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Exploring nationalism’s “insidious impact”

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

University of Notre Dame Press, 2010
384 pages



Mennonite German Soldiers offers a fascinating, carefully researched study of Prussian Mennonites during much of the 19th century. The author describes with exacting detail how persistent state and societal pressures coerced Mennonites into becoming “good German citizens.” The book is organized into 10 chapters, the last including observations on how profoundly the self-understanding of this Mennonite community changed, resulting in a culturally adapted Scriptural hermeneutic.

The work of Bethel College (Newton, Kan.) professor Jantzen illustrates how deeply the Prussian state reached into the internal affairs of Mennonite church life. For instance, when Mennonite church leaders objected to affording children of mixed marriages full membership privileges, Frederich William II noted that since “in our land complete freedom of conscience exists, such children must be allowed in the future to join the Mennonite faith.” Ironically, for Mennonites, this vaunted freedom was increasingly curtailed with respect to the purchase of additional lands and exemption from military service.

Tension between Mennonites and the state

It follows that central to the tension between Mennonites and the state was impasse over military service. With time, many Mennonites agreed that failure to defend the fatherland meant they had no fatherland. The author skilfully describes how Prussian royalty and their top officials from 1772–1888 compelled Mennonites to accept “their proper place in society.” Not insignificantly, shrill pressure against Mennonites to conform was also generated by their Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish neighbours who themselves frequently petitioned the government to limit Mennonite privileges.

Mennonites, in turn, worked energetically to maintain their privileges with nearly continuous representations to government officials, on occasion gaining access to the king himself. In exchange for exemption from military service, Mennonites offered financial support to the Culm Military Academy, and notably, also for the support of Prussian war widows and their families.

Over time, the lure of German society proved too tempting. By the mid-19th century, a large number of Mennonites no longer saw the church as a living community but one that “should be managed accordingly to the best practises of the day.” Those Mennonites who could not accommodate these liberalizing tendencies migrated to Russia or to the U.S.

This sharp ideological divide among Mennonites prompted pastor Jacob Zimmerman to lament that the “Mennonite who is forced to serve ceases to be one the moment he does so.” Those who stayed in Prussia rewrote their confession of faith, allowing that good Mennonites could also make good soldiers. Consequently by 1915, 144 Mennonite soldiers had been killed in action and 91 awarded the Iron Cross.

I highly commend this book to all academic libraries that support Mennonite studies, and to those readers curious about the insidious impact of nationalism on the personal and corporate values of a once tight-knit spiritual community.

David Giesbrecht is a member of Bakerview Church, Abbotsford, B.C.
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