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The Nazi State and the New Religions:

I would like to thank Professor King for the opportunity to share these two chapters with our readers. The chapters have been reproduced exactly as found in her book, including any grammatical or spelling mistakes. Page numbers of the original work are retained and correspond to the material that follows them.

For Italian user: La Professoressa King ha autorizzato la traduzione in italiano e la pubblicazione di questo materiale in questo sito : http://www.triangoloviola.it/kingcap6.html



Christine Elizabeth King

Studies In Religion and Society
Volume Four

The Edwin Mellen Press,
New York & Toronto.

[147] VI



The Jehovah’s Witness1 movement came to Germany in the 1890s and met, as a new religious movement, the kind of suspicion met on arrival by all the groups discussed here. In many ways, however, this group attracted more serious criticisms even though its growth was slow and by 1933 it still had only 20,000 members in Germany.2 The movement’s somewhat separatist theology was viewed with as much suspicion as its American origin, and civil and ecclesiastical authorities were critical of its international connections and intense millenialism. The suspicion hardened into hostility during the First World War when some Witnesses refused to fight.3 Fears that these sectarians were fifth columnists were compounded after the war when the official policy of the group banned any future co-operation by Witnesses in war or war-related work. Witnesses sow themselves as citizens of God’s Kingdom, enrolled in his army. In this capacity they were already enlisted and would be called upon to fight the forces of darkness at the last day. Their position was thus one not of pacifism but of neutrality4, and ‘earthly’ wars, whilst having significance in God’s eschatological plan5, were not seen be the concern of the Witnesses.

Their unique views on war and on the meaning of citizenship were thus a source of potential trouble for the Witnesses, merely compounded by their teaching that the end of the ‘present order’ was near and that all the ‘nations’ presently under the sway of Satan were soon to be destroyed. Coupled with the low economic and [148] social status of most converts6 the group’s rather naive assumption that ‘political neutrality’ would ensure their safety in any state, brought the Witnesses not only trouble from the authorities but also considerable harassment from other quarters. Not only did critics find in the movement an easy target because of its relative lack of influential friends, but since members were taught to anticipate persecution in their role as Jehovah’s Witnesses in Satan’s world they came to accept hostility and suspicion as the norm.

Notwithstanding the fact that of all the sects, the Witnesses were the most serious target of abuse and hostility, within the liberal constitution of Weimar they enjoyed a certain amount of protection. The group was registered as a society as early as 19217 and under the provisions of articles 135-7 of the constitution was given ‘religious freedom’ at the same time the Witness publishing company was recognised as a legal foreign corporation.8 Although subject to civil law, until 1928 it was classed as a legal charity9 and as such payed no tax to the state revenue department. The greatest problems in the 1920s appear to have occurred in Catholic Bavaria10, home of the infant Nazi party, and here as elsewhere results of legal actions taken against the Witnesses varied. Before 1929 most were acquitted of charges which included the illegal peddling’ of literature11, but after that date many were sentenced and the group felt the need to issue statements stressing that its activities were religious and not political.12

The press and writers from within mainstream Christianity shared a common dislike of the Witnesses, describing them as ‘seriously in error’13 as ‘enemies of all Christians’14, as the ‘fox in the hen-house’15 and there were calls to limit their freedom to meet and worship.16 More significantly, the critics saw not only heresy but political subversion in the Witness’ teaching, [149] describing their millenial prophecies variously as ‘communist’17 or ‘anarchist’.18 As early as 1922 Witnesses were accused as being agents of the Jews19 and as ‘enemies of German culture’20 and it was argued that not only Jewish but American and Masonic money was being poured into the movement.21 Far more than any other group discussed here, the Witnesses were seen as being linked to Zionist and subversive organisations, finding a mention even in the most notorious of anti-semitic books, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion published in 1923.22 Amongst the anti-semitic writers, Dietrich Eckhart23 and J. Van Leers24 took up the theme, identifying the Witnesses as the ‘Jewish worm’ and ‘Marxist’.

Since the Witnesses have no more connections with Judaism and the Old Testament than, say, the Seventh Day Adventists, the content of and motives for these charges are interesting. The Witness teachings on neutrality’ were seen as a threat to society and thus factors like American connections, use of the Old Testament and adventist theology common in some part to all five groups discussed here were seen in the case of the Witnesses to be a cover-up for political subversion. Even under the tolerant constitution of Weimar Germany, those who refused to recognise the state as the supreme centre of a citizen’s loyalty were to be viewed with considerable suspicion. Since members of all four other groups were unswerving in their loyalty to the German state, and since this had been demonstrated by their enlistment in World War One, their theology, whilst sometimes seen as suspect, was largely dismissed as ‘fringe’ or ‘harmless heresy’. Witnesses were not only unbending in their attitude to the state, but they were outspoken in their criticisms of the major churches and of the evils of the ‘nations’. Whilst in Weimar this brought some harassment, in the new Nazi state, in which every issue became a political one, and [150] every rival centre of loyalty came under close scrutiny, the extremity of their theology on ‘Gods’ Kingdom’ and their own role in ‘Satan’s world’ was to bring the Witnesses into the most bitter conflict the Sect had ever experienced.

It is not perhaps surprising that the Witnesses became a special target of the S.A.25 in the 1920s and early 30s. Notwithstanding this, the sects leaders appear to have recognised no particular threat to their existence in National Socialism and when in April, 1933, only four months after they had seized power the Nazis issued a ban against the movement’s activities in Bavaria and by June had extended it to cover the whole of Germany26, the sect still did not recognise the severity of the crisis. In some ways the situation seemed unchanged, the enemies the same. The Catholic church in Bavaria came to a special agreement with the new government on the detection and reporting of Witness missionary work27; civil and education authorities were to report any suspected activity or the distribution of Witness literature.28

Undeterred by the ban, the Witnesses continued to place their literature and there is evidence from government circles that as late as June 1933 it was openly still in circulation. Civil servants, aware of the ban, complained that the orders on how to treat Witnesses were slow in filtering through from Central government sources.29 The Witnesses took advantage of this bureaucratic hitch and used the brief respite to organise themselves for what was rapidly becoming a dangerous situation. The most obvious and safest survival strategy, the cessation of all religious activity, was an option the Witnesses never even considered. Literature continued to be distributed, openly whilst this was possible, secretly whore it was not, and meetings were still held. Officials made the kind of gestures [151] of appeasement to the government which, as has been seen, were successfully made by representatives of the other sects. They offered, for example, to change the current cover of a Witness publication since it showed a warrior holding a blood-covered sword, an illustration the Nazis apparently found offensive.30 The gesture was in vain, as subsequent attempts at appeasement were also to prove, for in response the sects’ offices and equipment at Magdeburg were confiscated to be released only after diplomatic intervention by the American government, but to be subject however, to subsequent closures.31

It appears that whatever the Witnesses did, short of denying their teachings, would bring no cessation of the hostility the Nazis expressed towards them. Witnesses were the archtype enemies for the party, with their ‘political’ and ‘pro-Jewish’ aspirations taken as a fact. The leaders of the Witnesses appear to have been surprised at this reaction. Undoubtedly being used to, and expecting persecution, makes a group slower to react to a change in the nature of conflict. Suspicion and conflict on this scale was new and for a while the group reacted as it had done in earlier times, and to less pernicious attacks, by explaining and offering to negotiate with the government on small matters that might offend the new state.

A Declaration of Facts32 was thus sent to every high ranking government officer in June 1933, representing the results of deliberations at a Berlin convention. The document indicates the nature of the attacks they are experiencing, explains the group’s teaching, asserts the law-abiding character of its members, denies any links with Communism, Freemasonry or Jewry and expresses support for the ‘parallel goals of the new national government. The document is a master of its kind and worthy of any of the other four sects. It explains, flatters and offers just a hint of compromise. Never- [152] theless, its impact was negative. Where other sects were received in silence but were allowed to demonstrate their ‘neutrality’ the Witnesses, claiming neutrality, were identified as implacable enemies. The longer they were treated as enemies, the more their own position hardened, and, having done all they could by negotiation, the leaders and members soon entered into a campaign to ensure the survival of their work which led them down paths even they had not anticipated, so that within a few years not only would Witnesses be in prisons and concentration camps in their hundreds but their literature would be identifying the general evils of Nazi rule not only against God’s Witnesses, but against Jews, women, children and the German population in general.

Having attempted to assure the authorities, by the Declaration of Facts, of their good citizenship, having interpreted and explained their teachings in a way which, given the preoccupations of the regime, was designed to allay fears and offer a hint of compromise, the Witnesses seemed to have expected little further harassment. Had the Declaration not condemned, with the Nazis, the League of Nations, had it not described National Socialism as standing Out against the injustices Germans had suffered since 1919 and had it not ended with a personal appeal to the Führer?

Such hopes were ill-founded. Although the group saw little official harassment in the early months of 1933, this was a result of the time it took for the bureaucracy to process and implement the bans, rather than any softening of Nazi policy towards them. They were still subject to the lynch-justice of the S.A. and now were totally without police protection. Homes33 and businesses34 were under siege and individual Witnesses were attacked by the S.A. as ‘traitors’.35 This unofficial persecution lasted as long as the S.A. power [153] and was exacerbated by the Witnesses refusal, on religious grounds, to vote in the elections held on 12 November 1933.36 Increasing in public Witnesses were identified as enemies, being marched through the streets wearing placards detailing their ‘treason’. At this time courts usually gave no more than a fine for refusal to vote but Witnesses awaiting trial were taunted with gallows set up ‘as a warning’ by the S.A. and experienced physical violence and threats from their captors. There were at least eleven deaths in prison, described as ‘suicides’ like the Jews, the Witnesses quickly became citizens with no civil rights.37

Missionary work continued; late ‘33 and the whole of ‘34 saw a build up of cases against Witnesses for distributing ‘subversive’ literature, with typical sentences of 9 to 12 months.38 The government limited itself to areas which could be covered by existing laws, and the Magdeburg property, which had again been seized, was released after the Witnesses’ lawyers once more protested.39 Following the letter of the law, permission was even given for the publishing house to start work once more, with the proviso that none of the literature was to mention the Jehovah’s Witnesses or their work.40

Such a proviso made the permission to start printing meaningless but it does indicate that until 1934 government officials were careful to keep a semblance of legality about their dealings with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Government spies wore observing the activities of the now illegal sect carefully, however, and in June 1934 reported that subversives, particularly Marxists, were attaching themselves to the sect and were taking pert in the ‘smear campaign’ Witnesses were organising against the German state.41 June 1934 also saw the first of a series of measures against Jehovah’s Witnesses who were civil servants. [154] From the evidence of the jobs once held by Witness inmates of the concentration camps, it would appear that those who were civil servants had minor jobs, such as postmen and manual workers. Even in such jobs, there was, it was declared, ‘no guarantee that such civil servants (who were also Jehovah’s Witnesses) would be unreservedly of service to the state.42 Dismissal was for the refusal to give the Hitler greeting or for refusal to vote by which civil servants were held to be in contravention of the terms of their office. By such measures, taken ostensibly ‘for the protection of people and state’, the Witnesses were gradually deprived of their civil rights and made victims of persecution, and all this was achieved with the appearance of legality.

