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Mennonite German Soldiers

Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880

Mark Jantzen

Publication Year: 2010

Mennonite German Soldiers traces the efforts of a small, pacifist, Christian religious minority in eastern Prussia—the Mennonite communities of the Vistula River basin—to preserve their exemption from military service, which was based on their religious confession of faith. Conscription was mandatory for nearly all male Prussian citizens, and the willingness to fight and die for country was essential to the ideals of a developing German national identity. In this engaging historical narrative, Mark Jantzen describes the policies of the Prussian federal and regional governments toward the Mennonites over a hundred-year period and the legal, economic, and social pressures brought to bear on the Mennonites to conform. Mennonite leaders defended the exemptions of their communities’ sons through a long history of petitions and legal pleas, and sought alternative ways, such as charitable donations, to support the state and prove their loyalty. Faced with increasingly punitive legal and financial restrictions, as well as widespread social disapproval, many Mennonites ultimately emigrated, and many others chose to join the German nation at the cost of their religious tradition. Jantzen tells the history of the Mennonite experience in Prussian territories against the backdrop of larger themes of Prussian state-building and the growth of German nationalism. The Mennonites, who lived on the margins of German society, were also active agents in the long struggle of the state to integrate them. The public debates over their place in Prussian society shed light on a multi-confessional German past and on the dissemination of nationalist values.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

List of Figures

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

It is my great pleasure to thank the many individuals and institutions whose assistance made this book possible, better, or both. Research funding was provided by travel grants from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the Fulbright Program of the United States Department of State, the Mennonite...

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1. Viewing German Nationalism from the Bottom Up

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pp. 1-14

In the 1880s a popular nationalist melodrama of the Prussian stage was Ernst von Wildenbruch’s Der Menonit, which portrayed a particular religious minority in the Vistula Delta as cowardly traitors. This group of strict pacifists, the Mennonites, grew out of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement. In the German Empire their...

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2. From Polish to Prussian Subjects

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pp. 15-48

The official Mennonite response in 1888 to Wildenbruch’s provocative play will surprise those who associate Mennonites either with their Amish cousins or with pacifism. Urban Mennonite leaders reacted to this public attack with a vigorous affirmation of their commitment to the German nation. In a statement...

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3. Redefining Mennonites’ Place in Ancien Régime Prussia

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pp. 49-77

The first Mennonite emigration to Russia in 1788 came at a time when Frederick William II was considering far-ranging changes in the government’s religious policy. As a result of these deliberations, he ordered a general review of the Mennonites’ status, triggering in turn wide-ranging discussions within a divided...

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4. The Impact of Defeat and Victory in the Napoleonic Wars

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pp. 79-106

Prussia’s defeat and collapse in 1806 proved the need for reform. The reformers who came into power hoped to harness new financial and military energies by turning subjects into citizens. Extreme differences in civil rights and status, however, were a hindrance to such plans. Groups whom the government formerly held...

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5. New Avenues into Prussian Society, 1818–48

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pp. 107-136

The pressure for reform in Prussia in the three decades that followed the restoration of absolutism after 1818 prompted changes in Mennonites’ relationship to Prussian society. Many German intellectuals, students, and businessmen supported the new ideas of nationalism and constitutionalism. These ideas created...

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6. Revolutionary Changes in Frankfurt and at Home

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pp. 137-159

Until the revolution of 1848, the debate about the place of Mennonites in Prussian society had been limited to government officials, the Mennonites themselves, and their Protestant neighbors in the Vistula region. The creation of the Frankfurt National Assembly, charged with developing a constitution that would...

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7. Family Politics and Generational Transitions as Windows into Prussian Society

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pp. 161-190

The question of how Mennonites as a religious minority could fit into a society that was itself in transition went beyond the question of whether a pacifist could be a Prussian. The conflicts Mennonites experienced with the Prussian state over family and religious identities shaped Mennonites’ changing relationship to...

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8. The Unification of Germany and the Ideology of Universal Conscription

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pp. 191-218

The Austro-Prussian war of 1866 marked an important turning point in the development of German national identity. The question of how—and how much of—Germany would be unified was answered by war. The lightning Prussian victory, which came as a surprise to almost everyone, meant that the future of...

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9. The Kulturkampf and Mennonite Reverberations in Early Kaiserreich Culture

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pp. 219-245

Neither the king, the government, nor the parliament were inclined to restore the Mennonites’ exemption from military service. The number of exemption supporters signing subsequent petitions declined every year after 1868 as Mennonites came to realize that their choices were limited to accepting military...

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10. Conclusions

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pp. 247-254

During the 1870s the hundred-year project of the Prussian state to create Mennonite soldiers was brought to a successful conclusion. A complex web of policies that linked extra taxation, tightly circumscribed property rights, and close regulation of marriage and child-rearing options placed pressure on Mennonites that...


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pp. 255-269


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pp. 270-328


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pp. 329-353


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pp. 354-370

E-ISBN-13: 9780268083540
E-ISBN-10: 0268083541
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268032692
Print-ISBN-10: 0268032696

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: no e-rights for images
Publication Year: 2010