CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

Provocation or Persecution? The "Bibelforscher" in the Third Reich (An Examination of the Conflict between Jehovah's Witnesses and the Nazis)

by George D. CHRYSSIDES (University of Wolverhampton, England U.K.)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author


The author examines the relationship between the Bibelforscher (the German name for the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the beginning of the Third Reich), the Nazis and the Jews, with particular reference to the 1933 Berlin-Wilmersdorf Convention, which approved the controversial ‘Declaration of Facts’. After outlining the development of the Witnesses under Rutherford’s leadership, it is argued that his statements about Jews may not have been ‘politically correct’ by present-day standards, but constituted an attempt to place them within the Watch Tower organisation’s views of salvation-history. His position is not wholly negative, and accords the Jews a place in the after-life. The Declaration was an unsuccessful attempt to gain sympathy from the Nazi regime; it did not confront Nazism, as some apologists have claimed, but it did not condemn the persecution of the Jews. The Declaration must be seen within the context of the period, which was before the Holocaust had begun, and hence it was more plausible to regard the Jews’ plight as part of the ‘fiery trial’ to which they were presumed to be subjected. While Rutherford made derogatory comments about some Jews, one has to be extremely cautious of applying the term ‘antisemitic’ to his ideas.

The purpose of this presentation is to examine some issues surrounding the imminent conflict between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis when Hitler came to power in 1933. The Witnesses come under a variety of criticisms, not always mutually compatible, regarding their relationship with the Nazis and with the Jews. They have been variously criticised for initially ingratiating themselves to the Third Reich by expressions of support for Hitler, and for allegedly antisemitic statements to dissociate themselves from the much-hated German Jews. Conversely, their leader Joseph Franklin Rutherford has been criticised for needlessly provoking Nazi persecution by making inflammatory statements, and the Bibelforscher (as they were called in Germany at the time) have been alleged to bear apparent similarities with the Jews, thus inviting and aggravating the persecution that followed. I want to focus on the year 1933, being the year in which Hitler assumed office as Chancellor of Germany. It is also the year of the Bibelforscher’s much-criticised Berlin-Wilmersdorf Convention, which included Rutherford’s Wilmersdorf Declaration, more commonly referred to as the ‘Declaration of Facts’, allegedly compromising the Watchtower organisation with Hitler’s regime.

It seems difficult to achieve rational discussion on the issues surrounding the Bibelforscher in 1933. In all, there are three standpoints that can be identified: (1) Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WBTS) sources and the testimony of members who lived through the period, particularly Simone Liebster; (2) ex-member testimony, especially that of M. James Penton; and (3) neutral academic writers such as Holocaust historian Christine King and John Conway. Critics of the WBTS repeatedly accuse them of rewriting history to suit their own ends, while the WBTS refuses to address Penton’s arguments, claiming that since he is an ex-member he must have an axe to grind, and that his views cannot be of interest to them. Penton charges the Witnesses with wilfully falsifying evidence, and accuses King of naivety for her large measure of support for their account of events. I do not wish to comment further on the largely ad hominem arguments that beset the issues, but rather aim to unravel the events that occurred, and to evaluate the Witnesses’ stance on the Third Reich and the Jews.

Some background information on the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be useful at this point. The Watchtower organisation had commenced a globalisation process at the turn of the twentieth century. Founder-leader Charles Taze Russell had toured Europe in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and a German office of the WBTS was opened in 1902. Russell’s organisation was known as the International Bible Students’ Association, and it grew steadily in Germany, where it claimed a total membership of 25,000 by the 1930s. Joseph Franklin (‘Judge’) Rutherford assumed office in 1916, and began to introduce the more distinctive and revolutionary features that are now associated with the Witnesses. These included door-to-door work (commenced in 1927), the dissociation with mainstream Christianity, the refusal to celebrate festivals such as Christmas and Easter, and the notion that earthly governments belonged to Satan, hence the prohibition on saluting national flags and singing national anthems. Rutherford and a number of other leaders were imprisoned in the USA in 1918 for subversive activities. These consisted largely on Rutherford’s attacks on mainstream clergy, whom he regarded as the Antichrist (Kingdom News, no.3, 1 May 1918), and for encouraging refusal of conscription in the war. Matters were brought to a head by the publication of Russell’s posthumous The Finished Mystery in 1917, which mercilessly attacked the clergy. Whether this volume faithfully reflected Russell’s ideas is debateable: it was compiled by Clayton J. Woodworth and George H. Fisher, with Rutherford’s oversight.

