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The Nazi State and the New Religions:

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[181] VII


It has been seen that the policy of the National Socialist government towards the Christian sects was determined both by political and by ideological considerations. The Nazis’ plan ultimately to destroy all sects, for none were to be tolerated within the ideal National Socialist state, was a result of their belief that sectarians were potential political subversives and of their ambition to create a new German ideology. As was the case with the two major churches, however, practical considerations made the destruction of the sects something that would have to wait until the war was won. Besides a series of bans on minor sectarian groups, therefore, the Nazis concentrated their attention on the larger sects. All were viewed as potentially dangerous, but some, for tactical reasons, were ignored, whilst others were closely observed. They had persecuted, with a view to its destruction, the one sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which presented a real threat and which offered a nuisance value. As their persecution of this sect continued, the problem its activity presented grew, so that an increasing amount of government time and energy was being spent on the control of one sect alone.

Thus the policy of the National Socialists towards the sects covered the spectrum from total persecution, suffered by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, through the intermittent harassment experienced by the Christian Scientists, the New Apostolic and Seventh Day Adventist Churches, to the toleration enjoyed by the Mormons, [182] whose existence was, for practical purposes, ignored.

It has been noted that within a short while after the seizure of power, the Nazis had constructed a machinery to deal with those sectarians they chose to persecute and had provided suitable political justifications for this persecution. The S.D. and police reports had indicated that, for official purposes, the sects were to be divided into the ‘political’ and ‘non-political’. To avoid any criticism that their persecution of sectarians violated the principles of religious freedom enshrined in the Weimar constitution, the authorities had identified certain dissident sectarian groups as ideologically linked to the enemies of the state, Judaism, internationalism, Freemasonry and Marxism. In case such charges should seem unfair and publicly be recognised as spurious, it had been insinuated that former Marxists and anarchists had taken refuge within the sectarian ranks. No sect was free from this charge, and it has been seen that the most politically sophisticated, those who realised the danger they were in and tried to circumvent it, were the first to weed out from their ranks any ‘enemies of Germany’.

All the sects were observed and all, except the Mormons, appear regularly in police and S.D. reports. Some were more suspect than others, and it has been seen that the government’s attitude to each sect was determined only partly by the sect’s response to National Socialism, and largely by the political influence its members were able to exert on their own behalf. That the Mormons had convinced the government from the start of the regime of the political and economic importance of their membership to the German state and of their influence outside Germany, may help to explain the ease with which this sect came through the years of Nazi rule. [183]

In contrast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, since their movement had been banned in 1933, incurred legal penalties for any activity on behalf of the sect. Any meeting, Bible study or missionary enterprise, all integral to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, was in contravention of the law and therefore, by definition, subversive. The Witnesses had no opportunity to compromise, even if they had been willing to do so; their letters of self-explanation to the government in 1933 had been ignored. Short of individuals renouncing and denying their faith, there was little the group as a whole could do to make survival easier. American intervention on their behalf had achieved little. Where other groups were able to adapt their teachings and voluntarily limit their activities, the Witnesses, having refused to abandon their beliefs and the consequences of these, were thrown into battle with the Nazis from which there was no escape.

Only against the Witnesses had the government been resolute from the start. Others had been under suspicion, but either the appeals of their German leaders or intervention by powerful and influential foreign friends had given them a measure of protection. The Christian Scientists, for example, although under suspicion because of their philosophy, alien to the Nazi materialist view of the world, enjoyed a period of toleration until 1941, which was, on the government’s own admission, purely a result of the intervention of influential American and British Christian Scientists. It is interesting to note, however, that even though the Witnesses were named in a British government White Paper in 1939 as receiving harsh treatment in Germany, unlike Christian Science, there were no influential bodies willing actually to intervene on their behalf.

None of the sects, with the possible exception of the Witnesses, had expected, in spite of the [184] intermittent hostility of government and the major churches during the Weimar period, that the change of government in 1933 would bring them special problems. All sought to explain and justify themselves to the Nazis, even the Witnesses, and all hoped that their expressions of good will could save them from trouble. In 1935 when conscription was introduced, providing the sectarians with another challenge, all except the Witnesses agreed to undertake military service.

All had undergone, in the years following the First World War, a reassessment of their attitudes on military service. The Witnesses, following the policy developed in America after the imprisonment of Rutherford and others for refusal to enlist, had formally adopted a stance of ‘neutrality’ . The Adventists and Christian Scientists had put the onus of conscientious objection clearly onto the individual believer; both sects avoided any suggestion that conscientious objection was in any way implied in their teachings. The Mormons and the New Apostolic Church saw no problem, as patriotic German citizens their members accepted military service willingly. In 1935 all reviewed their policies. The Witnesses re-stated, with explanations of why they would not fight, their refusal to do any war-related service. The others, in the context of their acceptance of the new regime, proved that they were, on the whole, willing to fight for it. By 1939 all except the Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventist Reform members and some individual sectarian conscientious objectors, were engaged in military service or war-related work.

