Hans-Hermann Dirksen, Jürgen Harder, Hans Hesse, and Johannes Wrobel

Chronology: Development and Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses

The religious association of Bible Students or Jehovah's Witnesses, as they renamed themselves in 1931, was created by Charles Taze Russell in the 1880s.



Charles Taze Russell is appointed pastor by the »Bible Study Group« he founded. 


Establishment of the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence which becomes the central journal of the new movement. 


Beginning of intensive missionary work and establishment of the religious association by a lecture series in various cities, by studying the Bible and publications, and by setting up reading groups, from which communities later develop (in 1899 there were supposedly ca. 2,500 followers in the United States). 


C.T. Russell publishes his Study of the Scriptures in 6 volumes, establishing the core of his community. 


Transfer of the Society’s headquarters to Brooklyn, New York. 

Oct. 31, 1916

C.T. Russell dies during a lecture tour in the United States. 

January 6, 1917

Joseph Franklin Rutherford, an attorney, is appointed as new president of the Watch Tower Society. He immediately restructures the religious association. Individual communities no longer appoint representatives themselves, but are appointed by the leadership of the Society.  

Bible Students in Germany 


As a result of expanding the missionary efforts of Jehovah’s Witnesses in foreign countries in the 1890s, the first office in Germany is opened in Elberfeld, near Wuppertal, in 1902. 


Growth of followers in Germany: 


About 1,000 regular subscribers for the Wachtturm


3,868 »active persons« are counted. 


Their number increases to 5,545. 

Until 1926  

The Association of the Bible Students in Germany with 22,535 followers becomes the largest branch of the religious association outside the United States. 

Until 1933  

The community expands; there are ca. 25,000 »active persons« and ca. 10,000 sympathizers. 

July 26, 1931  

At a convention in Columbus (Ohio) the »International Association of Earnest Bible Students« is renamed »Jehovah’s Witnesses.« In Germany it takes a few more years until the new name is accepted, so that for a long time in public Jehovah’s Witnesses are still known by the name »Bible Students« or »Earnest Bible Students.« 

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses Under National Socialism 

Jan. 30, 1933  

Adolf Hitler is appointed Reich Chancellor. 

Feb. 28, 1933  

The so-called Reichstag Fire Decree is passed. 

Mar. 5, 1933  

Out of their religious conviction Jehovah’s Witnesses decline to participate in Reichtag elections, resulting in harassment and mistreatment in many places. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to give the Hitler salute or to pledge allegiance. Later they refuse to participate in any state organization, such as the Hitler Youth, the Nazi People’s Welfare, the Reich Air-raid Association, and the German Labor Front. The Nazis view their refusal to perform military service as especially »hostile to the state.« 

March 1933  

The German branch of the religious association is restructured and new societies are formed: the »Norddeutsche Bibelforschervereinigung« (North German Association of Bible Students) and the »Süddeutsche Bibel­forschervereinigung« (South German Association of Bible Students.) Paul Balzereit becomes the head of the German section. 


Attempts by Jehovah’s Witnesses to negotiate with the German government to continue their religious activities fail, and various states ban the Bible Students’ Association. 

April 7, 1933  

The »Law for Restoration of the Career Civil Service« is passed. Apart from the Witnesses’ refusal to join the German Labor Front, this law results in the loss of work for many and destroys their livelihood.  

Apr. 10, 1933  

Ban of the Bible Students’ Association in Mecklenburg. 

Apr. 13, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Bavaria. 

Apr. 18, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Saxony. 

Apr. 19, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Hesse. 

Apr. 24, 1933  

The police and SA occupy and search the offices and printing plant at the Association’s headquarters in Magdeburg. 

Apr. 26, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Lippe and Thuringia. 

Apr. 28, 1933  

Intercession of the Brooklyn headquarters with the American government results in the temporary recovery of the Magdeburg office from German authorities. However, confiscated material is destroyed. 

May 15, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Baden. 

May 17, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Oldenburg. 

May 19, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Braunschweig. 

June 6, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Lübeck. 

June 24, 1933 

Ban of the Association in Prussia. 

June 25, 1933  

Mass rally in Berlin-Wilmersdorf by invitation of the Magdeburg headquarters, attended by ca. 7,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Passed »Declaration« to invalidate accusations against the association, and reveals leadership attempts at reaching an agreement with the new rulers in Germany. This course fails.  

June 28, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Bremen. 

June 28, 1933  

Second occupation of the Magdeburg headquarters. 

