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 Jehovah's Witnesses:

Their treatment in Nazi Germany

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The refusal by Jehovah's Witnesses to salute the flag, to assist in war efforts, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, to vote etc. has caused them to be very unpopular in some countries. Ironically, they were persecuted by both sides during World War II.

bulletWitnesses in North America and Europe were persecuted during World War II, because of their policy of non-involvement in the armed forces and war industries.
bulletTheir religion was banned in Canada in 1940 (one year following Canada's entry into the war). Some of their children were expelled from school; other children were placed in foster homes; members were jailed; men who refused to enter the army were sent to work camps.
bulletThe Nazis broke up families much as the Canadian government did. Adults lost their jobs, were denied unemployment, and had their welfare and pension benefits cancelled. Perhaps 10,000 Witnesses in Germany were sent to prisons and concentration camps. One quarter to one half died. Exact numbers are not available.

Today, Jehovah's Witnesses remain banned in some non-democratic countries and persecuted in many others.

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Oppression under the Weimar Republic:

By the early 1930s, there were about 20,000 to 25,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany. with perhaps 10,000 less serious supporters. The former represented a very small minority (0.03%) of the total population of about 65 million. They were called "Ernste Bibelforscher (derived from their original name: International Association of Earnest Bible Students). In 1931, they adopted the name "Jehovah's Witnesses."

They suffered legal oppression in Germany before Hitler gained power: their door-to-door proselytizing activity was restricted; their literature was banned. They also experienced violence at the hands of the Sturmableilung (a.k.a. Brownshirts and storm troopers) acting illegally.

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Church and state in Germany under the Nazis:

During the early 1930s, Germany was suffering from a world-wide economic depression, and feelings of national humiliation arising from their military loss in World War 1. Many Germans wanted to replace the weak Weimar Republic with a strong central government. In 1933, the National Socialist Party under Adolf Hitler received 33% of the votes -- more than any other party. Hitler became Chancellor. His first action was to call for elections in the Reichstag (German Parliament). The Nazis received 43% of the votes in this election. By joining with the Nationalist Party, they were able to achieve a bare majority of 51%. 4 Passage of the Enabling Law in 1933-MAR transferred legislative power to Hitler's cabinet, and Germany became a dictatorship, with steadily diminishing civil liberties.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum writes:

"The Fuehrer's will became the foundation for all legislation. Indeed, with the establishment of Hitler's dictatorship, the Fuehrer principle (Fuehrerprinzip) came to guide all facets of German life. According to this principle, authority--in government, the party, economy, family, and so on--flowed downward and was to be obeyed unquestioningly." 5

The Fuehrer Principle placed many religious Germans in a position of personal conflict. It required all allegiance be given ultimately to Hitler, with none left over for God. The larger Christian denominations offered little resistance to these changes. The Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemueller, and Karl Barth, and the Jehovah's Witnesses were two Christian groups who refused to accept the new national order.

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Oppression, banning, imprisonment, and execution:

Conflict between the state and the Jehovah's witnesses was intensified during the mid-1930s. The Nazi's were suspicious of the movement for a number of reasons:

bulletUnlike the state and most of the religious institutions of the time, the Witnesses were relatively free of anti-semitism -- a key belief of the Nazis. 10
bulletWitnesses stressed the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) perhaps more than other Christian denominations.
bulletWitnesses had international connections with the Watchtower Society in the U.S.
bulletThe Witnesses refused to accept the authority of the state:
bulletThey refused to give the Heil Hitler salute, to bear arms, or vote in elections. They refused to allow their children to join the Hitler Youth.
bulletThey refused to follow a 1934 law which required all salaried employees to join the German Labor Front, an arm of the Nazi regime.
bulletThey did not obey a 1935 law requiring compulsory military service.
bulletThey refused to display Nazi flags at their homes.

At a Basle convention in 1934-OCT at Basel Switzerland, they issued a statement declaring:

"We have no interest in political affairs, but are wholly devoted to Godís Kingdom under Christ as King. We will do no injury or harm to anyone. We would delight to dwell in peace and do good will to all men as we have opportunity, but since your government and its officers continue in the attempt to force us to disobey the highest law of the universe, we are compelled to now give the notice that we will, by His Grace, Obey Jehovah-God and fully trust Him to deliver us from all oppression and oppressors."

The Nazi's were not impressed. Restrictions gradually escalated:

bullet1933: The Witnesses were banned in Bavaria. The Gestapo temporarily closed the Watchtower Society's printing plant in Germany. The Law for Restoration of the Career Civil Service was passed; this caused many Witnesses to lose their jobs.

Seven thousand Witnesses attended a meeting in Berlin at which a "Declaration of Facts" resolution was issued. It stated, in part:

We are wrongfully charged before the ruling powers of this government . . . 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."

"We have no fight with any persons or religious teachers, but we must call attention to the fact that it is generally those who claim to represent God and Christ Jesus who are in fact our persecutors and who misrepresent us before the governments." 11

bullet1935: They were banned throughout Germany. Although over 40 other religious groups were also disbanded under the Nazis, the Jehovah's Witnesses were the most seriously persecuted.
bullet1935: Being married to a Jehovah's Witness became one of the grounds for divorce. 8 Anna Seifert is believed to be the first Witness incarcerated in a concentration camp.
bullet1936: A special unit of the Gestapo (Secret Police) was formed to track down active Witnesses. A program begins to remove children from Witnesses' homes. Eventually at least 860 are removed. Mass arrests of Witnesses begins. 12
bullet1937: A new policy was implemented whereby Witnesses who were released from prison after having served their sentence, would be taken directly to a concentration camp. 9

By 1939, about 6,000 Witnesses from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia had been arrested and imprisoned in camps or prisons. This included almost all of the active Witnesses. Even so, the Gestapo continued to consider their oppression of the Witnesses as a high priority task throughout the war.

