Article Note: Thomas J. Kehoe, “The Reich Military Court and Its Values: Wehrmacht Treatment of Jehovah’s Witness Conscientious Objectors”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 3 (September 2020)

Article Note: Thomas J. Kehoe, “The Reich Military Court and Its Values: Wehrmacht Treatment of Jehovah’s Witness Conscientious Objectors,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 33, no 3 (2019): 351-371.

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

Thomas Kehoe’s article treats a long-neglected subject: the punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to serve in the German military during World War II. Using the records of the Reich military court, which only came to light in the early 1990s, Kehoe finds that 408 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were convicted of Wehrkraftzersetzung – subverting the war effort. Of those men, 258 were executed. Kehoe puts these numbers into perspective by pointing out that Jehovah’s Witnesses made up 96% of the men sentenced to death by the Reich military court, although they constituted only 14% of the cases of subversion. Why was the Reich military court extra punitive toward Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kehoe asks? And why did it, nonetheless, not impose a death sentence in every case? In fact, he shows, all 150 convicted Jehovah’s Witness men who recanted received lesser sentences from the court.

Kehoe’s explanation involves two related points. First, he emphasizes that the court was guided by military priorities and the “necessities of war.” Second, he maintains that the subordination of justice to the command structure had its roots not in Nazism but in Prussian military tradition.  Kehoe rejects legal positivist claims that judges were forced or duped into toeing the Nazi line. To the contrary, he suggests the difference in treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses from others charged with the same offence shows that the military court had significant discretion. However, Kehoe also questions a simple argument of complicity: if members of the highest military court shared Nazi ideological goals across the board, why would they not have executed all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted as conscientious objectors? Because their goal was to maximize Germany’s fighting force, Kehoe concludes, it made sense to come down hard on “intransigent” Jehovah’s Witnesses but to back off in cases where men agreed to recant.

Kehoe’s analysis is persuasive but could be deepened by paying more attention to the wider social, religious, and political contexts. For instance, how did military judges view Jehovah’s Witnesses? The court presumably intended its decisions to send a message not only to condemned men themselves but to all soldiers and members of their families and communities. Death sentences conveyed the regime’s zero tolerance for refusal to perform military service. Yet the National Socialist regime was acutely aware of public opinion and always hit the most vulnerable targets first. Murder of disabled people began with those who were already isolated and marginalized. Although sex between men was subject to severe penalties, including death sentences, the men who most heavily punished were invariably unpopular outsiders. Could a similar logic have been at play with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who could be held up as a negative example without authorities, including military officers, having to worry that there would be backlash?

In his conclusion, Kehoe calls for more comparative studies of military courts and their treatment of supposed internal enemies. This idea is to be welcomed. Even within the context of Nazi Germany, some intriguing comparisons come to mind. One might be to examine Jehovah’s Witnesses together with German Jewish men, who were excluded from military service in 1935. Another would be to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses with Mennonites, none of whom were executed as conscientious objectors in Nazi Germany, or with the handful of mainstream Christian conscientious objectors, the most famous of whom, Franz Jägerstätter, has meanwhile been beatified and is now the subject of an acclaimed movie directed by Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life, 2019). Kehoe deserves credit for starting the conversation and for bringing the names of some Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were killed for refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht, to the attention of people outside their immediate family and faith communities.