The Nazi regime targeted Jehovah's Witnesses for persecution because they refused, out of religious conviction, to swear loyalty to a worldly government or to serve in its armed forces. Jehovah's Witnesses also engaged in missionary activity to win adherents for the faith. The Nazis perceived the refusal to commit to the state and efforts to proselytize as overtly political and subversive acts. Unlike Jews and Roma (Gypsies), whom the Nazis targeted for perceived racial reasons, Jehovah's Witnesses had the option to avoid persecution and personal harm by submitting to state authority and serving in the armed forces. Since such submission would violate their religious beliefs, the vast majority of Jehovah's Witnesses refused to abandon their faith even in the face of persecution, torture in concentration camps, or death.
Founded in the American city of Pittsburgh in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell as the International Bible Study Society, the group took the name "Jehovah's Witnesses" in 1931. The Society began missionary work in Europe in the 1890s. In 1902, the first branch office of the Watch Tower Society opened in Elberfeld, Germany. In Germany, Jehovah's Witnesses became known as the Society of International Bible Students. By the early 1930s, some 25,000 to 30,000 Germans (0.38 percent of a total population of 65 million) were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses or interested sympathizers.
Even before 1933, Jehovah's Witnesses were targets of prejudice. Mainstream Lutheran and Catholic churches deemed them heretics. Moreover, citizens often found the Witnesses' missionary work—knocking on doors and preaching—to be invasive. Individual German states had long sought to curb the missionary work through strict enforcement of statutes on illegal solicitation. At various times, individual jurisdictions actually banned Witness religious literature, including the booklets The Watchtower and The Golden Age. During the Weimar period, however, the German courts often ruled in favor of the religious minority.
Before the Nazis came to power, individual groups of local Nazis (party functionaries or SA men), acting outside the law, broke up Bible study meetings and assaulted individual Witnesses.
After the Nazis came to power, persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses intensified. Witnesses believed themselves to belong to Jehovah's Kingdom and considered all worldly powers unwitting allies of Satan. They refused to swear loyalty to the Nazi regime. Moreover, their international theological and organizational contacts were anathema to the Nazi police state. Initially, Witness indifference to the Nazi state manifested itself in the refusal to raise their arms in the Heil Hitler salute, join the German Labor Front (which all salaried and wage workers were forced to join after the Nazis outlawed trade unions), participate in Nazi welfare collections, and vote in elections. Likewise they would not participate in Nazi rallies and parades.
Nazi authorities denounced Jehovah's Witnesses for their ties to the United States and derided the apparent revolutionary millennialism of their preaching that a battle of Armageddon would precede the rule of Christ on earth as part of God's plan. They linked Jehovah's Witnesses to the Nazi idea of "international Jewry" by pointing to Witness reliance on certain Old Testament texts. The Nazis had grievances with many of the smaller Protestant groups on these issues, but only the Jehovah's Witnesses refused to bear arms or swear loyalty to the state.
When Germany reintroduced universal military service in 1935, Jehovah's Witnesses generally refused to enroll. In Germany, as in the United States, they had refused to serve in the armed forces during World War I. Although they were not pacifists, they refused to bear arms for any temporal power. The Nazis prosecuted Jehovah's Witnesses for failing to report for conscription and arrested those who did missionary work for undermining the morale of the nation.
The children of Jehovah's Witnesses also suffered under the Nazi regime. In classrooms, teachers ridiculed children who refused to give the Heil Hitler salute or sing patriotic songs. Principals found reasons to expel them from school. Following the lead of adults, classmates shunned or beat the children of Witnesses. On occasion, authorities sought to remove children from their Witness parents and send them to other schools, orphanages, or private homes to be brought up as "good Germans."
Soon after Hitler became chancellor, Bavarian authorities issued a ban on the International Bible Students' Society. During the spring and summer of 1933, many other German jurisdictions followed suit. Twice during 1933, police occupied Witness offices to confiscate religious literature. Despite official pressure and harassment, Witnesses continued to meet and distribute their literature covertly. Literature was often smuggled in from abroad.
Initially, leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses sought to find a way to work with the Nazi government. In October 1934, the leadership sent a letter to the Reich government, explaining the Witnesses' core beliefs and their commitment to political neutrality. The letter stated that Jehovah's Witnesses "have no interest in political affairs, but are wholly devoted to God's Kingdom under Christ His King." German authorities responded with economic and political harassment. Witnesses who continued to missionize or who refused to participate in Nazi organizations lost their jobs and their unemployment and social welfare benefits, or were arrested.
