The Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) was executed by the occupying Nazi regime for his refusal to serve in the armed forces of the Third Reich. His conscientious objection was based on his deep Catholic faith, and he articulated his reasons in many letters, postcards, and personal notes that he wrote, some of them in prison. He was beatified in the cathedral in Linz, Austria, on October 26, 2007.
This year, in conjunction with the feast of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter on May 21, the Diocese of Linz announced that a previously unknown piece of writing by the Nazi resister had been discovered in the estate of a private household in the municipality of Sankt Radegund, his birthplace. The two-page handwritten text is entitled “How I actually arrived at the idea not to report for military duty.” It had been delivered last September to the “Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter Institute” at the Catholic Private University in Linz.
Andreas Schmoller, head of the Institute, said that experts had carefully examined the paper and ink, the handwriting, and the contents of the letter and determined that the document is authentic. It may be one of the last things that he wrote before his arrest on March 2, 1943. In his writings, Jägerstätter often started an argument or a religious discussion with a question, and the newly discovered text is consistent with known reflections by him on the anti-Christian aims and methods of the National-Socialist regime. It “clearly does not upset our picture of Jägerstätter,” Schmoller said. Yet it offers fresh material for Jägerstätter research.
When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Franz Jägerstätter was working a farm to support his wife and growing family. He was drafted twice, but each time the local mayor was able to exempt him because farming was an “essential business.” During the ordeal of occupation, Jägerstätter studied just war theory and the relation between Church and state. He gradually arrived at the conviction that refusing military service “is morally correct and does not contradict Catholic teaching.”
The line of argument developed in the newly discovered text surprised researchers: The fatherland of his people is not the “German ethnic community” but rather Austria, which has been in captivity since the Anschluss [annexation]. It cannot be maintained that captives have a duty to “obey authority” and fight for a new military force immediately after their defeat or capture. In this connection Jägerstätter refers to Andreas Hofer, a freedom fighter from Tirol, who was not called on to fight for the French after his defeat.
Nor can it be claimed that the secular authority is the only one to be obeyed. Jägerstätter believed that, for him, serving in the Wehrmacht would be a serious sin, and his conscientious objection was a public protest against the anti-Christian, inhumane policies of the Nazi dictatorship. Erna Putz, a biographer of the Blessed, commented: “Jägerstätter underscores in this note the spiritual dimension of his decision and thus elaborates in more detail than in similar passages the interior struggles and intellectual arguments that led to his refusal to enlist.”
In a broadcast on May 20, representatives of the Jägerstätter Institute emphasized that Blessed Franz was a pioneer in this line of thinking. “After 1945 the Catholic tradition of obedience in the area of military service began to crumble. The arguments and examples that were presented by Catholics were strikingly similar to the ones that Jägerstätter used in this text.”
At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas D. Roberts, S.J. (Archbishop of Bombay, India, from 1939-1958) spoke to the Council Fathers about the Austrian layman’s heroic testimony:
Franz Jägerstätter refused to serve in a war that was later characterized in Nuremberg as a crime against humanity. He was one of those men chosen by the Holy Spirit to manifest truths that are hidden to the powerful and the wise. This young husband and father was called to make clear that a Christian may not serve in a war that he considers unjust, even though it cost him his life. He stood alone in giving this witness.1
History has proved Jägerstätter correct about both civil and ecclesiastical authority. He had been condemned to death for “undermining military morale,” but on May 7, 1997, the District Court of Berlin completely “annulled” his death sentence, in effect acquitting him because of the moral and legal justification of his actions. On June 1, 2007, the Vatican officially confirmed that Franz Jägerstätter was a martyr, clearing the way for his beatification later that year.
A complete digital, German-language edition of Jägerstätter’s writings, including the newly discovered handwritten note, is scheduled to go online in 2023.
1 “Franz Jägerstätter and Franziska Schwaninger,” in: Ferdinand Holböck, Married Saints and Blesseds through the Centuries, translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 448-454 at 448.
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