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Articolo in inglese sulla persecuzione fascista dei Testimoni di Geova.
The Fascist Repression of
Jehovah's Witnesses

< This article was published in Association of Contemporary Church Historians (Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchliche Zeitgeschichtler) Newsletter - January 2001 - Vol VII, no 1. Author translated it from his book in italian language "Fra martirio e resistenza. La persecuzione nazista e fascista dei Testimoni di Geova", Editrice Actac, Como, 1997 

The Fascist Repression of Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses began their preaching work in Italy at the turn of the century. Their first community was founded at Pinerolo (Torino) in 1908. In 1925, their first convention was held there at Pinerolo where, just a few years earlier, they had opened an operative office. There was small expansion in the 1920's and 1930's, when the Witnesses spread to various provinces including Sondrio, Aosta, Ravenna, Vincenza, Trento, Benevento, Avellino, Foggia, L'Aquila, Pescara and Teramo.

The first mention of Jehovah's Witnesses' existence in Italy is in a document in the record office. It is the decree of the Military Court of Alessandria concerning Remigio Cuminetti, a Witness who refused military service during the Big War, becoming the first conscientious objector of modern Italy. 1

Examining papers regarding Jehovah's Witnesses in the State Record Office, we find some interesting items. There are documents dating from 1927: statements from the Prefect of the Department of the Interior; information from the Department itself, from various Prefects, and from the Superintendent of Police; reports from the O.V.R.A. (the notorious Fascist police department); information about house searches and interrogations, etc. All of these are of concern not only to Jehovah's Witnesses, but also to the many who show interest in and respect for their upright way of life.

What, then, was the reason for such intensive scrutiny and careful record keeping?  It was to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from introducing their publications into Italy. In Italy, as in Germany, the religious group was looked upon with grave concern because of its pacifism (members chose to refuse military service), its political neutrality, and its dislike of any form of totalitarianism. Investigations were made into any citizens who had even taken a subscription to the 'Watchtower', the Witnesses' main magazine.2

Eventually, the O.V.R.A. managed to identify all the members of the Italian group, about 150-200 Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom were condemned to prison or sent into forced residence for allegedly plotting against the Fascist regime. In fact, the Witnesses were often forced to live in secluded villages in the south of Italy, villages that were freed by the allies before September, 1943, allowing them to avoid deportation. This spared many from the Nazi concentration camps, where most of the Italian prisoners went.

In spite of this, not all managed to avoid the Holocaust. Salvatore Doria from Cerignola was not released from Civitavecchia's prison after the 8th of September. Guilty of 'insulting the king,' he was transferred to Sulmona's Abbey, then deported to Dachau's hell.3  Narciso Riet of Cernobbio was responsible for contact between the Italian and German Witnesses. He was arrested after the armistice and taken first to Dachau, then to Plotzensee Prison in Berlin. There, in November of 1944, he was informed that the Court of Justice had condemned him to death. He was moved to the death house at Brandenburg Prison on the Rodano, and shot in early 1945. 4

No other religious group during the Resistance period was so affected by the Fascist regime; Jehovah's Witnesses had been the most persecuted, and was practically the only group brought before the Special Fascist Court. The Court had condemned 26 Witnesses to prison terms from 2 to 11 years, for a combined total of 186 years and 10 months. (Sentence n.50 of April 19, 1940). An examination of the volume "Aula IV - Tutti i Processi del Tribunale Speciale Fascista" ["Fourth Courtroom - All Trials of the Special Fascist Court"]). A collection of all trials held by the above-mentioned Court, shows that apart from two Pentecostals, only the 26 Jehovah's Witnesses were condemned.5

Those 26 were not the only ones affected, however. After the O.V.R.A.'s investigations and its related proposal, 22 other people considered 'dangerous' were sent into forced residence, 29 'not particularly active' were given warnings, and 60 'simple followers' were treated with distrust. The entire group of 137 Witnesses was criminalized.6

Examining a circular promulgated by the Department of Interior during the Fascist period brings us to the same conclusion: Jehovah's Witnesses were the main object of religious persecution during the Fascist regime. That circular, n.441\027713 of August 22, 1939, was entitled "Religious Sects, 'Pentecostals' and Others". In it, booklets that had been sequestered were claimed to belong to the "sect of the Pentecostals," though the circular also precisely stated those booklets contained no reference to the Pentecostals!7  Well then, whose literature was it? It was published by the
Watchtower Society; written by its president, J.F. Rutherford (Rutherford had not as yet been recognized as director/ publisher of the Society's publications). Clearly, Jehovah's Witnesses were already victims of Fascist persecution.