In spite of such pressures, the Witness work continued. Some members even managed to attend the Basle convention in October 1934 and took part in formulating a new resolution in which the Official response to Hitler can be seen already to have hardened. All appeasement was now gone as the Witnesses declared:

We have no interest in political affairs, but are wholly devoted to God’s Kingdom under Christ as King. We will do no injury or harm to anyone. We would delight to dwell in peace and do good will to all men as we have opportunity, but since your government and its officers continue in the attempt to force us to disobey the highest law of the universe, we are compelled to now give the notice that we will, by His Grace, Obey Jehovah-God and fully trust Him to deliver us from all oppression and oppressors.43

The impact of the document may be judged from the fact that in 193S the ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses was re-issued and extended44, and that as police surveillance continued the number of arrests rose.45 The Witnesses appeared throughout 1935, and for the first time on a large scale, in both court and press46 as were as in [155] Gestapo reports.47 All the evidence suggests that the missionary work of the sect was still being undertaken, at considerable risk, via a growing and increasingly complex underground network.48

During 1935 Witnesses were under increasing pressure in their places of work in danger of being dismissed, or losing pension rights.49 Marriage to a Witness became official grounds for divorce and the children of known Witnesses were banned from attending school.50 In the same year51 the principle was established that children were taken from Witness parents to be brought up as National Socialists;52 in this way many Witness families were to be broken up. 1935 also saw the introduction of compulsory military service.53 Witnesses at once refused to bear arms or to undertake war related work. Their refusal, as a body, was recorded only three days after the promulgation of the new military laws54 and it was noted that they also refused to undertake Nazi labour service or related duties. Offenders were handed over to the police55, in many cases the first contact Witnesses had with the law and the first public stance they were called upon to make. The consequences of refusing to obey the new laws involved not only imprisonment but exclusion from the Labour Front and thereby unemployment.56

The issue of military service hardened the government’s attitude to the Witnesses and forced it to devise new ways of dealing with the sectarians. The number of Witnesses being brought to court raised the whole issue of the legality of the Nazi treatment of this religious movement and as the number of arrests grew, so did the protests from the legal profession, unwilling to be seen to be acting in open contravention of the laws of Weimar.57 Arrests were made on grounds that Witnesses were ‘not conforming to racial and national idealism and were openly ignoring national bodies’.58 Other typically [156] National Socialist circumlocutions were employed and continued attempts were made to justify in legal terms the reality of what was happening to the Witnesses. It was suggested that since the group had no formal confession of faith59 it did not conform to the legal definition of a religious community under the Weimar law and thus was without civil rights. Another line of argument defended the ban on the sects as legal since the freedom of the individual to believe what he choose was in no way affected, for ‘everyone is free to chose their faith and read the Bible’.60 Such justifications were transparent attempts to fulfill the demands for the appearance of legality and the spirit, if not the letter of the law was clearly broken. For the Witnesses, in particular, such reservations were useless: meetings and missionary work are essential to the practice of their faith. Christian Scientists might be able to exist without regular worship and contact; Jehovah’s Witnesses could not.

Other more political excuses were found for the campaign against the Witnesses. The sect was seen as providing shock troops for Communism or as harbouring Marxists even though a government memo of 11 June 1934 had openly admitted that the sect could not strictly speaking be described as a ‘communist support organisation’ and that no evidence of the influence of Communism had been found on any of the searches made by the police on Witness premises.61 As the unease about the legality of action taken against the Witnesses grew in the courts and judges were seen to refuse to uphold a ban against them on the grounds that it was illegal or to dismiss Witness defendants, cases were moved to the special courts.62 Here the Nazi appointees had fewer legal scruples, Witnesses were tried en masse and the charges always held. Legal justifications [157] for their action against the Witnesses were formalised in Nazi official publications like the Tuesday Book of Reich Justice63 and the appearance of legality gradually became only of minor significance as Witnesses whose sentences were suspended by judges were taken into protective custody’ by the Gestapo as soon as they left the court. Courts were reminded of the kind of sentences suitable and those awarded by the severe special court held at Weimar on 26 June 1935 were given as a model of the kind of severity required.64

This kind of interference in the workings of the courts appears somewhat to have backfired for there is evidence of the unease of some courts in their dealings with the Witnesses continuing throughout the whole of the period. This treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses at law was in its infancy in 1934, but there were serious objections being made even at this stage to the way in which sentences were being given. The issue was to prove troublesome for reservations about the legality of such sentences continued, as a memo from 1940 shows:

The Minister of Justice informed the Secret State Police, Berlin, that he did not share the belief of some of his subordinates that further detention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses after having served their prison sentences, was undermining the authority of the courts. He would, however, recommend that this further detention should not be served in the same prison ...

It is ordered therefore,

1. If a Jehovah’s Witness had been found not guilty and freed by the court, he must not be taken into custody while still in the court roes.

2. After the District police station has been informed of the imminent release of a Jehovah’s Witness, further instructions should at once be requested front the state police headquarters, Munich, so that the transfer to the concentration camp at Dachau, or the women’s camp, Moringen, can take place immediately after [158] a sentence ham been served.65

The legality of the Witnesses’ sentences was often in some question and the Nazis were, interestingly enough, anxious to appear as if they were working within the guidelines of the Weimar constitution. Nevertheless, the arrests continued and Witnesses found themselves increasingly imprisoned without sentence, or sent to a concentration camp believing that the charges had been dismissed and that they were on their way to freedom. Some Witnesses were seized and imprisoned without any legal preliminaries at all. Notwithstanding the protests the flagrant abuse of civil liberties continued. 1935 saw some re-organisation within the Nazi state and the Witnesses felt, as a result, the net tighten around them. Changes in the structure and organisation of the police and the S.S. brought a closer Gestapo surveillance on the sect, a feature clearly in evidence from police reports of 1935 onwards66 and reflected in the demands for more severe sentences. 1935 saw the extension of the concentration camp system into a permanent feature of the Nazi state and from this time onwards Witnesses arrived in large numbers as detainees at selected camps. It has been estimated that there were in 1935 some 400 Witness internees at Sachsenhausen alone.67

Thus Witnesses were thrown into a fully pitched battle with the authorities, under attack at law, at their place of work and within their families. Court sentences became harsher and now the result of litigation was likely to be a sentence to be served at a concentration camp, whether the defendant was found guilty or not.68 In the following years hundreds of Witness prisoners were to become thousands, for after 1935 the fate of the sect in Nazi Germany was sealed, and a campaign of total persecution, designed to destroy the sect completely, was underway.

