Mennonite Life – summer 2012, vol. 66

Book Review:

Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 By Mark Jantzen. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. 2010. 370 pages. $38 U.S.

by Troy Osborne

Troy Osborne is assistant professor of history at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.

The changing state of the Mennonite nonresistance position and Mennonites' relation to worldly authorities has dominated much of the history of the movement from its Anabaptist origins through North American acculturation. Driven by contemporary confessional questions, these histories have shaped modern Mennonite identity, but at the expense of authentically engaging with the larger historical discourses. In his remarkable study of Mennonites in the Prussian East, Mark Jantzen convincingly demonstrates how an examination of a seemingly marginal religious minority can make significant contributions to understanding larger historical processes, in this case those that shaped Prussia and Germany and the development of the modern state in Western Europe.

In the 19th century, Mennonites living in the Vistula-Nogat Delta attempted to preserve their nonviolent convictions while acquiring the universal rights guaranteed by the modern constitutional state. The presence of anti-militaristic Mennonites in the nascent Prussian state challenged understandings of nationalism that linked military service with national identity. It also forced the country to sort through the relationship between Prussian and German nationalism. Was it possible for a group to be German without also being loyal Prussians? The Prussian state wanted citizens who paid taxes and who fought in times of war. If the government were to force Mennonites to fight, it would leave Mennonites no choice but to migrate, thereby removing the potential income from their taxes. Were the German-speaking Mennonites beneficial because they paid taxes, or worthless because they wouldn't fight? These questions looked at the heart of what it meant to be a Prussian and a German. By thoroughly enmeshing the particulars of the Mennonite question within the larger social, economic and political forces at play in 19th-century Europe, Jantzen uses the Mennonites' story to successfully challenge scholarly assumptions about the nature and dissemination of nationalism.

With clear prose and argumentation, Jantzen skillfully presents the complex history of Mennonites in the Prussian East. Although he is in conversation with other historians of modern Germany, Jantzen's clearly stated argument and its significance are accessible to non-specialists. He takes a chronological approach, with chapters divided into distinct periods, each highlighting particular variations of the five themes he uses to bind the story together.

In Chapter One, Jantzen describes these themes as the articulation and influence of state-sponsored nationalism; the supposed link between universal conscription and the nation; the influence on popular nationalism of sovereign citizens in shaping the state (many Prussians resented giving special status to their Mennonite neighbors); the ways in which theology shaped Mennonites' rejection or acceptance of German national identity (for example, their participation in a general Protestantism that was part of shaping the national identity); and the ability of both official and popular nationalism to reach into the family unit (for example, whether or not children of mixed marriages could be raised as Mennonites). Jantzen's investigation of these themes draws from his meticulous research in Polish, German and American archives and his familiarity with extensive printed primary sources.

Chapter Two begins describing the process by which Mennonites transformed from Polish into Prussian subjects following Frederick II's acquisition of the Vistula Delta as part of the first Partition of Poland in 1772. Frederick's centralizing government quickly set about extracting resources from a culturally and religiously pluralistic region. In return for granting Mennonites military exemptions, the Prussians created a tax earmarked to support a military academy at Culm. The Prussian authorities linked ownership of land with military obligations; therefore, they sought to prevent Mennonites from purchasing new land, which would have removed another hearth from the recruitment rolls. Forced to choose between becoming impoverished Prussians or entering the military, many Mennonites joined other groups that had begun emigrating from Prussia. Upon learning of the emigration, Frederick halted the harshest policies, convinced it was more important to have Mennonites as taxpayers rather than soldiers.

In the third chapter, Jantzen traces the redefinition of the Mennonites in Ancien Régime Prussia, particularly the importance of the Edict of 1789, the legal foundation of Mennonites in Prussia until 1874. One of the interesting results of the policy was that nearly all Mennonite congregations adopted the most conservative positions regarding marriage with non-Mennonites. Leaders worried (correctly) that mixed marriages would antagonize the authorities, who saw them as unacceptable proselytization. This interference in the choice of marriage partners is one of Jantzen's many examples of the authorities' efforts to control or influence the domestic lives of their subjects.

Following Prussia's defeat by Napoleon's army, there was growing interest in reforming the country's finance system and military by turning its "subjects into citizens," the topic of Chapter Four. As Prussians began serving in the military for the nation instead of dynastic interests, Mennonites' refusal to fight was seen as refusing to participate in the nation. When Napoleon withdrew his troops from Russia through the Vistula Delta, questions of serving in the military grew more urgent in response to the presence of an enemy that was real and near. Mennonites' neighbors increasingly argued that exemptions questioned the basic fairness of a universal militia, especially in light of Dutch and Rhineland Mennonites' willingness to serve in their local militias. Following the Prussian monarchy's restoration in 1815, Mennonites' exemption was reaffirmed by the government, which sought to strengthen royal authority by upholding the royal charter and challenging the militia system, a symbol of popular sovereignty.

Chapter Five examines how ideas of nationalism and constitutionalism supported Mennonite participation in German society. Many Mennonites in the East worried that the universal rights and duties afforded by a constitution would threaten their privileges and exemptions. The increasingly acculturated Krefeld Mennonites in western Prussia were generally indifferent to nonresistance, with most members serving at the same rate as their non-Mennonite neighbors. Because wealthy Krefelder and Prussian Mennonites brought financial benefits to the state, the authorities tolerated them and worked to slow their emigration. When Protestant clergy and provincial leaders tried to force Mennonites to pay fees to the Protestant church system, the central authorities intervened on the Mennonites' behalf.

