The Fascist Repression of Jehovah's Witnesses:
This article was published in Association of Contemporary Church
Historians (Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchliche Zeitgeschichtler) Newsletter -
January 2001 - Vol VII, no 1. Author translated it from his book in italian
language "Fra martirio e resistenza. La persecuzione nazista e fascista dei
Testimoni di Geova", Editrice Actac, Como, 1997: http://libriusati.hypermart.net/martirio.htm.
To contact author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jehovah's Witnesses began their preaching work in Italy at the turn of the century. Their first community was founded at Pinerolo (Torino) in 1908. In 1925, their first convention was held there at Pinerolo where, just a few years earlier, they had opened an operative office. There was small expansion in the 1920's and 1930's, when the Witnesses spread to various provinces including Sondrio, Aosta, Ravenna, Vincenza, Trento, Benevento, Avellino, Foggia, L'Aquila, Pescara and Teramo.
The first mention of Jehovah's Witnesses' existence in Italy is in a document in the record office. It is the decree of the Military Court of Alessandria concerning Remigio Cuminetti, a Witness who refused military service during the Big War, becoming the first conscientious objector of modern Italy.1
Examining papers regarding Jehovah's Witnesses in the State Record Office, we find some interesting items. There are documents dating from 1927: statements from the Prefect of the Department of the Interior; information from the Department itself, from various Prefects, and from the Superintendent of Police; reports from the O.V.R.A. (the notorious Fascist police department); information about house searches and interrogations, etc. All of these are of concern not only to Jehovah's Witnesses, but also to the many who show interest in and respect for their upright way of life.
What, then, was the reason for such intensive scrutiny and careful record keeping? It was to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from introducing their publications into Italy. In Italy, as in Germany, the religious group was looked upon with grave concern because of its pacifism (members chose to refuse military service), its political neutrality, and its dislike of any form of totalitarianism. Investigations were made into any citizens who had even taken a subscription to the 'Watchtower', the Witnesses' main magazine.2
Eventually, the O.V.R.A. managed to identify all the members of the Italian group, about 150-200 Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom were condemned to prison or sent into forced residence for allegedly plotting against the Fascist regime. In fact, the Witnesses were often forced to live in secluded villages in the south of Italy, villages that were freed by the allies before September, 1943, allowing them to avoid deportation. This spared many from the Nazi concentration camps, where most of the Italian prisoners went.
In spite of this, not all managed to avoid the Holocaust. Salvatore Doria from Cerignola was not released from Civitavecchia's prison after the 8th of September. Guilty of 'insulting the king,' he was transferred to Sulmona's Abbey, then deported to Dachau's hell.3 Narciso Riet of Cernobbio was responsible for contact between the Italian and German Witnesses. He was arrested after the armistice and taken first to Dachau, then to Plotzensee Prison in Berlin. There, in November of 1944, he was informed that the Court of Justice had condemned him to death. He was moved to the death house at Brandenburg Prison on the Rodano, and shot in early 1945. 4
No other religious group during the Resistance period was so affected by the Fascist regime; Jehovah's Witnesses had been the most persecuted, and was practically the only group brought before the Special Fascist Court. The Court had condemned 26 Witnesses to prison terms from 2 to 11 years, for a combined total of 186 years and 10 months. (Sentence n.50 of April 19, 1940). An examination of the volume "Aula IV - Tutti i Processi del Tribunale Speciale Fascista" ["Fourth Courtroom - All Trials of the Special Fascist Court"]). A collection of all trials held by the above-mentioned Court, shows that apart from two Pentecostals, only the 26 Jehovah's Witnesses were condemned.5
Those 26 were not the only ones affected, however. After the O.V.R.A.'s investigations and its related proposal, 22 other people considered 'dangerous' were sent into forced residence, 29 'not particularly active' were given warnings, and 60 'simple followers' were treated with distrust. The entire group of 137 Witnesses was criminalized.6
Examining a circular promulgated by the Department of Interior during the Fascist period brings us to the same conclusion: Jehovah's Witnesses were the main object of religious persecution during the Fascist regime. That circular, n.441\027713 of August 22, 1939, was entitled "Religious Sects, 'Pentecostals' and Others". In it, booklets that had been sequestered were claimed to belong to the "sect of the Pentecostals," though the circular also precisely stated those booklets contained no reference to the Pentecostals!7 Well then, whose literature was it? It was published by the Watchtower Society; written by its president, J.F. Rutherford (Rutherford had not as yet been recognized as director/ publisher of the Society's publications). Clearly, Jehovah's Witnesses were already victims of Fascist persecution.