In 1931, Rutherford announced at the IBSA convention at Columbus, Ohio, that the Bible Students were to be given a new name, ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’. The WBTS organisation had not yet completed the globalisation process for which it is renowned today, and hence the German members continued to use their old name, Bibelforscher (Bible Students). It is in this context that the Bibelsforscher’s controversies within the Third Reich occur. I want to comment to two issues, one specific and one general: first, the 1933 Berlin Convention; and second, the allegedly antisemitic statements of Rutherford and the Bibelforscher. 

The details surrounding the Berlin Convention continue to be debated. The event is noteworthy not only for its Declaration, but because it is alleged that, when attendees arrived, they found the stadium ‘bedecked’ with swastika symbols, and the Bibelforscher continued with their proceedings without removing them. Further, it is claimed, the Convention began with the singing of the German national anthem. Although these details of the Convention have been much disputed, the facts of the matter are really very straightforward. There is no evidence that the Witnesses erected national flags, and the photographic evidence does not reveal any. As Watchtower sources point out, the Wilmersdorf Tennishallen was used on the previous day by the SA, SS and Nationalist Socialist Groups, who no doubt erected any flags that may have been visible either externally or at the front of the auditorium, which is not captured in the Watchtower photographs. It is unlikely that the Bibelforscher themselves erected any: they would have no reason to do so. They would not have removed them, either, however. As a recent Awake! magazine points out, ‘Had there been swastika flags decorating the hall’s exterior, corridors, or even its interior, the Witnesses would have left them alone.’ (Awake!, 8 July 1998, p.12). (This claim is quite consistent with the author’s own experience of Witnesses. At a recent District Convention at Stoke-on-Trent, England, the Witnesses discovered that part of the stadium had been double-booked for a children’s birthday party. Rather than disappoint the children, or remonstrate against birthday celebrations, the ‘brothers’ actively helped the party to set up another room, and assisted in blowing up balloons and creating a festive environment for the event.)

Regarding the alleged singing of the German national anthem, this is a clear misunderstanding on the part of the Bibelforscher’s detractors. It is likely that Haydn’s ‘Austria’ — the tune of national anthem — was used for the opening, but to the words of the hymn ‘Zion’s Glorious Hope’, which was in the Witnesses’ song book at the time. This hymn remains a frequently-sung hymn in mainstream Christianity, and the Bibelforscher of that period had not yet dissociated themselves from mainstream Christendom with their present-day practice of only singing their own distinctive songs. The hymn’s frequent references to Zion are also significant: this had been an embarrassment to some mainstream churches during the Third Reich, and such references were eliminated; yet the Bibelforscher were prepared to endorse them.

Of much greater significance is the ‘Declaration of Facts’, which was agreed by the Convention, in which the Bibelforscher appear to declare support for the Nazi regime. The purpose of the Declaration was to persuade Hitler not to ban the Bibelforscher’s activities, and Convention desired to demonstrate that its ideals were not hostile to those of the Third Reich. Part of the text reads as follows:

A careful examination of our books and literature will disclose the fact that the very high ideals held and promulgated by the present national government are set forth in and endorsed and strongly emphasized in our publications, and show that Jehovah God will see to it that these high ideals in due time will be attained by all persons who love righteousness and who obey the Most High. Instead, therefore, of our literature and our work's being a menace to the principles of the present government we are the strongest supporters of such high ideals. For this reason Satan, the enemy of all men who desire righteousness, has sought to misrepresent our work and prevent us from carrying it on in this land.

For many years our organization has put forth an unselfish and persistent effort to do good to the people. Our American brethren have greatly assisted in the work in Germany, and with money freely contributed, and that at a time when all Germany was in dire distress. Now because it appears that Germany may soon be free from oppression and that the people may be lifted up, Satan, the great enemy, puts forth his endeavours to destroy that benevolent work in this land. (Cited in Penton, 2004, p.280.)

The Declaration, two and a half million copies of which were distributed, and which was sent to every government official, has been alleged to have been a cynical attempt by the Watch Tower Society to ingratiate themselves with Hitler. Critics have claimed that it expressed support for the Third Reich, and that it did so at the expense of the Jews, about whom the Declaration made derogatory comments. I want to examine these accusations. Penton argues that Witness theology underwent a volte-face under Rutherford’s regime (2004, pp.1-9). He makes two claims about Rutherford’s views on Jews: first, that they underwent a change after around 1933, and second that they are in marked contrast to those of Russell. I want to challenge both these claims. 

First, we need to understand Russell’s views on the Jews. These are developed in his six-volume Studies in the Scriptures, and obviously cannot be wholly encapsulated in a brief paper. In his Divine Plan of the Ages (1886), Russell developed a complex theology of salvation-history, in which the history of the world was divided into a number of eras. This scheme incorporated a ‘Jewish Age’, which ran from the death of Jacob to the advent of Jesus. Jesus heralded a Gospel Age, which was a ‘recapitulation’ of the Jewish Age, and lasted until the Messianic Age — the Period of the Reign of Christ — which would begin in 1914, and which would involve the Restoration of Israel. Russell taught, in line with biblical teaching, that the Jews were in a covenant relationship with God, receiving promises of divine favour, as well as the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. However, Russell held that he Jews were ‘blinded’ (Russell, 1889, p.29), having false expectations regarding God’s promise, anticipating an earthly kingdom rather than a heavenly one. Further, they were disobedient to God’s Law, and hence stand condemned by it. Their claims to divine favour were finally taken away on account of their attitude to Jesus Christ, whom they regarded as an impostor and a fanatic, and whose crucifixion they secured (Russell, 1886, p.275).

God’s promises, however, were not exclusively for the Jews, and being a descendant of Abraham was not of itself a guarantee of divine favour. Russell refers to the biblical text that states that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:27-28). In Christ’s heavenly rule there will be a return of the Jews to divine favour, and they will be permitted to benefit from the ‘millennial blessings’. This ‘return to favour’ will take place in accordance with the divine plan of the ages, and it will anticipated by a return to Israel and a rebuilding of it. Russell died before the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which Rutherford and subsequent Witnesses have regarded as crucially important in their timetable of end-time events. However, events in Israel clearly signalled to Russell an imminent return of the Jews.* 

Turning now to Rutherford: Rutherford has an extended discussion of the position of Jews in his book Life (1927). He subscribes to the same biblical ideas as Russell on matters relating to the Jewish covenant. Although he regarded the Jews in general as having failed to keep the covenant, and thus being cast off from divine favour, he singles out the ‘clergy’ in particular as having been unfaithful. (By ‘clergy’ Rutherford contends that means the Temple officials — in particular the Pharisees and the priests.) Like Russell, Rutherford states that their unfaithfulness involved blindness to the truth, culminating in their rejection of Christ. To a greater extent than Russell, Rutherford emphasises the role of Satan in the Jews’ apostasy, and tends to stress the ‘fiery trials’ through which the Jews must endure in order to obtain a final salvation. If these aspects of Rutherford’s teaching seem negative towards the Jews, it is also appropriate to point out that he does not regard eternal punishment as the Jewish fate: indeed he notes that Jews, unlike later Christians, never believed in a hell consisting of fire and brimstone. He also deplores the persecution of Jews by Christians and attempts to deprive them of estate and office-bearing. Jews should not be expected to convert to Christianity: God’s favour will return to them, for ‘salvation is of the Jews’. (John 4:22; Rutherford, 1927, p.54). Rutherford saw the Balfour Declaration as heralding the return of the Jews to their home country (Rutherford, 1920, 32-34).

