JWs and the Nazis:

The Watchtower Responds to Critics

 

Ken Raines

 

From the Jan.-June, 1999 JW Research Journal.
Copyright, 1999 by Ken Raines.

 

 

 

 

In the July 8, 1998 Awake! magazine, The Watchtower Society responded to some of the criticism of their dealings with the Nazi government in 1933 (see Bergman's paper, previous). They now say their 1974 Yearbook's history of the "Declaration of Facts" which was released at the 1933 Berlin convention was incorrect. They admit the declaration was not "weakened" by their Branch Overseer in Germany as the Yearbook claimed, but they now say the statements in the Declaration are not anti-Semetic and were not an attempts to placate the Nazis. They also deny reports by detractors that the 1933 convention's hall was decked with Swastika flags as reported by one JW eyewitness.

 

 

 

 

Much material has been posted on the internet in the past year or two about the Watchtower Society and Nazi Germany. The material on the subject has mainly been a rejoinder to Society statements about their exemplary stand against Nazism and their "integrity" in the concentration camps. Critics, while generally applauding the average Witness' perseverance and integrity to their faith during this very difficult period, have pointed to evidence indicating the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses at times failed to show the same resolve in "standing up" to Nazism. [1]

 

M. James Penton's criticism

The main individual who has published material critical of the Watchtower's statements on their Nazi experiences has been M. James Penton. Penton, professor emeritus of history at Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, is a former Witness. He published some comments on the Society's attempted "compromise" with the Nazi government in his book, Apocalypse Delayed in 1985 and in a short-lived journal he was associated with called, The Christian Quest. [2]

In the Quest issue, he also included some historical documents in German and English documenting what he believed was evidence for an "attempted compromise" of their faith with the German government. This included the Watchtower's "Declaration of Facts" document which he felt made anti-semitic remarks and tried to appease the Nazis, and the testimony of Konrad Franke.

Franke was a Branch Overseer in Germany for the Watchtower Society who later gave a talk about his experiences as a JW during the Third Reich, including his recollection of the 1933 JW convention in Berlin, about the time the Watchtower's activities were banned and many JWs began to be sent to concentration camps. Franke said he was "shocked" when he arrived at the 1933 convention in Berlin where the Declaration of Facts was to be presented as the building was decked with Swastika flags and the opening song was a rarely sung Bible Student song which had as its melody the same one as the national anthem of Germany.

Penton also believed the Society's only comments on the Declaration's anti-semitic contents as published in the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses was a whitewash of history. The 1974 Yearbook claimed that the Declaration's contents had been "weakened" by a German Witness who translated the document from English. He pointed out that the 1934 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, which published the English version of the Declaration said the same thing as the German Declaration, thus nothing was altered. The 1934 Yearbook version had the same anti-semitic, etc, comments.

After the Society published articles in the August 22, 1995, Awake! on their being the only religion that consistently and courageously opposed Nazism, he sent an open letter to the president of the Watchtower Society along with a copy of the Christian Quest and documents charging them again with whitewashing their history. [3] All this and other material has been posted on the web, especially The Watchtower Observer site in Norway, [4] perhaps the site with the most material on Witnesses and one of the most visited. It has also become a hot topic of discussion among ex-JWs and JWs on internet forums.

In the past year more documents have apparently surfaced in Germany and their contents discussed on the internet. These documents, if legitimate, further indicate Watchtower leaders in Germany compromised and even cooperated with the Nazis in giving names of Witnesses and information about the Society's operations which helped send many to the camps (see Bergman's paper under "Watchtower leaders comprimise" previous paper, this issue). The Watchtower Observer site has more German documents relating to the Watchtower and Nazi Germany that need to be translated.

The Watchtower Society in the July 8, 1998 Awake! Magazine has tried to respond to some of this criticism.

 

July 8, 1998 Awake!

The annonymous "Awake! Correspondent in Germany" said in the article, "Jehovah's Witnesses Courageous in the face of Nazi Peril" in the July 8 issue that:

Some now hold that the 1933 Berlin convention and the "Declaration of Facts" were attempts on the part of prominent Witnesses to show support for the Nazi government and its hatred of the Jews. But their assertions are not true. They are based on misinformation and on misin- terpretation of the facts.[6]

 

Swastika flags

The article tries to refute Franke's testimony that the Tennishallen where JWs held their 1933 convention in Berlin was decked with Swastika flags. They do not mention Franke's testimony but instead say:

For instance, critics claim that the Witnesses decorated the Wilmersdorfer Tennishallen with swastika flags. Photographs of the 1933 convention clearly show that they displayed no swastikas in the hall. Eyewitnesses confirm that there were no flags inside.

