Kingdom Increase in the Land of the Emperors
IF YOU look at a map of Central Europe, you will notice nestled at the foot of the Alps the small country of Austria, covering an area of just 32,375 square miles (83,850 sq km). This was the homeland of Johann Strauss, the king of the waltz. Here people come to marvel at the dancing of the Lippizaner horses. And here, at one time, was the seat of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, which held sway over Bohemia and Moravia, parts of Italy, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia.
That empire is a mere memory today, but it was still in existence in 1911 when Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Society, visited Vienna and the local press prominently published his discourse. It was still in existence three years later when someone else carried the good news there.
Max Freschel was a Jew who later took the name Maxwell Friend. He writes: ‘When J. F. Rutherford, who was to be the second president of the Watch Tower Society, paid us a visit, he asked me whether I would like to be sent to Austria-Hungary in order to spread the good news of the Messianic Kingdom among the many Jews living there. Gladly I accepted the invitation and went to Prague in the beginning of 1914. Afterward I went to Vienna. There were only four subscribers to The Watchtower in Vienna. I visited them repeatedly to encourage their interest in God’s Word.’
Later on in that year, however, the Austrian crown prince was assassinated, and Europe was catapulted into World War I. The Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, lost the war, and the great Austro-Hungarian Empire was shattered. From the wreckage, the small German-speaking Republic of Austria emerged.
However, according to Bible prophecy, another “nation” was to be born at that time, a spiritual nation that would have members all around the world. (Isaiah 66:8) As this “nation” began spreading the good news of God’s now-established Kingdom among all the nations, its influence was soon felt in Austria.
Joseph Ehm, a music teacher in Deutsch-Wagram, near Vienna, heard the message and recognized the tune of Bible truth. It was not long before he started to share the good news with others. In the following year, 1921, another interested person in Austria, Franz Ganster, a bookkeeper in Klagenfurt, received literature from Switzerland. At the same time, a farmer in Upper Austria, Simon Riedler, obtained a booklet from a friend in Linz. Thus, a small beginning was made. The first branch office of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in Austria was established in Vienna in 1923. The seed of truth had fallen on fertile ground and started to grow. By 1937, there were 549 workers spreading the good news.
A Second Major World Crisis
However, during this period other forces were set in motion that would have a cataclysmic effect and would move Austria once again to center stage in world events. National unrest and political rivalries made it possible in 1938 for the Austrian-born chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, to bring his native land into the new German Reich, or empire. This was approved by a national plebiscite and supported by the local Catholic hierarchy. But it brought immediate problems for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria.
Because of their neutrality, many Austrian Witnesses were now put into concentration camps. Die Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Mauthausen (The History of Mauthausen Concentration Camp), which has a preamble by Franz Jonas, former president of the Austrian Federal Republic, says: “There existed a group of people in Mauthausen Concentration Camp who were persecuted on religious grounds only: members of the sect ‘Earnest Bible Students,’ or ‘Witnesses of Jehovah’ . . . Their rejection of the loyalty oath to Hitler and their refusal to render any kind of military service—a political consequence of their belief—were the reason for their persecution.”
Hitler’s “1,000-year” Reich lasted for only a few years, and when it fell, this faithful flock of loyal servants of God regained their freedom. Eighty-four-year-old Alois Moser, who spent years in concentration camps, tells about the day of his liberation in 1945: “It was in the woods near Schwerin, Mecklenburg, that 230 Witnesses from ten nations gathered. We expressed our grateful heart’s delight in a resolution: ‘All of us Witnesses of Jehovah are sending our most heartfelt greetings to the faithful covenant people of Jehovah and to its companions in the whole world . . . We make a solemn resolve that we have only one wish, after having experienced the long chain of endless proofs of wonderful protection and deliverance from all the thousands of conflicts and affliction during our stay in the lion’s pit—namely to serve Jehovah and his King Jesus Christ from deeply felt gratitude with a willing and joyful heart and to time indefinite.’”
One year later, 730 praisers of Jehovah reported their activity. Two years after that there were 1,551, and the increase has continued without letup ever since. The preaching work among the several thousands of foreign laborers has also yielded results. Austria now has groups of Christians speaking Hungarian, English, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, Turkish, and Arabic, as well as its 229 German-speaking and 6 Serbo-Croatian-speaking congregations. To date, Jehovah’s Witnesses number more than 15,000, but many other people are attracted by the power of the good news. Thus, 27,502 assembled in 1985 for the annual commemoration of Jesus Christ’s death. Truly, ‘the little one himself has become a thousand.’—Isaiah 60:22.
A Display of International Unity
The geography of Austria made it possible for Witnesses from Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey to come here during recent years for happy association. In 1981 it was a stirring sight when, at the “Kingdom Loyalty” District Convention, Austrian Witnesses rose from their seats together with their brothers from Yugoslavia, Poland, and Hungary to close the convention with a joyful song of praise to Jehovah.
In 1982 the Witnesses in Austria were once again hosts to their brothers from Hungary at a convention in Vienna. A former Viennese athlete told the assembled Witnesses that he had trained for his events in the very stadium where the assembly was being held, and that the last contest he took part in was against a Hungarian team. Later, a Witness from Hungary came to the convention office and related that he, too, used to be an athlete. His last athletic contest was against an Austrian team. Now these two Christians are no longer competing against each other. They are running together in the Christian race for everlasting life.—Hebrews 12:1.
Kingdom Increase Continues
People of various origins, as well as of different political and religious views, have come to realize that neither a monarchy nor a dictatorship nor a democracy will be able to bring about a permanent solution to mankind’s problems. This realization has resulted in an ever-increasing growth in the ranks of those who recognize God’s Kingdom as a reality and who wholeheartedly submit to this Kingdom as loyal subjects. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria will keep on zealously endeavoring to bring the good news of the Kingdom to all kinds of people. All the while, in this land of the emperors, they themselves give priority to that government whose beneficial rule will reach “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”—Psalm 72:8.
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