“ALL the wars of the past . . . pale into insignificance before the present great struggle progressing in Europe.” Thus The Watch Tower of September 1, 1915, described the first world war, which eventually engulfed about 30 countries. Because of the hostilities, The Watch Tower reported: “[Kingdom] service has been to some extent hindered, especially in Germany and France.”
Confronted with a raging conflict of global proportions, the Bible Students did not completely understand the principle of Christian neutrality. However, they were determined to declare the good news. Wanting to do his part in Kingdom service, Wilhelm Hildebrandt ordered copies of The Bible Students Monthly in French. He was not in France as a colporteur (full-time preacher) but, rather, as a German soldier. This supposed enemy, dressed in a military uniform, gave a message of peace to astonished French passersby.
Letters printed in The Watch Tower indicate that a number of other German Bible Students felt compelled to share the good news of the Kingdom while in the military. Brother Lemke, who served in the navy, reported finding interest among five of his own crewmates. “Even on board this ship, I am reaping fruit to Jehovah’s praise,” he wrote.
Georg Kayser went to the battlefront as a soldier and returned home as a servant of the true God. What happened? He somehow got a Bible Student publication, wholeheartedly embraced Kingdom truth, and laid down his weapons. He then took up noncombatant work. After the war, he served as a zealous pioneer for many years.
Although the Bible Students did not fully understand the issue of neutrality, their attitude and conduct stood in stark contrast with the views and actions of people who welcomed the war. While politicians and church leaders in effect hoisted national banners, the Bible Students held to the “Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6) Though some did not maintain strict neutrality, they still held the fundamental conviction expressed by Bible Student Konrad Mörtter, “I recognized clearly from God’s Word that a Christian should not kill.”
In Germany, where the law made no provision for exemption because of conscientious objection, more than 20 Bible Students refused to have any involvement with the military. Some of them were classed as mentally ill, such as Gustav Kujath, who was put in a mental institution and drugged. Hans Hölterhoff, who also refused the draft, went to prison, where he rejected all war-related work. Guards trussed him in a straitjacket until his limbs became numb. When that failed to break his resolve, guards staged a mock execution. However, Hans remained steadfast throughout the war.
Other brothers who were drafted refused to bear arms and requested noncombatant roles. * Johannes Rauthe took such a stand and was sent to work on the railways. Konrad Mörtter was assigned as a medical orderly, and Reinhold Weber worked as a nurse. August Krafzig was grateful that his duties did not put him on the battlefront. These Bible Students and others like them were determined to serve Jehovah based on their understanding of love and loyalty.
Because of their conduct during the war, the Bible Students came under official scrutiny. During the following years, the Bible Students in Germany had to face thousands of court cases because of their preaching activity. To assist them, the branch office in Germany formed a legal department at Bethel in Magdeburg.
Jehovah’s Witnesses progressively refined their understanding of the issue of Christian neutrality. When the second world war broke out, they maintained a neutral stand by keeping completely separate from the military. Hence, they were viewed as enemies of the German State and were bitterly persecuted. But that is quite a different chapter for a future segment of the series “From Our Archives.”
^ par. 7 See an account of British Bible Students during World War I in the article “From Our Archives
^ par. 9 This course of action was suggested in Volume VI of the Millennial Dawn series (1904) and also in the German edition of Zion’s Watch Tower of August 1906. The Watch Tower of September 1915 refined our viewpoint and suggested that Bible Students avoid joining the military. However, this article did not appear in the German edition.