It is possible, however, that there were flags on the building's exterior. A Nazi combat troop had used the hall on June 21, the Wednesday prior to the convention.... So Witnesses arriving at the Sunday convention might have been greeted with the sight of a building decked with swastika flags.[7]

I haven't read any critic who claimed the Witnesses decked the hall with Swastika flags. Penton simply repeated Franke's comments as an eyewitness that the hall was decked with Swastika flags when he entered the building, he didn't claim JWs were the ones responsible. It should be pointed out that this was the testimony of a Witness in good standing who was there, not a "critic." The Society counters with unnamed "witnesses" who said there were no flags.

The writer said photos of the convention show no Swastika flags inside and print two such photos in the article. [7] However, the two photos do not decisively refute Frank's testimony. One of the photos is a view of the audience from near or on the stage in front. It looks toward the back wall of the Tennishallen and shows some of the side bleachers or stands filled with attendees. Any flags on the sides would simply have obscured the view of those in the stands, which is why flags are not normally displayed on the sides in the stands of stadiums. Flags also are rarely displayed at the back of halls.

 

 

Watchtower Society's photos of the 1933 Berlin Convention.
Awake!, July 8, 1998, p. 13.

 

 

The other picture reproduced as evidence against the Swastika flag testimony is from the left side of the platform (if looking from the front toward the audience) from among those in the orchestra and looking toward the wall on the right side of the platform. It just includes the front of the platform in front where an individual is speaking and other person is sitting next to him (another speaker presumably). It doesn't show the main portion of the platform behind the speaker, this is cut off from view (deliberately?).

The speaker's platform is where flags are normally displayed at public gatherings, since this is where the audience looks when saying the "Pledge of Allegiance" or singing a country's national anthem. One is supposed to look toward the flag after all, so the audience is not called upon to stand up, turn around and look at the back of the hall or up in the air while singing a national anthem.

If the Society had two pictures of the convention, one (as is provided) looking from the speaker's platform at or towards the audience and one (not provided) looking at or towards the platform from the audience's perspective, this would settle the question. The fact that the two photos presented leave out what would normally be the place for the flags in question, doesn't quite satisfy me as being photographic proof refuting one component of Franke's eyewitness testimony.

The other main part of Franke's comments about the start of this convention that presented the "Declaration" that he attended, was that not only were there Swastika flags, but they opened the meeting with a song they had not sung for years in Germany as the melody was adopted as the one for the German national anthem, "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles." Both of these facts he found disquieting, saying many in the audience could not bring themselves to sing it under the circumstances. It would be like JWs in the U.S. being called upon at the start of a convention under similar circumstances to sing an old, almost forgotten song whose melody was adopted by the U.S. as the melody for the national anthem. Like JWs do today at sporting events and other public gatherings, they would probably run off to the nearest girls or boys room and wait it out. Or they would stand there in disbelief as Franke said many did at the Berlin convention.

 

The Opening Song

The author next addresses this issue, again not mentioning it was a JW, Konrad Franke, who originally made these claims from his memories of attending the convention. He/she wrote:

Critics further state that the Witnesses opened the convention with the German national anthem. Actually, the convention began with "Zion's Glorious Hope," Song 64 in the Witnesses' religious songbook. The words of this song were set to music composed by Joseph Hayden in 1797. Song 64 had been in the Bible Students' songbook since at least 1905. In 1922 the German government adopted Hayden's melody with words by Hoffmann von Fallersleben as their national anthem. Nevertheless, the Bible Students in Germany still sang their Song 64 occasionally, as did Bible Students in other countries.

The singing of a song about Zion could hardly be construed as an effort to placate the Nazis. Under pressure from anti-Semitic Nazis, other churches removed Hebrew terms such "Judah," "Jehovah," and "Zion" from their hymnals and liturgies. Jehovah's Witnesses did not. The convention organizers, then, certainly did not expect to win favor with the government by singing a song extolling Zion. Possibly, some delegates may have been reluctant to sing "Zion's Glorious Hope," since the melody of this composition by Hayden was the same as that of the national anthem. [9]