From the beginning of 1936 until war broke Out in [159] September 1939, Witnesses both remained under attack and active in their missionary and underground work which was now, by the very nature of its prohibition, becoming some kind of anti-Nazi resistance campaign. Indeed the sect may well have acted as a centre for some non-political resisters and there certainly appears to have been considerable and unprecedented public sympathy for the groups’ activities.69 Government reports indicate a marked increase in Witness activity during these years and this activity was consistently met by an ever increasing number of arrests70 and even longer periods of imprisonment in a concentration camp. From this year dates the Nazis’ clear and obvious intention, to destroy the movement totally.

The Witnesses’ main concern, however, was to get their literature, smuggled in from Switzerland, safely distributed.71 This increasingly took on a tone of criticism of the regime, not only for its treatment of the movement itself, but in its identification of the Führer as the biblical ‘beast of prey’.72 Witness journals, distributed both inside Germany and abroad condemned the persecution of the Witnesses, the corruption of youth and the damage being done to the German nation by the evil regime.73

The tone of the literature became even sterner as Witnesses were urged to stand firm. New devices were found to place the literature and some Witnesses operated for a brief while under peddling licences until they were detected and stopped. They attempted to spread their teaching amongst the military and, according to government sources ‘the subversive irregularities of these religious fanatics’ could be seen to be on the increase.74 Government documents throughout those years give evidence of real police and bureaucratic exasperation with these ‘fanatics’ [160] who, in spite of convictions and terms of imprisonment, it was noted, were not being deterred in their missionary work.75

Witnesses were indeed finding new ways of working; in Magdeburg and Munich some set up as chiropodists and osteopaths, offering teaching and literature under the guise of medical care.76 An open letter of February 1937 reported in detail on the fate of members of this group in Germany. Distributed both inside and outside Germany, this letter echoes the theme that in the Nazi state Witnesses were seeing something evil at work.77 On 12 December 1937 in a massive and well organised campaign some 300,000 copies of a Jehovah’s Witness leaflet were distributed.78 In February of the same year copies of the hand-written resolution from the Lucerne conference were pinned up in poster form all over Germany.79 The stream of by now aggressively anti-Nazi material continued, until the outbreak of war, to flow over the Swiss-French borders.80 The police responded with an intensified campaign leading to many arrests and severe sentences and increasingly these were spent in concentration camps. In February 1936 there were calls by the police for harsher measures against ‘this corrupt sect’ and all known Witnesses were taken into ‘protective custody’ for a period of up to two months81 in the hope that the movement would falter without its leaders. Persistent activists now went straight, after arrest, to Dachau.82 By March of 1936 the number of Witness families in prison was deemed to be costing the state so much in the care of their children that it was arranged that only one Witness parent should serve a sentence at a time.83

1936 saw the first of many subsequent reports of the torture of Witnesses under arrest84 of their removal without formality, to concentration camps.85 Early in the 1938 a book published by Franz Zurcher86 in Switzerland [161] describing the ill-treatment Witnesses were meeting in Germany was received with consternation both within and outside Witness circles. The book gives details of large numbers of cases of torture and even death of Witnesses at police hands87, naming S.S. men who considered the Jehovah’s Witnesses their ‘speciality’.88 Other sources support the tone and content of Zurcher’s book. Bavaria, the Ruhr and East Prussia are identified as areas where Witnesses had particularly been subjected to inquisitorial methods.89 The findings of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg support this contention.90

By 1937 the Nazis had redefined their response to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, just as the Witnesses had become more positive in their identification of the treatment they were receiving as Satanic’, and in their willingness to publicise it. The government authorities no longer saw the sect as easily suppressed. New issues had been introduced; Witnesses were not simply refusing to accept the Nazi world-view, but they were making this public by refusing to vote, fight or give allegiance to the state and were, moreover, canvassing their views throughout the Reich.

A reappraisal of the government’s position was therefore needed, and further justifications had to be worked out in order to account for the amount of police time being used in pursuit of these sectarians. Two government reports from the end of 1936 attempt such a clarification. The first, issued in October, discusses in some detail the ‘philosophy’ of the sect and notes the legal processes members are currently involved in. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is declared, are definitely pace-makers for world bolshevism, and are pro-Jewish. Their eschatology, which is outlined in detail, is seen to allow for a stage at which the Jews would ‘inherit the earth’. This was clearly, it is explained, a cover [162] for political activity and the new world order which was to see not only Jewish domination, but also the destruction of the concept of a ‘nation’, was quite clearly communist.91

The second report, issued two months later and distributed to all directors of police, also notes the plans of this sect to establish a Jewish dictatorship but concentrates more on the practical danger members represented to the German state in their refusal to take part in military service, Winter-Help schemes or similar activities. In their distribution of subversive literature they are seen to be dangerous and their children were still being indoctrinated into their views. The sect was a hiding ground for subversives, (an old and unsubstantiated charge) and since short sentences only produced ‘martyrs’, much harsher measures are recommended.92

By 1937 the practice of taking Witnesses straight into custody after having served sentences became formalised. A comment was made on this practice at the Nuremberg trials, where it was discovered that Jehovah’s Witnesses had been sent to concentration camps even after they had served judicial sentences awarded by the courts. Waltenbrunner, questioned on his role in the persecution of Witnesses, admitted that he knew of the harsh treatment they had received and had petitioned the Reich Chancellery and the Minister of Justice on this mishandling of Jehovah’s Witnesses under the law. He reported on the proceedings of a conference held on 5 August 1937 in which the Minister of Justice had, reflecting the concern to be heard from various quarters throughout the whole period of the Third Reich, noted that Witnesses were not always treated legally. He had stressed, however, the need to get them under lock and key. He made suitably penitent noises about miscarriages of justice and ordered that [163] these were to cease. However, in spite of this proviso, the local police were always to be informed of the imminent release of a Jehovah’s Witness so that these ex-prisoners could be transferred straight to concentration camps.93 The proviso was therefore obviously no more than a sop to those who had complained and was not to be taken seriously.