Their contribution may have granted them a brief extension of the period of toleration, but it was in no sense something for which the Nazis would reward the sects by offering permanent freedom of worship. Indeed, as the war progressed, the Nazis took the opportunity of victories to introduce further restrictive measures [185] against the sects. Included in these was a ban in 1941 against Christian Science. Nevertheless, the exigencies of war determined the extent to which the sects could be persecuted. The Christian Scientists, for example, never experienced the kind of harassment suffered by the Witnesses. The different treatment afforded to the Christian Scientists can be explained in part because their teaching and structure did not offer the practical challenge to the regime inherent in the beliefs of the Witnesses, but also by the constraints of the war. By 1941 the government had more urgent demands on its resources, and the ban on Christian Science was merely an indication of harsher measures to be taken at a later date.

Nazi policy on the sects, therefore, would appear to have been influenced by several factors. The failure of their policies on the major churches encouraged those Nazis who were anxious to see the destruction of Christianity in Germany to operate instead against the sects, who were comparatively small and legally weak. Here the government could be seen to be powerful and authoritative; rigid and ruthless in matters of ideological conflict. But even with the sects, practical considerations of policing and administering bans limited the range of the government’s activity, and consequently all the hostility against ideological rivals and the desire to demonstrate the efficacy of the police state fell on one sect.

The Witnesses were, in fact, the obvious targets for such attacks. The other sects had members or ex-members amongst the Nazi party ranks as well as members who were prominent citizens. The Witnesses provided a socially and politically impotent group whose ideology could be presented as subversive, a group, moreover, which was already unpopular and prepared for persecution. They had no powerful sanctions at their disposal and [186] never claimed any great public sympathy. The government would be stirring up no hornet’s nest in attacking this sect. Committed to its total destruction, the Nazis could not, however, have foreseen the tenacity of the Witnesses in surviving persecution and refusing to accept limitations on their religious activities.

The other sects never presented so obvious a danger, nor were they so single-minded. At the first hint of trouble, most had adopted a policy of silence or submission and thus their suppression could safely be postponed, for it was realised that they would not cause trouble in the interim. The real area of conflict, as the fight with the Witnesses shows, was ideological. The Nazis were not prepared, ultimately, to tolerate any rival system, political or religious. Indeed, the distinction is not always clear in the government’s handling of the sects, for religious views which were unacceptable to the Nazis are identified consistently as politically subversive. As those Catholic priests who had protested from their pulpits about the euthanasia programme were persecuted for ‘political Catholicism’, so the sectarians, in teaching about the end of the world could be seen as ‘anarchists and bolshevists’. Within the National Socialist state all issues wore political, thus any group of people who rejected racial differences and believed that the political order of things was eschatologically doomed, were political enemies. Such tenets were inherent in the teaching of all the sects discussed here, but all except the Witnesses tried to disguise or discount these millenial expectations and the implications of their beliefs about Christian brotherhood. The Mormons had no problems in this latter area, for their teaching was already racially discriminative.

The sects believed that these compromises and [187] reinterpretations of their beliefs, many of them predating the Third Reich, together with their nationalism, would save them. However, no amount of compromise could have saved the sects had the regime survived, for they all presented a world-view which was, however disguised, basically at variance with National Socialist ideology. The churches, especially the Evangelical church, had offered the same kind of compromises and had earned a delicately balanced toleration. The sects, even more than the churches, however, presented what J. S. Conway calls ‘a rival claim for body and soul’ and this could not be masked by patriotic statements. That Nazism was totalitarian in its structure and attempted to offer a substitute ‘political religion to Germans, made its conflict with Christianity inevitable. That the nature of this ‘political religion’ was closer to the evangelical fundamentalist approach of the Christian sects and that its leaders sought to inspire in the followers a fanaticism like that shown by Jehovah’s Witnesses, made the conflict with the sects more urgent and bitter. It is significant that the most authoritarian and totalitarian of the sects was the one which came into the most serious conflict with the state; where a sect was willing to compromise its own beliefs in the face of the claims of the state, it earned itself a temporary toleration.

Compromises were made in different ways, and none of the Sects considered at the time that they were collaborating with the Nazis, although some members of the Seventh Day Adventist and the New Apostolic churches have recognised subsequently the implications of their behaviour during the Third Reich. Even these two groups, however, had only been following trends set in the Weimar period when their fear of Communism and their nationalism had encouraged them to share many [188] elements of contemporary German political conservatism; many may have been genuinely unaware of the implications of the new regime. The New Apostolic and Seventh Day Adventist churches had offered prayers on the accession of Hitler because they welcomed a strong leader for Germany. That they each made the government aware of their support was a deliberate attempt to secure their own survival. These churches contained many members who were already pro-Nazi and this, coupled with the desire of the leaders in each case to secure the safety of the believing group, led to what some currently see as their ‘capitulation’.

