The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial PrussiaThe Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia

The publication of this English translation of Wilhelm Mannhardt’s book, originally written in German and published in 1863, makes a significant contribution to understanding the Prussian Mennonite story. Until recently, the Polish and Prussian Mennonite stories were not well known in the English reading world. The last major study in German, of this segment of the Mennonite story was published by Horst Penner, in a two volume history in1978 and 1987 respectively.

Penner, a historian who lived in West Germany at the time, was born and raised in the Vistula area Mennonite community.

The English reading public’s knowledge of this history were significantly advanced when Peter Klassen published his A Homeland for Strangers in 1989. It provided an excellent introduction to the Polish/Prussian Mennonite story. In 1991 this was followed up with a whole issue of articles by the Mennonite Quarterly Review on the Polish/Prussian Mennonite history. These articles came out of a study conference in Winnipeg in 1990 held in conjunction with the Mennonite World Conference.

In 2007 Jantzen and Thiesen published an English translation of H. G. Mannhardt’s The Danzig Mennonite Church, which made available to English readers another major German language publication. In 2010 Jantzen published his ground breaking study of Mennonites in Prussia, entitled The Mennonite German Soldier: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian Era, 1772-1880. A year earlier, in 2009, Peter Klassen published an excellent study of the earlier, Polish era, of Mennonite life in the Vistula River region, called Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia. These studies together now provide the English reading public with a wealth of information and analyses about the Polish and Prussian Mennonite story, a story whose influence continues to shape a large portion of present-day Mennonites in North and Latin America.

Now this translation of Mannhardt’s book on Mennonites’ belief in non-resistance and exemption from military service further adds to an understanding of this era of Mennonite history. This book was an important publication by the Danzig area Mennonite community, and thus provides insight into some of the major discussions in this late nineteenth century Mennonite community.

Wilhelm Mannhardt wrote his book at a time when the Prussia state was threatening to revoke Mennonite exemptions from military service. As Prussia was reforming itself into a more modern state, it argued that all citizens were now expected to contribute equally to the nation state, and that special privileges, like exemptions from military service, were no longer going to be extended to its citizens. Only the sons of the highest ranking German nobility would be exempt from military service.

This new situation created a crisis for Mennonite Churches in the Vistula area. For them non-resistance, and its corollary, exemption from military service, defined who they were. To accept military service would be to deny their fundamental identity.

The church leaders thus asked Wilhelm Mannhardt, one of the first Mennonites in Prussia to earn a doctorate, to do a study of non-resistance from the sixteenth century to their day. This study was intended to show both the government authorities, as well as the Mennonite community, that being a peace church was essential to Mennonite identity.

In an excellent introductory essay, Jantzen and Thiesen discuss this tension between the claims of modernity, and the faith claims of a church that believes in peace. The authors show the sharp conflicts this tension created within Prussia and within the Mennonite churches, a tension which eventually caused the majority of Prussian Mennonite churches in the Vistula region to accept military service, and reject 300 years of identity as a peace church.

Jantzen and Thiesen provide their best analyses of this tension in their discussion of the Frankfurt Congress in 1848, in which representatives from the various German states debated whether to unify the states into one country, based on principals of modernity, instead of privilege and tradition. In that discussion, pacifism and military exemption are seen as part of the era of privilege and tradition.

Jantzen and Thiesen show how this tension between modernity and the church’s faith claims is still a tension faced by Anabaptist/Mennonite churches today. The introductory essay alone, in its clarity and its ability to relate the past and the present, is worth the price of the book.

Mannhardt started his study of the history of Mennonites as a peace church with a brief overview of the beginnings of the Anabaptism movement, including the Swiss, South German, Dutch and Hutterite branches. In each area he showed how non-resistance was imbedded in the Anabaptist community’s beliefs, and how it was essential to their faith identity.

Mannhardt followed the story of Anabaptist/Mennonites in each of the regions, and showed how in one area after the other, they gave up non-resistance, particularly during the Napoleonic era at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In some regions Mennonites could pay for substitutes, but in most cases, those who wanted to maintain their belief in non-resistance, and be exempt from military service, emigrated to America.

Then he traced the Mennonite story in the Vistula River area in Poland, recounting in some detail the story of Mennonites settling in the area. He faithfully recounted how Mennonites were pacifist from their earliest days in that region, and how they struggled to get their first Privilegium from the Polish King Wladislaw IV, in 1642. This Privilegium defined their status within Poland as non-citizens, and confirmed their exemption from military service. Mannhardt provided the full text, and the texts of the Privilegia signed by each succeeding Polish king until the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish kingdom in the years from 1772 to 1795.

Since the area in which Mennonites lived in the Vistula River region subsequently came under Prussian rule after 1772, Mannhardt picked up the story of their relationship to the Prussia kings. His main emphasis is that the Prussian kings graciously extended religious toleration to Mennonites. Despite this toleration, he acknowledges that Mennonites had difficulty in getting exemption from military service. He showed how these difficulties occasioned the emigration of Mennonites to Russia in a number of waves, thus further confirming how strongly Mennonites felt about this article of faith, and the sacrifices they were willing to make to defend it.

Mannhardt noted that Prussian kings did finally extend military exemption to Mennonites, but for a price. Mennonites had to pay a large annual sum of money to support a military officers training academy in the city of Kulm, and they were restricted from buying additional farm land. This latter restriction further provided incentive to emigrate to Russia. But all these restrictions and costs Mennonites were willing to bear in order to maintain their identity as a peace church. Mannhardt also included the texts of the Privilegia the Prussian kings extended to Mennonites.

Toward the end of the chapter on the Prussian era, Mannhardt discusses the Frankfurt National Assembly in 1848. This Assembly, called to create a constitution for a modern, united German nation, which they hoped would emerge at this Assembly, debated the matter of military exemptions. Because Mennonites from the Rhine River regions had already accepted military service, the Assembly was persuaded that exemption from military service was not a fundamental Mennonite belief. More importantly, though, the Assembly thought that in a modern state every citizen ought to be treated equally, with equal obligations to defend the country. No special privileges or exemptions. Exemptions were a holdover from a pre-modern era. In addition, they also argued that in a modern state this decision about whether to serve in the military was not made by the church, but by the state. Mannhardt concludes his study with a number of excerpts from the writings of Menno Simons.

In this English edition, the editors add a 61 page article by Wilhelm Mannhardt published serially in the Prussian Mennonite periodical, Mennonitische Blaetter in 1868. This article was published five years after his book, and shortly after the Prussian government passed the imperial military service law requiring military service for all Mennonite men of military age. In the introduction to this article, Mannhardt states that when he wrote the book on Mennonites and their views on peace, he really did not believe in the thesis of his book, and now feels obligated to inform his readers of his true position on the subject. At the end of his lengthy article he says that he accepts the argument from modernity, namely, that all citizens should accept their obligation to serve their country. He further claims that belief in peace, and rejection of military service, is not really an essential part of Mennonite identity. He argues that giving up non-resistance would not destroy Mennonites’ faith in God; it might even save the church, for to discipline those who take up military service, would be to expel the brightest and the best in the Mennonite community.

The editors, and the translator (who regrettably died before the book was published), are to be congratulated in publishing this important historical book by Mannhardt. The Polish/Prussian Mennonite story forms the background to the belief and practices of a large portion of the North American and Latin American Mennonite communities. The Polish/Prussian Mennonite story should also be of interest to Anabaptist/Mennonites throughout the world, for the pressures of nationalism and modernity addressed by Mannhardt are ones faced in many countries today. In a real sense, this is a universal story, from which all Christians can learn, for it portrays a struggle for the basic identity of faith and community.