The authorities continued to formalise their approach to the Witnesses. In June 1937 further guidelines were published on the investigation of suspect sectarians, listing questions to be asked about the detainee’s attitude to military service and public celebrations. The investigator was to attempt to obtain information about membership and secret meetings, as well as literature and contacts with Witnesses outside Germany. Links with Jews, Freemasons and Communists were to be sought and the suspect was to be closely examined on his attitude to National Socialism and the State.94

The guidelines are typical of the kind of close attention the government was paying to the sect by this time, and indicates that the continued underground activity of the sect was proving a problem, both in the amount of time it took up, and also in its negative propaganda value, for the distribution of literature made the public aware of the survival of this anti-Nazi group. Government reports concentrated on trying to amass as much information about the Jehovah’s Witnesses as possible and one report, from the series Everyday things in Germany gave extensive quotes from Witness literature, giving evidence of the sectarians’ now openly expressed hatred of the Third Reich.95 A further report received in May96 discussed the Jewish and bolshevik influences on the Jehovah’s Witness movement, under the title The Bible in the service of World Revolution. The Witnesses’ eschatological [164] teaching is analysed in terms reminiscent of reports of earlier years, as well as of the comments of the pre-Nazi and Nazi critics of the sect.

The hostility towards the Witnesses was genuine and in one sense they presented a real danger simply by their survival. The longer the activity continued and the more ruses the Witnesses developed, the more their potential link with political and racial subversion was seen as reality. It is undoubtedly true that they had enemies in high places, for Hitler himself once ordered the shooting of some 130 ‘self-styled Bible students’ as an example to other ‘pacifists’. Those who do not fight, the Führer argued, do not deserve to eat.97 Others were less convinced of the reality of the danger the Witnesses presented to Germany; Himmler98 saw their potential usefulness and had plans for them as a vanguard of Nazism, to be settled in eastern Europe after the war was over, and even Rudolf Höss, who ordered the punishment of many Witnesses at Auschwitz, admitted that without the issue of military service, they were harmless as a group.99

It was noted100 that children of Witnesses sought to infect others with their views and their example in refusing to give the German greeting was causing conflict in the schools. Such children were in real moral danger, it was declared, for they had to face international pro-Jewish, Marxist teachings at home and only met National Socialism at school.101 A German child who was indoctrinated with Jehovah’s Witness teaching would be estranged from his Volk.102 As a result, some children of the Witnesses were adopted by Nazi families, others went to state orphanages.

By 1939103, as a result of the hardening government attitude, there were some 6,000 Witnesses in prisons or camps. There were continued arrests throughout the year and the outbreak of war made the position even more [165] precarious for the sectarians. Witnesses were more liable to trial both in civil and military camps and could now be awarded the death sentence for refusal to fight.104 Notwithstanding the terrific pressures on them and the number of active members incarcerated in concentration camps, the Witnesses remained firm in their faith and interpretation of the meaning of what was happening to them, continuing their underground activity with a tenacity on which even their opponents commented.

After 1939 the imprisonment of most Witness activists made work outside the camp necessarily limited and Gestapo reports began to make negative returns on Witness ‘subversion’.105

The last of the known activists were being rounded up during 1939 for refusal to fight, for distributing literature, or for being openly abusive about the Führer.106 Some of those who had managed to evade detection fled to Switzerland, like Max Reuf, a saddler, who was well known to the police for his work as a Witness. In July 1939 he had made one final round in his distribution of literature, and had then left the country.

After 1939, Witnesses appear less and less in government reports. There are details of death sentences against a number, issued by courts of war, and there is evidence that a few received long prison sentences.107 There were sporadic attacks on the remaining underground network; an illegal press was discovered;108 on a routine house-search a secret room was found, stacked with Jehovah’s Witness propaganda and containing membership lists with the names of forty active Witnesses.109 On another raid, seven active Witnesses were detained and arrests were followed by periods in a concentration camp.110 In 1941, Dr. Hans von Freyenwald, an old enemy of the sect, published yet [166] another bitter attack on the Witnesses, showing their Jewish and bolshevik connections via a series of statements from famous writers over a period of time which indicated that the Witnesses were ‘foremost in the service of Judaism’.111 Undeterred, those few Witnesses who remained outside the camps carried on the battle.

In many ways the Nazis drove the sect into an extreme position, for the sectarians had been willing to offer some initial compromises. Once the sect was under siege, given its theological interpretation of what was happening to it, it was bound to become more and more dangerous. This helps to explain the amount of time and energy spent by the government on what might have been seen as a harmless group of fanatics. By forcing the Witnesses into battle, they were confirming the sectarians’ views about their task in life, and giving them strength to wage a successful war against their Satanic enemy. In their own terms, in spite of all the suffering, the Witnesses were winning the struggle against the Nazis. In prisons and camps they were spreading the word and the few who remained outside were never deterred, using what weapons they could against their enemy, who was also Jehovah’s enemy. Government reports from the latter end of the war confirm that this was the case, and there are details given by non-Witness survivors of the regime which substantiate the claim that Witnesses worked to help them, as common enemies of the Nazis.

