Thomas More’s “little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” – more commonly known as just Utopia – imagined a society based on common property, with full equality, no poverty, and an abundance of daily necessities for all. First published in 1516, this fictitious tale outlined a seemingly perfect commonwealth, providing a stark contrast to contemporary economic inequality and social misery.1
How could Utopia’s citizens achieve such a phenomenal economic performance leading to seemingly universal welfare? There was no idleness, for one, as everyone was expected to work and contribute to society’s well-being. As the character Raphael Hythloday explains to his puzzled listeners, “if they all were put to work—and useful work at that—you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough time to produce all the goods required for human needs and conveniences.”2 Moreover, Utopians did not pursue their own interest in their economic activity but tried to serve the general need. But it was especially the principle of common property that allowed the island to establish such a beneficial commonwealth. As Hythloday summarizes:
For elsewhere they always talk about the public good but they are concerned with their own private welfare; here [in Utopia], where there is no private property, everyone works seriously for the public good. And for good reason in both places, for elsewhere is there anyone who does not know that unless he looks out for his own personal interest he will die of hunger, no matter how flourishing the commonwealth may be; therefore necessity causes him to think he should watch out for his own good, not that of others, that is, of the people. On the other hand, here, where everything belongs to everyone, no one doubts that (as long as care is taken that the public storehouses are full) nothing whatever will be lacking to anyone for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is a pauper or a beggar there, and though no one has anything, all are rich.3
How utopian is such an economic world in the context of modern capitalism, an age usually associated with individual profit maximization, competitive markets, self-interest and greed? In other words, is it at all possible for the infamous homo economicus to break out from the real world to create something even vaguely similar to Thomas More’s Utopia?
A rare glimpse into the diary of a German traveler to the American and Canadian West in the years 1930-31 offers such an alternative perspective. It was in the midst of the Great Depression that hit Germany even harder then North America, inflicting political turmoil and contributing to the rise of the Nazi Party. The diary’s first entry dates from July 18, 1930, the day when German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg dissolved the Weimar Republic’s last parliamentary government. The following election campaign was marked by ever increasing unemployment rates, strong antisemitic and anti-democratic sentiment from the extremist left and right. In the September election, the Nazi party won a landslide victory, a key milestone on Hitler’s ascent to political power that he finally achieved in January 1933.
The lone German traveler, who sympathized with Christian socialism and who was a staunch pacifist, thus had much to ponder on his journey. With his home country in turmoil and witnessing the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on America, his final destination must have appeared to him like a true Utopia. Nestled in the South Dakota plains, the visitor experienced the vision of a small-scale society based on communal property. There, all able-bodied members worked, including women and older children, contributing to the community’s overall welfare.4 In this setting, the communities produced sufficiently to sustain their membership, and it seemed to serve their commonwealth well. The traveler’s diary does not report a single issue that plighted Depression-era America: neither starvation, homelessness, unemployment, nor social deprivation.
It does probably not to come to the surprise of this blog’s readers that the communities in question were the Hutterite Bruderhöfe, scattered across the Northern Plains in the United States and Canada. The traveler was Eberhard Arnold, who had experimented with communal living in the 1920s and founded the Rhön Bruderhof in 1926. His trip to America served the purpose of connecting the newly founded community in Germany to the historical Hutterite church. Being well versed in Anabaptist history and belief, Arnold enthusiastically wrote that “[u]p till today the complete communism in production and consumption of every single Bruderhof […] and also the absolute unity of faith of all 35 Bruderhöfe is as good as completely unshaken; one can almost say is preserved absolutely pure.”5 This “purity” of the Bruderhof community was firmly based on Anabaptist-Hutterite religious principles, in particular the central tenant to forgo individual property and to “have all things common” (Acts 4:32).
The Hutterite communal economics not only provides a seemingly stark contrast to its capitalist surroundings; it also exemplifies how moral values decisively shape economic thinking, institutions and practice. This is the core of the current scholarly debate on moral economy, an interdisciplinary field of research that has grown from humble beginnings to prominence in the last decades.6
In The Moral Economists,7 intellectual historian Tim Rogan places the debate’s origin to T.H. Tawney, a British economic historian who published the influential book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926. Tawney found much at fault with modern capitalism, and it is in the context of his fundamental moral critique that he referred to Thomas More’s Utopia. Tawney was no mere academic confined to his ivory tower. He engaged in workers’ education, sympathized with Christian socialism and was politically active. Likely Tawney never learned about the Hutterites; otherwise he surely would have been keenly interested in this form of Christian communism.
Other academics, however, took note of the Hutterite communal economy. One was historian Victor Peters who in the 1965 book All Things Common provided one of the first systematic analyses of the Hutterite economic way of life in the context of modern American capitalism. It is no coincidence that the book’s opener immediately refers to Thomas More’s Utopia, for Peters considered the Hutterite Bruderhof as
literally utopian, for it was Thomas More who wrote: “For what can be more rich than to live joyfully and tranquilly without any worry, not fearful for his own livelihood, nor vexed and troubled with his wife’s importunate complaints, not dreading poverty to his sons, nor anxious about his daughter’s dowry? But instead to be secure about the livelihood and happiness of their wives, children, grandchildren, and their posterity which they handsomely assume will be a long time.”8
And yet, not all seems to have been as ideal and idealistic in practice. Twenty-five years before Peters’ scholarly account, Eberhard Arnold admiringly wrote about the impressive agricultural operations he observed, including a “very large mill,” a “gigantic thresher” and “the most modern motors.” While this sophisticated (and likely quite expensive) modern equipment at first glance appeared to be highly beneficial for improving efficiency in production, a somewhat puzzled Arnold also noted a counter perspective. It was voiced by an elder at Rockport Bruderhof who did not praise the progress, but rather was worried about decay, lamenting “the no longer Hutterian school, the economic rationalization of the Bruderhöfe, the influence of the world and diminishing unity in the style of life and the waning influence of elders.”9
From Eberhard Arnold’s perspective, trying to find an escape from the troubled circumstances in Germany, his puzzlement seems understandable. At the same time, the Rockport elder’s concern is highly plausible from a more distant analytical viewpoint. By 1930, American Hutterites were far from isolated, even if their remote settlement location would appear to be. The Bruderhöfe were instead tightly connected with their environment, particularly in economic terms. Hutterites produced for the market and were in turn susceptible to volatile prices, took out loans, bought machinery, and in many other ways relied on exchange with the outside world.
It thus should not surprise us that Hutterites were confronted with beliefs, ideologies, and rationales that competed with or were in direct opposition to their own Anabaptist beliefs. How should a Hutterite discern the logic of economic growth, profit-maximization, expansion, and efficiency gains in a competitive environment? How could Hutterite moral values be compatible with the requirements of modern capitalism? And how would this eventually shape the seeming “purity” of the Bruderhof community that Arnold so greatly admired in the following decades? Answers to these questions, I am convinced, will not only enhance our understanding of Hutterites in the context of the modern world. It would also offer a viable contribution to the much wider debate on the relationship between moral values and the economy.
1. It is important to note, however, that Utopia was not without flaws, at least from a 21st century perspective. These include the institution of slavery, as well as imperial wars of aggression against the island’s neighbors. Katherine Hill recently addressed More’s Utopia in a different context in her post on this blog: https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/12/21/utopian-imaginations/
2. Thomas More, Utopia, with the assistance of Jerry Harp, and Clarence Miller, Second edition (New Haven, Conn, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 63.
6. From the extensive current literature see for example: Ute Frevert, “Moral Economies, Present and Past: Social Practices and Intellectual Controversies,” in Moral Economies, ed. Ute Frevert et al., Geschichte und Gesellschaft Heft 026 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019); Norbert Götz, “’Moral Economy’: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects,” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no. 2 (2015); Andrew Sayer, “Approaching Moral Economy,” in The Moralization of the Markets, ed. Nico Stehr, Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler, first paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2010).
7 Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).
After the 1694 expulsion and dispossession of Mennonites from the city of Rheydt, negotiations were both urgent and extensive. (For the narrative of this event, as reported by Rheydt Mennonites themselves, please see my post from May 4, 2021.) The protracted aftermath – hundreds of letters, petitions, and memos sent between Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and his commissioners, representatives of the Dutch States General, King William III of England and Stadtholder of the Netherlands, and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold III – ultimately demonstrated a small but significant rhetorical space that had been carved out through years of piecemeal economic toleration.1 Indeed, these high-level epistolary discussions often included appeals for de facto tolerance based on Mennonite economic usefulness or political obedience.