Unlike other prisoners, Witnesses were given the offer of freedom if they would simply sign a declaration in which they renounced their beliefs and promised to defend the Fatherland in war. 6 The declaration stated, in part:

"1. I have come to know that the International Bible Students 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.
3. I herewith give assurance that I will never again take any part in the activity of the International Bible Students Association. Any persons 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.
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." 7

Few Witnesses signed the declaration. Some withstood beatings and torture and still refused to sign.

More than 200 Witnesses were executed for refusing to join the military. About 8,000 Witnesses were imprisoned and about 2,000 were sent to concentration camps. Most of the latter were Germans, although small numbers of Witnesses from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland were included. One quarter to one half died.

Starting in 1938, prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were identified by a number and a colored patch on their clothing. For example, homosexuals were given an inverted pink patch, which the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual movement has elevated to a symbol of honor. 1 Jehovah's Witnesses were identified by an inverted purple patch, typically on top of or under a label containing their number.

Author Christine King wrote:

"Witnesses in the camps behaved, as far as they were able, as model prisoners, accepting orders and willingly obeying authority. In this they were criticised by other inmates, but in this lay a measure of their survival. They remained detached, as obedient in the world of the camps as in outside society. They were Godís people and nothing could change that....They knew what was happening to them and they believed they knew why it was happening; death held no fear. Their uncompromising and unflinching attitude had brought them into the camps but it was this that sustained them, once there. The rigidity of their belief, their self-contained world-view explains an emotional and psychological strength which later scholars have found surprising in a group from a generally low socio-economic and educational background....They continued to make converts." 9

Referring to the struggle between the Nazi regime and the Jehovah's Witnesses, author Christine King writes:

"....two non-democratic, anti-liberal and uncompromising bodies faced each other. In each system, adherents were expected to give themselves up to the movement and to obey without question, each believing itself to have a monopoly on the 'truth'. Give all the reasons why the Nazis should wish to suppress the sect, it may be wondered why they were not more successful in doing so. If the struggle was really one between two rival ideologies, it might reasonably be expected that the larger and stronger would win. However, the survival, within their own terms, of the Witnesses, shows that this was not so and that the Nazisí actions against the group were less than totally effective.....It was only during the course of the struggle, however, that they came to identify Hitler as anti-Christ and the extremity of their struggle produced a new interpretation of events. To a certain extent, therefore, the more the Nazis persecuted the sect, the stronger its conviction become and the more strength its members derived from the struggle; this in turn enabled them to carry on the battle." 9

Lighter forms of oppression continued under the communist government of East Germany after World War II.

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bulletJerry Bergman, "The Jehovah's Witnesses' experience in the Nazi concentration camps: A history of their conflicts with the Nazi state," Journal of church and state, 1996-JAN-01.
bulletIna R. Friedman, "The Other Victims: First-Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis," Houghton Mifflin, (Reprinted 1995). Intended for ages 10 to 14. Covers the treatment of Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other minorities Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
bulletHans Hesse, Ed., "Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime 1933-1945," Edition Temmen (2003). Read reviews or order this book
bulletChristine King, "Jehovah's Witnesses under Nazism," in Michael Berenbaum, Ed., "A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis," New York University Press, (1992)." Read reviews or order this book
bulletChristine King, "The Nazi State and the New Religions: Five Case Studies in Non-Conformity," Edwin Mellen Press (May 1983). Read reviews or order this book Apparently out of print.
bulletShawn Peters, "Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution," University Press of Kansas. (Reprinted 2002).Read reviews or order this book

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Richard Plant, "The Pink Triangle : The Nazi War Against Homosexuals," Owl Books (1988). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "Striped prison jacket with an inverted purple triangle badge," photograph, at: http://www.ushmm.org/
  3. "Two concentration camp badges bearing purple triangles worn by Jehovah's Witnesses," at: http://www.ushmm.org/
  4. "Germany's History: Hitler in Power," Project Thousand Crane, at: http://sg.geocities.com/
  5. "Germany: Establishment of the Nazi dictatorship," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at: http://www.ushmm.org/
  6. "Jehovah's Witnesses: Victims of the Nazi Era," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at: http://www.ushmm.org/
  7. PDF version of "Jehovah's Witnesses: Victims of the Nazi Era," at: http://www.ushmm.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  8. Jehovah's Witnesses in the Holocaust: Chronology of Events 1933-1945," Jehovah's Witnesses United, at: http://jehovah.to/
  9. Christine King, "The Nazi State and the New Religions" Jehovah's Witnesses United, at: http://jehovah.to/
  10. This term is normally spelled "anti-Semitism." However, we use a lower case "S" because the term semitic refers to a class of languages, not to a race or religion.
  11. "Jehovah's Witnesses: Courageous in the face of Nazi peril," Awake! magazine, 1998-JUL-08. Online at: http://www.watchtower.org/
  12. Hans-Hermann Dirksen, et al., "Chronology: Development and Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses," at: http://www.edition-temmen.com/

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How you got here: Home page > Christianity > Denominations >  Witnesses > here

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written on: 2006-MAR-14

Last updated on: 2006-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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