The authorities reassessed Mennonites' status upon the death of Frederick William III and the accession of Frederick William IV. If Mennonites refused to serve in the military, were they really Prussians or were they perhaps a foreign body? Would the government rather have Poles who fought or rich German Mennonites who paid taxes? In the 1840s, "language took second place" (124). Mennonites were "German when compared with Poles but as foreigners when compared with their German-speaking Protestant neighbors" (125). At this same time, Mennonites began integrating more deeply into Protestant networks. Some worked with Neo-Pietists to form schools and mission institutions. Because Pietism's influence appears to have been generally limited in the careers of several important Mennonites, Jantzen's work challenges the argument that greater involvement with Pietism necessarily meant less attention to Mennonite distinctives. However, it did draw them into conservative, monarchical politics. At the same time, Mennonites involved with Liberal Protestants brought Liberal politics into the Mennonite congregations and villages. In short, the political fissures in the broader society began dividing Mennonite communities.

Chapter Six follows the spread of the political upheavals of the Frankfurt Assembly and the revolutions of 1848 to the Vistula Delta, where conservative and liberal political arguments redefined Mennonites' relation to the nation. The basic goal of the assembly was to create common legal freedoms that did not depend on religious affiliation. The practicality of these goals was tested in the cases of the Mennonite and Jewish communities. The National Assembly understood that the Jewish religion did not contradict these national goals. However, the Mennonites' religion forbade them the national duty of military service. Many of the representatives at Frankfurt saw military service fundamentally linked to the German nation. It was not clear to them whether Mennonites' loyalty lay with their German brothers at the convention or with the Delta region, and thus not with Germany. Ultimately, the constitutional project failed. Subsequent efforts to maintain elements of noble privilege also aided attempts to retain Mennonite exemptions. The debates in Frankfurt reflected growing disagreement among Mennonites. Those who sought full civil rights sought Liberal support in easing restrictions on the ownership of land and the payment of taxes to the Protestant church. On the other hand, the Conservative Party, who favored monarchy over democracy, supported maintaining traditional status differences privileges, thereby attracting Mennonites who hoped to retain their exempted status.

In the next chapter, Jantzen examines education and marriage, where the differences between conservative and liberal understandings of Mennonite and German identity came into sharper focus. Both parties saw marriage as either a gateway or barrier to greater integration into society. Conservative Mennonites, for example, continued to prevent mixed marriages and conversion in order to maintain a sense of separation from the surrounding society. At the same time, neighboring Protestants increasingly pressured the authorities to coerce the children of mixed marriages to be baptized as Protestants. Simultaneously, many Mennonites worked alongside conservative Protestant clergy in temperance and mission societies, resulting in an interesting incongruity. By 1870, Mennonites had grown comfortable with the education their children received in public elementary schools, which were often linked with military mobilization, monarchical ideology and Neo-Pietism. As Mennonites grew less willing to emigrate and more open to theological currents in the surround culture, the pull of German society and the restrictions in marriage and property rights led Mennonites towards greater identification with a German national identity.

Chapter Eight studies how the wars of German unification resolved the internal struggles and external pressures on Mennonites, as the Prussian Army swiftly unified many of the German-speaking. With the North German Confederation's revocation of many of the earlier restrictions, many Mennonites considered anew what lines they needed to draw. A growing range of opinions among Mennonites made it difficult to grant blanket exemptions. Some immigrated directly to North America, while others chose non-combatant service. In 1868 and 1869, lay Mennonites petitioned the government to revoke the Mennonite Edict of 1789 and argued for the civil rights available to all male Germans. The petitions demonstrated the withering of the authority of traditional Mennonite leaders and that the lay Mennonites were markedly more willing to integrate into the surrounding society and the new German state.

In the ninth chapter, Jantzen argues that any remaining Mennonites with reservations about military service had emigrated by 1880. The majority who remained in Prussia rewrote their confessions to allow for military service. The political discourse surrounding the Kulturkampf meant that any future arguments about the superiority of religious demands over the duties towards the state were unlikely to find a receptive audience among a government increasingly worried about the loyalty of its Catholic citizens. To illustrate the connection between Mennonites' resistance to military service and larger questions about German and Prussian nationalism in the Kaiserreich, Jantzen analyzes fictional portrayals of Mennonite elders and their daughters in the works of Ernst von Wildenbruch and Theodor Fontane. The two prominent authors helped audiences sort through their own understandings of national identity and its relation to religion, the military and the nature of the new Germany.

Although the Prussian authorities' century-long project to turn Mennonites into German soldiers ultimately succeeded, Jantzen points out in his conclusion that the Mennonites did not see themselves as victims in 1870. Comparing Mennonites' history with that of Jewish and Catholic groups, the Mennonite story argues convincingly that the religious dynamics of Germany's history are more complicated than a basic dualism between Protestants and Catholics. The story of the Mennonites also demonstrates that the liberal good of democracy, universality and religious toleration can, and often do, come into conflict with each other. Similarly, Jantzen's book demonstrates that Mennonite history is more complicated than the story of a faithful remnant of strangers and pilgrims always searching for a tolerant homeland. One hopes that future studies of the Mennonites will look to this book as a model for integrating Mennonites into the larger historical dynamic by telling the stories of those who emigrated as well as those who stayed to shape a new identity in new cultural and political reality that was both coercive and powerfully attractive.