The Mormons, too, already had many elements of teaching which were acceptable to the Nazis and which could be offered as signs of good faith. They stressed the similarities in behavioural morality, the abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco; they used their practice of genealogical research to prove their good Aryan ancestry and, like the Adventists, continued with their social and welfare programmes, in conjunction with government welfare agencies. The Mormons religion, whilst all-embracing and in theory a self-contained world-view, allows a participation by its members in public life and thereby disguises the individual, millenial and totalitarian nature of its teaching and organisation. Thus the Nazis persecuted those who appeared most obviously to be their enemies and who had no alleviating factors to offer in return for a reprieve. That the reprieve, when it was given, was temporary, is indicated by the fact that the Third Reich witnessed a growing number of bans against small and defenseless sects, clearly to be followed, at a later date, by bans on all sectarian activity.

In what sense, if any, were the five sects considered here a real threat to the government? With the exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who [189] represent a special case, it might be argued that the Nazis had little to fear in practical terms from any of them. Only the Witnesses were not organised on an obviously hierarchical basis and thus only they were able to be elusive and to go underground. All the others had officials who could be called in for questioning and when the Nazis expressed their approval of the Führerprinzip evident in the New Apostolic and Adventist churches, it was less for ideological and more for practical reasons. The Witnesses all considered themselves, both men and women, as ministers, with a duty to preach. The lack of a formal visible hierarchy thus made it difficult for the Nazis to watch and question activists. They were deeply suspicious of the organisational structure of the Witness movement and it was believed in party circles that local Witnesses were being used by political activists in the movement for subversive ends.

All, except the Witnesses, demonstrated their genuine patriotic fervour, which, during the Third Reich, superseded their links with America. The Adventists and the New Apostolic Church had already developed an indigenous leadership and literature and the other two, severed by circumstances from their American contacts, developed their own national hierarchy. Only the Witnesses, tied by their theology to a non-national world-view, refused to acknowledge the German state or pledge their support as citizens.

All the sects had a special place in their teachings and liturgy for the Old Testament and the Jews. All five were, therefore, potential organs of protest about what was happening to the Jews. Although there were cases of individual help given to Jews, the sects offered no protest about the Final Solution; as with the two major churches, pretests were individual. The sects, perhaps because their [190] connections with Judaism were well known, were perhaps even more anxious than the churches to eliminate Old Testament references from their worship. The Witnesses, as might be expected, changed nothing. Some Mormons, however, erected notices banning Jews from their meetings, and the Seventh Day Adventists, particularly vulnerable because of their celebration of the Jewish Sabbath, were anxious to disassociate themselves from Judaism. All of them, except the Witnesses, were prepared to remove such words as ‘Zion’ from their liturgy and it has been noted how the Adventists referred to the ‘rest-day’ instead of the Sabbath during these years.

Similarly, no sect made any formal protest on those areas on which they might feel the moral code was broken, for example, on euthanasia or sterilisation. Here the Catholic church had made its one public stance, but on many other issues, the sects, like the two major churches, were silent. Only the Witnesses, in their smuggled literature, complained to brethren abroad that life in Germany entailed persecution, not only for them, but for many other groups. Since, on the whole, the major churches made little public protest, it is perhaps only to be expected that the sects, whose existence was much more in jeopardy, should also remain silent. It is ironic to note that the one sect which claimed to be divorced from politics and public life made a protest, and that those who had made a political commitment and saw their citizenship as part of their religious duty were less inclined to Object to social and political policies which offended against their conventional and strict moral code. As most churchmen had been misled by the superficially moral stance of the Nazi party, with its stress on family life, so were most sectarians convinced that Hitler was seeking to purify Germany and that their religion could only benefit from their support of his,. Equally, most who were prepared to [191] fight shared the view of many Germans that Hitler was being forced into a war he did not want by his enemies.

Not only, therefore, did many sectarians serve the state as good citizens, supporting the government and bearing arms, but some fulfilled a positive propaganda role in their representations of the Third Reich to their brethren abroad. Christian Scientists, Mormons, Adventists and members of the New Apostolic Church had all informed their foreign brethren that life in Germany under Hitler was good, and they had, in each case asked these brethren to try to influence their own government in Germany’s favour. Any or all might have complained about the extermination of the Jews or the treatment of groups like the Witnesses, either en moral grounds or because they feared the same might happen to them. None did complain and in this way, they presented no real threat and even performed a useful service to the Nazis.

All were frightened of Communism and all, except the Witnesses, who saw Nazism and Communism both as emanations of evil, welcomed Hitler as a bulwark against Communism and atheism. Only the Witnesses, therefore, positively identified Nazism as one of the expressions of evil due to precede the end of the world. They alone offered no support to the regime and thus did constitute a real threat, albeit a small one. The group continued to spread its ‘subversive’ message, whatever measures were taken to stop it, and it may well have provided a focus for opposition to the regime for those who had no links with the political resistance. There were, after all, some resisters in Concentration camps who had been mistaken for Witnesses. The group’s secret underground and its growing band of martyrs may well have attracted critics of the regime who sympathized but did not belong to the movement. The Witness influence was everywhere. They were found preaching to soldiers, trying to make them give up their arms; [192] they posted leaflets into the post boxes of party officials. This sect did present a problem and, since by the nature of the conflict, the Nazis were bound to persecute it, the danger to the state became stronger as the persecution continued and the Witnesses evolved their survival tactics. The government was seen to have tried but failed to suppress this group as each new batch of literature was secretly distributed.

What the Witnesses experienced was not the imprisonment they suffered in America Or Britain for their refusal to fight, nor even the logical extension of this in a police state. What they experienced was a crusade, based on a fear of their influence and what seems to have been a misunderstanding of their teachings. This crusade led to their battle for survival and took more and more police time. Had they been left alone, it is at least possible that the Witnesses would have made fewer converts and would have proved less of a nuisance. It was, however, ideologically impossible for the Nazis to tolerate them, as it is for communist states to tolerate them today.

All five, therefore, were potentially dangerous, all had international connections and all were millenial. None however, not even the Witnesses, fitted the labels given thorn by the government, ‘Jewish, Marxist and Freemasonic’. None except the Witnesses were likely to come into conflict with a legal government, for with the major churches they accept St. Paul’s command that Christians be ‘obedient to the higher authorities’. The Nazis never trusted the sectarians, and what had happened to the Witnesses would almost certainly eventually have happened to them all. The sects behaved themselves as the government wanted and their suppression would not have been difficult.

The Nazi policies towards the sects were largely [193] successful in that the number of small sects which were banned went underground or disappeared; the sects they tolerated were pathetically anxious to please their political masters. They gave unstinting support, with some personal exceptions, and accepted the compromises they needed to make in order to survive.

Only against the Witnesses was the government unsuccessful, for although they had killed thousands, the work went on and in May 1945 the Jehovah’s Witness movement was still alive, whilst National Socialism was not. The Witnesses numbers had increased and no compromises had been made. The movement had gained martyrs and had successfully waged one more battle in Jehovah-God’s war.

The five sects all reacted differently to National Socialism. There had been no contacts made between them and each saw its own situation as unique. Each response depended on a number of factors, ranging from teaching and their history, to the policies of their leaders. Initially, they had all responded similarly in their attempts to explain and justify themselves to the new government. All were accustomed to some strain in their relationship with the state, even though they had all enjoyed legal protection under the Weimar law. All, except the indigenous New Apostolic Church, were used to being regarded either with suspicion or favour because of their American contacts. Some pressures or loss of civil rights had been experienced in practice by all of them during their history in Germany, yet none expected harassment from the Nazis. The tolerant and liberal atmosphere of Weimar may be responsible for this. The sects had all experienced, with the sole exception of the Witnesses, some easing of the public and ecclesiastical hostility to them. Their members had fought in the First World War and had generally proved themselves reliable German citizens. Even the [194] Mormons, who had suffered great hostility in the early years of the twentieth century, both for the immigration to Utah programme and such issues as polygamy, came, it has boon seen, by the middle years of Weimar, to enjoy some public respect, based on their educational and cultural contributions to German society.

As the Witnesses prepared themselves for trouble, the other sects, particularly the Mormons and Christian Scientists, mustered their friends abroad. As they came to realise the nature of the regime and to witness the closure of Trade Unions, church organisations and measures being taken against the Witnesses, each of those groups, hoping to be tolerated, offered some degree of appeasement. Statements of loyalty and prayers for the Führer were manifold, and copies of the texts of pro-Nazi sermons and prayers were inevitably sent to the Reich Chancellery. Mormons continued to forge cultural links with the government, Adventists offered increased co-operation in the state charity and welfare schemes and the New Apostolic Church organized church parades to incorporate the S.S. and S.A. uniforms and flags. Whilst the Evangelical churches and the New Apostolic Church were holding church parades and displaying the Swastika in their churches, Witnesses were preparing to go underground and teaching their members how to survive in prison and how to contact other Witnesses for support and comfort.

None of the others saw what was happening to the Witnesses as in any way a prediction of what would happen to them, for they regarded the Witnesses, and each other, as in error. Yet all four ensured that their own members were loyal to the state and all were quick to expel rebels. All five sought to survive the Nazi regime, although none know how long it would last and many sectarians awaited daily the return of Christ. Survival meant different things to different [195] groups. For some, personal survival was paramount. To achieve this, a sectarian might temporarily have to keep his faith without meeting others of his belief, since to meet was illegal and law-keeping an essential part not only of the faith, but of survival. Most Christian Scientists, for example, after 1941, considered that it was simply not personally safe to meet. The sect does not insist on missionary activity as part of its creed, so such private withdrawal, supported by occasional secret encounters, was viable. Seventh Day Adventists and the New Apostolic Church saw the survival of their church as of paramount importance. Compromises and sacrifices were justifiable, therefore, to keep it alive.

Mormons had few compromises to make and were never put into a position where their existence as a church was threatened. They maintained a careful public approach and consistently demonstrated their loyalty to the government. Their strategies had already been so well developed by their history that these saved the church from ever having to fight for its life. It is interesting to speculate whether the apparent favour shown to the Mormons by the Nazis would have lasted. There is no real reason to think so. If the Nazis were ever strong enough to destroy the churches, even the most wealthy and influential of the sects would present no special case. Only the Witnesses saw their survival in terms of their survival as a group and measured their own salvation by their ability to hold firm to the faith. Some of their number would die, but this was God’s will and their role in life, to serve Him, and others would be converted and would take their place. There was only one survival path for a Witness, if he wished to keep his faith, and that was to remain in the movement and take the consequences. [196]

The four sects which achieved some kind of toleration from the Nazi state all found themselves accepting, either actively, or by their silence, the implications of totalitarian rule. Within each of the sects were those whose views did not necessarily coincide with those of the new regime, but who were willing to co-operate, either from the need to survive, or on a basis of nationalism or respect for the civil authorities. In either case their behaviour was a result of the views they held as churchmen. In each of the sects there were also those who found in National Socialism views which coincided with their own. Like their brethren whose acceptance of Nazism was based on a sect’s teaching on authority and citizenship, these people were able to argue that their views were a direct result of their religious beliefs. It would seem that the balance of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ collaborators varied between the four sects discussed.

There are, nevertheless, real problems in talking of German citizens under Nazi rule as collaborators. Collaboration normally implies co-operation with invading or occupying forces and thus whilst it is appropriate to talk of collaboration, both active and passive, and of resistance, for occupied Europe, the words may be used of Germany of the Third Reich only with some reservations. Notwithstanding this, given the totalitarian nature of the regime, it is perhaps useful to identify the behaviour of discrete believing groups within the Nazi state in terms of collaboration and resistance. As new religious movements all five groups were in considerable danger of closure. However much it might wish to disguise or deny the fact, each of these groups was a separate and potentially rival centre of loyalty.

Thus the four ‘collaborationist’ sects behaved in a way which was both actively co-operative, finding [197] in National Socialism a reflection of their own nationalist and conservative teachings, and, at the same time, passively obedient, accepting for the sake of their survival whatever the government might hand out. Of the two modes of co-operation, the passive, determined by survival strategies, was predominant. Areas of ideological similarity were found by the sectarians but their concerns, however politically sophisticated and worldly a sect had become, were with religious rather than political matters. The groups all had their own ideology, and whilst members were able to find areas of overlap with the new political ideology, it is unlikely that the two could be seen to match exactly. Where the two world systems do appear to overlap, and thus provide what seems a legitimate justification for a sectarian’s support of the system, more often than not, it has been seen, adjustments in theology and practice have been required.

It is here that the Witnesses provide an alternative model of behaviour, for, as the study of their reactions to the regime show, they were not willing to adjust or compromise to any degree. It is difficult for reasons other than those discussed above simply to categorise the Witnesses as ‘resisters’. However, in some senses they can be identified as a group which opposed the political system in which they found themselves. To the Nazis they were ‘subversives’, to contemporary totalitarian regimes they are ‘dissidents’, in their own view they are ‘neutrals’. The Witnesses soon learnt, however, that neutrality was not a category of behaviour understood or accepted by the Nazis. Thus, against their will, and by the simple adherence to their faith, they became resisters. Compared, say, with the underground communist resistance movement in Germany, both in camps and outside, their actions were passive, rather than active. Nevertheless, in the process of [198] strict adherence to the faith the Witnesses, like the Communists, found themselves in the position of condemning the general evils of the regime. In the conflict into which they were thrown, the Witnesses began to identify the Nazi regime not just as part of Satan’s system, but as especially evil.

Thus, for a while, the ‘neutrals’ became critics and in their underground work and continued missionary work found themselves identified as resisters. Whilst they would not break the law, unless it forbade their religious work, and would not undertake, say, acts of sabotage, by their very existence they were drawn into the general fight against Nazism and were to be found helping and protecting Jews, as well as sending abroad highly critical comments on life under the new regime.