Another circular, entitled n.441\02977 of March 13,1940, recognized the victims by name: "Religious Sect of 'Jehovah's Witnesses' or Bible Students and Other Religious Sects Which Have Principles in Contrast with Our Institution." It discussed the "exact identification of those religious sects...that differ from the already known sect of the 'Pentecostals'", underlining "the verification of the existence of the sect of the 'Jehovah's Witnesses' and the fact that the literature we have already examined in the above mentioned circular of the 22nd August 1939 n. 441\027713, is attributed to them, must not cause one to think that the sect of the 'Pentecostals' is politically harmless...such a sect must be considered harmful, even though in a lesser degree than the sect of the 'Jehovah's Witnesses'".8
There is proof that the clergy played a definite role in contributing to persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses by the Fascist regime. For example, in 1939, the magazine "Fides" carried an article written by an anonymous "priest caring for souls." He affirmed "the association of Jehovah's Witnesses is atheistic communism and openly attempted to attack the safety of the state." This anonymous priest defined himself as being "actively dedicated against this religious association for three years," raising himself as a protector of the Fascist State. Surely, he knew that hurling these accusations would provoke the regime's intervention.9
The leader of the fourth zone of the O.V.R.A., in a report on the "Religious Sect: Jehovah's Witnesses," wrote that his office in Milano was closed by Police Headquarters "because of the reaction of the Catholic clergy and of the antifascist accent of the books that had been distributed."10 Even the magazine "Rivista Abruzzese di Studi Storici dal Fascismo alla Resistenza" (Abruzzese Magazine of Historical Studies from Fascism to the Resistance) confirms the fact: "The instruction of the hierarchy of the national Establishment, military and civil, lay or ecclesiastical, was for the annihilation by means of condemnation of the supposed leaders and of those considered the most active followers of the newest 'Protestants'," that had come to disturb the "healthy country environment of Abruzzo, Puglie, Campania and Trentino."11
This is reminiscent of the Catholic Church's involvement with the group in Nazi Germany; reporting activities of Jehovah's Witnesses to the authorities.12 To their credit, both under Nazi and Fascist rule, Jehovah's Witnesses were one of the few groups that did not blemish themselves by collaborating with the dictatorial regime. Catholic American writer Gordon Zahn has admitted that, "except for the position that some minor Protestant sect took - the Jehovah's Witnesses and the traditional 'Churches of Peace', for example - there is no reason to believe that the attitude of the German Protestantism was different to that of the Catholic Religion that gave support to the Nazi war."13
With the end of World War II, the group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Italy started to reorganize the activity of proselytism that has brought the number of their preachers from 120 in 1946 to the present 215,000. With their 2,800 communities scattered throughout the national territory, they form the most consistent religious association in the country, second only to the Catholic Church.14
1 - Sentence n. 309, of August 18, 1916. Files of the Military Court of Torino.
2 - Circular of the Department of Interior, n. 442\41732, of September 21, 1929.
3 - Letter of December 30, 1995. By historian and ex-deportee Giovanni Melodia.
4 - "Riet Narciso" documents, Archive of Matteo Pierro.
5 - From the book "Aula IV - Tutti i Processi del Tribunale Speciale Fascista" (Fourth Courtroom - All the Trials of the Special Fascist Court), AA. VV. Milano, 1976, pp. 324, 325, 405, 406. See also the book "Regime Fascista e Chiese Evangeliche" (Evangelist Churches and the Fascist Regime), by G. Rochat, Torino, 1990, p. 318.
6 - Central File of the State, PS. GI. 314, report n. 0799 of January 3, 1940 of General Police Inspector Dr. Pasquale Andriani, Fourth Zone O.V.R.A., p. 18, with attachment n. 89 (p. 290-292), n. 90 (p. 292-296), n. 91 (p. 297-303). See also the Department of Interior's communication "General Direction of the Police, General and Reserved Affairs Department" First Division, record n. 441\0218, of February 1, 1940.
7 - General File of the State.
8 - General File of the State.
9 - "Fides" magazine of February 1939, article: "The Jehovah's Witnesses in Italy," p. 77-94.
10 - Report n. 0799 of January 3, 1940 of General Police Inspector Dr. Pasquale Andriani, quotation p. 34.
11 - "Abruzzese Magazine of Historical Studies from Fascism to the Resistance," 3rd year, n. 3, 1982, p. 561.
12 - From the book "The Nazi and the Church," by G. Lewy, Milano, 1965, p.70.
13 - From the book "The German Catholics and the War of Hitler," by G. Zahn, Firenze, 1973, p.60.
14 - "The Watchtower" magazine, January 1, 1996, vol. 117, n. 1, p.13,
Matteo Pierro published in 1997 a book in italian language about nazist and fascist persecution in Germany and in Italy. Title: "Fra martirio e resistenza. La persecuzione nazista e fascista dei testimoni di Geova". (Between martyrdom and resistance. The nazist and fascist persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses), Editrice Actac, 1997, pp. 96. You can see a preview here: http://utenti.tripod.it/matteopierro To contact author: email@example.com
Here is a english estract from the book:
The Nazis' persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses
When we hear of the concentration camps, we usually think of the genocide of the Jewish nation. Some 6.000.000 of the 11.000.000 victims of Nazism were Jews. According to the research work of Italo Tibaldi, historian and ex deportee, among the 40.000 Italian deported only 7.500 were Jews.