Witness activity, although seriously limited because of the large numbers of brethren in concentration camps, continued throughout the last years of the war. Literature was still being smuggled in and distributed and its tone was now openly triumphant, prophesying the imminent end of the Nazi regime. Copies of such publications were obtained by the police and the [167] government was well aware that the Witnesses were claiming that the end was in sight for the Third Reich. Witness literature showed how specific prophesies had been fulfilled, and how Hitler, the biblical ‘King of the North’ had fought and been beaten by the allies, ‘the King of the South’. Armageddon was expected and the defeat and humiliation of the Hitler regime, as well as the Catholic church which had supported it, was about to be achieved. The thousand year Reich was indeed about to begin, but this time it was God’s Reich, not a Nazi one.112 The war with the allies was not the battle of Armageddon itself, although some Witnesses at one stage had believed that it was, it was merely the prelude to the final, eschatological battle.113

However esoteric the wording, however fanatical the message might appear, the impact was the same. Defeat and humiliation were predicted, and these predictions were being distributed throughout Germany. There was a spate of arrests throughout the year for the distribution of Witness literature114 and the People’s Court gave stiff sentences to the offenders. Meanwhile, the number of arrests for the refusal to bear arms became so burdensome for both military and civil courts, that authority to deal with offenders directly was formally handed over to those who had in fact held it for some time, the S.S.115 Accompanying this formal transfer of powers were complex guidelines on how the Witnesses should be handled. Even at this stage of the war, and with well over half the total membership in concentration camps, the Nazis never ceased, at any official level, to take the Witnesses very seriously as enemies of the state.

There was an outburst of activity in the Sudetenland116 which was suppressed, but arrests continued and the Nazis were constantly reminded of their failure to wipe [168] out this one small and comparatively insignificant sect. There is no doubt that it had proved a far more resilient enemy than had been expected. Even in camps, Witnesses could not be silenced. Himmler, as has been noted, had some kind of respect for the group and an admiration for their tenacity in survival. One day after the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, in 1944, he wrote to Kaltenbrunner on the subject of the state’s struggle against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He regretted that racially pure Germans, as many of the Witnesses were, should be outside the German state and he recognised what he described as their basic anti-semitism and their fanaticism. In his opinion, it was a mistake to suppress rather than use these qualities. Such faith would provide a useful model for the S.S. who should be as unquestioning and fervant in their obedience as these sectarians. Witnesses were known, Himmler continued, to follow a strict conventional moral code and to be exceptionally honest and hardworking people. With such characteristics they would form an excellent vanguard for Nazi settlement in the east.117 The Witnesses would not have seen it as such, but Himmler’s plans for them attest to the impression they had made throughout the difficult years of the Third Reich.

In concentration camps the experience of the Witnesses was in some ways similar to that of their brethren in the Outside world, but in other ways it was markedly different. Not only did Witnesses in camps find themselves victims to all kinds of brutalities from the ‘initiation rituals’ which both male and female Witnesses shared with other new inmates, to the daily brutality and cruelty of the guards, but they also found themselves subject to additional mockeries and humiliations. Nevertheless, their faith held firm and there were few who were willing to sign [169] the paper denying the movement and thus buying their freedom.118 Theological principles were adhered to; Witnesses remained ‘neutrals, they were honest and completely trustworthy and as such, ironically, often found themselves employed as servants of the S.S.119 One S.S. officer commented that only a Jehovah’s Witness could be trusted to shave his master with a cut throat razor without wielding the razor to most violent ends.120

Against all odds, Witnesses in the camps met and prayed together121, produced literature122 and made converts.123 Sustained by their fellowship, and, unlike many other prisoners, well aware of the reasons why such places existed and why they should suffer thus, Witnesses proved a small but memorable band of prisoners, marked by the violet triangle and noted for their courage and their convictions.124

In the camps they experienced the ultimate test of their faith, as ‘witnesses’ to Jehovah. It was adherence to their faith that kept many of them in camps, away from their families, suffering the privation and bestial conditions designed to break their spirit and reveal the strength and inevitability of the National Socialist cause in the face of all opposition. It was here, if anywhere, that survival strategies which put the keeping of the faith before the safety or even life of an adherent, were to meet their severest test. It is clear that the Witnesses found their principles stayed firm, their world-view confirmed rather than perverted, and their personal survival, in the face of God’s plan, irrelevant. Some 10,000 were imprisoned125, and together they received sentences totalling 20,000 years.126 One out of every two German Witnesses was imprisoned, one in four lost their lives.127 Nevertheless the work continued. The details of daily life in the concentration [170] camps illustrates yet again the real basis of the conflict between the Nazis and these sectarians. Witnesses were unswerving, refusing compromise, unrepentant and totally convinced that the Nazi system was doomed. Not even the fact that they made good and trustworthy servants could save them from the implications of these views. Mocked, sometimes by other prisoners128 as well as the guards, they maintained their faith, supported by the complex underground network set up within the camps129, and even, on occasions, between different camps.130

Bruno Bettleheim, in his study of the camps claims that according to classic psychoanalytical theory the Witnesses should have been the first to fall apart under stress, losing their delusions and certainties amidst the horrors of their new life. In fact, as Bettleheim and others have noted, they survived remarkably well, appearing protected against the camp experiences that broke other prisoners.131 Witnesses indeed had special aids to survival lacking to all other groups with the exception of the dedicated and convinced Communists.132 They had a supportive network, a conviction of being right, of having had their experiences of suffering foretold and, most of all, the sense of belonging to a chosen and esoteric group with its own world-view. This world-view could be held intact amidst the brutal realities of camp life and thus Witnesses had what later analysers of survival in camps have identified as essential, an ability to interpret and make sense of what they saw around them and what they suffered themselves. What they experienced had the effect of reinforcing their views, whereas for ethers it had the totally destructive and disorientating effect of throwing into question all they had ever learnt or believed about themselves and life. The Witness’ view of the meaning of his life was held intact in the middle of the violence, humiliation and reversion to [171] animal behaviour which is known to have had such terrible effects on others. The Witness who remained alive, even if he suffered, was in God’s hands. The Witness who died knew that there was a purpose in his death which became not empty and meaningless, but a martyrdom.

