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Reviewed by:
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics under Persecution
  • Leon Stein
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics under Persecution, M. James Penton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), xxii + 412 pp., cloth $75.00, pbk. $35.00.

Nazi persecution and incarceration of Jehovah's Witnesses has received increasing attention in recent years, along with war on the Gypsies, the handicapped, and homosexuals. The Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in the United States in the 1870s. A small group of non-conformist Christian Adventists who professed loyalty only to Jehovah, they refused to swear allegiance to any government or to serve in the army of any nation. They believed that after the battle of Armageddon they would be the elect in a thousand-year period of heavenly peace. They were disliked for their opposition to the First World War, their door-to-door proselytizing, their disdain toward government, their early support of the return of the Jews to the "Holy Land," and their criticism of the Catholic and Protestant churches. A one-time Witness himself, M. James Penton's painstaking and fascinating study builds on previous work, but his research breaks new ground and he contributes insights that correct old understandings. The reality of the Witnesses' experience, Penton shows, was more complex than it previously appeared. In extensive appendices, the author reproduces facsimiles of numerous documents along with English translations.

In power the Nazis outlawed the group because the Witnesses' opposed nationalism, militarism, and étatisme. Of the approximately 20,000 Witnesses in Germany in 1933, about 6,000 were arrested. Hundreds died of overwork and [End Page 319] mistreatment in prisons and camps during the period of Nazi rule. Some were executed. Because most of the Witnesses zealously held to their beliefs, the Nazis looked upon them as potential threats to the state rather than mere cranks. They were subjected to petty humiliation, loss of job, denial of pension, and sometimes having their children taken away from them.

Still, unlike Gypsies, Jews, and the handicapped, the Witnesses were persecuted for their beliefs and their actions, not their "racial" or physical nature. They remained "Aryans" in the eyes of the Nazis, and thus potentially salvageable. The Nazis therefore offered them the unique option of winning release by signing a statement repudiating their beliefs. Most refused, continuing to preach, distribute literature, and bear up under terrible sufferings.

By 1943, however, Witnesses were being used as household servants and farm laborers by the Nazis. Their diligence and avoidance of political resistance made them trustworthy workers. Rudolf Höβ, commandant of Auschwitz, employed them to look after his household and children, while SS head Heinrich Himmler grudgingly admired their fanaticism and thought of settling them in Slavic areas after a German victory. In fact, after the Second World War they were once again free, but still disliked as a "sect," often denied the official recognition mainstream religious organizations enjoyed.

In 1933 the head of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, the Watchtower Society, was J.M. Rutherford, who exercised absolute control from the movement's base in America. Rutherford reacted initially to Nazi persecution by altering his previous positive stance toward the Jews and, in an attempt to placate the Nazis, issuing a "Declaration of Facts" to the Witnesses' convention in Berlin in June 1933 that castigated the British Empire, the United States, and above all, the Jews—those "representatives of Satan the Devil." The Witnesses were also urged to sing the German national anthem, a cause of discomfort to many in the assembly. When Adolf Hitler rejected Rutherford's overtures and banned the Witnesses anyway, Rutherford wrote to Hitler in 1934, predicting divine punishment. Hitler exploded in a characteristic rage, threatening, "this brood will be exterminated in Germany." Rutherford then called on the Witnesses to seek martyrdom by carrying on a campaign of passive resistance (he himself enjoyed a life of luxury in his California villa). Penton maintains that this was a rash decision and resulted in the unnecessary suffering of thousands of incarcerated Witnesses.

Penton also maintains that from 1939 on the Watchtower Society strove to keep the embarrassing "Declaration of Facts" hidden from the public, and to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-7937
Print ISSN
8756-6583
Pages
pp. 319-321
Launched on MUSE
2006-08-30
Open Access
No
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