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

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

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

The High Royal Executive Order of March 3, 1868

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1.   Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 268. 
  2. For background and context, see ibid., 191-205. 
  3.   Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz Berlin (GStA), Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), Tit. 332T (Militärpflicht), no. 5 (Acta betreffend die Mennoniten), vol. 1 ((1819-1868), n.p., 29 February 1868. 
  4.   On Prussian Mennonites going to jail over military service, see Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 91-2, 98-100, 222-6. The laws that forced congregations to allow individual choices are explained in ibid., 223-6,  

Mennonite Elders Meet King William I, February 25, 1868

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

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

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

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

8.1 Theophil von Podbielski

Theophil von Podbielski

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

8.2 Friedrich zu Eulenburg

Friedrich zu Eulenburg

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

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

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

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


  1. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 102. 
  2., 99, 165-6, 342-3. For context and details, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 200-212, 269. 
  3.  Geheimer Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), Berlin, Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), Tit. 31 (Mennonitensachen), no. 2 (Die in Ansehung der staatsbürgerlichen Verhältnisse der Mennoniten vorgenommen Anordnugnen, desgl. wegen Behandlung der Mennoniten-Gemeinde in Danzig nach der Reoccupation dieser Stadt), vol. 9 ( Juli 1862 – Dez. 1869), 188.  
  4. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 210, 303n79. 
  5. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 199-200. 
  6. Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 75-6. 
  7. Ibid., 76-7. 
  8.  Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 189-90. 
  9.  Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 77. 

Mennonite Elders Meet Justice Minister Leonhardt While Ultra-Conservative Lords Use Mennonites as a Wedge Issue to Stage a Rebellion Against Bismarck, February 22, 1868

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

Saturdays are not what they used to be. One-hundred-fifty years ago today the Prussian government was experiencing just another work day and the Mennonite Elders seeking to regain their exemption from military service were continuing their rounds of cabinet ministers. The House of Lords of the Prussian Parliament was also in session, although they finished shortly before 1 p.m.

Prussian politics had faced a crucial turning point earlier that week. The House of Lords, more conservative and traditional than the lower house, had nonetheless approved Chancellor Bismarck’s proposal to use money from the central treasury to fund certain expenditures of the new Prussian province of Hannover, which had until a little over a year ago been an independent kingdom. The setting aside of the dynasty there was seen as a revolutionary act by an otherwise reactionary chancellor and also intervened in the traditional budgeting measures of Prussian provinces. Most in the Conservative Party backed this measure, but others were vehemently opposed so that this vote taken just a few days earlier marked the beginning of the National Liberal Party that split off from the Conservative Party. Thus Mennonites’ exemption became a proxy in this conservative civil war.1

The official business conducted by the five Mennonite Elders on this day occupies only a few lines of Peter Bartel’s report. They met with Justice Minister Adolf Leonhardt, who was from Hannover and thus not likely to know much about Mennonites. Bartel reported that he appeared empathetic but that he claimed, correctly, this issue was one for the Ministries of War and the Interior to sort out.2 Oddly no other activities are reported for the day by Bartel, not even a church service. Since the main reason for their trip was to see how their petition to the House of Lords would play out, it seems likely they attended that debate, which was at the end of the session, and for whatever reason, Bartel did not report it. They did make the rounds to visit and thank supporters in the House of Lords before they left Berlin, so at least they were clearly well informed of who said what today.3

Mennonites were on the docket on account of this petition that the elders had sent in: “The House of Lords should prevent the implementation of the military service law passed by the Imperial Diet which, if it came into effect, would pronounce a sentence of expulsion from the country over all true believing Mennonites, and should also provide in the future for the protection of Mennonites’ freedom on conscience by upholding their military service exemption.” The standing committee for dealing with petitions had worked up a recommendation to support this petition and ask the government to consider implementing it. The debate involved about a dozen speakers.

The debate was opened by the chair of the petition committee, von Brünneck. He noted that universal military service had been the law of the land since 1814 and Mennonites had been exempted all that time. He claimed it was unthinkable that nineteenth-century Prussia should be as religious intolerant as the France of Louis XIV that had driven out the Huguenots. Indeed, he claimed, “religious freedom and freedom on conscience is the milk on which the Prussian state was raised.” Without it Prussia was not Prussia anymore. Mennonites moreover had offered to care for wounded soldiers at their own expense. For all these reasons, the committee was unanimous in its support of their petition.4

Most of the support for the Mennonites came from ultra conservatives who were angry at Bismarck for breaking monarchical tradition by annexing other kingdoms to Prussia and subsuming Prussia under the weight of a new imperial government that circumvented nobles. Adolf Senfft von Pilsach, who had also spoken for Mennonites the day before, mocked the idea that Mennonite soldiers were indispensable to the state, noting only 140 Mennonites per year would be drafted. “If Prussia cannot survive without them (and it has fought wars with honor for so long without Mennonites), then I have to confess we might as well give up all hope.”5

7.1 Hans v_Kleist-Retzow_1862

Hans von Kleist-Retzow

Hans von Kleist-Retzow was one of the top ultra-conservatives. As a Pietist he would have been more open to Mennonites’ religious pleading than most other politicians. Bismarck was married to his niece and they had roomed together as young men. Nonetheless, he was ready to challenge the position of Bismarck’s government by giving full-throated support to this petition. He was especially upset that the new-fangled North German Confederation was able to dictate to Prussia how to do things, in American terms he was backing state rights over a new federal government.6

Additional support came from two less-well-known speakers, Friedrich Bloemer and Ludwig von Rittberg. Bloemer stressed the legal rights of the Mennonites. When others said it was pointless to take up an argument that had been decided elsewhere, he countered that if the Mennonites had the right to uphold their privilege, which he thought they did, that right should trump worries about practicalities.7 Here one can see the echo of conservative disquiet with Bismarck’s trampling of the rights of the non-Prussian ruling families he had deposed.

