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.

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  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 https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-70/article/the-resolution-of-november-9-1867-by-the-north-ger/. See also my accompanying introduction at https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-70/article/a-comparative-analysis-of-church-conflict-an-intro/
  6. “Der 9. November in der deutschen Geschichte,” Bundeszentrale Für politische Bildunghttp://www.bpb.de/politik/hintergrund-aktuell/69545/der-9-november-09-11-2012 
  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.

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  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. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00643.html 
  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.

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  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), https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/ 
  2. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00489.html 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. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00492.html 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. 
  4. https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz83810.html#adbcontent; http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00494.html 
  5. Ibid, and the next two pages. 
  6. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00497.html 
  7. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00498.html 
  8. http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00499.html 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

1.6-harder

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.

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  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), https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/ 
  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, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00061.html 
  3.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00063.html 
  4.  On Podbielski, see Mennonite German Soldiers, 199, on the larger issues, ibid., 193-4. 
  5.   Ibid., 195, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00471.html 
  6.   Starting on http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00476.html and continuing two more pages. 
  7.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00479.html and continuing on the next page. 
  8.  https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz33979.html#adbcontent, http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00157.html 
  9.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000438_00483.html 
  10.  http://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/Blatt3_nb_bsb00000439_00128.html 
  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.  

Can Violence Build God’s Kingdom?

Tobin Miller Shearer

My sons, Dylan and Zach, are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In their mid-twenties, they live in Chicago and carry the cards to prove their DSA membership. I’ve seen them.

Dylan and Zach regularly fill us in on their work for the DSA. They attend rallies, sit on committees, and organize community-building events. We joke sometimes that this is their form of church.

But we also have more serious conversations such as the one that Zach and I had several weeks ago about the antifa movement, the loosely organized coalition of individuals and associations focused on defeating the resurgence of U.S.- based neo-fascism and white supremacy. In my conversation with Zach, I had dismissed the antifa movement as indiscriminately violent and therefore dangerous. Zach pushed back, reminding me that the antifa movement had, quite literally, saved lives during the “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August. Antifa members had used violence to protect a group of clergy and other Christian leaders like the Harvard philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West when they had come under attack. Zach challenged me to not dismiss what I didn’t understand.

I have thought often about his comment and the antifa movement in the weeks since Charlottesville. While I continue to count myself a pacifist due to my religious beliefs and upbringing, I am now at a point where I no longer know if what I once thought to be true still is.

To be fair, it is not just Zach’s prompting that has pushed me to reconsider the relationship of violence and nonviolence.

Every other year or so I teach a course entitled, “The Black Radical Tradition.” In it I introduce my students to Robert F. Williams. An unapologetic defender of armed self-defense during the civil rights movement, Williams found himself publicly denounced by Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked out of the NAACP, and by 1961 forced to flee the country following trumped up kidnapping charges by the FBI. I feature a photo of him and his wife Mabel, each holding a pistol, on the webpage for the African-American Studies Program that I direct at the University of Montana.

I include Williams on that webpage because he personifies a central question arising from the study of the black freedom struggle: what is the appropriate relationship of violence and nonviolence in the struggle to overcome racism—or any form of oppression?

After introducing Williams, I spend a day arguing that he and those influenced by him were not only harmful to the overall goals of the black freedom struggle, but that they were actually far more conservative than they were radical. I attempt to convince my students that violence is “the white man’s way” and is, therefore, an inherently racist and colonialist practice. To further bolster this position, I also aver that violence does violence to the perpetrator, drawing on the thought of non-violence advocate Elias Chacour: “If to overcome the beast, we become the beast, then the beast has won.”1 I conclude with a flurry of evidence showing that nonviolent methods were successful in the South from the 1940s through the 1960s, that violent methods were often highly sexist, and that civil rights leaders like long-time activist Daisy Bates absolutely excoriated Williams for not being true to the nonviolent principles that had proven so successful in the struggle for black freedom.

