An Objective Discussion by a West Prussian Mennonite

As is well known the North German Confederation Diet, after a quick, brief discussion on November 9, 1867, and against the proposal of the Federal Council, revoked the military service exemption of the Mennonites of the North German Confederation, including those of Provincial Prussia. This exemption had existed for centuries and had been specifically reaffirmed by royal charter for the latter group of Mennonites. Now all Mennonites are equally liable for military service with every other citizen. The ruler of the Confederation signed this decision into law and more recently the mode of service has been modified by royal mercy in the form of an executive order dated March 3, 1868,1 that allows for noncombatant positions without weapons training as clerks, medics, wagoners or other skilled artisanal positions.

One cannot expect, indeed it is a vain hope, that this decision will be retracted so that the full extent of military service exemption could be restored. To name only two of many reasons, the various petitions delivered to the government since the Diet’s resolution have received no answer at all as well as the fact, which should be interpreted as a negative reply, that the Minister of the Interior has published a declaration that since Mennonites are no longer exempt from the military, they also no longer face restrictions in their civil rights. In addition, the Ministers of War and the Interior also released a resolution allowing some relief by instructing that those Mennonites born before 1848 are not be registered for military service. (That means, of course, that those born since then are now considered liable for the draft.)2 Such hopes of revision are also not justified by the Ministry of Finance’s decision to grant the Elders Conference’s fervent desire to accept payment of the protection money, since the minister expressly stated that this action may not been seen as precedent toward reestablishing the exemption.

Naturally our community has been deeply hurt and terribly shaken by the above unimagined and unexpected resolution. Most of us have lived so far securely and without worry in the confidence that our military service exemption could never be altered because we had inherited it from our ancestors according to the precepts of our confessions of faith and as a legally registered right confirmed by royal Charters of Privileges. Such a belief was reinforced by the partiality afforded us by the government that saw to it that attempts to lift our exemption all failed. By habit from childhood on, we became accustomed to the social and legal limits imposed on us as a consequence of our special status. We clung to the freedom that had been given us and enjoyed life in the shadow of that gift without thinking seriously about our personal attitude toward nonresistance. Now all of a sudden the right we had, and had thought to be so permanent, has been destroyed and with the end of our exemption, we face a clear decision. We are called to give account of our personal stance to the article of faith concerning nonresistance and what position our members on the basis of their thoughts, conscience and possible reservations should take toward the demands of the state concerning military service. Taking such a decision is not without pain and conflict and is all the more dramatic since there is no agreement amongst us.

We will attempt in what follows in a strictly objective and non-partisan presentation to explain the differing perspectives that according to our experience exist among us.

Anyone who has been following the mood in our congregations attentively and without blinders on cannot doubt that the majority of our members have distanced themselves from the traditionalist Mennonite standpoint by which even the most indirect participation in warfare must be categorically rejected. Such distancing has, in fact, been the case for some time, although there has not been any occasion to break with the limits set by the confession of faith. Only as a result of the manifestations arising from the passage of the Confederation Diet’s resolution has it become clear that some of us no longer have any conscience against meeting the expectations of defending the fatherland equally with all other citizens. If, therefore, they are to relinquish the boon granted them of exemption from military service, they are ready without qualm to put on the king’s uniform and bear arms. In fact, they would much rather serve as regular military than in the secondary noncombatant positions granted by the king’s grace. Those who think along these lines nonetheless are still a minority among us.

A larger number would like to retain the confession of faith but think that the conditions delineated in the executive order of March 3 have offered a way to meet the obligations of both the confession of faith and legal requirements and duties owed to the fatherland. Those who lean toward this position acknowledge that the state must have equal requirements for all its citizens to participate and that only personal service risking one’s life can meet this requirement. Simply paying dead and cold money to the state cannot. When Frederick II in the 1780 Charter of Privileges granted Mennonites freedom from “personal” military service in exchange for an annual payment of 5,000 Talers toward maintenance of the Culm Military Academy, he did not free them from military service. Instead he explicitly named this sum recruiting money,3 which therefore had an indirect role in warfare and represented a specialized form of defending the fatherland. In the old monarchy, which was basically an external framework arranged around different social estates and organized social groups, the exemption for the Mennonites was matched by similar exceptional arrangements for all kinds of social classes and all of these fit easily and legally into the military structure of that kind of state.

