From Nazi Zealot to Christian Overseer
“ATTENTION! Eyes right! Hitler Youth Group, Böblingen district, reporting.” How proudly I presented “my boys” to our superiors at training exercises, during parades, and on other occasions. Their obedience and precision excited me. I was caught up in the excitement of a new era. In the early 1930’s, there was little doubt we needed one.
Germany had suffered terribly from the aftereffects of World War I, from the long years of instability and political division. Unemployment rose dramatically. At the time, I worked for a Stuttgart tailor, who paid me four Marks a week, just about enough for breakfast and for a thin soup for lunch. And my situation was not unique. Hardly surprising that Germany was seething with unrest. The future looked gloomy indeed.
And then “he” came! At last, a man who knew what he was doing! Of course, not everyone agreed with him, but no one could deny that he led with authority and that he got results. The economy had improved; unemployment had dropped. No one was going hungry. Things were looking up. This was success, and it gave credence to what he said.
Giving Zealous Support
I was born and reared in Holzgerlingen, a small village just outside Stuttgart, Germany. I was a member of our local sports club, and when most of its members became supporters of Hitler, I joined them. After all, he did impress me, and the opportunity to share in improving conditions was appealing.
When Hitler took power in 1933—I was 24 at the time—I was already a Nazi Party member. Seeing my zeal, my friends were soon saying: “Willi, you would be a good one to take over this or that job.” So within a comparatively short time, I held six different positions of responsibility within the party. I considered it an honor.
For example, I was appointed to a position of leadership over our community’s Brownshirts—as the party’s storm troopers were called. This later led to my being put in charge of over 2,000 of the Hitler Youth. What a thrill to be wholeheartedly serving in a fast-moving party from whose program everyone was bound to benefit! My zeal bordered on fanaticism. Woe to anyone who dared contradict my views!
So imagine, if you can, my thrill at being assigned to attend a Stuttgart reception where the Führer himself would be present. What a sight! Some 70,000 Nazi troopers and Hitler Youth, row upon row of brown-uniformed men, moving as one machine. And then the climax when, in front of this huge crowd, I had the honor of actually shaking “his” hand!
A Monkey Wrench in the Works
Martha and I got married in 1932. How happy I was to have a partner who shared my ideals! All went well until she began disagreeing with the things I was doing. Someone had thrown a monkey wrench into the works, and it wasn’t difficult to find out who it was—Mina, my sister-in-law. She had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and had not held back from telling her sister about all her “newfound truths.” This certainly did not sit well with me, a Nazi.
Our marriage relationship became quite strained. I recall, for example, when I returned home from that meeting in Stuttgart, thrilled at having shaken hands with the Führer. Martha just smiled and said: “I suppose this means you’ll not be washing your hand anymore?” That set me off. How could she joke about such an honor, such a privilege? Didn’t she understand?
I often found myself shouting at her, but she would react calmly, which would infuriate me all the more. In the face of my anger and abuse, where did she get the inner strength to react this way? Once I literally drove her out of the house. That, of course, did not improve matters, and I could not sleep all night. The next day, despite my injured pride, I brought her home again. Her behavior continued as before—faultless.
Could it be that I, not she, was the one who was mistaken? Even the thought was deplorable. Why, it would mean the end of my personal ideals, the end of my world.
Three Hours That Changed My Life
One day I returned home from youth-troop exercises sick with a fever. I went to bed and found my wife’s Bible lying on the bedside table. That was unusual because she knew that I would likely burn it in my fanatical zeal. Though I felt it beneath my dignity to do so, for some reason I picked the Bible up and began reading. There, in Revelation 17 and 18, I came across references to a great harlot called Babylon the Great. The term was familiar because I had heard Martha use it before, but I had been too proud to ask for an explanation. Now at least I knew where it came from. But I still didn’t know what it meant.
Determined to find out, I summoned her from another room. She was visibly shaken to see me holding her Bible, fearing for its safety. Still too proud to listen to my own wife, I demanded: “Can you get ahold of Mina so she can explain to me who this Babylon is?”
Her sister may well have thought at the moment that it was a trap that could lead to concentration-camp confinement. Nevertheless, brushing aside any fear she may have had, she came. And we talked. For three hours we talked, three hours that literally changed my life.
I was raised a Protestant and had attended church off and on. But I was not really religious. Now, however, I began to notice that what the Bible said about Babylon the Great was truly descriptive of the churches. Gradually it dawned on me how people and nations had fallen victim to “the wine . . . of her fornication” and how the “kings of the earth [had] committed fornication with her.” (Revelation 18:3) And this included even Nazi Germany!
