Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses
Just under 4,000 believers in the German Reich profess to be Bible Students.Before the First World War, the Bible Student movement, founded in the United States in the second half of the 19th century and active in Germany since the late 19th century, attracted little official attention. Its organ, "Der Wachtturm," had been published in German since 1897, and the German office of its "Watchtower Society," founded in the United States in 1881 as a missionary and Bible society, was located in Elberfeld and later in Barmen.
The "Apologetische Centrale" is founded by the "Centralausschuß für die Innere Mission" of the German Protestant Church in Berlin to monitor other religious movements. It represents the conservative-nationalist line of the church leadership and acts against religious pluralism (John Conway). The Bible Students are attacked as a "sect" by the Apologetische Centrale.In the following years, Catholic as well as völkisch, radical nationalist and National Socialist circles (e.g., "Der Stürmer", December 1924) also repeatedly attack the Bible Students as "Jewish-Bolshevik", among other things. The International Bible Students become the object of hatred of anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic forces.
Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning rejects proposals by members of the Reichstag faction of his Center Party to take tougher action against "anti-church" efforts.The Bible Students win lawsuits against confiscations of their writings in other German states, including before the Baden Administrative Court on June 15. By the end of the Republic, there are several thousand lawsuits concerning the religious freedom of the biblical scholars. In a large number of cases (mostly involving public mission acitivities and the dissemination of writings), German courts rule in favor of the Bible Students' religious freedom.
Adolf Hitler is appointed Chancellor of the German Reich.At this time, the community of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany numbers about 25,000 professing members of the faith; an environment of another 10,000 believers can be assumed.
Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to vote in Reichstag elections and are attacked, harassed and mistreated. The mistreatment and arrests increase during the course of the year. Jehovah's Witnesses refuse the "Hitler salute" and membership in Nazi organizations such as the "Hitler Youth."First Jehovah's Witnesses are deported to early concentration camps and mistreated.
Hamburg introduces a morning flag roll call at schools; other states also make commemorative ceremonies, marches, flag salutes, singing of the national anthem and the Horst Wessel song, among other things, compulsory at schools. Thus, school attendance becomes a daily torment and distress of conscience for children and young people from the ranks of Jehovah's Witnesses. Especially from 1936 onward, numerous custody revocations took place, and children were taken away from their parents, who were considered "enemies of the state”.Until 1945, the National Socialist tyranny snatches a total of about 600 children of Jehovah's Witnesses from their parents and assigns them to foster families or deports them to correctional institutions.
A wave of arrests leads to the imprisonment of almost the entire leadership of the German Jehovah's Witnesses (including at Berlin's Goldfish Pond on August 22). Many are interrogated under torture. By mid-1937, 17 of the imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses die during interrogations and in prisons.Increasingly, mass trials of Jehovah's Witnesses take place before special courts in all parts of the Reich, often resulting in fines at the first arrest, and in prison sentences in repeated cases, followed in many cases by concentration camp imprisonment.
A second protest leaflet, the "Open Letter" compiled at the Bible House of Jehovah's Witnesses in Bern on the basis of persecution reports smuggled into Switzerland from Germany, is distributed in tens of thousands of copies. An even larger campaign is not possible because leaflets no longer can cross the German border. The "Open Letter" condemns the "barbarism in a country of 'Christendom'" and names Nazi crimes and perpetrators.A second large wave of arrests following this action in the fall means that Jehovah's Witnesses can no longer establish a nationwide underground organization in the German Reich. But connections between many local networks of the community continue to exist.
Emil Oprecht's Europa-Verlag, which publishes mainly German exile literature, publishes in Zurich the book "Crusade against Christianity: Modern Persecution of Christians. A Collection of Documents," compiled by German-American Martin Christian Harbeck, head of the Central European Office of Jehovah's Witnesses in Bern, from reports smuggled out of Germany by persecuted Witnesses. Harbeck’s Swiss deputy, Franz Zürcher, serves as nominal editor.
The book receives great attention in the press and is supported by Thomas Mann, who writes to Harbeck: "I have read your book, so gruesomely documented, with the greatest emotion, and I cannot describe the mixture of contempt and disgust that filled me as I leafed through these documents of human baseness and wretched cruelty. [...] in any case, you have done your duty by coming before the public with this book, and it seems to me that there cannot be a stronger appeal to the world's conscience."
Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in concentration camps uniformly receive a "purple triangle" as a prisoner's badge, after different badges had been used for stigmatization since 1936.
In Nazi-ruled areas of Europe during World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses are occasionally given other markings, such as the "red triangle" of political prisoners, if their group affiliation is incorrectly recorded.
The "declarations of commitment" in use among Jehovah's Witnesses since 1935 and also among female Witnesses since late 1937 are standardized by order of Heinrich Himmler. Since 1937, the imposition of concentration camp imprisonment after serving a regular prison sentence was made dependent on the signing (or not) of such a "declaration."
Whereas the earlier, differently worded declarations, which often involved only an admission of guilt, were signed by about 10 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses in the concentration camps and up to 50 percent in the prisons, mostly without effect on their renewed underground activity as Jehovah's Witnesses after release, the unified "declaration" is no longer signed by most Jehovah's Witnesses.In it, the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses is described as "false doctrine," and the Bible Students Association is accused of pursuing "anti-state goals" under the "guise of religious activity." The signatory declares: "I have therefore turned away completely from this organization and have also inwardly freed myself from the teachings of this sect." The "declaration" commits to denunciation of other Bible Students and to integration into the "national community".
Witness of Jehovah August Dickmann becomes the first conscientious objector to be shot in front of other inmates at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The execution is made public by the Nazi regime, with the "New York Times" reporting it on Sept. 17 .Since the beginning of the war, conscientious objection is punished by death. By 1945, 282 Jehovah's Witnesses are executed for conscientious objection. Another 55 conscientious objectors die in prison or in penal units.
Liberation from the concentration camps and end of Nazi tyranny.
Throughout Europe, about 1,700 Jehovah's Witnesses fell victim to Nazi terror, 4,200 were imprisoned in concentration camps, and a total of about 14,000 were persecuted.
Raid on the Bible House in Magdeburg, confiscation of the religious community's property. Beginning of a wave of arrests that covers at least 300 Jehovah's Witnesses in the GDR. Some of them die in custody.Almost 700 victims of National Socialism are persecuted again in the SBZ and the GDR. A total of 65 Jehovah's Witnesses die as a result of GDR persecution.
The MfS launches Operation "Swamp" to eliminate and arrest the entire underground leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses in the GDR.
Even before that, in addition to open repression, numerous MfS operations are launched that are aimed at infiltrating Jehovah's Witness groups. At the same time, the MfS feeds West German media with disinformation about Jehovah's Witnesses, often including fake news about their Nazi persecution, which is to be downplayed or denied by GDR authorities.
Conscientious objectors are no longer punished for conscientious objection in the GDR.Numerous disadvantages, such as non-admission to university or vocational training, remain.
Dennis Christensen is released from prison and expelled to Denmark.
At this time, another 91 Jehovah's Witnesses, both men and women, are imprisoned in Russian prisons for reasons of faith.
Numerous acts of torture and ill-treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses in prisons and by Russian authorities since 2018 are documented and criticized by human rights organizations and the international community.
Compiled by Dr. Tim Müller