Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bible Students in Germany during World War 1

Grateful thanks are due to Bernhard who has provided all the information and the graphics in this article on the situation faced by Bible Students in Germany during the First World War.

Recent posts and comments have dealt with how the Bible Students coped with conscription in World War 1. Prior to the war, the Watchtower magazine had given this advice on joining the military. From the Watch Tower for August 1, 1898 (reprints page 2345) CTR wrote:

"If, therefore, we were drafted, and if the government refused to accept our conscientious scruples against warfare (as they have heretofore done with "Friends," called Quakers), we should request to be assigned to the hospital service or to the Commissary department or to some other non-combatant place of usefulness; and such requests would no doubt be granted. If not, and we ever got into battle, we might help to terrify the enemy, but need not shoot anybody."

How could you avoid shooting anyone? Perhaps you could do this by shooting over their heads? In the Watch Tower for July 15, 1915 (reprints page 5728) CTR expanded on this:

"In Volume Six of SCRIPTURE STUDIES, the friends are instructed to avoid taking life. If they were ever drafted into the army they should go. If they could be sent to the Quartermaster's Department to take care of the food, that would be desirable, or into the hospital work. They should endeavor to get such positions. They could not be expected to do service in the way of killing. If they were obliged to go on the firing line, they could shoot over the enemy's head, if they wished."

The problem for Bible Students dealing with this well-intentioned advice would only come to the forefront if and when conscription was introduced. So it came to the fore in Britain in 1916 and in America in 1917 when the draft was introduced. In Germany however, universal conscription was there from the start of the war.

There was a German Watch Tower magazine that gave some details of the situation and also gave the names of many of those involved. The two images below are from the German WT for July and August 1915.

This explains that more than 200 brothers were now in the military and lists many of their names. They are on land, on sea, some in garrisons, some in hospitals. One of them was Max Freschel who we will come back to later.

The numbers increased as the months went by. From the November 1915 German Watch Tower:

Translated it reads:

From our brothers on the field (i.e. battlefield)

“It is of interest to all brothers and sisters to know that there are currently about 350 of our brothers in the military. As a result of close correspondence with many of the loved ones, we receive many evidences of joyful faith and trust and patient perseverance in many difficulties. Some brothers wrote us that they feel strong knowing that so much is being thought of in prayer.”

The article then details the deaths in “the theater of war” of two Bible Students, Fritz Kownatzki from Zollernhöhe, East Prussia, and Johannes Finger from Barmen.  Fritz was 23 and Johannes was 33.

The article concludes: “Both brothers had written to us with expressions of love until shortly before their deaths, from which we could see that these dear ones sought to walk with Jesus ......

Little is known about how individual Bible Students coped with being in the military while striving to adhere to their principles. One experience though is found in the German Watch Tower for June 1915.

In a letter August Kraftzig wrote: “I'm not directly at the front, but in the baggage (stores?) and consequently by God's grace not directly involved in the war.”

Years later in 1938 August became Branch overseer in Austria. He died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1940.

As noted above, one name in the lists of Bible Student conscripts was Max Freschel. Freschel was an Austrian of Jewish parentage. (The area is now part of Poland but was then Austria). At the outbreak of war his parents were in Switzerland while he was in the German Bethel. Max chose to stay in Germany, but this meant that, with universal conscription, he was called up for the German army.

In 1915 he wrote to CTR at least twice. We don’t know what he wrote but there is a letter in the German Watch Tower for October 1915 from Fred Leon Scheerer from Brooklyn. Friedrich Leonhardt Scheerer was a German Bible Student responsible for the German foreign work and he translated Max’s letters so that CTR could read them.

Max Freschel moved to America in 1926 and lived for the rest of his life in Brooklyn Bethel. He changed his name to Maxwell Friend. He would become heavily involved in radio dramas for the Society’s Station WBBR, and was one of the first instructors at Gilead School. When dramas were introduced to convention programs from the late 1960s onwards, many readers may remember his voice playing various patriarchs.

His life story appeared in the Watchtower in April 15, 1967, and is well worth reading. However, he skirts over the years of WW1. All he basically says is that when everything was revived after the war in 1919, he was too.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bernhard, for sharing this detailed information. Your research certainly fills in valuable details about the situation of the Bible Students on the German side of the war.

In the first graphic, I notice three names at the beginning of the list of soldiers: R. Bazan, H. Dwenger, and F. Hess. The cases of these three men, from the Bible House at Barmen, were discussed on pages 82-83 of the 1974 Yearbook, as follows:

"an uncertainty ... even manifested itself in Barmen at the Bible House where Brothers Dwenger, Basan and Hess all were of draft age. Whereas Brothers Dwenger and Basan were determined not to take an oath of allegiance or to take up arms, Brother Hess was undecided. Off he went to the front in Belgium, a companion of those not placing their hope in God’s kingdom. He never returned. A later draft call resulted in the conscription of Brothers Dwenger and Basan. Brother Basan was soon able to return home, whereas Brother Dwenger was not released, but, rather, was forced to file records in a military office. This he was willing to do, it being compatible with his understanding of the matter at that time."

Hess "never returned" - whether that means to Barmen, to the Bible Students, or alive from the front, I have no idea.

