Ep. 5 Prussian Mennonites pocket their principles

In Ep. 4 desperate Mennonites found a survivable level of tolerance in the Vistula River delta. In the next century or so  Mennonites of Prussia and Poland adapted to the whims of kings and bishops, and thrived on the lands they reclaimed from the delta. Certainly they compromised on biblical imperatives such as spreading the good news of the gospel, but with the payment of significant sums of protection money, they retained the principles they held most dearly – the right to self-govern and the exemption from bearing arms. They would compromise those principles soon enough.

Frederick the Great2

Frederick the Great

When Frederick the Great came to power in 1740, all around him nations were asserting their statehood: Sweden in the north, Austria in the south, Russia to the east. More than productive citizens, he needed soldiers to maintain and expand his borders. Although he was more tolerant of the Mennonites than many of his predecessors, even granting citizenship to the Mennonites of Königsburg, he insisted upon greater contributions in service, inevitably pushing them toward assimilation or emigration. When the Mennonites had been few in number living in tiny villages scattered throughout the lower Vistula, he could afford to be lenient. Now however, “with the acquisition … of the large compact areas within the lowlands of the Vistula, almost solidly filled with a people opposed to the use of military force, the problem took on a different aspect to a king bent on still further expansion of his possessions.”[1] Now Mennonites were required to pay 5,500 thalers per year to support the military academy in Culm. I can still hear their consciences cringing.

The example of a specially privileged class in the midst of a reluctant people made the task of the recruitment officers and as well as the impressment gangs more difficult.[2]

Meanwhile the Mennonites continued to expand their operations and their population. Even though the king approved any new purchases they somehow increased their holdings by 300 in the next three years. In 1789 their ability to purchase land was restricted and the had to pay the same church taxes the Lutheran church paid. Any further Mennonites wishing to immigrate to Prussia were forced to settle on poorer land and needed to prove they had more than 2,000 thaler to their name. In 1801 Frederick’s successor Wilhelm II denied Mennonites the ability to buy more land, period. But Mennonites who gave up the principle of non-resistance were free to buy as much land as they liked.[3]

Mennonites now knew if they wanted to stay in Prussia they had to sacrifice the principles they had guarded for more than two centuries. As Abraham Friesen states in In Defense of Privilege Mennonites had three choices: they could find a country where religious liberty was the norm but without guarantees of a military exemption, they could find a place where a ruler might promise them religious freedom and permanent exemption from military service, or they could stay and accommodate the new reality.[4]

If you know Mennonites, you won’t be surprised to learn they did not agree on any one solution, but splintered and accepted all three solutions. Some went to America where there was no blanket exemption, some stayed, compromised their beliefs and became enthusiastic Prussians, and Gerhard’s people migrated to southern Russia, today’s Ukraine, only to give up their pacifism years later. When we catch up with Gerhard’s people I’ll tell you what happened in Russia.

In 1861 when Prussia abolished the exemption from military service, Mennonites appealed to the government to respect their longstanding belief in pacifism and non-resistance.

Wilhelm Mannhardt

Dr. Wilhelm Mannhardt

They hired William Mannhardt, internationally renowned as a researcher into German fairy tales and the first German Mennonite to obtain a Ph.D. degree, to trace their history of non-resistance back 300 years to the Reformation. In the end, Mannhardt’s report had little impact on the Prussian government; in fact even Mannhardt doubted Mennonites’ commitment to pacificism when he saw how readily they adapted to the new reality. He said even Menno Simons only became a pacifist after the Münster debacle of 1534-35.[5]

There was also an economic dynamic at play – those who owned land could easily afford to pay the non-resistance tax. As the population of Mennonites increased and restrictions on land purchase tightened, more Mennonites became landless. Those who did not own land could ill afford to pay the tax and were subject to a greater pressure to either emigrate or assimilate. Their farming skills were going unused.

Mennonites take up the sword

In October 1867 the German Confederation Parliament debated military service exemptions for members of the nobility and for Mennonites. When the matter went to a vote, the nobles had their exemption and the Mennonites did not. After appeals to the King, they were offered non-combatant roles in the military such as clerks, medics, and wagoneers.

