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Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Franz Jägerstätter (continued)

In fact, with hindsight there was no other women that would have been more suited to be his wife. She gave him warmth and created a home that he never had (he never really felt ' at home' on the farm while his stepfather was alive). He and his wife joined the Third Order Franciscans. Although in the early stages she thought his decision not to fight for Hitler's regime foolhardy and tried to persuade him to re-consider for her sake and their family, when she recognised his dilemma, she changed her mind and supported him. Asked later on, as to how she could accept his decision, she simply said 'that we had to stick together, he had, after all, nobody else.'2
It was she who travelled to Linz early in 1943, the capital of Upper Austria, to accompany her husband for a meeting with Bishop Fliesser. Franz Jägerstätter had obtained this appointment, because none of the priests he knew could give him a satisfactory answer to the question of whether a Catholic should help a regime to victory that was diametrically opposed to the Catholic Church. His wife waited outside in the waiting room while her husband tried to argue 'his case' with the Bishop.

When on February 23 1943, he was summoned for military service, it was Franziska who again accompanied him to the railway station on his way to Enns. It was a heart-breaking farewell; because Franz Jägerstätter was going to inform the military authorities that he would refuse to fight and both knew that it would be followed by grave consequences.

Another aspect in Franz Jägerstätter's life that uniquely prepared him for what he was to endure later during the five month period in prison, is the fact that he was granted a spell of nearly two years at his farm, after his two courses of army training. This was due to the fact that the Mayor of St Radegund helped Franz when the first call-up for war was made by classifying him as 'indispensable' for his farm; he, therefore avoided being drafted into the army for combat. 3

It allowed Franz Jägerstätter a long breathing space during which many of his thoughts and ideas were formulated and consolidated in the isolation of his farm. Franz Jägerstätter avoided the two local country pubs in St Radegund and stayed at home, as in times like these, uttering a careless word in public could endanger one's life. It was during this period that the idea came to him to write a manual on religious instruction for his children, as he thought that they may never be in a position to receive a religious education under the Nazi regime. The stiff form of his handwriting reveals the fact that he was not used to putting pen to paper; it is therefore all the more remarkable that he undertook such a task. Writing things down for his children helped him to re-affirm his own religious principles and in the light of these principles to reflect on the current situation. One of his friends sent him a book on the life of Thomas More, which according to his letters touched him deeply and made him draw analogies to his own circumstances. He also examined the role of the individual's responsibility in society and came to the conclusion that co-operation with a regime meant co-responsibility with a regime.

But above all, it is during this period that his own faith was growing and his spiritual life was deepening. He was fasting and praying. He took over the role of sacristan of the Parish Church and served Mass every day in the absence of the other men of the village during the war. He received Holy Communion daily. Witnesses to this day still talk of 'how seriously he took the office of sacristan and how strict he was with latecomers to Mass'.4

On the other hand, this period was not solely one of tranquillity. Franz Jägerstätter knew it was 'bought time' and that the postman could bring a definitive call for military service at any time; his wife, his mother and parents-in-law were aware that if called up, he would refuse to serve.

We briefly need to consider the position of the Catholic Church both in St Radegund and in the German Reich. It should be remarked that the Church of St Radegund has an unusual provenance; it was built as a chapel to a Ducal hunting lodge, the latter having disappeared over the centuries. The Gothic church has been endowed with unusual beauty when compared with other churches in the neighbourhood. Because it was built as a former Ducal chapel, it is not located in the centre of the village, as is usual and is approached by going down a steep hill, where the village ends abruptly. In addition, the farm houses in that region are not grouped together but scattered, in view of the fact that large parcels of land belong to each farm house. Bearing this in mind, one can get an impression of how isolated and self-supporting these farms must have been. A 'walk around the village' would take a considerable amount of time, although the entire village consisted of no more than 560 people according to 1938 census. Even today the Jägerstätter house in the middle of its fields seems completely isolated and the walk from there to the church is a good twenty minutes to half an hour. Franz Jägerstätter walked this very way daily for Mass in the early hours of the morning. The Parish Priest, Father Josef Karobath who had been arrested in July 1940, was barred from the area and forbidden to preach by the Nazis. The new priest, Father Fürthauser was careful not to also come to the attention of the authorities. Franz Jägerstätter only slowly began discussing with him his intention of refusing military service for the German Reich, but he was carefully steered in the direction 'of doing his duty to the fatherland and his family' by Father Fürthauser. This left Franz Jägerstätter dissatisfied and he asked other priests, always guardedly, because he did not want to compromise them, until finally he obtained an appointment to see Bishop Fliesser in Linz. This was an unusual undertaking. The Bishop's diary did not usually contain appointments with peasants from remote villages.

