Today, August 9, is the anniversary of the execution of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter. Blessed Franz was an Austrian peasant farmer who refused to fight for Hitler and National Socialism during World War II and was executed for his refusal.
Franz was born in Saint Radegund, Austria in 1907, the illegitimate son of Franz Bachmeier, a farmer, and Rosalia Huber. Bachmeier was killed in World War I, and his mother married Heinrich Jagerstatter in 1917. Jagerstatter adopted his step-son.
Known in his youth as a wild young man and a skirt chaser, Franz fathered a daughter out of wedlock in 1933. That same year, he inherited the farm of his adoptive father. In 1936, he married Franziska Schwaninger, a devout Catholic, and the couple had three daughters.
In 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, Blessed Franz was the only one in the village to vote against the move. Authorities suppressed his dissent and reported unanimous approval. Though he completed his basic training when called up in 1940, he was given an agricultural reprieve from service so he could continue to farm. By this time, Franz was well-known in his village of Saint Radegund as an opponent of National Socialism and the war. He regarded Hitler and National Socialism as enemies of the Church, suppressing the Church for their purposes. As a Catholic, he could not fight for Hitler.
In these years, Franz quietly continued his work as a farmer, as a member of the Third Order Franciscans, and as the sacristan in his parish church. Even still, he continued to reflect on the morality of a war he had come to regard as unjust. In a meeting with the Bishop of Linz, Franz came away disappointed that the Bishop encouraged him to join up, fearful of what any opposition would mean.
Blessed Franz would relate to his wife, priest, and others a dream he had in 1938. In this dream, he saw a train barreling around a mountain. Those who surrounded the tracks were shouting with great eagerness to get on the train, joining the ride with enthusiasm. But, it soon became clear that the train was on its way to hell. Even still, people continued to board the train with eagerness and enthusiasm, knowing they were on their way to hell. Franz came to see the train as Hitler, or National Socialism, and those eager to board the ride the supporters of the 1938 annexation. He did not want to board a train on its way to hell, and he would not!
Finally, in February of 1943, Franz was called to active duty. There would be no more agricultural reprieves. He announced his refusal to serve and was immediately arrested. His initial offer to serve in the medical corps was ignored, and it seems he eventually changed his mind about even serving as a non-combatant medical orderly. He was convicted and sentenced to death on July 6, 1943. His parish priest visited him in prison and attempted to dissuade him from his conscientious objection, begging him to consider the needs of his wife and children, but without success. Franz continued to insist that even those with families must serve God first, and were obliged to refrain from sin and from being an accomplice to evil. After being assured that no one could sin who was following the genuine dictates of his conscience, Franz received the priests blessing.
On August 9, 1943, the execution was carried out by guillotine. Franz Jagerstatter was 36 years old. In 1946, his ashes were buried in the cemetery in Saint Radegund.
I first learned of Franz Jagerstatter in 1980 or 1981 when I was studying with the Society of African Missions (SMA Fathers). I attended Boston College, and the International Politics professor showed the class the 1971 film, “The Refusal,” that tells the story of Franz’s refusal, imprisonment, and execution. The film also show excerpts of interviews with Franz’s wife, priest and neighbors, some of whom agreed with his decision, some of whom disagreed with his decisions, and some who had difficulty forming an opinion one way or the other. At first, Franz was not a hero to his fellow villagers for, after all, his refusal to fight for the Nazis on the grounds that they were enemies of the Church, their cause evil and their war unjust represented something of an indictment to those who did follow orders and chose to fight, many of whom lost their lives. Because of this, even the Church was hesitant at first to laud Franz as a Catholic hero. His widow was denied a survivor’s pension until five years after the end of the war.
Things began to turn around with the publication of Gordon Zahn’s 1964 book, In Solitary Witness. Zahn was an American peace activist and co-founder of Pax Christi who found inspiration in Franz’s story. Thomas Merton included a chapter about Franz in his 1968 book, Faith and Violence. In 1971, Axel Corti directed the television movie, “The Refusal.” In 1993, Austria issued a commemorative stamp of Franz Jagerstatter. Support for Franz’s cause for canonization as a Catholic martyr grew, and in 2007 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI. His feast day is May 21, the day of his baptism. Franz’s widow, Franziska, attended the beatification Mass at the Cathedral in Linz. She died in 1913, at the age of 100. Academy Award nominated director Terrance Malick is scheduled to release his feature film, “Radegund,” about Blessed Franz later this year or next.
Since early on, I was immensely impressed with Blessed Franz and his resistance. I see him as a 20th century St. Thomas More, a man who knew what he believed, knew that what he was being ordered to do was wrong, and stood his ground even to the point of death. There are many similarities between More and Jagerstatter. Both were ordered by their respective countries to do something they saw as evil. Both stood their ground while Catholic friends and neighbors, and even priests and bishops, complied. Both had a great deal to lose, especially their families. Yet, both knew that to be true to God meant standing strong against the forces of evil no matter what. As More said, “If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.”
No one pretends that the challenges facing the Catholic Church in the West today compare with those burdens placed on her by the Nazi regime. Even still, there are warning signs that the Church is being targeted as an enemy of a social and political agenda that will brook no opposition. Catholic dioceses and ministries are being singled out for denial of government funds for their refusal to comply with the LGBT agenda. Catholic schools are being sued for refusing to accommodate newly accepted social realities. Catholic hospitals are under attack for refusing to perform abortions, sterilizations and so-called “mercy killings.” Catholic priests and bishops are facing outspoken opposition from the secular press, from government bodies, and even from other Catholics for refusing to bend to social, political and sexual expectations.
The examples of St. Thomas More and Bl. Franz Jagerstatter offer Catholics a model of opposition to expectations for compliance with evil placed on us by the state. How will we respond if such expectations are placed on us in a society increasingly hostile to the priorities of the gospel?
“Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering . . .” Bl. Franz Jagerstatter
“Even if I write with my hands in chains, I still find it much better than if my will were in chains.” Bl. Franz Jagerstatter
Below is a link to the 1971 Austrian television movie, “The Refusal,” directed by Alex Corti and starring Kurt Weinzierl.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.