The new legal possibility of non-combatant service meant that Mennonites no longer only had to choose between regular army service or emigration. Instead they were forced to consider again where the limits of their conscience lay. The different answers to that question split the Vistula River Mennonite community into bitterly squabbling factions.[6]

Mennonites sent two petitions to the government; one demanding full rights as citizens and the other demanding military exemption. In one church, the elder refused to serve communion or to baptize family members of those who chose non-combatant service. The sister congregation retaliated by barring the elder from the pulpit in their church. Eventually the matter went to court and the court ruled Mennonites who did not want to serve in the military could leave the country within two years and have their citizenship revoked. This time limit was later shortened to six months because potential emigres did not attempt to leave.

By 1873 young Prussian Mennonites were flouting the law. Johann Dyck’s exit pass had expired and his induction date had passed. He went into hiding but was found, arrested and escorted to Berlin. There he was forced into a uniform but refused to swear an oath of allegiance. He was incarcerated and repeated refusals brought repeated sentences. This went on for six months. Elders Gerhard Penner and Wilhelm Ewert petitioned the emperor to allow Dyck to emigrate but were firmly rebuffed. The message was clear: they could no longer depend on the autocrat for support.

Meanwhile, Elder Penner was banning church members for accepting military service as required by the law of the land. Bernhardt Fieguth joined the army in 1873 and as a result had been excommunicated; now he wished to receive communion. Elder Penner refused and was charged with breaking the law forbidding the excommunication of members for obeying state laws. Penner was sentenced a week in jail or a fine of 25 thalers. On appeal to the High Court in Berlin Penner “accused the state of legislating changes to the Mennonites’ confession of faith by requiring military service. The High Court disagreed: ‘The state does not demand that religious communities adjust their confessions according to the law, the state demands only that all citizens regardless of confession obey the laws.’”[7]

A large number of Mennonites elected to leave Prussia for Russia, but those who did not soon faced the pressure of the many wars to come. The religious tolerance of the past vanished and non-resistant Mennonites were now “stateless cowards.”[8] The rise of nationalism and the associated militarism drove them further from their pacifistic past.

Hitler quote

Mennonites also were not immune to the nationalistic fervor of the new German Reich. No longer simply limiting themselves to paying military taxes, some Mennonites even joined the military in full combatant roles as early as the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.[9] Prussian Mennonites’ commitment to pacifism officially disappeared on November 29, 1886 when the Danzig congregation amended its constitution with the following statement:

Whenever the fatherland requires military service, we allow the individual conscience of each member to serve in that form which satisfies him most.[10]

Not wanting to appear as cowards and face the scorn and ridicule of their neighbors, most Mennonites chose to serve their Volk und Vaterland (people and fatherland) actively and fully, no longer limiting themselves to noncombatant roles. While there were certainly individuals who objected, the general movement of Prussian Mennonites toward militarism was solid. It was, after all, with pride that the Mennonite Vereinigung, or the conference of Prussian Mennonites, noted that ten per cent of all Mennonites, numbering approximately 2,000, served their country in World War I. Of those, 400 died for their country as ‘heroes.’ The break with nonresistance, at least regarding military service, seemed to be complete.[11]

Since this nationalism was connected with militarism it was understandable that only a decreasing number of Mennonites used the privilege of noncombatant service. The majority of Mennonites wanted to serve together with their comrades and playmates at the place where everybody else served and this was the fighting army. They did not want to be “cowards in a safe hiding” they wanted to serve on duty for Volk und Vaterland.[12]

Instead of avoiding interaction with the state whenever possible, Mennonites in Prussia/Germany came to see the government as a creation of God to keep public order and to make sure good triumphed over evil.