Though decisions happened primarily in these diplomatic debates, other Mennonite groups also took it upon themselves to urge intercession on behalf of the Rheydt community. These appeals often turned upon an argument for a shared Christianity, while at the same time defending against ongoing accusations of heresy – and we’ll look at one such letter today. The collective “baptism-minded” [tauffgesindt] community of the duchy of Cleve had been involved in raising funds to free the imprisoned Rheydt Mennonites in the summer of 1694, and subsequently petitioned their elector, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to plead on the Rheydt community’s behalf. They began a September 1694 letter by declaring “that those, who are of our opinion in the matter of baptism but otherwise faithful to Christian beliefs based on God’s Word” had been “attacked without warning.”2 This affront had occurred despite the community’s adherence to a faith that did “not in any way challenge the common ground of Christian religion.”3These Mennonites were those for whom “the carrying of weapons among them was held to be prohibited, but that nothing else was sought other than to live a quiet and peaceful life under their Christian authority, to honor themselves by honest dealings, to live in Christian love and unity with their neighbors and to contribute to the common good all that appertains to a faithful subject and citizen,” and that such obvious virtues had led, “not only in England and Holland but also in various provinces of the Holy Roman Empire [to]…freedom of residence, trade and commerce like other Christian inhabitants.”4 They therefore insisted on a common Christianity, but ultimately grounded their appeal for toleration in practical, economic successes in nearby communities and territories.
This mix of theological inoffensiveness and practical economic appeal became even more clear as the Cleve community dealt with the issue of the Peace of Westphalia. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia had redefined the relationship between Christian communities, Christian authority, and the Holy Roman Empire. Calvinism now joined Lutheranism and Catholicism as legitimate official religions, and, importantly, rulers who mandated one were no longer allowed to expel dissenting believers from the other two groups. Mennonites, however, were not included in this expansion of imperial toleration. The Cleve community acknowledged that they had heard others talk about their exclusion from the treaty: “In the meantime, we hear that we, not belonging to the three religions admitted to the Roman Empire, are to be feared as heretics and therefore our property, wherever it may be, is to be confiscated.”5 The community was forced to acknowledge the invectives thrown against them, and the economic penalty that had long attended charges of heresy.6 The Cleve community therefore identified the vulnerability that their extra-Westphalian status accentuated, even as they pushed back against the conflation of non-tolerated and “heretical” groups. They stopped short, however, of making any claims on Westphalian identity: “So it should be noted that we are not looking for any rights dedicated to these three religions in the same statutes, but rather we are asking for nothing more than what we, under your Serene Elector’s Merciful protection live peacefully…so that our mere things, without some fault of our own, may not be taken.”7 This plea was underscored by the accusation that the commerce available even to “heathen, Turks and Jews” had become impossible for Mennonites – a claim that they were owed at least the same, if not more, protection than these other exogenous groups.
The Cleve Mennonites’ insistence on their common Christian status under the Peace of Westphalia is striking, especially when considered next to their still-requisite denial of any connection to the 1534/5 Kingdom of Münster. The community was unsurprisingly explicit in its denunciation, acknowledging “a certain sect of people, which one calls re-baptizers, that also committed varying severe errors, and in particular have tried to bring about turmoil and insurrection [unruhe und Emperung] in ecclesiastical and secular rule […] out of which formed in the city of Münster a terrifying example.”8 These “pernicious heretics” had been dealt with justly according to the laws of the empire, the Cleve community emphasized, with strict punishments doled out to both ringleaders and followers.9 It was moreover well known, they argued, that Menno and all peaceable Anabaptists who followed him had willingly chosen a faith and a life that distinguished themselves from their “unruly” brethren – and exonerated them, in turn, from these lingering accusations of heresy. “[Menno] does not have the slightest community with those of Münster,” they argued, and “instead they have as their first and main maxim that they do not interfere with matters of spiritual or secular rule, and prove themselves to be against all turmoil [unruhe].”10 This letter from the “baptism minded” of the duchy of Cleve was longer than most other petitions in the aftermath of the Rheydt dispossession, perhaps indicating both the gradually increasing space for, and the ongoing character of, negotiations around Anabaptist identity.
Rheydt Mennonites would be portrayed by secular authorities throughout the negotiations as either a heretical threat or an economic boon, or perhaps some mixture of the two. This malleability in their identity had proved essential to their survival thus far, but also inherent to their persecution. Although the targeting of a flourishing religious minority group was far from a unique tactic, in the case of dispossessed Rheydt Mennonites it occasioned another semi-public discussion about who was and was not a Christian – and would eventually develop into a debate over who was and was not a “Protestant.”
