Jehovah’s Witnesses remember victims of the Holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance Day

On January 27, the world will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a symbolic  date to commemorate the victims of Nazism. Murderous Nazi terror targeted millions for reasons  of biology, nationality, or political ideology. But few people know that the Nazis’ victims included  thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who suffered for their Christian faith. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, also then known as Bible Students, were “the only group in the Third  Reich to be persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs alone,†says Professor Robert  Gerwarth.2 The Nazi regime branded Witnesses “enemies of the State,†according to historian  Christine King, because of “their very public refusal to accept even the smallest elements of  [Nazism], which didn’t fit their faith and their beliefs.â€3 

On religious grounds, the politically neutral Witnesses refused to give the “Heil Hitlerâ€Â  salute, take part in racist and violent acts, or join the German army. Moreover, “in their literature  they publicly identified the evils of the regime, including what was happening to the Jews,†stated  King.4 

Witnesses were among the first sent to concentration camps, where they bore a unique  uniform symbol—the purple triangle. Of about 35,000 Witnesses in Nazi-occupied Europe, more  than one-third suffered direct persecution. Most were arrested and imprisoned. Hundreds of their  children were taken to Nazi homes or reformatories. About 4,200 Witnesses went to Nazi  concentration camps. Leading authority Detlef Garbe wrote: “The declared intention of the NS  [Nazi] rulers was to completely eliminate the Bible Students from German history.â€5 An estimated  1,600 Witnesses died, 370 by execution.6 

The Nazis sought to break Witnesses’ religious convictions by offering them freedom in  exchange for a pledge of obedience. The standard Erklärung (issued beginning in 1938) required  the signee to renounce his or her faith, denounce other Witnesses to the police, fully submit to the  Nazi government, and defend the “Fatherland†with weapon in hand. Prison and camp officials  often used torture and privation to induce Witnesses to sign. According to Garbe, “extremely low  numbers†of Witnesses recanted their faith.7 

Geneviève de Gaulle, a niece of General Charles de Gaulle and member of the French  Resistance, said of female Witness prisoners in Ravensbrück concentration camp: “What I admired  a lot in them was that they could have left at any time just by signing a renunciation of their faith.  . . . Ultimately, these women, who appeared to be so weak and worn out, were stronger than the  SS, who had power and all the means at their disposal. They had their strength, and it was their  willpower that no one could beat.â€8 

The failure of Nazi coercion in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses contrasts with widespread  societal conformity to Nazi aims before and during the Holocaust. The nonviolent resistance of  ordinary people to racism, extreme nationalism, and violence merits thoughtful reflection on this  International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

More information about Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust can be found on

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