Photo: prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp after liberation in 1945

Statistics and Overview

In the Spring of 1945, Russia Freed Jehovah's Witnesses From Concentration Camps. Why, 75 Years Later, Are They Again in Prisons?


More than 4,000 prisoners of concentration camps wore purple triangles on their chests. Because of their faith, they refused to salute Hitler, pick up weapons and fight. On the 75th anniversary of the liberation, the peace-loving Jehovah's Witnesses are again in prison, this time in Russia. How did the liberating country become an oppressor?

Why were Jehovah's Witnesses considered "enemies of the Reich" in Nazi Germany? Jehovah's Witnesses believed that participation in the leader's personality cult, participation in elections, work in party structures and military enterprises, as well as military service were contrary to the commandments of the Gospel. Of the 35,000 followers of this religion who lived in the territories controlled by Berlin, 11,300 were arrested, 4,200 were sent to concentration camps, and 1,600 died.

In 2020, visitors to the memorial museums of former concentration camps will be able to see monuments, plates and stands telling about the feat of faith of Jehovah's Witnesses. For example, the plaque in Sachsenhausen tells the story of 29-year-old Jehovah's Witness August Dieckmann, the first in Nazi Germany to be executed for refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht. In 1939, just three days after the outbreak of World War II, August was summoned to the Gestapo and ordered to sign a conscription document. When he refused, he was placed in solitary confinement, and the camp commander asked the SS for permission to execute Dickmann in the presence of all camp prisoners. Here is how one of the participants of those events told about it: "The SS shot August Dieckmann and threatened to shoot the others if we did not sign a renunciation of our faith. No one did. We were no longer afraid of their bullets, but of not pleasing Jehovah."

In 1944-1945, the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army participated in the liberation of concentration camp prisoners, including Jehovah's Witnesses. For example, some of the 387 Jehovah's Witnesses sent to Auschwitz were still in the camp on the day of liberation, January 27, 1945. The world as a whole learned about the existence of the concentration camps of the Third Reich only in 1945. Meanwhile, as early as 1937, Jehovah's Witnesses reported on poison gas experiments in the Dachau camp in their journal Consolation, and in 1940 they published the names of 20 concentration camps and described what was happening there. Then they did not attach any importance to this.

Why were Jehovah's Witnesses considered "enemies of the people" in the Soviet Union? In 1941, when Wehrmacht troops attacked the borders of the USSR, there was not a single Jehovah's Witness among the attackers. The believers were ready to die at the hands of the executioners, but not to shoot at people. At the end of the war, however, when the number of Jehovah's Witnesses in the USSR increased dramatically at the expense of new territories, the Soviet government responded with ingratitude.

Jehovah's Witnesses in the USSR still believed that participation in the cult of personality of the leader, participation in elections, work in party structures and military enterprises, as well as service in the Soviet army contradicted the Gospel commandments. Already in the early 1950s, thousands of Soviet Jehovah's Witnesses were deported to Siberia without means of subsistence (the infamous Operation North), many died in the Gulag institutions. Some of Jehovah's Witnesses went first to Nazi and then to Soviet camps. Here's one example.

In 1943, in Bessarabia, German-controlled authorities sentenced 23-year-old Ephraim Platon to 25 years of hard labor for refusing to take the military oath and take up arms. He told what happened at the recruiting station: "Eight conscripts, including me, stepped forward. We said that we would not participate in the war, because we adhere to the position of neutrality. We were arrested and severely beaten, so that even my wife barely recognized me. Then we were sent to Chisinau, where we had to appear before a military court. In the bitter cold, we, eight people, chained and urged on by soldiers who did not allow us to eat or drink, walked 140 kilometers in 21 days. When we arrived at the next police station, we were beaten - there were 13 such stations on our way! We survived only by the fact that the locals fed us when we stayed overnight at the polling stations. In May 1945, Bessarabia became part of the USSR, and the believer was released after 2 years of hard labor. But already in 1949, he was again separated from his family and sent on wanderings through the Gulag: first to Kurgan, then to Vorkuta. Only in 1965, the Platon family was able to be released from prison, and they were allowed to return to Moldova only in 1989.

Why are Jehovah's Witnesses classified as "extremist organizations" in modern Russia? In the indictment documents against believers, there are no victims or harm caused. In the Russian Federation, which considers itself the legal successor of the USSR, the vague concept of "extremist activity" is used to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses.

Since 2017, the authorities of the Russian Federation have launched the most massive repression of Jehovah's Witnesses in the modern world. Law enforcement officers prey on peaceful believers throughout the country, seize Bibles and spiritual books, take them to courts, beat them, and torture them. Among them are the elderly, the disabled, parents of minor children, labor veterans, representatives of professions necessary for society. All Jehovah's Witnesses turned out to be potential criminals in Russia, who could be arrested at any time simply because of their religious views. If in the USSR Jehovah's Witnesses were accused of "anti-Soviet propaganda" and were seen as "enemies of the people", then in the Russian Federation they are accused of "extremism" and "encroachment on the constitutional order." But behind the new formulations are old approaches: a person does not have to commit a crime to be behind bars. It is enough to believe in Jehovah and discuss this faith with others. In modern Russia, what in Germany and the rest of Europe is considered a long-lived nightmare has become a reality again. The EU countries in general (e.g., July 2017, February 2019, March 2020) and Germany in particular (May 2017, June 2019) strongly condemn Russia's actions towards Jehovah's Witnesses.

Dennis Christensen, Sergey Klimov, Konstantin Bazhenov, Felix Makhammadiyev, Alexei Miretsky, Alexey Budenchuk, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German are the names of Jehovah's Witnesses who are currently serving sentences in Russian colonies because of their religious affiliation. Hundreds of their fellow believers are involved in similar cases, dozens are imprisoned in pre-trial detention centers and under house arrest, awaiting sentences under serious criminal articles. "I love my country, and I don't want my grandchildren to be ashamed of Russia, just as I am ashamed today in front of my grandparents for Stalin's repressions. Just as the citizens of Germany today are ashamed of the years of Nazi rule," said the convicted Saratov resident Alexei Miretsky in his last word, after which he added: "I am sure that sooner or later justice will be restored. All prisoners of conscience who have been subjected to humiliation, insults, theft of property, deprivation of liberty will be acquitted and rehabilitated, as has happened more than once in the history of mankind. The only question is when?