On January 27, the world will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a symbolic date to commemorate the victims of Nazism. Nazi terror murdered millions of people for reasons of biology, nationality or political ideology. But it is a lesser known fact that the victims of the Nazis included thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who suffered for their Christian faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, also known then as Bible Students, were “the only group in the Third Reich that was persecuted solely for their religious beliefs,” says Professor Robert Gerwarth. The Nazi regime labeled the Witnesses “enemies of the state,” according to historian Christine King, because of “their public refusal to accept even the smallest elements of the state.” [nazismo]which did not fit with their faith and beliefs.”
For religious reasons, the politically neutral Witnesses refused to give the “Heil Hitler” salute, participate in racist and violent acts, or join the German army. Furthermore, “in their literature they publicly identified the evils of the regime, including what was happening to the Jews,” King said.
The witnesses were among the first sent to the concentration camps, where they wore a unique symbol on their uniform: the purple triangle. Of some 35,000 Witnesses in Nazi-occupied Europe, more than a third suffered direct persecution. Most were arrested and imprisoned. Hundreds of their children were taken to Nazi homes or reformatories. Some 4,200 Witnesses went to Nazi concentration camps. The prominent authority Detlef Garbe wrote: “The stated intention of the NS rulers [nazis] it was to completely eliminate the Bible Students from German history.” An estimated 1,600 Witnesses died, 370 by execution.
The Nazis tried to break the religious convictions of the Witnesses by offering them freedom in exchange for a promise of obedience. The Erklärung standard (issued beginning in 1938) required the signer to renounce his faith, report other Witnesses to the police, fully submit to the Nazi government, and defend the “Fatherland” with arms in hand. Prison and camp officials often used torture and hardship to induce Witnesses to sign. According to Garbe, “an extremely low number” of Witnesses recanted their faith.
Geneviève de Gaulle, niece of General Charles de Gaulle and a member of the French Resistance, said of the Witness prisoners in the Ravensbrück concentration camp: “What I admired most about them was that they could have left at any time simply by signing a waiver. of his faith. . . . In the end, these women, who seemed so weak and worn out, were stronger than the SS, who had the power and all the means at their fingertips. They had their strength, and it was a force of will that no one could beat.”
The failure of Nazi coercion in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses contrasts with the widespread social conformity to Nazi goals before and during the Holocaust. The non-violent resistance of ordinary people to racism, extreme nationalism and violence deserves deep reflection on this International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.