« Main Search

Jehovah's Witnesses Victims under Two Dictatorships:

June 18, 1999

(1933-1945 / 1949-1989)

A Book by Professor Gabirele Yonan (*)

HRWF (18.06.1999) - Website : http://www.hrwf.net - Email : info@hrwf.net - Professor Gabriele Yonan has just published a remarkable 157-page book in German which deals with the plight of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi and in Communist Germany: Jehovahs Zeugen: Opfer unter zwei deutschen Diktaturen (1933-1945 / 1949-1989). It also deals with their present-day legal battle for recognition as a corporation under public law.

Jehovah's Witnesses have been active in Germany since the end of the 19th century. Regular publication of the magazine "Der Wachtturm" (The Watchtower) started in 1897, and this is still being published today. In 1902, a German branch office was opened in Elberfeld. Because of their missionary success, Jehovah's Witnesses were heavily criticized by Germans beginning in the 1920s, perhaps most widely by the established (Catholic and Lutheran) churches.

Persecution Under Two Dictatorships

When Hitler came to power in early 1933, there were about 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the German Reich. Only a few months later, they were banned, and the books of the Watchtower Society in Magdeburg were confiscated and burned. Thus, they became one of the first groups of victims of the Nazi regime.

Most Jehovah's Witnesses attempted to resist Hitler. They refused to give the Hitler salute, to join Nazi organisations, and they were the only group which entirely refused military service for religious reasons. Among all Christian groups they were surely the hardest hit victims of Nazi persecution. Witnesses were among the first persons taken into concentration camps, where they formed a separate category of prisoners marked by the purple triangle. Given the opportunity to sign a declaration renouncing their faith and be set free, few ever did so. The majority preferred to spend years in concentration camps or even to die. Between 1933 and 1945, 10,000 out of the 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany were victims of National Socialism. About 6,000 were sent into prisons and/or concentration camps, 2,000 of whom died, 300 by execution.

Martin Niemöller, the German theologian and one of the founders of the "Bekennende Kirche" (Confessional Church), who was himself sent to a concentration camp, later remembered the Witnesses' firm stand: "We Christians of today are put to shame by a so-called sect like the Serious Bible Students (earlier name of Jehovah's Witnesses), who by the hundreds and thousands have gone into concentration camps and died because they refused to serve in war and declined to fire on human beings. In this, as in many other matters, it should be clear to us that exactly we, the Church and the Christians, today are called to penance and repentance if we would continue to preach God's Word and represent God's cause."

After the war, between 12,000 and 17,000 Jehovah's Witnesses lived in the Soviet military zone, the territory of the German Democratic Republic, which was founded in 1949. Many of them were survivors of the Nazi terror, and East German authorities at first recognized them as "victims of fascism". In the spring and fall of the year 1950, however, the post-war persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in East Germany commenced. A press campaign prepared the population for the GDR's ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses, which was soon put into practice by an official decree. In August a mass arrest of 500 Jehovah's Witnesses followed as they were accused of "systematic agitation against the established order and espionage for an imperialistic power."

One of the first mock trials in the Communistic part of Germany was held against nine of Jehovah's Witnesses in October 1950. Two of the defendants received life sentences, the others were sentenced to 8 to 15 years of imprisonment. The ban on Jehovah's Witnesses was legally removed as late as a few months before the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic in 1990. During the many years in between they could only be active underground. From 1950 to 1987, 5,000 of them were arrested, and many of them had to do forced labor because they refused military service.

After the fall of the Berlin wall (November 9, 1989) and the subsequent political changes on March 14, 1990 the "Religious Association of Jehovah's Witnesses in the GDR" was legally recognized by the state, and they set up their headquarter in Berlin. In spite of the 40 year ban against them, there were 240 local communities with about 21,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the former territory of East Germany at the time of the reunification on October 3, 1990. In today's reunited Germany, the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses has about 190,000 members in more than 2,000 local communities. Since 1984, the German headquarters have been in Selters/Taunus near the city of Frankfurt.

A Legal Battle for Recognition

When the Unification Treaty between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany went into effect, an agreement was made that all legal decisions which were orderly adopted in the GDR should be recognized in the Federal Republic.

Consequently, the question arose whether the Jehovah's Witnesses, now officially recognized as a religious organization in the GDR, could also be recognized as a corporation under public law in the reunified Germany, or whether the status had to be granted them anew. In the fall of 1990, the responsible authorities confirmed in two preliminary proceedings that the recognition as a religious association in the GDR corresponded to the status of a corporation under public law. In 1993, however, the Berlin Senate refused the application for corporation rights. A legal dispute followed, and in 1993 and 1995 two courts decided in favor of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Finally, the complaint was taken to the Federal Administrative Court, whose court decision of June 26, 1997, was not favorable to the Witnesses. In its decision, the court stated that the Witnesses met with all constitutional requirements to be granted corporation rights and that their attitude towards the state was admirable. Yet, because of their refusal to share in political elections, irrespective of the fact that their nonparticipation was based on their religious beliefs, the Jehovah's Witnesses did not show "the democratically organized government the loyalty necessary for a lasting cooperation."

The Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a constitutional complaint on August 13, 1997. In their view, which is shared by many specialists of state-church law, the court's decision is a violation of fundamental constitutional rights which provide for freedom of religion (article 4 of the Constitution) and equal treatment of churches and religious associations (article 3 of the Constitution).

The right to abstain from sharing in state elections for religious reasons belongs to the fundamental constitutional rights, and granting a religious association the rights of a corporation does not depend on any special "loyalty towards the state."

Significance of the Corporation Rights

The legal form of a corporation under German law was intended to emphasize the independence of a religious association with regard to the State. A number of advantages and privileges are connected with the granting of the corporation rights (article 140 Grundgesetz in connection with article 137), as seen in the cases of both of the established churches and the Jewish Community in Germany. Corporations under public law can impose church taxes, they have a legitimate claim to provide pastoral care in the military and in public institutions such as hospitals and prisons, and they are allowed to offer religious education for the pupils of their members at public schools.

Due to the court's refusal of their application for corporation rights, the association of Jehovah's Witnesses has been subjected to numerous restrictions:

1.. Without corporation status, their religious association is not entitled to be a beneficiary under a will or other testamentary instrument.

2.. They do not have permission to visit fellow Jehovah's Witnesses either in hospitals or in penal institutions in order to provide spiritual assistance

c. They can not be registered in a public telephone directory under the section "churches and religious communities"

d. They can not announce religious meetings in local official gazettes.

The Consequences of the Lawsuit

Until the reunification of Germany in 1990, Jehovah's Witnesses were viewed mainly as a marginal religious group that was generally known in the population for their door-to-door evangelism, the public presentation of their religious magazines and tracts, and for their district conventions. Since the earliest days of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the established churches have rated them among the "classical sects" because they differed from them in religious beliefs. Jehovah's Witnesses were not mentioned in the public discussion about the possible dangers from so-called youth sects (cults) that had been active since the 70's.

This situation changed, however, during the course of the lawsuit for the granting of the corporation rights. The Protestant Church in particular sought to prevent any official recognition and the consequent legal status of Jehovah's Witnesses as equal with the churches. Since the two established churches in Germany have special privileges due to agreements with the state, enabling them to have a strong influence on the political and social life of Germany, it was possible to systematically propagate the image of a "dangerous, destructive cult" on a political level as well as through the media. Beginning in 1995, the public pressure on Jehovah's Witnesses increased. The accusations which "sect commissioners" of the churches published in their so-called "sect reports" were adopted and believed by politicians and the media. They referred to certain religiously motivated patterns of behaviour such as their refusal of blood transfusion, their apocalyptic beliefs, their supposed social isolation, and trauma associated with patterns of restrictive upbringing of their children. Sometimes this constant barrage of criticism takes on grotesque forms, as when the Witnesses refuse to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, and Easter, practices which are said to result in psychological and social trauma for their children.

These reproaches manifested themselves in inquiries from politicians to the parliaments in federal states (1995-1998), but also in court cases dealing with child custody in which one parent is a Witness. Here especially, the possible refusal of a parent to consent to a blood transfusion for a child in emergency cases is exaggerated to represent outright maltreatment of children. The discussion intensified even more when, in 1996, the book "Die Sekten-Kinder" (Children of Cults) was published by Kurt-Helmuth Eimuth, himself a sect commissioner for the Protestant Church. This publication was played up as a media event because it was published immediately before the Enquete Commission that was set up by the German Parliament for the investigation of "So-called Sects (Cults) and Psycho Groups" took up its work. At the press conference, Renate Rennebach, member of the German Parliament and initiator of the Enquete, mentioned that this book would serve as a work basis for the Commission. The next day, the media carried the headline "82,000 Children in Germany Live Under the Influence of Sects". Among the groups listed, Jehovah's Witnesses were mentioned as by far the largest association and the one towards which the reproaches were mainly directed.

New Course: Setting up Information Services

To deal with the new situation, the Jehovah's Witnesses made administrative changes designed to improve their public image. This initiative was motivated by the Witnesses' willingness to cooperate with media, which nevertheless was unsuccessful due to the media's prejudices. The public relations effort was further damaged by reports from Witness '"drop-outs", also the subject of considerable media coverage.

