From SS Officer to Servant of the True God
As told by Gottlieb Bernhardt
I was an officer serving in the German SS, Hitler’s elite guard, at Wewelsburg Castle. In April 1945, I received an order to execute prisoners at a nearby concentration camp. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The SS demanded unquestioning obedience to authority. This put me in a moral dilemma. Let me explain why.
I WAS born in 1922 in a village near the Rhine River in Germany. Although the area was strongly Roman Catholic, our family belonged to a Pietist group, a religious movement that originated in the 17th century. In 1933, when I was 11 years old, Hitler came to power in Germany. A few years later, because I excelled academically as well as in sports, I was selected to attend an academy near Marienburg, now Malbork, in Poland. There, hundreds of miles from home, I was immersed in National Socialist, or Nazi, ideology. Students were taught such things as honor, diligence, loyalty, obedience, a sense of duty, and a hallowed respect for our German heritage.
World War II and the SS
When the second world war broke out in 1939, I enlisted in the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, an elite military unit under Hitler’s personal command. The unit supplied bodyguards for government officials, and it was used for special military operations. I saw action in Belgium, France, Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. While in Bulgaria, I attended a religious service conducted by an army priest. ‘Are the same kind of services being held by the enemy?’ I wondered. I also asked myself: ‘Does God bless war? Does he take sides?’
Later, I was selected to attend the Junkerschule, an academy for young men destined to occupy senior military posts. Thereafter, I was attached to a unit guarding the Reich headquarters in Berlin, where I once observed Hitler scream publicly at a high-level politician. ‘That was disgraceful behavior,’ I thought. But I dared not say so out loud!
In Berlin, I met Inge, who also worked at the headquarters. When we were due to be married, my unit was suddenly airlifted to the Russian front—without proper winter clothing! The situation left us soldiers aghast, for in the winter of 1941/1942, temperatures fell to below minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit [below -30°C]. There I was awarded my second Iron Cross. Later, after having been seriously wounded, I was flown back to Germany. Inge and I were married in 1943.
My next posting was to Hitler’s Obersalzberg headquarters in the Bavarian mountains. Also present was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, who arranged for me to be treated by his personal masseur and physician, Felix Kersten. Later I learned that Kersten owned an estate called Hartzwalde, near Berlin. In the latter part of the war, he asked Himmler to allow Jehovah’s Witnesses from a nearby concentration camp to work on his estate. Himmler agreed, and Kersten treated the Witnesses with respect. A Witness who worked for Kersten in Sweden always put a copy of The Watchtower in Kersten’s suitcase for the Witnesses in Germany.*
Jehovah’s Witnesses Enter My Life
In late 1944, Himmler assigned me as personal adjutant to an SS general who was commander of the Wewelsburg Castle, a 400-year-old fortress near the city of Paderborn. Himmler planned to make Wewelsburg into a cult center for SS ideology. Near the fortress was a small concentration camp called Niederhagen, which housed a special category of inmates—Jehovah’s Witnesses, also called Bible Students.
An inmate named Ernst Specht came several times to treat my injuries. “Good morning, Sir,” he would say.
“Why do you not say ‘Heil Hitler!’?” I demanded.
He tactfully replied, “Were you raised as a Christian?”
“Yes,” I said. “I had a Pietist upbringing.”
“Then,” he continued, “you will know that the Bible promises salvation (heil) through only one person, Jesus Christ. That is why I cannot say ‘Heil Hitler!’”
Both astonished and impressed, I asked, “Why are you here?”
“I am a Bible Student,” he said.
Conversations with Ernst and another Witness, Erich Nikolaizig, who worked as a hairdresser, touched my heart. Such discussions were forbidden, however, and my commanding officer ordered me to stop. Nevertheless, I felt that if everyone in Germany—a so-called Christian land with millions of church members—had behaved as the Witnesses did, there would have been no war. ‘They ought to be admired, not persecuted,’ I thought.
During that time, a distraught widow phoned to ask for transport for her son, who urgently needed to have his appendix removed. I promptly ordered transport, only to have the order rescinded by my commanding officer. Why? Her husband had been executed as a member of a group that attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. The boy died, and I could do nothing about it. That incident plays on my conscience to this day.
Although I was only in my early 20’s, I began to see life as it really is—not as Nazi propaganda presented it. At the same time, my admiration for Jehovah’s Witnesses and their teachings grew. This, in turn, led to the most dramatic decision of my life.
In April 1945, Allied armies were approaching, and my superior officer fled Wewelsburg. A unit then arrived with orders from Himmler to destroy the fortress and kill the prisoners. The commander of the nearby concentration camp handed me a list of inmates to be executed—all Witnesses. Why? They reportedly knew the location of art treasures plundered by the Third Reich, works of art that had apparently been hidden in some of the buildings. That secret could not get out! So, what should I do about the execution order?
I approached the camp commander and said: “American troops are coming. Don’t you think it would be wise for you and your men to leave?” He needed little persuasion! I then did the unthinkable for an SS officer—I disobeyed an order, and the Witnesses lived.
An Honor to Be Their Brother
After the war, Inge and I made contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses and began to study the Bible in earnest. A Witness lady named Auguste, along with others, helped us. My war injuries and the harsh postwar period made life hard. Still, my wife and I dedicated our lives to Jehovah and got baptized—I in 1948, Inge in 1949.
In the 1950’s, several Witnesses who had been at Wewelsburg during the war returned there for a reunion. They included Ernst Specht, Erich Nikolaizig, and another faithful inmate, Max Hollweg. I consider it a great honor to be called their brother, for these courageous men of God had risked their lives to witness to me. Also at the reunion was Martha Niemann, who had been a secretary at Wewelsburg. She too had been deeply impressed by the conduct of the Witnesses and had become a dedicated servant of Jehovah.
As I look back over the years, I see abundant evidence that “the whole world is lying in the power of [Satan the Devil]”—something I did not appreciate as a naive, idealistic young man. (1 John 5:19) I also see clearly the vast difference between serving tyrannical regimes, such as Hitler’s, and serving Jehovah. The former demand blind obedience, whereas Jehovah wants us to serve him out of love based on an accurate knowledge of his personality and purposes as revealed in the Bible. (Luke 10:27; John 17:3) Yes, Jehovah is the one I shall serve for as long as I live.
[Picture on page 19]
Our wedding picture, February 1943
[Picture on page 19]
Wewelsburg Castle was to become a center of SS ideology
[Picture on page 20]
With my wife, Inge, today