Gabriele Yonan: Spiritual Resistance of Christian Conviction in Nazi Germany: The Case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, in: Journal of Church & State, Spring 1999, pp. 307-322.

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Jehova's Witnesses as modern-day Representatives of the chiliastic tradition - 307
Who are the Jehovah's Witnesses? - 308
Religious Persecution in History - 309
Recapitualation: The Witnesses' Resistance - 310
Failure of the Larger Churches During the Nazi Regime - 311
The Confessional Church - Resistance for its own purposes - 313
The Witnesses' Religious Resistance Interpreted and Evaluated - 315
The Declaration of 25 June 1933: A Textual Analysis - 318
Conclusion - 321


[page 318]


Only a few months after Hitler seized power, the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in the various states of the Reich (e.g., Bavaria and Saxonia) on the basis of the Order of 28 February 1933, for "the prevention of Communistic acts of violence dangerous to the State" and for "the restoration of public security and order." Between 24 April and 29 April, the Watchtower printery in Magdeburg (Prussia) was seized by German Police and the SA. The seizure ended temporarily, but by the end of June the premises were again shut down--this time permanently. A few weeks later, twenty-five truckloads of Bibles and Bible literature from the Watchtower were publicly burned by the National Socialists.

As the situation for Jehovah's Witnesses clearly continued to darken (on 24 June 1933, Prussia also issued a ban on their activities), the Watch Tower Society decided, together with its German branch office, to hold a large convention in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. The seven thousand delegates present adopted a Declaration which spoke out against the false charges of seditious activity and emphasized the political neutrality of Jehovah's Witnesses. This resolution was addressed to Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler in the form of a petition, an appeal. The churches in Germany today claim that this Declaration represented an attempt on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses to curry the favor of Hitler and his Nazi state, and that it included anti-Jewish statements. They claim that it was only after the failure of this attempt that Jehovah's Witnesses resisted the Nazi regime. The charges climaxed in the accusation that the American Watch Tower Office and its president, J. F. Rutherford, had knowingly sacrificed the German Jehovah's Witnesses and pushed them onto a road that would inevitably lead to martyrdom. A textual analysis of the actual document indicates that these accusations are erroneous.

The passages quoted from the Declaration create the impression that it was primarily a justification, an overture toward the Nazi system, and that it was influenced by anti-Jewish attitudes. This, however, is a falsification of the facts. From a secular point of view, the document was a "sermon" directed to the addressee, Reichskanzler Hitler himself. It was a clear dissociation from the powers of this world but it took for granted that surely even Hitler had good intentions, that even he must have wanted to do good. But it also proclaimed that if this should prove not to be so, then the Reichskanzler and Fuhrer of the German people belonged to the kingdom of Satan. Hitler would then become an enemy of Jehovah and his Witnesses. These straightforward statements left the Reichskanzler with only two possible conclusions: either the Declaration was the product of the collective [page 319] imaginations of some crazed religious group or, it was, in its mad boldness, a declaration of war from a David against a Goliath.

While the powerful Roman Catholic Church had entered into a gentleman's agreement with the dictator in the form of the concordat, here a small Christian faction was blowing the trumpet of Jericho and demanding, in sermon-style and in all earnestness, that Hitler should subject himself completely to the will of Jehovah. In turn the church promised that it would then maintain its neutrality, as it did in all other states. And although Hitler was still addressed in politely neutral terms, this small group did not hesitate to call its business partner, the Roman Catholic Church, a tool of "the great enemy Satan."

The Witnesses repudiated the charges that they were supported by Jews or Bolsheviks--accusations of "Satan's tool" were whispered into the Reichskanzler's ears by the "official" churches. And certainly, the established churches had long been pushing for an official ban on this "sectarian" but above all zealous Christian denomination. Under the Weimar Republic such attempts had dissipated. Because Jehovah's Witnesses advocate only one government, that of God's Kingdom, some have viewed them as subversive. But nothing could be further from the truth. In imitation of Jesus' apostles, "they are no part of the world" (John 17:16). They are politically neutral. Because of their loyalty to God, they obey the laws of their respective human governments. Indeed, they are exemplary in their "subjection to the superior authorities" (Romans 13:1). Never have they advocated rebellion against any human government! There is, however, a line that cannot be crossed under any circumstances. It is the line between the duty of Jehovah's Witnesses to man and their duty to God. They seek to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).

The passages from the Declaration which the churches today single out for quotation cannot rightfully be termed antisemitic or anti-Jewish; rather, they are anti-American or perhaps even anti-world. The polemic against the Anglo-American world power with its big business enterprises built up by "commercial" Jews must be seen in its entire context, and, in judging the German version of the Declaration it must be kept in mind that it is a translation from the American original. Jehovah's Witnesses were not prepared to subject themselves to any earthly rulership. They maintained "strict neutrality." This position certainly leaves no room for "currying the favor" of Hitler. Notice, too, that the Declaration does not address him as "Fuhrer" and does not conclude with the words "Heil Hitler," as was the case during that time on most documents from churches to state authorities. A summary of [page 320] the Declaration of 25 June 1933 demonstrates the following self-evident principles:

1. A refutation of the charges that the Witnesses were financed by Jews or communists;

2. The declaration of their absolute neutrality in politics, that their activity was solely religious;

3. The opposition to the (Catholic) Church, which is seen as a political institution; and,

4. A proclamation of being true followers of Jesus Christ and disciples of him.

Each argument was supported by quotations from the Bible as the only authority and guide for the action of Jehovah's Witnesses. It is also interesting to note the emphatic statement from Jehovah's Witnesses that they "have no criticism of any honest religious teacher"; what they criticize is the "wrongful religious influence in the political affairs of the nation." It cannot even be said that they criticized the teachings of other churches: "We [the Jehovah's Witnesses] do not object to or try to hinder anyone's teaching or believing what he desires."