Since the turbulence of the Napoleonic years, however, the state has become a unified organism with a single version of citizenship and equal military duties for all. This situation creates a moral demand for Mennonites to participate personally in the collective defense of all those goods that they enjoy in peacetime the same as all other citizens. The same measure of duty need not, however, result in a rigid monotony of form. The defense of the country does not only involve meeting the enemy with armed force. It also involves effective protection in wartime of the endangered possessions of the people. The valuable and historical recorded right to avoid shedding blood, won by our ancestors with much sacrifice and in the face of persecution, need not be surrendered since it enables the Mennonite community to practice a goal desired by all Christianity.

Even now the Mennonite congregations have the special mission within the larger Protestant church to serve as constant, living reminders to strive for the complete realization of God’s Kingdom on earth, where swords will be beaten into plowshares and conflicts between peoples will be settled by peaceful agreements. There is no better and more effective way to live out this calling than by giving to the fatherland what belongs to the fatherland, to dedicate oneself to the care of the wounded on the battlefield and in the hospital, to risk one’s life for one’s brothers, to practice love of enemy and to help bind up the wounds inflicted by the demon of war. Doing so is, in the first place, the authentic and real fulfillment of the Mennonite principle that following Christ requires humility, meekness and patience in doing those tasks scorned by the world. One takes up such duties in self-denial and with a sense of joy. Without sinning against the spirit, or even the letter,4 of their current confessions of faith, congregations can change their former participation by paying money into a personal weaponless participation in the defense of the nation. In fact, the new conditions fit the confessional intention better than the old, since formerly the money one paid was used to place the sword into others’ hands whereas now personal commitment is made to the exercising of the Christian duty to be a good Samaritan. In addition, one can look to the example of one’s own ancestors in Holland, Hamburg and Danzig, who served in defense of their homeland as members of state-organized fire brigades that extinguished fires during enemy sieges and bombardments.

The above sentences represent the thoughts of those who see such views as presenting the most complete assessment. A large portion of those, however, who in general agree with this approach, are seriously concerned about serving as wagoners. As such, they might be required to haul artillery pieces, which would give them a more direct participation in the murderous work of war. They wished, therefore, that the national government would explicitly rule out the use of Mennonites for such work. Such a guarantee would give them more peace of mind in accepting their required assignments.

Others, who have not yet reconciled themselves to the fact that the state has the right to require personal service in fulfillment of this duty, would much prefer to remain with the old circumstances. Since the old Charter of Privileges has been set aside, however, they are prepared to accept the executive order of March 3 out of respect for governmental authority. They wish that in order to protect their confession of faith the national government would place the drafted Mennonites into a special medical corps that can then be supplied with the requisite spiritual oversight.

Smaller but more influential and dominated by strong individual personalities is a group that believes that no concessions can be made to the state. They insist on keeping to the old confessions and prefer to emigrate from the fatherland rather than to bow to the new order of things. They claim that the unconditional refusal to serve even in the most indirect way in war is a main pillar, a holy of holies of the Mennonite faith, and that war is under all circumstances a devilish and condemned endeavor.

