Modern History of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Part 17—Christian Neutrals During World War II
JEHOVAH’S Christ, Jesus, was neutral as to the political wrangles of the old world of his day. (John 18:36; Rev. 11:15) Jesus’ apostles likewise were neutrals. In fact, the early Christians became persecuted for their failure to serve in the imperial armies of Rome. The principle of neutrality for his followers, as to the nations of the world, is well announced by Jesus in John 17:16 (NW): “They are no part of the world just as I am no part of the world.” In our time this principle was specially tested during World War II.
September 1, 1939, when German troops aggressively moved into Poland, the spark was set off for the second world war. On September 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany, similarly France, and soon all Europe found itself again in a state of war. After Poland’s quick subjugation there followed months of stagnation as to fighting, which many called a “phoney” war. But in the spring of 1940, on April 9, the Nazi offensive began and moved rapidly to occupy Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg. Then by quick maneuvers France was forced to sign an armistice June 22, 1940. The retreat of British military forces across the English Channel from Dunkirk, France, by June 4, 1940, had made Britain an island of democracy in a sea of totalitarianism, with the United States remaining on the side lines uncommitted by war.* This left Britain alone to face the war-expanded giant of Catholic-Fascist-Nazi Europe. The peoples of Switzerland and Sweden likewise remained as islands in the center of the Fascist sea, with Jehovah’s witnesses maintaining spiritually nourishing contacts through zealous underground activity in the occupied countries.
As the Nazi-Fascist-Vatican three-wheel steamroller rampaged throughout Europe in 1940, branch office after branch office of the Watch Tower Society was forced to close down. Connections with the Brooklyn headquarters were severed. The Germans banned the witnesses in country after country even as they first had done in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The flood of Catholic-inspired action swamping in upon Jehovah’s witnesses since 1922 (as foretold at Revelation 12:15, 16) now became overwhelming and seemed about to engulf them totally, to a complete stop. What course would the thousands of witnesses on the continent of Europe take? In a timely maneuver The Watchtower of November 1, 1939, published a full scriptural study of “Neutrality,” which enabled all its readers in western Europe to receive strengthening counsel before the following spring’s collapse of democracies there. So it was the apostolic course of neutrality that the witnesses were ready to follow in the hard times now setting in under German occupation.
Everywhere the witnesses followed the tried course of their German brothers who then already for six years had become schooled in efficient underground activity to maintain a measure of spiritual freedom. As the days went on, this meant that many of the non-German witnesses were arrested by the Nazi Gestapo (SS or secret police), who sent them away to German concentration camps. In time the various shamefully famous concentration camps, such as Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Belsen and others, became international assembly places of Jehovah’s witnesses of Germany and of captives brought from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Norway and other countries. Among them the art of spiritual communication through smuggled-in Watchtower copies had already become highly developed by the German brothers, who now could lovingly render inside aid to their non-German companions in camps and prisons. This international family relationship of witnesses suffering adversity together kept them spiritually awake to plan for expanded activities of theocratic worship when days of deliverance would come.
Much has been printed of the harrowing experiences of the witnesses in Hitler’s “Greater Germany,” where they have become a modern marvel of faith, courage and fortitude. But for this historical record only certain outstanding items are being included.* For the witnesses who refused to undertake military service lengthy sentences in prisons were rendered and banishment to concentration camps. Likewise refusal by men and women to “Heil Hitler” was considered an act against the state, bringing harsh sentences. To have in one’s possession any of the Society’s publications meant sure detention. Some of the “evil slave” class, who turned against the Society in earlier years, betrayed the faithful into the hands of the police for summary disappearance. Children were taken away from Jehovah’s witnesses to be adopted into Nazi homes. But many of those Christian-trained youngsters refused to enter the Hitler youth movements when forced. In spite of Hitler’s dragnet attempts from 1933 to 1945, he was able to imprison or banish only about half the witnesses at any one given time. This meant that about ten thousand were incarcerated while equal thousands were free on the outside to maintain underground activity. Funerals would be taken as opportunities for large public gatherings together of the witnesses still free to hear Bible talks and have a short season of fellowship. Small secret gatherings would be held at night or out in the forests. Providentially, portions of the latest spiritual food published in the American Watchtower magazine would reach them in mimeographed form to build them up to press on against mountainlike opposition.*
Inside the camps a standard procedure on the part of the SS officers in charge was to try to get the witnesses to sign the following “Declaration” on promise to give them their freedom:
“I recognized that the International Society of Bible Students spreads out a doctrine of error, pursuing aims dangerous for the state, hidden behind religious actions. I therefore turned off totally from this organization and freed myself completely from their doctrine. I assure by this never again to be active for the International Bible Students Society. I promise to deliver immediately every person communicating this doctrine of error in my presence or showing a tendency as a Bible student in some other way. I shall bring all Scriptures of the Bible students handed over to me to the nearest office of police. In future times I shall respect all the laws of the state to be completely a member of the community of the people. I, too, have been taught to expect my repeated arrest, in case of violating my declaration given today.”*
Needless to add, very few witnesses signed this total abdication of association with Jehovah’s theocratic New World society. Signing such a statement would be tantamount to committing spiritual suicide.
