Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the very first groups persecuted by the Nazis, from 1933 until 1945. By the end of WWII, thousands had been imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Hundreds of ernste Bibelforscher (“earnest Bible students,” as they were called by many Germans at the time) died by guillotine, shooting, hanging, lethal injection, in gas chambers and medical experiments, and as a result of the harsh conditions they endured in detention.
Often Aryan and fluent German speakers, many Jehovah’s Witnesses had an atypical experience in concentration camps, compared to other groups (accounts describe some working in the homes of SS officers). A 2017 article in the journal Genocide Studies theorizes that their race and language, combined with “group cohesion, mutual support, and religious faith,” meant a higher-than-average survival rate for Jehovah’s Witnesses compared to other groups. Like the other descendants of groups persecuted during the Holocaust, followers of the faith today continue to honor both the profound suffering and the steadfastness of their forebears who faced deprivation, torture, and death. But their fellow believers today draw particular inspiration from the way that Jehovah’s Witnesses of the time were committed to communicating their faith to their fellow prisoners, and the horror they were living to the wider world.
This legacy continues, as Jehovah’s Witness publications and media speak out about the persecution of their co-religionists in the oppressive regimes of the 21st century, as Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world continue to experience state persecution for their beliefs.
Faith-sharing is at the core of who Jehovah’s Witnesses are; they are best known for their door-to-door evangelism. Even when the COVID-19 pandemic stymied their trademark in-person approach, they switched to handwritten letters, inviting recipients to learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ perspective on suffering (they resumed door-to-door ministry just last year).
Originally calling themselves simply Bible Students, Jehovah’s Witnesses came out of the Adventist movement of the 1830s, which believed in the imminent return of Christ. When the movement broke up into factions in the 1840s, the Bible Students were led by a man named Charles Taze Russell. Russell departed from much of Christian orthodoxy, preaching that the doctrine of the Trinity was unscriptural, and that Christ’s second coming would be an invisible manifestation of his presence. Today, Witnesses continue to oppose Trinitarian beliefs, rejecting the idea that Jesus is one with God, while remaining distinct, manifesting through their relationship a third person, known as the Holy Spirit. Rather, they see Jesus as subordinate to God, his father. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain convinced of Christ’s invisible, spiritual second coming, which they hold began in 1914, based on a prophecy in the Book of Daniel, and which they believe is leading up to the final triumph of God over evil.
Publishing is in their DNA: Russell also established the Watch Tower Society, which was dedicated to the publication of tracts and other religious literature, still a feature of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytizing today. In fact, the Bible Students’ leadership was imprisoned in Atlanta in 1918 for violating the Sedition Act, due in part to the publication of a book, The Finished Mystery, which criticized the U.S. government and the militarism that it asserted led to America’s involvement in WWI. According to a Jehovah’s Witness publication on the history of their denomination, when their leaders were released in 1919, the Bible Students approached their mission of sharing their beliefs with renewed vigor; 1927 saw believers formally encouraged to devote some of their time to “witnessing,” or sharing their faith with others. In 1931, inspired by a verse from Isaiah (“‘You are My witnesses,’ said the Lord, ‘And I am God.’”), they changed their name to Jehovah’s Witnesses. By 1933, when Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany, their numbers in Germany had grown to an estimated 30,000 since their arrival in the country at the end of the previous century.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith commits them to remain neutral toward secular things like politics, military service, and nationalism. In Nazi Germany, then, they resisted joining the military or the Nazi party. They abstained from participation in elections, from working in government factories that supplied the military, as well as from saluting the swastika, the Nazi flag, or Hitler.
“In the distribution of their literature and in door-to-door missionary work,” writes one 2001 reviewer of a book of essays on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Holocaust, “the Jehovah’s Witnesses […] offered a real and visible challenge.”
The Third Reich began putting Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps after they realized their 1933 ban on the group’s activities had failed. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were drawn primarily from the urban working classes, and whose earliest converts were within a generation of the existing contemporary communities, carried on their proselytizing and meetings in secret, even after members were temporarily jailed by authorities.
Once they were placed in camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses were made to wear purple triangles. Because they were some of the earliest detainees, according to the authors of the 2017 Genocide Studies article, Sabrina C.H. Chang and Peter Suedfeld, Jehovah’s Witnesses often served as mentors and advocates for those who arrived after them. In contrast to the Jews and the other ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities the Nazis put in concentration camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to recant and leave if they so chose, by signing a statement repudiating their beliefs. While some certainly did, it is thought that, per the 2001 review, appearing in the journal Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, “the majority of Witnesses simply refused to give to the state what they knew belonged only to God.”
Unlike other Christians who were persecuted during the Holocaust, usually interned and killed for speaking out against the regime, or for hiding Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses were a different case. Not an ethnic or sexual minority, “[w]hile other opponents of the regime were persecuted for what they did, the Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered because of what they refused to do,” wrote Jon S. Conway of the University of British Columbia, in a 2004 review of the same essay collection (Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Nazi Regime 1933-1945, edited by Hans Hesse).
For this reason, Conway asks in his review whether Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were often treated more favorably by their captors due to their race, could properly be thought of as engaging in resistance. Similarly, Chang and Suedfeld observe that Jehovah’s Witnesses could perhaps afford to conduct themselves differently than other prisoners, since unlike the Jews, they were not “marked for annihilation,” and accordingly, “presumably felt less imperiled.”
Even so, Jehovah’s Witnesses did suffer torture, abuse, and death in the camps. Jehovah’s Witness women were often sent to Auschwitz’s female camp, the horrific conditions of which are documented in an educational module on the Auschwitz memorial website. Those who survived faced ongoing physical, mental, and emotional trauma after the war ended and camps were liberated. First-person testimonies from interned Jews include Charles de Gaulle’s niece, Genevieve, who attested to the inspiration other prisoners drew from Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their daily refusal to renounce their faith, even in the face of deteriorating conditions. Their faith and courage, she said in a recorded interview through a translator, made them stronger than all the SS officers together.
However, even if their religion prohibited them from political activity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be thought to have offered one crucial form of resistance: They continued to publish. By writing about the persecution their fellow believers were experiencing, they added to the chorus of voices working to inform the world about Nazi atrocities. And it seems every voice was needed. Despite a steady stream of news out of Germany since the 1930s about Hitler’s demonization of Jews and human rights conditions in the country, half of American respondents to a 1943 opinion poll believed the murder of 2 million Jews to be rumor, and while the next year as many as three-quarters were willing to acknowledge the existence of concentration camps, they still severely underestimated the death toll.
As early as 1936, according to a 2001 article in Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower, “some 3,500 Witnesses distributed tens of thousands of copies of a printed resolution regarding the ill-treatment that they were suffering. Respecting this campaign, The Watchtower reported: ‘It was a great victory and a sharp stab at the enemy, to the indescribable joy of the faithful workers.’” By the war’s end, the article says, Jehovah’s Witness publications had named and reported on the conditions of 60 different camps and prisons.
Critics assert that the Holocaust narratives put out by the Jehovah’s Witness organization tend to ignore antisemitic statements made by different members and, indeed, leadership, at the time. These accounts, they say, also omit initial attempts by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany to reach a kind of detente with Hitler in the early years. There are examples of Jehovah’s Witness publications and public remarks trafficking in stereotypes about Jewish financial and political control of America, responsibility for Christ’s death, and supersessionist theology (a view that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has shifted to Christianity). This was the case even in a 1933 document, known as the Declaration of Facts, which was co-written by Jehovah’s Witness President Judge Rutherford. The declaration was a defense in the face of persecution by Hitler’s government, intended to clear up misunderstandings about their religious activities and literature, and to correct a Nazi claim that their work was supported by Jewish financing (the so-called “Anglo-American Empire” and Irish Catholics also come in for sharp criticism in the declaration).
The detention, torture, and execution of Jehovah’s Witnesses under Hitler were not widely talked about in the first few decades following the war.
But as noted by one reviewer of Hesse’s book, Richard Singelenberg, although German-language Jehovah’s Witness publications did not become critical of the Nazis until after Kristallnacht in 1938, English-language ones were condemnatory “from the moment that Hitler started to persecute the Jews.” Nevertheless, contemporary antisemitic tropes and stereotypes, and the Declaration of Facts, remain controversial parts of the Jehovah’s Witness legacy. Singelenberg, writing for a 2002-03 edition of Journal of Law and Religion, sounds a note of caution, however, stating a belief that “post-Holocaust social sensitivity concerning anti-Semitism” may cause present-day observers to engage in a backward projection of outright Nazi sympathies onto the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the 1930s and ’40s.
Estimates vary on just how many Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in captivity by Hitler’s government. Numbers published in the Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower estimate around 1,500 members died in the Holocaust, and about 10,000 were either imprisoned or held in concentration camps, with about 2,000 estimated specifically to have been interned in the camps; Genocide Studies cites roughly similar numbers in its 2017 article. Moreover, the children of some Jehovah’s Witnesses were forcibly removed and placed with Nazi families or in reeducation camps.
Conway notes in his review that the detention, torture, and execution of Jehovah’s Witnesses under Hitler were not widely talked about in the first few decades following the war. Conway attributes the scarcity of information to a belated realization by Jehovah’s Witness leadership, around the turn of the 21st century, that there was value to sharing these stories. He writes that the denomination then began in earnest to confront this part of their past, holding meetings for survivors, and making an effort to document and record contemporary accounts.
