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Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Members of the religious group refused to serve in the military or give allegiance to the Nazi government, for which many were killed, imprisoned or sent to concentration camps.



Unlike Jews and Romani people (Gypsies) who were persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, Jehovah's Witnesses had the opportunity to escape persecution and personal harm by renouncing their religious beliefs. The Nazi government gave detained Jehovah's Witnesses the option of release by signing a document indicating renouncement of their faith, submission to state authority, and support of the German military[1]

Nazi renunciation document
(Quoted from Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (1993), Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, p. 661. Original)

In a book on Jehovah's Witnesses under the Nazi regime, historian Hans Hesse commented, "Some five thousand Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps where they alone were 'voluntary prisoners', so termed because the moment they recanted their views, they could be freed. Some lost their lives in the camps, but few renounced their faith".[2][3]

Pre-Nazi era

The Bible Students began missionary work in Europe in the 1890s. In 1902, the first branch office of the Watch Tower Society opened in Elberfeld, Germany. By the early 1930s, some 25,000 to 30,000 Germans (0.38 percent of the population) were either adherents or interested sympathizers.

Even before 1933, Jehovah's Witnesses were targets of prejudice. Mainstream Lutheran and Catholic churches deemed them heretics.[4] Individual German states had long sought to curb the missionary work through strict enforcement of statutes on illegal solicitation. At various times individual jurisdictions banned their religious literature, including the magazines The Watchtower and The Golden Age. During the Weimar period, however, the German courts often ruled in their favor.

As early as 1921, political and religious factions accused the Witnesses of being linked with the Jews in subversive political movements.[5] Bible Students were branded as the dangerous, Bolshevik, "Jewish worm". Swiss theologian Karl Barth later wrote about this charge: "The accusation that Jehovah's Witnesses are linked with the Communists can only be due to an involuntary or even intentional misunderstanding."

The April 15 1930 German edition of The Golden Age stated: "We have no reason to regard this false accusation as an insult as we are convinced that the Jew is at least as valuable a person as a nominal Christian; but we reject the above untruth of the church tabloid because it is aimed at deprecating our work, as if it were being done not for the sake of the Gospel but for the Jews."

Before the Nazis came to power, individual groups of local Nazis (party functionaries or SA men), acting outside the law, broke up Bible study meetings and assaulted individual Witnesses.[6]

Nazi era

After the Nazis came to power on 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg, persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses intensified. Witnesses considered all worldly powers as tools of Satan, and refused to swear loyalty to the Nazi regime. Initially, Witness indifference to the Nazi state manifested itself in the refusal to raise their arms in the Heil Hitler salute, join the German Labor Front (which all salaried and wage workers were forced to join after the Nazis outlawed trade unions), participate in Nazi welfare collections, and vote in elections. Neither would they participate in Nazi rallies and parades.[7]

Nazi authorities denounced Jehovah's Witnesses for their ties to the United States and derided the apparent revolutionary millennialism of their preaching that a battle of Armageddon would precede the rule of Christ on earth. They linked Jehovah's Witnesses to "international Jewry" by pointing to Witness reliance on certain Old Testament texts. The Nazis had grievances with many of the smaller Protestant groups on these issues, but only the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christadelphian Church refused to bear arms or swear loyalty to the state.[8]

When Germany reintroduced universal military service in 1935, Jehovah's Witnesses generally refused to enroll. Although they were not pacifists, they refused to bear arms for any political power. The Nazis prosecuted Jehovah's Witnesses for failing to report for conscription and arrested those who did missionary work for undermining the morale of the nation. John Conway, a British historian, stated that they were “against any form of collaboration with the Nazis and against service in the army.”[9]

Children of Jehovah's Witnesses also suffered under the Nazi regime. In classrooms, teachers ridiculed children who refused to give the Heil Hitler salute or sing patriotic songs. Principals found reasons to expel them from school. Following the lead of adults, classmates shunned or beat the children of Witnesses. On occasion, authorities sought to remove children from their Witness parents and send them to other schools, orphanages, or private homes to be brought up as "good Germans".[10]

"Declaration of Facts"

On April 24 1933, officials seized and shut down the Watch Tower office in Magdeburg, Germany. Under pressure from the U.S. State Department, the police returned the property. By May 1933 the Witnesses were banned in several German states.

