Jehovah’s Witnesses must be the most hated group of people in Germany. And not for the typical reasons. While German Witnesses must annoy their neighbour’s weekends just as much as they do in any other country, and are equally as stubborn about blood transfusions as their Canadian brethren, there is something unique about the German version of these Divine door-knockers. Though their trademark doorstep preaching may be irritating, they paid for their freedom to do so in blood – while the rest of Germany inked a deal with the Devil. It is Deutschland’s ultimate inconvenient truth.
Much has been written on the Germany that gave rise to Nazism in ’33. Fifteen years of full-on financial depression – a lingering disgust with a church that marched so many young German men out of their pews and into the trenches of WW1 – a sucking political vacuum left behind by history’s most catastrophic conflict; All this and more readied the soil for the world’s most successful failed state. When Hitler rose as an image of erect German virility, the average Hans and Gretel were just swept along in a perfect wave of propaganda. But not every Aryan was so quick to go surfing with Satan.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were a common sight in Germany after the First World War. Known as Bibelforscher (Bible Students), their role in the community was much what it is today. They visited neighbours, read Bible passages to them, and left behind their ubiquitous magazine, The Watchtower. Regular weekly gatherings often featured a sermon on God’s Kingdom and how 1914 had signaled the dawn of a “golden age.” And while records show a relatively small community (about twenty thousand in the whole country), their particular method of preaching kept them well in the public eye – especially that of the National Socialist Party.
The Nazis and Witnesses largely steered clear of each other during Hitler’s official first year. But it was the dictator’s absolute insistence on conformity that ensured an eventual showdown. When “Heil Hitler” replaced the traditional German greeting of “Auf weidersehen,” the Witnesses resolutely refrained. As detailed in the compelling documentary Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Under Nazi Assault, “heil” is the German phrase meaning salvation. So while “heil Hitler” credited salvation to the German Chancellor, the Witnesses were convinced – as an article of faith – that salvation comes only through their leader, Jesus Christ. Thus the battle line was drawn. At first, there were harsh words, sometimes a beating. But by 1934, the Gestapo were regularly rounding up the Witnesses for interrogation, seizure of property, and imprisonment. Witness children were confiscated and sent to Nazi boarding schools. And according to Dr. Christine King, former Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University in England, by 1935 Jehovah’s Witnesses were amongst the very first to arrive in Dachau – the first of the German concentration camps. For many, it would be the beginning of a decade long stay.
I was twelve years old when I read my second adult novel, The Holocaust. My first was Alex Haley’s Roots. Besides a lifelong distaste for unjust authority, both those books also left me with a strong curiosity about resistance. If they couldn’t kill their captors, then why didn’t the Negro slaves just refuse to work? If your only options are being whipped to death or worked to death, whipping just doesn’t seem like the deepest cut. At least you die on your feet. So why didn’t the Jews just stand still and refuse to get on the trains – especially once they knew where those trains were headed? I mean, if you’re going to kill me anyhow, then you can bet I’m going to make you clean up the mess – voided bowels and all.
But the bigger question I have about both the slave trade and the Holocaust concerns the nine-to-five working stiff who kept the machine going. In Africa, Negroes kidnapped and sold other Negroes to European slavers. In Germany, it was the “good church-going folk” that invaded Austria and Poland, before setting off to rape the rest of Europe. Far from trolls and demons, the crew of those who locked passive Jews into cyanide showers included former doctors, teachers, and policemen. How does something like that happen?
“We had no choice,” I once heard a former SS guard explain in a History Channel documentary. Without any scent of irony, she then mumbled on for a few minutes about the reign of terror she was forced to endure as a cog in the Nazi death camps. Poor lass. Pulling all that low-grade gold from the mouths of poisoned schoolgirls must have been hell. But she wasn’t alone. The program went on to interview at least ten more Average Johannes (of both sexes) who all offered up the same mea culpa of “the devil made me do it.” But what if they had just told the Devil to go suck rocks? Evidently, I’m not the only one who wonders about such things.