The Mennonites in Germany were tempted to read the Bible in such a way that its meaning became compatible with the ‘challenge of our time.’ They did not withdraw at first from the atmosphere of political awakening in Germany. To be sure, they cited the right New Testament texts, but their understanding was stamped by the general Protestant and political Zeitgeist.[13]

As was customary upon the Emperor’s accession to throne, the conference of the West Prussian Mennonites sent a telegram to Adolph Hitler, greeting him from the Tiegenhagen convention on September 10, 1933, citing I Corinthians 3:11 and affirming: ‘The conference realizes with deep gratitude the tremendous upheaval, which God gave to our people with your energy’ and vowed on their part ‘cheerful cooperation for the reconstruction of our Fatherland out of the strengths of the gospel.’ Hitler in return thanked them for their ‘true spirit and readiness to cooperate.’[14]

Nazi war poster

Nazi war poster quoting Joseph Goebbels. [Translation: Farmers and soldiers work hand in hand to provide the people with their daily bread and to secure peace for the Reich.]

Regarding the issues of rearmament and compulsory military service, the Vereinigung[15] made up its mind as early as March, 1933, ‘not to claim any more special privileges.’ Rather, conduct in this matter was left to each one’s discretion.[16]

When Adolf Hitler turned fifty years old in 1939, the German Mennonite periodical Mennonitische Blätter published an elaborate birthday message to him.

German becomes the Mennonite language

Mennonites who had emigrated to Poland and Prussia originated from Dutch – and German-speaking regions, regions where both languages were spoken as well as several related dialects. German and Dutch languages are closely related.

When they emigrated from the Netherlands to Danzig and West Prussia during the sixteenth century they used the Dutch language in the church. It can be assumed that in their daily life they will have spoken Dutch, Flemish, Frisian and other dialects depending on from what part of the Low Countries they had come.[17]

In Prussia in 1719 Mennonites were still reading in Dutch, but by 1762 the Elbing Mennonite Church had already changed to German.[18]

As early as 1671 Georg Hansen wrote that the young people of the Heubuden Mennonite Church could write German better than Dutch. Nevertheless, Heubuden continued Dutch preaching until 1750-60, more than seventy-five years later.[19]

The first partition of Poland during which most Mennonites came under Prussian (read German) rule could not have helped. Being enterprising people, Mennonites were forced to conduct business with their neighbours, and they would have done so in the German language. For their informal speech at home and in the community, they continued to use a Dutch-German hybrid known as Plautdietsch (Low German).

After Germany’s defeat in World War One, many Prussian/German Mennonites came under Polish authority, and they did not like it. Here’s what Emil Händiges wrote in Mennonitische Blätter, the oldest German Mennonite periodical which had been “determinedly and faithfully following the motto of Menno Simons” since 1854:

Our German peoples have endured unspeakable difficulties under the Polish yoke during its twenty-year foreign rule. The most difficult at the end. Then God, the Lord, helped them through the hand of our Führer and freed them. We thank our Führer for this act of liberation.[20]

Without the benefit of hindsight, Prussian Mennonites took a straight line path to Nazi-ism “The Mennonites had been searching for a several things: an improved farming economy, a stronger central government, and the permanent prevention of communism. Adolf Hitler offered a comprehensive solution.”[21]

The German Mennonites stepped out of their isolation during the 19th century and began to feel like citizens of the German Reich.[22]

When the Nazi Stormtroopers started to clean the streets of Communists … it was observed with satisfaction and relief. The Machtergreifung [seizing power] in 1933 was comprehended as a liberation from the Communist threat and Western decadence.[23]

While many Mennonites were not overtly racist or anti-Semitic, many took advantage of the slave labour provided by Jews, while providing them marginally improved working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Mennonites would only help Jews if it did not put their own lives in jeopardy. Thus, there was neither open deviation from mainstream German Protestant views regarding Jews, nor direct action against the Nazi policy through protests or other resistance. Mennonite assistance to Jews was only offered in such a framework that it would not draw negative attention to them and thereby threaten their existence individually or as a community.[24]

Many Mennonites lived within a stone’s throw of the Stutthoff concentration camp or one of its 38 sub-camps where 85,000 people were murdered on account of their identity. It is difficult to believe Mennonites were unaware of the activities at the camps, if not in full support of them. Once again they became “the quiet in the land.”

