December 1995 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway,

Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter No. 11, December 1995


1. Request for information

2. Gertrud Luckner in memoriam

3. New Books

4. New publications to note

5. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Nazi period

Dear Friends,

May I take this opportunity to wish you one and all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year, with all success for 1996. I am afraid that our list has now grown so long that I cannot send you individual messages for the festive season, but hope you will accept these anonymous but heartfelt greetings. We shall be particularly thinking of those of you who are taking part in the International Bonhoeffer Conference in Cape Town at the beginning of next month, (Littell, Moses, Schjorring, Burgess?) and hope you will get together to send me a report which I will then share with the whole list.

1. Request for information

Richard Pierard, Indiana State University wants your help as follows: “I have been asked to write an essay for a handbook on the research and literature of World War II to be published by Greenwood Press. The topic which the editor assigned me is “Christianity and the War in Europe”. What I am expected to do is a piece around 5000 words dealing with bibliography (books and articles) in English on this topic. There will be separate chapters on “the war against the Jews” and “the war and religion in the USA”, which means that my essay will be quite narrowly focussed. I have a good idea of the literature I want to discuss, but some of you may know of a good book or article which you would particularly like to see in such a reference work. If so, I would welcome your suggestions. I should add that the target audience is “college teachers and the general academic and serious amateur audiences interested in the war” rather than “experts in the war” as such.”

Many thanks,
Richard Pierard.


2. Gertrud Luckner in memoriam

Michael Phayer, Marquette U. writes:

Gertrud Luckner, 1900-1995, the German Catholic who was one of her church’s foremost and energetic pioneers in Christian-Jewish relations, died in September at the age of 95.

During the Nazi era Luckner actively befriended Jews and helped them to escape during the Holocaust. She played a significant role as courier between the German bishops, warning them of the Nazi plans to persecute and deport Jews. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, she was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she narrowly escaped being put to death on several occasions. After World War II, Luckner devoted herself to eradicating Christian antisemitism in Germany. She edited the magnificently informative Freiburger Rundbriefe, outlining all aspects of Christian-Jewish reconciliation, which she personally circulated to German churchmen Often viewed with suspicion by the Vatican, the Holy Office issued a Monitum regarding her work in 1950. As a new generation of bishops replaced those of the Nazi era, Luckner won supporters. By the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, German bishops acknowledged the faults of the church during the Holocaust – a fact which assisted the passage of the famous document, Nostra Aetate, which has done much to revise 2000 years of Christian antisemitism.

The state of Israel recognised Luckner as a Righteous Gentile in 1966. Eventually her own people, church and government bestowed local and national honours and distinctions on her. Alas! she could never be prevailed on to finish her autobiography.


3. New Books

Theodore Thomas, Women against Hitler: Christian Resistance in the Third Reich, Westport,CT: Praeger/Greenwood 1995, pp 216. $49.95US – see Doris Bergen’s excellent, but not uncritical, review on H-German Book reviews, 17th November 1995.


4. New publications to note

a) Mitteilungen der Evang. Arbeitsgemeinschaft fuer Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, Folge 15 (Oct.1995), available from Geschaftstelle, Schellingstr. 3VG, 80799 Munich.


p.2-4 U v.Hehl, “Aufgaben, Arbeitsziele und Arbeitspraxis der Kommission fur Zeitgeschichte” (A report on the German Catholic Church’s Commission and its work).

p5-60 M.M. “Lichtenfeld, Lutherische Theologie in Barmen”. “Georg Metz und das Betheler Bekenntnis 1933”. (A lengthy summary taken from his forthcoming dissertation).

pp61-4 “Zur Kirchenpolitik der SED und MfS” (Conference report organized by Gauck Authority).

pp 65-7 “Die Kirche und ihre Archive” (Conference report and discussion of tensions between open access and protection of privacy in church archives today).

pp68-71 “Das rheinische und westfalische Kirche in der Nachkriegszeit” (Conference report on reorganization in this region).

b) German Studies Review: Special Issue. “Totalitaere Herrschaft und totalitaeres Erbe”, Autumn 1994, pp 101-11. “Rainer Eppelmann Opposition und Kirche in der DDR” (A personal report by one of the leading figures in the Church’s opposition to the E.German regime).

c) Central European History – forthcoming.