What must be appreciated is that the Bishop's office was inundated with hundreds of enquiries during the Nazi Regime by priests from all over his diocese which covered Upper Austria. The Nazi authorities gave orders for the local Hitler Youth and other NSDAP organisations to occupy church halls and other rooms belonging to Parish Priests and use them for party political meetings. This meant in most cases that the resident priest had to contend only with one bedroom in his own house and he was expected to pay all outgoings. In many cases, the priest's housekeeper was driven from the house and had to find accommodation elsewhere. Church bells could only be rung on the orders of the Party, as they were when France surrendered. All religious holidays were disbanded or transferred to the nearest Sunday. Religious processions were only allowed on Church property. Sermons were listened to eagerly by the brown shirts amongst the congregation to find any defamatory remarks. Candles were rationed and became difficult to obtain. Many priests were in financial difficulties as church collections were forbidden; only the State could organise collections, which were for the war effort. Organists were ridiculed to discourage them from playing at church services. All youth chaplaincy was forbidden. The State created their own organisation, the Hitler Youth, and did not want any rivals.

These were only some of the new dilemmas with which many village priests had to cope and they needed reassurance, clarification and directions from the Bishop's office. Many a priest was driven to Gestapo headquarters in Linz for interrogation, often on the slightest offence; some of them never returned to their parishes.

One must visualise Franz Jägerstätter's visit to Bishop Fliesser against this background. Times were hard, the Bishop's office was on overdrive; they had never dealt with so many enquiries and so many different problems and any advice had to be carefully worded. The Bishop was initially very reserved with Franz, as he could not be sure whether or not Franz Jägerstätter had been sent by the Gestapo. Upon Jägerstätter's question as to whether as a Catholic it was right to fight for a regime that persecuted the Catholic Church and acted as aggressor in Russia, Bishop Fliesser replied that Franz had a duty to the 'fatherland and a duty to his wife and family', which was the official line. He told him that as an individual he, Franz Jägerstätter, was neither in the possession of the full facts, nor was it in his competence to pass any judgement on the war against Russia. In January 1943 it was difficult to predict the outcome of the war, nor could one predict the fall of the Nazi regime. The future of the Church was uncertain and the Bishop's overriding concern was not confrontation but preservation 5. He had to conserve his flock, in an attempt to survive.

Recognising that they could not reach common ground, Bishop Fliesser finally told Franz Jägerstätter that, in exceptional circumstances, one may act 'according to one's conscience'. The Bishop had made a concession to Franz Jägerstätter with this statement, by not toeing the official party line. With this statement, however, he put the onus squarely on Franz Jägerstätter's shoulders. It must have been devastating for Franz to realise that there was no approval from the Church for his proposed action. The responsibility and the consequences for his decision to refuse military service were his and his alone.

This conflict must have re-emerged, every time he considered the fate of his family. He was 36 years old with three young children and had barely been married for seven years. The dreaded call for military duty came on February 23 1943 and stated that he was to report to Enns on February 25 1943 for a short training and transferral to the front. An indication of how hard it must have been for him to say goodbye to his young wife at Tittmoning Station can be deduced from the fact that he embraced her many times over and could not bring himself to leave her. When he finally tore himself away from her, he was so desperate and confused that he took the wrong train and went in the opposite direction. He was seen at the early morning Mass in Enns two days later and according to the priest, Father Krenn, who knew him well, he looked dishevelled and distraught and was offered to stay the night in the priest's house. Franz Jägerstätter did not tell him what he intended to do, so as not to compromise him. "It would have meant quarrelling, because there was no understanding about me refusing." 6 Finally, on March 1 1943, he reported to the military camp.

His letters from the military camp at Enns and subsequent transferral to the Linz prison show an initial sign of relief. It seems that he had been expecting an immediate judgement and execution. As he was sharing a cell with three other young men from Alsace Lorraine who had also refused military service, he was able for the first time in his life to learn that there were others too who were sharing his concerns and were willing to swim against the torrent. In a recent interview on Austrian television two of these inmates were traced and bore witness to Franz Jägerstätter's courage and magnanimity, when he consoled them and shared out his allotted portion of bread among them and gave them a Rosary. They also confirmed that much of his time was spent in prayer. Although all four in the cell shared steadfastness in their refusal to fight, Franz Jägerstätter differed from them in one respect: the reason for his refusal was that he considered it a sin to help the Nazi regime to victory by fighting for it.

Franz Jägerstätter's letters to his wife from the Linz prison were carefully worded and largely designed to reassure her. They showed his concern as to how Franziska was going to cope with the heavy work on the farm without him. He spent Easter in Linz and keenly felt the deprivation of not being allowed to attend the Easter liturgy and was only able to receive Holy Communion from a visiting priest. There still was the dim hope that the military authorities may offer him a non-combatant pos, but they did not.

The prison routine in Linz was abruptly broken by his removal by train to Berlin Tegel prison on May 4 1943. The letter written on the journey by kind permission of the guard who accompanied him, is less guarded and more open, but he always endeavoured to console his wife. "I am prepared for everything, even if the conditions are going to be worse". 7 Despite his fate he writes: 'I almost enjoyed seeing new towns and cities on the trip, and would have enjoyed them even more, had the occasion not been such a sad one.' 8

The treatment in the Berlin prison was an entirely different one. We know more about the conditions in Tegel prison through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters (who was imprisoned there at the same time). 9 Whilst Franz Jägerstätter was only permitted to write one letter per month and a final farewell letter shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed a much more frequent correspondence as he had influential relatives and friends. We know from Bonhoeffer about the brutal conditions, the rough treatment and insults by the guards, as well as the theft of food and lack of water during a heat wave in July and August 1943. Franz's letters are silent on these matters. On the contrary, in his letter dated July 8 1943 he writes to his mother: "Do not worry about my welfare, even if things get harder, God will not send me more than I can bear." 10

We now come to probably the hardest time in Franz Jägerstätter's life. Far away from Austria, he was effectively in a 'foreign' country; the Prussian German they were speaking must have seemed harsh and contrasted sharply with his own strong regional Austrian dialect. The time on his farm in St Radegund, when he was writing and copying the catechism for the education of his children, must have seemed a long way away. But it stood him in good stead. He started writing again in a notebook which was later sent to Franziska Jägerstätter by Father Kreutzberg, the prison chaplain. 11

Franz Jägerstätter had no intellectual resources to rely on, only his own inner resources and his deep faith. We must not overlook the fact that Franz Jägerstätter had only attended four years of school, in a classroom with 70 children. The modest school building where he was taught can still be seen nearby the Church of St Radegund. He would not have been taught the art of intellectual argument and discussion. At times, in fact, it must have seemed as if this oppressive mighty regime was in the right, and that he, a simple peasant, by following his own stubborn will and inclination, was in the wrong.

Soon serious doubts emerged: he was troubled as to whether his refusal of military service was due to his own insistence and pride. To die for such a cause, would have been suicide which constituted a mortal sin and eternal damnation. It would not justify leaving his wife and children. Franz was concerned for the state of his soul. These fears led him to discuss matters with Father Heinrich Kreutzberg, who was the prison chaplain for Berlin Tegel. In this capacity he could not say outright that Franz was right in refusing, as he too, had to consider the authorities and his own position. But he struck a cord in Franz Jägerstätter by telling him about a countryman of his, the Pallotine Priest, Father Franz Reinisch, who had been in Berlin Tegel prison a year before Jägerstätter. Father Reinisch had been condemned to death and executed for exactly the same reason: for refusing military service in a regime that persecuted the Catholic Church and her priests. Casting away the final doubts by the example of Father Reinisch, who was after all a priest, gave great assurance to Franz and provided a break-through in clarifying his own position. "One should obey God first before human beings." 12

It was officially requested by Franz Jägerstätter's defence lawyer, Friedrich Feldmann, that the St Radegund Parish Priest, Father Fürthauser and Frankziska Jägerstätter should come to Berlin for a final talk with Franz before the court proceedings. The purpose was to persuade Franz to change his mind and to agree to fight in the German army. This meeting took place on July 13 1943.