What happened to those ecstatic Dutch Mennonites who happily went into the fire for their beliefs? What happened to the spirit of Felix Manz whose friends encouraged him to choose drowning over recanting, darkly cheering him on. But that was the Reformation! Things were crazy and getting crazier all the time; and followers of Menno might have been the craziest of them all. After all, the end was nigh, so why not rub yourself with shit and run naked through the village. The last one to heaven is a rotten egg.

James Peter Regier compares the moral demise of the Prussian Mennonites to the effect of a glacier on granite: “It was the natural consequence of years of gradual theological adaptations and compromises to better fit within the German community. When National Socialism came, the Mennonites no longer had the capacity to resist.”[25] Now they were not even willing to go to jail.


Gerhard’s people did not follow the straight road to Nazism like their Prussian brothers; they had already emigrated to Russia at the turn of the 19th century and were following their own equally perilous twisting path to a similar conclusion.

… by the time the Prussian Mennonites left for Russia in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries, their religion had long since ceased to be the dynamic faith of the early Anabaptists; they had willingly exchanged the Christian obligation ‘to preach the gospel to all creatures’ for a limited religious toleration.; they had bowed to the dominant state’s demand to remain inconspicuous and unobtrusive; they had exchanged the Dutch language for the German, though their use of Low German in everyday discourse appears to have remained a constant; and the energy they had initially invested in the defense of their religion had been transferred to the secular world of land reclamation, agriculture, trade and commerce. They had become the ‘quiet in the land’ religiously; economically, however, they were anything but quiet.[26]

The heroic days of their father’s Reformation faith was only a vague and distant memory, though their sense of being persecuted, of being martyred, stayed with them.[27]


[1] Smith, C. Henry, The Story of the Mennonites 3rd ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn, 1950, General conference of Mennonites, Board of Publication, page 281

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://gameo.org/index.php? title=Molotschna_Mennonite_Settlement_ (Zaporizhia_Oblast,_Ukraine)

[4] Friesen, Abraham. In Defense of Privilege – Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War One, 2006, Historical Commission of the USA and the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches, Kindred Productions, Hillsboro and Winnipeg, page 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jantzen, Mark, “Whoever Will Not Defend His Homeland Should Leave It,” German Conscription and Russian Mennonite Emigration to the Great Plains 1860-1890, Mennonite Life, September 2003, Vol 58, No. 3.

[7] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), Berlin, Hauptabteilung (HA) I, Repositur 76, III, Sekt. 1, Abt. XIIIa, no. 2, vol. 12, fols. 26r quoted in Jantzen, Mennonite Life, September 2003, Vol 58, No. 3.

[8] Regier, James Peter, Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Prussian Mennonites, the Third Reich, and Coming to Terms with a Difficult Past, Mennonite Life, March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1.

[9] Schroeder, Steven Mark, Prussian Mennonites in the Third Reich and Beyond: The Uneasy Synthesis of National and Religious Myths, (Master’s Thesis: University of British Columbia, 2001), page 11 as quoted in Regier, Mennonite Life March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1.

[10] Händiges, Emil, Catastrophe of the West Prussian Mennonites, in Proceedings of the Fourth Mennonite World Conference, Goshen, Indiana, and North Newton, Kansas, August 3-10, 1948 (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1950), 126 as quoted in Regier, Mennonite Life March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1.

[11] Lichdi, Diether Goetz, The Story of Nazism and its Reception by German Mennonites, Mennonite Life vol. 36, no. 1 (April 1981), page 26.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. page 27.

[14] Ibid.

[15]The Vereinigung is the conference of Prussian Mennonites.

[16] Ibid., page 28.

[17]Duerksen, Jacob A., Transition from Dutch to German in West Prussia, Mennonite Life, July 1967, page 107.

[18] Ibid. page 108.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Händiges, Emil, Zur Heimkehr der bestreiten Volksgenossen ins Reich, Mennonitische Blätter 86, no. 10-11 (October/November 1939.): 65, quoted in Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung, James Peter Regier, Mennonite Life, March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1 .

[21] Regier, Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Mennonite Life, March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1.

[22] Lichdi, page 25.

[23] Lichdi, page 26.

[24] Regier, Mennonitische Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Mennonite Life, March 2004, vol. 59 no. 1.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Friesen, page 360-1.

[27] Ibid.

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