A cabinet minister gave the first speech in opposition to the petition, signaling the uphill struggle Mennonites faced to obtain relief by visiting this group of politicians. Minister of Commerce Heinrich Friedrich von Itzenplitz was the first to note that the military service law was a confederation law and none of Prussia’s business.8 When the elders finally got to meet him three days later, Bartel reported he was quite “cold” to their problems.9

7.2 Otto von Camphausen

Otto von Camphausen

Liberal politicians and their knowledge of liberal Mennonites were the other main source of opposition to this petition. Heinrich Ondereyck from Crefeld noted that Mennonites there were happy to serve.10 Otto von Camphausen, who would become the Finance Minister the next year and was part of a famous liberal political family, backed the need for a strong central government over the stodgy rights of traditional states.11 Count Botho zu Eulenburg was exasperated by the idea that not serving in the military could be protected by law. Thus the issue was not a matter of tolerance, but of what deserves to be privileged. “Imagine, gentlemen,” he argued, “a religious society that had a stance against paying taxes to the state.” That privilege could not stand. On the matter of military service, “the entirety of developmental history of nations and states argues against” such privilege, even if it is painful for those who now fall under the necessity of state duty. The progress of equality was for Eulenburg inevitable and he therefore made a motion that the petition be passed on to the government for its information, not consideration, the difference between the House of Lords asking the government to address or ignore the issue.12

At the end of the session, Eulenburg’s amendment was defeated and a majority voted with the petition committee to defy the wishes of the government and ask that Mennonites’ military exemption be restored.13 Mennonite supporters carried the day in the interests of freedom of conscience, preserving this traditional community instead of forcing them to emigrate, and, above all, to signal for the first time that some conservatives would break with the royal government, an unheard of, if toothless, reproach to Bismarck on the relatively safe Mennonite issue.


  1.  Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 198. 
  2.  Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 74. 
  3. Ibid., 74-5. 
  4.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 222. 
  5.  Ibid., 223. 
  6.  On Hans von Kleist-Retzow, see Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 223, 234. 
  7.  Ibid., 225. 
  8. Ibid., 223. 
  9. Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 75. 
  10.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 224. 
  11.  Ibid. On Camphausen, see 
  12.  Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 224-5. On Eulenberg, see 
  13. Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 22. Februar 1868, 226-7. 

Mennonite Elders Meet Acting Minister of War Podbielski While the House of Lords Debates Their Special Tax, February 21, 1868

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

Although Mennonites would be the subject of two different debates in the Prussian House of Lords during the Elders’ stay in Berlin, they concentrated on meeting cabinet ministers, the crown prince, and the king instead of lobbying members of Parliament. Accordingly, on this day one hundred and fifty years ago, they met with three cabinet members while conservatives in the House of Lords were arguing for reinstating their exemption as a way to pursue pro-monarchist political goals.

They first met at 9 a.m. with Heinrich von Mühler, Minister of Culture, whose agency had oversight of education and the churches. Their conversation was apparently short, with Peter Bartel reporting only that they heard the same story from him, that they were unlikely to escape the clutches of the military service law.1 The minister had dealt with Mennonite matters before, so their concerns were not new to him, but he stood more with the nationalists than with the monarchists who were Mennonites’ best allies.2

6.1 August_von_der_Heydt_(1801–1874)

August von der Heydt (1801–1874)

By 10 a.m. they were in the offices of the Minister of Finance, August von der Heydt. Bartel noted frankly that “he was very solidly against us.” He saw no way around Mennonites adjusting their scruples to accept military service. He tried to comfort them with the story of his own mother, who had her own scruples against sending her sons to the military. She had even gone to see the king to ask that they be exempted, but to no avail. With time she got over her reservations and he hoped the Mennonites would as well. He was from a Reformed family and had attended a Moravian Brethren high school in Neuwied, a city with a prominent Mennonite congregation, so he likely also knew about the group before meeting them. Nonetheless, as a staunch liberal, equality before the law would have been his guiding principle.3

6.2 Eugen_anton_theophil_von_podbielski

Eugen Anton Theophil von Podbielski

The next meeting at 11 a.m. took them to the offices of Acting Minister of War Theophil von Podbielski. Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war who had engaged Mennonites in a lengthy theological discussion during their visit in October, was on an extended leave due to illness. The Acting Minister assured them he had been informed about their case. He said arrangements would be made to take care of them and that he thought they would find the solution acceptable. He added that Prussian Mennonites “would not have faced such serious challenges if we would have been united in living out our faith instead of being splintered apart by so many internal divisions.” He mentioned that it was particularly difficult for the Mennonites’ case that several petitions from “our people (or nation)” (Volk) had arrived “asking that we be subjected to the draft.”4

The use of the word Volk here, meaning both people and nation, by the Acting Minister of War to describe Mennonites was not uncommon either for officials or for Mennonites themselves.  The lines between peoples and nations were not drawn as tightly at this point in multi-ethnic Prussia as they would be later. Yet the term does suggest the ambiguity that both Mennonites and officials felt in this encounter over whether Mennonites were willing to give their highest allegiance to Germany, or to put it differently, which “people” were really their “people.”

The petitions from Mennonites asking to be drafted that von Podbielski referred to could have included the one dated May 30, 1867, from Mennonite Pastor Carl Harder in Neuwied, mentioned in the first two posts in this series. In addition, already on April 11, 1867, the church council of the Mennonite congregation in Emden had petitioned that they be allowed to fulfill all the duties and enjoy all the rights of other Prussian citizens.5 Emden was part of the Kingdom of Hanover, which had been annexed to Prussia in 1866, and the Mennonites there strongly preferred military service to facing extra taxes or restrictions on buying real estate. On August 7, 1866, a number of landowners from the Vistula Delta, apparently both Mennonites and non-Mennonites, made a similar appeal to the House of Lords, which rejected their petition at that time.6 One can perhaps sympathize with officials who, when presented with conflicting demands from Mennonites, decided not to take them too seriously.