Now for some evidence as to the preaching activities and results inside these vast concentration camps made up of thousands of political prisoners and other maladjusted ones held inimical to the Hitler government. Note the following report:
“The happenings at the Ravensbrück women’s camp show the vile practices carried out against Jehovah’s witnesses by the Catholic SS troops. In this women’s camp alone there were 50 Polish women in the truth, 15 Ukrainians, 10 Czechs, 10 Hungarians, 25 Hollanders, 2 Belgians, 500 Germans, and 300 young Russian Jonadabs that learned of the truth in the camp itself. Here nearly one thousand Christian women went through the tortures of a Catholic ‘purgatory.’ . . . Roll was called at five o’clock in the morning. . . . During the day these women were forced to do hard labor: digging foundations for buildings, constructing roads, carrying coal, handling heavy trunks and boxes in the luggage department, building barracks, and performing many other tasks too heavy for underfed, underclothed and badly-treated people. Because 495 of Jehovah’s witnesses refused to make ammunition cases, they were sentenced to eight weeks in dark arrest (meaning confinement in a cell without windows).”*
Mademoiselle Genevieve de Gaulle of France, herself a nontheocratic inmate of Ravensbrück, supplies the following testimony:
“I am very glad to be able to convey to you my testimony regarding the Bible Students whom I met in the Ravensbrück camp. Indeed, I have true admiration for them. They belonged to various nationalities: German, Polish, Russian and Czech, and have endured very great sufferings for their beliefs. The first arrests began ten years ago, and the majority of those who had been brought into the camp at that time died from the bad treatment inflicted upon them, or were executed. I knew, however, some survivors of that time and other prisoners who had arrived more recently; all of them showed very great courage and their attitude commanded eventually even the respect of the SS. They could have been immediately freed if they had renounced their faith. But, on the contrary, they did not cease resistance, even succeeding in introducing books and tracts into the camp, which writings caused several among them to be hanged.”*
Truly the faith in their God Jehovah and integrity toward him on the part of this international band of witnesses in maintaining neutrality against Hitler’s Catholic Inquisition-like regime has become world-renowned.
During all this storm of Fascist war what was happening to the witnesses in Britain? They too were zealous in following a strict course of neutrality. At the commencement of the war Jehovah’s witnesses were in the news in Britain due to the wide distribution and discussion of the White Paper (Germany No. 2) issued October 30, 1939, entitled “Treatment of German Nationals in Germany,” where the terrible experiences of Jehovah’s witnesses in Germany were officially publicized to the world. The facts presented in this White Paper were based on a report compiled by Sir Neville Henderson, British ambassador in Berlin up to the declaration of war September 3, 1939. We quote from this White Paper:
“There were 1,500 Jews and 800 Ernste Bibelforscher [International Bible Students]. . . . Each man wore a badge—Jews yellow with the star of David, Bible Students violet, etc. . . . Jewish prisoners wrote and received letters twice a month. The Bible Students were allowed no communication with the outside world, but, on the other hand, their rations were not cut down. Herr X spoke with the highest respect of these men. Their courage and religious faith were remarkable, and they professed themselves ready to suffer to the uttermost what they felt God had ordained for them. . . . The ‘Bibelforscher,’ a religious sect taking its doctrine from the Bible and having a considerable membership in every part of the country, but proscribed by the Gestapo since its members refuse military service; these unhappy people were almost as badly treated as the Jews.”*
On November 15, 1939, it became necessary for the Society’s London office to issue the following statement to all members of Parliament, religious leaders, local officials and the press:
“Jehovah’s witnesses, wherever they reside, are loyal to the laws and customs of the countries, seeking to serve God, and are of goodwill to all men. If they are judged by men as disloyal it is only when a human law is enacted which interposes a human instruction contrary to the Scriptures, or would give to a man the worship which belongs only to Almighty God. That the position of Jehovah’s witnesses in relation to present events may be clear, a pamphlet republished from The Watchtower is enclosed. At the same time this makes plain the reason for their NEUTRALITY in all cases, and why they are unable to take part in anything military. On behalf of the thousands of Jehovah’s witnesses in Britain we wish to make this position clear. As servants of the Most High God, our position is identical with that of our German brethren, namely, that of strict NEUTRALITY. Our devotion, service and loyalty are consecrated to Jehovah’s THEOCRATIC GOVERNMENT, and according to John 17:16, ‘They are not of the world, even as I am not of the World.’”*
The statement also made reference to the British government White Paper’s recognition that the German witnesses were persecuted, too, for failure to take up military service.
(To be continued)
The World Almanac, 1953, p. 248.
For detailed reports see The Watchtower, 1945, pp. 236, 268; Consolation, Jan. 2, 1946, pp. 3-14; Jan. 16, 1946, pp. 3-14.
1942 Yearbook, pp. 167, 168.
Consolation, Sept. 12, 1945, p. 7.
1946 Yearbook, p. 137.
1946 Yearbook, p. 135.
The White Paper (Germany No. 2), Oct. 30, 1939, Cmd. 6120, pp. 10, 35, published by the British government.
1941 Yearbook, pp. 103-106.
[Picture on page 521]