Spiritual Resistance of Christian Conviction in Nazi Germany: The Case of the Jehovah's Witnesses
By Yonan, Gabriele
Journal of Church and State, Spring 1999
JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES AS MODERN-DAY REPRESENTATIVES OF THE CHILIASTIC TRADITION
The root of the Greek word chiliasmus is "chilioi," which means "a thousand," and which in Christian terminology refers to the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ during the Millennium. Based on the Revelation of John in the Bible (20:1-10) and influenced by Jewish apocalyptic thinking, many early Christians adopted a premillennial paradigm, expecting that Jesus, immediately before the end of the world, would set up a thousand-year kingdom of peace and righteousness. It would be the re-creation of Paradise on earth through the restoration of nature to its earliest, pristine state. The characteristics of premillennial chiliastic thinking are:
• the eschatological idea of a united world;
• the present age seen as a time of trial and tribulation prior to the thousand-year reign; and,
• egalitarianism, or equality, in the coming world society.
According to this chiliastic perspective, following the re-establishment of the original condition there will no longer be any differences of rank or order. The new earthly paradise will be marked by the absence of war, enmity, strife, need, suffering, and sickness. For this condition to become a reality, there must first be a "clean slate," a tabula rasa, made possible by the final battle of Armageddon.(n1) The despised but steadfast ones will be God's chosen people--the pariahs emerging as the true elite.
The chiliastic ideas of the early Christians were in harmony with the expectations of the Jews, according to whom the drama of salvation would have to be enacted on the world stage to be seen and experienced by all humans. In history there have been variations in the chiliastic expectations, but they primarily have appeared in times of oppression of Christian minorities. Similar phenomena are known from other religions, like the early Shia movement in Islam.
The chiliastic utopias have for the most part disappeared under the influence of the enlightenment and secularism. But some of their elements can be found in the utopian socio-revolutionary movements and in various religious movements of the nineteenth century. North America and Britain saw new Christian groups emerge which focused on the apocalyptic parts of the Bible and formed new chiliastic movements. Among these were the Apostolic Catholics (Henry Drummond, 1786-1860, and Edward Irving, 1792-1834); the Adventists (William Miller, 1782-1849, and Ellen G. White 1827-1915); and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons (Joseph Smith, 18051844).
One of the latest forming yet best known nineteenth-century chiliastic communities was the Earnest Bible Students, later to become known as the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose formation dates from the 1870s. Typical of the chiliastic expectations of Jehovah's Witnesses are a deterministic concept of history and a linear conception of time which will end with the destruction of the Antichrist and an apocalyptic victory highlighted by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.(n2)
WHO ARE THE JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES?
Jehovah's Witnesses are an independent Christian denomination whose eschatological teaching points to the "Kingdom" of God. This kingdom is understood as God's government in heaven which, under the administration of Jesus Christ, will liberate mankind from all problems through his peaceful reign over the earth. This denomination can be described as chiliastic in that it is characterized by the expectation of Christ's thousand-year reign--his millennium. This Christian community, which began in America in the last third of the nineteenth century, sprang from the widespread belief in the closeness of Christ's return (parousia) and the establishment of a new Jerusalem. According to the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses, before the dawn of God's kingdom on earth the decisive battle of Armageddon will take place in which God himself will destroy the powers of wickedness.
Around 1870, the American businessman Charles Taze, Russell (1852-1916) gathered around him a small group of people who were interested in studying the Bible. Under the name "Earnest Bible Students," they read the Bible with a special attention to its teaching about the last days. Beginning in 1879 the students published the magazine "Zion's Watch Tower" and only one year later the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was established. Since 1909 this society has based its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. In 1931 this group took the name "Jehovah's Witnesses." This use of the Hebrew name for God was based on the Old Testament passage found in Isaiah 43:10, 12. The name Jehovah appears about 7,000 times in the Hebrew books of the Bible in the form of the tetragram (meaning "four characters") JHVH. Jehovah's Witnesses see themselves as part of the biblical tradition of witnesses, especially that of the New Testament, and point to certain scriptures that exemplify the words of Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate: "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth" (John 18:37).
In Germany the Jehovah's Witnesses have been active since 1896, and were known until 1931 as "Ernste Bibelforscher" (Earnest Bible Students). Their religion now numbers approximately 192,000 members in Germany in more than 2,000 local congregations. Worldwide there are now over five million members in virtually every country in the world. Their most important channel of communication is The Watchtower magazine with a printing of more than 22 million copies per issue. In 1996 their annual commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ was attended by more than 14 million people globally.
RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION IN HISTORY
If there was one Christian group which rejected the Hitler-led German National Socialist State without compromise, it was the Jehovah's Witnesses. With around 25,000 members in Germany in 1933, the Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in that year but approximately half of its membership continued their "preaching work" underground. Jehovah's Witnesses refused to say "Heil Hitler," refused to participate in the processions, refused to sing the national anthem and the Horst Wessel Lied, and above all refused military service, oath to the flag, and all activities connected with the military establishment. For this they were bitterly persecuted from the very beginning of the National Socialist regime. Approximately ten thousand Jehovah's Witnesses were incarcerated. This small Christian group attempted through large-scale leaflet campaigns in 1936 and 1937 to open the eyes of the German people to the criminal character of the Nazi state and thus defend their religious interests against the unjust regime. Their religious resistance resulted, however, in the deaths of 1,200 congregation members.
The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich belongs to the tradition of religious persecution in history. To that same tradition belong the early persecutions of Christians in the polytheistic Roman Empire and in Persia under the Sasanides who established Zoroastrianism as their state religion. Later came persecutions of Christians who were against the doctrines of the early councils of the imperial church (Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites). Later came the persecution of Jews in Europe in the late middle ages and their expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Various sects of Christianity experienced persecution before and after the time of the German Reformation, including the Bogomiles, Waldensians, Albigensians, Baptists, Unitarians, Mennonites, Quakers, and Methodists. Many of these groups emigrated to the New World to obtain religious freedom beginning in the seventeenth century.
RECAPITULATION: THE WITNESSES' RESISTANCE
During the Nazi reign, Jehovah's Witnesses as a group were virtually unanimous in their resistance to Nazism. "Of the more than 20,000 Jehovah's Witnesses [in Germany] in the year 1933," noted one scholar, "almost one out of two was arrested. A total of 6,019 were put in prisons or concentration camps, and 8,917 cases of imprisonment were recorded. Two thousand men and women were put into concentration camps, 253 were sentenced to death, and 203 of these were actually executed."(n3) The exemplary position of Jehovah's Witnesses has been acknowledged and honored by important church representatives in Germany and other countries. Hanns Lilje, bishop of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church for the state of Hannover, wrote soon after the war in his book of memoirs that "no Christian group could anywhere near measure up to the number of blood witnesses of Jehovah's Witnesses."(n4) The Protestant theologian Kurt Hutten, who revitalized the "Apologetic Centre of the Protestant Church in Germany" under the new name "Evangelische Zentrale fur Weltanschauungsfragen" in Stuttgart, recorded the plight of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany in his book Seher, Grubler, Enthusiasten:
In the Nazi state Jehovah's Witnesses were already in 1933 banned and cruelly persecuted. In numerous court cases they were given heavy sentences. Thousands of them were in prison because they had continued their activity, had refused military service and for other reasons. Testimonies from former concentration camp prisoners confirm their uncompromising determination and courageous attitude; when given the tempting offer of freedom in exchange for a denial of their principles they refused and accepted all consequences. Around 1,000 were executed, and another 1,000 died in prisons or concentration camps; members of the Jehovah's Witnesses were sentenced to more than 20,000 years in prison.(n5)
And in 1989 the Canadian jurist William Kaplan from the University of Ottawa offered this opinion: "The courage of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who endured repression and fought for what they believed, is a testament to the human spirit."(n6)
FAILURE OF THE LARGER CHURCHES DURING THE NAZI REGIME
Shortly after the end of the war the German Protestant Church made a public declaration, the so-called Nurnberger "Schuldbekenntnis" in 1945, of its failures during the period of National Socialism. This confession included the tacit acceptance and condonement of the persecutions, especially of the Jews, which resulted in the most massive genocide in history, and in the enormous destruction to which Hitler had subjected the world. These atrocities resulted in 45 million dead and utter devastation throughout Europe.
Protestantism and Catholicism had accommodated the Nazi regime from two very different standpoints. Protestantism had influenced Germany principally through the imperial government and Bismarck's Prussia. Since the Weimar Republic had introduced a secularization process--the recognition of other denominations as equals and rejection of the concept of sects (1919)--it was met with disapproval by elements within the church. The Protestant church was hoping for a restoration of its own privileges through a new political and national power. Many Protestant clergymen saw in Hitler a "great man sent by God"--a man who would introduce the birth of a new Protestant Germany.