Concerned about the rising tensions in Germany, the president of the Watch Tower Society, Joseph F. Rutherford and Paul Balzereit, manager of the German branch office in Magdeburg, decided to mount a campaign to inform Chancellor Hitler, government officials, and the public that Jehovah's Witnesses posed no threat to the German people and the State.[11]

Therefore, the Magdeburg office arranged a convention. Bible Students from all over Germany were invited to the Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen in Berlin on June 25 1933. About 5,000 delegates were expected, but more than 7,000 attended. The delegates adopted a resolution entitled "Declaration of Facts." It read:

"We are wrongfully charged before the ruling powers of this government and before the people of this nation... we do respectfully ask the rulers of the nation and the people to give a fair and impartial consideration to the statement of facts here made.[12]

After stating that "it is impossible for our literature and our work to be a menace to the peace and safety of the nation," the Declaration went on:

Instead of being against the principles advocated by the government of Germany, we stand squarely for such principles and point out that Jehovah God through Christ Jesus will bring about the full realization of these principles and will give to the people peace and prosperity and the greatest desire of every honest heart.[12]


A careful examination of our books and literature will disclose the fact that the very high ideals held and promulgated by the present national government are set forth in and endorsed and strongly emphasized in our publications, and show that Jehovah God will see to it that these high ideals in due time will be attained by all persons who love righteousness and who obey the Most High. Instead, therefore, of our literature and our work's being a menace to the principles of the present government we are the strongest supporters of such high ideals.[12]

The Declaration also made reference to Jews, with statements such as:

The greatest and most oppressive empire on earth is the Anglo-American empire. By that is meant the British Empire, of which the United States of America forms a part. It has been the commercial Jews of the British-American empire that have built up and carried on Big Business as a means of exploiting and oppressing the peoples of many nations. This fact particularly applies to the cities of London and New York, the stronghold of Big Business. This fact is so manifest in America that there is a proverb concerning the city of New York which says: 'The Jews own it, the Irish Catholics rule it, and the Americans pay the bills.'"[13]

In responding to the claim they were being funded by the Jews they wrote: "...we receive no support from Jews and that therefore the charges against us are maliciously false and could proceed only from Satan, our great enemy." [13]

Critical review of the Declaration

Dr. M. James Penton, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge, in his book Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich, drawing on his own Witness background and years of research on Witness history, interprets antisemitic attitudes on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses and a "friendly" rapport with the Nazi regime.

Historian Detlef Garbe, director at the Neuengamme (Hamburg) Memorial, stated: "Numerous judgments found in literature about the Wilmersdorf Declaration include erroneous criticism, or rather, are not fair to the text and the situation. Therefore, one could not say that Jehovah's Witnesses had professed antisemitism... or promoted themselves "as a possible ally." Labels such as "congress supporting the Nazis", or the assertion that the Watch Tower management had attempted to "conclude a pact with Hitler"... resulted from conclusions motivated by a desire to discredit [them] as in Gebhard's 1970 GDR documentation [Die Zeugen Jehovas: Eine Dokumentation uber die Watchtturm-Gesellschaft[14]] alleging the "criminal support of the antisemitic Hitler policy" in the Declaration."[15]

Garbe also notes that the charge of collaboration with the Nazis and other manufactured propaganda about the Witnesses was promoted by the East German Stasi in the 1960s.[16] Dr. Garbe has described Gebhard's book as "biased",[17] saying that it "was based on a manuscript by [Guenther Pape, an excommunicated Witness] which he compiled at the end of the 1960s". Dr. Garbe refers to it as having, "distorted quotations" and characterized by a "selective use of quotes".

