1940: Wilhelm Kusserow, Jehovah’s Witness

6 comments April 27th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1940, 25-year-old Wilhelm Kusserow was executed by firing squad at Münster Prison in Germany.

A Jehovah’s Witness, he interpreted God’s command “thou shalt not kill” literally and refused to serve in the German army — a big no-no in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Kusserow had actually been born Lutheran, but his parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses after World War I and raised their eleven children in the faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in addition to not serving in the army, also refused to Heil Hitler, since the tenets of their religion required them to make obeisance only to Jehovah.

They were persecuted by the Nazis from the beginning of Hitler’s regime, and by 1935 the religion was banned altogether. The Kusserows, and many others, continued to practice their faith in secret.

During the Nazi era, some 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses did time in prisons and concentration camps (where they were required to wear a purple triangle), Wilhelm’s parents and siblings among them. 2,500 to 5,000 died.

The children in Jehovah’s Witness families were taken from their parents and sent to orphanages, foster families or reform schools.

(French Witness Simone Arnold Liebster would write a memoir about the years she spent in institutions as a child because she and her parents refused to renounce their beliefs.)

At Wilhelm Kusserow’s trial, the judge and the prosecutor were apparently reluctant to condemn this young man. They pleaded with him to back down, promising to spare his life if he did so, but Wilhelm refused. Some things were more important to him than life itself.

In his final letter to his family he wrote,

Dear parents, brothers, and sisters:

All of you know how much you mean to me, and I am repeatedly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo. How harmonious things always were at home. Nevertheless, above all we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we stand up for him, he will reward us.

Hitler later decided the firing squad was too honorable a death for Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered that they be decapitated instead. Wilhelm’s younger brother Wolfgang, who had also refused to serve in the army, was executed in this manner in 1942.

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1981: Cipriano, Eugenio, and Ventura García-Marín Thompson

Add comment January 2nd, 2011 Headsman

In the early morning hours this date in 1981, three young Jehovah’s Witnesses were hailed out of their cells at Havana’s La Cabaña Fortress, and apparently executed.

Cipriano, Eugenio and Ventura Garcia-Marin Thompson were three of eight Cuban Witnesses who attempted to claim asylum at the Vatican embassy in early December. After a few hours’ standoff, elite government anti-terrorism troops simply broke in and seized them.

(Rome still catches flak (Spanish link) for its failure to maintain a bigger diplomatic ruckus about this violation of its diplomatic prerogatives; the raid may in fact have been green-lighted by a Vatican embassy official.)

You’ll find this tale most commonly expounded on anti-Castro sites, such as this pdf from the Cuba Archive:

The three brothers were taken to Villa Marista headquarters and told by prosecutor Carlos Amat that they had been “tried and sentenced to death.” They were taken from their prison cells in early morning hours of January 2, 1981, and presumably executed, the others were sentenced to long prison terms.

An Interior Ministry official who defected in 1992 reported that their fate had been decided in “an extremely summary process.” The family was denied the remains of the three brothers for burial. The mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for protesting the executions and served ten years after her mental health deteriorated.

Sources: Testimony of Margarita Marin Thompson (mother) in Ricardo Bofill, Diario Las Américas, September 9, 1997. Pablo Alfonso. El Nuevo Herald, 31 October 1997, p. 6A. Valladares, 1985, p. 416. Amnesty International Annual Report 1983, p. 130. Nuestra Cuba, 1998, p. 3. Reader’s Digest, October 1998, p. 83. Montaner, 1984, p. 267. Cuban American National Foundation, The Quilt of Fidel Castro’s Genocide, 1994. Reinaldo Bragado, 1998, p. 5. Instituto de la Memoria Histórica Cubana contra el Totalitarismo, 2002, p. 35. Fuentes 2002, p.s 102-104. Juan O. Tamayo, “Ex-Cuban prosecutor’s role in rights panel criticized,” The Miami Herald, April 16, 1998. Circuito Sur, July 2002, p. 35, and http://members.aol.com/aguadacuba/cs/datafusi/vaticano.htm.

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1553: Michael Servetus, but not to defend a doctrine

5 comments October 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1553, Calvinist Geneva showed it could keep up with the Inquisition by burning the theologian Michael Servetus as a heretic.

A generation or two into the Protestant Reformation, and the ministers of Rome were in full-throated I-told-you-so. The splintered religious authority had set all manner of alien doctrine afoot in the land. Adult baptism! No original sin!

Servetus believed all this queer stuff. He also believed in a unitarian — that is, not trinitarian — deity.

Catholics and Protestants both hunted him from pillar to post for heresy.

After busting out of the Inquisition’s clutches in France, Servetus fled towards Italy, but made an unaccountable stopover in John Calvin’s Geneva. He well knew that capture here would be fatal: he had had an acrimonious correspondence with Calvin. Was he seeking thrills? Martyrdom? A place in this blog?

“I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

He quaffed all those bitter cups when he was recognized hanging out at a church service and condemned to death for sundry heresies after a sensational trial heavy with theological artillery, personal vituperation, and municipal politics. Calvin, gracious in victory, requested beheading rather than burning. He was scorned as needlessly merciful.

Of course, all manner of Christian fauna were being martyred by other Christians in the 16th century. Still, the Spanish physician is an interesting dude.

His rejection of the Trinity has secured him honored consideration from various latter-day sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oneness Pentecostals to general humanists to Unitarian Universalists:

Besides all that stuff, in his day-job capacity as doctor, Servetus was apparently the first European to understand pulmonary respiration. Nobody even noticed that until decades after his death.

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”*

The execution of this smart, odd duck for non-violent heresy is not generally considered the highlight of Mr. Predestination’s career, but you can get some of Calvin’s side of the story in this collection of his letters. It’s worth allowing that heretics were being burned by the thousand elsewhere in Europe at this time; Servetus is noticeable in part because what was routine in England or Spain was exceptional in Geneva.

Servetus’ ashes will cry out against [Calvin] as long as the names of these two men are known in the world. –Walter Nigg

* This observation, sometimes attributed to Servetus himself, was in fact uttered by Sebastian Castellio.

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