The Catholic Church had suffered further losses of power in Germany after Bismarck's defeat of their political party, the Zentrum-spartei. For this reason the Catholic party supported the emergence of the Weimar Republic after the first World War. Before 1933 the Catholic Church had disapproved of the National Socialists. Catholics were forbidden to join the Nazi party, and the ideology based on the supremacy of the Aryan race was condemned by the church. But very soon after Hitler seized power on 30 January 1933, the church changed its course. On 24 March 1933, the Catholic bishops wrote an encyclical in which they encouraged all German Catholics to be loyal to all "proper authorities," fulfill their duties as citizens, and refrain from all illegal and seditious activity. German Catholics were now permitted to wear military uniforms while attending religious services. Church representatives celebrated this as "the time of fulfillment" and called for happy and wholehearted readiness in cooperation with the new totalitarian state.
Soon after this, on 20 July 1933, Hitler's Reichsregierung and the Vatican concluded their concordat, an agreement of special protection which guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Church to operate its own schools, religious orders, and other institutions in Germany. In exchange for this the church was obliged to make its political party, das Zentrum, vote for the Special Powers Act of March 1933. On 28 March 1933, bishops of the Catholic Church openly spoke for Hitler and the leadership of his NSDAP party and encouraged "loyalty towards the rightful authority." After the conclusion of the concordat, the Catholic Cardinal von Faulhaber wrote to Hitler: "This handshake with the Papacy [is] a great deed of immeasurable blessing .... May God protect our Reichskanzler for our people"(n7) The Catholic Church believed it could secure its existence by setting up an arrangement with the new people in power. This was a mistake, since Hitler had no intention of keeping any agreements.
What the German Protestant Church did was even worse. The church held its national synod on 27 September 1933, in which Rev. Ludwig Muller was appointed national bishop. His speech reflected his adoption of the totalitarian ideology of Hitler:
[A]s he has done to every people, so the eternal God has also to our people given its own particular innate law. This has materialized in the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler .... This law speaks to us through the history of our people as it has grown from blood and ground .... From this fellowship of German Christians in the national socialist state of Adolf Hitler shall grow the German Christian National Church which will include the entire people. One people! One God! One Reich! One church!(n8)
The expulsion of Protestant Christians of "foreign blood" (Christianized Jews) and the removal of "all un-German elements from church service and confession" stimulated the development of a church movement called "Deutsche Christen" (German Christians), which included approximately 600,000 members of the German Protestant Church and was widely supported. The Deutsche Christen, which had been active since the autumn of 1932 under the leadership of National Socialist clergymen, won 70 percent of the vote in the church elections of July 1933.
When it became clear that even the concordat of the German Catholic Church did not engender the desired protection in the totalitarian Nazi state, a new papal encyclical in 1937 "with burning grief" ("Mit brennender Sorge") gave this admonition to the announced special courts of justice:
With burning grief and growing concern we have observed for some time the sufferings of the church and the growing trials of the men and women in this land and people who have stayed loyal to her in both mind and deed. Those who separate the race, the people, the state, the formal government, the persons in power or other fundamental elements of human society-elements which rightfully claim an important and honourable position within the earthly arrangement-from the realm of such earthly values and elevate them to the highest norm of all, including religious values in worshiplike adoration, he or she distorts and falsifies the God-given and God-commanded arrangement of things.(n9)
There are two places in which this encyclical criticizes the Nazi racist ideology. This is not, however, directed against the antisemitic campaigns and persecution of the Jews, but rather against the superiority of the Germanic race, which was not in harmony with the Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. While the Jews or other victims were still not mentioned, the pope now criticized the Nazi racist ideology. The encyclical was read in all Catholic churches but it stimulated very little response among the German Catholic bishops. Only two bishops, Konrad Graf Preysing in Berlin and Clemens August Graf von Galen in Munster, called, in vain, for a more decisive church policy.