Again, I don't know who the author is referring to here as "critics ... state." I haven't read of any "critic" who has claimed the Society opened their convention with the national anthem of Germany. This was not Konrad's Franke's testimony. Nor has anyone to my knowledge claimed that their singing a song about Zion was done to placate the Nazis. What was claimed by Penton in referring to Franke's testimony was that they had no objection to the words [about Zion], but to opening their convention with a song that had the melody of the German national anthem with Swastika flags on display. Here is Franke's testimony as recounted by Penton:

...we were invited to a special assembly in Prussia, thus Berlin, where the "Declaration" was to be presented.... we were shocked when we arrived at the Tennis Hall the next morning and did not find the atmosphere which we ordinarily found at conventions. When we entered we found the hall bedecked with Swastika flags! But not only that: when the meeting started, it was preluded by a song we had not sung in years, especially not Germany, because of the melody. Though the words were fine, the melody --well, the musicians who are here will recognize the notes were the melody of "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles"!

Can you imagine how we felt? Many could not join in the singing; it was as though their throats were throttled. What kind of leaders did we have who brought us such dangers--and the danger of faltering under these circumstances-- instead of helping and supporting us, so that we could take a fearless stand. May the elders who are among us learn something from these examples, and may they recognize their responsibilities in such matters in the near future. [10]

 

Anti-Semitism

The article next deals with the Declaration and the charges by critics that it contained anti-semitic comments designed to ingratiate the Witnesses to the Nazis. The article stated:

Having mentioned money [not being given to the Society by any Jews], the "Declaration" went on to denounce unfair practices of big business. It said: "It has been the commercial Jews of the British American empire that have built up and carried on Big Business as a means of exploiting and oppressing the peoples of many nations."

This statement clearly did not refer to the Jewish people in general, and it is regrettable if it has been misunderstood and has given cause for any offense. Some have claimed that Jehovah's Witnesses shared the hostility toward the Jews that was commonly taught in the German churches at the time. This is absolutely untrue. By their literature and conduct during the Nazi era, the Witnesses rejected anti Semitic views and condemned the Nazi mistreatment of the Jews. Certainly, their kindness toward Jews who shared their lot in the concentration camps provides a resounding rebuttal to this false accusation. [11]

I believe the declaration's comments about Jews speaks for itself. It is clearly anti-semitic. The Society's "non-apology" apology sounds a little hollow when compared to their racist statements about "Jews" during this time. This I believe is not a misunderstanding of their comments since, as the Society claims, they were not directed a "Jews" as a people in general. The Watchtower at the time made numerous comments about the evils of "Big Business." As the Declaration demonstrates, this evil had primarily Jews as its source according to Rutherford.

For example, in 1927, Rutherford made the following comments over the Watchtower Society's radio station, WBBR which was printed in the Society's Golden Age magazine:

Doubtless many of you have heard that the Jews shall again rule the earth. This has been much misunderstood. Not every man who is a descendant of Abraham is a Jew, by any means. Be it known once and for all that those profiteering, conscienceless, selfish men who call themselves Jews, and who control the greater portion of the finances of the world, will never be the rulers in this new earth. God would not risk such selfish men with such an important position. [12]

Such statements by Rutherford incline me to believe that Penton's recording of what Rutherford supposedly said during a Watchtower Convention in Canada in the 1920's (as told to him by his father) was accurate. Rutherford supposedly commented that:

I'm speaking of the Palestine Jew, not the hooked nosed, stooped-shouldered little individual who stands on the street corner trying to gyp you out of every nickel you got. [13]

One can "cherry pick" the best quotes by Rutherford and others in the Bible Student/JW movement on the various races such as blacks and Jews to document either their racist or their sympathetic views. The numerous Society statements through the years on Jews, like those regarding blacks, have at times been sympathetic to their situation and mistreatment, and at other times, or even at the same time, been extremely racist. While they at times decried lynchings and the economic blight of Blacks in America and elsewhere, this didn't negate the fact that they believed Blacks were inferior to Whites and under a curse of God, which would only be removed in the Golden Age (Millennium). [14] Pointing as the Society is now doing to instances of Witnesses treating Jews nicely or writing sympathetic words about their plight during WWII, etc. doesn't negate their racist comments and beliefs.

Unlike their position on blacks through the years, their position on Jews and the Jewish "race" is complicated by their theology on just who is a real Jew and who isn't. The Society has taught for a number of years that the 144,000 are primarily the real or "spiritual" Jews, while the "fleshly Jews" are those who may belong to the Jewish race by birth, but do not have "Abraham's faith" in Jehovah and thus are not spiritually Jews or are not part of the 144,000 spiritual Israelites.