In early 1996, the Information Services of Jehovah's Witnesses was established in Selters/Taunus, the German headquarters of the Wachtturm Bibel- und Traktat-Gesellschaft, and soon after this, Regional Information Services were formed all over Germany designed to intensify their public relations. These efforts resulted in helpful contacts with historians, academics of religious science and law, sociologists, as well as sect commissioners and the Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen (Protestant Center for Philosophy of Life Issues).

Important for the public evaluation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany was the publication of the thesis by a German historian, Dr. Detlef Garbe, Director of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. It was first published as a book in 1993 under the title "Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. Die Zeugen Jehovas im 'Dritten Reich'" (Between Resistance and Martyrdom - Jehovah's Witnesses Under the Third Reich). Since then, three further editions of the book have been published, and it is regarded as a standard work for scientific research about Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi era. Moreover, the work is an essential contribution to the general Holocaust research.

One year later, at the suggestion of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the American Watch Tower Society decided to produce a video documentary on the experience of the Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi regime, the production of which took almost two years. Filming was done in concentration camp memorials where survivors of Jehovah's Witnesses and historians, among them Dr. Detlef Garbe, were interviewed.

On November 6, 1996, the world premiere of the documentary entitled "Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault" took place in the former Ravensbrück concentration camp with 300 visitors in attendance, including politicians and scholars. This world premiere also brought a positive response in the media, and it seemed that a turning point in the evaluation of Jehovah's witnesses had occurred.

The local Information Services organized video showings all over Germany which were received with great interest among the ranks of Jehovah's Witnesses. Soon a touring exhibition on the subject was added, as well as conferences, lectures, and panel discussions with foreign guest speakers, all of which were positively evaluated in the local media.

These positive developments were unexpected and came just at the time of the legal dispute at the highest federal administrative court about the granting of corporation rights. Although these historical facts could have no impact on the legal case, a change in the public opinion had become evident. Representatives of the established churches, especially their sect commissioners, now endeavored to tone down the upturn of events through critical comments made in governmental and educational institutions on the Witnesses' documentary. The failures of the large churches during the Nazi period had been a fact that was proved by historical research and had been publicly discussed for a long time. Still, the churches felt provoked by the direct comparison made in the video by means of historical photos of Nazi-minded high-ranking

clergymen. For these reasons the churches, in comments and articles, dismissed the documentary as being a "promotion film with missionary intentions" and even accused Jehovah's Witnesses of "perversion of history". In this way they were able once again to turn public sentiment against the Witnesses, an attitude that spread even to public educational institutions.

Although the historical facts about Jehovah's Witnesses as victims of Nazi oppression are scientifically confirmed, some German church representatives went so far as to claim that, under Nazism, the American Watch Tower Society had deliberately sacrificed the German Witnesses to the Hitler terror. In this regard, these church representatives seem to follow the motto: "Not the killer but the victim is guilty."


In their efforts to be recognized as a corporation under public law and as a religious association in general, Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany have been going through a process of change since 1990. They are more open, ask critical questions, and show an openness to dialogue with others. At the same time, they have become more self-confident and more "secular" without sacrificing their main beliefs. This has added to their competitive power compared with other religious group in Germany, especially with the two established churches.

The dominant Lutheran and Catholic churches were not prepared for such a change and now answer back, using outdated apologetics. Their representatives and supporters, many of whom are in public office, use their positions to fight competing religious denominations - which only serves to hasten their own increasing self-secularization.

It remains to be seen whether the constitutional status of Jehovah's Witnesses will improve or worsen. This dilemma, however, is not simply a matter of whether or not a religious association should receive corporation status. The decision will either accelerate the current tendency in Germany toward state control of the individual citizens' philosophies of life, or it will enforce the constitutional equality of all religious denominations, the right of religious self-determination, and the right of unlimited, unimpaired worship.

(*) Copyright 1999 by Numinos - Religion und Zeitgeschichte. ISBN: 3-00-004151-6

The author has also published the following books:

- Assyrer heute (1978)

- Ein vergessener Holocaust (1989)

- Weltreligionen in Berlin (1993)

Those interested in getting this book can send send us their order


This item appears with the permission of Human Rights Without Frontiers. HRWF is located at 5 rue de la Presse, B-1000 Brussels. Tel: 32 2 2198880 - Fax: 32 2 2190285 - Email: willy.fautre@hrwf.net - Website: http://www.hrwf.net. To be put on the Email press service list on "religious Intolerance and Discrimination," send requests to info@hrwf.net. The material presented here may not be reproduced without the written consent of HRWF. We encourage readers to visit HRWF and explore the broad array of material about religious freedom.

    Previous Top
© 1999 - 2007 Jehovah's Witnesses United. All rights reserved. Terms of Service
home-icon.gif (1K) Home:
General News
Human Rights
Study Tools
Site Search
Web Search
genexe-icon.gif (1K) EXEGESIS:
Study Links
genexe-icon.gif (1K) GENERAL:
resources-icon.gif (1K) Resources: