CHARLESTON, WV (WVNS) — On January 27, 2023, the world will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This day commemorates the victims of Nazism. Millions were targeted for reasons of biology, nationality, or political ideology, but few know that Nazis’ victims also included thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who suffered because of 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.
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.”
On religious grounds, these Witnesses refused to say the “Heil Hitler” salute, take part in racist and violent acts, or join the German army. Moreover, as stated by King, “in their literature they publicly identified the evils of the regime, including what was happening to the Jews.”
Witnesses were some of the first sent to concentration camps, where they wore a purple triangle on their clothing to differentiate who they were as a group. More than one-third of about 35,000 Witnesses in Nazi-occupied Europe suffered direct persecution.
Most Witnesses were arrested and also imprisoned. Hundreds of their children were taken to Nazi homes or reformatories. Approximately, 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.” About 1,600 Witnesses died, 370 of which were killed by execution.
The Nazis tried such tactics to break Witnesses’ religious convictions by offering them freedom in exchange for their pledge. The standard Erklärung, which was issued in 1938 required the signee to renounce his or her faith, tell on other Witnesses to the police, fully submit to the Nazi government, and defend the “Fatherland” while having a weapon in hand.
Prison and camp officials often used torture and impoverishment to induce Witnesses to sign and give in. According to Garbe, “extremely low numbers” of Witnesses renounce their faith.
“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.”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
The failure of Nazi oppression in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses contrasts with this widespread conformity to Nazi beliefs before and during the Holocaust.
The nonviolent resistance of ordinary people to racism, extreme nationalism, and violence justifies thoughtful reflection on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day.