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Fall 2011 · Vol. 40 No. 2 · pp. 250–252 

Book Review

Mennonite German Soldiers Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880

Mark Jantzen. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. 384 pages.

Reviewed by Peter J. Klassen

From the earliest days of Mennonite settlement in what Jantzen refers to as the “Prussian East,” the struggle between traditional beliefs and a demanding dominant culture was a central issue in the Mennonite community. Extensive primary sources such as local church records, correspondence with religious and civic leaders, economic statistics, and literary portrayals provide a rich basis for an analysis of a century of dramatic transformation as the Mennonite community struggled to bridge the gap between distinctive beliefs and dominant societal practices. But, as Janzen demonstrates, the extent of identification with dominant values and practices in society was seen differently by various leaders.

For a full century some champions of accommodation argued that the emerging new order in Germany reflected so many positive opportunities that abandoning the traditional peace position need not impinge on other expressions of faith such as believers’ baptism, freedom in church policies, help for the needy, or missions outreach. Prominent leaders such as Pastor Jacob Mannhardt or Wilhelm Mannhardt contended that basic Christian virtues supported by official policy presented an obligation to identify more fully with the state, including its military policies.

This issue divided Mennonite communities. Royal policy imposed pressure on Mennonites by prohibiting further land acquisition unless some accommodation was made to government military demands. Frederick II permitted some elastic interpretations of official land acquisition policy, but when his successor became more restrictive, the 1780s saw the beginning of emigration to Russia. A century later, when both Prussia and Russia tightened military demands, and Mennonites in Prussia became increasingly supportive of adopting official military demands, another exodus began. This time, the destination was America.

The Mennonite dilemma over appropriate responses to government demands also drew attention outside Mennonite circles. The playwright Ernst von Wildenbruch, with his Der Mennonit, launched a vigorous attack on Mennonites for their refusal to bear arms to defend a land that granted them extensive religious and economic rights. When Mennonite leaders tried to ban the play from the Royal Theater in Berlin, Emperor Frederick III refused to approve the request. Jantzen compares this confrontation with the nationally divisive Kulturkampf. Then, in a fascinating examination of Theodor Fontane’s criticism of German militarism at this time, Jantzen rejects the dismissive views of prominent historians who suggested Fontane was living in a dream world.

Jantzen also notes that Prussian policy toward the Mennonites was often inconsistent. Directives from government officials sometimes instructed local administrators to stop Mennonites from emigrating, while some local officials declared that losing subjects unwilling to defend their country was no loss at all. Others argued that losing taxpayers was more important than losing soldiers. Sometimes would-be emigrants were forcibly stopped and interrogated.

It should be noted that changes in Mennonite relations with the state occurred in an atmosphere of sometimes uncertain relations with both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Some Mennonite leaders welcomed persons from other denominations, in defiance of government policy. In Orlofferfelde, Elder Heinrich Donner contended that royal pronouncements of “freedom of conscience” protected those who wished to join a Mennonite congregation. Other Mennonite leaders rejected such a position. This issue remained a source of controversy for decades. Ältester Donner’s lament, “Our religious freedom has been stolen,” reflects the depth of his disappointment.

Jantzen also examines Mennonite views in western parts of Prussia, such as the region around Krefeld, and concludes they were markedly different from those in the eastern area of Prussia. Mennonites in the west were more open to mixed marriages, inter-confessional cooperation in missions and the relaxing of denominational barriers. Also, by the time of the end of the Napoleonic era, participation in the military was largely left to the discretion of the individual; most Mennonites in the region no longer made an issue of this question.

In this study of a pivotal century of Mennonite history Jantzen clearly demonstrates increasing accommodation to the demands of the state. For those who could not accept such a process, emigration offered an escape. Mennonites who chose to remain in the new Germany were able to maintain their status as a free church, with expanded local privileges. Sometimes, when local authorities tried to restrict Mennonite rights, appeals to the central government proved successful. Small wonder that Mennonites often continued to rely more on authorities in Berlin than on local officials.

Jantzen has built his analysis on a wide range of published sources as well as a rich selection of archival documents. In the latter category numerous unpublished records enrich the study. One of these is Heinrich Donner’s Chronik, depicting life in his congregation, the larger Mennonite community, and indeed the larger society. It is written in sometimes abbreviated eighteenth century German script, often difficult to read, but would greatly enrich our understanding of an outstanding Mennonite leader if it were published.

Peter J. Klassen
Professor Emeritus of History
California State University, Fresno

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