Another circular, entitled n.441\02977 of March 13,1940, recognized the victims by name: "Religious Sect of 'Jehovah's Witnesses' or Bible Students and Other Religious Sects Which Have Principles in Contrast with Our Institution."  It discussed the "exact identification of those religious sects...that differ from the already known sect of the 'Pentecostals'", underlining "the verification of the existence of the sect of the 'Jehovah's Witnesses' and the fact that the literature we have already examined in the above mentioned circular of the 22nd August 1939 n. 441\027713, is attributed to them, must not cause one to think that the sect of the 'Pentecostals' is politically harmless...such a sect must be considered harmful, even though in a lesser degree than the sect of the 'Jehovah's Witnesses'".8

́There is proof that the clergy played a definite role in contributing to persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses by the Fascist regime. For example, in 1939, the magazine "Fides" carried an article written by an anonymous "priest caring for souls." He affirmed "the association of Jehovah's Witnesses is atheistic communism and openly attempted to attack the safety of the state." This anonymous priest defined himself as being "actively dedicated against this religious association for three years," raising himself as a protector of the Fascist State. Surely, he knew that hurling these accusations would provoke the regime's intervention. 9

The leader of the fourth zone of the O.V.R.A., in a report on the "Religious Sect: Jehovah's Witnesses," wrote that his office in Milano was closed by Police Headquarters "because of the reaction of the Catholic clergy and of the antifascist accent of the books that had been distributed."10.   Even the magazine "Rivista Abruzzese di Studi Storici dal Fascismo alla Resistenza" (Abruzzese Magazine of Historical Studies from Fascism to the Resistance) confirms the fact: "The instruction of the hierarchy of the national Establishment, military and civil, lay or ecclesiastical, was for the annihilation by means of condemnation of the supposed leaders and of those considered the most active followers of the newest 'Protestants'," that had come to disturb the "healthy country environment of Abruzzo, Puglie, Campania and Trentino."11

This is reminiscent of the Catholic Church's involvement with the group in Nazi Germany; reporting activities of Jehovah's Witnesses to the authorities.12  To their credit, both under Nazi and Fascist rule, Jehovah's Witnesses were one of the few groups that did not blemish themselves by collaborating with the dictatorial regime. Catholic American writer Gordon Zahn has admitted that, "except for the position that some minor Protestant sect took - the Jehovah's Witnesses and the traditional 'Churches of Peace', for example - there is no reason to believe that the attitude of the German Protestantism was different to that of the Catholic Religion that gave support to the Nazi war."13

With the end of World War II, the group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Italy started to reorganize the activity of proselytism that has brought the number of their preachers from 120 in 1946 to the present 215,000. With their 2,800 communities scattered throughout the national territory, they form the most consistent religious association in the country, second only
to the Catholic Church.14

Matteo Pierro


1  - Sentence n. 309, of August 18, 1916.
       Files of the Military Court of Torino.
2  - Circular of the Department of Interior, n. 442\41732,
       of September 21, 1929.
3  - Letter of December 30, 1995.
       By historian and ex-deportee Giovanni Melodia.
4  - "Riet Narciso" documents, Archive of Matteo Pierro.
5  - From the book "Aula IV - Tutti i Processi del Tribunale Speciale
       Fascista" (Fourth Courtroom - All the Trials of the Special Fascist
       Court), AA. VV. Milano, 1976, pp. 324, 325, 405, 406.
       See also the book "Regime Fascista e Chiese Evangeliche"
       (Evangelist Churches and the Fascist Regime), f
       by G. Rochat, Torino, 1990, p. 318.
6  - Central File of the State, PS. GI. 314,
       report n. 0799 of January 3, 1940 of General Police Inspector
       Dr. Pasquale Andriani, Fourth Zone O.V.R.A., p. 18,
       with attachment n. 89 (p. 290-292), n. 90 (p. 292-296),
       n. 91 (p. 297-303).
       See also the Department of Interior's communication "General
       Direction of the Police, General and Reserved Affairs Department"
       First Division, record n. 441\0218, of February 1, 1940.
7  - General File of the State.
8  - General File of the State.
9  - "Fides" magazine of February 1939, article: "The Jehovah's Witnesses
       in Italy," p. 77-94.
10 - Report n. 0799 of January 3, 1940 of General Police Inspector
       Dr. Pasquale Andriani, quotation p. 34.
11 - "Abruzzese Magazine of Historical Studies from Fascism to the
       Resistance," 3rd year, n. 3, 1982, p. 561.
12 - From the book  "The Nazi and the Church,"
       by G. Lewy, Milano, 1965, p.70.
13 - From the book "The German Catholics and the War of Hitler,"
       by G. Zahn, Firenze, 1973, p.60.
14 - "The Watchtower" magazine, January 1, 1996, vol. 117, n. 1, p.13,

Just a reminder that anyone wishing to make a written contributioon to this Newsletter is most welcome to do, and should send it to this address below by the 15th of the month.

With every best wish,
John Conway

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