Franz Jägerstätter: a solitary witness

[This is the introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Reflections from Prison, edited by Erna Putz and published by Orbis Books.]

By Jim Forest

Human beings have at least one trait in common with fish: we tend to move in schools. When the drums of war are beating and the latest slogan of mass destruction is announced (“for God and country,” “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the war to defeat the axis of evil,” “the war on terror”), few and far between are those who, having been summoned, refuse to take up weapons.

On every side, there are those who go willingly, convinced of the war’s rightness or at least confident their government knows what it is doing and would not spend human lives for anything less than the survival of the nation. There are still others who have their doubts but avoid knowing better — they rightly sense that it’s dangerous to look beyond the slogans. There are also those who know that the war at issue is deeply flawed or even unjustified, but who go along anyway, knowing there is always a price to pay for saying no and not wishing to pay that price.

For many the idea of disobedience simply doesn’t occur. There is the joy — at least the sense of security — of being in step with others and acting in unity, even if it turns out that such unity is being put to tragic or murderous uses. We’re human beings, after all, and thus — for worse as well as better — profoundly social. We like to bond with those around us — to cheer for the same teams, to see things in a similar way, to be “good citizens,” to do “what is expected of us.” Those of us who are Christians may well find ourselves being urged “to do our part” even by our bishops, pastors and theologians.

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Indeed Franz Jägerstätter did his best, insofar as his conscience allowed, to survive the war and the Hitler years. Submitting to military training, he was in uniform for nearly a year but never took part in the actual war. For an extended period, he was allowed to return to his farm and family, but when summoned to active service, he saw no option but to refuse further compliance. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned. After just over five months in prison, on the 9th of August 1943, he was taken to a place of execution near Berlin and was beheaded by guillotine.

Franz Jägerstätter was just one more on the long list of the dead. There were so many others who perished in those years that one more fatality was not worth noticing. There were no press reports, no interviews with his grieving wife. But a significant entry was made in the register of his parish in the village of St. Radegund: “Franz Jägerstätter died on 9 August 1943 in Brandenburg [an der Havel, a town near Berlin] the death of a martyr.”

Years after the war was over, the name “Franz Jägerstätter” gradually came to light almost by chance. Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist, had written a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. In the course of his research, he had found a reference to an Austrian peasant who had paid with his life for refusing any part in Hitler’s wars. With the one book finished, he started researching what became In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.

Zahn’s book generated a great deal of discussion, especially in the Catholic Church. How was it possible that “a man of no importance” could have possessed a moral clarity absent from those who were supposed to provide spiritual leadership to Austrian and German Catholics? Had any bishop expressed the view that Hitler’s wars were unjust? Answer: not one.

At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas Roberts, a Jesuit who had formerly been archbishop of Bombay, recounted Jägerstätter’s life, pointing out that the heroic stand taken by this remarkable Austrian could not be credited to pastoral guidance from those leading the Church in Austria or Germany or from the text of any existing Catholic catechism. In fact rulers could count on their Catholic subjects to obey them no less unquestioningly than they obeyed their Church.

Should not the Church, asked Archbishop Roberts, speak more clearly about the responsibility for its members to say no when they were required by their rulers to commit sins or be part of a system based on lies and injustice? Should the Church not make clear that conscientious objectors to war have the support and admiration of their Church for bearing witness to the Gospel? Should the Church not rejoice that Franz Jägerstätter had given such a witness against an unjust war — a witness Roberts compared to that of another beheaded hero of the Church, St. Thomas More? Should not the Church express itself in such a way that it would be more likely that Catholics in the future would be better equipped by their Church to take a similar stand, even if, like Jägerstätter, it cost them their lives? Was not a martyr’s death far preferable to complicity in evil?

Archbishop Roberts’ intervention was not without effect. While it was simply a bishop’s reflection on the life of an as-yet uncanonized saint and the implications of that saint’s witness, it turned out to be a factor in the direction taken by the bishops in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, known as Gaudium et Spes (its first three Latin words) or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, as it was called in its more lengthy English title.

The Council declared, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” The Council also condemned other crimes against life: abortion, euthanasia, slavery and torture among them.

Emphasizing the role of conscience, the Council called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”

It was a text that would have made Franz Jägerstätter rejoice. So too all the other Christian martyrs down through the centuries who have obeyed God rather than man.

For nearly every bishop who came to Rome to attend the Council, the name of Franz Jägerstätter was unknown before Archbishop Roberts made his intervention. Today there are few if any bishops in the Catholic Church who are unaware of Jägerstätter’s name and story. On the 26th of October 2007, Franz Jägerstätter was officially beatified. His wife and descendants were among those taking part in the event. Franz Jägerstätter is now known throughout his Church as Blessed Franz. Perhaps before too many years it will be Saint Franz.

* * *

Though Franz Jägerstätter’s life has come to be a matter of significance in the history of the 20th century, and his beatification a vivid indication that the Catholic hierarchy today is taking to heart what the bishops who took part in the Second Vatican Council had to say about war, peace and individual conscience, few people on the calendar of saints had a more unpromising beginning in life.

Franz Jägerstätter was born in on May 20, 1907 in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. His mother was an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber. His father, Franz Bachmeier, was the unmarried son of a farmer from Tarsdorf in the Austrian province of Salzburg; he died in the First World War. After Franz’s birth, Rosalia’s mother, Elisabeth Huber, shoemaker’s widow, took charge of Franz’s care.

It was not uncommon for those with little money or property to conceive children outside marriage, but marriage often followed. It wasn’t so in this case, perhaps due to parental objections regarding one or the other potential partner. When Rosalia Huber at last married years later it was in 1917, a decade after Franz’s birth, and not to Franz’s father but to Heinrich Jägerstätter. He was a man of property — the owner of the Leherbauernhof farm in St. Radegund. In addition to marrying Rosalia, Heinrich Jägerstätter adopted her son, thus giving him the family name we know him by. They were to have no children of their own.

Franz’s formal education was slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921, he attended the one-room school in St. Radegund where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there were about 50 to 60 children in all. But one sees from his writing that he was a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind.

Franz’s birthplace was as inauspicious as his education. The village of St. Radegund, on the River Salzach, is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart’s Salzburg is to the south, Linz to the east, Vienna much further east. The closest major German city is Munich. Hitler’s birthplace, the Austrian town of Braunau, isn’t far from St. Radegund. St. Radegund’s major claim to fame for many years was the four-hour Passion Plays it organized from time to time, the last one occurring in 1933. Like nearly everyone in the community, Franz had a part to play — he was one of the Roman soldiers involved in the crucifixion of Christ.

Franz grew up mainly among farmers. The Jägerstätter farm was one among many in the area. It was a region in which Catholicism was deeply embedded. The idea of not being Catholic was, for nearly everyone Franz knew, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he did have a cousin who became a Jehovah’s Witness.

One reads in the accounts of saints’ lives how amazingly pious some of them were from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he wasn’t hesitant to get involved in fist fights. He enjoyed all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed. Along with all his neighbors, he went to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making.

In 1930, age 23, Franz worked for a time in the Austrian mining town of Eisenerz. This was his first encounter with a secularized factory culture. Here he met people who didn’t bother with church or have any good words to say about Christianity. Under their influence, in that period Franz slept in on Sunday mornings, skipping Mass.

Returning to St. Radegund, Franz surprised his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he had purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area had a motorcycle.

Far more important, though the most attentive neighbor would have realized it in the early stages, was the fact that after his return to St. Radegund Franz’s religious life not only revived but gradually came into sharper focus. Unfortunately, letters that might give a clue about this period of his life either do not survive or were never written. It may be that Franz’s brief encounter with a more secular culture in his time away ultimately have the effect of bringing him closer to a faith he had previously taken for granted.

Not that anyone would have regarded Franz as notably pious or altogether converted from his former rowdy ways. In August 1933, a local farm maidservant, Theresia Auer, gave birth to a daughter, Hildegard. Franz was the child’s father. The fact that there had been no marriage before the birth, or would be afterward, was attributed locally to the determined opposition of Franz’s mother, who seemed to doubt that Franz was in fact Hildegard’s father. What is striking is that for the rest of his life, Franz not only provided material support for Hildegard, but remained very close to her, visiting her often. Just before his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger, Franz and his wife-to-be offered to adopt Hildegard, but Hildegard’s mother and grandmother (who was raising the child) declined.

According to local consensus, the most important single factor attributed to bringing about a change in Franz was his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger. Nearly everyone who lived in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz was, neighbors said, “a different man” afterwards, a fact most of all reflected in the intensity of his religious life.

But in fact the transition was not quite as abrupt as it seemed to neighbors. Prior to marriage, Franz had thought seriously of entering a monastery. One of Franziska’s initial concerns regarding Franz, once they met, was to make sure he had a more than superficial commitment to his faith. She was relieved not only that he attended Mass regularly, but also that he was a committed and thoughtful Catholic.

Franziska Schwaninger, six years younger than Franz, had grown up on a farm in the village of Hochburg, about five miles (12 km) away from St. Radegund. She came from a deeply religious family — her father and grandmother were both members of the Marian Congregation. Her grandmother also belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. Before Franziska’s marriage, she had considered becoming a nun.