1. Achieved through the exchange of protection fees [Schutzgeld] for the issuance of protection letters [Schutzbriefe]. For an example of Schutzgeld payments as recorded in the registers of the city of Emden, please see my post from May 28, 2020.
2. Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz[GSPK], I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6r.
6. The 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina had codified laws concerning heresy, criminality, and property for application within the Holy Roman Empire. For the language of the Carolina, see “Appendix B. CONSITUTIO CRIMINALIS CAROLINA,” in Prosecuting crime in the Renaissance: England, Germany, France, edited and by John H. Langbein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 259-308.
Mennonites experienced dispossession throughout the early modern period, including a late, violent, and dramatic expropriation in 1694. The noble von Bylandt family had favored the Mennonite community in the city of Rheydt, which lay within the duchy of Jülich and was ultimately ruled over by the Elector Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate. The situation became tenuous, however, after a fire destroyed approximately fifty houses within the city in May 1694. The Mennonite community, relatively rich and stable due to their success in the local textile industry, was accused of starting the blaze. In 1705 Johan Scheiffart, an official involved in the dispossession, was “asked if he knew that this Sect had the teaching to make secret blazes [heimlicheFeuersbrünste], in such a way that it would burn the goods of their neighbors?” He was forced to concede that this had been reported to him by others in Rheydt, but could not recall why.1
The expelled Mennonites of Rheydt narrated their own story more clearly. An extraordinary document, known as the Instrumentum Publicum, was presented to a notary on the evening of February 9, 1696, in the house of Peter Janssen within the city of Krefeld.2The Mennonites had prepared the document themselves and then presented it to the imperial notary public, Herman Marthens, and some “Gentleman witnesses.”3 These men confirmed and attested to the contents of the document, a species facti that allowed Mennonites to tell their side of the story. The document covered events between July 16, 1694, and August 28, 1694, and the Mennonites began by asserting their absolute innocence and civil obedience within the city of Rheydt. Their own coexistence within Rheydt had been exemplary, which they supported with descriptive words of obedience (“peace,” “tranquility”) and evidence of their consistent payment of taxes and fees.4
According to the Instrumentum Publicum, the violence of the Elector’s commissioners broke both this peace and their longstanding economic settlement. Those explicitly in the service of Elector Johann Wilhelm were Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf, Doctor Heyden and Doctor Scheiffart; others, however, such as “Captain of Horse, Mr. Wedding” and Paulus Katz of Jüchen lent their aid to the violent dispossession despite the fact that they were not electoral agents. These leaders arrived in Rheydt with “large number of armed peasants,” clearly ready for a fight.5 The unnamed peasants interrogated the inhabitants of Rheydt about the Mennonites and where they lived. They pounded and broke down doors, and even struck a Mennonite man with a pistol: he was “so severely wounded that blood streamed over his clothing.”6 The peasants dragged Mennonite men, women and children together and left them to be “guarded” by the Commissioners’ forces, with the exception of a few nursing infants allowed to remain with servants or neighbors. While this group of Mennonites huddled together, four peasants from within Rheydt tried to shake them down for any valuables on their person or in their pockets.
