I am writing this paper to shed light on the treatment of a group of lesser known victims of the Nazi regime, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In my essay, I aim to examine the history of the organization, their emergence in pre-Nazi Germany, and their treatment during Hitler’s reign. However, the main question I want to examine through my paper is, how was the fate of the Witnesses during the Holocaust presented as a story of martyrdom? How does the evidence they left behind tell that story? And why were the Witnesses considered Martyrs, and not the Jews? These questions will be answered in my essay through the following layout: Introduction, “History, Pre-Third Reich Emergence and Development of Controversial Principles”, “The Story of Martyrdom”, and the conclusion paragraph.
The International Bible Students Association, The Jehovah’s Witnesses, or to the Nazis, the Bibelforscher, were a terrible danger to the integrity of the Third Reich. The values of this organization threatened the goals of the National Socialists in Germany. Their refusal to hold political association, participate in the political process, or show signs of patriotism, violated what the Nazis needed of their people to achieve their goals, which was, to force uniformity by crushing individuality and dissent. The Bibelforscher ideals, of course, came through their religion, which led to a breaking point on March 5th, 1933, when the group was recognized by the government, for refusing to vote in the Reichstag elections. Soon after, beginning on April 10th, 1933, the Nazi government began to ban the Bible Students Association. First, in the city of the German association’s headquarters, Mecklenburg, until June 28th, 1933, when the same ban was enacted in Hamburg.
Through The Holocaust, nearly half of the 20,000+ Bible Students in Germany were imprisoned. Ten thousand of them would be sent to prison, while 2,500 of them would be sent to concentration camps, eventually resulting in the deaths of 1,200 members (Garbe 484).
But the question is, what makes the Bible Students’ situation in Nazi Germany unique? Not simply that their persecution was solely based on religion and not on ethnicity, but the fact that, as a result, people arrested for participating in Bible Student activity were allowed the choice to either renounce their faith, or face imprisonment. Thousands of Witnesses were resistors to the oppression of their religion, and defiant of Nazi efforts to repress their beliefs. The Bible Students, in Nazi Germany, faced oppression, they suffered through loss of liberty via imprisonment, and even faced death for their religion. And through it all, they had the choice of whether they wanted to live, by renouncing their religion, or die for it. These statements are just snippets of information taken from the numerous stories of the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust. The purpose of examining them, is to understand how the story of the Witnesses was represented as martyrdom, after the fact.
History, Pre-Third Reich Emergence and Development of Controversial Principles
In understanding who the International Bible Students and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are, one must look far back to the founding of the religion. Charles Taze Russell began disseminating the ideals of the religion in 1877 under the publication, “The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return”, essentially establishing the body which would produce the IBSA and the Witnesses. Officially though, the religion was established as a recognized denomination in 1896 under the name, “Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society” (Garbe 30), and was recognized by the Reich Council, following a resolution on December 21st, 1921.
On October 31st, 1914, the founder of the religion, Charles Taze Russell, died. With him went the expectation of the return of Christ in that year, which left his followers in confusion. Witnesses did not know what to do with themselves without their founder. They had never had to live without him, and as a result, had to figure out how their ideals/ethics would fit in with a nation at war. World War One had begun on July 28th, 1914, and the Witnesses’ belief that the war indicated the beginning of Christ’s reign for one thousand years had not come true. They had to cope with a reality which they believed would never exist. They did not even have a plan on facing the ethics of war in the light of their religion. In response to this, the head organization of all denominations, The Watchtower Society, advised members of the International Bible Student’s Association (the organization which included all Watchtower denominations/organizations outside of the U.S.), to assert their religious rights to conscientious objection in countries affected by the war, in which there was such an exception (Garbe 32). It was also reported, by Protestant pastors, to their heads of the church in the Westphalia Province, that the Bible students also asserted that it was their duty to not kill, even when placed in a war-time situation (Garbe 32). The assertion of this principle is the beginning of what would set off the events leading to the eventual persecution of Witnesses.
At the beginning of World War One, however, a number of Witnesses complied with the call to military duty in the battlefield, but, on the words of their first leader, Charles T. Russell, telling them that it was against Christian principle to kill, many of them joined the medical corps or administrative offices (Garbe, 33). Eventually, the Witnesses were faced with the question of whether serving in the military at all was just in the eyes of their religion, which many Bible Students believed, stressed neutrality. The issue raised, was whether or not participation in military service violated the neutrality of their religion (Garbe, 33). This came to be, in the middle period of the war, a turning point in the establishment of their convictions, as increasing numbers of Bible Students refused to submit to the draft, or participate in military service. As a result, these members were thrown in prison, or subject to stays in mental institutions.