On this day there was also a lively debate in the House of Lords over accepting the proposed budget for the kingdom. One of the sticking points was striking the communal tax Mennonites had paid for their military exemption from the income side. One of the Mennonites’ most fervent supporters in this debate was Adolf Senfft von Pilsach, who was well-connected to the royal family and also had talked with the elders.7 Peter Bartel did not record meeting him until later in their trip, raising the question of how complete his account is.8

Senfft-Pilsach in any case started his lengthy intervention on behalf of the Mennonites with recounting an anecdote from his conversation with them. “When their delegation visited me in order to impress the seriousness of the matter on my heart, all of them peasants, one of them asked me, ‘Do you really think that our King and Lord no longer has the power to uphold the Charter of Privileges that his forefathers granted us?’” Senfft-Pilsach went on to cast the matter as a serious issue of conscience best left to the king. He also reported that he had asked if they would not be willing to serve as non-combatants. The reply was that once the Charter was violated, their position would depend on the whimsy of the Minister of War at the time, not law. The Mennonites concluded that “if the power of the state is so great that it can ignore a legally binding Charter, it will not hesitate to step over this much lower barrier as well.”9 Events soon proved these traditionalist peasants to be astute observers of nationalist politics.

Finance Minister von der Heydt, who had just spoken to the Mennonites that morning, was the main speaker in favor of revoking the Mennonite tax. In his comments he also gave his own, quite different, account of their meeting. He opened by noting that he had assured the Mennonites that ending the payment of the tax would not prejudice the final decision on whether their Charter was still valid, but since they were not exempted from the military any longer, he thought it would be an injustice for them to continue paying it. “I did, however, tell them that if they feel bound by conscience to pay the tax, I would be willing to accept it.” This comment provoked laughter from the lords.

Von der Heydt hastened to add that he thought the matter serious and had only hoped to be accommodating. He said he had told them paying the tax now was an injustice, but if they wanted to pay it voluntarily, he would ask for royal permission to do so. He concluded that he did not want to get anywhere close to supporting the Mennonites’ wishes and that the tax should be revoked.10 At the end of the session, the budget of 159,757,064 Thaler without the Mennonite tax of 5, 600 Thaler was accepted by a wide margin.11 Mennonites had lost this symbolic battle, but a specific petition to reinstate their exemption would be debated the next day while the elders visited Justice Minister Adolf Leonhardt.

6.3 Book Illustration based on photo by Wangemann

Book Illustration based on photo by Wangemann

The spiritual component of this day was listening to Berlin Mission Society Director Hermann Wangemann preach in the Andreas Church on the natives of Africa (Kaffern).12 The church was on Andreas Street near what is now the East Train Station, but was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II and the ruins were removed by the Communist government of East Germany. Most of these Elders would have been active supporters of the Danzig Mission Society, a related organization, explaining their interest in this particular church service.


  1. Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 74. 
  2. On Mühler’s earlier interactions with Mennonites, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 157, 166. 
  3. Bartel, “Beschreibung, 74, 
  4. Bartel, “Beschreibung, 74. 
  5. Geheimer Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), Berlin, Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Rep. 77 (Ministry of the Interior), Tit. 332t (Militärpflicht), no. 5 (Die Militärpflicht der Mennoniten), vol. 1 (1819-1868), n.p. 
  6. GStA, HA I, Rep. 77, Tit. 31 (Mennonitensachen), no. 2 (Die in Ansehung der staatsbürgerlichen Verhältnisse der Mennoniten vorgenommen Anordnugnen, desgl. wegen Behandlung der Mennoniten-Gemeinde in Danzig nach der Reoccupation dieser Stadt), vol. 9 (1862 Juli – 1869 Dez.), 226-228. 
  7. The connection ran through his more famous brother, 
  8. Bartel records a meeting at 10 am on February 24 to thank Senfft-Pilsach for his efforts, “Beschreibung,” 74-5. 
  9. Stenographische Berichte des Herrenhauses, Vierzehnte Sitzung am 21. Februar 1868, 207-8. 
  10. Ibid., 208-9 
  11. Ibid., 212. 
  12. Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 79. 

Mennonite Elders Meet with Minister of Interior Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, Head of the Ministry That Administers the Draft, February 20, 1868

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

With the passage of the military service law in the North German Confederation and its signing on November 9, most government officials and more than a few Mennonites considered the issue of the draft settled. In the interests of equality before the law, Mennonites would have to serve. However, a large portion of the Mennonite leadership and a majority of Mennonites at this point were not ready to give up. After unleashing a flurry of petitions to various government officials that largely went unanswered, the votes in both houses of the Prussian parliament in February 1868 to revoke the collective tax that Mennonites had paid since 1773 served as a platform for politicians who supported Mennonites and Mennonite leaders to continue to make their case for restoring their exemption. Since democracy had stripped Mennonites of their exemption as bestowed by kings, they took their case to the king and his ministers and to conservative politicians, but not to the court of public opinion, which was decisively set against them.1

Already on Thursday, February 13, the lower house of the Prussian parliament debated the government’s proposed budget that eliminated the Mennonite tax. Wilhelm von Brauchitsch represented the heavily Mennonite district of Elbing both in the Prussian parliament and the North German Confederation. He quoted the 1780 Mennonite Charter of Privilege at length and asked that this privilege be respected. Carl Twesten, a member of the National Liberal Party, countered that federal law trumped Prussian law and that the matter was already settled. Other representatives debated the merits of making compromises for solid citizens who might otherwise emigrate and noted that Mennonites were internally divided on the issue, since Mennonite requests had reached the house asking for military service to be imposed. The house voted to remove the tax on Mennonites in recognition of their service now. Since the debate would next be taken up in the House of Lords, von Brauchitsch wired the Mennonite leadership that they should come to Berlin to seek to influence official policy at this crucial juncture.2