THE CONFESSIONAL CHURCH--RESISTANCE FOR ITS OWN PURPOSES
The "Bekennende Kirche" or Confessional Church, as an opposition movement within the German Protestant Church, issued a statement in May 1934 which served as a protest against state interference in the religious life of the nation:
The decline of the confession and thus of the Protestant Church of Germany both in faith and unity must be resisted. The Confessional Synod will resist the attempts to bring about the unity of the German Protestant Church through false teaching and the use of force or unclean methods. The unity of the Protestant Church of Germany can only come about through the word of God in faith by holy spirit. We reject the false teaching that the State, over and above its proper mission, should be the only and total arranger of human life and thus also fulfill the role of the Church.(n10)
On 20 October 1934, the Barmen Declaration was followed by the Dahlem Confessional Synod. There texts make it clear that their concern was first of all the dispute concerning the "Reichskirche," the unity of the church and the purity of its teaching. Here is found not a single word about the antisemitic attacks against Jews, the oppression of Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, socialists, or other persecuted groups, thousands of whom were already confined to prisons and concentration camps, and not a word about how many Jews were forcibly emigrated. A critical resistance was discovered only in a few courageous individuals of the church who could not count on support from their church leaders. A minority criticized the unification of the twenty-eight independent Protestant state churches in 1934 to make one "Reichskirche" under one "Reichsbischof." A small group, principally the members of the second preliminary leadership of the Confessional Church, ventured to go beyond this internal church dispute. The protest from within the Confessional Church should not be ignored but regarded objectively. Research into the resistance of the Confessional Church has demonstrated its diversity and uniqueness in resisting Nazism with both attitude and action.(n11)
Those Protestant groups that belonged to the Confessional Church in 1935 contributed many sermons from the pulpit against the "race and people ideology," but the faithful were mainly admonished to obedience toward the secular authority. Only in a paper written by the "radical wing" of the Confessional Church, which was not endorsed by the Confessional Church as a whole, was there a condemnation of antisemitism, Gestapo actions, and the existence of concentration camps. There were protests against German neo-paganism and the ideology of a national religion, specifically the deification of Hitler. For this reason five hundred clergymen spent brief terms in prison.
The scholar of antisemitism, Wolfgang Benz, provided the following opinion in his study Resistance Under National Socialism: "Neither when the Nuremberg laws in September 1935 deprived the German Jews of their civil rights, nor at the November pogrom in 1938 (Crystal Night, the 9th of November) did the churches as public institutions protest unitedly and forcefully.(n12) Altogether, during the entire time of the Nazi regime, only around 900 Protestant Christians (clergy as well as laity) were arrested and sentenced because of faith-based resistance. They spent time in prison and concentration camps, and twelve persons were executed for religious reasons. Prominent in this small group of Protestant Christians was the still active minister and theologian Martin Niemoller (1892-1984), a leading member of the Confessional Church. In the autumn of 1933, when the so-called "Aryan Paragraph" was introduced in the churches, he founded the "Pfarrernotbund," an organization to assist fellow clergymen, that came to the aid of 6,000 ministers that year. In 1937 he was sent to a concentration camp where he remained until the end of the Nazi regime. This was where he witnessed the resiliency the of Jehovah's Witnesses. He reminisced in his book written shortly after the war's end:
We Christians of today are put to shame by a so-called sect like the Bible Students (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 now be clear that exactly we, the Church and Christians, today are called to penance and repentance if we would continue to preach God's word and represent his cause!(n13)
The great majority of Evangelical Christians supported the national socialist movement in Germany. Political and religious resistance groups like communists, socialists, Pfarrernotbund, and the Confessional Church were first of all fighting for their own interests, their own existence, and their own bid for power. The ultimate conclusion to be drawn is the one which Wolfgang Benz states in his paper "Widerstand," or Resistance:
Resistance in the political sense, with the intention of overthrowing the National Socialist regime, was never given by the Confessional Church as a whole. It was fighting first for the integrity of its own organizational structure, and then for the independence of its church teaching, according to which the Christian commandments could never be subjected to National Socialist ideology.(n14)
THE WITNESSES' RELIGIOUS RESISTANCE INTERPRETED AND EVALUATED
A religious interpretational model can be found in the eschatological beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses. They saw Hitler's Reich as the demonic advancement of Satan and his army. Their resistance was a part of Jehovah's battle with Satan, and they viewed themselves as Jehovah's apostles, witnesses, and disciples. God had given them the mission to resist the Nazis. Already the apocalypse (the Revelation of John) had predicted the battle against wickedness, and now they saw, in the war against the War against Nazism, the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. They did not see the persecution against them as divine justice, but as the final battle of Armageddon before the heralded thousand-year reign. It was a battle of the righteous against the Antichrist and against "his" proclaimed thousand-year reign of darkness.
