Founded in the United States in the 1870s, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization sent missionaries to Germany to seek converts in the 1890s. By the early 1930s, only 20,000 (of a total population of 65 million) Germans were Jehovah's Witnesses, usually known at the time as "International Bible Students."
Even before 1933, despite their small numbers, door-to-door preaching and the identification of Jehovah's Witnesses as heretics by the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches made them few friends. Individual German states and local authorities periodically sought to limit the group's proselytizing activities with charges of illegal peddling. There were also outright bans on Jehovah's Witnesses' religious literature, which included the booklets The Watch Tower and The Golden Age. The courts, by contrast, often ruled in favor of the religious minority. Meanwhile, in the early 1930s, Nazi brownshirted storm troopers, acting outside the law, broke up Bible study meetings and beat up individual Witnesses.
After the Nazis came to power, persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses intensified. Small as the movement was, it offered, in scholar Christine King's words, a "rival ideology" and "rival center of loyalty" to the Nazi movement. Although honest and as law–abiding as their religious beliefs allowed, Jehovah's Witnesses saw themselves as citizens of Jehovah's Kingdom; they refused to swear allegiance to any worldly government. They were not pacifists, but as soldiers in Jehovah's army, they would not bear arms for any nation.
Jehovah's Witnesses, in Germany as in the United States, had refused to fight in World War I. This stance contributed to hostility against them in a Germany still wounded by defeat in that war and fervently nationalistic, attempting to reclaim its previous world stature. In Nazi Germany, Jehovah's Witnesses refused to raise their arms in the "Heil, Hitler!" salute; they did not vote in elections; they would not join the army or the German Labor Front (a Nazi affiliate, which all salaried employees were required to join after 1934).
Jehovah's Witnesses were denounced for their international and American ties, the apparent revolutionary tone of their millennialism (belief in the peaceful 1,000 year heavenly rule over the earth by Christ, preceded by the battle of Armageddon), and their supposed connections to Judaism, including a reliance on parts of the Bible embodying Jewish scripture (the Christian "Old Testament"). Many of these charges were brought against more than 40 other banned religious groups, but none of these were persecuted to the same degree. The crucial difference was the intensity Witnesses demonstrated in refusing to give ultimate loyalty or obedience to the state.