Mennonite Life – summer 2011, vol. 65

A Review Essay of Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia

by James Regier, South Bend, Ind., University of Notre Dame

Klassen, Peter J. Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia. Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. xviii+260 pp.

Scholarship of recent decades has extended European Mennonite historiography well beyond the confines of the 16th century, particularly in the exploration of Prussia and Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries, an era fraught with migration, modernization, revolution and turmoil. The preceding two-and-a-half centuries of prosperity and tolerance that Mennonites enjoyed in early modern Poland have received a dearth of attention by comparison. Historian Peter Klassen seeks to address this neglect with his recent publication Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (xv). The culmination of a career of research, Klassen’s latest work is a must-read for anyone researching Prussian or Russian Mennonites, yet it is sufficiently accessible to become a staple for courses in Mennonite history. Klassen’s analysis of the function of the early modern Polish state, combined with his discussion of the meaning of tolerance toward religious minorities – through comparative analysis of several Protestant denominations – will make his work appealing beyond the confines of Mennonite studies.

The book sets out to describe the lives and struggles of Mennonites in early modern Poland and Prussia. With the push of persecution in northern Germany, Holland and Flanders and the pull of royal invitation, Anabaptists began arriving in Danzig (Gdańsk) and Polish Prussia as early as the 1530s, even before they began to refer to themselves as Mennonites. Along with other Dutch settlers, Mennonites soon proved themselves invaluable as drainage and agricultural experts for the swampy land of northern Poland. Building dikes, ditches and pumping mills, Mennonites soon won fertile farmland, receiving special recognition from the Polish King Wladislaw IV as early as 1642 (11-12). Over the next 150 years, Mennonites enjoyed tolerance to practice their religion. In cases where they were refused residency, such as Danzig, Mennonites contented themselves with living on the outskirts, where they earned tolerance through their contributions to the local economy. In fact, Klassen asserts that because of their skills as farmers and dike builders, villages eagerly recruited Mennonites (31).

Klassen’s account places Mennonites firmly into the rest of society. One does not see the isolation, victimization or lack of agency that has often characterized the Mennonite psyche and spilled over into historiography. If Mennonites were isolated, Klassen argues, it was in matters of faith. Otherwise, they were very much a part of the surrounding culture, politics and commerce of early modern Poland (50-51). Klassen bolsters this stance with a comparative analysis of other confessional minorities in the region. Although Klassen lists Jews as an early religious minority beneficiary of Polish tolerance, he does not discuss the interaction between Jews and Mennonites or other Christians in his work. Particularly in light of the events of the 20th century, analysis of this relationship might have added even more interest. Nevertheless, Klassen brings greater cross-confessional comparison than has often been the norm. In the city of Danzig, for example, Klassen observes that Calvinists struggled alongside Mennonites to gain greater tolerance from the guilds, the churches and the city council. The city of Amsterdam proved a powerful ally in both cases, threatening trade sanctions against Danzig (17).

Perhaps Klassen’s best discussion surrounds the meaning of religious tolerance in the context of early modern Poland. He stresses that tolerance never meant equal rights and that the decision to extend tolerance depended on a variety of factors. The Catholic Church, for example, reviewed Mennonite sermons and the Mennonite confession before advocating that tolerance be extended, with the understanding that Mennonites continue to pay the church taxes (143). Lutherans, meanwhile, were often able to avoid such taxes because of their much larger numbers. Having established a foothold in Danzig, Lutherans were hesitant to extend tolerance to Mennonites or Calvinists. Religious confession was not always the motivating factor, either. Especially in Danzig, the Lutheran-dominated guilds were hesitant to allow Mennonite craftsmen to compete in the market (51, 61).

