Forgotten History-The Jehovah Witnesses Holocaust

I am not a Jehovah Witness myself and I don’t really agree with some of their doctrines but I do admire and respect their commitment to their religion.

Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered religious persecution in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 after refusing to perform military service, join Nazi organizations or give allegiance to the Hitler regime. An estimated 10,000 Witnesses—half of the number of members in Germany during that period—were imprisoned, including 2000 who were sent to Nazi concentration camps. An estimated 1200 died in custody, including 250 who were executed. They were the first Christian denomination banned by the Nazi government and the most extensively and intensively persecuted. Unlike Jews and Romani who were persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, Jehovah’s Witnesses could escape persecution and personal harm by renouncing their religious beliefs by signing a document indicating renouncement of their faith, submission to state authority, and support of the German military.Historian Sybil Milton concludes that “their courage and defiance in the face of torture and death punctures the myth of a monolithic Nazi state ruling over docile and submissive subjects.

The group came under increasing public and governmental persecution from 1933, with many expelled from jobs and schools, deprived of income and suffering beatings and imprisonment, despite early attempts to demonstrate shared goals with the National Socialist regime. Historians are divided over whether the Nazis intended to exterminate them, but several authors have claimed the Witnesses’ outspoken condemnation of the Nazis contributed to their level of suffering.

Even before 1933, despite their small numbers, door-to-door preaching and the identification of Jehovah’s Witnesses as heretics by the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches made them few friends. Individual German states and local authorities periodically sought to limit the group’s proselytizing activities with charges of illegal peddling. There were also outright bans on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious literature, which included the booklets The Watch Tower and The Golden Age. The courts, by contrast, often ruled in favor of the religious minority. Meanwhile, in the early 1930s, Nazi brownshirted storm troopers, acting outside the law, broke up Bible study meetings and beat up, individual Witnesses.


Jehovah’s Witnesses were denounced for their international and American ties, the apparent revolutionary tone of their millennialism (belief in the peaceful 1,000 year heavenly rule over the earth by Christ, preceded by the battle of Armageddon), and their supposed connections to Judaism, including a reliance on parts of the Bible embodying Jewish scripture (the Christian “Old Testament”). Many of these charges were brought against more than 40 other banned religious groups, but none of these were persecuted to the same degree. The crucial difference was, the intensity Witnesses demonstrated in refusing to give ultimate loyalty or obedience to the state.

In April 1933, four months after Hitler became chancellor, Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in Bavaria and by the summer in most of Germany. Twice during 1933, police occupied the Witnesses’ offices and their printing site in Magdeburg and confiscated religious literature. Witnesses defied Nazi prohibitions by continuing to meet and distribute their literature, often covertly. Copies were made from booklets smuggled in mainly from Switzerland.

Initially, Jehovah’s Witnesses attempted to fend off Nazi attacks by issuing a letter to the government in October 1934, explaining their religious beliefs and political neutrality. This declaration failed to convince the Nazi regime of the group’s harmlessness. For defying the ban on their activities, many Witnesses were arrested and sent to prisons and concentration camps. They lost their jobs as civil servants or employees in private industry and their unemployment, social welfare, and pension benefits.

From 1935 onward, Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a Nazi campaign of nearly total persecution. On April 1, 1935, the group was banned nationally by law. The same year, Germany reintroduced compulsory military service. For refusing to be drafted or perform war–related work, and for continuing to meet, Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. In 1936 some 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In 1936 a special unit of the Gestapo began compiling a registry of all persons believed to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, and agents infiltrated Bible study meetings. By 1939, an estimated 6,000 Witnesses (including those from incorporated Austria and Czechoslovakia) were detained in prisons or camps. Some Witnesses were tortured by police in attempts to make them sign a declaration renouncing their faith, but few capitulated.

In response to Nazi efforts to destroy them, the worldwide Jehovah’s Witness organization became a center of spiritual resistance against the Nazis. An international convention of Witnesses, held in Lucerne,Switzerland, in September 1936, issued a resolution condemning the entire Nazi regime. In this text and other literature brought into Germany, writers broadly indicted the Third Reich. Articles strongly denounced the persecution of German Jews, Nazi “savagery” toward Communists, the re-militarization of Germany, the Nazification of schools and universities, Nazi propaganda, and the regime’s assault on mainstream churches.

On June 25, 1933 about 7000 Witnesses assembled at the Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen in Berlin where a 3800-word “Declaration of Facts” was issued.


The document, written by Watch Tower Society president J.F. Rutherford, asserted the religion’s political neutrality, appealed for the right to publicly preach and claimed it was the victim of a misinformation campaign by other religions.


 Some 2.1 million copies of the declaration, reproduced as a four-page pamphlet, were distributed publicly throughout Germany, with a copy also sent to Hitler accompanied by a seven-page cover letter assuring the Chancellor that the IBSA(International Bible Study Association) “was not in opposition to the national government of the German Reich”, but that, to the contrary, “the entirely religious, nonpolitical objectives and efforts of the Bible Students” were “completely in agreement with the corresponding goals of the national government.

From 1933 Witnesses working in post offices, railway stations or other civil service jobs began to be dismissed for refusing to give the compulsory Hitler salute. From August 1934 they could also lose their jobs for refusing to take an official oath swearing loyalty and obedience to Hitler. Teachers were required to sign a statement confirming they were not members of the International Bible Students Association and were fired if they refused. Jehovah’s Witnesses were dismissed in the private sector as well, often at the insistence of the German Labor Front (DAF) or Nazi Party members. In 1936 the Nazi press urged that Bible Students be removed from all German companies, while self-employed members of the religion were denied professional or business licences to carry out their work on the basis that their refusal to join Nazi organizations marked them as “politically unreliable”.

