Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany

Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany

Jehovah's Witnesses endured intense persecution under the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Because they refused to serve in the military or give allegiance to the Nazi government, many were killed, imprisoned or sent to concentration camps.


Unlike the Jews and Roma people (Gypsies) who were persecuted and killed, Jehovah's Witnesses had the opportunity to escape persecution and personal harm by renouncing their religious beliefs. The Nazi government gave detained Jehovah's Witnesses the option to renounce their faith, submit to the state authority and support the German military and be released from prison or the camps by signing a document renouncing their religion. [ see scholar Michael Berenbaum comments here [] ]

divbox|gray|Translation of Declaration Document

Concentration camp .......................................
Department II

I, the ...................................................
born on ..................................................
in .......................................................
herewith make the following declaration:

#I have come to know that the International Bible Students Association is proclaiming erroneous teachings and under the cloak of religion follows hostile purposes against the State.
#I therefore left the organization entirely and made myself absolutely free from the teachings of this sect.
#I herewith give assurance that I will never again take any part in the activity of the International Bible Students Association. Any persons approaching me with the teaching of the Bible Students, or who in any manner reveal their connections with them, I will denounce immediately. All literature from the Bible Students that should be sent to my address I will at once deliver to the nearest police station.
#I will in the future esteem the laws of the State, especially in the event of war will I, with weapon in hand, defend the fatherland, and join in every way the community of the people.
#I have been informed that I will at once be taken again into protective custody if I should act against the declaration given today.

.................................., Dated ................
(Quoted from "Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom" (1993), Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, p. 661. [] )

In a book on Jehovah's Witnesses under the Nazi regime, Hans Hesse commented, "Some five thousand Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps where they alone were 'voluntary prisoners', so termed because the moment they recanted their views, they could be freed. Some lost their lives in the camps, but few renounced their faith" [.cite book|title=Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime|author=Hans Hesse|url=|year=2001|pages=10]
*See also [ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]

Pre-Nazi era

The Bible Students began missionary work in Europe in the 1890s. In 1902, the first branch office of the Watch Tower Society opened in Elberfeld, Germany. By the early 1930s, some 25,000 to 30,000 Germans (0.38 percent of a total population of 65 million) were adherents or interested sympathizers.

Even before 1933, Jehovah's Witnesses were targets of prejudice. Mainstream Lutheran and Catholic churches deemed them heretics. [Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia"] Moreover, citizens often found the Witnesses' missionary work--knocking on doors and preaching--to be invasive. Individual German states had long sought to curb the missionary work through strict enforcement of statutes on illegal solicitation. At various times individual jurisdictions banned Witness religious literature, including the booklets "The Watchtower" and "The Golden Age". During the Weimar period, however, the German courts often ruled in their favor.

As early as 1921, political and religious factions Who|date=February 2008 accused the Witnesses of being linked with the Jews in subversive political movements. [ The Watchtower - Awake July 8, 1998, p. 11. | “Jehovah’s Witnesses—Courageous in the Face of Nazi Peril” | © Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania ] Bible Students were branded as the dangerous, Bolshevik, "Jewish worm." Swiss theologian Karl Barth later wrote about this charge: "The accusation that Jehovah's Witnesses are linked with the Communists can only be due to an involuntary or even intentional misunderstanding."

The April 15 1930 German edition of "The Golden Age" (forerunner of "Awake!") stated: "We have no reason to regard this false accusation as an insult as we are convinced that the Jew is at least as valuable a person as a nominal Christian; but we reject the above untruth of the church tabloid because it is aimed at deprecating our work, as if it were being done not for the sake of the Gospel but for the Jews."

Before the Nazis came to power, individual groups of local Nazis (party functionaries or SA men), acting outside the law, broke up Bible study meetings and assaulted individual Witnesses. [Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia]

Nazi era

After the Nazis came to power on 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg, persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses intensified. Witnesses considered all worldly powers unwitting allies of Satan, and refused to swear loyalty to the Nazi regime. Initially, Witness indifference to the Nazi state manifested itself in the refusal to raise their arms in the "Heil Hitler" salute, join the German Labor Front (which all salaried and wage workers were forced to join after the Nazis outlawed trade unions), participate in Nazi welfare collections and vote in elections. Neither would they participate in Nazi rallies and parades. [Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia"]

Nazi authorities denounced Jehovah's Witnesses for their ties to the United States and derided the apparent revolutionary millennialism of their preaching that a battle of Armageddon would precede the rule of Christ on earth. They linked Jehovah's Witnesses to "international Jewry" by pointing to Witness reliance on certain Old Testament texts. The Nazis had grievances with many of the smaller Protestant groups on these issues, but only the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christadelphian Church refused to bear arms or swear loyalty to the state. [Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia"]