We must bear in mind that the journey to Berlin from St Radegund entailed changing several trains, waiting for connections some long hours on platforms, all in the middle of war! It even involved an overnight stay. Franziska and Father Fürthauser were permitted only twenty minutes for the meeting by the prison authorities in the presence of a guard. During the whole period, Father Fürthauser kept on trying to persuade Franz to re-consider his decision emphasising that he had a responsibility towards his young family. Franziska was relegated to the background and hardly had time to utter a few words. But she stood firmly by him. Both had realised that it was their last meeting. The presence of their parish priest may have felt intrusive, but it helped them both not to give way to their inner pain and despair. How hard it must have been for Franz to see his wife under such circumstances that barely allowed a kind word or an embrace and how equally hard it must have been for Franziska to return to St Radegund and tell their young children that their father would never return.

Upon the request of Friedrich Feldmann, the military tribunal on July 14 1943 was preceded by a preliminary informal hearing. It was arranged because Feldmann believed that Jägerstätter was so firmly convinced of his position that other measures had to be adopted to break his will. 13 This was, however, not possible, neither at the preliminary hearing nor at the tribunal and Franz Jägerstätter was found guilty of harming the German war effort and sentenced to death. No pardon was possible, as there was no provision of any kind for pardons under the Nürnberg Laws. 14

It was common practice to tie the hands of prisoners day and night after the judgement until it was confirmed and the sentence was carried out, in case prisoners decided to commit suicide to escape public execution. When they tied his hands, he accepted this additional humiliation by writing in his notebook: 'it is better to have your hands tied than your will.' 15

Franz Jägerstätter had to wait for 34 days and nights, not knowing when the sentence would be carried out. In the monthly letter in July to his wife, Franz mentioned neither the court hearing nor the judgement. The only hint of how difficult the waiting period must have been for him, can be deduced from his letter dated August 8 1943, when he writes: "I have often prayed to the Mother of God that if it is God's will that I should die, then I wish I would be able to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption in heaven." 16

There is no doubt that during the last days in his life he had come to understand his true calling: he was called upon to offer his life and death as an expiatory sacrifice for his own sins and those of others. He had reached this understanding not by the power of his own intellect, but through prayer and the grace of God. 17 This would corroborate with the testimony of the priest, Father Albert Jochmann, who accompanied him to the execution chamber at Berlin Brandenburg, where Father Jochmann observed that Franz Jägerstätter seemed oblivious to the outer world. When offered the reading of a passage from the Gospel, Franz gently stated that the word of God was now 'within' him and that he had no need to listen to it from the 'outside'. Given Franz Jägerstätter's character, it is inconceivable that he would have rejected readings from the Gospel by a priest during the last minutes of his life, unless he had received a new certainty and, by the grace of God, attained a level of sanctity. This was recognised by Father Jochmann, who said upon his return from the execution that 'this was the first and only time in his life that he had met a true saint.' 18

I have outlined above the simple life of an ordinary man, who was caught up in the turmoil and conflicts of war and who decided to swim against the tide. Had he lived at any other time, he would have led an inconspicuous and ordinary life and we would have had no knowledge of him today.

But in what light do we perceive Franz Jägerstätter? Do we truly understand why he died and what he had died for? There are roughly speaking three groups of people who have claimed him for themselves, each for their own purposes.

The first is a group of conscientious objectors to war, led in particular by the American, Gordon Zahn, but there are also other 'peace organisations' such as Pax Christi, who have adopted Franz Jägerstätter as their alleged advocate. They see him as a glowing example for their own contentious feeling about war and use him as justification for their conscientious objection.

The second group have claimed that Franz Jägerstätter had not raised objections to war as such, only against an 'unjust war'. They are referring to Franz Jägerstätter's statement in 1943 that he would not fight in the war against Russia, because it "has nothing to do with defending his fatherland" and "had his country been attacked he would have defended his land." This is not entirely an unexpected statement from a farmer, for as we know, farmers are very closely tied to their land. His statement above is taken out of context, for he continued that "it was a sin to fight and thereby help National Socialism to victory". Incidentally, the concept of just or unjust war in Catholic philosophy would have been unknown to him.

