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Sanitätsdienst (Sanitary or Hospital Service in connection with the army) was a channel of alternative service for the Mennonites of Russia, originating in connection with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and developing on a large scale during World War I. The original form of alternative service among the Mennonites of Russia was Forestry Service. The Sanitätsdienst came into being through the work of the All-Russian Union of Towns and the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos which functioned parallel to the Red Cross under government supervision during the Russo-Japanese War. Only very few Mennonites served under the organization during the Russo-Japanese War.

When World War I broke out, the Union of Towns and the Union of Zemstvos took the responsibility for "Circuit Hospitals." In 1916 there were 173,000 Zemstvo beds, 70,000 Union of Towns beds, 48,000 Red Cross beds, and 160,000 beds furnished by the Ministry of War. Most of the Mennonites serving in this form became attached to the Union of Zemstvos, which was a civilian organization. Their work consisted of taking the wounded soldiers from the front to the hospitals in the cities in hospital trains. For this service they had to wear a uniform and had to operate under civilian and military orders but were not inducted into the army, although a few volunteered to do so but were refused. In the beginning of the program in 1915, 3,093 Mennonite young men served in the Sanitätsdienst, and in 1916 there were 6,548 in this service, which constituted more than half the total number of Mennonite young men in service. By 1919, after the Revolution, the Zemstvos were liquidated. Something over 100 Mennonite men lost their lives in the service, including those who died of disease.

The original plan of the Czarist policy of universal military conscription for all Russian males was to admit no exceptions. The protest of the Mennonites to the abrogation of their well-established right of exemption from all military service led to a modification of policy providing for noncombatant service. The Military Service Commission's report of early 1872 read, "Those Mennonites who will be called to military service will only be used behind the front in hospitals, military workshops (not munitions factories) or similar establishments, and are to be exempted from the bearing of arms." But the Mennonites insisted they could accept no service under the military department in any form. The ultimate provision clearly set up a wholly non-military forestry service. This was not noncombatant military service. The same was true of the Sanitätsdienst. Although it was direct service to the army, it was not a part of the army. Russian military organization apparently had not yet set up a full army medical corps, but left much of the medical service in the hands of the Red Cross and other civilian organizations.

The Mennonites of Switzerland were also permitted by the conscription law of 1870 to do medical corps service, but this was noncombatant service in the army. This was and is also true in the United States and Canada.


Krahn, Cornelius. "Public Service in Russia." The Mennonite (22 June 1943): 2.

Peters, Frank C. "Non-Combatant Service Then and Now." Mennonite Life 10 (1955): 31-35.

Polner, Tikhon J. Russian Local Government During the War and the Union of Zemstvos. New Haven, 1930: 53.

Sudermann, Jacob. "The Origin of Mennonite State Service in Russia, 1870-1880." Mennonite Quarterly Review 17 (1943): 23-46.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1959

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MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "Sanitätsdienst." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 Sep 2023.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1959). Sanitätsdienst. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1119. All rights reserved.

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