 Penton points out that Rutherford’s book Life was withdrawn by the Watch Tower organisation, implying that his later writings more truly reflect his position, among other matters, on Jews. (It should be noted, however, that the book is still readily available.) Of these later writings, it is Salvation (1939) that has most to say on Jews. Despite Penton’s claims, this book largely reiterates Life’s theological position on Jews. Some material is added, including a detailed recounting of the story of Esther, and illustration of how Jesus is foretold as the coming king in Old Testament prophecy. Once again, the Jews — especially the ‘clergy’ — are accused of blindness and disobedience, and put under the curse of the Law. At times Rutherford is more condemnatory than in Life, for example when he states that the Jews of Jesus’ time were worse than heathendom (Rutherford, 1939, p.347), but on the other hand he acknowledges that some Jews maintained their integrity, and cites the list of the faithful given in Hebrews chapter 11 (Rutherford, 1939, p.350). (It should be noted, however, the disparaging comment refers to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 11:21-22.) In his analysis of the resurrection, Rutherford outlines the order in which the resurrection will take place, according to his interpretation of scripture. First, there are those who died in faith, and who will be raised from the dead. Second, the faithful who are alive will be transformed. Third, the faithful ‘men of old’ will be brought back from the dead: this may include the so-called ‘Jonadabs’ — a term formerly used by the Bible Students to designate sympathisers who did not belong to the ‘anointed class’ and who constituted the ‘great multitude’. Finally, there will be a general resurrection of all who have been denied any opportunity to hear the truth: they will enter Paradise on Earth, once Paradise is restored after Armageddon. The ‘great multitude’ also includes those who have shown kindness to the Jewish people. 

One important difference that is sometimes identified between Russell and Rutherford is their stance towards Zionism. Russell was a proponent of the Zionist cause, while Rutherford’s stance is less politicised. One page of front matter in Comfort for the Jews (1925) contains a testimonial from one Nathan Strauss, a self-confessed ‘ardent Zionist’, in appreciation of a broadcast given by Rutherford. No such material is to be found in Rutherford’s later writings, and even in Comfort the position he sets out is apolitical. Events involving the Jews are signs of the end-times, rather than causes for campaigning.

Rutherford’s apparently derogatory remarks about Jews concern his criticisms of Jewish capitalists, rather than Jews collectively. In particular Rutherford targets the Aluminium Manufacturers’ Association: during the 1920s and 1930s the editors of The Golden Age (the precursor of Awake!) campaigned against the use of aluminium cooking utensils, which the Watch Tower organisation claimed were harmful to health. The Golden Age depicted these entrepreneurs as sinister Jews with large hook noses. As Richard Singelenberg points out, when Morris Fishbein, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association responded to Rutherford, the response provoked the following vicious attack from the Watch Tower leader:

The Journal of the American Medical Association is the vilest sheet that passes the United States mail  . . . . Nothing new and useful in therapeutics escapes its unqualified condemnation. Its attacks are generally ad hominem. Its editorial columns are largely devoted to character assassination.  . . . . Its editorial writers work in the seething ooze of corruption and write with a ‘muck rake.’  . . . . Its editor is of the type of Jew that crucified Jesus Christ. (The Golden Age (Sept. 26, 1934, p.807). The cartoons are located in The Golden Age (Sept. 23, 1936, p.810) and (Sept. 8, 1937, p. 771, 773)).

I have explored the background to the Bibelforscher’s ‘Declaration of Facts’, and it is now appropriate to draw some conclusions about the Watch Tower’s attitude to the Jews and the Nazis.

First, we must ask: was Rutherford antisemitic? It is easy to place the label ‘antisemitic’ on material that is now considered offensive with regard to Jews. However, without a clear definition of what antisemitism consists of, such charges cannot be sustained. It is important to distinguish between an antisemitism that seeks systematically to denigrate and foster prejudice and discrimination against Jews from remarks that, by present-day standards, should simply be regarded as not ‘politically correct’. It is important to make the following observations.

Like many Christian theologians, Rutherford was attempting to place the Jews within a framework of salvation-history. The reference to Jews as Christ-killers is hardly a distinctive tenet of Rutherford’s; it is a belief that has been taught within mainstream Christianity, and still continues in certain circles. This is not to say that it is acceptable, merely that it is unfair to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for allegedly antisemitic statements. It is important to note, however, that Rutherford did not label all Jews in this way, but fully acknowledged the ‘remnant’ of those whom he believed to have been faithful to God’s covenant. He does not condemn them as bound for hell, or even non-existence — the fate of those who have wilfully rejected the truth — but places them as the ones who will rise first at the resurrection.

