Charles T. Russell (1852-1916) and a group of Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were formerly known) in Pennsylvania began a systematic study of the Bible and of the prophetic significance of the year 1914.
They organised a religious, non-commercial publishing company known as the Watch Tower Society to publicise the “newly learnt truths” and later published writings that explained the Bible in German too.
Der Wachtturm magazine was published in German (The Watchtower, published in English since 1879) and shipped from the Bible Students’ literature depot in Berlin (in Bremen from 1899-1901 and in Elberfeld from 1902).
The Watch Tower Society opened an office in Elberfeld. Readers of Der Wachtturm met in various locations around Germany to study the Bible. They organised “classes”, laying the foundation for congregations.
The Watch Tower Society opened a branch office (Bethel) in Elberfeld (in Barmen from 1908-1923).
The first “general meeting” (convention) of the Bible Students was held in Elberfeld.
Meyer’s Konversationslexikon described the activities of the Bible Students as “lively propaganda”. In 1905 alone, they distributed 21 million tracts that announced their expectation of “the millennial reign [of Christ] in 1914”.
The “Photo-Drama of Creation” was screened in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Essen and other cities.
The neutral stance adopted by many Bible Students during the First World War prompted government agencies to consult the mainline churches. As a result, the government began surveilling the supposedly “dangerous activity of this cult”.
The Bible Students recognised that 1914 did not herald the “end” but merely the “beginning” of a worldwide preaching campaign to herald Christ and his millennial reign of peace.
The branch office was relocated to Magdeburg, where a modern printing plant was established. Bible literature began being produced and bound on a large scale.
The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was adopted worldwide.
Representatives of the new German government consulted with church representatives about the 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, which preceded the ban on their activities.
Tens of thousands of telegrams and letters were sent to Hitler, from home and abroad, protesting the persecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early concentration camps.
After refusing to sign declarations renouncing their faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses became “special targets of SS hatred” in concentration camps.
The nationwide distribution of a protest leaflet (and again in 1937) was one of the campaigns “that no other illegal organisation could achieve”.
In the camps, the SS made Jehovah’s Witnesses (who were a significant group of prisoners) wear purple prisoner badges.
A book entitled Kreuzzug gegen das Christentum (Crusade Against Christianity), as well as other publications, exposed the atrocities being committed by the Nazis.
The outbreak of the Second World War exacerbated the situation in prisons and several conscientious objectors were executed.
Due to the increased economic exploitation of camp prisoners, many Jehovah’s Witnesses were assigned to labour camps (Arbeitskommandos), which enabled them to survive. They continued to maintain their neutrality and never compromised their faith.