The same five Elders who had been Berlin in October 1867 returned now, Gerhard Penner, Heubuden, Johann Toews, Ladekopp, Johann Wiebe, Fürstenwerder, Peter Bartel, Gruppe, and Johann Penner, Thiensdorf. They arrived in Berlin on February 18 and spend most of the next day trying to set up meetings with various ministers. The key meeting was with Hermann Wagener, a confidant of Bismarck’s who encouraged them to pay the collective tax no matter what and then sue the government for violation of their legal privilege. The morning of February 20 was likewise spent lining up additional meetings for subsequent days.3

Their efforts to meet powerful officials paid its first dividend on Thursday, February 20, at 2 pm when they met with Count Friedrich zu Eulenburg, the Minister of the Interior. In the Prussian government it was this agency that oversaw the draft. Right up front he told them that there was no chance of changing their draft status. Peter Bartel saw him as sympathetic since he did not want to see them emigrate and promised to work at getting them an audience with the king. Zu Eulenburg also reported that he had written Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War, asking if noncombatant medic status might be possible. Even that was more than the law currently allowed and would be a good deal for Mennonites in zu Eulenberg’s view.4

Peter Bartel’s account of sympathy from the Interior Minister does not reflect zu Eulenburg’s actual position, leaving us to wonder if Bartel was deliberately misled or simply grasping at straws in any half-way positive remark the minister made. Behind the scenes zu Eulenburg was one of the least flexible cabinet ministers, pushing hard in a memorandum to the Ministry of War for not allowing any exemption beyond noncombatant service for Mennonites at a time when von Roon seemed to agree with the Mennonites that their Charter of Privilege was inviolable. The more conservative von Roon was happy to uphold royal privilege and support the Mennonites while the less conservative zu Eulenburg favored equality before the law although he made exceptions to the draft for other, better-connected people than Mennonites.5

Perhaps the most important meeting of the day for the Mennonites was the one they failed to organize. At 4 p.m. they tried to get an audience with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who von Brauchitsch had suggested was against their cause. Their meeting with Bismarck’s friend Hermann Wagener had given them more hope, but they could not get in to see the great man. Here again it is not clear why Bartel seemed to harbor false hopes. The report from their own representative had been accurate, Bismarck was opposed to Mennonites’ exemption, dooming their project from the start unless the king could be brought to take on his own chancellor.6

All in all, a discouraging day. Perhaps the five Mennonite farmers wandering the halls of power took consolation in the sermon they heard at a chapel service in the Moravian Brethren church that day, a Pietist denomination with which most of these five would have felt an affinity. Perhaps they, like us, pondered how to keep the faith in a world bent on preparing for war. The next day would bring a meeting with the Acting Minister of War and another raucous debate on Mennonites in a Prussian parliament, this time in the House of Lords.7


  1. For a general overview, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 26-33, 191-218. 
  2.   The debates are from the Stenographische Berichte, February, 13, 1868, 1580-3. On Mennonite divisions see The summons from von Brauchitsch is in Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 72. 
  3.   Ibid., 72-3. 
  4.   Ibid., 73-4. 
  5.   Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 199-200, 212-7. 
  6.   Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 72-74, Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 200. 
  7.   Bartel, “Beschreibung,” 79. 

King William I Signs the Military Service Law, Imposing the Draft on Mennonites, Nov. 9, 1867

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

4.1 Wilhelm I

William I, King of Prussia

On November 9, 1867, William I, King of Prussia, signed the military service law of the North German Confederation in his capacity as Confederation head of state. He was also commander-in-chief of the combined military services. Mennonites were now subject to the draft with no obvious alternative outside of emigration. The parliament and the government had both agreed that religious freedom did not extend to the duty of military service since equality before the law was a more important principle. In addition, many leaders saw military service as an issue on which national unity between the peoples of the different German states could be built. A caricature of Prussian and North German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the satirical newspaper Kladderadatsch under the Latin title that roughly translates “misery loves company” showed Bismarck as a cooper making a cask out of the “boards” of the former German states. They would be bound together by common laws mostly of Prussian origin, including the Prussian Military Service Law (Wehrgesetz). Mennonites were thus caught up in a much larger project of German nation-building on the foundations of culture, militarism, and nationalism that they only dimly understood.1

4.2 Wilhelm Scholtz Misery loves company

Wilhelm Scholtz, “Misery loves company”

The signing day itself did not play a role in the Mennonites’ initial reaction. In fact, Peter Bartel’s account of the efforts of five rural Vistula Delta elders to maintain an exemption does not mention the date at all. His account jumps from the elder’s departure from Berlin on October 25 after their initial lobbying effort failed to February 17, 1868, when their local representative in parliament, Wilhelm von Brauchitsch, alerted them to the need to return to Berlin to try lobbying again.2 The next post on February 20 will take up their efforts. There are indications that the traditionalist Mennonites did not fully understand the law-making process under the relatively new constitution of 1850 for Prussia, or the one written just that year for the North German Confederation.3 The date is also not mentioned in H.G. Mannhardt’s account of these events published in 1919, where he noted instead failed petition efforts on November 4 and December 26.4

November 9 is mentioned in the executive order of March 3, 1868, that will mark the end of this series of posts. This order created a special category of noncombatant for Mennonites in the Prussian army. It noted that the law went into effect on November 9, so after that time Mennonites would have had reason to note the date. The first major Mennonite newspaper article to speak approvingly of the law was published in August 1868 and erroneously dated the entire parliamentary debate and royal signing all to that particular day.5

German historians, of course, will not be surprised to hear that after 1919 mention of November 9 is highlighted by some Mennonites. In addition to the imposition of the draft dating from this day in 1867, five other major events of modern Germany history fall on this day, making it the most important non-holiday on the German calendar. Less noticed at the time was the first event, the execution in 1848 of Robert Blum, an important leader of the Frankfurt National Assembly in Vienna. The second event was a naval mutiny and Social Democratic revolution in 1918 that toppled the Imperial government two days before the armistice ending World War I went into effect. In response to what they considered the ignominy of that event, Nazis staged first a failed revolution on that date in 1923 and then instigated a massive Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht in 1938. The Berlin Wall was forced open by demonstrators on November 9, 1989, signaling the end of Communist rule in East Germany and paving the way for German unification in 1991. The overabundance of history on this day prevented it from becoming a new holiday, so that October 3, the date of formal unification, is the official holiday marking events of 1989.6