However ‘neutral’, the Witnesses were highly effective resistors, proving by their insidious presence a real nuisance to the authorities. They were able to cause trouble, to make their presence felt and to highlight the failure of the police to suppress them. Moreover they aroused a certain amount of public sympathy and undoubtedly drew into their ranks some Germans who found no other convenient vehicle of resistance and opposition to the state. In the camps they made a great impression, even amongst those who considered them deluded, as only a group which could claim converts made even amongst its S.S. guards could do. The S.S. themselves despaired of ever silencing or suppressing the Witnesses, leading them still singing hymns to the punishment block and to their death. Not even a steam roller, one guard was heard to comment, would flatten the spirit of this lot!

Thus the ‘outsiders’ who wished for nothing other than being left alone, proved the real and insurmountable challenge to Nazism. Brute force could not suppress the Witnesses, the Nazis were to learn. Since this fact [199] simply could not, within the world-view of the totalitarian ideology, be accepted, the fully pitched battle initiated by the Nazis turned neutrals into active and dangerous resisters.

A collaborator may be seen as someone who accepts, with varying degrees of conviction, the validity and policies of the regime he lives under. Collaborators may accept either actively, with enthusiasm, or passively, out of a genuine sense of duty, or he may go along with the state of affairs out of fear or in order to achieve the survival of himself or his group. At the extreme end of the collaboration scale, there were sectarians who offered active support to the Nazis, based on what was seen as a genuine ideological sympathy. At the other end were those who kept quiet in the hope either that they would go unnoticed or that the regime would not survive. For most sectarians, life in the Third Reich probably consisted of a mix of the two extremes, and it was only after the regime had fallen and the judgement of the allies had been pronounced against the Nazis that the implications of such a policy were considered. In some, but not all cases, collaboration was identified and condemned.

A resister, on the other hand, may be seen as someone who identifies the regime under which he lives as inimicable to his views. He is prepared, moreover, to act, singly or in groups, to overthrew or subvert the workings of that regime. In doing this he develops strategies and an underground movement and becomes involved in active measures against the government he opposes. En route, and as a necessary corollary of his actions, the resister develops an ideology of resistance, based on his initial reaction and objections to the regime. In their way, the Witnesses fulfil all of these categories, although often unwillingly. In seeing themselves as citizens in only a limited sense of [200] any earthly kingdom, their obedience to their heavenly kingdom forced them to adept, ironically, very secular and practical means of opposition, simply in order to ‘survive’, i.e. to continue with their religious work. The ‘witnesses to Jehovah’, when they find themselves forbidden to fulfil their primary task, have to adopt strategies of resistance, have to develop an underground network for mutual support and comfort and construct, en route, a theology of martyrdom.

Thus all five groups found themselves forced to take sides; some did this willingly, some less so. For all of them, the survival of their movement was of paramount importance. For all of them there were costs attached to their choice. All the sects survived in that they were still active in 1945 when the war ended and the Third Reich fell. Some, notably the Adventists and the New Apostolic Church have had to face some heart searching about the past. Adventist writers are trying to come to terms with what happened and to understand the limitation of choices felt by Adventist leaders who in 1933 had to make a decision about the best way to cope with the threat posed to the group’s existence. The New Apostolic Church has been less willing to discuss the Nazi period of its history. The Mormons have undertaken their own studies and their literature defends the general approach of Mormons in the Third Reich. The boy rebels who resisted Nazism are, as has been seen, regarded as heroes, but the rashness of their resistance is regarded as extreme. Christian Scientists stress the healing work done in the war and after the war was over; only the Witnesses can claim to have emerged morally unscathed.

It might be argued that the suppression of dissident religious minorities within a totalitarian state would be a matter of course, that they would be identified as enemies and be eliminated; but as the [201] example of Nazi Germany shows, even a totalitarian state is sometimes constrained in its treatment of religious minorities by political considerations. Similarly it might be supposed that sectarians would oppose a regime it could identify as hostile to them and their kind. As the study here shows, however, this is not necessarily the case. The response of sectarians to persecution or the threat of persecution is determined not only by the nature of their teaching, but by their own survival criteria.

Those religious groups which showed themselves unwilling to negotiate also reveal the vulnerability and unpredictability of the Nazi state. Nazi society, new rootless and without intellectual backing, found itself by its destruction of so many institutions of the democratic state without a legitimation which in theory it should not need, but in practice sought. Thus the Nazis were willing to accept legitimation even from potentially suspect groups. In their contact with such groups the authorities reveal themselves moreover not only desperately seeking formal words of praise and support, but crude in their judgements of who was a friend and who an enemy. Offers of help and money are accepted, when accompanied by formal and sycophantic words of praise, as evidence of the genuine conversion of the givers to the Nazi cause. The ‘new men’ of the National Socialist state were willing, at least for the time being, to bask in the glory of prayers offered for their success, however inconsistent this might be with their general policies towards Christianity in general and sectarianism in particular. Thus, having identified enemies, the Nazi state is seen to temporise and compromise. Sects were able to achieve what Jaws and Slays were not; a straight exchange of money, services and legitimation for the right to be left in peace. The cost was compromise; [202] each of the sects which was prepared to buy its freedom, abandoned, however genuine its belief in the Nazi way, its claim to provide a total world-view for its adherents.