In response to Nazi efforts to destroy the group, Jehovah's Witnesses became an island of spiritual resistance to the Nazi demand for absolute German commitment to the state. The International Society of Jehovah's Witnesses fully and publicly supported the efforts of its brethren in Germany. At an international convention in Lucerne, Switzerland, in September 1936, Witness delegates from all over the world passed a resolution severely condemning the Nazi regime. The international organization also produced literature denouncing Nazi persecution of Jews, Communists, and Social Democrats, criticizing the remilitarization of Germany and the Nazification of its schools and universities, and attacking the Nazi assault on organized religion.
Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to intense persecution under the Nazi regime. The Nazis targeted Jehovah's Witnesses because they were unwilling to accept the authority of the state, because of their international connections, and because they were strongly opposed to both war on behalf of a temporal authority and organized government in matters of conscience.
Within months of the Nazi takeover, regional governments, primarily those of Bavaria and Prussia, initiated aggressive steps against Jehovah's Witnesses, breaking up their meetings, ransacking and then occupying their local offices. By April 1, 1935, the Reich and Prussian Minister of the Interior ordered the responsible local officials to dissolve the Watchtower Society.
Many actions of Jehovah's Witnesses antagonized Nazi authorities. While Witnesses contended that they were apolitical and that their actions were not anti-Nazi, their unwillingness to give the Nazi salute, to join party organizations or to let their children join the Hitler Youth, their refusal to participate in the so-called elections or plebiscites, and their unwillingness to adorn their homes with Nazi flags made them suspect. A special unit of the Gestapo (secret state police) compiled a registry of all persons believed to be Jehovah's Witnesses. Gestapo agents infiltrated Bible study meetings. While Jehovah's Witnesses as such were not banned, many of the activities which were basic to the exercise of the faith increasingly came under attack. Above all, the authorities sought to interdict the distribution of printed materials, produced locally or smuggled in from outside the country in large quantities, which in the eyes of the Nazis were clearly subversive.
When Germany reintroduced compulsory military service in March 1935, the conflict with the Witnesses escalated. For refusing to be drafted or perform military-related work, and for continuing to meet illegally, increasing numbers of Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested, tried by judicial authorities and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps.
By 1939, an estimated 6,000 Witnesses (including some from Austria and Czechoslovakia) were detained in prisons or camps. Others fled Germany, continued their religious observance in private, or ceased to observe altogether. Some Witnesses were tortured in attempts to make them sign declarations renouncing their faith, but few capitulated to this pressure.
In the concentration camps, all prisoners wore markings of various shapes and colors so that guards and camp officers could identify them by category. Jehovah's Witnesses were marked by purple triangular patches. Even in the camps, they continued to meet, pray, and seek converts. In the Buchenwald concentration camp, they set up an underground printing press and distributed religious tracts.
Conditions in Nazi camps were harsh for all inmates. Many prisoners died from hunger, disease, exhaustion, exposure to the cold, and brutal treatment. Incarcerated Jehovah's Witnesses were sustained by the support they gave each other and by their belief that their suffering was part of their work for God. Individual Witnesses astounded guards with their refusal to conform to military-type routines like roll call or roll bandages for soldiers at the front. At the same time, camp authorities considered Witnesses to be relatively trustworthy because they refused to escape or physically resist their guards. For this reason, Nazi camp officers and guards often used Witnesses as domestic servants.
Of the 25,000 to 30,000 Germans who in 1933 were Jehovah's Witnesses, an estimated 20,000 remained active through the Nazi period. The remainder fled Germany, renounced their faith, or confined their worship to the family. Of those remaining active, about half were convicted and sentenced at one time or another during the Nazi era for anywhere from one month to four years, with the average being about 18 months. Of those convicted or sentenced, between 2,000 to 2,500 were sent to concentration camps, as were a total of about 700 to 800 non-German Witnesses (this figure includes about 200-250 Dutch, 200 Austrians, 100 Poles, and between 10 and 50 Belgians, French, Czechs, and Hungarians).
The number of Jehovah's Witnesses who died in concentration camps and prisons during the Nazi era is estimated at 1,000 Germans and 400 from other countries, including about 90 Austrians and 120 Dutch. (The non-German Jehovah's Witnesses suffered a considerably higher percentage of deaths than their German co-religionists.) In addition, about 250 German Jehovah's Witnesses were executed—mostly after being tried and convicted by military tribunals—for refusing to serve in the German military.