When Germany reintroduced universal military service in 1935 Jehovah's Witnesses generally refused to enroll.Clarifyme|date=September 2008 Although they were not pacifists, they refused to bear arms for any temporal power. The Nazis prosecuted Jehovah's Witnesses for failing to report for conscription and arrested those who did missionary work for undermining the morale of the nation. John Conway, a British historian, stated that they were “against any form of collaboration with the Nazis and against service in the army.” [p.251,260 “Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945"]

The children of Jehovah's Witnesses also suffered under the Nazi regime. In classrooms, teachers ridiculed children who refused to give the Heil Hitler salute or sing patriotic songs. Principals found reasons to expel them from school. Following the lead of adults, classmates shunned or beat the children of Witnesses. On occasion, authorities sought to remove children from their Witness parents and send them to other schools, orphanages, or private homes to be brought up as "good Germans." [Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia"]

"Declaration of Facts"

On April 24 1933, officials seized and shut down the Watch Tower office in Magdeburg, Germany. Under pressure from the U.S. State Department, the police returned the property. By May 1933 the Witnesses were banned in several German states.

Concerned about the rising tensions in Germany, the president of the Watch Tower Society, Joseph F. Rutherford and Paul Balzereit, manager of the German branch office in Magdeburg, decided to mount a campaign to inform Chancellor Hitler, government officials, and the public that Jehovah's Witnesses posed no threat to the German people and the State. [ Jehovah's Witnesses Courageous in the Face of Nazi Peril] ]

Therefore, the Magdeburg office arranged a convention. Bible Students from all over Germany were invited to the "Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen" in Berlin on June 25 1933. About 5,000 delegates were expected, but more than 7,000 attended. The delegates adopted a resolution entitled "Declaration of Facts." It read:

"We are wrongfully charged before the ruling powers of this government and before the people of this nation...we do respectfully ask the rulers of the nation and the people to give a fair and impartial consideration to the statement of facts here made." [Declaration of Facts [ English translation] ]

After stating that "it is impossible for our literature and our work to be a menace to the peace and safety of the nation," the Declaration went on:

"Instead of being against the principles advocated by the government of Germany, we stand squarely for such principles and point out that Jehovah God through Christ Jesus will bring about the full realization of these principles and will give to the people peace and prosperity and the greatest desire of every honest heart." [Declaration of Facts [ English translation] ]
"A careful examination of our books and literature will disclose the factthat the very high ideals held and promulgated by the present nationalgovernment are set forth in and endorsed and strongly emphasized in ourpublications, and show that Jehovah God will see to it that these highideals in due time will be attained by all persons who love righteousnessand who obey the Most High. Instead, therefore, of our literature and ourwork's being a menace to the principles of the present government we arethe strongest supporters of such high ideals." [Declaration of Facts [ English translation] ]

The Declaration also made reference to Jews, with statements such as:

"The greatest and most oppressive empire on earth is the Anglo-Americanempire. By that is meant the British Empire, of which the United States of America forms a part. It has been the commercial Jews of theBritish-American empire that have built up and carried on Big Business as a means of exploiting and oppressing the peoples of many nations. This fact particularly applies to the cities of London and New York, the stronghold of Big Business. This fact is so manifest in America that there is a proverb concerning the city of New York which says: 'The Jews own it, the Irish Catholics rule it, and the Americans pay the bills.'" [ [ English translation] ]

In responding to the claim they were being funded by the Jews they wrote: "...we receive no support from Jews and that therefore the charges against us are maliciously false and could proceed only from Satan, our great enemy." [ [ English translation] ]

Dr. M. James Penton, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge, in his book "Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich", drawing on his own Witness background and years of research on Witness history, interprets antisemitic attitudes on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses and a "friendly" rapport with the Nazi regime.

In the third edition of his book, historian Detlef Garbe stated: “Numerous judgments found in literature about the Wilmersdorf Declaration include erroneous criticism,or rather, are not fair to the text and the situation. Therefore, one could not say that Jehovah's Witnesses had professed antisemitism... or promoted themselves “as a possible ally.” Labels such as “congress supporting the Nazis”, “ or the assertion that the Watch Tower management had attempted to “conclude a pact with Hitler”... resulted from conclusions motivated by a desire to discredit [them] as in Gebhard's 1970 GDR documentation ["Die Zeugen Jehovas: Eine Dokumentation uber die Watchtturm-Gesellschaft" [Die Zeugen Jehovas: Eine Dokumentation uber die Watchtturm-Gesellschaft, published by Manfred Gebhard with Urania-Verlag 1970] ] alleging the “criminal support of the antisemitic Hitler policy” in the Declaration.” [ Quote taken from p.310 of "Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945"]

Garbe also notes that the charge of collaboration with the Nazis and other manufactured propaganda about the Witnesses was promoted by the East German Stasi in the 1960s. [ Garbe, Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium, p. 106, note 82 ] Dr. Garbe has described Gebhard's book as “biased”, [ Garbe, "Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium", pp. 20f. ] saying that it “was based on a manuscript by [Guenther Pape a excommunicated Witness who subsequently wrote strong accusations against his former religious associates] which he compiled at the end of the 1960s”. Dr. Garbe refers to it as having, “distorted quotations” and characterized by a “selective use of quotes”.