The following note is contributed by Doris Bergen:

“I reviewed Rainer Hering’s “Theologie im Spannunsfeld von Kirche und Staat: Die Entstehung der Evang-Theol.Fakultat an der Universitat Hamburg 1895 bis 1955”, and Rainer Laechele’s “Ein Volk, Ein Reich Ein Glaube: die “Deutsche Christen” im Wurttemberg 1925-1960″. Both are very worthwhile. Hering offers a detailed account of the creation of a Protestant faculty of theology in Hamburg, but along the way manages to tell his readers a great deal about the post-war church and the ways it both inherited the legacy of the past and tried to break new ground. Laechele’s book is a careful regional study which nevertheless illustrates some issues about the “German Christian” movement at the national level. He is surprisingly silent about the subject of antisemitism and German Christian efforts to “dejudaize” Christianity, so that his otherwise balanced work shows some peculiar blind spots. But his treatment is both very human and eminently readable”.

d) Historische Zeitschrift, Vol 261, No. 1, August 1995. pp 51 ff. O.R.Blaschke, Bielefeld. “Der Altkatholizismus 1870 bis 1945. Nationalismus, Antisemitismus und Nationalsozialismus”. “Aus Protest gegen des vatikanische Unfehlbarkeitsdogmen (1870) entstand die Bewegung und schliesslich die Kirche der Altkatholiken. Heftig umstritten, versuchte sich der Altkatholizismus nicht nur theologisch, sondern im Fahrwasser des Antiultramontanismus auch ideologisch von der “Vaticanaille” abzugrenzen. So bekannte er sich von Anfang an zum Nationalismus, lehnte den Antisemitismus dagegen entschieden ab. Doch langsam verkehrte sich die vom Liberalismus gepragte Haltung in ihr Gegenteil. Der Altkatholizismus diente sich schliesslich, infiziert von antisemitischen und volkische Ideen, bereitwillig dem Nationalsozialismus an.”


5. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Nazi period

A recent upsurge in interest in the fate of the J.Ws during the Third Reich led to an all-day seminar held in November at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which included a slide lecture entitled “The Spirit and the Sword – Jehovah’s Witnesses Expose the Third Reich”. The text is now available from the Watchtower Writing Dept, 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York 11201- 2483. The speakers on this occasion included Christine King, Detlef Garbe (Director of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Museum) and Wulff Brebeck (Director of the Wewelsburg Museum). In addition a compilation was made of all the articles printed in English in J.W. publications during 1933-45, amounting to some 1600 pages, for which an index is now available. These show not only that the fate of the German J.Ws was very closely followed at the American headquarters, but also that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was well documented, as a result of the J.Ws biblically-based sympathy.

Many of these articles describe the sufferings of J.Ws in concentration camps with graphic detail.

Virtually all accounts of the German Church Struggle (including my own) have given very little attention to the J.Ws, possibly because of denominational bias, or because the numbers involved were relatively few. But this defect has now been splendidly remedied by the appearance of Detlef Garbe’s new book – see below. An English translation is much to be desired.

Detlef Garbe, Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. Die Zeugen Jehovahs im Dritten Reich (Studien zur Zeitgeschichte Vol 42). Munchen: Oldenbourg 1993 577 pp.

Detlev Garbe’s excellent history of the J.Ws is the first full treatment of this small sect’s fate during the Nazi period, combining extensive research into the remaining Nazi records with a sympathetic analysis of survivors’ testimonies. The result is a convincing scholarly description which supersedes all previous accounts. He rightly stresses the unique character of the Nazis’ hostility, which fully merits such a thorough treatment.

