|Johannes S. Wrobel: Jehovah's Witnesses in National Socialist Concentration Camps,
1933-45, in: Religion, State
& Society, The Keston
Journal, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, ISNN 0963-7494,
vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2006), pp. 89-125.
ABSTRACT AND SUMMARY
Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ‘Earnest Bible Students’, were banned and persecuted from the beginning of the National Socialist regime because of their non-compliance with National Socialist ideology and practices. They constituted one of the main categories of ‘protective custody prisoners’. By March 1934, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, or 40 per cent of 1000 arrested, had been sent to early concentration camps in Germany. Between 1933 and 1935 several hundred of the 3000 German believers taken into custody became a distinguishable group of prisoners in the early terror camps of the National Socialists.
In 1935, when military service became compulsory, Jehovah’s Witnesses were offered a ‘Declaration’ in which they were given the ‘choice’ of leaving the concentration camp and prison in return for renouncing their faith, collaborating with the National Socialist system and joining the army. The Witnesses’ successful resistance to signing the paper is a key factor in understanding why the prisoner group became the ‘particular object of SS hatred’ (Garbe, 2002, p. 96), leading to exposure to even greater cruelty by the SS who sent them to the ‘punishment battalions’.
In 1936, in the context of the reorganisation of the terror-camp system, the SS administration assigned Witness prisoners the purple triangle identification badge classifying them as one of the main and distinctive prisoner groups. They also ‘formed a substantial group of concentration camp inmates’ (Broszat, 1982, p. 195), especially when compared with the low total number of concentration camp inmates during the autumn and winter of 1936 when the Gestapo undertook mass arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several thousand male and female Jehovah’sWitnesses suffered in the main and ‘modern’ National Socialist concentration camps and the subcamps and labour details between 1936 and 1945. The names of 4200 Jehovah’s Witness concentration camp inmates from Germany and other countries, or 37 per cent of over 11,300 believers of different nationalities arrested, have been registered so far. Their uncompromising spirit and courage earned them a certain respect from the SS and other prisoner groups especially from the summer of 1939 onward.
Because they refused to perform any military services or war-related work, the ferocious suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the National Socialists would climax dramatically with the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942, in view of the heavy war losses being sustained by Germany, the SS leaders shifted their concentration camp policy to a more ‘economic’ orientation, and many Jehovah’s Witnesses, though not all, were assigned to labour outside the camps that would not lead to an irreconcilable clash between National Socialist ideology and their conscience. The SS viewed them as reliable workers and experienced camp inmates who were not subversive, would not flee, and would work diligently. Up until the end of the war, however, the terror regime continued to treat them as ‘enemies of the state’, suppressing them severely, and executing 370 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and underground religious activities. The vast majority of the 1490 registered Witnesses of different nationalities who lost their lives died as concentration camp prisoners - some 950, or 64 per cent.
The existing historical material demonstrates that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a distinctive and distinguishable victim and prisoner group of the National Socialists from the beginning of the regime. Future investigations should seek to provide more detailed and complete statistics on the early camps (1933 - 35/36) and the main concentration camps (1936 - 45) and to shed more light on the role and fate of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Hitler’s prisons. Academic research into these and other areas, which must also include oral-history reports from survivors, is crucial for ensuring that the memory of the prisoners with the ‘purple triangle’ in concentration camps and the thousands of other Jehovah’s Witnesses who suffered persecution under National Socialism will not sink into oblivion. The ‘purple triangle’ is both a document of contemporary history and a call to remembrance.