Over One Hundred Years in Austria
The activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria dates back to the year 1911 when Charles Taze Russell, who then chaired Jehovah’s Witnesses (or Bible Students as they were known), travelled to Vienna to give a lecture. On 27 October 1921, another event in Vienna was attended by 2,000 people. From that time on, lectures were held regularly in Vienna, and in February 1922 these were also given in other cities around Austria. The religious group set up its first office in Vienna in 1923.
At the end of May 1930, the administrative authorities approved the registration of an association to distribute Bibles and Bible-based literature in Austria, but it was officially dissolved under the Ständestaat (an authoritarian regime) in July 1935. Public meetings were banned throughout Austria and, as a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses could only meet in smaller groups in private homes.
Moral Courage in the Third Reich
By 1938, there were 550 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria. From 1938 to 1945, the Nazi regime viciously persecuted them, primarily for refusing to heil Hitler and join the military. Under that ruthless regime, one quarter of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria lost their lives in the years following 1938, either through execution or inhumane treatment in prisons and concentration camps.
The academic research project on the victims of Nazi military courts, which was presented to Parliament on 6 June 2003, clearly shows the moral courage shown by Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Particularly in view of the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses represented a tiny fringe group in Austria at that time, with only about 550 persons, it is striking that they made up 89 per cent of all openly professing conscientious objectors. For the year 1939, no persons – outside of that faith group – could be found who refused military service. When the subject of conscientious objection under National Socialism is studied, the victims are predominantly Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (Walter, “Die Kriegsdienstverweigerer in den Mühlen der NS-Militärgerichtsbarkeit”, in Manoschek, Opfer der NS-Militärjustiz, 123, Vienna 2003) The moral courage of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Nazi era is commemorated in memorials throughout our country.
In recent years, there has been a historical reappraisal of the convictions meted out to Austrians by Nazi courts. As a result, many of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been exonerated (for example, see the court decisions acquitting Helene Delacher, Josef Dietz, Johann Jancic Sr, Maria Jancic, Andreas Kreiner and Franz Mattischek). University professor Dr Reinhard Moos acknowledged the efforts of the religious community, stating: “The exoneration of Jehovah’s Witnesses must be welcomed – both for their surviving family members, who should know that their relatives were not dishonourable criminals, and for the religious community, which can be strengthened by the fact that their idea of ‘love of neighbour’ was incomparably better than the ideology of National Socialism, which they resisted, whilst our abused soldiers had to give their lives for it.” (Moos, “Recht und Gerechtigkeit” in Kohlhofer (Ed.), Gewissensfreiheit und Militärdienst, 142 f., Verlag Österreich, Vienna 2000).
Immediately after World War Two, the religious community resumed organised activities. Concentration camp survivors played an active role in that renewed effort. The Wachtturm-Gesellschaft (Watch Tower Society) was legally registered in 1947 to support the religious activities.
Recognition as a Registered Religious Community (Bekenntnisgemeinschaft)
One of the aims of the 1998 Act on the Legal Status of Registered Religious Communities (Bekenntnisgemeinschaftengesetz) was to separate religious communities from groups that could pose a threat. Due to the strict legal criteria for registered religious communities, this legal status serves as a ‘seal of approval’. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been recognised in Austria as a “state-registered religious community” since 11 July 1998.
Recognition as a Corporation under Public Law
Jehovas Zeugen in Österreich has been recognised as a religious society (Religionsgemeinschaft) since 7 May 2009. A detailed description and the original documents from the domestic legal procedure can be viewed under “Chronology of Recognition Procedure”.