They are certainly right in one sense, since the original view of the Anabaptists was that Christians in agreement with the literal meaning of the Holy Scripture are required to fulfill the moral commandments completely without consideration of actual conditions and without concern for the real world. Such a Christian is to act in each and every case as if the Kingdom of God, the perfect conditions, has already been realized on earth. The congregation is not to be seen as a mother raising and correcting its children but as a communion of saints without spot or wrinkle. Thus baptism not of infants but of adults able to make their own decisions, thus the demand of nonresistance, of saying only “Yes” or “No” in place of oaths, thus the rejection of any participation in war. The abandonment, or even the weakening, of the latter requirement, they claim, shreds the Mennonite confession of faith. There is only an either/or, the acceptance of a new kind of faith that allows for full participation in the military or the strict adherence to the old with subsequent allowances to be made by the Imperial Diet and Federal Council. If such are not forthcoming, then one must depart for Russia, which has provided an asylum for so many of our brothers. Acceptance of the executive order of March 3 is an absurdity since it is an ambiguous non-decision. Its supporters are neither hot nor cold and will receive the judgment outlined beginning in Revelation 3:15.

Those who seek to preserve nonresistance via this moderate route are deceiving themselves. In a few years the transition to full military service will be complete. The burden of serving in the least desirable, lowest status branches of the military, which only suits exceptional individuals, will prove to be too much. Regular military service, which the world rates more highly, as well as the glory of being an officer, will entice the young, uncommitted sons of our community. That the state requires an army for its own preservation is not the concern of a true Mennonite. If the entire public community consisted of nonresistant, strongly faithful Christians, the weapon of prayer would be protection enough against all domestic and foreign foes. Thus they do not recognize that a Mennonite can be tied to the defense of the homeland. Therefore, assistance from Mennonites in the form of tending to the wounded in private houses or in a congregational hospital can only happen as a voluntary service of love. 

Serving as medics and nurses in a military campaign would be as bad as being a doctor for a robber gang engaged in murder and theft if one helped those injured in their blasphemous endeavors and hoped, if things went well, to share in their profit. This sentiment, however, does not in any way mean that the soldier who is following the orders of the commander-in-chief is the same as a highway robber. It does mean that it is quite different to offer medical assistance to a murderer after and separate from the crime. If the state wished to raise the amount of the protection money significantly above 5,600 Talers, one would accept this since it would be a sacrifice of material things to preserve one’s faith. As a pilgrim on the way to heaven, the Christian does not have an enduring city here on earth. Nationality and country are goods of lesser value for such a Christian whose fatherland is wherever the faith is protected. Thus, for all these reasons, it is seen as necessary not to compromise on the traditional understanding, lest one start down the wide path of the middle, thereby unavoidably and certainly casting one’s children and grandchildren into the ruin of sin.

The above is as close as possible to the thinking of those men who most sharply express the traditional Mennonite standpoint. Their main goal is first of all to move the national government to reverse the Imperial Diet’s decision and reinstate the Charter of Privileges, even if that would include additional civil rights restrictions and higher costs. If that should not be possible, then longer term they seek additional time before the draft is imposed to organize resettlement and will put much effort into getting as many church members as possible to move to the Russian steppe, which they see as a place of refuge for the true believers.

All three of these groups – which for the sake of brevity, even if not quite accurately, we will call the old or strict, the middle or moderate and the new or liberal – include among their representatives men who are much respected, earnest in their views and highly conscientious. Each group has followers, as is always the case, a slew of others for whom the power of habit, selfishness or other interests of all kind are the driving force of their behavior. Until now, however, even though it has been a year since the Imperial Diet passed the new military service bill, nothing has happened in the congregations beyond a quiet internal simmering. No party except for the strict one has organized public meetings to air its views and wishes. All the official pronouncements made in petitions to the king, the Imperial Chancellor, the cabinet ministers and so on, including those of the last few months, give the appearance, at least to outsiders, that it is the unanimous and firm decision of the Mennonite community to stick to the old conditions. Thus the appearance is created that only a small percentage, mostly faithless and denying the confession, indifferent at best to religion in general, will accept the new conditions. 

