Executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in Hitler's army, Jägerstätter was once known only to his relatives and neighborsmany of whom considered him mad. Born out of wedlock in 1907 in the tiny village of St. Radegund, his natural father was killed in the Great War. His mother eventually married a farmer named Jägerstätter, who adopted him. A Catholic from birth, Franz didn't always follow church teaching. Rumor has it that he lived something of a wild lifepossibly even fathering an illegitimate childbefore reclaiming his faith and marrying.
In 1956, the American sociologist Gordon Zahn, then researching a book in Germany on another subject, came across Jägerstätter's story. Transfixed, he thought it worthy of a serious biography and visited Austria to write it. After recovering Jägerstätter's papers and interviewing surviving relatives and friendsincluding two priests who served as his spiritual counselorsZahn published In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (1964).
The book has since been translated into various languages, and it had a significant impact on the Church's support for conscientious objectors. As the biography reveals, Franz Jägerstätter was the unlikeliest of heroes. He was "a relatively untutored man from a remote and isolated rural village," writes Zahn. Moreover, he was "a married man with a wife and children for whom he was responsible and whose future welfare he was morally bound to consider."
In 1936, Jägerstätter and his new bride, Franziska Schwaninger, traveled to Rome for their honeymoon. The visit ended with a papal blessing in St. Peter's Square, from Pope Pius XI, and from that moment forward Jägerstätter appears to have undergone a spiritual reawakening. Returning home to St. Radegund, he became a daily communicant and lay member of the Franciscan Third Order. He memorized the Bible and began emulating the lives of the saints. Working as the sexton of his parish, he arranged services for the local villagers, refusing any payment for his work. He fasted, performed penance, and gave alms to the poor, even as he struggled to earn a decent living for himself.
About this time, his godson, just a teenager, lost his father unexpectedly, and Jägerstätter wrote the boy a moving letter, describing his own life as a troubled quest for God:
Soon you, too, will be experiencing the storms of youth. But in this respect we humans are not all the same. To some they come sooner, to others later; to some, they burst forth in full fury, while to others the onset is weak. Should it be that temptation is ever so strong that you feel you must give in to sin, give some thought then to eternity. For it often happens that a man risks his temporal and eternal happiness for a few seconds of pleasure. No one can know whether he will ever again have an opportunity to confess or if God will give him the grace to repent of his sin. Death can surprise us at any minute, and in an accident one very seldom has time enough to awaken repentance and sorrow. This much I can tell you from my own experience.
After Hitler's forces annexed Austria, completing the Anschluss, Jägerstätter was the lone voice in his village to oppose it and was appalled by the willingness of his many countrymen, including high-level prelates, to aquiesce. "I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country," he wrote, "than this hour when one watches in silence while this error spreads its ever-widening influence." Commenting on the Austrian plebiscite, which gave approval to the Anschluss, he lamented: "I believe that what took place in the spring of 1938 was not much different from what happened that Holy Thursday 1,900 years ago when the crowd was given a free choice between the innocent Savior and the criminal Barabbas."
Jägerstätter himself became an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime and refused all cooperation. When a storm destroyed his crops, he declined any assistance from Germany. He stopped attending social events to avoid heated arguments with Nazi apologists.
As the takeover of Austria proceeded, Jägerstätter knew he would be asked to collaborate at some point. In early 1943, it came: He was ordered to appear at the induction center at Enns, where he declared his intention not to serve. The next day, he was hauled off to a military prison at Linz, to await his fate. "All he knew when he arrived," writes Zahn, "was that he was subject to summary execution at any moment."
A parade of peoplerelatives, friends, spiritual advisers, even his own bishoppleaded with Jägerstätter to change his mind. Some did not disagree with his anti-Nazi convictions or his moral stance; they simply argued he could not be held guilty in the eyes of God if he offered minimal cooperation under such duress, given the extreme alternative.
Jägerstätter, however, saw things differently. He believed Christians were called precisely to meet the highest possible standards"be thou perfect," said Our Lordeven at the cost of one's life, if fundamental Christian principles were at stake. Serving Germany in a nonmilitary post would simply make it easier for someone else to commit war crimes. He could not participate in the Nazi death machine, even indirectly. He would not be swayed: "Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their livesoften in horrible waysfor Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith." Indeed, he added, "the important thing is to fear God more than man."
After several months of imprisonment in Linz, Jägerstätter was taken to Berlin, where he stood military trial. According to witnesses, Jägerstätter was quite eloquent in his defense, but he was sentenced to death for sedition. On August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter was informed he would be beheaded that day. His last words as he was taken to the gallows were ones of peace, testifying to his faith: "I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord." The prison chaplain who ministered to him that day later remarked, "I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have met in my lifetime."
During his ordeal, many of Jägerstätter's neighbors considered his act unnecessary and foolish, a sentiment that remained long after his death. Zahn, who interviewed Jägerstätter's critics, examines all the explanations offered to question Jägerstätter's sacrificethat he was selfish, reckless, spiritually vainglorious, or even disturbedand makes a convincing case that none of them hold.
