A signature in exchange for freedom seems like a very simple choice. But to the Nazis and to the Witnesses, the declaration meant much more than a signed piece of paper.
The Nazis intended the declaration as a psychological weapon to break the Witnesses’ determination to stand up for their beliefs. At any time a Witness could sign and be freed immediately from concentration camp or prison. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses, also known then as the purple triangles, were given this opportunity.
To the Witnesses the Declaration represented the basic conflict between Nazi laws and the Witnesses’ Christian faith. I personally felt that signing the Declaration would have been breaking my promise to Jehovah God to be one of his witnesses. Let me explain:
A person is baptized as a Witness of Jehovah to show that he or she has made a personal vow or sacred promise to love God above all and to love his neighbour as much as he does himself. This means promising to keep God’s laws and high moral principles as found in the Bible and to “witness about,” or share, this knowledge with his fellowman. To the Witness, the law of God is supreme. If a Witness is forced to choose between obeying the law of God or the law of man, he or she sticks to the law of God, even if it means persecution or death.
When governments respect freedom of conscience, they do not force people to choose between their laws and God’s. But the Nazi government tried to force every person to obey its laws, even those laws that involved harming and killing others. This is why, shortly after taking power in 1933, the Nazis outlawed Jehovah’s Witnesses (also known in German as Bibelforscher, or Bible Students). The Nazis considered the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be dangerous, since it showed the difference between God’s law of love and the Nazi’s laws of hate. The government even banned Witness Bibles, books, and magazines, and they forbid Witnesses to talk about their faith with others or to meet with fellow believers.
Even more, Hitler demanded the kind of absolute submission and honor that is due only to God and to God’s chosen King, Jesus. Each German citizen had the duty to use a special greeting – not “hello” or “goodbye” – but “heil Hitler!” This expression implies that ‘Hitler is salvation.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only God’s Kingdom through Jesus can save humanity. So they obeyed God’s laws and they refused to:
- Say the “heil Hitler” greeting
- Join the Nazi party or any other political party
- Fight in the German army or do any work to support the war
Since the Witnesses believe in non-violence, they would not revolt against the government, but the Nazis considered them to be traitors and arrested any Witness who:
- Possessed or handed out Jehovah’s Witness literature
- Held or attended Bible meetings, even in their own homes
- Refused to obey any Nazi laws that conflicted with God’s laws
The Nazis offered the Declaration as an “easy” way out of our vow to God. But a close reading of the document shows what it really stands for:
1) I have come to know that the International Bible Student Association is proclaiming erroneous teachings and under the cloak of religion follows hostile purposes against the State.
2) I therefore left the organization entirely and made myself absolutely free from the teachings of this sect.
I asked myself, As a Christian, can I tell a lie and openly deny my faith?
3) I herewith give assurance that I will never again take any part in the activity of the International Bible Students Association. Any person approaching me with the teaching of the Bible Students, or who in any manner reveal their connections with them, I will denounce immediately. All literature from the Bible Students that should be sent to my address I will at once deliver to the nearest police station.
Could I agree to turn over a fellow believer to the police, knowing that he or she would experience the same brutal treatment that I and my parents had?
4) I will in the future esteem the laws of the State, especially in the event of war will I, with weapon in hand, defend the fatherland, and join in every way the community of the people.
As long as the government’s laws did not require me to go against the high moral principles found in the Bible, I would gladly obey. However, my conscience would not allow me to put men’s laws above God’s laws. For example, it would be impossible for me to defend my fatherland with weapons. If the laws of the land were to go against God’s command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ it would be impossible for me to comply.
5) I have been informed that I will at once be taken again into protective custody if I should act against the declaration given today.
Could I have a clean conscience before God and men and have peace of mind and heart?
If I signed to avoid further suffering, I felt I would have been a coward. The police themselves wouldn’t have trusted me and would have watched me constantly. So the Nazis might have promised me “freedom,” but I would not really have been free—not in my heart, not in my conscience, and not from their control. This is why I and my parents, and many, many other Witnesses refused to sign the Declaration.