This newly noticed belief of conscientious objection, caught the attention of other clergy and non-religious officials in Germany. The government was not widely involved in monitoring the activities of the organization, however, until an article published on September 15th, 1917 by the “Pommersche Tagespost” mentioning that a speaker at a convention of Bible Students had talked about “discrediting war loans”. Discrediting these war loans, which were essential to the German Government’s funding of the war, could not be tolerated. As a result of the article, the Royal War Ministry and the “Higher Church Council of the Evangelical Churches”, paid closer attention to the Bible Students, and began to make requests of the Evangelical churches, to monitor and research them (Garbe, 33).
As a result of the eventual reports, military authorities, in 1917, began to prohibit the distribution of Bible Student publications, as well as any public Bible Student activities, in their jurisdictions.
The main point behind the aggressiveness of seeking out Witnesses, was to label any organization they saw as non-conformists, as threats to the internal security of the country. The German government saw a people who were strong in their religious convictions, who refused to be outwardly patriotic, or participate in the political process, and ultimately regarded them as a threat.
Treatment Under the Third Reich and International Persecution
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich chancellor of Germany. He continued the common government persecution of the witnesses, as head of the Nazi Party, and even quicker, banned the religion entirely. German states began to officially prohibit the practice of the religion less than three months into Hitler’s reign, until it was completely banished on June 28th, 1933 in several more German states (Hesse 381). On January 22nd, 1935, Hitler began to make the action of giving the Nazi salute mandatory during working hours. Up until the actual words “Heil Hitler” were explicitly required to be spoken by all workers in public/government facilities/factories, giving the salute without the mandatory “Heil Hitler” had not been a problem for the Witnesses, since the raising of the hand was deemed to not necessarily glorify anyone (Garbe 151). Glorifying Hitler by saying his name in a salute, was, for the Witnesses, a clear violation of their faith. In a distributed publication, Witnesses expressed their reasoning behind the position, giving that they would never perform the salute, even in the face of losing their jobs, saying that, “For a true Christian, it is inappropriate to render homage to a human being” (Garbe 150). For refusing to give the proper salute, was to risk one’s job, and the ability to work, if the Nazis decided to prohibit you from working after a dismissal at all.
Also, another way the Nazi establishment took away the rights of the Witnesses, was through the confiscation of private property, and the suspension/removal of pensions. On July 14th, 1933, the “Law on the Reversion of Property Inimical to the Nation and State” was passed, which allowed the government to confiscate private property of Witnesses (transportation especially), which would make it impossible for them to do their jobs, and thus, lose employment (Garbe 162). In addition, Reinhard Lemke, a Bible Student from Pomerania, who had an approval to build a personal home by the local magistrate, faced mistreatment on the part of the government, when the Mayor of the town successfully revoked the approval based on the condition that he violated a decree from the president of Stettin. This decree only allowed property to be obtained by, those who “…would always be willing to support the National Socialist State” (Garbe 163). Because of Reinhard’s religious beliefs, he would not be able to obtain property. The Gestapo also had a part in removing/limiting the pensions of violators. A Witness named Alfred Knegendorf, who was injured during his work as a sailor, was unable to perform his duties, and had qualified for a pension. On August 30th, 1937, the Gestapo had requested Alfred’s pension office to stop making his payments to which they complied. Their reasoning, was that they believed he was involved in “anti-state activities since January 30th, 1933” (Garbe 164).
Other forms of persecution that soon followed the above, were, discrimination against enrollment in schools, the capture of young Bible Students and their removal to reformatories for refusing to be patriotic, expulsion of Bible Students from public school, as well as the forfeit of parental custody of Bible Student parents on their children.
Also, during Hitler’s rule, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to be thrown in concentration camps. On January 9th, 1935, for the first time, a Witness, Anna Seifert, was thrown into Moringen concentration camp. Moringen itself, became a camp infamous for displaying the solidarity of Witnesses. For example, a group of elderly female bible students who, even through their imprisonment, defied the guards by refusing to give the Nazi salute, continued to gather and practice their religion (Garbe 397).
Moringen was also known to be the home of the first “reformatory” for children not ascribing to the ideals of the Nazis. The majority of Witnesses were thrown into Sachsenhausen concentration camp, according to historian Antje Zeiger, where the use of the purple identifying triangle, for the Jehovah’s Witnesses was adopted as well (in 1937-38) (Hesse 72).
In general, the Witnesses who were imprisoned in the concentration camps, remained a part of a tight group of like-minded followers, thus maintaining their solidarity. The greater majority of them refused to bow to the orders of the prison guards, and continued to preach their religious message, even when imprisoned.