Manfred Gebhard later expressly disassociated himself from the book and its “exaggerations and falsifications” “and called it a mistake that he had agreed to the use of his name without knowing the results.” [ Garbe, Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium, p. 20f and p.20 note 44; P.263 note 27; also Wrobel 1997, Erich Frost und Konrad Franke 9.1 and 9.2 ]

Dr. Gabriele Yonan, of the Free University of Berlin, stated: "When the entire text of the June 25, 1933 'Declaration of Facts,' along with the letter to Hitler is, in retrospect, put into the context of the history of Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi regime, their resistance, and the Holocaust, it consequently has nothing to do with 'antisemitic statements and currying favor with Hitler.' These accusations made by today's church circles are deliberate manipulations and historical misrepresentations, and their obvious motivation is the discomfort of a moral inferiority." ["Am mutigsten waren immer wieder die Zeugen Jehovas." Verfolgung und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas im Nationalsozialismus, published by historian Hans Hesse, Bremen, 1998, page 395 see also: [] ]

Penton and Yonan do not hold each other's perspectives in high regard, with Dr Penton in a 2004 publication describing Dr Yonan as a "Watch Tower apologist". ["Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics under Persecution by M. James Penton, Pub. University of Toronto, Canada, 2004, page 48]

Historian Detlef Garbe, director at the Neuengamme (Hamburg) Memorial, in "Social Disinterest, Governmental Disinformation, Renewed Persecution, and Now Manipulation of History?" has written, "Taking everything into consideration, it has been established that no other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism with comparable unanimity and steadfastness.” ["Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945" "Social Disinterest, Governmental Disinformation, Renewed Persecution, and Now Manipulation of History?" p. 251.] He later went on to say that at “no point did they support Nazi rule. Rather, the stand taken by Jehovah's Witnesses would have, according to Klaus Drobisch, “been befitting” for the majority of the population” [ John Conway a British historian stated that they were “against any form of collaboration with the Nazis and against service in the army.” p.251,260 “Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945 "]

Concentration camps

"The Watchtower" has claimed that during the Nazi era Jehovah’s Witnesses "underwent persecution equal to that heaped upon the Jews," ['Watchtower' May 15, 1975 p. 294] or even that the level of persecution was "worse than [it was for ] the Jews." [Babylon the Great Has Fallen - God’s Kingdom Rules, pp. 549-550]

In the concentration camps Witnesses were forced to wear a purple triangle that identified them as "Bibleforscher" (Bible Students) along with a few members of Witness splinter groups, and members of the Adventist, Baptist, and New Apostolic movements. [Johannes S. Wrobel, "Jehovah’s Witnesses in National Socialist Concentration Camps, 1933 – 45", Religion, State & Society, Vol. 34, No. 2, June 2006, pp. 89-125 (Johannes S. Wrobel is head of the Watchtower History Archive of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters/Taunus, Germany. His article states, "The concentration camp prisoner category ‘Bible Student’ at times apparently included a few members from small Bible Student splinter groups, as well as adherents of other religious groups which played only a secondary role during the time of the National Socialists regime, such as Adventists, Baptists and the New Apostolic community".)]

11,300 Jehovah's Witnesses were placed in camps and about 1,490 died, 270 of those were executed as conscientious objector. [, page 34]

ee also

* Freedom of religion
* Holocaust
* Jehovah's Witnesses
* Nazi concentration camps
* Religious Persecution

Further reading

*Garbe, Detlef. "Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich" ISBN 0-299-20790-0
*Penton, James M. "Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics Under Persecution" ISBN 9780802086785
*Hesse, Hans (editor) "Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime: 1933-1945"
*Reynaud, Michael. "The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Nazis: Persecution, Deportation, and Murder, 1933-1945"
* Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity", ISBN 0-689-10728-5
* Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia", ISBN 0-300-08432-3
* Michael Berenbaum,"The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in United States Holocaust Memorial Museum", ISBN 0-316-09134-0


External links

* [] List of research sources
* [ English Translation of "Declaration of Facts"]
* [ English Translation of Declaration of Facts Cover Letter]
* [ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]
* [ website dedicated to the history and memory of persons persecuted for religious reasons under nazism or communism]
* [ Jehovah's Witnesses and the "Third Reich" - NO Collaboration with Hitler or Nazis]

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