As Rutherford's comments recorded above demonstrate, Rutherford and others of the Bible Students/JWs were referring primarily to a particular race of individuals who were behind "Big Business" and its oppressing humanity in the Declaration. These were "conscienceless," "selfish" and "greedy" natural or "fleshly" Jews. Rutherford was a believer in the common stereotype of the Jew who was a "selfish" businessman who would "Jew" or "gyp" you out of the last penny you had if given a chance. It was these who he believed were the ones behind "Big Business" that he frequently railed at. This may have been a reason why the Declaration stated that it was a vicious lie that they were financed in any way by "Jews" and that this charge could only have proceeded from Satan.

The Declaration further stated the following about the "commercial Jews" behind Big Business that the "German correspondent" for the Awake! chose not to quote:

This fact is so manifest in America that there is a proverb concerning the city of New York which says: 'The Jews own it, the Irish Catholics rule it, and the Americans pay the bills.' [15]

 

The Declaration of Facts

Thus, Penton appears to have a case for saying the Declaration of Facts was an attempt at a compromise with the Nazi government and contained racist comments about "Jews" to "ingratiate" themselves to the Nazi government. Penton quoted King about the Declaration which the Society hasn't commented on themselves (while quoting King's complimentary words about the Witnesses in the camps):

The document is a master of its kind and worthy of the other four sects [the Christian Scientists, the Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists and members of the New Apostolic Church] all of whom supported, in one way or another, the Nazi state....

Having attempted to assure the authorities by the Declaration of Facts, of their good citizenship, having interpreted and explained their teachings in a way, which given the preoccupations of the regime, was designed to allay fears and offer a hint of compromise, the Witnesses seemed to have expected little further harassment. Had the Declaration not condemned with the Nazis, the League of Nations, had it not described National Socialism as standing out against the injustices Germans had suffered since 1919 and had it not ended with a personal appeal to the Feührer? [16]

This is further born out in the cover letter by the Society which accompanied a copy of the Declaration sent to the Nazi government. The letter said in part:

The Brooklyn headquarter of the Watchtower Society is pro German in an exemplary way and has been so for many years. For that reason, in 1918, the president of the Society and seven members of the board of directors were sentenced to 80 years in prison, because the president refused to use two of the magazines published in America under his direction for war propaganda against Germany. These two magazines, "The Watchtower" and "Bible Student" were the only magazines in America which refused to engage in anti-German propaganda and for that reason were prohibited and suppressed in America during the war.

In the very same manner, in course of the recent months the board of directors of our Society not only refused to engage in propaganda against Germany, but has even taken a position against it. The enclosed declaration underlines this fact and emphasizes that the people leading in such propaganda (Jewish businessmen and catholics) also are the most rigorous persecutors of the work of our Society and its board of directors. This and other statements of the declaration are meant to repudiate the slanderous accusation, that Bible Researchers are supported by the Jews.

It further said:

The conference came to the conclusion that there are no contradictions when it comes to the relationship between the Bible Researchers of Germany to the national government of the German Reich. To the contrary, referring to the purely religious and unpolitical goals and efforts of the Bible Researchers, it can be said that these are in full agreement with the identical goals of the national government of the German Reich. [17]

All of the above is hardly courageously speaking out agianst the Nazi government and its injustices as the Society has traditionally claimed in reviewing their Nazi experiences and the Declaration of Facts.

 

The 1974 Yearbook

The 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses remarked that many of the German Witnesses refused to adopt the Declaration as they felt it "wasn't strong enough" in protesting Germany's action against the Society. This is unusual; all other recordings of resolutions adopted at conventions are repordedly "unannomously" adopted by the Witnesses, since Witnesses are to accept without question whatever the Society says, and so the Society, when reporting the adoption of a resolution amost always asumes everybody thought it was acceptable. For Witnesses to balk at adopting a resolution, or questioning the Society's pronouncements in any way is virtually unheard of.

The 1974 Yearbook tried to gloss over the Declaration's attempted comprimise by claiming the document didn't make the statemens it supposedly did, but was "weakened" by a "Brother Balzereit" who worked with the Society's president, Judge Rutherford and Nathan Knorr in preparing the document in German. Apparently, neither Rutherford nor Knorr knew much German and Balzereit could thus pull the wool over their eyes.