The Story of Martyrdom:
What stories or evidence were given that displayed the events surrounding the Witnesses as martyrdom? Max Liebster, in his book, Crucible of Terror, detailed his experiences with the prisoners who were called, The Bibelforscher. Liebster, a Jewish man who had been sent to Pforzheim prison, because of his ancestry, met a strange man on the train he was thrown on to, on the way to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The Bibelforscher, who was facing harsh internment, was noted by Liebster to be the only person who was calm, and “had spoken a decent word to him in months” (45). The Bible Student goes on to portray himself as a martyr, not through death, but through one who has suffered, and sacrificed for their faith, “He said that love of neighbor moved the Witnesses to face long sentences…and even execution rather than compromise their beliefs” (Liebster 46). Liebster noted that the Bible Student talked about how he had been separated from his wife, who was likely now dead, and how his children were probably forced to live with Nazi foster parents to re-educate them. Through the Student’s imprisonment, the Gestapo never updated him about his wife and children, in the attempt to have him break through “painful silence”. But, the faith of this man was so strong, he noted that he would “absolutely willingly face the same fate rather than break the vow he had made to God” (Liebster 47). “Faithfulness and a clear conscience meant more to him than liberty and life” (Liebster 47). Liebster’s story with the Witness highlighted a few important things about the portrayal of martyrdom. First, it displayed suffering, then, it showed resolve, and finally, it continued with an affirmation of one’s faith, even in the present circumstances, and the ones that brought him to where he had been in the first place. Unbroken resolve, and willing suffering in affirmation of one’s faith, goes along with the tale of martyrdom.
Free will, and the ability to have the choice controlling one’s fate, is integral to the definition of martyrdom. Throughout the holocaust, Witnesses had a choice, they could disavow their faith, and avoid imprisonment/death, or they could choose to suffer for their religion. Willingly suffering for one’s religion, in light of the option they had to save themselves, is the definition of martyrdom. Furthermore, a question to be answered at this point, is, “why are the Jews not considered Martyrs?” The answer is simple. They could not avoid their fate by choosing to disavow their religion because, they were never afforded that choice. “Conversion could not save them, renunciation of their faith or identity could not save them……Jews had no choice. Jehovah’s Witnesses did” (Hesse 10).
How else did the Witnesses tell their stories? One unique method of delivery, was given by a Witness, Johannes Steyer, who was subject to all of the abuses under the Third Reich after his adoption of the faith, in 1931. He began painting a series of watercolors, in the 1970s, to portray his treatment at the hand of the Nazis, from his arrest and internment at Sachsenberg in 1935, all the way to his liberation from Buchenwald in 1945. His paintings tell of his suffering under the harsh conditions of the concentration camps, all in the name of his faith. Specifically, as noted in painting 22 below, he withstood a test of faith, in which he would have been able to save himself by accepting military induction papers. He refused to sign them, and as a result, was sentenced to death by hanging (Hesse 125).
His sentence was never carried out, but what still remains, is the fact that he was prepared to die for his faith.
Here are three more watercolors made by Steyer, depicting his treatment in Nazi Germany, but especially in the concentration camps:
Death is the ultimate sacrifice one can make for their faith. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses gladly accepted this to show their dedication to the religion’s ideals.
Jonathan Stark was one of those people. At only seventeen years old, he had been fired from his job due to his faith, and when he was conscripted for the Reich labor service in October, 1943, he refused to take an oath to Hitler, and the state. He was subsequently arrested, and sent to Stuttgart prison, where he was repeatedly compelled by the guards to swear to the oath, but he never wavered in his faith. Jonathan Stark was transferred from the Stuttgart prison to Moringen juvenile concentration camp, and then to Sachsenhausen, where he was executed by hanging on November 1st, 1944, at the age of 18 (Hesse 106).
Jonathan’s story was presented as one of martyrdom, in history. He, like many others, died for his faith, when he had multiple opportunities to save himself.
Can one who is a historian point to the Witnesses of the holocaust and say they represent a definition of true martyrdom? The simple answer, is no. As a researcher, one does not have the tools to ultimately define that because, its job is to uncover/interpret the events of the past, as they were told by those that experienced it. When examining source material, one must ask themselves, how did the Bible Students of Germany want to be remembered? According to Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, by Lacey Baldwin Smith, the process by which people frame/tell stories of events from the past, is to serve the purpose of shaping how that group wants people, especially their descendants, to remember them (3). The extensive stories about every single intricacy under the rule of Weimar Germany, and then the Third Reich, in defense of their faith, shows that the Witnesses wanted their portrayal of the treatment they faced to be remembered as martyrdom.
Garbe, Detlef. Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Third Reich. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2008. Print.
General view of Saschsenhausen. Digital image. JewishGen. Ancestry.com, n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.jewishgen.org/forgottenCamps/Camps/SachsenhausenEng.html>.
Hesse, Hans. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Nazi Regime, 1933-1945. Bremen, Germany: Edition Temmen, 2001. Print.
Kuesserow, Annemarie, and Waltraud Kuesserow. Purple Badges for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Digital image. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=1090933>.
Liebster, Max. Crucible of Terror: A Story of Survival through the Nazi Storm. Esch[-sur-]Alzette, Luxembourg: Schortgen, 2003. Print.
Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. Print.