On line 2, I also notice the name "F. Balzereit", referred to in the second graphic as "Fritz Balzereit". Was he a relative of the infamous Paul G. Balzereit, who served as Director during the 1920s and 1930s, and who ended up as an active opposer?

One further point: in the translation of the third graphic, it mentions the deaths in “the theater of war” of two Bible Students, Fritz Kownatzki and Johannes Finger from Barmen.

The article concludes: “Both brothers had written to us with expressions of love until shortly before their deaths, from which we could see that these dear ones sought to walk with Jesus ......”

Why, I wonder, was their course commended, when Hess, from the Barmen office, was described in the 1974 Yearbook as "a companion of those not placing their hope in God’s kingdom"?

Thanks again for shedding some light on this previously obscure subject.

Gary said...

Thank you Jerome for the article and Bernhard for his research. Some good questions are asked from our anonymous blogger. Perhaps Kownatzki and Finger performed non-combatant roles recommended by the IBSA at the time while Hess willingly left to perform combatant duties?
Given the fact that our German brothers were conscripted into the Great War considerably earlier than those from Britain, Canada and the United States it is apparent that they attempted to follow Pastor Russell's instructions to the best of their ability, difficult though it must have been. Brothers such as Hans Hölterhoff and Hero von Ahlften (love this name!) made even more profound stands in the later war period with the latter refusing to obey military orders he said were the "work of the devil."

jerome said...

To Anon: I noticed the name Balzereit too, and in an initial draft researched and wrote a paragraph on Paul Balzereit, only to be told by Bernhard that I had the wrong one. It may be that Bernhard can give some more direct answers to questions raised as he does read the blog and comment from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the German historian Johannes Wrobel (who wrote about Jehovah´s witnesses in world war II) might know about that?
German Girl, denkt nach

Bernhard B. said...

The Balzereit family came from Kiel (Schleswig-Holstein).I could not find any Fritz (Friedrich) Balzereit in Kiel in directory or address-books. Only Paul, his wife Klara, son Paul jr. And daughter Helga. Also in the same apartment was Karl Balzereit, his father or brother, but no Fritz anywhere. It seems that they are related, but I couldn.t find out how. Unfortunately Johannes W. Is no longer in the bethel to ask him. Sorry!

roberto said...


Dai nostri fratelli in campo (campo di guerra)

“Sarà di interesse per i nostri fratelli e sorelle sapere che attualmente ci sono circa 350 nostri fratelli in servizio militare. Come risultato di una fitta corrispondenza con molti di questi diletti, riceviamo numerose conferme di fede gioiosa e fiducia e paziente perseveranza in mezzo a tante difficoltà. Alcuni fratelli hanno scritto che si sentono rafforzati sapendo che così tanto si è pregato per loro.”
L’articolo quindi racconta della morte nel “teatro della guerra” di due studenti biblici, Fritz Kownatzki di Zollernhole, Prussia orientale, e Johannes Finger da Barmen. Fritz aveva 23 anni, Johannes 33.

L’articolo conclude: “Entrambi i fratelli ci scrivevano fino a poco prima la loro morte con espressioni di amore, da ciò possiamo capire che questi cari cercavano di camminare con Gesù……”

Poco si sa di come i singoli Studenti Biblici affrontavano la situazione di essere in servizio militare cercando di aderire ai propri principi. Un’esperienza tuttavia si trova nella Torre di Guardia tedesca di giugno 1915.
In una lettera August Kraftzig scrisse: “Non sono propriamente sulla linea di battaglia ma ai magazzini e di conseguenza per grazia di Dio non direttamente implicato nella guerra.”
Anni dopo August Kraftzig divenne Sorvegliante di filiale per l’Austria. Morì nel campo di concentramento di Mauthausen nel 1940.

Come scritto sopra uno dei nomi nella lista degli Studenti Biblici coinvolti era Max Freschel. Freschel era austriaco di ascendenza ebraica (L’area ora fa parte della Polonia, ma a quel tempo era dell’Austria). Allo scoppio della guerra i suoi genitori erano in Svizzera mentre lui era alla Betel tedesca. Max scelse di restare in Germania, ma questo significò che con la coscrizione obbligatoria venisse arruolato dall’esercito della Germania.

Nel 1915 scrisse a CTR almeno due volte. Non sappiamo cosa scrisse ma c’è una lettera nella Torre di Guardia tedesca di ottobre 1915 di Leo Scheerer da Brooklyn. Friedrich Leonhardt Scheerer era uno Studente Biblico tedesco responsabile per l’opera in Germania e tradusse la lettera di Max a CTR così che potesse capirla.

Max Freschel si trasferì in America nel 1926 e lì visse il resto della sua vita alla Betel di Brooklyn. Cambiò il suo nome in Maxwell Friend. Fu impiegato molto nei drammi trasmessi dalla stazione radio della Watchtower, la WBBR., e fu uno dei primi istruttori della Scuola di Galaad. Quando i drammi furono introdotti alle assemblee dagli anni 1960 in poi, molti ricorderanno la sua voce che interpretava diversi patriarchi.

La sua biografia è stata pubblicata nella Torre di Guardia del 15 aprile 1967 (1 febbraio 1968 italiana) ed è degna di essere letta. Ma sorvola sugli anni della Prima Guerra Mondiale. In sostanza dice che quando tutto fu rianimato dopo la guerra nel 1919, anche lui lo fu (dal punto di vista spirituale).