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About the book

Jehovah's Witnesses were one of the first groups, alongside political opponents, to be sent to the Nazi concentration camps in the early 1930s, and yet their experiences are surprisingly under-researched. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Nazis was written in 2001 and it is the first work to be devoted entirely to the experience and testimony of Witnesses during Nazi Persecution.

The fact that there is so little history that focuses solely on the Jehovah's Witnesses and Nazi Persecution is surprising because their experiences of repression and hostility were so vastly different to those of any other groups who were targeted. Of course, the main reason why Nazis persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses was because their religion did not sit alongside the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft. The Nazis believed that Witnesses had strong American connections and that their 'prophecies about the return of the Jews to the Holy Land prior to Armageddon classified Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi eyes as Zionists.’ However, Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned, most commonly, for refusing to say ‘Heil Hitler’ and offering the Nazi salute because their religion would not allow them to hail a mortal.

Jehovah’s Witnesses who defied the Nazi state in Germany and other countries under Nazi control were interned in the first concentration camps. The experiences of those in the camps are difficult to imagine but the argument can be put forward that of all the inmates in the camps, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were given preferential treatment, albeit because of prejudice. Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not imprisoned indefinitely but were given the possibility of release if they signed an official document renouncing their faith. They were also allowed visits from family and friends and often they were employed as barbers or domestic servants away from the camps because they were viewed as completely honest people who were physically, and religiously, unable to cause harm.

In the concentration camps, many imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses had access to The Bible and held scripture-based study lessons in the barracks. Adolph Arnold recounted how his sister smuggled fragments of The Bible into Dachau by baking them into biscuits. His testimony is fascinating and there were many cases of religious literature being smuggled into camps and prisoners being split up into different barracks upon discovery, but in some instances Jehovah’s Witnesses gleaned access to materials from the camp guards, primarily because of their more privileged status.

The religious experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the camps is also particularly interesting because they used their incarceration with other people as a means of reaching out and converting them. The testimony of inmates who converted from Judaism or Christianity to the Jehovah's Witnesses are contained in the book and they tell of how they often went to the prison guards upon conversion and asked for the colour of their triangle to be changed; a request that, surprisingly, was often granted.

However, the experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses was typical in many ways of victims of the Nazis; they too suffered the break-up of their families. Children of convicted Jehovah’s Witnesses were split up from their parents and sent to reformatories, put into the care of Nazi families, deported or shot. Gerard Heiden’s testimony tells us that he was 'placed into guardianship because it [was] dangerous to leave him under the responsibility of his father, a Witness, who [forbade] his son to give the Hitler salute or sing patriotic songs'.

In the book George Wellers, a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz, told the authors that Jehovah's Witnesses were 'honest people who can't steal or lie'. This stereotypical view of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Nazi period allowed them to have a somewhat more privileged position in the concentration camps, but nevertheless their experiences were still fraught with trauma and sadness.

The work by Reynaud and Graffard provides an insightful and succinct introduction to a topic that has been largely ignored or brushed over for 70 years. Their research is rather brief and there is undoubtedly more research and work that can be done with the testimonies they have gleaned, but as a starting point it has an important place in the historiography of genocide studies.

Key themes

  • Use of survivor's testimony
  • How life went on for children who were separated from their parents because of their religion
  • The presence of religion in concentration camps

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think that the history and experiences of Jehovah's Witnesses has not been researched in as great a detail as other groups who are targeted and sent to concentration camps?
  • How important do you think access to religious materials was to imprisoned Witnesses?
  • What do you think were the main issues that perhaps children of Jehovah's Witnesses faced upon separation from family members?
  • Thinking more about children of Witnesses and their experiences: testimonies included in the book give detail of children who ‘forgot’ or ‘gave up’ their faith upon separation, how does this fit in with the theme How can life go on?
  • Why do you think that Jehovah's Witnesses received preferential treatment in the concentration camps?
  • Jehovah's Witnesses were not imprisoned indefinitely, there was always the option of renouncing their faith and being freed open to them, for those that did renounce their faith how do you imagine life went on for them upon release/ the end of the war?