The more Mina explained, the better I could understand the Bible’s words and their modern application. How could all of this have been prophesied so many centuries before? It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I now knew how the apostle Paul must have felt—why, this was the truth! (Acts 9:1-19) It did not take me long to reach a decision.
The next day, still running a high fever, I got up and went to resign my membership in both the party and the church. This included, of course, resigning all six offices of responsibility in the Nazi Party. It was a daring step to take because the Nazis were in complete control, and anything not fitting in with their ideology was mercilessly crushed out of existence. I had every reason to know this, for had not I myself until now been an avid supporter of this very policy? What would now happen to my business? What would happen to me?
Tests of Integrity
Just three weeks after having made myself the number one topic of conversation in the village, Martha and I rejoiced at the birth of our first child. But our joy was short-lived; complications set in, and the child died two weeks later. Martha’s life hung in the balance for several more. Was this punishment from God? Others may have thought so, but we did not. It drew us closer to Jehovah, the God of love, who allowed Martha to recover and who strengthened our faith in the resurrection, giving us the strong hope of seeing little Esther again.
Meanwhile, the local villagers, even my most loyal customers of long standing, began to boycott my tailor shop. But they knew that I had always served them well, had been honest, and had done good work. So after a few weeks, the boycott began to crumble. Customers started returning, although some only at night so as not to be seen by others. Before long, my business was doing even better than before!
Periodically we received Witness literature, which we read immediately and then quickly passed on to others. But since this literature was banned, we also received frequent visits from the Gestapo intent on finding some of it in our house. Two Gestapo agents showed up unexpectedly one afternoon at about two o’clock. And of all times to come! Just the day before, we had received a booklet that I was to pass on that evening. They began their search, but then suddenly they turned around and left, overlooking what was lying on top of the radio almost in front of their eyes—the booklet!
We were always in danger of being arrested. “Willi, do you know what you are doing? You must be crazy” is what the top local Nazi official told me when I resigned from the party. But since his brother was married to one of my wife’s sisters, family ties evidently kept him from reporting me. Others in town who knew me well, who recognized my sincerity and respected me, seemed almost to have entered into a conspiracy of silence.
I will never forget the 1935 so-called free elections. Out of allegiance to Jehovah’s Kingdom, we remained neutral, refusing to get involved in politics. That evening at about eight o’clock, a group of some 80 Nazi troopers marched up in front of our house, shouting into the night for all to hear: “Those living here are traitors to the German nation. Germany has no place for the likes of you. You should be hanged. Go to the Devil as Judas did!”
As a onetime Nazi, I did not enjoy being called a traitor. But I recalled what Jesus had said: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18) So this hatred simply proved that we were right. Many of these troopers later sacrificed their lives in a lost cause. Two who were still alive after the war, however, came personally to apologize for having acted as they did.
Aroused to Action
As soon as the hindrance of the Nazi regime was out of the way, Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Germany began reorganizing. I have lived to see our small group in Holzgerlingen grow from only six at that time to well over a hundred today. And what a joy to have seen 28 persons take up the preaching work from our immediate family alone.
For almost 40 years now, I have enjoyed fulfilling duties of congregational oversight. Certainly not in the commanding and unyielding tones of the Nazi leader I used to be, but in the ministering spirit of love and lowly-mindedness required of Christian undershepherds.—Matthew 23:10, 11; 1 Peter 5:2, 3.
October 1934, when I made a clean break with Nazism and with Babylon the Great, lies over half a century behind me. Years later, I learned that during that very same month, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world sent Hitler telegrams, reading: “Your ill-treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses shocks all good people of earth and dishonors God’s name. Refrain from further persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses; otherwise God will destroy you and your national party.” I lived to see those words fulfilled.
How glad I am to have seen through the treacherous Nazi propaganda and slogans just in time! I thus spared myself the shame of sharing in its sins and later the pain of receiving part of its plagues, as many of my former comrades did.—As told by Willi Wanner.
[Blurb on page 14]
I often found myself shouting at my wife, but she would always react calmly
[Picture on page 13]
Sports-club friends in 1928, already Nazis. The youth at top left and I (front center) became Jehovah’s Witnesses
[Picture on page 16]
Willi Wanner, his wife Martha, and her sister Wilhelmine