Another trial from Satan for these biblically-fundamentalist Witnesses was the offer of signing a declaration which required them to deny their faith in return for freedom from the concentration camps. Such an offer must have seemed to the Witnesses like Satan's temptation of Jesus in the New Testament, where Satan requires: "If you recognize me and reject Jehovah, you will be able to live in the earthly world, otherwise you will remain in my power."(n15)
In contrast to the Jews, who were God's chosen people by virtue of the old covenant, the Jehovah's Witnesses saw themselves as chosen because they had accepted the true faith by an act of their own choice, which served as ground for the new covenant. In this view of "chosenness" we see the difference between the Jehovah's Witnesses' interpretation of the persecution against them and the Jewish view of the Holocaust as a trial impossible to understand and an inescapable punishment from God. The Witnesses' assessment of Hitler's mad ambition is stated eloquently by Franz Zurcher, a leading Jehovah's Witness in Switzerland who published a documentation about Nazi Germany in 1938:
These ungodly elements (the Hitler dictatorship) who have rejected Christ and the Bible, now also turn against Catholicism and Protestantism, because they now feel strong enough. He who fails to see the obvious course of fascism in the world history, does not recognize the spirit of Rome or Berlin, namely the gigantic crusade against the Bible and against Christianity which dictators will continue to perpetrate down to the very end. All the written publications by these self-appointed crusaders against Jews and Christians are dedicated to struggle. Its aim is to glorify violence, to justify terror against peaceful justice, and to condone brutal persecution against Christians.(n16)
This terror meant for Jehovah's Witnesses the very beginning of the end.
From the hoarse voices of those cruel "Ubermenschen" we perceive the cries of the powers of darkness, of the unclean spirits which according to the Book of Revelation would tear the nations away from God and Christ and down into the dark valley of Armageddon ....(n17)
J. F. Rutherford, the American president of the Watch Tower Society, on 9 February 1934 wrote a letter to Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler which opened with these words:
This letter is both a friendly notification and a warning about things that will be of the utmost importance for your well-being. You will find that it is in your own interest to read this letter carefully. During the last ten years the leaders and the people of Germany have got to know through wide distribution of literature that God's Kingdom has come and that his King Christ Jesus will establish righteous government for the earth to the blessing of its peoples. The warning goes out that all those who stand up against God and his Kingdom will be destroyed by the Lord in Armageddon. Your government has disregarded this warning.(n18)
This letter is a key document because it outlines the program and the later actions of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich. The German leadership of the Watch Tower Society knew about the letter but not the general membership. The repeated mention of the coming battle of the end, a major tenet of the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses, made clear to all Witnesses what to expect. As a message directly addressed to Hitler it is also made clear that he could be seen as the central figure, the Antichrist of the Apocalypse.
In contrast to the Jews, the Jehovah's Witnesses saw a meaning in their persecution, their suffering, and their active but non-violent religious battle. Their faith had survived the Nazi rulership with perfect moral integrity. The German Witness Franz Kusserow (1882-1950), who had been imprisoned by the National Socialists for seven years and four months and was liberated only in 1945, wrote shortly after the end of the war to the Nazi judge at the family court which had deprived him of custody of three of his children:
Thus two religious and ideological creeds were facing each other: On one side the National Socialist idea built on imperfect laws made by imperfect people; on the other side the faith of people who were loyally dedicated to God on the basis of the perfect laws of God. Which faith or ideology would win the final victory? Well, National Socialism is already in ruins. Those who spoke for it in bombastic and glorious terms are now branded as cowards and criminals. They were the lawmakers who stamped the study of the Holy Scriptures as a crime and put faithful men of God into prison and concentration camps only because they were thinking and acting in obedience to the guidelines of God. Which faith will win? The answer of the Holy Scriptures is: "The faith that has conquered the world."(n19)
THE DECLARATION OF 25 JUNE 1933: A TEXTUAL ANALYSIS
Only a few months after Hitler seized power, the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in the various states of the Reich (e.g., Bavaria and Saxonia) on the basis of the Order of 28 February 1933, for "the prevention of Communistic acts of violence dangerous to the State" and for "the restoration of public security and order." Between 24 April and 29 April, the Watchtower printery in Magdeburg (Prussia) was seized by German Police and the SA. The seizure ended temporarily, but by the end of June the premises were again shut down--this time permanently. A few weeks later, twenty-five truckloads of Bibles and Bible literature from the Watchtower were publicly burned by the National Socialists.
