Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany were a small religious community numbering about 25,000 in 1933. The Witnesses (called "International Bible Students" or "Earnest Bible Students" prior to 1931) had been active in Germany since the late 19th century. Their well-known witnessing, or missionary work, became a source of irritation to the predominant Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic churches, which regarded them as heretics and encroachers. Following World War I the Witnesses in Germany found listening ears among people disillusioned by mainstream Christianity. Stiff denunciations of war-mongering religionists, oppressive governments, and greedy industrialists appeared regularly in the Witnesses' principle journal, The Watchtower. As a result, between the world wars, the Witnesses found themselves embroiled in several thousand lawsuits, many of which were initiated by local clergy.
Playing on growing anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, writers, both political and religious, accused the Witnesses of working for a purported Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy. As proof they cited repeated references in Witness literature to the Hebrew Scriptures and to prophets and patriarchs of Jewish origin. They pointed to references that denounced both the pogroms against Jews and the "Christians" who incited them. They criticized the Witnesses for bearing the name "Jehovah," regarding it as the name of the Jewish God. The "sect" was American and internationalist. Armed with this evidence, critics claimed that the Witnesses represented a danger to Germany, a charge that the Witnesses vehemently denied.
The Witnesses held to a position of "political neutrality," which called on them to abstain from the political process and from armed conflict between nations. Like the early Christians, they viewed themselves as citizens of God's Kingdom and would therefore refrain from swearing allegiance to any earthly government. Out of respect for the sanctity of life, Witnesses were prepared to refuse to bear arms. Although submissive to civil authorities in all laws not contradicting divine law, the Witnesses' insistence on neutrality would place them squarely at odds with the successors to the Weimar government, the National Socialists, or Nazis.
The Growing Nazi Threat
As the Nazi Party began gaining influence and popularity, Witnesses in Germany faced escalating attacks by Nazi storm troopers. Soon after Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor in 1933, many German states banned the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses as well as their literature. The Witnesses at first (erroneously) concluded that the increasing difficulties could be traced mainly to clergymen and others who had misrepresented them in the eyes of the Hitler government, labeling the Witnesses as seditious.
On June 25, 1933, five months after Hitler assumed office, the German branch of the Watch Tower Society submitted a formal petition, requesting the government to investigate the facts about the Witnesses and their activities. About 7,000 Witnesses gathered in Berlin adopted the "Declaration of Facts" and distributed millions of copies not only to government officials but also to the general public in Germany. The Declaration affirmed the Witnesses' apolitical stance and denied that the work of the Watch Tower Society was being financed by Jews, as some had charged. It accused "professional religious teachers, priests and Jesuits" of employing "improper political means to accomplish their ends." The paper maintained that the Witnesses had no quarrel with religious persons in general but that they disapproved of exploitation by so-called Big Business, including "commercial Jews of the British-American empire," "conscienceless politicians," and "political religionists." (The terse reference to "commercial Jews of the British-American empire" was apparently intended to repudiate allegations that Witness activities were financed by so-called Jewish political movements.) The Declaration above all insisted that the Witnesses be allowed to continue their divine mission of spreading the Kingdom Gospel in Germany. While the Watch Tower Society attempted to portray the Witnesses as harmless to the German government, the Declaration perhaps unwittingly confirmed Nazi suspicions by affirming their loyalty to "God's Kingdom."
As the Witnesses would soon learn, the Nazi State had no place in its worldview for a nonviolent, apolitical group that was not prepared to support the Volksgemeinschaft. The Nazi government shrewdly required visible demonstrations of loyalty from its citizens, such as the Hitler salute, display of the Swastika flag, attendance at Nazi rallies, party and youth organization membership, votes in plebiscites, and contributions to political and military programs. Anyone who hesitated to show his enthusiasm would immediately be noticed, with uncomfortable consequences to follow. While historians have exploded the myth of monolithic support for the regime among the German populace, they have also documented that as time wore on, increasingly effective and pervasive political and social pressure aimed to strangle dissent and nonconformity.
