© NS-Dokumentationszentrum München

The Persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Munich 1933–1945 Exhibition

Sept. 27, 2018 until Jan. 6, 2019

About the exhibition

During the Nazi era, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were subjected to repressions and persecution on account of their faith. With this exhibition the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism for the first time documented comprehensively the persecution of this religious community in Munich. The Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected National Socialism and its ideology out of religious conviction; they refused, for example, to give the Hitler salute or to serve in the armed forces. For these reasons they aroused the antagonism of the Nazi regime early on. Many of them were incarcerated in concentration camps. Altogether more than a thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses died during the Nazi era. Hundreds of them were sentenced to death and executed for “undermining national defence” or for conscientious objection. These state-sanctioned murders were one reason why the right to refuse to perform military service was enshrined in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The exhibition was designed to raise awareness among the Munich public of the still little-known history of the suffering of the Jehovah’s Witnesses under the Nazis. The Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism is thus continuing its remembrance work for those victims of Nazi crimes who were “forgotten” or marginalised for many decades. The content of the exhibition was based on a book on the subject produced at the Munich Documentation Centre in 2017/18.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first religious community to be banned in Nazi Germany. No other religious minority was persecuted so early on or so rigorously by the Nazis as the “Earnest Bible Students” or Jehovah’s Witnesses. For many years the repression and persecution to which the Jehovah’s Witnesses were subjected during the Nazi era had no place in the German culture of remembrance. Only since the 1990s have historians begun to address this subject. The exhibition at the Munich Documentation Centre for the first time illuminated in detail the fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses under Nazi rule, taking Munich as an example. The exhibition was conceived in cooperation with Christoph Wilker, a lay person who has done extensive research on the persecution of this religious community by the Nazis. Private lenders and the archive of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters have made many images and documents available. It is thus now possible to document the names, faces and life stories of many of the Munich Jehovah’s Witnesses persecuted under the Nazis. The desire to make the Munich public aware of these stories formed the starting point for this exhibition.

The Bible students originated as a religious revivalist movement in the United States. Starting in the 1890s, the new doctrine also began to be disseminated in Germany and attracted many followers during the 1920s. The community’s headquarters remained in the United States, however. The New York leadership of the movement demanded that the faithful adhere strictly to the Ten Commandments.

Shortly after coming to power the Nazis banned the International Bible Students Movement in most German states, in Bavaria on 13 April 1933. The Nazi state combated the religious community unrelentingly. Nevertheless, the majority of the Jehovah’s Witnesses initially continued to profess their faith openly, to attend Bible study groups and to disseminate their doctrine.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious doctrine ran counter to the Nazis’ totalitarian regime of control. Anyone who did not conform with the regime or renounce their faith quickly came into conflict with the new rulers. They rejected National Socialism and its ideology on religious grounds, refused to join organisations such as the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, to give the “Hitler salute” or to serve in the military, citing divine authority.

Gestapo photo of a cache of Jehovah’s Witnesses books discovered at Implerstraße 18, Munich, 1937 | © Stadtarchiv München

Persecution and open protest

The religious community responded to the increasing conflicts with the National Socialist rulers with open protest. In several national and international letter and leaflet campaigns initiated by the New York headquarters, the Jehovah’s Witnesses admonished the persecution measures and condemned the Nazi regime. Many German followers of the faith took part in the protest campaigns and in the dissemination of regime-critical texts. Many of them were arrested and deported to concentration camps. In 1936/37, the Nazi regime stepped up its nationwide persecution measures. A special department at the Berlin headquarters of the Gestapo now devoted itself to combating this religious community.

The intensification of the campaign of persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was connected with the continuing dissemination of banned publications to which the Gestapo responded with mass arrests. Even the slightest breaches of the ban on the religious community, such as participating in Bible groups or owning critical texts, led to prosecution. Special courts generally sentenced those arrested to several months’ imprisonment. Once they had served their sentences, functionaries and “recidivists” were often held for years in various kinds of prisons and concentration camps.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fundamental refusal to perform military service, derived from the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, was to have severe consequences. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had already refused to serve in the First World War and had been sent to prison or to mental hospitals. From 1939 onwards, conscientious objectors were punished with the death penalty.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses saw their incarceration in concentration camps as a test of their faith. Their beliefs and their group code meant that the SS coercion measures rarely led them to renounce their faith. Despite the penalties, they rejected any activity that ran counter to their religious rules. They performed all other tasks meticulously, however. This was the reason why many Jehovah’s Witnesses were used as auxiliaries in the camps, in SS households, in SS works or in work brigades. This mitigated the situation of some prisoners, enabling them to survive the terror of the concentration camps.

Of the roughly 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the German Reich, 10,700 people, i.e., more than 40 percent, were subjected to Nazi persecution. About 8,800 members of the religious community were imprisoned, 2,800 of them in concentration camps. During the Second World War, the Nazi judiciary sentenced hundreds of them to death for “undermining national defence” and for conscientious objection. Altogether more than a thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses died between 1933 and 1945. At least 15 Jehovah’s Witnesses from Munich died.

View of the exhibition

© NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

© NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

© NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

© NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography