Stand against persecution;Review

7th May 1999 at 01:00
JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES STAND FIRM AGAINST NAZI ASSAULT. Video, classroom edition 28 minutes. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Pennsylvania. Free from: Watch Tower, The Ridgeway, London NW7 1RN.

Terence Copley recounts the Jehovah's Witnesses's stand against Nazism

In the old days of RE, when the subject seemed to be state-sponsored, undenominational Christianity in the classroom, most Jehovah's Witness children were legally withdrawn by their parents. Now that RE is seen to be essentially educational and not indoctrinatory, increasing numbers of JW children take part with their parents' full consent.

It is good, therefore, to have material that tells the story of the wearers of the purple triangle. This pack could be used in history or RE work on the Holocaust from Year 9 upwards.

The refusal of Witnesses to recognise earthly kingdoms and the consequent refusal by many in Nazi Germany to substitute "Heil Hitler" for "Guten Tag", along with their persistence in producing the Watch Tower, led to persecution and imprisonment. Even children were intimidated verbally and physically at school - 840 were removed from their parents. By 1937 an estimated 6,000 out of Germany's 25,000 JWs were in prisons or camps. By 1945 about 2,000 had died, 250 by formal execution.

The video tells the story in sombre mood without being gruesome, with the help of non-Witness historians and Witness survivors. Witness beliefs and practices appear only as they relate to the collision with the state.

Useful transcripts and further background information including worksheet and lesson ideas are provided in the accompanying pack. We see the doggedness with which Witnesses appear on our doorsteps translating to great courage in the face of a totalitarian and oppressive state.

The commentary ruefully notes that if only the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics had made a stand against Nazism in the same way, the Holocaust might not have happened. But they had a long tradition that encouraged them to obey the state as a divinely appointed authority. The Witnesses, having never shared this view, stood apart with Quakers and Mennonites committed to non-violence.

My own regret is slightly different to theirs: if only all those affirming their identity as Christians could have co-operated, Witnesses with the other churches, much more might have been done. Lutheran Pastor Bonhoeffer, who isn't mentioned, could see this at the time.

I would use this video as a vital piece in the jigsaw of the Holocaust, a reminder of Christian resistance in a totalitarian state. I'm also glad that in our society, 50 years on, children of different religious convictions and those with none at all are learning to share the same classroom, to express and respect divergent views and to be encouraged to seek for truth without the state supplying compulsory answers.

Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter.

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