The first time H. G. Mannhardt wrote about these events after the end of the Great War he did the equivalent of italicizing the date November 9, 1867.7 His earlier article was likely written before the end of the war and the Socialist revolution of 1918. Writing the history of his own congregation, where he reflected on the bitter German defeat, the date apparently had new meaning for him as a German nationalist who would have seen the revolutionary events of November 1918 as treason. How should we think about and commemorate this day in 1867 when Mennonites were both subjected to the draft and an important step closer to whole-hearted inclusion as good citizens in the German nation? Is it a matter of indifference or sadness, a marker of continuing oppression and illiberality, or time of relief or even joy? Where, how, and if Mennonites fit into this or that nation remain interesting and important questions to ponder.



  1. For a general overview, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 191-218. 
  2. Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 72. 
  3. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 100-102, Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 196-200. 
  4. H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung,” 100-101. 
  5. Available in English at See also my accompanying introduction at
  6. “Der 9. November in der deutschen Geschichte,” Bundeszentrale Für politische Bildung 
  7.   H. G. Mannhardt’s The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919, trans. Viktor G. Doerksen, ed. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen (North Newton, Kansas: Bethel College, 2007), 198. 

Five Mennonite Elders Meet with Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, Oct. 24, 1867

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

The passage on Friday, October 18, 1867, of the military service law of the North German Confederation explicitly stripped Mennonites in Prussia of their exemption and led to an immediate response from Mennonite leadership in an attempt to restore it. Six days later, on Thursday, October 24, five Elders from the rural Vistula Delta congregations were in the office of the Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, seeking his support for reinstatement. The encounter led to a lengthy theological discussion over the nature of salvation and won the Mennonites a long-term supporter at the highest level of government in what turned out, however, to be a futile project. Von Roon might have been the last Minister of War to engage Mennonites theologically anywhere, an interesting measure of changes in both governments and Mennonites since then, if true.

3.1 penner

Elder Gerhard Penner

Mennonites found out about the October 18 vote the same day. Wilhelm von Brauchitsch, the representative from Elbing-Marienburg district, which had the highest percentage of Mennonite voters anywhere in German lands, telegraphed Elder Gerhard Penner of the Heubuden congregation to relay the news. For unknown reasons he was not in the chamber that day during the debates, but obviously knew about the vote. He advised the Mennonites to send a delegation to Berlin immediately to lobby the Bundesrat, the council of ruling princes in the Confederation that served as the second legislative body, to veto or amend the law. Von Brauchitsch was possibly so solicitous of traditionalist Mennonite concerns because while voting had only come to Prussia in 1848, Mennonites had not taken to the ballot box in large numbers until the 1860s and voted overwhelmingly for the conservative von Brauchistsch, even though the liberals ran a Mennonite named Warkentin from Königsberg against him.1

Five Elders were selected at a meeting of the wider leadership held on Wednesday in the village of Koczelitzki, and they left immediately on the train to Berlin. This village was the home of Gerhard Penner, the acknowledged leader of the rural congregations and the most ardent opponent of military service, so presumably the meeting was at his house. He was appointed part of the delegation and was joined by Johann Toews, Ladekopp, Johann Wiebe, Fürstenwerder, Peter Bartel, Gruppe, and Johann Penner, Thiensdorf. Upon arrival, they checked into the Hotel Alexander Großfürst at Friedrich St. 57, likely close to intersection with Leipziger Street. All the important offices of government would have been within reach of a ten-minute walk. They went to visit a friend, Guthke, who worked in the trade ministry. He was a “believer” who was always helpful in explaining the political situation to them and in making connections. Many of the rural congregations would have had a strong interest in missions and an affinity for Pietism, so making connections with Lutheran Pietists was common.

On the morning of the 24th the delegation went first to visit von Brauchitsch, who got them into the Reichstag, which took up deliberations starting at 11:20 am. The delegation then listened for a couple of hours to debates and votes on fees in the postal system and sea-borne trade with Italy. The Chancellor of the North German Confederation and of the Kingdom of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, was not in the house that day.2

Von Brauchitsch had arranged for them to meet with Minister of War von Roon at 2 p.m., where they were received warmly. Johann Toews explained their situation and asked that the minister make it possible for their exemption to be restored. Von Roon told them that changing the law was not something he could do, but he thought an arrangement could nonetheless be worked out and encouraged them not to lose heart. He then continued by suggesting that Mennonites could agree to work as medics in the army. Both sides would give a little and things could work out fine that way. Peter Bartel asked if medics had to wear sidearms, which von Roon affirmed. Although they would not be firing them, they had to wear them to honor the king, Bartel recounts von Roon as clarifying. Bartel replied that in such a case Mennonites would have to humbly decline to serve in the military since carrying weapons was against their beliefs.3

3.2 Albrecht Graf von Roon

Prussian war minister Albrecht Graf von Roon

This assertion led to a lengthy theological conversation over non-resistance. Finally von Roon grabbed Bartel’s coat lapel between two fingers and asked him, “So what do you think of me, since I carry weapons in war, regarding my salvation?” Compelled to reply, Bartel said, “We think about that the way Paul described the issue of eating meat offered to idols in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul told them to feel free to buy any meat offered in the market, but when they are told that the meat had been offered to idols, they should not buy it, for it will be accounted to them as sin. That is how we think about waging war. We have learned with our mother’s milk, so to speak, and been taught by our parents and spiritual leaders, that according to God’s Word going to war is a sin. So for us it has become a matter of conscience and if we go to war it will be accounted to us as sin. You, your Excellence, and others like you, have been taught with your mother’s milk that going to war is defending your fatherland and a holy duty, so that it is not idol worship for you. Therefore it will not be counted as sin for you and your comrades.”

