Jehovah Witnesses during the Holocaust

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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Jehovah witnesses were one of the groups targeted by Nazi Germany for elimination on religious ground. During the rise of the Nazi, the group had a small but active following in Germany. The problem with the group, as far as Nazis were concerned, is that they were against fighting into the army purposes of waging war. Therefore, their religious teachings were against the Nazi Germany goal of world domination through war and a new beginning of the German nation. The government responded to sect’s opposition to its war aims by banning bible and prayer meetings and sending followers to concentration camps.

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Like other prisoners, Jehovah witness’s followers suffered hardship and most died from starvation, executions, and assaults. The group, therefore, suffered from the horrors of holocaust although their numbers were much smaller and its members almost exclusively German.

Before the Holocaust, Jehovah witnesses referred to themselves as the international bible students. Their goal then and now is to spread the knowledge of the kingdom of God all over the world. The group does that by evangelism and especially door-to-door ministry. The group also distributes their publications such as Watch Tower and Awake to supplement the Bible as a material for achieving the goals of their ministry of spreading the news of the kingdom. Jehovah witnesses take the guidance in the Bible for Christians to meet regularly seriously. They meet in buildings, which they refer to as kingdom halls, to study the Bible and share the news of the kingdom among them.

The lowest point in the history of Jehovah witnesses was their persecution by Nazis. However, before the persecution, other Christian denominations in Europe considered them as non-believers. They faced discrimination even outside Germany. However, in Germany, their beliefs and commitments proved inconsistency with the core of Nazi ideology. The inconsistency gave Nazis little choice than to attack them as impure, alongside Jews and gypsies. Witnesses enslave themselves to a higher power and not human rules and yet Nazis wanted everyone in Germany to obey them without questioning them. The conflicting goal of the Jehovah witnesses and Nazis created a perfect ground for conflicts. After Nazis identified the witnesses are an undesirable sect, they started to oppose the group. Their government dissolved their bible meetings and some members suffered physical assaults or beatings. Later, the government enacted a law that banned preaching by the group as well as their bible meetings.

After the witnesses refused to join the army and help Germany in its war efforts, the government decided to take action. It sent most men who refused to take part in the war to the concentration camps. The Nazis considered the group political opponents because it blocked government efforts to wage war on groups of people referred to as undesirables. Although its members were ethnically German, in the eyes of the government, the members of the sect did not fit the description of desirable people for objecting to war. A few Jehovah witnesses did not stop the work of preaching even with the threat of death but police could easily identify such witnesses and punish them instantly by sending them to the concentration camps. In those camps, authorities pinned a red triangle in their prison uniforms for easy identification. The Nazis also identified them using a purple triangle with the initials IVF that stands for international bible students in German language (Lindquist 35). Gestapo or the secret police gave some persecuted witnesses some measure of freedom. For instance, police allowed some women in the concentration camps to serve the families of Gestapo in charge of concentration camps. Some male prisoners served as gardeners at homes of S.S officers or as barbers for commanding officers. Officers felt that they could trust Jehovah witnesses to undertake such simple yet delicate tasks.

In other camps, witnesses faced terrible persecution and harsh treatment. One of the threats to Jehovah witnesses came from the other prisoners. The treatment they got, which was better in comparison to that of other prisoners, provoked resentment and hostility towards them. However, things at the camp were not all gloom. With fellow imprisoned witnesses, they could pray together in secret and still conduct Bible studies. Their spirits also remained strong because persecution gave them an opportunity to reach new territories and preach to new people and spread the message of the kingdom (Opotow 210). Witnesses shared their message with fellow prisoners and even with their jailers. Their cooperative spirit in the face of persecution made their jailers trust them with more responsibilities. In the course of doing those responsibilities, they reached out to more people and ministered to them.

Despite preferential treatment, concentration camps were tough. One of the biggest problems that witnesses suffered in the camps was hunger. Food availability was limited and the amount was only enough for survival. The amount was so small that some prisoners starved to death despite the daily ration of the turnip soup. The problem was jailers expected to expend more energy than they could get from the food ration. For many witnesses, the hunger pangs were so great that a few filled their mouth with sand to experience the pain of small pebbles of stones cutting them to distract them from the pain of empty stomach. All people, regardless of their size, received a similar amount of food, which meant that larger and healthier people suffered from hunger most (Knox 170). Accustomed to larger and quality portions of food, eating a tiny amount of food made them suffer.

Women prisoners and children also suffered in equal measure. The prison officials expected them to cooperate and obey despite prisoner officials giving them work that is more privileged. If they refused to bandage wounded German soldiers, prisoner guards would punish them by reducing their food rations, beating them, or executions. Children of Jehovah witnesses often refused to say heil fuhrer which was a solution that showed allegiance to the German state (Chang and Suedfeld 230). The government also expected all children to enroll in the Hitler Youth league or similar organizations for the children and adolescents. The Nazi government sent those who refused to salute the Fuhrer or join the Nazi-affiliated organization to the reformatory schools far away from home. In those schools, the authorities subjected the children to endless influences and propaganda to turn them into supporters. The government also took some children to live with Nazi families where they also received lessons and round the clock observation.

Life in the reformatory schools was not easy as the children were treated as juvenile delinquents. The children worked long hours and suffered assaults if they did not obey orders. The separation from parents and relatives was also a form of punishment and torture. These children longed to reunite with their parents but sadly, they could not. After release, they also learned that some of their parents had died in concentration camps. Moreover, after releasing from reformatory schools, most struggled to adjust, as the incarceration had permanently damaged them psychologically.

In the majority of cases, Jehovah witnesses remained loyal to their religion in the face of persecution. The bible teachings offered them hope and solitude. In strict conformity to nonviolence, the group did not try to retaliate against their oppressors. Like Jesus, members did not return violence with violence. They also drew hope and strength from the example of people like Saint Paul, Peter, and other early followers of Christ. Events in the Old Testament comforted them as well. The stories of Daniel and his three friends is a good example. Also, witnesses responded by spreading the kingdom message in prisons. In the solitude of their cells and when working with their friends, they continued to preach and share the message with others. A few witnesses did not stop bible meetings despite the ban by the government.

In conclusion, Jehovah witnesses suffered much during the Holocaust although their story is not widely known. Like the Jews, the followers of this Christian sect suffered terribly. The Nazi accused them of sabotaging the Nazi dream of rejuvenating the nation after suffering the devastating consequences of inflation and economic catastrophe arising from the Versailles treaty. They did not attempt to retaliate. Instead, they used the example of Jesus and early apostles to maintain their integrity to the teachings of the Bible and remain true their conviction. Also, the persecution provided them with opportunities to share the news of the kingdom with fellow prisoners and jailers.

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Jehovah Witnesses During the Holocaust. (2019, Mar 16). Retrieved from