Lord Doctor Scheiffart then interrogated prominent members of the community, and focused specifically on any “money or bonds” that they may have owned.7 This line of questioning went on all afternoon and into the evening, while, simultaneously, the rest of the Commissioners dealt with the issue of Rheydt Castle. Baron von Bylandt was absent but the “fortress” appeared impassable, as it was “fortified with ramparts and moats and the gates of which remained closed.”8 The commissioners convinced Herr Gangelt to appear before them, and then compelled him to lower the bridge and allow the Elector’s forces access to the area inside – access to those Mennonite homes that had been particularly protected by von Bylandt’s favor. After this chaotic day of invasion and interrogation, the commissioners split the community into two main groups. About thirty of those within the city who had been interrogated, and who had their valuables pillaged by the Commissioners and their followers, were put in restraints and marched from Rheydt to Jüchen, a distance of about ten kilometers.9 Of those within the castle compound, many of the men appear to have escaped during the delay; the women and children left were threatened by peasants and commissioners for another week or so, at which point thirteen or fourteen of them were chosen to be marched and held in Jüchen along with the others.10
Imprisonment in Jüchen lasted for two weeks. Guarded and detained, the Mennonite community was first interrogated by Scheiffart within a few days of their arrival. He accused them of possessing “an accursed and damnable faith,” and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Catholicism. Further interrogations followed, largely individually, in the Jüchen home of Paulus Katz and in the presence of multiple of the Elector’s Commissioners. Mennonites were threatened with the 1529 mandate proclaimed at Speyer which specified death by fire or, in special circumstances, by the sword. Moreover, it was not just Mennonites threatened with the outstanding imperial ban; others associated with the Rheydt Mennonite community were similarly rounded up and intimidated. Johann Floh, a local textile merchant who had possessed a special letter of protection for nearly fifty years, had married a non-Mennonite woman who had a child from a previous marriage. This child, Peter Schloter, was now 43 years old and mostly likely worked in the same bleaching business that his stepfather had fought to protect decades earlier. This association, however, gave the Elector’s forces the pretext to arrest him outside of Gladbach and bring him to be imprisoned and interrogated alongside the Rheydt Mennonites in Jüchen, despite the fact that he was “of the reformed religion.”11 Another man, Peter Tomps, was also reportedly part of the Reformed faith, but this did not spare him from either threat or interrogation.12 These interrogations were repetitive and often nakedly avaricious. In one instance commissioners questioned each member of the community, and asked on “whether they still had outstanding money, cotton thread and pieces of linen on the looms and where the weavers lived.”13
Indeed, while these ordeals played out in Jüchen agents of the Elector were hard at work converting Mennonite possessions into cash. The houses, initially pillaged on July 16 for cash and small valuables, were in the next twenty days “stripped” of all furniture and “the floors, ceilings and tiles were destroyed and the boards carried away.”14 The commissioners made detailed lists of possessions for each family, with expected values totaled. Everything of value was sold at markets in Jüchen, Rheydt and Gladbach. The loss of possessions was swift, but this was not the end of the Elector’s attempt to squeeze money out of the Mennonite community. In the course of the interrogations, the attitude of the commissioners hardened into an explicit extortionate threat: pay 12,000 imperial Thalers or face execution.15
It is unclear whether the Elector and his commissioners demanded such a sum because they believed the Mennonites to have hidden some of their own money elsewhere, or if they had prior knowledge of the communication networks that existed among Mennonites in the area – and that therefore the Rheydt Mennonites might be able appeal to the nearby the Dutch Mennonite community.16 In any event, this was an exceedingly large sum of money, even for a community whose goods and property had not just been confiscated by the same extorting power. Smaller sums were suggested by the imprisoned Mennonites (1,200 Thalers as a first offer, then 4,000) before the still exceedingly high price of 8,000 Thalers was agreed upon.17 Yet, when the Mennonites agreed to this sum they believed themselves to have been granted access to any of their own furniture or goods still remaining, and this did not come to pass. They had no personal assets at all, and a bill of 8,000 Thalers due to preserve their lives. The imprisoned Mennonites hoped to write to their Dutch co-religionists, they claimed, but before the money could be collected they were threatened again. Baron von Bongart, a commissioner involved since the beginning, returned from the Electoral seat of Düsseldorf with two orders of execution. Two men of prominent families, Jan Klaasen van Aachen and Godschalk van Elten, were to be put to death.18 This did not immediately occur, however, and instead the whole of the community was moved again on August 1, 1694. Roughly bound together, the Mennonites were marched to Paffendorf, about twenty-one kilometers away from their former place of imprisonment in Jüchen.
In Paffendorf, events turned violent. Peter Schloter was “found…dead with his head cut off; …the dead body was dragged out like a dead carcass (or carrion) to the place of execution and left under the gallows under the blue heavens until the [next] day and was kept with a guard, but was afterwards hanged like a dog with the limbs aloft on the gallows standing there.”19 This gruesome scene was used to further intimidate prominent Mennonite men; three of them were brought to the gallows, threatened with similar treatment if any of them tried to escape, and then again threatened with this punishment if they did not recant their faith or pay the 8,000 Thaler within three days. The gallows were also used to intimate Gertrude Fieten, “of the Reformed religion” and a servant who had been imprisoned in an effort to gain information on her rich Mennonite master’s property.20
The conditions in Paffendorf were dire for everyone, however, and stretched on for weeks despite the fact that both William III of England, in his capacity as the Duke of nearby Mörs, and Lord Bildebeq of the Dutch States General were petitioning forcefully throughout August.21 Yet these outside intercessions bore no immediate fruit. On August 28 the Mennonites were compelled to pay those 8,000 Thaler – plus 800 Thaler in “expenses” related to their own imprisonment – with the threat that the fee would double to 16,000, and the imprisonment conditions worsen, if this payment did not come through.22
By September of 1694, then, the Mennonites of Rheydt had lost their property, all savings and anything of value, and had been officially exiled from the territory: “the prisoners were finally set free and conducted to the frontier of the country [where] they were banished and exiled with forfeiture of person, life and property should they return.”23 Though negotiations over the property, debts associated with the property, and their restitution continued for years, the Instrumentum Publicum ends here. Many of the impoverished and exiled Mennonites ended up in the city of Krefeld, forty-eight kilometers north of their last place of imprisonment; a city where much of the money for their release had been raised, and where a group of formerly-Rheydt Mennonites would come together two years later to produce this extraordinary document. The names of these twenty-six Mennonites close out the document. Though the Mennonites now residing in Krefeld printed their side of the story in early 1696, it was not until the latter half of 1697 that they won any recompense.