As the situation for Jehovah's Witnesses clearly continued to darken (on 24 June 1933, Prussia also issued a ban on their activities), the Watch Tower Society decided, together with its German branch office, to hold a large convention in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. The seven thousand delegates present adopted a Declaration which spoke out against the false charges of seditious activity and emphasized the political neutrality of Jehovah's Witnesses. This resolution was addressed to Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler in the form of a petition, an appeal. The churches in Germany today claim that this Declaration represented an attempt on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses to curry the favor of Hitler and his Nazi state, and that it included anti-Jewish statements. They claim that it was only after the failure of this attempt that Jehovah's Witnesses resisted the Nazi regime. The charges climaxed in the accusation that the American Watch Tower Office and its president, J. F. Rutherford, had knowingly sacrificed the German Jehovah's Witnesses and pushed them onto a road that would inevitably lead to martyrdom. A textual analysis of the actual document indicates that these accusations are erroneous.
The passages quoted from the Declaration create the impression that it was primarily a justification, an overture toward the Nazi system, and that it was influenced by anti-Jewish attitudes. This, however, is a falsification of the facts. From a secular point of view, the document was a "sermon" directed to the addressee, Reichskanzler Hitler himself. It was a clear dissociation from the powers of this world but it took for granted that surely even Hitler had good intentions, that even he must have wanted to do good. But it also proclaimed that if this should prove not to be so, then the Reichskanzler and Fuhrer of the German people belonged to the kingdom of Satan. Hitler would then become an enemy of Jehovah and his Witnesses. These straightforward statements left the Reichskanzler with only two possible conclusions: either the Declaration was the product of the collective imaginations of some crazed religious group or, it was, in its mad boldness, a declaration of war from a David against a Goliath.
While the powerful Roman Catholic Church had entered into a gentleman's agreement with the dictator in the form of the concordat, here a small Christian faction was blowing the trumpet of Jericho and demanding, in sermon-style and in all earnestness, that Hitler should subject himself completely to the will of Jehovah. In turn the church promised that it would then maintain its neutrality, as it did in all other states. And although Hitler was still addressed in politely neutral terms, this small group did not hesitate to call its business partner, the Roman Catholic Church, a tool of "the great enemy Satan."
The Witnesses repudiated the charges that they were supported by Jews or Bolsheviks--accusations of "Satan's tool" were whispered into the Reichskanzler's ears by the "official" churches. And certainly, the established churches had long been pushing for an official ban on this "sectarian" but above all zealous Christian denomination. Under the Weimar Republic such attempts had dissipated. Because Jehovah's Witnesses advocate only one government, that of God's Kingdom, some have viewed them as subversive. But nothing could be further from the truth. In imitation of Jesus' apostles, "they are no part of the world" (John 17:16). They are politically neutral. Because of their loyalty to God, they obey the laws of their respective human governments. Indeed, they are exemplary in their "subjection to the superior authorities" (Romans 13:1). Never have they advocated rebellion against any human government! There is, however, a line that cannot be crossed under any circumstances. It is the line between the duty of Jehovah's Witnesses to man and their duty to God. They seek to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).
The passages from the Declaration which the churches today single out for quotation cannot rightfully be termed antisemitic or anti-Jewish; rather, they are anti-American or perhaps even anti-world. The polemic against the Anglo-American world power with its big business enterprises built up by "commercial" Jews must be seen in its entire context, and, in judging the German version of the Declaration it must be kept in mind that it is a translation from the American original. Jehovah's Witnesses were not prepared to subject themselves to any earthly rulership. They maintained "strict neutrality." This position certainly leaves no room for "currying the favor" of Hitler. Notice, too, that the Declaration does not address him as "Fuhrer" and does not conclude with the words "Heil Hitler," as was the case during that time on most documents from churches to state authorities. A summary of the Declaration of 25 June 1933 demonstrates the following self-evident principles:
1. A refutation of the charges that the Witnesses were financed by Jews or communists;
2. The declaration of their absolute neutrality in politics, that their activity was solely religious;
3. The opposition to the (Catholic) Church, which is seen as a political institution; and,
4. A proclamation of being true followers of Jesus Christ and disciples of him.
Each argument was supported by quotations from the Bible as the only authority and guide for the action of Jehovah's Witnesses. It is also interesting to note the emphatic statement from Jehovah's Witnesses that they "have no criticism of any honest religious teacher"; what they criticize is the "wrongful religious influence in the political affairs of the nation." It cannot even be said that they criticized the teachings of other churches: "We [the Jehovah's Witnesses] do not object to or try to hinder anyone's teaching or believing what he desires."