Among the other victims persecuted for their religious beliefs there were the Bibelforscher (Bible Students), today better known as Jehovah's Witnesses. Why were they so severely persecuted by Hitler? What makes the experience of these "few" thousand victims of the Nazism so significant? What did the other deportees think of them? And how were they considered by the Nazi leaders? Let us leave the answers to who lived through those dramatic days.
In Germany the oppression of the Bibelforscher started in the same year that Adolf Hitler gained power. District laws were issued forbidding the activities of the IBV (Internationale Bibelforscher Vereiningung, the name then used by Jehovah's Witnesses to protect themselves). These laws were followed by the national law of 1 April 1935, that forbade the Bibelforscher to publish books, to have meetings and to preach publicly. Whoever broke these laws was sentenced to "protective custody", which in Gestapo language meant isolation in a concentration camp.
In May 1937 the State's Secret Police ordered the arrest of anyone promoting, in any way, the activities of the IBV. All of this prompted a gigantic man-hunt and from then on, orders of this kind were given in all the nations that gradually came to find themselves under German leadership. The reasons behind such fierce hostility towards the Jehovah's Witnesses were, according to Hans Marsalek in his book "Mauthausen", "they refused to give a loyalty oath to Hitler and they refused to engage in any type of military service; this was the political consequence of their faith".
Once they arrived at the concentration camp the Bibelforscher received, like other prisoners, the typical striped uniform with a roll number and a triangle of coloured material to indicate what category he belonged to. The Jews had a yellow triangle sewn on their uniform, the political prisoners had a red triangle, the homosexuals a pink one, and the criminal a green one. The Bibelforscher were recognized by a purple triangle.
During the first years of imprisonment the prisoners were treated very badly. Marsalek writes: "...the Bibelforscher, easily recognized by the purple triangle, were regularly ill-treated". Moreover every time a Bibelforscher was pronounced fit to be called-up for military service, his refusal to comply sentenced him to death. This sentence (incurred only by German Jehovah's Witnesses), was carried out 203 time, while another 432 died of hunger, suffering and privations.
What made their imprisonment unusual was that they were the only ones who had the opportunity to set themselves free. There was, for this purpose, a special form in which the signer declared that he had dissociated from the IBV and would no longer take part in their activities: to be released all they had to do was sign this form. The writer and ex-deportee Vincenzo Pappalettera wrote regarding this: "They were real heroes because, unlike all the other deportees, they could be released from their imprisonment on condition they signed the form denying their faith, something that very few did". Therefore they can be considered real martyrs, because they chose to suffer for a noble reason, not betraying their religious principles. Once again Pappalettera says: "The Bibelforscher...preferred to suffer cold, hunger and epidemics that led them to death. So they are martyrs who should be venerated".
In the camps the Bibelforscher were respected by the other prisoners for their unselfish and peaceful attitude, and for the way they adhered to their faith. Many ex-deportees have spoken about that attitude. For example, Bruno Bettelheim said: "They felt the effects of the internment less than the other groups, and managed to keep their integrity...showing extraordinary human dignity and high moral behavior... they were exemplary, helpful, honest and reliable friends... the only prisoners that did not insult or mistreat their companions, but rather, they usually were very polite". Hans Marsalek writes: "...they were peaceful, unpretentious, well-disciplined, patient, diligent men, dedicated to their faith. This was another reason why none of them ever tried to escape". Vincenzo Pappalettera says: "It is known to all deportees that the Jehovah's Witnesses were polite, kind, honest, and none of them changed into a kapò to survive". Even their jailers, who followed Hitler's personal instructions and were determined to eliminate all the Bibelforscher, had admiration for them. Among the others we will quote Rudolf Hoss, commander of Auschwitz concentration camp, he wrote: "They were calm, diligent, and sociable individuals, both men and women, and were always ready to help their neighbour. Their reciprocal brotherly love was touching; they worried about one another and they would help each other in all that was possible. That is the way I imagine the first Christian martyrs were, when they were led into the arena to be torn to pieces by wild animals".
Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, said: "Among the positive things about the Bibelforscher is that they don't do military service or work for the war. They don't drink or smoke. They are industrious and sincere people. They don't aspire to become rich. They should preach to people to transmit their peaceable ideas".
The concentration camps were not able to swallow the few thousand Jehovah's Witnesses then present in Europe; but this diabolical death tool has let the name of thousands of martyrs pass into history. May we respect the sacrifice of these people, perhaps showing a little more consideration and regard towards the heirs of the Bibelforscher, the Jehovah's Witnesses that today knock at our doors.