June 28, 1933  

Ban of the Association in Hamburg. 

Sept. 7–9, 1934  

Reacting to increasing persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious association organizes an international convention in Basel, which is also attended by ca. 1,000 followers from Germany despite the ban. Attempts to negotiate with the German government have failed. The unrestricted resumption of missionary and propaganda activities as well as establishing an illegal organization are decided. 

Oct. 7, 1934  

Massive campaign of foreign protest letters by Jehovah’s Witnesses inundate German officials. 

Jan. 9, 1935  

The first documented case of a Witness, Anna Seifert, incarcerated in Moringen concentration camp. 

Apr. 1, 1935  

Nonuniform measures in German states hinder systematic suppression of activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses. This results in Reich prohibition on April 1, 1935. Simultaneously, the Watch Tower and Tract Society in Magdeburg is dissolved and state and local governments are instructed to confiscate the assets of the association via circular decree of July 13, 1935.  

Spring 1936  

From this time onward, the persecuting authorities make use of a further means to force the followers of the »teachings of the Bible Students« to surrender their convictions. Many times custody is taken away from parents via court decision to stop a »subversive« influence. Between 1936 and 1946, at least 860 children were affected by this measure according to Jehovah’s Witness sources. 

June 1936  

The Gestapo forms a special unit for surveillance of Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Aug.-Sept. 1936  

The first mass arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the Reich are implemented. Despite increasing persecution (up to mid–1937, at least 17 Witnesses die during interrogations and in prisons) and the loss of the organization’s leadership, the association is able to reorganize. 

Sept. 4–7, 1936  

Lucerne convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses passes a resolution denouncing the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany. 

Dec. 12, 1936  

About 100,000 copies of the Lucerne protest resolution are distributed in various German cities; the campaign is repeated in February and March 1937. 

Dec. 1936  

In Moringen concentration camp, female Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to work for the Winter Relief Campaign, resulting in isolation as well as prohibitions on receipt of all mail and packages for months. 


During the year Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps are included in instructions for »recidivist offenders.« They are penalized with heavy labor assignments and growing harassment. In Dachau concentration camp they are imprisoned in »Isolation,« a barrack separated by barbed wire from the rest of the camp. This »model« is later implemented in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 

Apr. 22, 1937  

Circular decree from Gestapo Berlin: »All International Bible Students Association followers released from prisons after serving their sentence are to be taken into protective custody; their transfer to a concentration camp can be requested if an explanation of the facts is submitted.« Thereafter, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses are remanded to concentration camps. For example, in Moringen, the percentage of Jehovah’s Witnesses increases from 17 percent in June to 89 percent in December 1937. In other concentration camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses make up on average 5 to 10 percent of camp inmates in prewar years. Only in the women’s camps of Moringen, Lichtenburg, and Ravensbrück (until the beginning of the war) are Jehovah’s Witnesses the largest prisoner group. After the beginning of war, their proportion decreases drastically: Maut­hausen concentration camp 5.2 percent (at the end of 1944: 0.12 percent), Buchenwald concentration camp 3.3 percent (at the end of 1944: 0.3 percent). 

June 20, 1937  

In the first half of 1937, a detailed report about persecution in Germany is assembled in Bern using information from Witnesses in Germany. The flyer is titled: »Open Letter — To Germans who believe in the Bible and love Christ.« This »open letter« is distributed on June 20, 1937, in a mass operation throughout Germany. 

Fall 1937 

Second wave of mass arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite regional successes in reorganizing local groups, Jehovah’s Witness activities stop throughout the Reich. 

Dec. 20, 1937  

In Moringen concentration camp for women, a »declaration« is introduced only for Jehovah’s Witnesses. After 1935 »declarations« were used in concentration camps as well as in prisons. After 1937, this is institutionalized by imposing subsequent detention (Nachhaft = protective custody arrest after completing a prison sentence) if the declaration is not signed. Before the war, this »declaration« was ostensibly signed more frequently. Estimates are that about 10 percent of Witnesses incarcerated in concentration camps signed and up to 50 percent in prisons. On December 21, 1937, this »declaration« is standardized on Himmler’s orders. It states: »Declaration. I have come to know that the International Bible Students Association is proclaiming erroneous teachings and under the cloak of religion follows hostile purposes against the State. I therefore left the organization entirely and made myself absolutely free from the teachings of this sect. I herewith give assurance that I will never again take any part in the activity of the International Bible Students Association. Any persons approaching me with the teachings of the Bible Students, or who in any manner reveal their connections with them, I will denounce immediately. All literature from the Bible Students that should be sent to my address I will at once deliver to the nearest police station. I will in the future esteem the laws of the State and join in every way the community of the people. I have been informed that I will at once be taken again into protective custody if I should act against the declaration given today.« 