1 Quoted in Karl Rembert, Die “Wiedertäufer” im Herzogtum Jülich (Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899), 410, in a footnote beginning on 409 (fn. 2).
2 The original document was printed in Krefeld in 1696. A Dutch copy was made in 1771 by Godschalk Godschalks, and the original version was “found by an unknown person in an old library” in Krefeld and printed in 1803; Ernst Weydmann, “Über die Vertreibung der Mennoniten aus Rheydt und deren Einwanderung in Crefeld im Jahre 1694,“ in Mennonitische Blätter(1891): 21-6. All quotes here are taken from the English translation, made by N.B. Grubb, and checked against the German version printed as an addendum to Ludwig Schmitz-Kallenberg, Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt (1887). I use the names found in the German version, however, as the English version was translated from the Dutch and has retained names modified for a Dutch audience. N.B. Grubb, Pro Copia Instrumentum Publicum, Concerning That Which was Considered in Facti, by the Lord Commissioners of the Palatine Electoral Prince in Reference, To the Protestant Mennonites at Reijdt in the Year 1694, and what Transpired (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1909). German: Franke, “Instrumentum Publicum wegen desjenigen, was bei denen Churfl. Pfaltzischen Herren Commissarien gegen die Protestante Menoniste zu Rheydt in Anno 1694 in facta vorgenohmen und sich zugetragen,” edited by J. H. Franke; in Ludwig Schmitz (-Kallenberg), Rheydter Chronik. Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt, Erster Band (Rheydt: Verlag von D. Rob. Langewiesche, 1897), 265ff.
16 It seems probable that, as Elector Palatine, he would have been aware of the efforts of Dutch Mennonites on behalf of expelled Swiss Mennonites who settled in the Palatinate in the 1670s. For a general overview of that period, see Rosalind J. Beiler, “Dissenting Religious Communication Networks and European Migration, 1660-1710,” in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215-216.
18 Grubb, 13-14; Franke, 270. They were to be executed by the sword and the rope respectively. The meaning of these execution methods is unclear, but perhaps reflected differentiated status.
19 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271-272. The death of Peter Schloter is a bizarre episode that hangs in the middle of the story without much explanation. Much remains unclear, but his death was used by the commissioners to put fear into a population that they had detained for economic reasons. A report from the Elector to his commissioner Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf mentioned another Mennonite death while in prison, this time in November 1694. It was reported to be a suicide and they released the body to the family to be buried. See LNW-Rheinland, Jülich-Berg Nr. 257, 107r: “Ihr sollet den Jenigen Menschen, so Juengstens in der gefangnuschaff in seiner kranckheit sich selbsten ermordet, vnd ein Menonist zue seyn vermeinet worden, dessen bey euch derentwillen sich angebanden befreunden: oder anderen ohn verlangt außfolgen, vnd Ihne gleich wolen nach ihrem belieben begraben zulaßen”
20 Grubb, 19-21; Franke, 273-274. Her employer, Cornelius Floh, lived within the castle walls of Rheydt and had presumably been one of the men who escaped and left women and children behind. Floh was eventually compelled to pay 150 imperial Thalers to free Gertrude, who was kept in Düsseldorf for weeks longer than the rest. Floh’s account books were also part of this deal.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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 TheAtlantic 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.
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.
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.
Gibbons, Phebe Earle. 2001. Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, with an introduction by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
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.
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.
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.
Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP. ↩
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. ↩
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.
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
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.
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.↩
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, ↩