The state confiscated motor vehicles and bicycles used by Witnesses for their business, withdrew driver’s licences, withdrew pensions and evicted Witnesses from their homes. Schoolchildren were required to sing the Horst Wessel song and Deutschlandlied at a flag salute roll call, give the Hitler salute and take part in ceremonies honoring Hitler; those who refused were beaten by teachers and sometimes by classmates, while many were also expelled. From March 1936 authorities began removing Witness children from their parents, forcing some of them to undergo “corrective training”.

The children of Jehovah’s Witnesses also suffered. In classrooms, teachers ridiculed children who refused to give the “Heil, Hitler!” salute or sing patriotic songs. Classmates shunned and beat up young Witnesses. Principals expelled them from schools. Families were broken up as authorities took children away from their parents and sent them to reform schools, orphanages, or private homes, to be brought up as Nazis.

From early 1935, Gestapo officers began widening their use of “protective detention”, usually when judges failed to convict Witnesses on charges of defying the Bible Student ban. Bible Students deemed to “present an imminent danger to the National Socialist state because of their activities” were from that point not handed to courts for punishment but sent directly to concentration camps for incarceration for several months, but even those who completed their prison terms were routinely arrested by the Gestapo upon release and taken into protective custody.

More brutal methods of punishment began to be applied from 1936, including horsewhipping, prolonged daily beatings, the torture of family members and the threat of shooting. Some Witnesses were placed in mental institutions and subjected to psychiatric treatment; sterilization was ordered for some deemed to be “stubborn” in their refusal to denounce their religion.

Following an assembly in Lucerne, Switzerland in early September 1936 up to 3000 copies of a resolution of protest were sent to government, public and clerical leaders, stepping up the Watch Tower Society’s anti-Catholic polemic. Several German Witnesses who attended the convention were arrested by waiting police as they returned to their homes and between August and September the Gestapo arrested more than 1000 members. The society responded with a pamphlet campaign on December 12, dropping up to 200,000 copies of the Lucerne resolution in mailboxes and also leaving them at phone booths, park benches and parked cars. Those arrested in subsequent police raids were sentenced to up to two years in prison. The number of arrests increased; in Dresden alone as many as 1500 Witnesses had been arrested by mid-1937. Another letterbox campaign was carried out in June 1937, a year in which the Watch Tower Society announced German Witnesses had distributed more than 450,000 books and booklets in 12 months.

Compulsory military service for all men aged between 18 and 45 was introduced by Hitler in March 1935. No exemptions were provided for religious or conscientious reasons and Witnesses who refused to serve or take the oath of allegiance to Hitler were sent to prison or concentration camp, generally for terms of one or two years. At the outbreak of war in August 1939, more serious punishments were applied. A decree was enacted that greatly increased penal regulations during periods of war and states of emergency and included in the decree was an offense of “demoralization of the armed forces”; any refusal to perform military service or public inducement to this effect would be punishable by death. Between August 1939 and September 1940, 152 Bible Students appeared before the highest military court of the Wehrmacht charged with demoralization of the armed forces and 112 were executed, usually by beheading. Garbe estimates about 250 German and Austrian Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed during World War II as a result of military court decisions. In November 1939 another regulation was issued providing for the jailing of anyone who supported or belonged to an “anti-military association” or displayed an “anti-military attitude”, which allowed authorities to impose prison sentences on the charge of IBSA membership. Death penalties were applied frequently after 1943.

After 1939 most active Jehovah’s Witnesses were incarcerated in prisons or concentration camps. Some had fled Germany. In the camps, all prisoners wore markings of various shapes and colors so that guards and camp officers could identify them by category. Witnesses were marked by purple triangular patches.


Even in the camps, they continued to meet, pray, and make converts. In Buchenwald concentration camp, they set up an underground printing press and distributed religious tracts.


Conditions in Nazi camps were generally harsh for all inmates, many of whom died from hunger, disease, exhaustion, exposure to the cold, and brutal treatment. But, as psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim and others have noted, Witnesses were uniquely sustained in the camps by the support they gave each other and by their belief that their suffering was part of their work for God. Individual Witnesses astounded their guards with their refusal to conform to military-type routines like roll call or to roll bandages for soldiers at the front. At the same time, Witnesses were considered unusually trustworthy because they refused to escape from camps or physically resist their guards. For this reason, Witnesses were often used as domestic servants by Nazi camp officers and guards.

According to Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, SS Chief Heinrich Himmer often used the “fanatical faith” of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example to his own SS troops.

In his view, SS men had to have the same “unshakable faith” in the National Socialist ideal and in Adolf Hitler that the Witnesses had in Jehovah. Only when all SS men believed as fanatically in their own philosophy would Adolf Hitler’s state be permanently secure.

In the Nazi years, about 10,000 Witnesses, most of them of German nationality, were imprisoned in concentration camps. After 1939, small numbers of Witnesses from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland (some of them refugees from Germany) were arrested and deported to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen,Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and other concentration camps. An estimated 2,500 to 5,000 Witnesses died in the camps or prisons. More than 200 men were tried by the German War Court and executed for refusing military service.

(below Mug shots of Else Woieziek, a Jehovah’s Witness sentenced to death and executed in 1944. Düsseldorf)


During the liberation of the camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued their work, moving among the survivors, making converts.



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