It is important, too, to note the time at which Rutherford was writing. Although it is something of a cliché to state that someone is ‘a man of his time’, one must bear in mind that, although the concentration camps were in operation in Rutherford’s last years, their nature was not widely known to the outside world. (Dachau was the first, and was completed in 1933.) If Rutherford had been writing in a post-Holocaust period, it would of course have been much less acceptable to claim that the persecution of the Jews was divine retribution for covenant breaking. Rutherford died in 1942, half-way through the Second World War, before conditions in the camps were able to gain publicity.

Again, Rutherford’s stereotyping of Jews as hook-nosed businessmen would be considered unacceptable by present-day standards, but it should be recognised that Rutherford is not tarring all Jews with the same brush. Even his comment that the Editor of the AMA’s Journal ‘is of the type of Jew that crucified Jesus Christ’ implies that Rutherford believed that there were other types of Jew. 

Second, did Rutherford’s remarks on Jews play into the hands of the Nazis? Not at all. It is highly unlikely that the Third Reich would have been much influenced by a small stubborn religious group that Hitler wanted to exterminate. Rutherford gives no indication that he subscribes to the Nazi notions that the Jews were sub-human or worthy of extermination. Indeed Rutherford plainly states his profound disapproval of Jewish persecution, as we have noted.

What of the converse criticism that Rutherford provoked the Nazis into persecuting the Witnesses? Gabrielle Yonan describes the Declaration as a ‘brazen declaration of war from a Biblical David against a Goliath’ (Hesse, 2001, p.339), and Penton cites a Watch Tower source that purportedly referred to it as ‘a stirring rallying-call’ (Penton, 1985, p.148). I cannot find any such reference for the latter, either at the source Penton cites (Watch Tower, 1959, p.130) or elsewhere, and he may be exaggerating the WBTS’s perception of the Declaration’s effects. As Penton himself notes, many of the Convention attendees felt that the statement should have been much more condemnatory of the Nazis. (See also Watch Tower, 1974, p.111.) 

If the Bibelforscher appear to have been weak on criticising the Nazi regime, it should be remembered that Jehovah’s Witnesses have tended to be apolitical in matters relating to civil authority. Rutherford interpreted Paul’s instruction to be obedient to the ‘higher authorities’ (Romans 15:4) to mean obedience to God rather than those in government. In a Watch Tower article entitled ‘The Higher Powers’, Rutherford argues that this verse does not imply any ‘divine right of kings’, but rather enjoins the anointed ones to be obedient to God’s Law (Watch Tower 1 & 15 June 1929). However, Rutherford’s interpretation of this passage does not preclude the notion that one should obey civil authority, and argues the case for good citizenship in obedience to the law of the land. Rutherford’s position, which remains the position of today’s Witnesses, is that one has a duty to obey civil authorities. Such teachings may help to explain the Bibelforscher’s apparent endorsement of the ideals of the Third Reich, and the fact that the Declaration merely pleaded the cause of the Bibelforscher to retain their property and exercise the right to propagate the Society’s message. 

Should Rutherford have ensured that the Declaration condemned the persecution of the Jews? In hindsight, no doubt he should have done so, as should many others, including the Roman Catholic Church. Although it might be suggested that the full intentions of the Third Reich were not yet known in 1933, Hitler’s Mein Kampf had been published some six years earlier in 1927, and restrictions and boycotts were being applied to Jews by the time the Convention met. Given the Bibelforscher’s theology, it is likely that they regarded such matters as part of the ‘fiery trial’ through which God’s chosen people must pass.

In conclusion, it can be said that there were strong elements of opportunism in Rutherford’s drafting of the Declaration of Facts. He no doubt hoped that the Bibelforscher might have persuaded Hitler to allow them the freedom to practise their faith, and — for reasons I have explored — saw little to be achieved by championing the cause of the Jews at this point.


*It is not possible within the scope of this paper to explain Rutherford’s end-time calculations, which are highly complex. These can be found in Rutherford (1920).


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