Jehovah's Witnesses endured intense persecution under
the Nazi regime. Actions against the religious group and its individual
members spanned the Nazi years 1933 to 1945. Unlike Jews and Sinti and Roma ("Gypsies"),
persecuted and killed by virtue of their birth, Jehovah's Witnesses
had the opportunity to escape persecution and personal harm by renouncing
their religious beliefs. The courage the vast majority displayed in
refusing to do so, in the face of torture, maltreatment in concentration
camps, and sometimes execution, won them the respect of many contemporaries.
Founded in the United States in the 1870s, the Jehovah's
Witnesses organization sent missionaries to Germany to seek converts
in the 1890s. By the early 1930s, only 20,000 (of a total population
of 65 million) Germans were Jehovah's Witnesses, usually known at the
time as "International Bible Students."
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
After the Nazis came to power, persecution of Jehovah's
Witnesses intensified . Small as the movement was, it offered, in scholar
Christine King's words, a "rival ideology" and "rival
center of loyalty" to the Nazi movement. Although honest and as
law–abiding as their religious beliefs allowed, Jehovah's Witnesses
saw themselves as citizens of Jehovah's Kingdom; they refused to swear
allegiance to any worldly government. They were not pacifists, but as
soldiers in Jehovah's army, they would not bear arms for any nation.
Jehovah's Witnesses, in Germany as in the United States,
had refused to fight in World War I. This stance contributed to hostility
against them in a Germany still wounded by defeat in that war and fervently
nationalistic, attempting to reclaim its previous world stature. In
Nazi Germany, Jehovah's Witnesses refused to raise their arms in the
"Heil, Hitler!" salute; they did not vote in elections; they
would not join the army or the German Labor Front (a Nazi affiliate,
which all salaried employees were required to join after 1934).
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 (Secret State Police) 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 remilitarization of Germany, the Nazification
of schools and universities, Nazi propaganda, and the regime's assault
on mainstream churches.
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.
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
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
According to Rudolf
Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, SS Chief Heinrich
Himmler 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
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.
During the liberation of the camps, Jehovah's Witnesses continued their work, moving among
the survivors, making converts.