I then do something different. The next time that the class meets I rebut my previous argument by noting that, in communities like Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the 1960s, armed self-defense groups such as the Deacons for Defense successfully protected nonviolent demonstrations, offering a sign of strength, an indication that they would not be intimidated, that they would not yield. I note that even the most principled and committed of activists, people like NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers—a man who was ultimately assassinated for the nonviolent resistance he promoted—seriously considered the possibility of organizing armed struggle in Mississippi. Evers even studied the tactics used by the Mau Mau rebels who had fought against British colonial rule in the 1950s.2

Students find most convincing the argument made by civil rights historians Charles Cobb and Charles Payne that one of the reasons the KKK and other white activists killed relatively few civil rights field workers was that local families in communities like Greenwood, Mississippi, had armed themselves and forced carloads of white aggressors to retreat under fire. When I add that women also shot back at their attackers and that young people were rarely convinced by the dictates of nonviolence, my students rethink their assumption that the civil rights movement and violence were antithetical.3

In that same course, I also discuss two other civil rights figures with distinctive views on violence and nonviolence: Vincent Harding and Gloria Richardson. By the middle of the 1960s, civil rights activist and Mennonite minister Vincent Harding had witnessed the violent backlash directed at his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1967, that violence had only intensified. No wonder that Harding then challenged white Mennonites on their acquiescence to and participation in state-sponsored violence. Harding pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized revolutionaries bent on seizing power while taking “advantage regularly (though often unconsciously) of political, economic, and military power.”4 Although in subsequent essays in the 1990s and beyond Harding remained faithful to King’s ethic of nonviolence, Harding recognized and called out the inconsistency of a Mennonite community that preached nonviolence but had relatively little cause to live it out.

The same tension between nonviolence and armed self-defense surfaces when I introduce my students to Gloria Richardson, the activist and organizer who led the early 1960s struggle to defeat segregation and achieve economic justice in Cambridge, Maryland. Through her leadership of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), Richardson passionately defended the right to self-defense in the face of racial terror. Heralded as a proto-Black Power icon, Richardson added, “Self-defense may actually be a deterrent to further violence. Hitherto, the government has moved into conflict situations only when matters approach the level of insurrection.” Although the Cambridge campaign incorporated tactical nonviolence, Richardson and those protesting with her rejected nonviolence as an all-encompassing ethic. As a result, the demonstrations in Cambridge often turned violent and, by June of 1963, Maryland’s governor had sent in the National Guard to quell the rebellion growing there. Intervention by the Kennedy Administration then resulted in the short-lived but ultimately effective “Treaty of Cambridge,” an agreement to end segregation and increase black hiring in city jobs. Richardson maintained that the treaty resulted directly from the violent means used by the CNAC, an analysis she went on to impart to younger activists like Stokely Carmichael.5

But the conversation that Zach and I had in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has made the issues I discuss with my students feel far more pressing, urgent, and immediate. The ideas have jumped the fence from academic exercise to real-life proving ground.

Since Charlottesville I have thought of the many times I’ve witnessed members of the Anabaptist community offer smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence, a bumptious attitude seldom grounded in experiences such as those faced by the clergy in Charlottesville. At the same time, I’ve recalled conversations I’ve had with those who have lived out their nonviolent commitment with integrity through involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other peacebuilding organizations. I’ve been deeply impressed by both those who have witnessed outside the military establishment like Daniel Berrigan, Molly Rush, and the rest of the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists as well as by those who have witnessed inside the same, like Lisa Schirch of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

And I’ve wondered what this present moment means for my own ongoing commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.

When Zach challenged me on my easy and ready dismissal of the antifa movement, I had to admit that I for one like a world in which Cornel West is alive. I am very glad he will continue to gift us with virtuosic theological performances. I like that world a whole lot better than one in which Professor West and those others who protested with him are not present. I am grateful for the antifa members who saved their lives in Charlottesville. I am also grateful for those who stood in silent witness prepared to be nonviolent even if they came under attack.

