First Duty of the Citizen: Mennonite Identity and Military Exemption in Prussia, 1848-1877

By Thiesen, John D. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

First Duty of the Citizen: Mennonite Identity and Military Exemption in Prussia, 1848-1877


Thiesen, John D., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: The Mennonites of West and East Prussia, what is now northern Poland, found themselves in conflict with each other and with surrounding society as they went through a transition in legal status during the mid-nineteenth century. The issue of military service and conscription became the focus of tension in moving from a society of subjects to a society of citizens. The majority of Prussian Mennonites came to accept their not-quite-equal status as citizens by the last quarter of the century, but a minority resisted change tenaciously. A look at the debate between the two sides illuminates some of the questions of power, cultural elites, moral authority and purpose raised by the Ainlay/Kniss essay at the beginning of this volume.

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Refusal of military service has usually been one of the main distinguishing characteristics of Mennonites. Their belief that the use of armed force is contrary to Christian ethical standards has often caused contention between Mennonites and other members of societies in which they have lived. In some cases, however, it has been a divisive matter among Mennonites themselves.

Mennonites in the provinces of West and East Prussia engaged in a protracted conflict, both among themselves and with political authorities, about military exemption in the years 1848-1877. The conflicting groups continued to regard themselves as Mennonites, even though they parted ways over how to respond to the state's demand for universal military service. The acceptance of military service by most Prussian Mennonites after 1868 marked the end of one of their chief distinctive characteristics. Thus, this episode has potential for shedding a new light on how Mennonite identity in Prussia was changing in the nineteenth century. Two West Prussian congregations--Danzig and Heubuden--and their respective elders or senior clergymen--Jakob Mannhardt and Gerhard Penner--can symbolize the way Mennonite identities diverged in the context of the debate over military conscription during these decades.

Many aspects of Prussian Mennonite relations with each other, with their non-Mennonite neighbors and with government officials at various levels could be examined. Demographic and economic statistics contrasting Mennonites and non-Mennonites in West Prussia would be particularly illuminating, but such information is not easily available. What is available is documentation on the conflict among Mennonites themselves about what it meant to be a Mennonite in the changing political situation of mid-nineteenth-century Prussia.

In the opening essay of this volume Stephen Ainlay and Fred Kniss highlight a number of questions one might ask about any conflict: Where and by whom was power being exercised? Were there "cultural elites" who had the power to set the terms of debate, particularly in a conflict like this one in Prussia where fundamental characteristics of the group seemed to be at stake? What grounds of moral authority were being asserted, on a spectrum from individual reason and experience to collective tradition? What was the "moral project" to which participants were dedicated, ranging from individual self-interest and personal salvation to building the common good or an alternative social order? Fred Kniss offers a model which locates participants in religious, cultural and political conflicts at various points in a space defined by the dimensions of the last two questions: moral authority and moral project. The Ainlay-Kniss model was developed with American society in mind; it is an open question whether it will fit a mid-nineteenth-century European situation. Nevertheless, the model does offer a number of useful questions in framing an analysis of the conflict narrated here.

The Mennonites of West and East Prussia were caught in the midst of a vast social and political transition when the controversial issue of military exemption arose. For centuries Mennonite ways of relating to the surrounding society had been shaped in a society of estates or corporate groups. …

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