Witnesses in the camps behaved, as far as they were able, as model prisoners, accepting orders and willingly obeying authority. In this they were criticised by other inmates, but in this lay a measure of their survival. They remained detached, as obedient in the world of the camps as in outside society. They were God’s people and nothing could change that.

Members of this self contained, believing group were impervious to many of the spiritual, moral and psychological crises experienced by other prisoners, although they were by no means spared their share of physical and emotional suffering. Witnesses, on the whole, unless they were tortured to the stage beyond which human judgement fails, were not confused, were never vacillating. They knew what was happening to them and they believed they knew why it was happening; death held no fear. Their uncompromising and unflinching attitude had brought them into the camps but it was this that sustained them, once there. The rigidity of their belief, their self-contained world-view explains an emotional and psychological strength which later scholars have found surprising in a group from a generally low socio-economic and educational background. Prisoners from this kind of background were found normally to suffer great disorientation in prisons and camps, since they wore unable to articulate their feelings or to make any intellectual sense of their situation. Witnesses were not like that, they came Out of the camps still seeking converts, handing round cards to their newly released and confused fellow prisoners. The cards gave a simple hope: ‘There is [172] a God; there is a purpose to all of this’.133 They continued to make converts.

What happened to the Witnesses during the Third Reich entailed the development of new policies both by the Nazi authorities and the sectarians, and it must be asked at the outset whether conflict between the Witnesses and the Nazi government was inevitable. To a certain extent, because of the nature of their teaching, Witnesses are liable to come into conflict with any civil authority, especially in a time of war or national emergency. There are numerous examples of this happening outside Germany end the Witnesses were everywhere greeted, at this time, with some suspicion by governments, ecclesiastical authorities and the public.

However, the German situation was unique. Hostility to the sect before the Nazi rise to power had been persistent and vocal, coming not from the state but from established religion. Under Weimar the sect had enjoyed the protection of the state and thus it may be seen that whatever other pressures exist, the movement is able to flourish under a liberal democratic state, in peacetime. Indeed, on matters of criminal law, Witnesses are exemplary citizens, and very rarely come into conflict with the authorities. They accept that Romans 13 instructs them to obey the law of the land, and merely add that they may not do so where the law of God is in contradiction to this. Witnesses therefore, in any state, refuse certain duties which they see as unacceptable in the light of their beliefs. In many societies this is accepted and in an emergency they are imprisoned, only to be freed once it is considered safe to let ‘pacifists’ once more loose on society.

Real conflict is only likely to arise when the state is totalitarian in its demands. The Witnesses [173] are inevitably seen not only as dangerous, but as subversives. In such a situation open conflict is inevitable, whether or not there is a war situation. As has been seen, the Nazi state persecuted the Witnesses not because of the real danger they presented after 1939 as an anti-war force in society, but from 1933 on grounds of their basic opposition to the existence of the sect and its presentation of a rival totalitarian world-view.

Conflict between the sect and such a government was thus inevitable, and the current experience of Witnesses in totalitarian regimes supports this view. Essential elements of Witness teaching, together with the all-embracing nature of its demands, make its peaceful existence in this kind of state unlikely. For the Nazis, the Witnesses epitomised much of what they hated. The movement was international, and had Jewish influences, through its use of the Old Testament and in its eschatology. It was also considered to be Marxist. What is interesting is that there were other sects against which similar charges might have been levied, but which never became the target of Nazi hostility. It is perhaps important, therefore, to consider how real the charges levied against the Witnesses were.

The group was certainly international in its eschatology and American in its organisation. Other sects shared these characteristics, but Only the Witnesses refused to disguise or moderate these elements of their practice and teaching. Their internationalism was particularly obvious and offensive to the Nazis because of their refusal to accept allegiance to any state other than God’s. Here they part company with other international sects, which nevertheless, recognised nationality and national allegiance.

There is no evidence that the group had Marxist [174] connections or sympathies and in many ways this charge seems simply to be one element of the traditional formula used by the Nazi state against those they saw as enemies. It is possible to deduce from the Witnesses’ eschatology some kind of political scheme in which the end of the present order is seen as political anarchy and Communism. The Nazis indeed interpreted such teachings as the promise of a ‘world revolution’. Such a charge hardly stands close examination, however, since the sect’s teachings make it clear that the new world is to be ruled by Jehovah rather than Communists. The more serious attacks against the sect on this score suggested that the movement provided a cover for Marxists and that sectarians were innocently being exploited by revolutionaries. There are suggestions of links with Russia and Stalin134, but no evidence is available to support this view. The Nazis saw all minority groups, especially the Christian sects, as a potential hiding place for politicals and subversives. Although in the later years of the war the sect may have attracted into its ranks critics of the regime, these were not politically motivated, for the movement, in so far as it played any role in the opposition to Nazism, provided a focus for those who looked for a non-political explanation of events.

The Witnesses saw a special role for the Jewish nation as the once chosen people. They believed that this role would be fulfilled in the new age.135 There is little however, outside this teaching, to link the Witnesses with the ‘world Zionist conspiracy’ feared by the Nazis. There are cases of individual Witnesses helping Jews, but there are also cases of Witnesses condemning the Jews as ‘murderers of Christ’. Overall, apart from its use of the Old Testament, shared by the major churches and many other sects, the Witnesses cannot specially be linked with the Jews. [175]

It has been seen that there were high ranking Nazis who openly admitted that the Witnesses were anti-semitic and that they were no more than ‘harmless cranks’ whose teaching had admirable effects on the moral behaviour of its members. If the charges discussed above could be seen, on investigation, to be without foundation, what then were the real grounds for the Nazi persecution of the sect? The history of the Jehovah’s Witness movement in Germany helps to explain its fate. It was disliked by the hierarchy of both the major churches and in one sense persecution was a gesture of appeasement towards traditional Christianity, especially in the early years of the Third Reich. Moreover, since they, more than other Free Churches and sects, placed themselves outside organised religion, they presented an administrative problem which could not be dealt with under the cover of ‘churches and sects’. No policy which would contain the churches and sects would also work for the Witnesses; they were persistent and uncompromising, offering neither patriotism nor charity work as a justification by which the government might reasonably ignore them.

