Jehovah’s Witnesses—Courageous in the Face of Nazi Peril
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GERMANY
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES are well-known for their firm adherence to God’s Word, the Bible. This often calls for courage, and it certainly affects their lives and their relationships with others.
For example, the Witnesses have deep regard for people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They love God and their neighbor. (Matthew 22:35-40) Indeed, they are in full agreement with the apostle Peter, who declared: “For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34, 35.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also known worldwide for their respect for law, order, and governmental authority. They have never been a seedbed of insurrection and never will be. This is true even when they are persecuted in some lands because of their taking the apostolic position: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29; Matthew 24:9) At the same time, the Witnesses recognize the right of others to worship in harmony with the dictates of their conscience.
The courageous Christian stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and other lands dominated by Adolf Hitler is a matter of record. A notable event in Berlin, Germany, in 1933 illustrates their courage, their love for God and neighbor, and their respect for law, order, and religious freedom.
No Compromise With Hitler
It was more than 50 years ago that Hitler’s monstrous 12-year reign of racism and murder came to an end. Yet, that Nazi regime inflicted wounds that grieve humanity to this day.
History recognizes that only a few groups courageously stood up and spoke out against Nazi terror. Among them were Jehovah’s Witnesses, described as “a tiny island of unflagging [moral] resistance existing in the bosom of a terrorized nation.” Their courageous stand is well documented by respected historians.
A few critics, however, including some former associates of Jehovah’s Witnesses, charge that the Witnesses attempted to compromise with the Hitler regime in its early days. They claim that representatives of the Watch Tower Society tried unsuccessfully to curry favor with the new government and that, at least for a time, they endorsed the racist ideology of the Nazis, which eventually led to the murder of six million Jews.
These serious allegations are absolutely false. The following is a frank examination of the events in question, based on available documentation and historical context.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in Germany for more than 100 years. By 1933, there were about 25,000 Witnesses worshiping Jehovah God and distributing Bible literature throughout Germany.
Despite the freedoms granted by the German constitution of that time, Jehovah’s Witnesses were frequently the target of defamation campaigns, launched primarily by religious opponents. As early as 1921, the Witnesses, then called Ernste Bibelforscher (Earnest Bible Students), were accused of being linked with the Jews in subversive political movements. The Bible Students were branded as the dangerous Bolshevik “Jewish worm,” though no proof of the charges was ever produced. Swiss theologian Karl Barth later wrote: “The accusation that Jehovah’s Witnesses are linked with the Communists can only be due to an involuntary or even intentional misunderstanding.”
A church magazine in Germany charged that the Witnesses and the Jews were coconspirators in revolutionary movements. In response, the April 15, 1930, German edition of The Golden Age (forerunner of Awake!) stated: “We have no reason to regard this false accusation as an insult—as we are convinced that the Jew is at least as valuable a person as a nominal Christian; but we reject the above untruth of the church tabloid because it is aimed at deprecating our work, as if it were being done not for the sake of the Gospel but for the Jews.”
Thus, professor of history John Weiss wrote: “The Witnesses were free of German racial nationalism and had not brooded for centuries over the failure of the Jews to convert. The Witnesses still held to the original, if patronizing, Christian belief of the need to persuade all potential converts to Christ.”
What Happened When Hitler Came to Power?
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s new chancellor. In the beginning, the Hitler government worked to conceal its violent and extremist nature. Hence, the Witnesses, along with millions of other Germans in early 1933, viewed the National Socialist Party as the legitimate ruling authority of the time. The Witnesses hoped that the National Socialist (Nazi) government would realize that this peaceable, law-abiding Christian group posed no subversive threat to the State. This was no offer to compromise Bible principles. As has been the case in other lands, the Witnesses wanted to inform the government of the true nonpolitical nature of their religion.
It quickly became apparent that Jehovah’s Witnesses were to be among the first targets of brutal Nazi suppression. The Witnesses were again branded as accomplices in an alleged Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy. A campaign of persecution began.
Why would such a small religious community attract the fury of the new regime? Historian Brian Dunn identifies three fundamental reasons: (1) the international scope of the Witnesses, (2) their opposition to racism, and (3) their position of neutrality toward the State. Because of their Scriptural views, the German Witnesses refused to give the Hitler salute, to support the National Socialist Party, or later on to participate in military activities.—Exodus 20:4, 5; Isaiah 2:4; John 17:16.
As a result, the Witnesses endured threats, interrogations, house searches, and other harassment by the police and SA (Hitler’s Sturmabteilung, storm troopers, or Brownshirts). On April 24, 1933, officials seized and shut down the Watch Tower office in Magdeburg, Germany. After a thorough search yielded no incriminating evidence, and under pressure from the U.S. State Department, the police returned the property. By May 1933, though, the Witnesses were banned in several German states.
Witnesses Take Courageous Action
During this early period, Hitler carefully cultivated his public image as a champion of Christianity. He proclaimed his commitment to religious freedom, promising to treat Christian denominations “with objective justice.” In order to enhance his image, the new chancellor made appearances in churches. This was a time when many people in countries that later would be at war with Germany were expressing admiration for Hitler’s achievements.
Concerned about the rising tensions in Germany, Joseph F. Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Society, together with the Germany branch office manager, Paul Balzereit, decided to mount a campaign to inform Chancellor Hitler, government officials, and the public that Jehovah’s Witnesses posed no threat to the German people and the State. Rutherford evidently believed that Hitler was unaware of the attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses or that he had been misinformed by religious elements regarding the Witnesses.