Standardized color symbols are introduced for concentration camp inmates. Jehovah’s Witnesses receive the »purple triangle.« 

March 1938  

Total mail ban for Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps. Restrictions on receiving and sending letters are stamped by the camp postal censor: »The prisoner remains, as before, a stubborn Bible Student and refuses to reject the Bible Students’ false teachings. For this reason the usual privileges of correspondence have been denied him.« 

Oct. 6, 1938  

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lichtenburg concentration camp for women refuse to listen to a radio speech by Adolf Hitler on the occasion of occupying the Sudetenland. The SS drive the women out of their cell with water hoses. Many women do not recover from this torture. 


During these two years, SS terror rages against Jehovah’s Witnesses in the concentration camps. 

Sept. 15, 1939  

August Dickmann, a Jehovah’s Witness, is publicly shot in Sachsen­hausen concentration camp. The news of his execution is announced on the radio. 

Dec. 19, 1939  

In Ravensbrück concentration camp, female Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to sew bags which they assume are to be used as gun holsters, and therefore war-related work. The SS unsuccessfully tries to break the women’s resistance with punishments such as standing at attention for days, withdrawal of food, and detention in darkness. This harassment continues until March 1940.

After 1942

Conditions improve for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the concentration camps. For example, female Witnesses are »very sought after« as domestic help by SS leaders. They are even entrusted with childcare, although in many cases their own children had been removed from their custody.

March 6, 1944

Dr. Robert Ritter announces in a letter to the President of the Reich Research Council (Reichsforschungsrat) his plan to begin »genealogical investigations of the racial and genetic ancestry of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ravensbrück concentration camp.«

July 21, 1944

Himmler mentions in a letter his plan to settle Jehovah’s Witnesses after the war in the border zone adjacent to the Soviet Union, because their pacifist influence would result in Soviet »defenselessness.«


Of about 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, ca. 10,000 had been imprisoned for a various lengths of time; 2,000 of them in concentration camps; 1,200 had died or were murdered, including ca. 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been executed for refusing military service.

Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in the SBZ (SOZ)/GDR 1945-1990


Organization meeting of the »International Bible Students Association, German Branch« in Magdeburg; in the same month, registered with the Register of Associations (Vereinsregister) at the Magistrate’s Court in Magdeburg.


The Information Service Department of the Main Aministrative Office (Hauptverwaltungsamt) of the City of Leipzig asks the outdoor service a question concerning the religious services of a community called »Jehovah.« Expressed should be »how the activity of religious groups is carried out.«


Registry of the change of name »Jehovah’s Witnesses, International Bible Students Association, German Branch« with the Register of Associations (Vereinsregister) in Magdeburg.


Confirmation by the Soviet Military Administration Germany (SMAD) that Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered.


The Soviet authorities refuse permission for a convention in Leipzig. Thereupon Jehovah’s Witnesses hold their convention in the Waldbühne in West Berlin.


Bruno Haid, member of the SED central secretariat, personnel department, wrote to the vice president of the German Administration for Internal Affairs (Deutsche Verwaltung des Innern, DvdI), Erich Mielke, requesting all material about the activities of religious sects (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and all political activities by the church. A national monitoring of Jehovah’s Witnesses begins.


The head of the Thuringia Department K5 verifies that no anti-democratic propaganda is carried out at the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the »recruits,« however, »get lost for our assignment.«

Early 1949

In the K5’s report, terms such as »activity hostile to the state« or »sect hostile to reconstruction« appear.


A further Waldbühne convention in West Berlin. Adoption of a resolution. Therein, among other things, it is protested against the undemocratic and unconstitutional bans and restrictions of the religious services in Saxony, against the political and religious hostility, against the designating of Jehovah’s Witnesses as warmongers and enemies of peace. It is declared that Jehovah’s Witnesses keep neutral towards all political and ideological questions. It reads literally: »Under no circumstances, not even under the pressure of dictatorial measures, will Jehovah’s Witnesses get involved in the global conflict between East and West.« Without warning, the authorities of the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) cancel the provision of the already approved special trains and block the approach roads to Berlin. Nevertheless, about 33,000 persons visit the convention.


Meeting of the Politburo. Drawing up of a plan of action against Jehovah’s Witnesses.