Dilemma of the Salute
Jehovah's Witnesses found themselves facing daily situations that tested their religious convictions. The Hitler salute, which became law in 1933, required the German citizen to raise his hand or arm (a gesture reminiscent of the Roman salute "hail Caesar") and to say the words "Heil Hitler!" Germans had to give the salute numerous times in the course of a day—upon entering or leaving work and school, on the street, in shops, and even at the close of evening prayers.
The word "heil" in the German Bible is connected with "salvation" by the Christ, or Messiah (cf. Acts 4:12). Repeating the salute affirmed one's belief that Adolf Hitler was, in effect, the Savior of Germany. Witnesses recognized the unmistakably religious overtones of the salute and refused to use the greeting.
The Witnesses' refusal to give the Hitler salute served as a high-profile trigger for widespread and severe reprisals. Many Witnesses lost their jobs and were eventually banned from civil service positions. Children faced teacher-instigated beatings by fellow students and expulsion from school. Juvenile authorities removed over 500 children from their parents' custody and placed them in Nazi institutions and homes. Angry Nazi mobs ransacked Witness-owned businesses. Employers and social agencies denied veterans, invalids, pensioners, and the unemployed their social benefits. Threatened by the authorities, rejected by their workmates, boycotted by their clients, separated from their families, and shunned by their relatives and neighbors, many Witnesses had to abandon all hope that they would be left to practice their faith in peace. Official Nazi policy decreed economic and social ruin.
National Ban and Secret Activities
In 1935 the Nazi government re-instituted the military draft. Concurrently, the legislative and executive branches intensified the nationwide persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses. Beatings, house searches, arrests, interrogations, and incarceration became commonplace.
Witnesses were among the first to be sent to the early concentration camps in 1933 and came to be among the slave laborers forced to lay the foundations of the main early concentration camps Sachsenhausen (1936) and Buchenwald (1937) and others. Though their numbers were reduced by arrests and imprisonment, Witnesses outside the camps continued their activities underground, holding secret meetings and producing and distributing religious literature.
The Witnesses' evangelizing activity outside Germany took on new urgency as they sought to expose Nazi crimes against Witnesses and others. Some of this critical literature entered Nazi Germany. Although the horror of the Nazi genocidal agenda lay several years down the road, the Witnesses sensed a sinister intent in the progressively bold Nazi assault on Jews. Having experienced firsthand the brutality of the regime, Witnesses had no illusions about the fatal miseries in store for the Jews.
The Nazis appear to have been surprised by the tenacity of the Witnesses. Most other religious groups, large and small, had complied with Nazi pressure to "cleanse" their congregations and their worship services of anyone and anything tainted by Judaism, including the divine name Jehovah. Some church groups rushed to affirm their official support of the new German government. Intimidation was not having similar effect on the Witnesses. Rather, as the criminal character of the government became more and more obvious, their rejection of its ideologies and policies became more pronounced. On two specific occasions in 1936 and 1937, Witnesses staged daring protest actions during which they secretly distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets recounting Nazi abuses of fellow Witnesses.
During 1936 (before the first leaflet campaign) the Gestapo formed a special unit to combat the Witnesses and orchestrated mass arrests that succeeded in dampening the underground activity for a time. Some Witnesses managed to avoid arrest for the entire duration of Nazi rule. But the Gestapo scored significant successes in their battle to stamp out the group. A 1939 British White Paper on the treatment of German Nationals reported that Nazi prisons and camps held some 6,000 Witnesses. Within the concentration camps, they comprised a distinctive prisoner group and were designated by their own camp uniform symbol, the "purple triangle." (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)
Wartime Persecution and a Way Out
After rebuilding the German military machine, Hitler started World War II, and conscientious objectors, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, received severe punishment for their refusal to perform military service. On September 15, 1939 (shortly after World War II began with the German invasion of Poland), August Dickmann, a 29-year-old German Witness and conscientious objector, was executed by firing squad in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Heinrich Himmler personally approved the death sentence, the first public execution of the war, in the hopes that the shooting would intimidate the 400 fellow Witness inmates who were present. Though the SS gave the Witnesses the chance to recant their faith in exchange for their freedom, no Witnesses on that occasion recanted. According to current research, over 270 male Witnesses were executed after receiving a death sentence by military courts.
