Before me lie two variations of the same book. One is a copy of the original German edition published in Danzig in 1919, the other is its English translation published almost eighty years later in North America. The German edition was presented to me many years ago, the gift of an elderly Mennonite; its pages are yellow and the home-made binding a leather-like material, roughly stitched. In contrast the new translation is smartly bound, with a color picture on the cover and white pages in clear print.
The original book was written by the minister of the Danzig congregation, H. G. Mannhardt, whose uncle Jakob served the congregation before him and whose cousin, Wilhelm Mannhardt, was a noted academic, folklorist, and occasional historian of the Prussian Mennonites. All the Mannhardts were experienced writers, and their contributions to the Mennonitische Blätter included not just religious writings but also historical accounts and reviews. The book was intended to mark the anniversary of the founding of a Mennonite congregation in Danzig (today Gdask), but it appeared at an inauspicious time. The First World War had just ended and as Mannhardt notes some of the congregation's young men who served in the war remained prisoners of war and were still to return home. Moreover, the settlement forced upon Germany at the end of the war meant that Danzig was to be removed from the now reduced German lands and acquired the status of a "Free City" under the League of Nations but surrounded by a recreated Polish state. Not only was the city to be included in the new area but also some of the key rural Mennonite settlements were to be in Polish territory. Not surprisingly, Mannhardt's comments on this new situation are brief and somewhat apprehensive about the congregation's future. As a consequence the anniversary celebrations were muted and the text ends on an uncertain note.
The Danzig Mennonites were established quite early by Anabaptists mostly from Flemish and Frisian areas of Western Europe drawn eastwards to escape persecution and by attractive offers to drain the delta areas of the Vistula River. Danzig, however, was a well-established trading city, once part of the medieval Hanseatic League, linked via the Vistula with a rich agricultural hinterland and open to the Baltic trade routes that reached westwards to the North Sea and the Dutch homelands of many of the Mennonite settlers. Mannhardt's account of the early period reflects the scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and provides little that is new. But as his essentially chronological account progresses it draws upon original research in local archives of the church and city. The story is more familiar today than it was at the time Mannhardt wrote and although his work is not informed by any particular historiographical emphasis, his text allows the reader to recognize the role of social and political factors in the formation and survival of the small Mennonite congregations separated by distance from their Dutch brethren.
Of particular interest is the struggle to obtain official recognition and toleration combined with the necessity of making a living in the region around the city as most at first were excluded from settling within the city itself. Vested interests, however, sought to exclude Mennonites from trade and industry. This reflected a pattern found in other old city states where the old medieval estate and guild systems provided privilege and protection for various groups, a system that persisted in Germany and other areas of Eastern Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. The new Mennonite settlers lay outside this system, excluded by members of the established churches on account of their religion but also through their own wish to remain separated from the world. Mennonite claims for privilege and protection, usually addressed to the nominal rulers of the political units in which Danzig was situated, mostly centered on the need to practice their faith and make a living, and less on demanding material benefits. The obvious success of Mennonite craftsman and traders is reflected not only in the opposition of the other groups but also in the support they received from rulers and local nobility.
Mannhardt's account of these struggles has a particular tone which reflects the conservative, bourgeois views of a nineteenth century German patriot, clearly statist in its emphasis but with a deep respect for royalty. In his interpretation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the opposition to Mennonites comes either from the lower, organized orders that stand in the way of progress or from corrupt minor officials who misinform their masters. As such, Mannhardt underplays the influence of essentially archaic forms of an older hierarchical society while also celebrating the modernist industry and purpose of Mennonites operating in a free market.
The revolutions and wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, while bringing destruction to the city and Mennonite businesses and buildings, heralded a new era for the congregations. First, earlier conflicts between the separate Frisian and Flemish congregations - differences underemphasized by Mannhardt - gave way to a unification of congregations. This matched the steady drive towards the unification of the German states and their incorporation into a larger German state. It is obvious from Mannhardt's account that he viewed these developments as positive even if they meant the abandonment of many basic Mennonite principles, the most serious of which was non-resistance. How complete the integration of the Danzig congregation was into German society, culture, and politics by the end of the nineteenth century is indicated by Mannhardt's description of the last twenty years of the century:
In the newly created German Empire we had given up our separate status and felt ourselves to be members of this land, our fatherland. But we had second thoughts about our one-sided principle of non-resistance and about the real meaning of the spirit of Anabaptism in the past and present. We noticed that our task in the present world was not strict separation but rather joyous participation in everything that contributes to permeating humanity with the spirit of living Christianity (p.230).
The book ends with a new Epilogue by Tomasz Ropiejko on the history of the Danzig church building after World War Two. The history of the building of this church, and its parsonage and alms house, are detailed in Mannhardt's account as important factors in the creation of a modern congregation. The church, built between 1818 and 1819, survived the war but in a sorry state and has been used by protestant church groups since the 1950s. While Ropiejko's account is of interest, one feels that the editors could have said more either by way of an additional epilogue or in their introduction on the Mennonite fate in Danzig after 1919. This includes what happened to the congregation within the Free State between 1920 and 1939, how they fared after the Nazi seizure of power in the city 1933, and the final dispersal of its surviving members ahead of the Red Army in 1945 which effectively marked the end of the Mennonite community and congregation.
The introduction, editing and annotations by John Thiesen and Mark Jantzen are excellent. They indicate their extensive understanding of sources on the region, its history, and its Mennonites. I was a little surprised, however, that no reference is made to the work of Edmund Kizik, a Polish scholar who has published extensively in German and English as well as his native Polish based on extensive research in the surviving archives. However, an extensive bibliography is also provided, a listing of H. G. Mannhardt's publications, a place name index, and finally there is a very useful index to the entire book, a feature not in the original German edition. In total the book sets a new standard in the presentation of historical accounts translated into English and made available to both lay and specialist readers.
The book is included in the Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series of publications from Bethel College and is heralded as part of a venture to publish other translations as well as new accounts on the Prussian Mennonites. Wilhelm Mannhardt's Die Wehrfreiheit der altpreussischen Mennoniten (The Freedom from Military Service of the Old-Prussian Mennonites) is also scheduled for translation and publication. This will greatly enhance our understanding of Polish/Prussian Mennonite history which is of significance to the descendants of other such as the Russian Mennonites. Thus the book should be welcomed and supported by all Mennonites as helping to fill a neglected area in Mennonite history.
Reader in Anthropology
Victoria University of Wellington
Wellington, New Zealand