The most unfair charge is that Jägerstätter put himself above his family. "I have faith that God will still give me a sign if some other course would be better," he wrote, as he struggled to find a solution to his dilemma. Images of the Passion filled his mind: "Christ, too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the Heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from His lipsbut we must never forget this part of his prayer: 'Lord, not my will be done but rather Thine.'"
In the end, however, after it became clear that Jägerstätter would be asked to betray his conscience, there was only one path he could take, a hard and narrow path chosen by the very few: Better to die for Christ than scandalize his faith and family by becoming a Nazi. The letters and statements he made to his wife and family at this time show the anguish his decision brought; he was overwhelmed with the sense that he was abandoning them and feared reprisals against them lay ahead. But Jägerstätter knew that God was watching and would ultimately avenge his elect, and so expressed hope of a reunion yet to come: "I will surely beg the dear God, if I am permitted to enter heaven soon, that he may also set aside a little place in heaven for all of you." And again to his daughters: "I greet you, my dear little girls. May the child Jesus and the dear Mother of Heaven protect you until we see one another again."
Because his country's establishment did not choose the path of martyrdom, his witness has been contrasted unfavorably to that of the Catholic hierarchy. Jägerstätter, however, was not a critic of the episcopacy, much less the Magisterium.
In fact, he was a strong defender of the papacy and cited the authoritative teachings of Romeparticularly the famous anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (1937)as a rebuke to the Catholics around him. "Many have not forgotten what the Holy Father said in an encyclical several years ago about National Socialism," he wrote in 1942, contemplating his line of action, "that it is actually more of a danger than Communism. Since Rome has not to this day rescinded that statement, I believe it cannot possibly be a crime or a sin for a Catholic simply to refuse the present military service even though he knows this will mean certain death."
Similarly, Jägerstätter's resolute Catholicism shines through his statements about the Eucharist and the scandal of distributing it to certain notorious communicants: "In Germany, before Hitler came to power, it was once a matter of policy to refuse Holy Communion to Nazis. And what is the situation today in this Greater German Reich? Many approach the Communion rail with apparently no spiritual misgivings even though they are members of the Nazi Party and, in addition, permit their children to join the Party or even turn them over to Nazi educators for formation. . . . If one gives a little thought to this, there are times when he will want to cry out."
So much has been said about Jägerstätter's witness that the driving force behind that witness has sometimes been obscured. Jägerstätter was not a free-floating Christian individualist. He was a committed Catholic who saw himself as working with, not against, the Church. He was not so much a "solitary witness" as he was a Catholic in solidarity with the Church Militant. His conscience was formed in light of, and not outside, official Catholic teaching.
Since his cause was set into motion, predictablyand perhaps unavoidablyJägerstätter has become a kind of political football, both in his home country and outside it. During the Vietnam War, he was invoked by its opponents as the ideal Christian, a prophet whose time had arrived. (Daniel Ellsberg actually said that Jägerstätter's story influenced his decision to release the Pentagon Papers.)
Similarly, many pacifists have found in Jägerstätter a kindred soul. Zahn himself is a pacifist who refused service during World War II, serving instead in a work camp. Today, Jägerstätter is often cited by those who oppose the Iraq War.
As a result, some Catholics, particularly those serving in the military, fear that he has been used to indict all military action. But, in fact, Jägerstätter was not an unqualified opponent of the military or war, properly waged. To its credit, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which sponsors many conscientious objectors, acknowledges:
Franz Jägerstätter . . . can rightly be considered a conscientious objector. But he was not a total conscientious objector. He did not refuse to participate in any and all wars. He was a selective conscientious objector, one who refused to participate in wars that are unjust.
We don't know how Franz Jägerstätter learned about the Catholic Church's teaching on just war. Perhaps he heard about it in a homily. Perhaps he read about it in a catechism. Perhaps he came across it in some other book on Catholic teaching. In any case, we know that Jägerstätter refused to join the [German] military because, as he wrote to his godson, it was an "unjust war." The implication is that he would have participated in a just war. One gets the sense from his letters and personal reflections in his diaries that he would have readily fought in a war in 1938 against Nazi Germany had the Austrian government called upon its citizens to resist instead of buckling under pressure to erect a puppet regime and serve Hitler's expansionist purposes.
In his Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Robert Royal devotes an entire section to Jägerstätter's martyrdom; and in his influential book on the Catholic just-war tradition, Tranquillitas Ordinis, George Weigel compares Jägerstätter to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The wide differences among Jägerstätter's Catholic supporters reveals that he is actually a unifying figure, a Catholic who transcends politics and calls all members of the Church back to Christ.
There is a profound lesson in Franz Jägerstätter's life and martyrdom. It compels us to be brutally honest with ourselves, teaches us never to bow to the powers of this world, and challenges us to live an authentic Christian life. Among the last words Jägerstätter wrote are these:
Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there. Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal kingdom. But with this difference: We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weaponsand the foremost among these is prayer. . . . Through prayer, we constantly implore new grace from God, since without God's help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments. . . . Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God's love.
William Doino Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican and published an 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pius XII in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004).