If our duty to the truth commands that we say such an appearance does not agree with the actual mood of the congregations, we should also note the meetings have been called by the congregational leaders who feel obligated by their office, of course, to make the most intense efforts up to the last minute to preserve as much as possible. The conservative nature of religious bodies means that the Mennonite church boards, since they are the keepers of the confessions of faith, abstractly represent and seek to preserve the old order. Thus, even though some members of the leadership personally believe that serving under the condition of the executive order of March 3 would not be a violation of conscience or faith, they do not see themselves as authorized to be the first to say so. As far as I know, so far only two of the elders have publically taken this position with their congregations and advocated for it in the leadership conferences. In addition to these objective scruples, the force of several domineering personalities squelches the free expression of opinions by those who tend toward the moderate position. Those men have achieved almost dictatorial powers due to their faithful and selfless efforts over the last 20 years on behalf of the Mennonite community and their prophetic work to preserve the Charter of Privileges during that time. There is no doubt that these men will emigrate to show the sincerity of their convictions if the reversal of the Imperial Diet’s law that they seek is not forthcoming. They will undoubtedly be joined by a few of their fellow leaders, as well as a considerable number of friends, relatives and fellow believers in the cause. Their departure will be a great loss, as they are diligent workers and salt in their congregations and families, a good and moral example of Christian persistence.

If our impartial observations concerning the mood in the congregations is correct, if in fact the current crisis demonstrates that the majority of members no longer hold the traditional position at the same time that the leadership as a whole only represents the voice of the strict party in that they label all others as dead or unfaithful members, if this is all true, then it is clear this is not a problem that began today or yesterday. This problem has been growing quietly for a long time. In fact, already in 1850, with clarity and well-meaning warmth, a traditional voice warned that “if the recently experienced time has caused us much worry over losing our former freedom of religion and conscience, that concern has only been deepened by the realization that several of our members have said publically that military service is a necessary duty that we must fulfill. Others lust after the enjoyment of all civil rights and in order to get them would be willing to change the arrangements.” Thus what actually seems strange is that there was not already earlier an effort to reform the congregations and instead the official declarations of individual congregations as well as the community as a whole reflect instead an imaginary unanimity with the inherited dogma.

We can easily solve this riddle by considering the fact that, in addition to the hierarchical pressure exerted to squash any views and statements contrary to the leadership’s resolutions, habit and selfishness have guided the majority of those who no longer actually believe in the traditional way. The continued enjoyment of the privilege was more comfortable. As for those who actually feel they have a duty to the state, they did not push for a change in the circumstances so as not to take on the guilt of causing division and separation in the church. Since there seemed no possibility of moving all, or even the majority, of the members to voluntarily give up their inherited tradition, they were reluctant to implicate those brothers whose consciences actually still bound them to the traditional nonresistance.

Now, however, without taking action in favor of their views, the legitimate state powers have decided the matter. For the majority, the well-meaning executive order of March 3 has created the possibility of fulfilling their duties to the state while remaining within the confines of their confessions of faith. There is no longer any reason to hesitate about making the change. Now it is necessary for each individual and each congregation to decide. That decision for one or the other view should not be made out of selfish desire but rather from personal, thoughtful conviction. Then manly frankness and strength should translate the decision into action. The wellbeing of our community will be determined for a long time to come by the decisions and directives of the next days. Therefore, it is imperative that every Mennonite should reach clarity out of and according to God’s Word about the pros and cons of all the relevant questions, and that no one should be shy about expressing the decision they thus reached firmly and decisively.

If the reader of the above is now wondering that the author has not shown his own perspective and helped out the undecided by providing biblical reasoning, recall again the words of the introduction that this piece is attempting to describe objectively the situation in the congregations. We will leave it to other pens to debate the confessions of the community concerning nonresistance and the current demands of the state. They can give careful consideration to the question of if and how our community can without sin fulfill the Imperial Diet’s law, without violating the confessions or going against the spirit of the Word or the will of the Lord. Nonetheless, we cannot avoid expressing our astonishment that the Mennonite Journal has been utterly silent on this important matter.5 Hopefully we will soon hear a competent voice concerning this issue.

The author would like at the end to urge all his dear Prussian brothers not to allow themselves to be thoughtlessly herded into the new order, and therefore reminds them of the word of our Lord and Master: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world by forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Let each one therefore see to it and examine before God what he should do.