Franz Jägerstätter: A Little Known Witness

franz2   When remembering great peacemakers throughout history many extoll the lives and witness of Gandhi and Martin Luther King JR., but few even know of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. If his life his life had taken another route there would be little to tell and he would only be remembered by his friends and family as a devoted father and husband and devout Catholic, but instead he found himself caught between the might of Nazi Germany and his commitment to the teachings of Jesus. Following his savior when even the Church told him to submit to Hitler, he died a martyr for peace. In 2007 that same Church venerated him, beatifying him and setting him on the path to Sainthood.

Born on May 20, 1907 out of wedlock to Rosalina Huber and Franz Bachmeier, the younger Franz’s biological father served and died in World War I. In 1917 Rosalina married Heinrich Jägerstätter, who adopted his new wife’s son and gave him his surname. He received a basic education in the one-room schoolhouse of his hometown of St. Radegund, Austria, aided by his step-grandfather who encouraged the boy to become an avid reader.[1] From 1927 to 1930 Franz left his hometown to work in iron ore industry in Eisenerz, Austria. During this period he struggled with intense doubts about his faith and temporarily stopped attending church, but returned to his hometown with a renewed and strengthened faith.[2] Despite this, Franz developed a reputation as a wild man, he was the first person in his hometown to own a motorcycle, and even fathered his oldest child, Hildegard Auer, out of wedlock. Franz took responsibility for his daughter, visiting her often and sending gifts of food and especially meat, a rare commodity at the time. Hildegard’s mother Theresia later recalled that “he had begged her forgiveness, and that they had parted in peace.” Before his marriage he and his future wife visited the Auer family offering to adopt Hildegard, but neither her mother nor grandmother wished to part from her. Ten year old Hildegard amazed her family with how deeply she mourned the death of her father.[3]

On Holy Thursday 1936 Franz married Franziska Schwaninger, which proved to be a turning point in his life, making “a different man” out of him. Franziska was a very religious woman, who even considered becoming a nun before her marriage. While her husband was devout before their marriage, even contemplating becoming a monk, but with Franziska’s influence became notably more pious, taking communion more frequently and reading the Bible together with his wife each night. For their honeymoon the couple traveled to Rome on a pilgrimage, something very unusual and very expensive for the time. Franz hoped to make this a tradition, intending to make a pilgrimage with his wife ever ten years. The two were deeply in love, with Franz remarking in a letter, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”[4] The couple had three daughters: Rosalia, born in 1937, Maria, born in 1938, and Aloisia, born in 1940.[5] Attending mass daily, Franz became sacristan of his home parish in the summer of 1941.[6]

Franz viewed the rise of Nazism in nearby Germany with suspicion and distrust. In January 1938 he experienced what he believed to be a vison from God that firmly convinced him Nazi ideology was incompatible with Christianity. He recalled:

At first, I lay in bed without sleeping until it was nearly midnight, though I wasn’t ill, and then I must have slept a little after all; suddenly, I was shown a fine railway train, which was driving round a mountain; not only the adults, but even the children were flocking towards this train and the crowd could hardly be held back; how few adults there were who did not get into the train in that place, I would rather not say or write. Then suddenly a voice said to me: ‘This train is going to hell.’ At that moment, it seemed to me that someone took me by the hand. ‘Now we are going into purgatory,’ the same voice said to me, and the suffering I saw and felt there was so terrible that, if the voice had not told me that we were going into purgatory, I would certainly have believed that I was in hell. Probably only a few seconds passed while I looked at all this. Then I heard a swishing sound, saw a light, and everything was gone. I then immediately woke my wife and told her all that had happened. Of course, until that night, I could not really believe that the suffering in purgatory could be so great… At first, that moving train was quite a riddle to me, but the more that time passes, the more the moving train is unveiled to me. And today, it seems to me that this image represented none other than Nazism, as it was closing in or creeping up on us at that time, with all its different organizations attached – for example, the N.S.D.A.P., the N.S.W., the N.S.F. and the H. J. etc. In other words, the whole Nazi movement and every organization which sacrifices and fights for it.[7]

He was the only person in St. Radegund to vote against the annexation of Austria by the Nazis.[8]

While firmly against Nazi ideology, Franz’s opposition to serving in the German armed forces developed slowly. Conscripted twice in 1940, each time he was able to return home without seeing battle due to his “reserved civilian occupation” as a farmer and responsibilities as a father.[9] During basic training he was vested as a novice of the Third Order of Saint Francis, a lay religious order dedicated to living according to the example of Saint Francis of Assisi. He made his vows a year later at his home parish.[10] After this experience, Franz returned home, resolved that he would not serve in the military again.[11] In his own words:

When our Catholic missionaries went to live in a heathen land in order to make Christians of them, did they too go with machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them by those means?… Other peoples do, at the very least, have a right to ask God to bring peace and to strike the weapons from the hands of us Germans. Isn’t it a real mockery if we ask God for peace when we do not want Him at all, for otherwise we would have to finally lay down our weapons – unless perhaps the guilt we’ve already heaped on ourselves is still too small? At most, we can ask God to allow us to come to reason, so that we can at last realize that other human beings and peoples also have a right to live in this world. Otherwise, God must certainly thwart our plans by His might, or else we Catholics of Germany will force all the peoples of the earth to bow under the yoke of Nazism. Almost everyone wants to gloat over the stolen booty, yet we want to lay the blame for everything that has happened at the door of only one individual![12]

Franz discussed his decision with his family, friends, clergy, and even the local Bishop. Many tried to talk him out of it, one priest even accusing him of being suicidal and refusing to grant him absolution after the issue was brought up in confession. Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser urged him to remember his responsibilities to his family and argued he could not be held moral culpable for his actions as a soldier as he would be simply following orders, the very argument later used by the defense in the Nuremberg Trials. Franz could not accept this, stating “We may just as well strike out the gifts of wisdom and understanding from the Seven Gifts for which we pray to the Holy Spirit. For if we’re supposed to obey the Führer blindly anyway, why should we need wisdom and understanding?”[13]

In February 1943 Franz Jägerstätter received his third conscription. His mother mobilized relatives and neighbors to try and change her son’s mind about his refusal serve, but he would not be moved.[14] He presented himself to his company at Enns but immediately stated “that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which one must obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” Franz was imprisoned for several months, finally being condemned to death on July 6, 1943 for “undermining military morale.”[15] At 4pm August ninth he was beheaded.[16] Offered a Bible to read in the days before his martyrdom, Franz replied “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God.”[17] On May 7, 1997 the District Court of Berlin annulled Franz’s sentence. On June 1, 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared Franz Jägerstätter a martyr. In a ceremony at Linz Cathedral on October 26, 2007 the Catholic Church officially declared Franz Jägerstätter to be Blessed, one step away from Canonization and being declared a Saint.[18]

Franz Jägerstätter’s life and martyrdom serves as an inspiration to not just to Catholics, or even only Christians, but to all people. He would not betray his Lord by being swept up in the tide of Nazism, nor would he fight as a soldier and attack another’s home. Even when his family, friends, and church told him he should submit to the government’s demands he refused to betray the teachings of Jesus. When most of his peers compromised and stayed silent, Franz Jägerstätter spoke out. In the face of increasing nationalism and xenophobia both in our own nation and around the world, his legacy is vital now more than ever. While most of us Dunker Punks will probably never be asked to make the same sacrifice he did, the witness Blessed Franz Jägerstätter challenges us to reexamine our own relationship with God and just how committed we truly are to his teachings. What sacrifices are we willing to make in following Jesus? Are we willing to confront the comfort and privilege American society has given to many of us, to challenge the complacent and nonthreatening role American Christianity has played in the larger culture for so long? How are we to react when people we love and trust tell us we’re wrong, if we suddenly find ourselves arguing with those we see as stalwarts of the faith?  How are we called to take up our Cross and follow Christ?

 

[1] “Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) – Biography.”

[2] Putz 12

[3] Putz 15-17

[4] Putz 19-23

[5] “Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.”

[6] Putz 57-58

[7] Putz 41-42

[8] “Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) – Biography.”

[9] “Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.”

[10] Putz 55

[11] “Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.”

[12] Putz 70-71

[13] Putz 72-74

[14] Putz 81

[15] “Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.”

[16] Putz 117

[17] “Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) – Biography.”

[18] “Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.”

Work Cited

“Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) – Biography.” The Holy See. The Vatican, n.d. Web. 25

Jan. 2016.

“Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr.” Diözese Linz. Katholische Kirche in

Oberösterreich, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Putz, Erna. Franz Jägerstätter Martyr – A Shining Example in Dark Times. Grünbach:

Steinmassl, 2007. Print.


12112414_614679188671785_6960613993930677693_nNolan McBride is a Religious Studies and History major at Manchester University. He loves music, theater, and learning about Christian traditions around the world. He enjoys singing, reading, and has a bit of an obsession with icons. You can follow him on twitter at @nmcbride35, and find him on Facebook.

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One thought on “Franz Jägerstätter: A Little Known Witness

  1. jsmithkansas says:

    Thank you for this tremendous article. I can’t believe that this is the first time I have ever read about Franz Jägerstätter. His witness is very moving. It would be extremely difficult for us to follow his path, and yet, if we believe what we say we do and if the challenge ever comes our way, it will take courage to follow suit. Franz Jagerstatter most certainly had a direct line to the Almighty in order to be able to do this. He is a martyr of the first order.

    Like

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