The anticlerical views of Jehovah's Witnesses were, however, quite clear. They explicitly mentioned the Catholic Church and the Jesuits as their enemies. Almost naively they advertised that their "American brethren have greatly assisted in (their) work in Germany," but that the secularization of the churches in America was unjustifiable. And if it seems that their view of the League of Nations was shared with Hitler, it was not because they agreed with Hitler but due to their own religious view of the world. According to a former Nazi official, the fact that the Witnesses included end-of-the-world prophecies in their Declaration as a central teaching at a time when Hitler endeavored to build his own millennium must have seemed, in his eyes, to be nothing less than an invitation to fight.
The absence of influence by the antisemitic vocabulary of the time is seen from the Declaration's free and unabashed use of Old Testament quotations that include the name of "Zion." The Declaration climaxed in the statement that since Jehovah's Witnesses have put themselves on God's side, all who fight against them are bound to lose: "But as for us, we will serve Jehovah forever." If Hitler ever read this Declaration personally, the result must certainly have been one of his historical fits of rage. According to the Witnesses, one particular story has it that upon reading the Declaration Hitler exclaimed: "This brood must be exterminated from Germany."(n20)
When the entire text of the Declaration of 25 June 1933 and the letter to Hitler are seen today in the context of the history of Jehovah's Witnesses during the period of National Socialism in Germany and the history of their religious resistance and their stand during the Holocaust, then the text does not present itself as an "antisemitic statement" or an attempt at "currying the favor" of Hitler. These accusations, stemming from present-day church circles, are deliberate manipulations and falsifications of history, seemingly motivated by guilt over the churches' own involvement or lack or involvement in the persecutions.
At the time of the 1933 convention and even later, governments, statesmen, and diplomats from all countries were freely negotiating with Hitler and showing him their respect and reverence. Even in 1936, as thousands had already been put into concentration camps (with Jehovah's Witnesses among the very first), the international Olympic games were held under the emblem of the Swastika.
It is possible to see the Declaration as absurd or ridiculous from a secular point of view in its completely unrealistic judgment of the political situation. This seems to be the case with those critics from church circles who seek to find strategic failings in the resistance of the Witnesses in the fact that the Watchtower Society was under American leadership. This is an entirely secular evaluation that shows more about the churches and their own internal makeup than it contributes to the search for truth. The official churches were, and are, so firmly integrated into the political and social establishment of the state that they are themselves an integral part of the secular world. As religious institutions in the time of the Nazi reign, they were unfit to follow the commands of the Bible in a literal way or to motivate a majority of their members to do so. Only a few individuals from the two large churches, acting independently, were exceptions to the generally collaborative or indifferent church membership.
The worldview of the Jehovah's Witnesses did not conform to the logic of the "rational human mind"--if it did, the obvious conclusion would have been that one cannot resist Hitler's dictatorship and that a non-violent resistance on the part of a small religious group would lead to its elimination. It was the "logic of absolute faith" of a biblical-fundamentalist Christian group that made possible this resistance based on faith. It is amazing that the churches, of all groups, today are forcing a religious community to come forward and justify the resistance it made in those times, when irrefutable evidence proves that this religious group demonstrated unique steadfastness and had to make extraordinary sacrifices. The resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses proved two things: first, that the size of the religious group resisting the Nazis had nothing to do with outcomes; and second, that a pacifist resistance in the form of refusal to cooperate was possible--and that the price for this was often one's own life. These are the answers to give to those later generations who ask: "Why did you not do anything?"
As publications of the recent past demonstrate, the research into these forgotten victims of Nazi persecution has only just begun. To the established Protestant and Catholic churches of Germany, this means a renewed challenge, not only to deal with their own past failings, but to reconcile these failings with their claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. One things stands out clearly from the moving eyewitness accounts in the video documentation program "Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault" (1996): there were no directions from the Central Office of the Watch Tower Society. The directions all came from the Holy Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.
