Article Note: Malgorzata Rajtar, “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eastern Germany: Reconfiguration of Identity”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2011

Article Note: Malgorzata Rajtar, “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eastern
Germany: Reconfiguration of Identity,” Religion, State and Society
38 no. 4 (December 2010): 401-416.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered extensive persecution during the Third Reich. But the same stubborn refusal to bow down to the state authorities led to them being banned by the Communist rulers of East Germany in 1950, as a dissident and disloyal group, or alternatively as agents of “American monopolism”. Nevertheless the Witnesses maintained their close-knit structures, despite a further escalation of conflict over the resumption in 1962 of compulsory military service, which Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse. Most young male Witnesses suffered twenty months imprisonment. The consequent hardships for their families were however compensated for by other members, and their sense of victimization only strengthened the community. The adults refused to allow their children to join socialist youth groups, which led to further tensions. The Stasi attempted to infiltrate informers but with little success. Group solidarity was too strong.

By the 1980s, the state persecution relaxed, and after 1990 was abolished. Throughout the communist years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had managed to maintain their numbers, but after unification, the community faced new problems in refashioning their identity. After several years of legal battles, they successfully managed to gain recognition as a public corporation in German law, but the wider issue of public acceptance still remains. The media still reflect a general disapprobation, aided by an active hostility by some of the more established church groups against the proselytizing undertaken by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They can no longer seek sympathy as the victims of political persecution, but have yet to be granted a social standing comparable to other religious groups. The search for a new identity in the new Germany for the Jehovah’s Witnesses still continues.