Various groups and individuals have hailed him as their disciple and surrogate spokesman, but as this study will reveal, few have fully understood the real reasons for his death and that he was a martyr for the Catholic Faith. (But at least Radio Vatican does, calling him a martyr for the Faith).
I will start with a short biography. Then I will highlight several unusual and remarkable aspects of his life that were providential in the way they helped to sustain him and ultimately prepared him for his courageous death.
Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20 1907 in St Radegund, Austria. Neither his mother, Rosalia Huber, nor his father, who were both farm employees, could afford to marry and start a home. Rosalia Huber left her illegitimate child to be brought up in the home of his grandmother. When she married Heinrich Jägerstätter ten years later, Franz moved into his stepfather's house, the Leherbauerhof. In the absence of any offspring, he became the sole heir upon the death of his stepfather in 1933. He left his home for employment in the iron ore works in Steiermark in 1927, where he remained for three years. During this time, he encountered a Communist movement amongst the workers and this may have been the cause for him becoming more observant in religious matters. He married Franziska Schwaninger in 1936, which became a decisive point in his life in terms of a further deeper engagement in the Catholic Faith. In March 1938 Austria was annexed to Germany and Jägerstätter became a citizen of the Third Reich. He compared the Austrian attitude regarding the German annexation to the sin committed by Adam and Eve. Austria and our first parents had a free choice, but through the sin of pride, opted for evil. 1 In the subsequent election his vote was a clear 'no' to Austria being annexed. The Mayor of St Radegund saved his life by exchanging his 'no' for a 'yes'. Franz Jägerstätter refused any kind of collaboration and support for the National Socialist Party (the NSDAP).
He was called-up for military training in Enns early in 1940 and further training, from October 1940 to April 1941, probably for the intended invasion of Russia. In 1943 he was summoned to active military service. He refused on the grounds that it was incompatible to be a Catholic and to be fighting for a regime that was persecuting the Catholic Church and her priests. He was transferred from Enns to prison in Linz, then the prison at Berlin Tegel. In a trial on July 14 1943, he was condemned to death. Thirty-four days later the judgement was confirmed and he was executed by guillotine in Berlin Brandenburg on August 9 1943.
The first unusual factor in the life of Franz Jägerstätter is that due to his illegitimacy and his mother's poverty, he was brought up by his pious grandmother. Had he been brought up by his own mother, it is doubtful whether the same foundations to his resolute faith would have been laid.
Another exceptional factor occurred: up to 1934 his taste and outlook differed little from his contemporary villagers. He was a conventional Catholic like everyone else in the village. After he left St Radegund to work in the iron mines in Steiermark, it was noted that a profound change occurred. He became much more observant in religious matters and started to attend Mass frequently. He even considered religious life and consulted the parish priest, Father Josef Karobath on this matter, who discouraged him and suggested he should find a suitable girl and get married.
One of the most important and crucial decisions of his life was marrying Franziska, who came from another village (and was regarded at St Radegund as an outsider, even almost a 'foreigner'). Local villagers thought that she was 'too religious', judging by their standards. The couple's choice of honeymoon was a pilgrimage to Rome, which in those days must have raised quite a few eyebrows in this small peasant community. It was an unusual undertaking, involving considerable cost and time as well as various trains and coaches to reach Rome. The pilgrimage included a general audience with the Holy Father, Pope Pius XI, but most importantly, also a trip to the catacombs of the early Christian martyrs; I often wonder whether later on in the dark hours of his prison cell, Franz cast a thought to this very visit. In humility, he never once claimed the term 'martyr' for himself.
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