At this moment, my desire is this. I wish that those of us Anabaptists who hope to have something relevant to say—or do—in the context of a resurgent white supremacy will grapple with and respect the tradition of armed self-defense that is today being taken up by some members of the “antifa” movement. I hope that we will not be too quick to dismiss what they may have to teach us about the limits of our own commitment to nonviolence.

Indeed, as a historian of both the black freedom struggle and the Anabaptist community, I hope that we will be able to recognize that violence in the tradition of armed self-defense has sometimes done real, palpable—dare I say it—kingdom building work.

As I write those words, they sound foreign and alien to my Anabaptist ears. Nonetheless, I think the historical record bears out my contention.

Perhaps I should be fearful of what my sisters and brothers in the Anabaptist community may have to say to me about such a heterodox assertion. Yet, at this moment, I care far more about whether the words I pen in this article will have some modicum of relevance to my sons and their comrades in the DSA.


  1. The author has heard numerous speakers attribute this quote to Chacour, but as of publication has not been able to confirm him as the actual source. The author invites readers to contact him at tobin.shearer@umontana.edu if they can confirm the attribution. 
  2. Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). 
  3. Ibid., 373; Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 148-149. 
  4.   Vincent Harding, “The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,” Mennonite Life, October 1967, 164. 
  5. Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007), 88; Biography.com Editors, “Gloria Richardson,” A&E Television Networks, https://www.biography.com/people/gloria-richardson-21442461 (Accessed September 27, 2017). 

Call for Papers: Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today

remembering-muted-voicesThe World War’s profound effect on the United States is often overlooked. Although the United States actively took part in the conflict for only 18 months, the war effort introduced mass conscription, transformed the American economy, and mobilized popular support through war bonds, patriotic rallies, and anti-German propaganda. Nevertheless, many people desired a negotiated peace, opposed American intervention, refused to support the war effort, and/or even imagined future world orders that could eliminate war. Among them were members of the peace churches and other religious groups, women, pacifists, radicals, labor activists, and other dissenters.

Intolerance and repression often mute the voices of war critics. Almost overnight in 1917, individuals and groups who opposed the war faced constraints on their freedom to advocate, organize, and protest. The Selective Service Act of 1917 made few concessions for conscientious objectors. The Espionage Act of 1917—reinforced by the Sedition Act of 1918—prohibited many forms of speech and made it a crime to interfere with the draft. Peace advocates, antiwar activists and conscientious objectors confronted not only external hostility from the government, the press, and war supporters, but also internal disagreements over how to respond to the war and advance the cause of peace. The experience of American dissenters was not unique; their counterparts in other belligerent countries and colonial dependencies found themselves in comparable situations. Yet, those who opposed World War I helped initiate modern peace movements and left a legacy that continues to influence antiwar activism.

We invite proposals for papers, panels, posters, roundtables, and workshops that engage in diverse ways with issues of conscience, dissent, resistance, and civil liberties during World War I, in the United States and around the world. We encourage proposals that examine historical and contemporary parallels to the war. Strong conference papers will be given consideration for publication in special issues of Mennonite Quarterly Review and Peace & Change.

Topics Might Cover:

  • War Resistance as an Expression of Religious Conscience (Amish, Brethren, Catholics, Hutterites, Latter Day Saints, Mennonites, Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Quakers, etc.)
  • Secular Dissent and Resistance to War (feminists, socialists, and other movements and communities)
  • The Costs of War (economic, political, social, physical, psychological, etc.)
  • Civil Liberties in World War I and War Today
  • Race, Empire, and World War I
  • The Legacy and Relevance of World War I Peace Activism to the Present
  • The Causes and Prevention of War: World War I and Since
  • Teaching World War I and Peace History in High School and College
  • Memory, Memorialization, and the Public History of World War I

The program committee invites interested participants to send a 1-page proposal focused on the theme of the conference by January 31, 2017 to John D. Roth at johndr@goshen.edu.

For more on the conference, click here.