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
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.
In April 1933, four months after Hitler became
Chancellor, Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in Bavaria and by the summer
in most of Germany. Twice during 1933, police occupied the Witnesses'
offices and their printing site in Magdeburg and confiscated religious
literature. Witnesses defied Nazi prohibitions by continuing to meet and
distribute their literature often covertly. Copies were made from booklets
smuggled in mainly from Switzerland.
Initially, Jehovah's Witnesses attempted to fend off
Nazi attacks by issuing a letter to the government in October 1934,
explaining their religious beliefs and political neutrality. This
declaration failed to convince the Nazi regime of the group's
harmlessness. For defying the ban on their activities, many Witnesses were
arrested and sent to prisons and concentration camps. They lost their jobs
as civil servants or employees in private industry and their unemployment,
social welfare and pension benefits.
From 1935 onward, Jehovah's Witnesses faced a Nazi
campaign of nearly total persecution. On April 1, 1935, the group was
banned nationally by law. The same year, Germany reintroduced compulsory
military service. For refusing to be drafted or perform war-related work,
and continuing to meet, Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested and incarcerated
in prisons and concentration camps. In 1935 some 400 Jehovah's Witnesses
were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
In 1936 a special unit of the Gestapo (Secret State
Police) began compiling a registry of all persons believed to be Jehovah's
Witnesses, and agents infiltrated Bible study meetings. By 1939, an
estimated 6,000 Witnesses (including those from incorporated Austria and
Czechoslovakia) were detained in prisons or camps. Some Witnesses were
tortured by police in attempts to make them sign a declaration renouncing
their faith, but few capitulated.
In response to Nazi efforts to destroy them, the
world-wide Jehovah's Witness organization became a center of spiritual
resistance against the Nazis. An international convention of Witnesses,
held in Lucerne, Switzerland, in September 1936, issued a resolution
condemning the entire Nazi regime. In this text and other literature
brought into Germany, writers broadly indicted the Third Reich. Articles
strongly denounced the persecution of German Jews, Nazi "savagery" toward
Communists, the remilitarization of Germany, the Nazification of schools
and universities, Nazi propaganda, and the regime's assault on mainstream
The children of Jehovah's Witnesses also suffered. In
classrooms, teachers ridiculed children who refused to give the "Heil,
Hitler!" salute or sing patriotic songs. Classmates shunned and beat up
young Witnesses. Principals expelled them from schools. Families were
broken up as authorities took children away from their parents and sent
them to reform schools, orphanages, or private homes, to be brought up as
Who Are Jehovah's Witnesses?
In 1872, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), the second
son of devout Presbyterian parents, founded the International Bible
Student Association in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was his purpose,
through intense Biblical study, to uncover God's word, which has been
"buried under a morass of pagan teachings" mistakenly adopted by
mainstream Christian churches over the centuries.
In 1931, the Association under Russell's successor,
Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942), changed its name to Jehovah's
Witnesses. Invoking the prophet Isaiah (43:12)--"You are my witnesses, and
I am God"--adherents have dedicated themselves to bearing witness to
Jehovah's name and His Kingdom.
The Jehovah's Witnesses anticipate the establishment
of an earthly paradise under God's Kingdom. They believe this Kingdom will
emerge following Armageddon--a final battle between the forces of good and
evil. The Witnesses use the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as the
main text for their beliefs. While they do not believe that Jesus is God,
they consider Chris the chief agent for his father, who is God.
The Witnesses meet in churches called Kingdom Halls.
Most members of local
congregations are "publishers" expected to spend as
much time as circumstances permit in door-to-door preaching. The Jehovah's
Witnesses publish books. tracts, recordings, and periodicals, including
The Watchtower and Awake, which appear in more than 100 languages and over
200 nations. Three corporations direct the activities of the Witnesses:
the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the
Brooklyn-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Inc. of New York and
the International Bible Students Association. According to their figures,
nearly five million "publishers" are presently active in 69,558
congregations in 229 countries.
Jehovah's Witnesses - Victims of the Nazi Era-1933-1945.
Last Letter of Wolfgang Kusserow.
Brandenburg, March 27, 1942
My dear Parents, and my dear brothers and sisters!
One more time I am given the opportunity to write
you. Well, now I, your third son and brother, shall leave you tomorrow
early in the morning. Be not sad, the time will come when we shall all be
together again. Those who will sow with tears, will reap with joy. "Those
sowing seed with tears will reap even with a joyful cry."
How great the joy will be, when we see all of us
again, although it is not easy now to overcome all this, but through
belief and hope in the King and His Kingdom we conquer the worst. "For I
am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor
things now here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any
other creation will be able to separate us from God's love that is in
Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39).
So we confidently look forward to the future.
Dear Papa, I am sorry that I was not allowed to visit
you early in December. Exactly one year ago from tomorrow I saw you and
Hildegard for the last time. In the meantime I have visited Lenchen. It
was a special joy for me to see Mummy once again. Well, dear Mummy,
Annemarie read me your dear letter during her visit...It is fine that you
are busy in the baking factory (prison), so you are at least in a warm
room and you have something to eat. Lenche is now in the concentration
Thus we are all separated, but everybody is steady.
Yes we shall be rewarded for all of this. Read this in James 1:12: "Happy
is the man who keeps on enduring trials, because on becoming approved he
will receive the crown of life, which Jehovah promised to those who
continue loving Him."
Dear Annemarie, once more special thanks to you for
all your endeavors. May this our Lord reward you. I have you all
constantly in mind. That was a life, when we were all at home
together!--And suddenly separated!
Well Satan knows that his time is short. Therefore,
he tries with all his power to lead astray from God men of good will, but
he will have no success. We know that our faith will be victorious.
In this faith and this conviction I leave you.
A last greeting from this old world in the hope of
seeing you again soon in a New World.
Your son and brother