As with all Holocaust survivors, opportunities to hear their firsthand recollections are increasingly scarce. While this is a problem from the standpoint of posterity and the historic record generally, more scholarly interest in this field could be of more immediate use, as well.
For example, the authors of the Genocide Studies article point out, “the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are still being persecuted in other parts of the world, such as Russia, Singapore, and China, may give researchers the opportunity to compare Witnesses who are currently being persecuted to those who have lived through their persecution.” The result, they say, could be “a fuller understanding of the impact of these experiences on the survivors, and of the latter’s subsequent readjustment,” which may be a benefit not only to today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, but persecuted minorities around the world.
That reporting on the camps, by Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, failed to gain much moral traction in the United States may also be instructive for our time. In 2018, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum mounted an exhibit, Americans and the Holocaust, which sought in part to dispel a common perception that Americans simply weren’t aware of the ongoing atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against Europe’s Jews. “It’s not that the story was buried,” curator Daniel Greene said in a Time magazine interview about the exhibit. “Just like news is there today of Syria or of the danger to the Rohingya, it punctures through our consciousness at certain times.” But with the Depression dominating the news for most of the 1930s, he said, and the Roosevelt administration’s prioritization of defeating the Nazis militarily, rather than freeing their victims, it simply wasn’t the most salient topic for most people when they considered the U.S. war effort. To understand how this might be possible, add to Greene’s examples, which are still applicable in 2022 as they were in 2018, the relative lack of popular outcry over reports of the imprisonment and forced sterilization of Uyghur Muslims in China, the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in Ethiopia, or Russia’s forcible deportation of Ukrainians to Russia and Russian-controlled areas.
There is also the continued persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia today, where the religion was banned in 2017 as an extremist organization, in violation of the country’s anti-extremism laws. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ internal statistics as of late last year estimated that approximately 643 Jehovah’s Witnesses had been charged with “organizing the activities of an extremist organization” in the country, where, as in Germany in 1933, their literature and their refusal to serve in the military brought them under the government’s suspicion. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is practiced throughout the former Soviet Union. Speaking on an October 2022 USCIRF podcast, Jehovah’s Witness spokespeople Jarrod Lopes and David Williams described abuse and poor living conditions for imprisoned members of their faith, increasingly facing “longer and harsher sentences,” and the trauma visited upon their families.
“Every day at the moment,” said Jehovah’s Witness international spokesman Paul Gillies, “I’m getting information fed through to me about various fellow believers who have been convicted. I think most days this month we’ve seen examples of that.” The day we spoke, Gillies said a regional court in Russia had upheld a Jehovah’s Witness’ six-year sentence to a penal colony for reading the Bible.
Gillies said he was at the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow in 2017 when they banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They were very adamant that all they were doing was banning the religious organization, but believers could believe what they like, and they could practice their faith. That’s not what’s happened in practice,” he said. “They removed our facilities, our branch office,” just outside St. Petersburg. “All our Kingdom Halls, places of worship, throughout Russia were closed. They felt that by doing that they would put a stop to our activities, but people continued to worship in the way that they do,” said Gillies. “And so then now the authorities have moved against them just for practicing their faith.”
Gillies sees parallels between what happened to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and what is happening in Russia in 2023. Their members’ preaching activity, outreach to people interested in discussing religious questions, political neutrality, and conscientious objection to military service, are once again attracting government suspicion in Russia.
The Russian government has investigated and banned Jehovah’s Witness literature, including the Bible and a book of children’s Bible stories, he said, with one court deciding that Jehovah’s Witnesses were sowing religious discord by claiming they were the true religion (something, he notes, the Russian Orthodox Church, among others, also do).
Gillies believes that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ neutrality, coupled with their insistence that a divine kingdom is being established, make governments nervous. He also notes the irony of labeling conscientious objectors alongside violent terrorists as “extremists.”
“We say that Jesus at his time will intervene, but there’s nothing Jehovah’s Witnesses are going to do to bring that on,” Gillies said. “We don’t try and replace governments today. In fact, our relationship with governments is very clearly defined.” He cites Romans 13:1 as the basis for that practice: “Any government that’s in place, we’re subject to the laws of the land,” he said in summary. However, per Jesus’ command to his followers in chapter 22 of the Book of Matthew, Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that while they must render under Caesar what belongs to Caesar, they must also render to God those things properly belonging to God.
“We’re obedient to the laws of the land,” Gillies said. “But when the law asks for worship, then that’s a red line for us.”
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.