The anticlerical views of Jehovah's Witnesses were, however, quite clear. They explicitly mentioned the Catholic Church and the Jesuits as their enemies. Almost naively they advertised that their "American brethren have greatly assisted in (their) work in Germany," but that the secularization of the churches in America was unjustifiable. And if it seems that their view of the League of Nations was shared with Hitler, it was not because they agreed with Hitler but due to their own religious view of the world. According to a former Nazi official, the fact that the Witnesses included end-of-the-world prophecies in their Declaration as a central teaching at a time when Hitler endeavored to build his own millennium must have seemed, in his eyes, to be nothing less than an invitation to fight.

The absence of influence by the antisemitic vocabulary of the time is seen from the Declaration's free and unabashed use of Old Testament quotations that include the name of "Zion." The Declaration climaxed in the statement that since Jehovah's Witnesses have put themselves on God's side, all who fight against them are bound to lose: "But as for us, we will serve Jehovah forever." If Hitler ever read this Declaration personally, the result must certainly have been one of his historical fits of rage. According to the Witnesses, one particular story has it that upon reading the Declaration Hitler exclaimed: "This brood must be exterminated from Germany."(n20)

[page 321]

When the entire text of the Declaration of 25 June 1933 and the letter to Hitler are seen today in the context of the history of Jehovah's Witnesses during the period of National Socialism in Germany and the history of their religious resistance and their stand during the Holocaust, then the text does not present itself as an "antisemitic statement" or an attempt at "currying the favor" of Hitler. These accusations, stemming from present-day church circles, are deliberate manipulations and falsifications of history, seemingly motivated by guilt over the churches' own involvement or lack or involvement in the persecutions.

At the time of the 1933 convention and even later, governments, statesmen, and diplomats from all countries were freely negotiating with Hitler and showing him their respect and reverence. Even in 1936, as thousands had already been put into concentration camps (with Jehovah's Witnesses among the very first), the international Olympic games were held under the emblem of the Swastika.

It is possible to see the Declaration as absurd or ridiculous from a secular point of view in its completely unrealistic judgment of the political situation. This seems to be the case with those critics from church circles who seek to find strategic failings in the resistance of the Witnesses in the fact that the Watchtower Society was under American leadership. This is an entirely secular evaluation that shows more about the churches and their own internal makeup than it contributes to the search for truth. The official churches were, and are, so firmly integrated into the political and social establishment of the state that they are themselves an integral part of the secular world. As religious institutions in the time of the Nazi reign, they were unfit to follow the commands of the Bible in a literal way or to motivate a majority of their members to do so. Only a few individuals from the two large churches, acting independently, were exceptions to the generally collaborative or indifferent church membership.


The worldview of the Jehovah's Witnesses did not conform to the logic of the "rational human mind"--if it did, the obvious conclusion would have been that one cannot resist Hitler's dictatorship and that a non-violent resistance on the part of a small religious group would lead to its elimination. It was the "logic of absolute faith" of a biblical-fundamentalist Christian group that made possible this resistance based on faith. It is amazing that the churches, of all groups, today are forcing a religious community to come forward and justify the resistance it made in those times, when irrefutable evidence proves that this religious group demonstrated unique steadfastness and had to make extraordinary sacrifices. The resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses proved two [page 322] things: first, that the size of the religious group resisting the Nazis had nothing to do with outcomes; and second, that a pacifist resistance in the form of refusal to cooperate was possible--and that the price for this was often one's own life. These are the answers to give to those later generations who ask: "Why did you not do anything?"

As publications of the recent past demonstrate, the research into these forgotten victims of Nazi persecution has only just begun. To the established Protestant and Catholic churches of Germany, this means a renewed challenge, not only to deal with their own past failings, but to reconcile these failings with their claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. One things stands out clearly from the moving eyewitness accounts in the video documentation program "Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault" (1996): there were no directions from the Central Office of the Watch Tower Society. The directions all came from the Holy Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

Jehovah's Witnesses can rightfully claim to have resisted the "wicked." In a literal sense they have fulfilled their own claim of being true followers of Jesus Christ, while the two large churches in Germany, as they openly admit, failed terribly. Six decades later it is now time to show them respect in the name of Christianity. Without the example of this steadfast Christian group under the oppression of the National Socialist dictatorship, we would--after Auschwitz and the Holocaust--have to doubt whether it is at all possible to fulfill the Christian teachings of Jesus.

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