Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte (KZG)
Contemporary Church History (CCH)

Internationale Halbjahreszeitschrift für Theologie und Geschichtswissenschaft
International Journal for Theologsy and History

14. Jahrgang / Volume 14 – Heft / Issue 2/2001

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht


Seite / pages 576-578

Buchbesprechungen / Book Reviews

Hans Hesse (ed.), Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi Regime 1933-1945, Bremen: Edition Temmen 2001. 405pp., Hardcover, EUR 39,90 (ISBN 3-86108-750-2).


The story of the persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses under Nazi rule was little known by historians some twenty or so years ago. Even amongst Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, whilst stories of bravery under harassment and torture were recounted, there was little systematic analysis of what had happened and how it had happened. Witnesses had a very clear theological understanding about why it had happened but had no evidence that either scholars or the general public would be interested in their story. Not until professional researchers began to document and legitimate the experience on non-Jewish victims of the Third Reich, did the Witness record come into its own.


This book is a landmark in the study of the persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses by the Nazis. It is comprised of an eclectic collection of essays which add to our understanding both of the details of individuals' lives and of the complex issues surrounding the whole area. It makes use of a considerable range of documents not published before and offers both case studies and a series of thoughtful and broader analyses.


The authors are all experts, in one way or another, in this field. They are a mixture of Jehovah's Witnesses and non-Witnesses. In this the book is unique. The preface is written by Michael Berenbaum, a distinguished voice in the study of the Holocaust and a former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. The translation is by the late and deeply respected scholar Sybil Milton, once Senior Historian at the Museum, who also offers two important essays as a contribution to the book. There are important essays by other leaders in this field of study and essays by Witnesses who are researchers and workers for the Watch Tower Society.


Although the emphasis is on the experience of this one group of people, there is an understanding throughout and a respect for the wider picture. This story, valuable and important in its own right, needs to be seen in the context of the horrors of the Holocaust. As Jolene Chu, author one of the essays reminds us, `it is a sad and sobering fact that the Nazi regime executed a brilliant and ruthless war against the Jews, and nearly won'. Michael Berenbaum, in his preface, sets the context clearly; `Jews were victimized not for what they did but for who they were. They were targeted for destruction because of what their grandparents were'. Jewish people in the Third Reich, as we know, had no choice.


Jehovah's Witnesses had come to Germany from America in the 1890s and by the time of the Nazi seizure of power had some 25,000 members in Germany. They had already met some harassment under Weimar from the SA and other emerging Nazi gangs. From 1933until the end of the war, the Witnesses found themselves thrown into a violent and pitched battle with the Nazi authorities, during which some of their children were taken away to be educated in Nazi homes and a large number of members of the group were imprisoned and tortured. Many lost their lives.

The conflict was one of ideologies. The Witnesses have a clear view of History and their sacred role in it. As a result of these beliefs, and in spite of the fact that within the limits that their faith allows they were law-abiding citizens, conflict with the new state was rapid and brutal.


The Jehovah's Witnesses were different to other categories of what the Nazis identified as `enemies of the state'. They were targeted and persecuted because of their beliefs and the consequences of their beliefs. Witnesses refused to give the Hitler salute because their religious beliefs taught them that such a salutation was due only to their God. Because of their view of history and their role in it as 'witnesses' to their God, they refused similarly to enlist or to bear arms. Equally, they disobeyed the instruction to cease their missionary work and they continued to hold their religious meetings. The beliefs and practices which stimulated the Nazi persecution were also at the heart of Jehovah's Witness resistance.


Resistance, as we know, was both rare and dangerous. If we look at the behaviour of other minority Christian and secular groups in the Third Reich we see, on the whole, a process of compromise, assimilation or denial. Some members of small religious groups hailed Hitler as the Messiah and others expunged from their liturgy all references to anything `Jewish'. Thus hymns and liturgies were amended to omit the words `Sabbath' or `Jerusalem'. Others were prepared to hand over to the Nazis the names of any of their members who had Jewish blood. Many very small groups simply went underground or ceased their activities.


In the distribution of their literature and in door-to-door missionary work, the Witnesses, however, offered a real and visible challenge. Whether at large or in prison or camps, the majority of Witnesses simply refused to give to the state what they knew belonged only to God. No compromise, no changing words or re-interpreting, just a simple standing firm to what they had been taught and believed as individuals and as families. This was no orchestrated mass resistance movement; this was a set of individuals, linked by their beliefs, who refused to bow the knee.


The persecution that followed was relentless. Witnesses found themselves in prisons and camps all over the Reich. Some of their stories are told in this book. Margaret Buber, herself an inmate, told us first of the women Witnesses in Ravensbruck. Here their story is retold, together with the history of Witnesses women in Moringen. We read the letters of Hans Gartner, set alongside the picture of him as a young man alongside his four sisters. Hans served sentences in prison and in Dachau and Mauthausen. His letters are concerned with the welfare of his wife and children and we follow through these simple, earnest letters, following his fate until we learn that on April 26, 1940, he died in Dachau aged 33. Shortly before his death, close to starvation, Gartner begged an SS officer for a piece of bread and had, in response, a finger cut off.


The Witness story is important in its own right. It is also important to the continuing and necessary process of studying the complexity of the dreadful tapestry of horrors that was woven by the Nazis. There is now an insurmountable degree of evidence to attest to the courage and steadfastness of numbers of Jehovah's Witnesses; men, women and children. These essays offer more detailed case studies, of life for Witness prisoners in the camps, wearing with pride their purple triangle.


As a (non-Witness) scholar of this period, there are, of course some areas I would like to have seen covered here which are not. There are some, which I would not have included. I wonder, for example, about the wisdom of including under this title an essay on the current situation for Witnesses in Germany. I would like to have seen a different structure in which the historical framework was laid down more overtly at the outset. All these comments are, however, a measure of my engagement with the book. Here is the work of a very particular group of specialists, with a deep understanding of the faith that forged this resistance. Historians of Religion welcomed the publication of this book in German in 1998. It has been well used by scholars and by students. This English version is very much to be welcomed. There is a great deal of interest in this subject. The work and the sources now become available to a very wide range of scholars and students in England and North America. It will also be of interest to the general reader for it is both scholarly and accessible.


Professor Dr. Christine King, Staffordshire University, 1,2,3 Winton Square, England /