For all its many strengths, Klassen’s work suffers from weak organization. He discusses Mennonite life in each city and region of early modern Poland and illustrates each case with fascinating anecdotes. The chapter titles bear little resemblance to their contents. To some extent, Klassen uses geography as an organizational tool, but he often returns to larger centers such as Danzig and Elbing (Elblag) for further discussion, and one finds that Mennonites faced similar situations in many of the villages. The result is a muddled and often repetitive account, in which the distinction between towns is blurred. An organization along broader themes might have helped to clarify Klassen’s overall arguments and themes.

If Klassen avoids the analytical pitfalls of discussing Mennonites out of context with the rest of society, he falls into another with his one-sided portrayal of Mennonites. To be sure, Klassen lists a broad diversity of Mennonite occupations and professions. Far from the traditional agricultural roles, Mennonites also served as skilled lace makers, financiers, engineers and in myriad other positions in society. Nevertheless, the Mennonites of Klassen’s portrayal are universally virtuous, industrious and self-sacrificially dedicated to following their faith. Klassen provides almost no discussion of internal conflicts among Mennonites. Although one learns, for example, that many Mennonite settlements had separate Frisian and Flemish congregations, the author does not explore this seemingly perpetual feud (127). At times, it seems as if Klassen is writing a history for insiders, requiring a background in Mennonite studies to gain full benefit.

Klassen’s almost Disney-like image of Mennonite history reaches a disturbing nadir in the book’s final chapter, “A Changing Vision.” With a timeline running from the Polish partitions to the final expulsion of Mennonites from Prussia at the end of the Second World War, Klassen seeks to summarize the Mennonite transition to modern nationalism in a chapter. The first portion, from the end of the Napoleonic wars until the First World War, provides an adequate, if brief, summary of events. If one does not gain a full sense of the internal conflict among Prussian Mennonites surrounding military service and national identity, one at least gains a representation. When Mennonite Pastor H.G. Mannhardt of Danzig praised Germany’s war efforts in 1915 in a speech before a public assembly, urging audience members to volunteer for military service, the transformation was clear. Klassen displayed that Mennonites had not only achieved full acceptance from their surrounding community, but they were now fully supportive of German war efforts (180-191).

Unfortunately, Klassen’s scrutiny ceases with the end of the First World War. His final citation is from Emil Händiges’s address from March 1925 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Anabaptist movement. In the address, Händiges praised traditional Mennonite nonresistance, a position Klassen claimed Mennonites were returning to in the decade after the First World War (191). To be sure, Klassen notes that many Mennonites were no longer in line with the faith’s historic stance toward military service and that the Second World War brought many Mennonites to battle. However, this represents a gross understatement. Prussian Mennonites overwhelmingly supported the rise of National Socialism and later editions of Mennonitische Blätter, which Emil Händiges edited, reveal not only affirmations of Hitler but even Mennonite efforts to gain acceptance into the SS community. As such, it was not simply a matter of “many Mennonites,” but church leadership also. In addition, recent Mennonite scholarship has highlighted Mennonite involvement in the SS, the Nazi concentration camp system and war crimes with increasing detail, taking Mennonite involvement well beyond military service.

One would wish that Klassen might have explored this aspect in greater detail, but there is very little discussed between Händiges’ address and Klassen’s hopeful conclusion, in which he portrays Mennonites from the Soviet Union and Prussia as having emigrated at the end of the Second World War, “like their common ancestors of the sixteenth century [to] seek hope, homes, peace, and religious freedom” (198). If one can make a case for Mennonites leaving the Soviet Union in pursuit of religious freedom, the same cannot be said for Prussian Mennonites, who actively helped to create the mechanisms of their own destruction.

While Klassen’s handling of the Third Reich and the Second World War is highly problematic, one must also remember that this period is neither the primary focal point of his work, nor is his analysis of the 20th century representative of the rest of this otherwise fine study. These criticisms notwithstanding, Klassen’s work contributes much to our understanding of early modern Poland and, more importantly, it promises to lead toward greater study and critical exploration of this under-discussed period of Mennonite history, during which Mennonites enjoyed toleration and prosperity in the haven of Polish Prussia.