During that period, female Witnesses also experienced a heightened degree of persecution for abstaining from war-related activities. Many had been arrested, mainly for their religious activities, but some also for not enrolling their children in Nazi youth groups, for helping fugitives or for other reasons. Some women were sent to Nazi prisons, while others went to camps. There they suffered beatings, starvation, and lengthy periods in unheated "dark cells" because they refused to do military-related tasks, such as working in munitions factories, mending military clothing, or even feeding an army horse. During certain periods, male and female Witnesses were denied mail privileges, packages from family, and medical care. Nevertheless, Witnesses were known among inmates for their solidarity, which contributed in large measure to their fairly high survival rate. Some spent more than 10 years in captivity doing slave labor.
The lengthy confinement of Witness prisoners is all the more remarkable because the SS were more than willing to set them free—if they would sign a "declaration" renouncing their faith. The SS dangled the prospect for freedom in front of Witnesses while at the same time subjecting them to the brutal, deadly treatment of daily camp life. The ostensibly tantalizing offer carried a heavy price: Not only did the signer renounce his association with Jehovah's Witnesses, he or she agreed to denounce fellow believers to the Gestapo. Additionally, as a demonstration of loyalty, the signer agreed to fight for the "Fatherland" with weapon in hand.
Among the relatively small number of signers, some gained immediate release after signing the document. Others, though, had to remain incarcerated for a period, during which time other Witnesses felt compelled to avoid their former associate, for fear he had become a Nazi sympathizer or an informant for the SS. Witnesses refused to sign the document for a variety of reasons: They could not in good conscience affirm Hitler as savior and accept National Socialism; they could not betray their "brothers"; and they could not pledge to support a regime that had inflicted so much damage, and even death, on family, friends, and fellow believers.
"Re-education" of the Youth
The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses could "resign" from their affiliation, unlike Jews or Roma, shows that the Nazis regarded them chiefly as ideological enemies. Indeed, most Witnesses would have been considered "racially" acceptable. The regime hastened to remove hundreds of children from the custody of their Witness parents in order to cleanse them of Witness beliefs. They could then be reeducated to fit into the Nazi community, a policy aimed effectively to cut off the next generation of Witnesses.
Gestapo reports commonly describe how Witness children had become "corrupted" by their parents' religion. The youths had refused to share in patriotic ceremonies and join Nazi youth groups. A doctrine that could cause even young people to defy Nazi norms posed a clear danger to the regime's drive toward conformity. Juvenile authorities placed Witness children in orphanages, penitentiary homes, foster homes, and juvenile camps, hoping that they would soon forget their parents' unfitting religious ideas. Some young males relented and agreed later to perform military service. In many cases, Witness youths proved to be as intransigent as their parents.
The treatment ranged from abusive to nurturing, but all custodians were charged with the task of "thought reform." Children were often prohibited from having any contact with Witness family members. They endured hard labor, physical and verbal beatings, and lack of basic care. Most Witness child survivors have suffered severe and lasting health problems as a result of the treatment.
Later Phases of the War
In every country occupied by the German army, Jehovah's Witnesses were banned and imprisoned. As German forces advanced across Eastern Europe, the concentration camp population swelled with non-German prisoners.
The SS needed an increasing number of trusted, German-speaking prisoners to manage key functions in the camp. Witnesses were among those prisoners who received "better" positions, such as office work, kitchen duty, or repair work. Some female Witnesses had to work for SS families. Because of their belief in nonviolence, the women could be trusted to watch children of the SS without doing them harm. Some men and women could be used as cooks without fear of poisoning others, and as barbers without fear of handling a razor dangerously. The trusted work assignments meant "easier" work conditions compared with the torturous conditions of the camps, but these Witness prisoners were still slaves without rights, having to wait until the family dog finished eating before he or she could take a bite of food. Like all prisoners, death always remained only a step away if an SS became displeased or angry with them.