“So you will allow me into heaven,” von Roon replied, which Bartel and the others affirmed. Von Roon assured them he was satisfied with their answer and would do what he could to help them out. He thought something could be worked out and shook their hands before dismissing them.4

Although Bartel’s account of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8 was somewhat garbled, it was typical of these conservative rural elders that they argued directly from the Bible and not from current politics, philosophical ideas, or the issue of human rights and preserving their religious freedom. Equally striking is a minister of war who is concerned, at least on the face of it, of getting into heaven. The delegation spent a little time sightseeing in the capital the next day and a couple hours listening to parliamentary debates before returning home that day yet. Since von Roon had told them nothing could be done, they did not linger any longer.

Unfortunately for Mennonite interests, Bismarck quickly shepherded the law through the Bundesrat, not wanting to leave opportunity for amendments of any kind.5 The final step would be to secure the signature of the king, which happened on November 9, setting the stage for the next event in moving Mennonites closer to military service and the next sesquicentennial blog post.

See Other Posts in this Series

  1. For a general overview, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 193-200. Additional specific details are taken from H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte der königl. Kabinettsordre von 3. März 1868, betreffend den Herresdienst der Mennoniten,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender 28 (1919), 99-100. 
  2.   The parliament printed word-for-word protocols of their debates that were bounded in volumes and are now available on a website dedicated to the protocols of all the modern German parliaments. 
  3.  Peter Bartel, “Beschreibung der persönliche Bemühung der fünf Aeltesten bei den Hohen und Allerhöchsten Staatsmännern in Berlin um Wiederheraushelfung aus dem Reichsgesetz, worin der Reichstag uns Mennoniten am 9. November 1867 versetzt hat,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalendar 29 (1920), 71. See also Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 196-7. On Bartel, see ibid., 196n20. 
  4. Ibid., 71-2. 
  5.  H. G. Mannhardt, “Zur Entstehung,” 100. 

Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 18, 1867

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

On Friday, October 18, 1867, the North German Confederation continued debate on the military service law that proposed exemptions for two different classes of top-ranked nobility and for Mennonites and Quakers. The North German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and the acting Minister of War, Theophil von Podbielski, were again present for these debates. Mennonites were attacked from the lectern at great length for treason, duplicity, and heresy against the doctrine of patriotism by a number of representatives, while only two weak defenses of the exemption were mounted.1

2.1 Franz Duncker

Franz Duncker

The first speaker of the day, Franz Duncker, launched a vigorous attack on any form of exemption. As a co-founder of the German Progressive Party, he was an ardent proponent of both equality and German nationalism, seeing equality as constituting the nation and the nation as the guarantor of equality. Exemptions were therefore damaging to both projects. He attacked the idea that the sons of the kings and rulers should be exempt as making a mockery of the idea of equality and noted that, “such a principle is a great and holy principle only when there is really no exception.” He went on to note that neither a religious principle nor a legal principle, such as state treaties, that exempted former ruling houses could trump the constitutional principle of equality.

Duncker was a left liberal and had little patience for conservative nobility or religious twaddle. Although the parliament was for the North German Confederation, Prussia was the dominant power, and the Prussian constitution, Duncker went on to note, explicitly said in article 12 that civic and civil duties could not be avoided due to religious concerns. Therefore when the constitutions stated that all Prussians or all North Germans were liable for military service, Mennonites could not be exempted. It could not be the job of a democratically elected parliament to work out ways to circumvent the constitution. In addition, he remarked that Mennonites themselves had suggested ways to work around this problem, an apparent allusion to Neuwied Mennonite pastor Carl Harder’s petition that Mennonites be made to serve in the military in exchange for being granted full civil rights. He concluded with an ardent plea to block all exemptions, since a constitution and human rights should not be massaged to create space for “artificial privileges and preferential treatment based on social classes.”2

2.2 Julius_von_Hennig

Julius von Hennig

The third speaker of the day, Julius von Hennig, was a liberal on the conservative side of the political spectrum and a leader of the National Liberal party. He also devoted a long speech to the specific question of military service exemptions. He affirmed the exemptions for the current and former ruling families since state treaties must be respected. No such protection, however, could be claimed by the Mennonites. He argued that Mennonites historically were not primarily non-resistant, rather they were opposed to taking on any political role, which thus precluded military service. Now, however, they were getting more involved in politics by standing for minor offices and voting in national elections. By implication, political Mennonites could also participate in the politics of getting drafted. He quoted at length from a Dutch Mennonite statement that ended any church support for requiring members to avoid military service. He claimed, correctly, that many Mennonites had used the revolutionary turmoil in 1848 that lifted restrictions on buying property to do so. Given that a main restriction on Mennonites had been lifted, drafting them was only fair. He noted, “there is no doubt that every religious sect must obey the requirements of the state if they want to be tolerated by that state.”3

The next speaker, Baron Karl von Vincke-Olbendorf, also a more conservative liberal, was the only speaker outside the government’s speaker to defend the Mennonites. His argument was weak and short as he briefly noted that he thought Mennonites’ exemptions, which were enshrined in existing laws, did perhaps raise the level of state guarantees that could not be so easily overturned. He also noted that revoking the exemption would cause a number of worthy citizens to emigrate which could hardly be in the state’s interest.4

Adolf Weber, another National Liberal, then mounted a sustained rebuke of Mennonites and the government for wanting to shield them. He noted that the Mennonites in his area, East Frisia in the former kingdom of Hannover, had been able to pay for substitutes as a way to avoid the draft. He repeated many of the arguments already given and summed up his position by saying, “Whoever will not defend his homeland (Heimath) should leave it! Whoever will not defend his fatherland does not have one!”5

2.3 Emil_von_Melle

Emil von Melle

Skipping one speaker who felt compelled to attack the Social Democrat Wilhelm Liebknecht, the next speaker, Emil von Melle, also took up the Mennonite issue. As a representative from the city of Hamburg, which had an important Mennonite congregation, he was ambivalent about drafting them, but vehemently opposed to any idea that a Prussian Mennonite could be in a better position than one from Hamburg, and demanded the reinstatement of the dropped proposal to spread the Mennonite exemption in the form used in the west of Prussia. That amounted to a plea to let Mennonites everywhere or nowhere be exempt, but he noted that since they were so few in number, perhaps it did not matter a great deal.6 In terms of broader German politics, Melle’s speech revealed an abiding and popular suspicion among smaller German states that Prussia was a bully, demanding special privileges not accorded to others.