After a short engagement, the two were married on the April 9, 1936. Franz was almost 29, Franziska 23. The honeymoon that followed startled everyone in or near St. Radegund. The couple went to none of the usual places visited by the newly married, but opted instead to go as pilgrims to Rome, at the same time ignoring deeply-embedded local tradition by declining to have a wedding feast. Married at 6 in the morning, before noon they were on their way to Rome, a city crowded with churches built over the tombs of martyrs of the early Church or the locations of their execution. To be in so many martyr-linked places of worship must have helped prepare the newly married couple for what would happen in the years to come.

The Roman pilgrimage had been Franz’s idea, but Franziska had eagerly agreed. Returning home, Franz proposed to Franziska that they go on a similar pilgrimage every ten years. It wasn’t to be.

While Franz was already a committed Catholic Christian, in the early months of their marriage it was Franziska whose spiritual life was the most developed. Franziska went to Mass on many weekdays, often received communion, and kept the Friday devotions associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But Franz was quickly influenced by her example. Neighbors were surprised and in many cases critical. The general view was that it was all right for women to do these things, if they had the time, but a man must give priority to his farm and keep the Church and its services in their place. Franz, while remaining a productive and efficient farmer, increasingly put the Church first.

It was a happy marriage. Franz once told his wife, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.” In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how “fortunate and harmonious” have been their years of marriage. “This good fortune is unforgettable, and will accompany me through time and eternity. You also know how the children bring me joy. For this reason, a feeling of good fortune often comes over me here so that tears of joy flow from my eyes when I think about our reunion.”

Years after her father’s death, the Jägerstätters’ eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. Her daughter responded, “But you and daddy didn’t fight.”

Looking back on the days when her husband was still alive, Franziska observed, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Indeed, Franziska was not only an equal partner in their marriage, someone whose example brought Franz closer to a fearless Christian faith, but also a partner in her husband’s martyrdom, even while hoping against hope that Franz’s refusal to be a soldier would not lead to his execution.

The Jägerstätters had three children, all daughters: Rosalia (Rosi) in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia (Loisi) in 1940.

Theirs was not a marriage out of touch the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska were attentive to what was going on just across the river from St. Radegund in Germany where Hitler had been German chancellor since 1933. They were aware of Hitler’s pagan ideology, the brutality of his followers, and also knew of the intensive effort underway to build up Germany’s military. They also were aware of the anti-Nazi writings of the Bishop of Linz, Johannes Maria Gföllner, who in 1933 had stated in a pastoral letter read aloud in every parish of the Linz diocese: “Nazism is spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.” The racial purity so dear to the Nazis was condemned by Bishop Gföllner as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism… The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected.” In 1937, four years later, he declared, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” (By 1941, Linz had a new bishop who was to speak much more cautiously.)

Meanwhile, Nazism’s dark shadow was spreading in Austria as well. There was more and more talk of Austria fully incorporating itself into Germany, though in St. Radegund, as in many places throughout Austria, the Nazis had little support.

One important factor in helping people keep their distance from Nazism was the widespread awareness that the Nazi movement was only a degree less hostile to Christianity than the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia. Nazis regarded the values of the New Testament with contempt and saw those who attended church as stupid and weak. In Germany, they knew, Christians found themselves living in a steadily tightening noose of restrictions. The Nazis had made clear that one of their most urgent priorities was to separate children and young people from the Church and in its place make them into Hitler Youth members.

The Nazis didn’t hide their hostility to the teachings of Christ and the churches that spread his teaching. In the words of one prominent Nazi, Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice: “Christianity and we are alike in only one respect: we lay claim to the whole individual. … ‘From which do you take your orders? From the hereafter or from Adolf Hitler? To whom do you pledge your loyalty and your faith?’”

On the 12th of March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. Assisted by the local Nazi movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly took control of Austria, then organized a national plebiscite on April 10 to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what had already been imposed by military methods, the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of the Third Reich, ceased to exist as an independent state. What had been Austria was renamed Ostmark.

Well before the Anschluss, Franz had been an anti-Nazi, but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level was a remarkable dream he had in January 1938. Perhaps it was triggered by a newspaper article he had read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people had been accepted into the Hitler Youth movement.

In the dream he saw “a wonderful train” coming round a mountain. The gleaming engine and carriages seemed especially attractive to children, who “flowed to this train, and were not held back.” Then a voice said to him, “This train is going to hell.” He woke Franziska to tell her of his dream and continued to think about it long afterward. The train, he realized, symbolized the glittering Nazi regime with all its spectacles and its associated organizations, Hitler Youth being one of the most important and spiritually corrupting.

The dream seemed to Franz a clarifying message from heaven. The Nazi movement — with its racism, its cult of violence, its elimination of those members of society regarded as unfit, its efforts to suppress Christianity — was satanic. It was nothing less than a gateway to hell.

In St. Radegund it was widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, had voted against the Anschluss, but, in reporting the results to the new regime in Vienna, Franz’s solitary vote was left unrecorded. It was seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person had dared raise a discordant voice.

After all, as Franz was painfully aware, even Austria’s Catholic hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward Cardinal Innitzer, principal hierarch of the Catholic Church in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing the Anschluss. The words “Heil Hitler!” were above his signature. Innitzer was among the first to meet Hitler following the Führer’s triumphant entry into what was now the Ostmark region of Germany. That same year, in honor of Hitler’s birthday, he ordered that all Austrian churches fly the swastika flag, ring their bells, and pray for Hitler. Presumably the cardinal hoped such an action on his part would be repaid by the Nazi regime with a more tolerant attitude toward the Church. In fact, following the Anschluss, the situation for Austrian Catholics proved to be even worse than it was for their counterparts in Germany. Many priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps, youth education by the Church was all but eliminated, church newspapers were closed, church processions were banned, and, in many parish churches, Mass on important feast days, even Christmas, was prohibited unless the feast fell on a Sunday.

If someone greeted Franz with the Nazi salute and the words “Heil Hitler,” Franz would respond, minus the salute, with the words “Pfui Hitler.” As Franz saw it, the Anschluss was similar to what had happened in Jerusalem during Passion Week: the crowd had chosen the criminal Barabas rather than their savior, Christ.

The Anschluss was only the beginning of a rapid campaign of German territorial expansion. Following the annexation of Austria, Germany occupied the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia was taken over. In September 1939, Hitler began the invasion of Poland, at which point Britain and France responded with declarations of war and World War II began. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were invaded. In June 1941, Germany launched its war on the “eastern front” with the Soviet Union, at the same creating for itself an urgent need for a much larger army.

Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian was subject to conscription. Franz was called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, but a few days later was allowed to return to his farm, as farmers were needed no less than soldiers. In October he was called back for training as an army driver, but in April 1941, six months later, was again allowed to return to his farm.

While in the army, Franz made a significant commitment: he joined the Third Order of St. Francis in December 1940. He may not have known that the Order’s original rule, as written by Francis, obliged those who joined not to possess or use deadly weapons, but without doubt he knew that Francis was a man who, following his conversion, never threatened or harmed anyone.

Franz’s brief period in the army, coupled with his recognition that to assist the Nazi movement in any way was to oppose Christ and his Church, made him realize that a return to the army was not possible for him. If he were summoned again, even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no.

Returning home from the army, Franz was ready for a deeper engagement in his parish. He agreed to become sexton, a responsibility that involved keeping the church and its grounds in good repair, assisting at daily Mass, and helping arrange baptisms, weddings and funerals. His priest was surprised at how quickly Franz learned all the Latin responses.

It was not possible for Franziska to offer her wholehearted endorsement — how could she sanction a course of action that would result in the death of her beloved husband? — but she was equally determined not to seek to change Franz’s mind. She knew her husband was simply following Christ in the same way as the martyrs at whose tombs in Rome they had prayed in the days following their wedding.

Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he was told that his main responsibility was to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps which would almost certainly guarantee his death. While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz noted that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families. He pointed out that to accept military service also meant leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. If he had to risk his life, was it not better to do so for Christ rather than Hitler? As for his family, surely God would not forget them. How good a husband and father would he be if he chose social conformity over obedience to Christ’s teaching? Did not Christ say, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

Most of all Franz sought advice from the Church’s pastors. At the time Fr. Ferdinand Fürthauer was the priest in St. Radegund, filling in for Fr. Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon, then banished from the district. Far from encouraging Franz, Fr. Fürthauer — a young man who felt unprepared for such a situation — wondered if refusing military service, given that execution was the almost certain penalty, was not the same as committing the mortal sin of suicide. In later years Fr. Fürthauer wrote to Franziska, “I wanted to save his life, but he did not want any pretense and rejected all falsehood. I often pray that Franz Jägerstätter may forgive me.”

Franz turned for guidance to his former pastor, Fr. Karobath. “We met in the Bavarian town of Tittmoning,” Karobath recalls. “I wanted to talk him out of it [Franz’s decision to refuse further military service], but he defeated me again and again with words from the scriptures.”

Franz even managed to meet with the Bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser, successor to Bishop Gföllner. A list of questions Franz had written down in preparation for the encounter has survived. Franz asked if it was not sinful to support an ideology (Nazism) whose goals included eradicating Christianity; if “the predatory raids” which Germany was making in various countries could be regarded as acts of “a righteous and holy war”; how is it possible for the Church, in burying the remains of German soldiers killed in the war, to permit its priests to describe the fallen as heroes and even saints; would it not be truer to regard as heroes those who defended their homelands rather than those who invade other countries; could the Church regard as righteous and good whatever the crowd happens to be shouting; and, finally, can one be both a soldier of Christ and a soldier of Nazism, thus both fighting for the victory of Christ and his Church while at the same time fighting for the victory of Nazism?

While Franz met with Bishop Fliesser, Franziska was in the adjacent waiting room, no doubt praying. When Franz came out of the bishop’s consulting room, Franziska recalls that he “was very sad and said to me: “They don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.” Franz had the impression that the bishop didn’t discuss his questions because it was possible that his visitor might be a Gestapo spy.

In later years, Bishop Fliesser said, “In vain, I explained to him the basic principles of morality concerning the degree of responsibility which a private person and citizen bears for the actions of those in authority, and reminded him of his far higher responsibility for those within his private circle, particularly his family.”

It was, in fact, an answer any Catholic might have heard from any bishop in any country at the time: If not a doctrine found in any catechism, it was widely believed that any sins you commit under obedience to your government are not your personal sins but are regarded by God as the sins of those who lead the state. God would judge the leader, not those who had obeyed his orders. But for Franz it seemed obvious that, if God gives each of us free will and a conscience, each of us is responsible for what we do and fail to do, all the more so if we are consciously aware we have allowed ourselves to become servants of evil masters.

Franz later made the compassionate observation that “the bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”

In a notebook entry Franz made early in 1942, he remarks, “They [the bishops and priests] are human beings of flesh and blood as we are, and they can be weak. Perhaps they are even more tempted by the evil foe than we are. Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and decide for themselves whether to live or to die.”

Having gone through training, nearly two years went by without Franz’s receiving a summons to return to the army. Throughout that period, each time mail was delivered to the Jägerstätter farm, both husband and wife were in dread. Finally on February 23, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. “Now I’ve signed my death sentence,” Franz remarked while putting his signature on the postal receipt. He was ordered to report to a military base in Enns, near Linz, two days later.

The same day he wrote to Fr. Karobath, whom he still regarded as his pastor even though the priest had been sent to another parish, “I must tell you that soon you may be losing one of your parishioners…. Today I received my conscription orders…. As no one can give me a dispensation for the danger to the salvation of my soul which joining this movement [the Nazis] would bring, I just can’t alter my resolve, as you know…. It’s always said that one shouldn’t do what I am doing because of the risk to one’s life, but I take the view that those others who are joining in the fighting aren’t exactly out of life-threatening danger themselves. Among those fighting in Stalingrad, so I’ve heard, are also four or five people from St. Radegund …. My family won’t forsake God and the Blessed Virgin Mary…. It will be difficult for my loved ones. This parting will surely be a hard one.”

It was indeed a hard parting. At the station in Tittmoning, Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train’s movement forced them to separate. The conductor was furious.

Even as he boarded the train, Franz was already two days late for his appointment at Enns. But, after all, there was no need to arrive on time — once he reached Enns, he and Franziska had every reason to think, it might be only days or weeks before his execution. His late arrival could not make the punishment any worse.

Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1, even then Franz took his time, attending Mass in the local church before reporting to the barracks. He also took time to send a letter to Franziska. It ended, “Should it be God’s will that I do not see you again in this world, then we hope that we shall see each other soon in heaven.” So far as Franz knew, this was his last letter.

The following day, Franz having announced his refusal to serve, he was placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. Franz’s stay in Linz lasted three months. Though many others were tried and sentenced at Linz (a Catholic priest who visited prisoners there recalled having accompanied 38 men to their execution), Franz was not one among those tried.

Among prisoners at the Linz military prison from that period who survived, there were those who vividly recalled Franz — how often they saw him praying the rosary and his readiness to share with others his meager food ration. Giving away a piece of bread on one occasion, he claimed that a cup of coffee was enough for him.

No one knew better than Franziska how carefully thought out was the position Franz was taking and what a determined man he was in matters of faith. Even so, it was impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life. She wrote to him while he was in Linz, “One does God’s will even when not understanding it.” Even so, she confessed that she nurtured “the small hope that you would change your decision … because you have compassion for me, and I cannot help [being] me. I shall pray to the loving Mother of God that she will bring you back to us at home if it is God’s will.”

“I want to save my life but not through lies,” wrote Franz to his wife. “In [the army base at] Enns people wanted to trap me by means of trick questions and thus to make me once again into a soldier. It was not easy to keep my conviction. It may become even more difficult. But I trust in God to let me know if it would be better for me to do something different.”

In a letter dated March 11, he told Franziska that he was willing to serve in the army medical corps “for here a person can actually do good and exercise Christian love of neighbor in concrete ways,” but apparently such a noncombatant alternative was never opened to him by those responsible for his case.

Despite the heavy workload at the farm (in Franz’s absence, for the first time Franziska had to till the fields), on the feast of Corpus Christi she sought spiritual strength by making a pilgrimage on foot to the Bavarian town of Altötting, home of the Chapel of the Miraculous Image, one of Germany’s most visited shrines since medieval times — a place long associated with miracles.

Franz’s last Easter before execution was spent in the Linz prison. He wrote that day to Franziska: “‘Christ has risen, alleluia,’ so the Church rejoices today. When we have to endure hard times, we must and can rejoice with the Church. What is more joyful than that Christ has again risen, and gone forth as the victor over death and hell. What can give us Christians more comfort than that we no longer have to fear death.”

Without warning, on May 4 Franz was taken by train to the prison at Tegel, a suburb of Berlin. It had been decided that Franz’s was “a more serious case” requiring a Reich Court Martial in the capital rather than a provincial trial. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement. (Among Franz’s fellow prisoners at Tegel was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who was arrested in April 1943 after money was traced to him that had been used to help Jews escape to Switzerland. After eighteen months a prisoner, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945.)

Franz says almost nothing in his letters about the conditions of life at Tegel, but a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, who had been in the same prison a year before Franz described it as “a foretaste of purgatory and hell: the thoughts and experiences: never a friendly face, never to feel any love, always only hard words – if this were to go on forever! And then the screaming of some prisoners who can’t bear the loneliness and the wrongful loss of their freedom, the constantly keeping silent, the small cell, etc. and also, in the case of certain men, the spiritual distress that weighs heavily on their hearts, the enchainment of those condemned to death.”

On July 6 a brief trial occurred. Franz was convicted of “undermining military morale” by “inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army.” This was a capital offense. Franz was sentenced to death. From this point on, he was kept in handcuffs. In a letter to Franziska, Franz notes that he is writing with his “hands in chains” (echoing the words of St. Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome).

On July 8, Franz wrote home, “It is a joy to be able to suffer for Jesus and our faith. We have the joyful hope that the few days in this life when we have been separated will be replaced by thousands of days in eternity, where we shall rejoice with God and our heavenly Mother in untroubled joy and good fortune. If we can only remain in the love of God when difficult tests of our faith come to us.” Perhaps to spare his family pain, or because the court sentence had not been confirmed, he said nothing in his letter about the trial that had just occurred.

In a final effort to save Franz’s life, his court-assigned lawyer, Friedrich Leo Feldmann, arranged a visit by Franziska and the priest of St. Radegund, Fr. Fürthauer, in the hope they could convince his client to change his mind. Were he to do so, Feldmann was confident the court would withdraw its sentence.

Their 20-minute meeting was Franz and Franziska’s last. It happened on July 9 in the presence of armed guards. Not to their surprise, the visitors found that Franz saw no honorable alternative but to continue with his refusal of military service. Fr. Fürthauer later recalled his attempt to persuade Franz to accept army service for his family’s sake. “He [Franz] said to me: ‘Can you promise me that if I join that movement [the Nazi regime] that I shall not fall into mortal sin?’ ‘That I cannot do’, I answered. ‘Then I won’t enlist,’ was his reply.” (In 2006, Fr. Fürthauer was asked if he would still say the same to Franz were he able to go back in time. “Today,” he responded, “I would not try to persuade him to change his resolve, but would just give him my blessing.”)

Back in St. Radegund, Franziska wrote to Fr. Karobath to report on the meeting with Franz in Berlin, commenting with bitterness, “They [the military officials] could easily have assigned him to the medical corps, but they were naturally too proud for that, for it might have looked like a compromise on their part.”

On July 14, Franz’s death sentence was confirmed by the Reich’s War Court. On August 9, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel where, at about 4 PM, he was killed by guillotine.

The priest who accompanied Franz to his execution, Fr. Albert Jochmann, standing in that day for the chaplain at Brandenberg, later told a community of Austrian nuns about Franz’s final hours. In the early 1960s, one of them, Sr. Georgia, having learned that Gordon Zahn was at work on a biography of Franz Jägerstätter, wrote to Zahn to relate what the chaplain had said. Visiting Franz shortly after midnight on August 9, he noticed on a small table in Franz’s cell a document which, should Franz sign it, would allow him to leave prison and return to the army. When Fr. Jochmann pointed it out, Franz pushed it aside, saying, “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.”

Sr. Georgia continued: “Later he was to witness the calm and composed manner in which he [Franz Jägerstätter] walked to the scaffold.” He told the sisters, themselves Austrian, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

During his time in Berlin, Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction and even happiness.

Part of the happiness he experienced was thanks to the support he found in the Catholic chaplain, Fr. Heinrich Kreutzberg. It was a great consolation for Franz to hear from him that a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had, just a year earlier, been in the same prison and died a similar death for similar reasons. After Franz’s death, Fr. Kreutzberg wrote a long letter to Franziska in which he noted, “I have seen no more fortunate man in prison than your husband after my few words about Franz Reinisch.”

Franz’s final letter home was written the morning of his execution. In it he appeals for the forgiveness of anyone he may have pained and hurt. He adds: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

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Franz Jägerstätter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knew that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service was incomprehensible — an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community and even his Church, which had called on no one to refuse military service. Franz knew that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of the war. He would be soon forgotten. Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during in the Nazi era.

In refusing to change his no to yes, the only thing that Franz could be sure of was that to betray his conscience would put his immortal soul at risk.

If the bishops of Austria had done nothing to sanction conscientious objection, and indeed done a great deal to discourage it, one must note that Franz did not simply invent the stand he took or did he feel abandoned by the Church. He drew strength from the sacraments and from the awareness that he was walking the same path many saints, some in the recent past, had followed — men and women who had obeyed God rather than man and paid with their lives for doing so. Before his death Franz had the profound consolation of learning that a Catholic priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had been held in the very same prison and executed for similar reasons.

Like all the witnesses who had gone before him, Franz was equipped with an acute sensitivity to forgotten or neglected notes of the Gospel. He had read the New Testament countless times and had thought long and hard about its stories and teachings. Given the war-related questions he was facing, no doubt it had impressed him that Jesus neither killed anyone nor called upon anyone to do so.

Aware of such basic Gospel themes and responding to them with uncompromising courage and faith, Franz in turn has made it possible for others to hear them too.

In the Franz Jägerstätter narrative, there are two conversion stories.

The first was his own. Franz had been converted from being the sort of assembly-line Catholic who does what is expected of him within his native Catholic community into a rarer sort of Catholic who actually makes a conscious effort to understand the Gospel and to follow Christ wholeheartedly despite antagonistic social structures prepared to punish severely anyone who fails to stay in line.

The other conversion occurred within his Church.

Far from being lost in the past, Franz’s witness proved to be a seed cast in the wind, carried along until a time, nearly two decades later, when it would it at last take root and find fitting soil. As a consequence, Franz Jägerstätter helped the Catholic Church change direction. How providential it was that the story of Franz’s life began to circulate during the Second Vatican Council and played a part in giving shape to what the Catholic Church today teaches about war, peace, conscience and individual responsibility — guidance in stark contrast to what was taught in Franz’s day: trust your rulers and do as you’re told — it is no sin to obey.

Nor did Franz’s influence end with a reform of Church teaching about war and individual responsibility. Half a century after Franz’s death, the Church had he loved so much, but which had deeply disappointed him, beatified him. The Church had moved from interest in Franz’s challenging life to recognizing it as a model of sanctity, a life that rendered nothing less than a modern translation of the Gospel. “Franz Jägerstätter,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on the day of Franz’s beatification, “is a living page of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only an authoritative report of that which was taking place at that time in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It is a living book… Franz Jägerstätter was and is for me the most concrete and illustrative commentary on the Beatitudes that I have ever heard.”

No one would have been more astonished than Franz to hear himself, or any conscientious objector, described by the Cardinal of Vienna in such terms.

Within the cathedral there was resounding applause for Franziska Jägerstätter, who had lived to hear a solemn declaration read aloud recognizing as a model of sanctity a man who had once been dismissed as a model of insanity. Then there was the sight of so many bishops rising to their feet as a 30-foot banner with Franz’s photo was unfurled. But perhaps the high point for all present was to witness Franziska, tears streaming from her eyes, kiss a bronze urn containing some of the Franz’s ashes before presenting the reliquary to Cardinal Schönborn.

One of the persons missing in the Linz cathedral was Gordon Zahn, absent due to infirmity (Alzheimer’s disease) and close to death. It was thanks to Zahn that the name of Franz Jägerstätter had been lifted from obscurity. For someone’s life to be formally recognized as saintly by the Church, there must first be at least one person who takes special note of that life, recognizes its importance, gathers the available details, and makes it his or her business to bring that life to the attention of others. In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, Gordon Zahn was that person. Had he not written In Solitary Witness, it is far from certain that the name of Franz Jägerstätter would be remembered today.

Side by side with Gordon Zahn, we are in debt to an Austrian, Erna Putz. Building on Zahn’s research, beginning in 1979 she devoted herself to making Franz better known, obtaining important documents, writing a full-scale biography of Franz Jägerstätter, and collecting all his letters and other writings, now gathered together in the book you hold in your hands.

The impact of Franz’s life was not only on the Second Vatican Council and its final document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The year In Solitary Witness was published, 1964, happened to coincide with the early stages of U.S. military involvement in the war in Vietnam. In Solitary Witness was widely read by the young men, potential or actual soldiers, who were struggling with the question of how to respond to that war. Having been a draft counselor during that period, I can recall how many of young people I talked with had read Zahn’s book and found themselves deeply challenged by Franz Jägerstätter’s life. It was one of the reasons that the Catholic Church in the United States produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. While none of them faced the guillotine, many faced prison, exile or other hardships. How important it was for them to discover that they were not alone; that someone like Franz Jägerstätter, under far more difficult circumstances, had read the Gospel as they did and faced the consequences, despite the incomprehension of their contemporaries.

Franz Jägerstätter remains a challenge, and not only because of his costly refusal to surrender his conscience to the Nazis.

One aspect of that challenge is Franz’s deeply traditional faith, an example far from fashionable today even among Catholics. While certainly not unaware of the Church’s human shortcomings and the ways so many bishops compromise the Gospel in order to be on good terms with political leaders, Franz Jägerstätter was a grateful Catholic devoted to the Church and its sacramental and devotional life. It is no minor detail of his life that he and Franziska began their marriage by going as pilgrims to Rome, a journey which they could barely afford. No two people were so often seen at Mass in St. Radegund. Both husband and wife were devoted to the rosary; in prison Franz prayed the rosary much of the time. The Jägerstätter household kept all the Church-appointed fasts. Both Franz and Franziska made frequent use of the sacrament of confession. It was remembered in St. Radegund that Franz sometimes paused while at work in the fields in order to pray. He not only served his parish as sexton, a voluntary and time-consuming responsibility, but refused to accept any financial rewards offered to him by parishioners for his role in arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals. Both Franz and Franziska had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its stress on Christ’s self-giving love for each person. Franz was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Without doubt the hardest part of saying no to further army service was Franz’s love of his wife and their children. Franz knew his execution would make many aspects of life harder for his family, especially for Franziska, as indeed it did.

While the widows of soldiers won the widespread sympathy of Austrians, Franziska was shunned. Not only had she lost her husband, but many of her neighbors tuned their back on her. Some blamed Franz’s death on her over-zealous religious influence.

When Gordon Zahn interviewed Franziska in 1961, she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbors. Few offered her the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.

In the Nazi period, subsidies and privileges were distributed to compliant farmers; poor and hard-pressed though she was, none of these came to her. An application for cement was once rejected as soon as it was noticed that her family name was Jägerstätter.

Even after the war officials penalized many of those who had opposed Hitler. In the entire period of rationing, Franziska received no coupons for clothing or shoes for herself or her children. She knitted clothes from the wool of angora rabbits.

In post-war Austria, for years she was denied the pension allocated to war widows. The authorities argued that the legislation compensating victims only applied to those who had fought for a free and democratic Austria. This did not include Franz, they argued. Franziska only won her right to a pension in 1950, after enlisting the help of a lawyer, Franz’s cousin, Franz Huber.

Yet she bore her difficulties bravely and with unwavering respect for her husband’s stand.

Throughout her life, Franziska Jägerstätter has been a person who never drew attention to herself. It is only in reading the letters the couple exchanged that the outsider begins to realize how deep the bond was between them.

Franz and Franziska loved each other passionately. It was an extraordinary love, with an all-or-nothing dimension of faithfulness that had as its foundation their shared love of God. What became clear to Franz, once he married Franziska, was that he could truly be a Christian husband and father only to the extent that following Christ stood at the center of his life. What better love could a man give to his family than, by his own example, to follow Christ without fear even to the Cross?

While her neighbors may have over-estimated Franziska’s influence, she did much to encourage the faith that finally led Franz to martyrdom, though the stand he took was not something she ever advocated. “In the beginning,” she once explained, “I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it any more. … If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”

“I have lost a dear husband and a good father to my children,” Franziska wrote soon after Franz’s death, “but I can also assure you that our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish — many people envied us. But the good Lord intended otherwise, and has loosed that loving bond. I already look forward to meeting again in heaven, where no war can ever divide us again.”

After the war Franz’s ashes where brought to St. Radegund and buried beneath a crucifix by the church wall. Little by little, his grave became a place of pilgrimage.

Franziska, still a pilgrim herself, celebrated both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her wedding by returning to Rome, the city where she and Franz spent the first days of their marriage.

Perhaps what would have astonished Franz more than anything would have been to see, among the five thousand people packed into the Linz cathedral on the day of his beatification, that not only was Franziska (then 94) present, but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — sixty family members in all.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: jhforest @ gmail.com

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text as of 10 September 2008
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