Of all sectarians they were, in one sense, the most non-political and therefore the most dangerous. Their concerns were deliberately not with politics, which they considered corrupt, but by this position they placed themselves, in a totalitarian state, in danger of appearing hostile and therefore ‘political’. Their teachings on military service could not be tolerated, less for the practical danger and more for the ideological attack on National Socialism such a stance represented.

By their very survival the Witnesses presented their most serious threat. The Nazi authorities, having identified this ideological enemy, were committed to its [176] destruction; that they were not able to achieve this was a serious criticism of their power. The real reasons for the clash between this sect and the Nazi state lies, therefore, not in areas of practical concern, propaganda, refusal to fight, vote or give the salute, but in the clash of two totalitarian systems. Each system, ironically, promised a thousand year Reich and it has been suggested that many of the Nazi rituals came close to those of sectarianism. Whatever the police, lawyers and civil servants believed, and whatever Hitler’s personal views on this sect were, there were those within the party who recognised the real basis of this conflict. These were not always those who were responsible for policies, however, and the fanaticism of a man like Heydrich as well as internal power struggles may help to explain the practicalities of what happened.

In this struggle, two non-democratic, anti-liberal and uncompromising bodies faced each other. In each system, adherents were expected to give themselves up to the movement and to obey without question, each believing itself to have a monopoly on the ‘truth’. Give all the reasons why the Nazis should wish to suppress the sect, it may be wondered why they were not more successful in doing so. If the struggle was really one between two rival ideologies, it might reasonably be expected that the larger and stronger would win. However, the survival, within their own terms, of the Witnesses, shows that this was not so and that the Nazis’ actions against the group were less than totally effective.

At first sight, the sect was an easy target, numerically and legally weak, politically inarticulate, with few powerful friends. At first the Nazis regarded the Witnesses as cranks, easily suppressed, soon deterred from their aims. They believed that the punishment of [177] some would bring about the capitulation of all and that Germans would abandon their membership of the Jehovah’s Witness movement without fuss. Because of the confidence with which the government viewed its task, it was slow to implement its policies. This, as well as the natural delays of a bureaucracy, gave the Witnesses time to organise, for the Nazis had underestimated both the strength of their faith and their tenacity. By 1935 when the issues were becoming clear, not only were the Witnesses organised, but, in pursuit of their religious tasks, were making others aware of their survival. In this they constituted a real danger and, having underestimated the sect, the Nazis now were forced to use a great deal of time and manpower to cope with the situation.

The sect, as has been seen, was prepared for compromises in 1933 and did not appear to anticipate what was to follow. Even had the government responded favourably to their gestures, however, the compromises Witnesses would have been able to make would have been only superficial. The Witness theological stance was unalterable; members belonged to Jehovah-God’s kingdom and fought in his war only. All nations were destined to be destroyed and there was no room, within the sect’s structure and organisation, for any compromise on the consequences of these teachings. It was only during the course of the struggle, however, that they came to identify Hitler as anti-Christ and the extremity of their struggle produced a new interpretation of events. To a certain extent, therefore, the more the Nazis persecuted the sect, the stronger its conviction become and the more strength its members derived from the struggle; this in turn enabled them to carry on the battle.

It seems that the only real threat Jehovah’s Witnesses presented, apart from their refusal to bear [178] arms, was in their underground activity and in their very survival. As they were forced to take a stance which brought them into conflict with the law, so their awareness of their own laws and standards increased, for these were not natural revolutionaries but, on the whole, conservative, simple people. With their struggle came a new loyalty to their brethren, their only source of support and meaning, now that they were outside the law.

Against all odds, the Witness movement survived; survival entailed the life of the sect rather than the lives of individuals for any attack on Jehovah’s witnesses, was an attack on Jehovah himself. Persecution only increased their faith, for Witnesses were trained to accept suffering and to see it as part of God’s plan for them. They were sure of the truth and thus the rival system of National Socialism presented no temptations. To accept Nazism or full German citizenship, a Witness had to renounce his faith totally, so compromise was impossible. Since his family and life were centred on this group and his eternal life depended on his keeping the faith, he was unlikely to deny it.

Although the social aspect of belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness movement was one factor which kept members loyal, it does not totally explain the almost complete refusal to deny the faith, even at the cost of death. A Witness saw himself as part of a special divine plan, chosen and with a specific role to fulfil; his teaching had led him to expect such a trial of faith as the sect was currently experiencing. His beliefs explained events and everything fitted, for the Witness, as for the National Socialist, into a clear scheme. To deny this would be to undermine the whole basis of life and understanding. Punishment was a result of membership of the group, not on the basis of individual behaviour; within this context even the tremendous sufferings of brethren in concentration camps could be [179] understood.

Teaching was clear and interpretations were based on The Watchtower and other publications, and there was no room for compromise. Thus the Witness belonged to a community with a powerful, total system of belief, and was given an identity and an explanation of life. Denial meant stepping outside all of this. Although the group in Germany was small, it was always aware of the vast international connections, and throughout the whole period there was a minimal but important element of contact with foreign brethren, as well as the awareness of belonging to a world-wide believing community.

Witnesses lost jobs, freedom, children, and many lost their lives. Their survival was achieved by their adherence to a total system, which allowed no compromise and no doubts. Its conflict with the National Socialist system was bitter and inevitable and by the terms of reference set consciously by the Witnesses, they, and not the Nazis, were the victors.

[Chapter VI] [Chapter VII] [Appendices] [Notes]

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