Only the Witnesses, and the small Adventist Reform Movement were not prepared to abandon such claims. These groups show that a totalitarian state cannot tolerate rivals and that a rootless and new society, self-consciously seeking legitimation, may expend a great deal of energy in the suppression of what might appear to a more confident and established regime, to be harmless cranks’. The persecution of the Witnesses was for the Nazis in many ways a tactical error. It took a great deal of police time and it was obvious, both in camps and in German society at large that it was failing in its object. But just as the extermination of a whole race was, besides anything else, a wasteful, expensive and counter-productive policy, so the Witnesses, like the Jews and like the Slavs became the victims of a system in which the irrational was raised to the level of a philosophy. The persecution of the Witnesses caused, undoubtedly, more problems than it solved. Besides raising questions about the use of police time and on the efficiency of their methods, it brought about considerable disquiet in certain sectors of the German population about the legality of the treatment of the sect. Once without friends, the Witnesses found themselves drawn into comradeship with Jews and with other victims of the Nazi state. From a position of neutrality they were forced into a position of resistance.

Sects were tolerated or persecuted according to the degree to which they challenged or upheld the Nazis’ views of themselves. The Witnesses presented the ultimate ideological challenge; their response and the scale of their resistance took the authorities [203] completely by surprise. As the usual methods of violence and suppression failed to bring the Witnesses to their knees before the god, National Socialism, the Nazi state persisted in persecution, using the only methods it knew. It created martyrs in the process and the movement which itself had fed on the idea of martyrdom and which in the Horst Wessel song regularly applauded the martyred heroes of National Socialism, did not realise or take seriously what it was doing. In creating martyrs, in continuing to persecute, the Nazis created their own monster which they could not control; one which fed on their own brutality and which was always present as an irritant, a reminder of the failure of policies of repression, a critic and a model of passive resistance. In taking on the sectarians who refused to knuckle under, the authorities took on more than they could cope with.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were, of course, used to persecution and had come to expect it, although it is too crude simply to describe them as natural victims. They were victims before Nazism and have been since, in the U.S.S.R., in South America and Central Africa they are still suffering persecution. They continue to refuse to join the armed forces, even for non-combatant duties. In white-ruled South Africa they face imprisonment for disobeying the draft. African children of Witnesses have been expelled from school for refusing to sing the National Anthem and in areas run by blacks they face similar problems. In Ethiopia and Tanzania as well as in Zaire, the movement is banned. A ban operating in Kenya was lifted in 1974, foreign missionaries were subsequently deported. In Malawi, where Witnesses refuse to buy membership cards of the ruling Malawi Congress Party, the campaign against them has been fierce and typical of many they are suffering under in places like Zambia and Mozambique.1 [204]

As in Nazi Germany, they are persecuted in Africa for what is seen as an anti-state message. In reality, the Witnesses here are as apolitical and ‘harmless’ to civil authorities as they were in the Third Reich. In Africa, as in Germany, it is the insecurity of new states which leads to the persecution, rather than any views held by the Witnesses themselves. Here, as in the Nazi state, the Witnesses are seen as obstacles to the building of one-party regimes. Here, similarly, Witnesses are easily identifiable, relatively defenceless and suspected of harbouring dissidents. In countries where political opposition is banned, the Witnesses yet again become a scapegoat of new and insecure regimes seeking an ‘enemy’.

The Witnesses continue to refuse compromise and their numbers continue to grow. Yet again they patiently try to explain that they are not trouble makers, that they are, as far as their beliefs allow them, exemplary citizens. They are not believed and are victims not only of the law, but of lynch mobs and smear campaigns. Their legal status varies from state to state in Africa, but their reputation, particularly in new one-party states remains the same; President Bands of Malawi in 1967 described them as ‘Not even Jehovah’s Witnesses ... They are the devil’s Witnesses’.2 The victims of the witch—hunt carry on with their work whilst the tightly-knit structure protects and nurtures members’ faith. Witnesses continue to believe, as they did in the Nazi concentration camps, that they are living in the last days and that their reward is near at hand. The door-to-door preaching continues. Unpreturbed by the seeming victory of the ‘forces of Satan’ in the new political regimes, Witness literature often points to the experience of the Nazi period, here Witnesses suffered and died, but Satan was thrown down and the work continues, readers are constantly reminded. [205]

In the Soviet Union their fate is the same.3 The movement came to Russia, rather ironically, as the Witnesses are the first to point out, through Soviet prisoners returning from German camps bringing with them the faith they had met there. The sect is illegal although this fact is not acknowledged in Soviet law. The reasons given for the ban and persecution again mirror the Nazi position. The work is seen as a cover for subversive international anti-Soviet activity, but in reality the objections are those of a one-party state against a rival centre of loyalty; as a result, some Witnesses are in labour camps and some are in exile. Interestingly enough, the Soviet experience of the Witnesses as dedicated and trustworthy workers appears to be introducing the idea that they are not so much evil as misled and manipulated and it is possible that this might herald some easing of the situation. Evidence remains sparse, however, and it is safe only to say that in Russia, as in other parts of the world, Witnesses are the victims of totalitarian rule and that here, as in Nazi Germany, they are uncompromising in their response.