Jehovah's Witnesses can rightfully claim to have resisted the "wicked." In a literal sense they have fulfilled their own claim of being true followers of Jesus Christ, while the two large churches in Germany, as they openly admit, failed terribly. Six decades later it is now time to show them respect in the name of Christianity. Without the example of this steadfast Christian group under the oppression of the National Socialist dictatorship, we would--after Auschwitz and the Holocaust--have to doubt whether it is at all possible to fulfill the Christian teachings of Jesus.
(n1) Armageddon or Harmageddon: Greek version of Hebrew "Hat Meghiddon," Mountain of Megidde, mentioned one time only in the Bible, in Revelation 16:15: "And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon."
(n2) Bryan Wilson, Sects and Society (London: Heinemann, 1961); Norman Cohn, Das Ringen um das Tausendjahrige Reich. Revolutionarer Messianismus im Mittelalter und sein Fortleben in den modernen totalitaren Bewegungen (Munchen-Bern: Franke, 1961).
(n3) Deutscher Zweig e V., ed., Jahrbuch der Zeugen Jehovas 1974 (Wiesbaden: Wachtturm Bibel und Tractat-Gesellschaft, 1974), 212.
(n4) Hanns Lilje, Im finstern Tag (Nurnberg: Latare-Verlag, 1947), 47.
(n5) Kurt Hutten, Seher, Grubler, Enthusiasten (Stuttgart: Quell-Verlag, 1954), 69.
(n6) William Kaplan, State and Salvation: The Jehovah's Witnesses and Their Fight for Civil Rights (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 12.
(n7) John Weiss, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany (Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), 314.
(n8) Georg Denzler and Volker Fabricius, Die Kirchen im Dritten Reich (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984).
(n9) Simon Hirt, ed., Das Christliche Deutschland 1933 bis 1945 (Freiburg-Breisgau: Verlag Heider & Co., 1946), 5.
(n10) Barmen Erklarung (Declaration), 31 May 1934; Denzler and Fabricius, eds., Die Kirchen.
(n11) Archivbericht No.7, EK Berlin-Brandenburg, Widerstand in Berlin von 1933-1945, 26.
(n12) Wolfgang Benz, Widerstand im Nationalsozialismus (Bonn: Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung, 1994).
(n13) Martin Niemoller, "Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein. Sechs Predigten," (Munche: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1946), 27-28.
(n14) Benz, Widerstand im Nationalsozialismus, 20.
(n15) Matt. 4: 8, 9: And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."
(n16) Franz Zurcher, Kreuzzug gegen das Christentum (Zurich: Europa Verlag, 1938), 71.
(n17) Ibid., 71.
(n18) Ibid., 185-86.
(n19) Letter given to me by his daughter Annemarie Kusserow; Franz Kusserow to Dr. Ishording, 3 December 1945, Salzkotten 19.
(n20) Karl R.A. Wittig, Statutory Declaration, doc. no. 778/13 November 1947 by notary Otto Ludwig, Frankfurt am Main (quot. Der Wachtturm, Wiesbaden: Wachtturm Bibelund Traktat-Gesellschaft, 1 October 1955), 590 f.
By Gabriele Yonan
Gabriele Yonan (B.A., Humboldt University, Berlin; M.A., University of Osnabruck; Ph.D., University of Haifa) is currently reader and counselor at the Institute of the Max Planck Society for Promoting Science and Education, Berlin, Germany. Her published books include Assyrians Today: Culture, Language and National Movement of Aramaic-speaking Christians in the Middle East, Assyrians and German Diplomacy--New Light on the Holocaust: Documents of the Foreign Office, and Jehovah's Witnesses: Victims of Two Totalitarian Systems (forthcoming 1999). Special interests include nontraditional religions, religious liberty, refugee assistance, and the Holocaust.
****** Copyright of the publication is the property of the publisher and the text may not be copied without the express written permission of the publisher except for the inprint of the video screen content or via the print options of the software. Text is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Copyright of "Spiritual Resistance of Christian Conviction in Nazi Germany: The Case of the Jehovah's Witnesses." is the property of Journal of Church & State. Its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download intended solely for the use of the individual user. Content provided by EBSCO Publishing.