Therefore, the Magdeburg office arranged a convention to make use of the German citizens’ right of petition. On short notice, Jehovah’s Witnesses from all over Germany were invited to the Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen in Berlin on June 25, 1933. About 5,000 delegates were expected. Despite the hostile atmosphere, more than 7,000 courageously attended. The delegates adopted a resolution entitled “Declaration of Facts.” This document protested the restrictions that had been put on the work of the Witnesses. It made a clear statement of their position and denied charges of seditious links with political causes of any sort. It stated:
“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.”
Convention of Courage or Compromise?
Some now hold that the 1933 Berlin convention and the “Declaration of Facts” were attempts on the part of prominent Witnesses to show support for the Nazi government and its hatred of the Jews. But their assertions are not true. They are based on misinformation and on misinterpretation of the facts.
For instance, critics claim that the Witnesses decorated the Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen with swastika flags. Photographs of the 1933 convention clearly show that they displayed no swastikas in the hall. Eyewitnesses confirm that there were no flags inside.
It is possible, however, that there were flags on the building’s exterior. A Nazi combat troop had used the hall on June 21, the Wednesday prior to the convention. Then just the day before the convention, crowds of young people along with units of the SS (Schutzstaffel, originally Hitler’s Blackshirt bodyguards), SA, and others celebrated the summer solstice nearby. So Witnesses arriving at the Sunday convention might have been greeted with the sight of a building decked with swastika flags.
Had there been swastika flags decorating the hall’s exterior, corridors, or even its interior, the Witnesses would have left them alone. Even today, when Jehovah’s Witnesses rent public facilities for meetings and conventions, they do not remove national symbols. But there is no evidence that the Witnesses themselves hung any flags or that they saluted them.
Critics further state that the Witnesses opened the convention with the German national anthem. Actually, the convention began with “Zion’s Glorious Hope,” Song 64 in the Witnesses’ religious songbook. The words of this song were set to music composed by Joseph Haydn in 1797. Song 64 had been in the Bible Students’ songbook since at least 1905. In 1922 the German government adopted Haydn’s melody with words by Hoffmann von Fallersleben as their national anthem. Nevertheless, the Bible Students in Germany still sang their Song 64 occasionally, as did Bible Students in other countries.
The singing of a song about Zion could hardly be construed as an effort to placate the Nazis. Under pressure from anti-Semitic Nazis, other churches removed Hebrew terms such as “Judah,” “Jehovah,” and “Zion” from their hymnals and liturgies. Jehovah’s Witnesses did not. The convention organizers, then, certainly did not expect to win favor with the government by singing a song extolling Zion. Possibly, some delegates may have been reluctant to sing “Zion’s Glorious Hope,” since the melody of this composition by Haydn was the same as that of the national anthem.
A Statement of Intent
With the government in transition and the country in turmoil, the Witnesses wanted to make a clear statement of their position. By means of the “Declaration,” the Witnesses strongly denied accusations of financial involvement or political ties with Jews. Thus, the document stated:
“It is falsely charged by our enemies that we have received financial support for our work from the Jews. Nothing is farther from the truth. Up to this hour there never has been the slightest bit of money contributed to our work by Jews.”
Having mentioned money, the “Declaration” went on to denounce unfair practices of big business. It said: “It has been the commercial Jews of the British-American empire that have built up and carried on Big Business as a means of exploiting and oppressing the peoples of many nations.”
This statement clearly did not refer to the Jewish people in general, and it is regrettable if it has been misunderstood and has given cause for any offense. Some have claimed that Jehovah’s Witnesses shared the hostility toward the Jews that was commonly taught in the German churches at the time. This is absolutely untrue. By their literature and conduct during the Nazi era, the Witnesses rejected anti-Semitic views and condemned the Nazi mistreatment of the Jews. Certainly, their kindness toward Jews who shared their lot in the concentration camps provides a resounding rebuttal to this false accusation.
The “Declaration” defined the Witnesses’ work as religious in character, stating: “Our organization is not political in any sense. We only insist on teaching the Word of Jehovah God to the people.”
The “Declaration” also reminded the government of its own promises. The Witnesses upheld certain high ideals, and these happened to be publicly espoused also by the German government. Among these were family values and religious freedom.
In this regard, the “Declaration” added: “A careful examination of our books and literature will disclose the fact that the very high ideals held and promulgated by the present national government are set forth in and endorsed and strongly emphasized in our publications, and show that Jehovah God will see to it that these high ideals in due time will be attained by all persons who love righteousness.”
According to the account in the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, some German Witnesses were disappointed that the language of the “Declaration” was not more explicit in tone. Had the branch office manager, Paul Balzereit, weakened the text of the document? No, for a comparison of the German and the English texts shows that this is not the case. Evidently, an impression to the contrary was based on the subjective observations of some who were not directly involved in the preparation of the “Declaration.” Their conclusions may also have been influenced by the fact that Balzereit renounced his faith only two years later.
It is now known that a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany had been issued on Saturday, June 24, 1933, just the day before the Berlin convention. The convention organizers and the police learned of this ban a few days later. In view of the climate of tension and the evident hostility of Nazi officials, it is remarkable that the convention was held at all. It is no exaggeration to say that 7,000 Witnesses courageously put their liberty at risk by attending the gathering.
Following the convention, the Witnesses distributed 2.1 million copies of the “Declaration.” Some Witnesses were arrested immediately and sent to labor camps. Thus, the Nazi government fully revealed its oppressive, violent nature and soon launched an all-out attack on this small group of Christians.
Wrote Professor Christine King: “Brute force could not suppress the Witnesses, the Nazis were to learn.” It was as the “Declaration” stated: “The power of Jehovah God is supreme and there is no power that can successfully resist him.”*
Space does not allow us to supply full documentation for this historical account. However, a list of complete references is available upon request from the publishers. You may also find it enlightening to view the videocassette documentary entitled Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault.
[Pictures on page 13]
Actual photos of the convention attended by Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1933 at the Tennishallen