Manfred Gebhard later expressly disassociated himself from Penton's book and its "exaggerations and falsifications" "and called it a mistake that he had agreed to the use of his name without knowing the results."[18][19]

Dr. Gabriele Yonan, of the Free University of Berlin, stated: "When the entire text of the June 25, 1933 'Declaration of Facts,' along with the letter to Hitler is, in retrospect, put into the context of the history of Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi regime, their resistance, and the Holocaust, it consequently has nothing to do with 'antisemitic statements and currying favor with Hitler.' These accusations made by today's church circles are deliberate manipulations and historical misrepresentations, and their obvious motivation is the discomfort of a moral inferiority."[20][21]

In Social Disinterest, Governmental Disinformation, Renewed Persecution, and Now Manipulation of History? Garbe stated, "Taking everything into consideration, it has been established that no other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism with comparable unanimity and steadfastness."[22] He later went on to say that at "no point did they support Nazi rule. Rather, the stand taken by Jehovah's Witnesses would have, according to Klaus Drobisch, "been befitting" for the majority of the population".[23]

Concentration camps

In concentration camps, Jehovah's Witnesses, along with members of Witness splinter groups, and members of the Adventist, Baptist, and New Apostolic movements, wore purple triangle badges that identified them as Bibelforscher (Bible Students).[24]

The Watchtower has claimed that during the Nazi era Jehovah’s Witnesses "underwent persecution equal to that heaped upon the Jews."[25]

11,300 Jehovah's Witnesses were placed in camps, and about 1,490 died, of whom 270 were executed as conscientious objectors.[26]

See also

Further reading

  • Garbe, Detlef. Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich (2007, University of Wisconsin Press)ISBN 0-299-20790-0
  • Penton, James M. Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics Under Persecution ISBN 9780802086785
  • Hesse, Hans (editor) Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime: 1933-1945
  • Reynaud, Michael. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Nazis: Persecution, Deportation, and Murder, 1933-1945
  • Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, ISBN 0-689-10728-5
  • Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia, ISBN 0-300-08432-3
  • Michael Berenbaum,The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ISBN 0-316-09134-0


  1. ^ see scholar Michael Berenbaum comments here [1]
  2. ^ Hans Hesse (2001). Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime. pp. 10.  
  3. ^ JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES: PERSECUTION 1870-1936 on the [[United States Holocaust Memorial Museum] website.
  4. ^ Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia
  5. ^ The Watchtower - Awake July 8, 1998, p. 11. | “Jehovah’s Witnesses—Courageous in the Face of Nazi Peril” | © Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
  6. ^ Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia
  7. ^ Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia
  8. ^ Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:The Holocaust Encyclopedia
  9. ^ p.251,260 “Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945
  10. ^ Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur:"The Holocaust Encyclopedia"
  11. ^ Jehovah's Witnesses Courageous in the Face of Nazi Peril
  12. ^ a b c Declaration of Facts English translation
  13. ^ a b English translation
  14. ^ Die Zeugen Jehovas: Eine Dokumentation uber die Watchtturm-Gesellschaft. Manfred Gebhard with Urania-Verlag. 1970.  
  15. ^ Garbe, Detlef. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945. p. 310.  
  16. ^ Garbe, Detlef (in German). Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. p. 106 (note 82).  
  17. ^ Garbe, Detlef (in German). Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. p. 20f.  
  18. ^ Garbe, Detlef (in German). Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. p. 20f, 20 (note 44), 263 (note 27).  
  19. ^ Frost, Erich; Franke, Konrad (1997). Wrobel. p. 9.1-9.2.  
  20. ^ Hesse, Hans (1998). Verfolgung und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas im Nationalsozialismus. pp. 395.  
  21. ^ Yonan, Gabriele (Spring 1999). "Spiritual Resistance of Christian Conviction in Nazi Germany: The Case of the Jehovah's Witnesses". Journal of Church and State.  
  22. ^ Garbe, Detlef. Social Disinterest, Governmental Disinformation, Renewed Persecution, and Now Manipulation of History?. p. 251.  
  23. ^ Garbe, Detleft. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime 1933-1945. pp. 251,260.  
  24. ^ Johannes S. Wrobel, Jehovah’s Witnesses in National Socialist Concentration Camps, 1933 – 45, Religion, State & Society, Vol. 34, No. 2, June 2006, pp. 89-125 (Johannes S. Wrobel is head of the Watchtower History Archive of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters/Taunus, Germany. His article states, "The concentration camp prisoner category ‘Bible Student’ at times apparently included a few members from small Bible Student splinter groups, as well as adherents of other religious groups which played only a secondary role during the time of the National Socialists regime, such as Adventists, Baptists and the New Apostolic community".)
  25. ^ 'Watchtower' May 15, 1975 p. 294
  26. ^, page 34

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