Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia
Peter J. Klassen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 260 pages.
Peter Klassen, Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, has published numerous books on the Reformation and Anabaptism, with particular interest in the Polish/Prussian Mennonites. Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia expands significantly on Klassen’s 1989 book on the same topic, and broadens the contextual scope of other books in the field, most of which are written in the German language and are now decades old. Thus, the book is the most comprehensive, and widely accessible, examination of the Polish/Prussian Mennonites in the early modern era.
Utilizing an impressive range of archival resources, Klassen argues that Poland was a safe haven for persecuted Mennonites during the first decades of the Reformation. The author shows how, after Poles invited Mennonites to farm the wetlands of the Vistula Delta, Mennonites were “generally supported by a tolerant political and economic structure [which] allowed [them] to flourish” (46). The author focuses the first five chapters on the economic and political interaction and agreements between Mennonites and the various local governments and ecclesiastical authorities in Royal Prussia (Polish rule) and Ducal Prussia (Hohenzollern rule). The agreements, mostly conducted at the local level, relied on mutual benefit: as long as the Mennonites were of value economically, their “heretical” theology would be tolerated and they would be granted limited privileges. Mennonites could lease and farm the land, set up their own religious congregations and schools, and were exempt from military service. However, Mennonites were always insecure to some degree, as they were not equals with their Catholic and mainline Protestant neighbors.
One of Klassen’s focal points is the gradual undoing of the favorable position Mennonites held in the Vistula Delta. The author shows how, despite the similar cost-benefit relationship in the neighboring regions of the Hohenzollern-ruled Ducal Prussia, Mennonites usually fared better under the Polish crown. Convincing examples are given in the Prussian expulsion edicts aimed at Mennonites in 1724 and 1732 (due to their refusal to serve in the military), and the refuge the expellees found in Royal Prussia. However, as in numerous other cases discussed in the book, the authorities prioritized the benefits of the Mennonites’ economic value over their contribution to the military, and reversed the decisions. The repeal of the edicts, and Frederick II’s 1780 guarantee to Mennonites of being exempted from military service “forever,” (177) granted Mennonites newfound hope.
However, Frederick William III ended the centuries-long beneficial arrangements between the Mennonites and the government when he annexed Royal Prussia in the 1790s and forced the Mennonites to either serve in the military, or pay exorbitant military taxes. Thereafter, the Mennonites who chose not to emigrate in search of more favorable treatment faced increasing pressures to contribute to the Prussian military establishment, to which they acquiesced. Klassen rightly shows how by the mid-1800s, the notion of nonresistance amongst Prussian Mennonites was virtually nonexistent.
The author has provided a valuable resource on the Polish/Prussian Mennonites, and a counterweight to the familiar focus on the persecution and suffering of European Mennonites. In doing so, Klassen has woven together remarkably complex material from a variety of regional contexts. A chronological approach that highlighted the various watershed moments in the study would have reduced the cases of repetition and rendered lucidity to the Mennonite responses to state and social pressures over time.
Future researchers would do well to analyze critically Klassen’s rich findings, and delve into the deeper layers of the Polish/Prussian Mennonite religious convictions and praxis. For instance, what kinds of things differentiated the Mennonite people from their neighbors, who Klassen claims, “were attracted to the life and beliefs of the Mennonites” due to their “piety” and charity? (149–50) Was it conscience-driven conviction that prompted the mass emigration to Russia beginning in the 1790s? Or, was it chiefly economic factors? Also, what were the ramifications of ignoring the essence of the oath question, abandoning nonresistance, and accommodating the dominant culture? Although beyond the scope of this book, the Mennonite participation in the German war efforts of the twentieth century evoke cause for critical reflection on these points.
Overall, the book will find a broad readership among those already interested in this specific topic, but it will be most useful for scholars of religion, the economy, and politics of early modern Central Europe, and is a must read for scholars and advanced university students of Mennonite history.