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by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
The Tablet (London) / / 20 October 2007

Blessed Franz

Sixty-four years after he was beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to bear arms in Hitler’s army, Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer from Upper Austria, is to be beatified in Linz on Austria’s National Holiday, 26 October. The beatification is a belated recognition of a controversial martyr.

Franz Jägerstätter is the first Austrian layman to be beatified for putting his faith before the Fatherland during the Second World War. But as well as recognising his own remarkable faith and opposition to Nazism, Friday’s beatification also signifies a change in the way Austrians deal with the past. For years they were not prepared to confront the support of their countrymen for Hitler, nor the lack of opposition to Nazism by the Catholic Church. Franz Jägerstätter’s stand against fascism, in being so unusual, was a disconcerting truth.

Jägerstätter was born out of wedlock in St Radegund, a village on the Austro-Bavarian border, in 1907. His parents were both young farmhands. His father was killed during the First World War and his mother later married a smallholder, Heinrich Jägerstätter, who adopted Franz and eventually left him his farm.

In his early twenties, Franz left home to work in a Styrian iron mine for three years, but he remained a committed Catholic and never lost contact with his parish priest. On his return home, he considered joining a religious order but in 1935 met his future wife, Franziska, whom he soon married. Their marriage was a happy one. Franziska was deeply religious and they often read the Bible and discussed religious issues together. Franz was a devoted father to the three daughters who were born to them in rapid succession (the only father in the village who was proud to push a pram, something considered unusual in those days).

Their happiness was, however, overshadowed by Hitler’s rise to power and the political turbulences it brought with it. From the beginning, Franz both saw through and rejected National Socialism. He refused all cooperation with the National Socialists and left the voluntary fire brigade when the members began to collect money for the party, saying he could always help to put out fires without being a member. He also refused to apply for state compensation after a hailstorm and declined child benefits for his children. In Hitler’s 1938 plebiscite on whether Austria should be annexed to Germany, he was the only person in his village to vote “no”- only days previously the Austrian bishops had called on all Catholics to vote in favour of annexation and had commended the National Socialist Party for its battle against Bolshevism. “It is an obvious national duty for us bishops to declare ourselves as Germans for the German Empire, and we expect all faithful Christians to know what they owe their people,” the bishops appealed.

After the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Austrian bishops again appealed: “In these decisive hours we encourage our Catholic soldiers to obey the Führer and do their duty.” The then Bishop for the Forces, Justus Rarkowski, even told his troops, “It is God Himself who is behind what the Führer commands.”

In October 1940 Jägerstätter was called up and had to swear the unconditional oath of allegiance to Hitler that was demanded of all German soldiers, but after six months’ basic training he was sent home as farmers were needed to maintain the food supply. He had meanwhile joined the Franciscan Third Order and, encouraged by his wife, went to Communion daily, something relatively rare at the time. The reports he received from friends and relations on home leave from the Russian front of the atrocities being committed by the Germans in the East, as well as events at home, deeply disturbed him. Eight of the 11 priests in his deanery had been arrested by the Gestapo and news reached him that disabled and mentally disturbed patients were being killed at the castle of Hartheim because the Nazis considered them “unworthy of life”.

By the time Jägerstätter was called up again two years later, he had made up his mind that he was not prepared to bear arms for an evil regime. Unlike many Austrian Catholics at the time, including several of Austria’s bishops, he did not fall for the Nazi propaganda which described the Russian campaign as a crusade against Bolshevism. “It is very sad to hear Catholics say that the war Germany is waging is perhaps not that unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism. The big question is: are we fighting Bolshevism or the Russian people? If we are only fighting Bolshevism in Russia, why are Russian resources like iron and oil and the fact that their soil is so good for growing wheat playing quite such an important role in this campaign?” he later wrote home from prison. Jägerstätter was, however, prepared to serve as a medical orderly in the German army and both he and his wife hoped until the end that this might be possible.

He would also have been prepared to take up arms to defend Austria against attack, as his letters show, but he was not prepared to do so for what his Christian conscience told him was an evil purpose. “Is it all the same to people these days whether a war is just or unjust? If I hadn’t read so many Catholic journals and books I, too, might have come to that conclusion. But is there anything worse than having to murder people who are defending their country only in order to help an anti-religious power win this war so that it can found a godless empire?”

His relations and friends begged him to change his mind as his refusal to bear arms meant certain death. Jägerstätter consulted several priests who all told him that his first duty was to his wife and children. He also consulted his bishop, the then Bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser, who assured him that it was permissible to follow one’s conscience,but then spent over an hour impressing on him that it was his duty to obey his superiors and to think of his family. Jägerstätter could see that the bishop feared he might be a Gestapo spy. All the parishes in the diocese had been searched by the Gestapo, which was highly suspicious of the Catholic clergy. When Jägerstätter came out of the bishop’s office, he said to his wife, “The bishops don’t really dare say anything for fear it may be their turn next.”

In 1990 the original copy of his death sentence turned up in archives in Prague. The official verdict was “Wehrkraftzersetzung”, or the “undermining of military morale”. The document states clearly why he was sentenced to death: “The accused declared that it would be against his religious conscience to fight for the National Socialist state … but that he was prepared to serve as a medical orderly for reasons of Christian solidarity.” When she visited her husband in prison in Berlin, Franziska even plucked up the courage to ask his court- appointed defence lawyer if it wouldn’t have been possible to allow her husband to serve as a medical orderly. “We could have arranged that but we chose not to,” the lawyer answered. Jägerstätter was executed (facing the guillotine without a blindfold) at 4 p.m. on 9 August 1943, the first of 16 executions at the Reichskriegsgericht (Reich Military Tribunal) in Berlin that day.

The road to recognition was long. For decades after the war he was a controversial figure, even in Catholic circles. Immediately after the war, Fr Josef Karobath, who knew Jägerstätter well and had accompanied his wife to Berlin to try to persuade him to change his mind for his family’s sake, wanted to publish Jägerstätter’s story in the Linz church paper, but Bishop Fliesser declined. The story would only “create confusion and disturb people’s consciences”, he said.

In the immediate post-war years, when Austria lay in ruins and people’s first instinct was to survive, Austrians were loath to talk about what they had experienced during the war and mourned their dead in silence. All their lives they had been told that obedience to church and state authorities was a foremost virtue. Jägerstätter was a provocation that they could not yet bring themselves to face. Catholic priests who had survived the concentration camps were seldom welcomed when they got back to their parishes. People felt uncomfortable in their presence.

Serious discussion of the role Austria played in the war did not begin until the late 1980s and as late as the mid-1990s opinions were still divided as to whether the Diocese of Linz should begin beatification procedures for Jägerstätter. Since then the already shrinking minority of diehards opposed to the beatification has shrunk even further. More and more prominent historical and political theologians, including Lutherans like Eberhardt Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s disciple and biographer, have discovered Jägerstätter. More of his letters have been published and detailed historical research of local events in that part of Austria during the war has become available. Moreover, all Austria’s bishops now welcome his beatification. I have asked several Catholic friends lately how they feel about Jägerstätter. Most have said, “I respect his decision but I could not have done likewise. It must have been so hard on his wife and children.” Franziska Jägerstätter, now 94, has nothing to fear. She has won through.

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