Their treatment in Nazi Germany
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.
|Witnesses 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.
|Their 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.|
|The 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
Today, Jehovah's Witnesses remain
banned in some non-democratic countries and persecuted in many others.
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.
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."
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.
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
|Unlike the state and most of the religious institutions of the time, the
Witnesses were relatively free of anti-semitism -- a key belief of the
|Witnesses stressed the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) perhaps more
than other Christian denominations.|
|Witnesses had international connections with the Watchtower Society in
|The Witnesses refused to accept the authority of the state:|
|They refused to give the Heil Hitler salute, to bear arms, or
vote in elections. They refused to allow their children to join the
|They refused to follow a 1934 law which required all salaried
employees to join the German Labor Front, an arm of the Nazi
|They did not obey a 1935 law requiring compulsory military service.|
|They refused to display Nazi flags at their homes.|
At a Basle convention in 1934-OCT at Basel Switzerland, they issued a
"We have no interest in political affairs, but are wholly devoted to
God’s 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:
|1933: 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."
|1935: 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. |
|1935: 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. |
|1936: 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|
|1937: 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
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 God’s 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
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 Nazis’ 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."
Lighter forms of oppression continued under the
communist government of East Germany after World War II.
|Jerry 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.|
|Ina 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
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store|
|Hans Hesse, Ed., "Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During
the Nazi Regime 1933-1945," Edition Temmen (2003).
reviews or order this book|
|Christine 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)."
reviews or order this book|
|Christine King, "The Nazi State and the New Religions: Five Case Studies
in Non-Conformity," Edwin Mellen Press (May 1983).
reviews or order this book
Apparently out of print.|
|Shawn Peters, "Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the
Dawn of the Rights Revolution," University Press of Kansas. (Reprinted
reviews or order this book |
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Richard Plant, "The Pink Triangle : The Nazi War Against Homosexuals," Owl
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- "Striped prison jacket with an inverted purple triangle badge,"
- "Two concentration camp badges bearing purple triangles worn by
Jehovah's Witnesses," at:
- "Germany's History: Hitler in Power," Project Thousand Crane, at:
- "Germany: Establishment of the Nazi dictatorship," United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum, at:
- "Jehovah's Witnesses: Victims of the Nazi Era," United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum, at:
- 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:
- Jehovah's Witnesses in the Holocaust: Chronology of Events 1933-1945,"
Jehovah's Witnesses United, at:
- Christine King, "The Nazi State and the New Religions" Jehovah's
Witnesses United, at:
- 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
- "Jehovah's Witnesses: Courageous in the face of Nazi peril," Awake!
magazine, 1998-JUL-08. Online at:
- Hans-Hermann Dirksen, et al., "Chronology: Development and Persecution of
Jehovah's Witnesses," at:
Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally written on: 2006-MAR-14
Last updated on: 2006-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson