Jesus told His apostles: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10: 22). It is difficult to think of another venerated Catholic who experienced this at a more extreme level than Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian farmer and family man who sacrificed his life in order to not serve the Satanic, pagan ideology of Nazism. Jägerstätter, whose feast day we celebrate today, went against his community and almost his entire nation, while not even his local Church offered much succor. Yet Jägerstätter, in the face of nearly total opposition, persisted in his solitary fidelity to the Gospels.
Franz Jägerstätter was a farmer from the village of Sankt Radegund in Upper Austria, which is less than fourteen miles from Marktl on the river Inn in Bavaria, Germany, where Joseph Ratzinger was born. Both the future pope and the future martyr would often go on pilgrimages to the Marian shrine of Altötting. However, Jägerstätter was not always pious: as a young man, he sowed quite a few wild oats and even fathered an illegitimate child.
In 1936, Franz married Franziska, a devoutly Catholic woman who inspired him to grow closer to God. They would have three children. For their honeymoon, the Jägerstätters went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Eventually, Franz became a Third Order Franciscan and sacristan at his parish. By this time, he read Sacred Scripture every evening.
In March 1938, Hitler annexed his own Heimat of Austria to the Third Reich. In February 1943, the young and healthy Jägerstätter was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, the German army. A few days after his refusal, he was imprisoned. During this time, Jägerstätter had ample opportunities to change his mind. The more he read the Bible and the more he deepened his faith, though, the more repulsed he was by Nazism and he continued refused to join the military. He proposed to serve as a paramedic on the front, but this request was turned down. In July, he was sentenced to death and on the afternoon of August 9, 1943, he was decapitated Brandenburg-Görden Prison. He was 36 years old.
Unfortunately, Jägerstätter’s legacy has been hijacked by the pacifist movement. This is largely the work of Gordon Zahn, an American pacifist sociologist whose 1964 biography of the Austrian martyr, In Solitary Witness (the title of the book, however, is brilliant), introduced him to broader audiences (a much more objective biography available in English is by Erna Putz). Jägerstätter has become something of a hero for opponents of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But it’s important to understand that Jägerstätter was not a pacifist; he refused to conscript in the Wehrmacht not because he opposed war in general, but because he was convinced of the unique iniquity of Nazism.
The historical context makes Franz Jägerstätter’s martyrdom all the more impressive. Arguably, no European nation, including Germany, embraced Nazism as enthusiastically as Austria. Certainly, between 1933 and 1945 the great majority of Germans supported Hitler actively or passively, while millions of German citizens engaged in war crimes against civilians as members of the SS or Wehrmacht. Yet it should be remembered that in the 1932 elections to the Reichstag, almost 63 percent of Germans did not vote for the Nazi Party. Meanwhile, there was some quickly crushed German resistance to Hitler, such as the brave university students of the White Rose movement in Munich who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets and whose leaders Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed.
After Germany annexed Austria, a referendum on the Anschluss was held on April 10, 1938. An astounding 99.73 percent of Austrians voted in favor of joining the Third Reich. Historians have found only some cases of voter fraud in the Anschluss vote and agree that it was overall an honest reflection of the dominant mood of Austrian society.
According to the research of David Art, 40 percent of the guards and 75 percent of commandants at the Third Reich’s concentration and death camps were Austrians. One infamous example is that of Amon Göeth, the psychopath commandant of the KL Plaszow camp, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List, known for shooting at the camp’s inmates from his villa’s balcony for target practice. Meanwhile, of the more than 26,000 Righteous Among the Nations – the award given by the Israeli government to Gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust – just 109 (0.04 percent) are Austrians, one of the lowest numbers among European nations.
It would be unfair to call the Church in historically arch-Catholic Austria an accomplice of Nazism. Rather, the Austrian bishops, aware of the imprisonment and executions of hundreds of defiant priests from Germany (and, after 1939, from across occupied Europe) in concentration camps such as Dachau, believed that in order to avoid persecution it would be best to not irk the Nazis and thus not protest. One rare exception was Bishop Johannes-Maria Gföllner, who headed Jägerstätter’s own Diocese of Linz. Gföllner frequently condemned National Socialism, but in 1941 he was replaced by a much more complacent prelate.
Franz Jägerstätter was a complete pariah in Sankt Radegund. The only person he could count on was his wife Franziska. Although supportive, Franziska’s letters to her imprisoned husband nevertheless show that she expressed hope he would retract his decision to not serve in the Wehrmacht. Jesus said that “no prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Lk 4: 24), and that was certainly the case with Jägerstätter. Many decades would pass before he would be recognized as the hero he was in Sankt Radegund and Austria more broadly. For years after the war, Franziska Jägerstätter experienced hostility from the inhabitants of Sankt Radegund, who called her martyred husband a “religious fool,” while the Austrian government denied her a widow’s pension.
Today, however, the truth has triumphed and Franz Jägerstätter has been more than exonerated by history, while those Austrians who drank the swastika-flavored Kool-Aid are viewed with shame. During his pilgrimage to Austria in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Jägerstätter. When his widow Franziska, then ninety-four years old, walked into the Linz cathedral to attend the ceremony, she was greeted with thunderous applause.
Two days ago, the American filmmaker Terrence Malick’s biographical film about Jägerstätter, titled A Hidden Life, had its premiere at Cannes, where it is competing for the coveted Palme d’Or. The film was met with highly positive reviews, with critics calling it Malick’s best film since 2011’s Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life. Malick is known for tackling existential and explicitly Christian themes; A Hidden Life reportedly focuses on Jägerstätter’s relationship with God amidst political turmoil.
It is tempting to look at Austrian society between 1938 and 1945 with a smug sense of moral superiority. However, we should instead ask ourselves how we would have acted in Jägerstätter’s place. It is easy to condemn Nazism living in the comforts of peacetime America in 2019 where, disturbing events like Charlottesville notwithstanding, such ideologies are met with near-universal opprobrium.
With its genocidal racism, brutal colonial ambitions, and social Darwinist treatment of the elderly or people with disabilities, Nazism is obviously incompatible with the Christian view of the person. While many Austrians zealously embraced Nazism, without a doubt others knew this but were afraid of speaking the truth. At least some of the 99.7 percent who voted in favor of the Anschluss did so not because they were dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, but because they did not want to be harassed at work or face social ostracization.
Fortunately, we are blessed to not have to live in Jägerstätter’s socio-political circumstances. Yet our society often is hostile to the truths of our faith. Although we do not put our lives at stake by speaking the truth, do we, like Jägerstätter, speak out against injustice and falsehoods at work or in social situations, or do we swim with the stream for the sake of comfort? May his example inspire us.
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