“What if the Lutheran church had acted the way the Witnesses did?” What if the Catholics had,” asks Dr. Susannah Heschel, a Professor of Religion at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University. “In my opinion, the whole history would have been very different.” German Witnesses paid dearly for the stand they took. Between 1930-45, every third Jehovah’s Witness in Germany lost their life. The majority of those were tortured to death, beheaded, shot, or hanged in a Nazi concentration camp. But they did not go quietly into the night. Using firsthand reports, Witness writers published regular exposes of the German persecution and murder of Jews, as well as the criminal nature of the Nazi government. Their books, magazine articles, and leaflets – filled with names, dates and diagrams pointing to a program of state-sponsored mass murder – often achieved global distribution.
“You have done your duty in publishing this book and bringing these facts to light,” said Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann concerning Crusade against Christianity, a Witness publication of 1938. A full year before the outbreak of WWII, this book graphically detailed the horrors of the Nazi genocide machine and gave detailed drawings of German concentration camps. “It seems to me that there can be no greater appeal to the world’s conscience,” Mann concluded. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1938, the world’s collective conscience was still half-drunk on the lager-filled memories of the last Olympic games in Berlin – and daydreams about the next ones (in London). Even back then, Jehovah’s Witnesses were little more than an annoying intrusion to a planet stuck on weekend slumber.
Ten years after the Second World War ended, German Witnesses hosted an international convention for more than a hundred thousand of their members at the Zepplinwiese, in Nuremburg. The symbolism could not have been more obvious. This was the very ground on which Hitler had often paraded the troops and arms of his thousand-year aspirations. From 1939 onward, it had been the main backdrop for most Nazi propaganda films. But now the mad dog of the Munich beer halls was gone, and in his place, tens of thousand of Christian preachers gathered for a weeklong festival of sermons and hymns on peace. Admission was free, and doors were open to the public. Many of that public attended.
As a prisoner amongst prisoners, I often hear novel excuses for the vilest of human conduct. “I was abused as a child.” “I’m an addict.” “My parents were Scientologists.” Rarely, if ever, do I hear, “I’m a selfish and greedy bastard with an addiction to thrills, and don’t care who I hurt to get what I want.” Maybe that’s because it takes a strong self-awareness – and no little amount of courage – to see the devil in your own mirror. In post-WWI Germany, the average Aryan German was poor, depressed, and often in debt. The average Jew was rich, well fed, and cultured. While the “Final Solution” may have been spun as a complex dogma on justice and Teutonic purity, its DNA was as simple as envy. Hatred, it is a low threshold to cross once jealousy has already kicked opened that door. Maybe that’s why the Jehovah’s Witnesses were so quick to spot – and denounce it. “Though shall not covet” (the tenth of the Ten Commandments) was an integral part of the message they had carried to their neighbour’s front doors for decades. Unfortunately, most Germans couldn’t see the message for the bearer.
Our new century is one again filled with messengers. Scientists scream of catastrophic climate change and the ever present threat of nuclear obliteration. Economists portend a global financial meltdown, while activists fill streets around the globe, crowing against a growing heap of inequalities. Health care agencies constantly caution about the next pandemic disease. And yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there knocking on people’s doors. With so much alarming – and often contradictory – information bombarding our frontal lobes, it’s not always easy to pluck the flowers from the propaganda. Even more so if you can’t stand the face of the florist. But if history has one lesson to teach us, it’s that there is nothing new under the sun. Nazi Germany had its own Occupy movement, long before Wall Street protestors did. And the 1% Germans railed against also happened to be investment bankers – though mostly of the Abrahamic persuasion. Everywhere you looked in 1930’s Germany, the military was on the march. New planes and ships were being built, submarines being fitted. Police were transformed from Officer Friendly into internal combat units. Forgotten military glories were suddenly on display everywhere. For Canadians, all this may sound eerily familiar. It sort of makes you wonder what those pesky porch-front preachers have to say these days.