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Jehovah's Witnesses in the Nazi period

by John Conway

A recent upsurge in interest in the fate of the J.Ws during the Third Reich led to an all-day seminar held in November at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which included a slide lecture entitled "The Spirit and the Sword - Jehovah's Witnesses Expose the Third Reich". The text is now available from the Watchtower Writing Dept, 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York 11201- 2483. The speakers on this occasion included Christine King, Detlef Garbe (Director of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Museum) and Wulff Brebeck (Director of the Wewelsburg Museum). In addition a compilation was made of all the articles printed in English in J.W. publications during 1933-45, amounting to some 1600 pages, for which an index is now available. These show not only that the fate of the German J.Ws was very closely followed at the American headquarters, but also that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was well documented, as a result of the J.Ws biblically-based sympathy.

Many of these articles describe the sufferings of J.Ws in concentration camps with graphic detail.

Virtually all accounts of the German Church Struggle (including my own) have given very little attention to the J.Ws, possibly because of denominational bias, or because the numbers involved were relatively few. But this defect has now been splendidly remedied by the appearance of Detlef Garbe's new book - see below. An English translation is much to be desired.

Detlef Garbe, Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. Die Zeugen Jehovahs im Dritten Reich (Studien zur Zeitgeschichte Vol 42). Munchen: Oldenbourg 1993 577 pp.

Detlev Garbe's excellent history of the J.Ws is the first full treatment of this small sect's fate during the Nazi period, combining extensive research into the remaining Nazi records with a sympathetic analysis of survivors' testimonies. The result is a convincing scholarly description which supersedes all previous accounts. He rightly stresses the unique character of the Nazis' hostility, which fully merits such a thorough treatment.

The J.Ws were the first religious group to be forbidden and continued to suffer unremittingly throughout the Nazi era. No other religious community demonstrated its resistance in so decidedly an uncompromising fashion, or so steadfastly refused to bow down to the Nazi wishes. Thousands were incarcerated in concentration camps, where their resolute determination to keep on witnessing to their faith gave them an extraordinary reputation, and even finally earned a grudging respect from Himmler himself.

Church historians have largely ignored this marginal group, baffled by the oddities of their religious beliefs, offended by their anti-clerical polemics, or confused by their inability to be counted as part of the wider Resistance Movement. Garbe skilfully depicts not only the extent of the Nazi persecution but also the reasons for this brutal mistreatment. Some Nazis believed the J.Ws were part of a communist conspiracy; others suspected them of being Jewish or American infiltrators. In any case the Nazi authorities proceeded promptly in 1933 to ban their activities throughout Germany - measures which were greeted with approval by the main-stream churches, who had long been aggravated by the J.Ws sectarian proselytism. The J.W. leaders protested that they were entirely unpolitical, and even got energetic representations made by the U.S. State Department on their behalf, which successfully regained their American-funded property and printing presses. But all future activities were prohibited. The members however refused to obey, or to make any compromises with Nazi ideology. Already by the end of 1933, the Gestapo reported widespread evasion of their edicts. Stronger measures were therefore taken.

Theologically the J.Ws had long been prepared for persecution by the "satanic" forces of the Church, especially the Roman Catholics, and the state. Repression only made them more resolute. This steadfast obstinacy only increased the Nazis' determination to suppress the sect entirely, and gave them an explicitly political excuse to stamp out "subversive agitation". Already in 1933 J.Ws were dismissed from their jobs in both the public and private sector, their pensions confiscated, and their livelihoods restricted. Their children suffered daily mistreatment in school for their refusal to join the H.J. or to give the "Hitler greeting". In approximately 1000 cases, children were taken into "care" to preserve them from "religious fanaticism", and were separated from their parents for years. Even more severe were the penalties inflicted on the J.Ws in 1936-8 after two nation-wide distribution of anti-Nazi pamphlets had been successfully and conspiratorially organised. By 1939 the Gestapo had arrested almost the entire leadership and sentenced them to lengthy terms of imprisonment in concentration camps, where they were further subject to degrading and brutal treatment and forced to wear the distinguishing "violet triangle".

But the J.Ws recruited new leaders, often women, and carried on their witness, secretly and underground as best they could. Illegal pamphlets continued to be produced, calling for a total refusal to compromise with the "satanic" rule of the Nazis and their "gangster" associates, including the Pope. Martyrdom was openly welcomed as proof of their devotion to the coming Kingdom of Jehovah. The outbreak of war and the J.Ws unwavering determination not to take part in any military activities led to even more severe repression, and to numerous death sentences, not only for men of military age but also for women, often imposed by the notorious People's Court. Doubts expressed by some of the justice officials were brutally overruled by Hitler himself in favour of exemplary deterrent measures against all such "defeatist traitors".

Garbe comes to the conclusion, on the basis of his detailed examination of the official archives and the "Watchtower's" careful tabulations, that previous estimates of the J.Ws' total losses were set too high (including Conway's!) He regards the J.W 1974 Yearbook as giving the most reliable figures. Out of 25,000 to 30,000 J.Ws in Germany in 1933, approximately 10,000 were imprisoned for longer or shorter periods; 2,000 were sent to concentration camps; approximately 1200 lost their lives, including at least 250 sentenced to death by the courts, principally for their conscientious objection to military service. Even if these figures are lower than previously believed, the fact remains that - apart from the Jews - the J.Ws were persecuted, proportionately, more severely and brutally than any other religious-ideological group.

John Conway
University of British Columbia
jconway@unixg.ubc.ca

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