The J.Ws were the first religious group to be forbidden and continued to suffer unremittingly throughout the Nazi era. No other religious community demonstrated its resistance in so decidedly an uncompromising fashion, or so steadfastly refused to bow down to the Nazi wishes. Thousands were incarcerated in concentration camps, where their resolute determination to keep on witnessing to their faith gave them an extraordinary reputation, and even finally earned a grudging respect from Himmler himself.

Church historians have largely ignored this marginal group, baffled by the oddities of their religious beliefs, offended by their anti-clerical polemics, or confused by their inability to be counted as part of the wider Resistance Movement. Garbe skilfully depicts not only the extent of the Nazi persecution but also the reasons for this brutal mistreatment. Some Nazis believed the J.Ws were part of a communist conspiracy; others suspected them of being Jewish or American infiltrators. In any case the Nazi authorities proceeded promptly in 1933 to ban their activities throughout Germany – measures which were greeted with approval by the main-stream churches, who had long been aggravated by the J.Ws sectarian proselytism. The J.W. leaders protested that they were entirely unpolitical, and even got energetic representations made by the U.S. State Department on their behalf, which successfully regained their American-funded property and printing presses. But all future activities were prohibited. The members however refused to obey, or to make any compromises with Nazi ideology. Already by the end of 1933, the Gestapo reported widespread evasion of their edicts. Stronger measures were therefore taken.

Theologically the J.Ws had long been prepared for persecution by the “satanic” forces of the Church, especially the Roman Catholics, and the state. Repression only made them more resolute. This steadfast obstinacy only increased the Nazis’ determination to suppress the sect entirely, and gave them an explicitly political excuse to stamp out “subversive agitation”. Already in 1933 J.Ws were dismissed from their jobs in both the public and private sector, their pensions confiscated, and their livelihoods restricted. Their children suffered daily mistreatment in school for their refusal to join the H.J. or to give the “Hitler greeting”. In approximately 1000 cases, children were taken into “care” to preserve them from “religious fanaticism”, and were separated from their parents for years. Even more severe were the penalties inflicted on the J.Ws in 1936-8 after two nation-wide distribution of anti-Nazi pamphlets had been successfully and conspiratorially organised. By 1939 the Gestapo had arrested almost the entire leadership and sentenced them to lengthy terms of imprisonment in concentration camps, where they were further subject to degrading and brutal treatment and forced to wear the distinguishing “violet triangle”.

But the J.Ws recruited new leaders, often women, and carried on their witness, secretly and underground as best they could. Illegal pamphlets continued to be produced, calling for a total refusal to compromise with the “satanic” rule of the Nazis and their “gangster” associates, including the Pope. Martyrdom was openly welcomed as proof of their devotion to the coming Kingdom of Jehovah. The outbreak of war and the J.Ws unwavering determination not to take part in any military activities led to even more severe repression, and to numerous death sentences, not only for men of military age but also for women, often imposed by the notorious People’s Court. Doubts expressed by some of the justice officials were brutally overruled by Hitler himself in favour of exemplary deterrent measures against all such “defeatist traitors”.

Garbe comes to the conclusion, on the basis of his detailed examination of the official archives and the “Watchtower’s” careful tabulations, that previous estimates of the J.Ws’ total losses were set too high (including Conway’s!) He regards the J.W 1974 Yearbook as giving the most reliable figures. Out of 25,000 to 30,000 J.Ws in Germany in 1933, approximately 10,000 were imprisoned for longer or shorter periods; 2,000 were sent to concentration camps; approximately 1200 lost their lives, including at least 250 sentenced to death by the courts, principally for their conscientious objection to military service. Even if these figures are lower than previously believed, the fact remains that – apart from the Jews – the J.Ws were persecuted, proportionately, more severely and brutally than any other religious-ideological group.


Wishing you all a very happy New Year
Yours sincerely,
John Conway