by felix mitterer
translated by gregor thuswaldner with robert dassanowsky
university of new orleans, 144 pages, $13.95
Franz Jägerstätter, born in 1907, led a wild youth in Austria, turned to God after fearing he had killed another man in a fight, and settled down with a wife to run a farm and father children. In 1943, he refused the draft out of a conviction that a Catholic could not fight for Nazism. Defying the entreaties of mother, neighbors, priest, and bishop, he went to the guillotine. Even after the war, Jägerstätter’s countrymen called him a traitor and denied his widow, Franziska, and their three daughters any aid. Only in 2007 was Jägerstätter beatified by Benedict XVI.
This play by Felix Mitterer tells his story. The complicity of the Austrian people is represented by a chorus that chants slogans and curses at Jägerstätter before the play ends with a (repentant?) “Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray for us.”
Mitterer bans productions of the play from using Third Reich regalia. In his author’s note, he stipulates no swastika flags, no Nazi paraphernalia, and no Nazi uniforms. Jägerstätter’s non-compliance would seem too natural to us when set off against symbols that have become shorthand for evil. He’s more radical when his tempters (like the bishop who blesses the Catholics fighting for the Reich as “heroes” defending the homeland) aren’t decked out in Nazi apparel, but instead look and sound familiar to us. Mitterer does, however, invite a heavy-handed moralism when he asks that the play end with projected “scenes of recent wars and of cruelty.”
A quibble with the copy on the book’s back cover: It says, “Mitterer depicts Franz . . . as a courageous but struggling and insecure human being—and not at all as a saint.” But Jägerstätter in the play turns from sin and receives the grace to imitate Christ in a world hostile to him, dying to himself and inspiring other Christians like his wife—very much like a saint, indeed.
This review first appeared in the June/July issue of First Things.
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.