The Yearbook also claimed:

It was not the first time that Brother Balzereit had watered down the clear and unmistakeable language of the Society's publications so as to avoid difficulties with governmental agencies. [18]

Thus, the Society has claimed the Declaration's contents were much stronger in the original planned by Rutherford and Knorr, but was watered down to appease the Nazis by Balzereit. Penton and other critics have accused the Society of covering over the racist and compromising statements in the Declaration by this claim. They have stated it was a whitewash of their history. Balzereit in this view was made a scapegoat.

The writer of the Awake! article admits the claim in the 1974 Yearbook is false, saying:

According to the account in the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, some German Witnesses were disappointed that the language of the "Declaration" was not more explicit in tone. Had the branch office manager, Paul Balzereit, weakened the text of the document? No, for a comparison of the German and the English texts shows that this is not the case. Evidently, an impression to the contrary was based on the subjective observations of some who were not directly involved in the preparation of the "Declaration." Their conclusions may also have been influenced by the fact that Balzereit renounced his faith only two years later. [19]

They are now admitting the 1974 Yearbook's spin on the Declaration's statements are false as was charged by their critics, including Penton, although they don't mention their critics were the ones who originally pointed this out. They apparently are going to stand or fall on the statements in the Declaration document. They now admit the comments some say are anti-semitic and an attempt to compromise or placate the Nazis are in the original Declaration document, but they claim now that they are simply misunderstood statements.

 

Conclusions

Apparently due to the press they have received lately on this issue on the internet, the Society is trying to respond to critics of their relations with the Nazi government of Germany.

They know concede one major claim of critics that their 1974 history of the Declaration is false. They dispute the understanding of the statements they now admit were in the original Declaration document as produced by Knorr and Rutherford saying they do not contain any anti-Semitic statements or evidence of attempted compromise or attempt to placate the Nazis. Their rejoinder to those who pointed to Konrad Franke's testimony of his eyewitness experiences of Swastika flags and opening the convention with the singing of a song with the melody of the national anthem is not convincing. A picture of the convention meeting showing no Swastika flags on the platform in addition to the two they have chosen to publish would greatly diminish the credibility of Franke's testimony. As it stands, without such documentation, the matter is unresolved.

About the time this article in Awake! appeared, new, perhaps even more damaging documents had been reported and posted on the internet. These, involving the ex-JW Ewald Vorsteher's attacks on Nazi policies, the Watchtower's denunciation of Vorsteher's attacks on Nazi policy and action, and Watchtower officials' cooperation with the Nazis which helped send JWs to the camps (discussed in Bergman's paper in this issue), have not been commented upon by the Society in print. It will be interesting to see if the Society attempts a response to these materials. As it stands, the documents, if genuine, further demonstrate Watchtower compromise of their principles and faith and "spiritual whoredom" or "fornication" as they call it with the Nazi government.20

 

 

 

Footnotes

1. M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses, (University of Toronto Press) 1985, pp. 146-149; M. James Penton, The Christian Quest, vol. 3, #1, Spring, 1990 (The material from the Quest issue by Penton is available on the internet as: M. James Penton, Ph.D, "Jehovah's Witnesses Anti-semitism and the Third Reich: The Watchtower Society's Attempted Compromise With Nazism" http://watchtower.observer.org/hitler/3rdreich.asp; Jerry Bergman, "The Watchtower's Nazis Conflicts," JW Research Journal, vol. 6, #1, Jan.--July, 1999 (previous paper, this issue).

2. Penton, footnote 1.

3. See JW Research Journal, vol. 4, #1, Winter, 1997, p. 13.

4. http://watchtower.observer.org/hitler/hitlerindex.asp.

5. http://watchtower.observer.org/hitler/newdocs/index.asp.

6. Awake!, July 22, 1998, p. 12.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 13.

9. Ibid., pp. 12, 13.

10. M. James Penton, "Konrad Franke's Testimony," The Christian Quest, Spring, 1990, p. 50.

11. Footnote 6, pp. 13, 14. Material in brackets mine, italics in original.

12. The Golden Age, Feb. 23, 1927, p. 343.

13. Penton, footnote 1.

14. Jerry Bergman, Ph.D, "Jehovah's Witnesses, Blacks and Discrimination," JW Research Journal, vol. 2, #3/ 4, 1996, pp. 5-11.

15. "Declaration of Facts," 1934 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 134.

16. Penton, Quest. Material in bracket apparently by Penton.

17. Ibid.

18. 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 111.

19. Awake!, July 22, 1998, p. 14.

20. Ken Raines, "JWs, Hitler, and 'Spiritual Fornication,'" JW Research Journal, vol. 4, #1, pp. 5-16.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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