Other sects are working in the U.S.S.R. and their experience, like that of the Witnesses, also mirrors their fate under the Nazis. The Seventh Day Adventists in particular provide an interesting point of comparison.4 Here the sect faced the issues it was later to face in Germany as early as 1917. After the revolution, the sect split, much as it did in Germany over the issue of the War. In Russia the mainstream group declared its loyalty to the revolution and the other, the ‘Adventists of the True Remnant’ resisted and went underground. Other schisms have arisen, all Opposing the Soviet state and these include the group known as the ‘True and Free Adventists’. Members of the schisms have suffered persecution and imprisonment [206] on what appears, from the limited evidence available, to be a considerable scale. In particular the name of Vladimir Shelkov has recently come into the news after his death in a labour camp after many years of imprisonment for his work with underground Adventist activity.

Adventists who oppose the system are described by the authorities in terms which would sound familiar to the Reform Movement members who suffered under Nazism. They are seen as ‘fanatics’, as guilty of ‘crimes’ which include adultery and causing death by baptism in icy rivers. They have, of course, no right of reply. The movement appears to be growing, particularly amongst the young and in its presentation of an alternative, discrete and incorruptible system of beliefs it presents what the Soviet authorities recognise is a serious challenge to a one-party state. Meanwhile the mainstream group, having bent the knee, is allowed, as it was in Nazi Germany, to survive. There are obvious parallels between the experience of sectarians in Nazi Germany and those currently suffering under totalitarian regimes. Even the Mormons are attempting to repeat the behaviour learnt during the Third Reich, being advised to refrain from agitating against Communism.5

What is seen as dangerous in a new religious movement by a totalitarian state, or by a new and insecure state, is not its teaching or even its international contacts, but its self-contained and all-embracing world-view. By this new regimes feel challenged. Whilst persecution seems to be more sporadic and less formalised than it was in Nazi Germany, it nevertheless continues, and for the same reasons. Whilst each state, totalitarian or democratic, has to come to terms with the existence within its frontiers of new and controversial religious movements, the movements themselves have to determine their own response to different states. [207]

Whilst certain patterns of behaviour may be deduced from the study of the sects under Nazism, no firms rules can be made. The experience of government, of whatever kind, is determined by a country’s own history. Thus Nazism presented a peculiarly German kind of challenge, bureaucratic and legalistic, other totalitarian states have been less consistent and less open in their treatment of Christian minorities. The response of new religious movements to the state, it would seem, is determined by history and theology, and in particular a group’s conservatism in its own view of itself as the self-contained vehicle of the truth for its adherents. The more authoritarian and conservative a group, the less likely it would seem to be willing to compromise. Thus this kind of group, exemplified by the Witnesses, would find itself, in time of crisis, thrown into opposition to the state. Those groups which accept the validity of their role in the world would seem more likely to be willing to negotiate and thus to be accepted.

Although the problems of the Third Reich were unique, the issues raised remain important. Each sect, in deciding on and putting into operation its own strategy for survival, made some kind of statement about its own role in society and relation to the state. In doing so, each also revealed a great deal about the state itself.

It might be argued therefore, that it is possible to generalise about the relation of sects to society. However, this generalisation might prove dangerous. Even in totalitarian states, so many factors are unknown and situations can change or be modified by unexpected forces. No-one could have foreseen, for example, that religious life in the democratic western world would have been changed by a world economic recession which has brought to the fore a powerful [208] fundamentalist Christian revival. The ‘born again’ Christians, with their political and moral certainties, might well influence, for better or for worse, political decisions as well as the degree of practical toleration accorded to all kinds of minorities, religious and civil. In any situation of tension or of ‘renewal’, amongst the first people to come under the scrutiny of those who seek to build a new society are likely to be members of minority religious movements. In the western world some new religious movements face currently legal wrangles and a mixture of prejudice and suspicion. It is in this context that their decisions about their relationship to the state, indeed to any kind of state, are being made. An analysis of this process might be enlightened by the case of Nazi Germany. For those groups facing persecution in totalitarian states, the Nazi experience can be seen both as a model and a warning.

[Chapter VI] [Chapter VII] [Appendices] [Notes]

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