The SBZ becomes the German Democratic Republic. The number of Jehovah’s Witnesses lies between 12,000 (average) and 17,000 (peak).

Autumn 1949/Spring 1950

Defamatory articles appear in various newspapers.

February 1950

Petition of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the state leadership drawing attention to the deplorable state of affairs. On July 10 this petition was again sent numerously to West and East Germany.

Spring and Summer 1950

Pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses by the GDR authorities increases. The People’s Police break up numerous circuit assemblies and arrest platform speakers. During the last week in August, a craftily conducted press campaign, peppered with slander, prepares the populace for the planned ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Occupation and confiscation of the administration building of the Watch Tower Society in Magdeburg by the Ministry for State Security (Mini­sterium für Staatssicherheit, MfS), most of the workers are arrested. During this time, at least 300 Witnesses of Jehovah are arrested nationwide. Several Witnesses of Jehovah, such as Erich Poppe from Meißen, die as a result of the severe abuse suffered whilst held in the custody of the state security.


Ban decreed by the GDR Minister of the Interior, Dr. Steinhoff. He orders that Jehovah’s Witnesses be »removed from the list of authorized religious organizations and thus are banned.« These are accused of »systematic agitation against the existing democratic order and its laws« as well as espionage. Up until the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Watch Tower literature reaches the GDR via West Berlin.


Pronouncement of judgment at the public trial against Willi Heinicke, Fritz Adler and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses. »Heinicke and Adler receive life imprisonment, the rest 8-15 years,« reports the »Frankfurter Neue Presse.« Other large trials ensue in the territory throughout the GDR. This wave of trials continued on to approximately summer/autumn 1951.


In a directive Erich Mielke lays stress on the work of recruiting informers in order to »discover the foremost functionaries and the most dangerous agents of the sect.«


Bruno Sarfert dies in the Brandenburg-Görden penitentiary. Cause of death: »Circulatory problems.« About a year previously, on 3/15/1954, Bruno Seifert, another Witness of Jehovah, was so badly beaten that he died shortly after in a Dresden hospital.


West Berlin becomes divided from East Berlin and the GDR. At first only single Watch Tower articles reach the congregations (parishes). Articles are typed with up to 8 carbon copies on a typewriter and studied in small groups. Soon simple devices are made for duplicating the articles. Later, the Witnesses are provided with India (light)paper editions from West Germany.


Carsten Möller collapses and dies following strenuous work in the Brandenburg penitentiary. This Witness of Jehovah was imprisoned for 10 years by the Nazis and for 11 years by the communists.

March 1963

The Ministry for State Security makes it its goal to arrest the whole leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the GDR (operational procedure »swamp« [Sumpf]). During the following years, informers, house searches, interrogations and bugging devices are some of the common practices of the State Security Service.


In one fell swoop, 142 young Jehovah’s Witnesses are arrested on account of conscientious objection – (General military service had been instituted in December 1962). They are later consigned to hard labor.


House searches take place nationwide. Seventeen Jehovah’s Witnesses are arrested.


The series of trials against the so-called illegal leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses begins. Fifteen Witnesses in prominent positions receive prison sentences of up to 12 years.

August 1966

New work directive of the MfS in the central operational procedure »swamp« (ZOV »Sumpf«), whereby in particular unofficial collaborators (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, IM) in responsible positions are to be won over. The work of undermining is to be intensified.

May 1971

The Walter Ulbricht era comes to an end (1950-1971); start of the Honecker era (until 1989). From now on the People’s Police impose administrative fines (»Ordnungsstrafen«) on Jehovah’s Witnesses who publicly spread their belief.


Jehovah’s Witnesses are no longer to be penalized on account of conscientious objection.


Fall of the Berlin Wall. The East German Jehovah’s Witnesses are now able to travel to the West without impediment in order to obtain Watch Tower literature.


The »Religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the GDR« receives state recognition.


From 1950 until 1961 (construction of the Berlin Wall), 3,006 Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested by the GDR authorities. Of these, 2,170 (including 641 women) received prison sentences (on an average 5.7 years) In fifteen cases a life term was imposed. Following 1961 the number of judgments declined.


At least 250 of the Witnesses of Jehovah who were imprisoned, mostly in the 50s, had already been incarcerated under National Socialism.


Presumably (status August 1998) a total of over 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned in various penitentiaries and work camps. Of them, at least 57 (43 men and 14 women) died in prison or from the consequences of imprisonment, from abuses, sickness, malnutrition and old age.