Of pacifism and Nazi necks

7 Dec 2009

Humans have a sad propensity to bomb, beat, and strangle each other over just about anything. Religion extends the list of potential conflict triggers, with novel contributions like "your God is false" or "your Book is blasphemy". Yet deep within humanity there's also a fragile desire for peacemaking, and no one can deny that religion is capable of working that noble goal into its doctrines too. Whatever our quibbles with religion, we can't criticize pacifism inspired by faith.

Usually.

While reading some articles about WWII the other day, I came across notes on the Jehovah's Witnesses' fate in Nazi-occupied lands. They were one of the groups deliberately targeted for death camps, for refusal to pledge loyalty or join the military. Thousands of them died in the camps.

For what it's worth, some scholars have pointed to the JWs as among the most adamant refusers when it came to compromising religious beliefs to appease the Nazis. Personally, I don't find that hard to believe; Witnesses learn their "we're no part of this world" schtick very well. (As a Witness child in the US I was, of course, a Pledge of Allegiance refusenik. When push came to shove, I always held fast.)

How the JW sect extracts that sort of conviction from its members, I don't know. Good brainwashing, maybe – though my pet explanation is that they've concocted the best imaginary rewards plan in the religion industry. It's a nice carrot. (Or would be, if it were real.)

All of which reminded me of another Jehovah's Witness Nazi death camp anecdote – one I heard from the JWs themselves. I don't recall whether I heard it from a person or read it in one of the publications, but according to this tale, the Nazis picked JWs from among the prisoners as their personal barbers. The reason: The Witnesses were the only Christians the Nazis trusted to stick to their oaths of non-violence when shaving a guard's or Kommandant's neck.

Is that story true? I could imagine it so; it'd mesh with other reports of JWs' refusals to compromise beliefs. But I certainly can't claim to know.

There's no point to this post; I just always found the anecdote interesting. But... Hmm. I can admit an admiration for people, of whatever beliefs concerning religion, who hold to non-violent principles even in the face of death. Yet, we're talking about Nazis here. If there's truth to that story about pacifist inmate barbers, I think I'd find more admiration for a Witness who, with straight razor in one hand and Nazi throat in the other, had been just a little more willing to compromise his faith.

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