2.4 Karl_Twesten_1862

Karl Twesten (1862)

Karl Twesten was a founder of the right-of-center National Liberal party, a member of the parliamentary committee that had reviewed and slightly amended the government’s proposal and was charged with defending the government’s position. He outlined the discussion in the committee, which noted that the constitution declared both the end of all noble privilege and the obligation on the part of all males to serve in the military, and yet in both cases it was unclear how this was to be implemented. He simply argued that implementation belonged to the legislature and so they should feel free to decide on both points. His next point was that these debates did not matter much. Mennonites were a small group and not counted in the population when it came time to determine the number of draftees needed, so their presence did not in fact require their neighbors to serve at a higher rate. What finally swung the majority of the committee to vote for preserving Mennonite privilege at this point was the realization that in the law on military service they could not revoke the laws that discriminated against Mennonites’ civil rights, and that it would be improper for the legislature to draft Mennonites without lifting the restrictions and extra taxes in place on them.7

The defense of the committee’s draft concluded the debate, so that the parliament moved immediately to voting, which was done by standing. The proposal to exempt members of current ruling houses of the states of the North German Confederation was approved almost unanimously, the exemption for former ruling houses by a large majority. Melle’s proposal to extend the Mennonite and Quaker exemption was narrowly defeated, and the exemption as a whole was easily defeated. Thus Mennonites everywhere in the central and northern German states were to be subject to the draft with no chance of exemption.8

Mennonites found themselves in an unusual spotlight in these two days of debate, but Quakers were not named from the floor even once. Their defense by the government and other supporters was tepid and promised only short-lived relief that would be removed as soon as their civil rights were granted. Mennonite pleading for exemption from the draft could not be squared with equality before the law. Other opponents of the draft  dragged Mennonites into uncomfortable company; Social Democrats, ethnic minorities, and particularists who did not trust Prussia, the founder of the Confederation. There was no progressive path to exemption, nor were Mennonite leaders interested in one, as we will see in the next post on October 24, when they meet with the Prussian Minister of War in Berlin.

See Other Posts in this Series

  1. For overviews, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 191-228, and “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1880-1890, Mennonite Life, Vol. 58, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), 
  2. and the next two pages. Harder’s petition is at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Hauptabteilung I, Repositur 77 (Innenministerium), Titel 31 (Mennonitensachen), Nr. 2 (staatsbürgerliche Verhältnisse der Mennoniten), Bd. 9 (1862-1869), 220-1. Harder proposed requiring Mennonites to serve in non-combatant roles such as medics, clerks, or artisans and in exchange granting them full civil rights, including the right to buy property, affirming instead of swearing oaths, and incorporating their congregations so that the congregations could register the deeds to their buildings instead of being listed as the property of an individual. Neuwied had become part of Prussia as part of the Congress of Vienna, and Prussian Mennonites had the right to affirm since 1827, but perhaps Harder was thinking here of a solution for non-Prussians, see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soliders: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 113-4, 267. On Harder more generally see ibid., 174-181. 
  3. and the next two pages. It is true that Mennonites in the Vistula River valley were able to buy land after 1848 with the support of the local courts who now took a more liberal view of Mennonites’ rights. Because doing so, however, threatened their exemption as demonstrated by von Hennig’s attack, Mennonite leaders required buyers to sell back much of that land and refrain from buying more even though it was now legal to do so. Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers, 151-9. 
  5. Ibid, and the next two pages. 
  8. and the following page. 

Debating Military Service Exemptions in the North German Confederation, Oct. 17, 1867

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

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Mennonites were dragged into a raucous debate over the draft in the most important German parliament of the day. This debate was the first in a series of unusual sesquicentennial events in Mennonite history that will occur over the next six months. In addition to parliamentary debates on October 17 and 18, 1867, a Mennonite delegation lobbied politicians in Berlin in late October, Mennonites in the Vistula River valley became subject to the draft on November 9, 1867, another round of lobbying, including a meeting with King William I occurred in February 1868, and they were granted, and for the most part accepted, non-combatant status on March 3, 1868. A series of blog entries will mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of each of these events on the exact date over the next six months.1

Following a quick war between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866, victorious Prussia formed a North German Confederation by annexing some of the northern German states that had fought on Austria’s side and forcing the others to join the new polity. Along with Austria, only the three southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside this new German entity. By 1871, those three states had joined to form the German Empire. Elections for a new Confederation parliament were held on August 31, 1867, after Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the Kingdom of Prussia and the new Chancellor of the Confederation, had a special assembly approve the constitution he wrote for it.