And there is yet a third group – and curiously they are mainly to be found amongst Austrians and Germans – who see Jägerstätter's action solely as shirking his duty towards his fatherland and family. This opinion is largely expressed by the generation of people who themselves, or their close relatives, had followed the call for military duty and they consider they had been right in doing so, and that Franz Jägerstätter had been wrong in his refusal. Were they to admit that Franz Jägerstätter had been right, they would have had to acknowledge that they themselves had been wrong. 19

None of the arguments of the three groups above are wrong, but they only represent half-truths and not the whole truth. In fact, by condoning their arguments, we misunderstand Jägerstätter's true calling and we minimise his sacrifice.

Let us first examine his reason for his refusal to fight: he refused military service because he considered that participation in the war would jeopardise the salvation of his soul. 20

Let us now examine what he died for: in the letter dated August 9 1943, written just before his execution, he clearly and unambiguously states that he offers his death to God as an expiatory sacrifice. "May God accept my life as expiation, not just for my sins, but also for the sins of others." 21

Although he used direct and explicit words, stating his true intent, it seems that none of the groups have considered these two vital points above, and if they have, they have simply ignored them. They hail him as a figure formed in their own image, but the true Franz Jägerstätter eludes them. It is clear from the above that he did not refuse military service for political, moral or ethical causes, nor because he was a conscientious objector.

We can, in fact, only arrive at a true understanding of Franz Jägerstätter's intentions by not judging and interpreting his action, but by carefully examining his reasons in his writings and letters to his wife. In the first instance, they are the true and ultimately authoritative sources, and in the second instance, these letters were written to his wife with the intention of clarifying what may not have been already evident and to sustain her for the rest of her life in a world that would show little understanding.

During his last days on earth, isolated and humiliated, Franz Jägerstätter had moved closer to recognising God's will and to conforming his own will to that of God's will. He accepted it unconditionally. Despite the fact that he was sentenced to death under the force of Nazi law, he freely gave his life to God as atonement for his own sins and those of others, with the same free will with which the Son of God had sacrificed his own life. This analogy to Christ can be seen in his letter to his wife of August 9 1943 : " It must have been also very hard for Christ to cause so much pain and suffering to his mother when he died on the cross. But he had to do it out of love for us sinners. I thank Christ that I was allowed to suffer and die for him."

Franz Jägerstätter died as a martyr for the Catholic Faith and that any other interpretation is to diminish the greatness of the man and to deny his rightful place among the saints who will be raised to the altars of the Church. 22

1 Dr Erna Putz, Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnungen , Linz-Passau 1987
2 Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
3 The only other person in a village that was classified as 'indispensable'
was the mayor, who had to be a member of the NSDAP
4 Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
5 His predecessor Bishop Gföllner had said that the only possible response
to the Nazis was "silence, endurance, prayers and hope". Richard Kutschera, Johannes Maria Gföllner. Bischof dreier Zeitenwenden, Linz 1972
6 Letter to his wife dated 1.3.1943 in Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnungen,
Linz-Passau 1987
7 Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
8 Ibid
9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung, Gütersloh 1983.
10 Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnugen, Linz-Passau 1987
11 ibid
12Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
13Even Father Reinisch wrote "that the continuous verbal attacks at the
trial from all sides made me confused" Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter,
Grünbach, Austria, 1997
14 The only person who could have commuted the death sentence would
have been Adolf Hitler himself. Section 114 of the Wartime Penal Code
15 Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
16 His wish was fulfilled, he was executed on 9 August 1943
17 "I have tremendous trust in God's mercy that Christ will not desert me in my
last hour, as he has not deserted me up to now, you can believe me, and also the Mother of God, because you probably know anyhow, that 'Hail Marys' are ceaselessly passing over my lips. " Letter 8.1.1943 to his wife.
Erna Putz, Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnungen, Linz-Passau 1987
18 Dr Erna Putz, Franz Jägerstätter, Grünbach, Austria, 1997
19 This is still a bone of contention to this day and it is almost impossible
to have any discussion about the case with this group of people
20 This is clearly stated in his farewell letter dated 9 August 1943. Erna Putz,
Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnungen, Linz-Passau 1987
21 Letter from Franz Jägerstätter to his wife, 9 August 1943, Gefängnisbriefe und Aufzeichnungen, Linz-Passau 1987
22 Beatification of Franz Jägerstätter was commenced by the Bishop of Linz,
Maximilian Aichern OSB in Oct 1997 concluded on diocesan level and handed to Rome in June 2001.