Since Witnesses usually would not attempt to escape, some were permitted to leave the camp without a guard to accompany them to a work assignment or to run errands for SS families. While Witness prisoners might have been regarded by some prisoners as curiously passive or as natural martyrs, it should be remembered that when an escape did occur, the SS often retaliated by hanging the escapee's entire work detail. A Witness prisoner generally would not try to escape, knowing that his or her action might prove harmful or fatal to others. Witnesses reasoned that God had permitted them to be imprisoned for reasons of faith; hence they would not try to bring to an end this situation by a self-willed act of running away. They trusted in God to free them in due time.
As is inevitably the nature of the extensive Nazi persecution, the exact number of all the victims in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries cannot be known. At this point Jehovah's Witnesses have documented in their archives the names of over 12,000 persecuted Witnesses and have found that among the masses of humanity who passed through the gates of Nazi prisons and concentration camps were over 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses. Of the total number, over 1,400 deaths have been documented, including more than 350 males and females who were executed. The farewell letters of two Witnesses, about to be executed for their beliefs, reflect the strong conviction that moved them and thousands of others to stand their ground against Nazi ideology:
French Witness Marcel Sutter, age 23, beheaded in Halle/Saale , wrote in November 1943 at Torgau prison:
My dearly beloved parents and sisters,
When you receive this letter, I will no longer be alive. Only a few hours separate me from my death. I ask you to be strong and courageous; do not cry, for I have conquered. I have finished the course and kept the faith. May Jehovah God help me until the end. Only a short period of time separates us from the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Soon we will see each other again in a better world of peace and righteousness. I rejoice at the thought of that day, since then there will be no more sighing. How marvelous that will be! I am yearning for peace. During these last few hours I have been thinking of you and my heart is a little bitter at the thought of not being able to kiss you good-bye. But we must be patient. The time is near when Jehovah will vindicate his Name and prove to all creation that he is the only true God. I now wish to dedicate my last few hours to him, so I will close this letter and say good-bye until we meet again soon. Praise be to our God Jehovah! With my warm love and greetings,
Your beloved son and brother,
From Berthold Szabo, executed by a firing squad, in Körmend, Hungary, March 1945:
My dear sister, Marika!
These one and one half hours I have left, I will try to write to you so that you will be able to let our parents know about my situation, immediately facing death.
I wish them the same peace of mind that I experience in these last moments in this world fraught with disaster. It is now ten o'clock, and I will be executed at half past eleven; but I am quite calm. My further life I lay into the hands of Jehovah and his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the King, who will never forget those sincerely loving them. I know too that there will soon be a resurrection of those who died or, rather, who went to sleep, in Christ. I should also like to particularly mention that I wish you all Jehovah's richest blessings for the love you bestowed on me. Please kiss Father and Mother for me, and Annus too. They should not worry about me; we shall be seeing each other again soon. My hand is calm now, and I shall go to rest until Jehovah calls me again. Even now I shall keep the vow I took for him.
Now my time is up. May God be with you and with me.
With much love,
Hans Hesse, Ed. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945. (Bremen, Germany: Edition Temmen, 2001).
King, Christine E. The Nazi State and the New Religions. (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1982).
Liebster, Max. Crucible of Terror: A Story of Survival Through the Nazi Storm. (New Orleans: Grammaton Press, 2003).
Liebster, Simone Arnold. Facing the Lion: Memoirs of a Young Girl in Nazi Europe. (New Orleans: Grammaton Press, 2000).
Rammerstorfer, Bernhard. Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man. The Story of Leopold Engleitner. (New Orleans: Grammaton Press, 2004) (DVD and video also available).
Study guide for Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault Classroom DVD. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (1996)
Fear Not: Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime. Drei Linden Film. (1997)
Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (1996).
Purple Triangles. Starlock Pictures. (1991)
The Girl with the Purple Triangle. Drei Linden Film. (2004)
Unbroken Will. The Story of Leopold Engleitner. Bernard Rammerstorfer. (2004)
Watch Tower History Archives, Germany, the Netherlands, U.S.A.