limit Mennonite publishing or publish treatises against marginalized beliefs is not surprising, but the careful deployment of these contested categories seems significant for decision making within the Reformed church court system.

These few pieces of the Kirchenratsprotokolle, then, might be read as merely the continuation of an increasingly sophisticated deployment of terms. The church council both took up and further populated the categories which we have seen in the official correspondences of the 1530s and 1540s, and it is certainly worth further study to determine how discourses between secular and religious authorities intertwined during this period. Yet the development of these distinctive categories proved operational for the Emden Kirchenrat, who associated particular beliefs or behaviors with certain Anabaptist groups and treated suspected individuals accordingly. That the church council found these categories to be meaningfully different may reflect a more intimate knowledge of these groups, or perhaps an increasingly codified understanding of exactly who these groups contained and what these groups believed. The creation of categories became useable knowledge, and altered the lives of individual nonconformists when authorities began to differentiate rehabilitation and punishment accordingly.


  1. Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP.
  2. A 2001 article by Samme Zijlstra examined some Anabaptists and spiritualists who came before the consistory, and focused on the theological differences that motivated conversions between members of the dominant Reformed church and these smaller, marginalized communities; Samme Zijlstra, “Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and the Reformed Church in East Frisia,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review (Jan. 2001, Vol 75:1), 57-73.
  3. KRP I:10.
  4. KRP I: 75, 80, 83, 115, 120, 126, 128.
  5. KRP I: 141.
  6. KRP I: 3.
  7. KRP I: 71; 125.
  8. KRP I: 78.

Searching for Anabaptists in Emden

At the risk of appearing preoccupied with Emden and its Schutzgeld, I write today about another aspect of these seventeenth-century registers. When I began researching in the summer of 2016, I assumed the example I found in Emden to be one of a readily available type of bureaucratic document. A simple list of Mennonite believers, with names and sums – surely these are widespread! Sadly, no. Although Schutzgeld structures were in place in a number of cities in the Holy Roman Empire, and presumably were collected regularly within those cities, sparse records remain. The Emden city archive itself holds only the registers from 1601, 1602, 1626, 1737 and 1749.  For today, then: a short note on my research and its many dead ends.

As the Schutzgeld registers fueled my earliest research and writing, names were on my mind. What could I do with names? My initial instinct was to amass a database of individuals mentioned as Anabaptists in the northwest corner of the Empire. I could use static official documents to infer movement – where Anabaptists were taxed, where they were disciplined, where they were expelled. I had hoped that, by tracing who left where, and why, I might be able to reconstruct patterns of itinerancy and find new civic sources to flesh out the lives of these religious refugees. This was my big-picture goal, but I began in Emden with my lists of names and a wonderful, digitized archival finding aid courtesy of the friendly archivists in Emden.

I was immediately confronted with problems common to genealogists and historians alike. To begin with, only the most unique of surnames provided any hope of a definitive match. The many iterations of ‘Jacobs/sen,’ ‘Jans/sen’ and ‘Peters/sen’ proved too numerous to hope for success. I found a Johan Janßen in the notarial records – perhaps related to the Johan Janßen who paid a Schutzgeld of 15 thaler and six schap in 1602 – petitioning the court for the release of his father in 1568.[1] Yet, Johan Janßen? A more common name can hardly be found. More likely the connection was a coincidence of popular naming.

Yet, despite these setbacks, I hoped that these Schutzgeld records might have more to teach me. Perhaps the most useful aspect of these lists is the notation of ‘vertrocken,’ – rendered in modern Dutch as ‘vertrokken’ – those who departed, or emigrated. This was a smaller subset of names to investigate, and promised some sort of movement.

Those who are noted as ‘departed’ throughout the 1602 register, seventeen in all, largely do not leave a mark elsewhere in the Emden archives. One small exception is Hanß Kock. Obligated to pay two thaler, he had by Easter remitted one thaler five schap, and “thereby departed.”[2] He received his letter of safe conduct from Henrica Ripperda, the widow of the Lord of Dornum, on 30 June 1602. As a boatman, Kock provided the means of transport to Hamburg for two brothers bearing a load of butter and cheese.[3] The timing suggests that this Hans Kock is the same as found in the Schutzgeldlists, as does the von Dornum’s long history of Anabaptist sympathy.[4] But that’s about all it suggests.

I’ll keep Hanß Kock in my database, and check for him in Hamburg if my research ever takes me there. But this methodology, of names and lists and cross checking, has become just one of many tools I use to find Anabaptists wherever I can in the archive. I have benefitted greatly from the recommendations of my mentors, the suggestions of fellow grad students, and the inventions that arise out of necessity – as I keep searching to find those who largely did not want to be found by early modern authorities.


[1] Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Registratur, Nr. 712c.

[2] Ibid., Nr. 415, Bl. 80: Hanß Kock Ad 2 {dhr} soluit vp Oisterenn darmitt vertrockenn

[3] Ibid., Nr. 176a.

[4] The lords of Dornum and Oldersum fueded in the early seventeenth century. Ibid., Nr. 824.

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,  

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.

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  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.  http://preussenprotokolle.bbaw.de/bilder/PDFBand61, 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. 

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.

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  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. 

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.

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  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, https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz32097.html#ndbcontent 
  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, https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz80044.html#adbcontent. 
  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.