1.1 paragraph 1Since the individual states retained control over most domestic institutions, the military was the main focus of the Confederation’s constitution, budget, and laws. During the inaugural legislative period of the parliament of the North German Confederation, the government proposed a law regulating the length and types of military service. The opening paragraph made provisions for three classes of citizens who should be exempted. The first was the members of the ruling families of the North German states, including the Hohenzollern family of Prussia, with the King of Prussia serving as commander-in-chief of the combined forces. The second category was for the ruling families whose territories had been annexed by Prussia in 1866 or driven from power by Napoleon in 1806. State treaties exempted these families from the draft. The third category was for those Quakers and Mennonites who were currently exempt. Whatever current arrangements obtained were to be extended and carried over into the new state.2

The government offered two reasons for including the Mennonites. The exemption was an expression of tolerance demonstrated by long-standing legal arrangements. Secondly, it dealt with an exceedingly small group of people considering the state as a whole.3 By far the largest group in this category were the 12,000 Mennonites in the Prussian east living along the Vistula River. Since 1830 Mennonites in the Prussian west were exempted if they paid an additional 3 percent income tax and refrained from buying real estate from non-Mennonites. If a territory in North German Confederation did not yet have a law dealing with Mennonites and Quakers, the government proposal was to apply that 1830 standard outlined for the Prussian west.

Starting on Thursday, October 17, 1867, the parliament debated this new military service law, attempting to standardize practices between the various states in the Confederation. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the acting Minister of War, Theophil von Podbielski, were among those seated at the table in front representing the states of the confederation. The most serious issue was the length of army service. The government wanted soldiers to serve three years on active duty while members of parliament on the left accused the government of using that lengthy service to create a force loyal enough to the crown that it could be used against domestic rebellion, as had been the case less than twenty years earlier during the revolutionary events of 1848 and 1849.4

1.2 Kryger, Hans Andersen

Hans Andersen Kryger

The debates over universal military service itself were acrimonious. Before the parliament took up the specifics of particular exemptions, they shouted down two proponents of wide-scale exemptions. Hans Andersen Kryger represented the northern most tip of the Confederation where Danes were the majority. He did not want his people drafted at all since they did not even want to be in this state. When he claimed that he could not acknowledge the legitimacy of the constitution, his speech was cut off.5


A subsequent speaker, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, went even further. He argued that the entire army should be abolished and replaced with a militia of armed citizens, as in Switzerland. He accused the army of being an instrument of oppression of the people, not their defender. When he prophesied the imminent demise of the Confederation and denounced it as a fig leaf of authoritarianism, he was removed from the lectern.6 He was followed by the other founder of the Social Democratic Party, August Bebel. He and Liebknecht were the only two Socialists in the parliament and the first Socialists elected to such high positions on a national stage. Bebel reiterated the call for a militia and for serving only three months of active duty instead of three years. He noted that such a long term of service meant that only a small portion of the male population would ever be drafted due to a lack of money and capacity in the army to handle everyone for such long times. Thus the majority was going to be de facto exempted. He was at least allowed to finish his speech.7

1.5 Leopold_von_Hoverbeck_portrait_1878

Leopold von Hoverbeck, 1878

The specific debate on the Mennonite exemption was opened by Baron Leopold von Hovenbeck, who was a left liberal, a co-founder of the German Progressive Party, and had been a member of the commission assigned to work through the many proposals for amendments, which explains his deeper knowledge of the topic.8 He mocked the idea of calling these Mennonites “pious and non-resistant.” Instead these knaves knew that “their military exemption had significant material rewards,” namely while they paid 15 silver dimes [probably less than a week’s wages] annually per head for their exemption, their neighbors who had to compete with them were gone for three years. When they returned home, they could not afford to farm next to Mennonites who had gotten richer. “Gentlemen, this piety has an economic foundation,” he asserted. Furthermore, it was not even true that Mennonites were forbidden to serve in the military. Napoleon had made them serve as non-combatants, he claimed, and he pointed as well to a petition sent in by Mennonite pastor Carl Harder, formerly of Königsberg and Elbing, currently Neuwied, who had long argued that Mennonites could serve as regular soldiers or non-combatants, as in fact most did in the west of Prussia.9


Carl Harder

Harder’s petition tellingly was titled “Seeking the Removal of Mennonites’ Military Service Exemption in Exchange for Recognition as Independent Congregations.”10 Since Harder had long accepted military service, at least for non-combatants, he was interested in leveraging this acceptance into removing remaining discriminatory laws and shoring up Mennonite distinctives in other areas. His proposal was to remove the exemption and to require and allow Mennonites to serve as medics, clerks, or artisans in the army. In exchange, Mennonites should be allowed to buy real estate, incorporate their congregations so that they could register the deeds to their church buildings, and give affirmations instead of swearing oaths. The petition was sent to the king on May 30, 1867, forwarded by his staff to the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft, on June 19, and made available to the committee that work on the military service law, or perhaps even more widely, by the government.11 The fact that more progressive Mennonites had already accepted military service both as active duty or as non-combatants made traditionalists look hypocritical to Hoverbeck and other parliamentarians and he beat the traditionalists rhetorically with a stick provided by their progressive brethren. Continued debate on the topic would bring more of the same the next day.

See Other Posts in this Series

  1.  For overviews see Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 191-228; and “‘Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It!’ German Conscription and Prussian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains, 1880-1890, Mennonite Life, Vol. 58, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), 
  2.  The parliament printed word-for-word protocols of their debates that were bounded in volumes and are now available on a website dedicated to the protocols of all the modern German parliaments. The government’s proposed military service law is here, 
  4.  On Podbielski, see Mennonite German Soldiers, 199, on the larger issues, ibid., 193-4. 
  5.   Ibid., 195, 
  6.   Starting on and continuing two more pages. 
  7. and continuing on the next page. 
  11.  The petition is in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Hauptabteilung I, Repositur 77 (Innenministerium), Titel 31 (Mennonitensachen), Nr. 2 (staatsbürgerliche Verhältnisse der Mennoniten), vol. 9 (1862-1869), 220-1. See also Mennonite German Soldiers, 194n11 and on Harder’s intriguing career generally, ibid., 174-181. Asking for the right to affirm instead of swearing oaths was available to Prussian Mennonites since 1827. Since Neuwied had become part of Prussia in 1815, they should have had this right as well, making Harder’s request here a bit odd. Perhaps he was simply wanted the privilege reaffirmed, ibid., 267.