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Franz Jagerstatter was an Austrian conscientious objector who was beheaded by the German military for his refusal to cooperate with the Nazi war effort. In our movement to resist the departments of military science at our local university, ( Be Faithful to the Gospel, No Longer Host the Departments of Military Sciences) we have invoked the memory of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter.

FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER: Letters and Writings from Prison Book Review

Erna Putz, ed. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2009.
Reviewed by Anna Brown in The Catholic Worker, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, Aug-Sep 2009.

In his introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, Jim Forest writes that even though Franz Jägerstätter “would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family… [he firmly believed] self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families.” Jim Forest asks how it is that someone “so unimportant,” a relatively uneducated farmer, could see so clearly while those holding positions of leadership in the Catholic Church or in the Austrian government of the Nazi era were utterly blind. Perhaps, it is not simply a matter of seeing clearly; the message of Jesus in the Gospels, after all, is strikingly clear. What sets Franz Jägerstätter apart is not only his ability to see clearly but also to act upon his insight and to actually pay the ultimate price for his refusal to join the Nazis.

Accompanying Franz Jägerstätter in his astonishing witness was his wife, Franziska, who recalled: “In the beginning, I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it anymore… If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”

Reading Franz Jägerstätter’s Letters and Writings from Prison, I discovered, was the literary equivalent of walking into a burning building. I, like the Catholic prelates and Austrian officials, wanted to flee while my hide was still intact. At other points in my reading, however, tears would flow down my face as I found it harder and harder to turn away from the truth of his insight and actions.

During these moments, I recalled a passage from Plato’s Republic: “We must be persuaded by the better argument.” At first glance, this statement may seem rather pedestrian, something a first year philosophy student would dutifully write down in a notebook, dredge up for the final exam and then forget. Of course, there is so much more in this statement than is revealed at first glance. Namely, that we are to come to insight by means of persuasion and not by violent force. More so, when we come upon such insight, we are to respond metanoically, which is to say, we are to change our lives and commit our entire being to this insight.

In a letter to his wife on August 8, 1943, the day before he was executed, he wrote, “Do you believe that all would go well for me if I were to tell a lie in order for me to prolong my life?” The lie that Franz Jägerstätter refers to is an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Had he signed the oath—and it was placed upon a table in his jail cell each day until the day of his death—he would most likely not have been executed. In March of 1943, Franz contemplated giving his consent to serving as a military medic which, like his signature to the loyalty oath, may have preserved his life. Though he seems to have changed his mind about this type of service in July of 1943, his wife is of the belief that the military, in their desire for total control, denied even this work to Franz. At issue was his refusal to pledge his total obedience to Hitler. His was a metanoic response to the “better argument.”

Included among Franz and Franziska’s remarkable letters and Franz’s writings are pictures of Franz and his family. One of them, taken in April of 1943, shows his three toddler-aged daughters, Rosalia, Maria and Aloisia, each holding an Easter basket and standing behind a large, homemade sign that read, “Dear Father, come home soon.” By all accounts, he was a devoted and loving father. The Jägerstätters’ joyful marriage, though tested in a fiery cauldron of heartbreaking circumstances, was steadfast and deeply loving. In a letter from prison that he wrote to Franziska on their seventh wedding anniversary, Franz recalls, “When I look back and observe all the good fortune and the many graces that have come to us during these seven years, I see that many things often border on being miracles.”

There is simply no getting around the agonizing consequences of Franz Jägerstätter’s choice not to join the Nazis. Not only did his family lose an exemplary husband and father, they also lost a provider (the bulk of the family’s labor-intensive farmwork was picked up by Franziska and her elderly parents), any monetary compensation or food subsidies that were given by the Nazi government to compliant military families, and their civic reputation. In his introduction, Jim Forest recounts an interview given by Franziska to Gordon Zahn: “ … she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbors. Few offered the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.” [See In Solitarity Witness, Gordon Zahn’s definitive biography of Franz Jägerstätter–Eds. Note.]

In an essay that he wrote in 1942, “On Today’s Issue: Catholic or National Socialist,” Franz Jägerstätter recalls a dream that he had in January of 1938. Those familiar with the life of Franz Jägerstätter know this as the “train dream.” The value of reading about it in Letters and Writings from Prison is getting its full account through Franz Jägerstätter’s own vivid telling, his interpretation, and his analysis of the political and religious situation within which the imagery of the dream may be contextualized.

“I saw [in a dream] a wonderful train as it came around a mountain. With little regard for the adults, children flowed to this train and were not held back. There were present a few adults who did not go into the area. I do not want to give their names or describe them. Then a voice said to me, This train is going to hell.’ Immediately, it happened that someone took my hand, and the same voice said to me; ‘Now we are going to purgatory.’ What I glimpsed and perceived was fearful. If this voice had not told me that we were going to purgatory, I would have judged that I had found myself in hell.”

For Franz Jägerstätter, the train symbolizes National Socialism with all of its suborganizations and programs (the National Socialist Public Assistance Program, Hitler Youth, etc). As he puts it, “the train represents the National Socialist Volk community and everything for which it struggles and sacrifices.” He remembers that just prior to having this dream, he had read that 150,000 young Austrian people had joined Hitler Youth. He recounts, sadly, that the Christians of Austria had never donated as much money to charitable organizations as they now donated to Nazi party organizations. He realized that it wasn’t really the money that the Nazis were after, it was the souls of the Austrian people: You were either with the Fuhrer or you were nothing. Upon this realization, Franz Jägerstätter writes, “I would like to cry out to the people aboard the National Socialism train: ‘Jump off this train before it arrives at your last stop where you will pay with your life!’”

His admonition to “jump off the train” is one that must be heard and acted upon, perhaps never more so than today. In his recent meditation on Franz Jägerstätter’s life, Father Daniel Berrigan urges that we not become complacent in these “post-Hitler” times: ‘To speak of today; it is no longer Hitler’s death train we ride, the train of the living dead. Or is it? The same train. Only, if possible (it is possible) longer, faster, cheaper. On schedule, every hour on the hour, speedy and cheap and unimaginably lethal. An image of life in the world. A ghost train still bound, mad as March weather, for hell. On earth… Despite all fantasies and homilies and ‘States of the Union’ urging the contrary. Today, a world of normalized violence, a world of standoff, of bunkers and missiles nose to nose, a world of subhuman superpowers and the easy riders. The train beats its way across the world, crowded with contented passenger-citizen-Christians.”

Franz Jägerstätter’s 1942 admonishment is accompanied by rather stunning verses of compassion for those who have decided to board the “train to hell.” His compassionate remarks are directed particularly to the Austrian clergy who capitulated to the Nazi regime: “I am not throwing stones at our bishops and priests. They are human beings of flesh and blood as are we… Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and to decide for themselves whether they wanted to live or to die… Would not our hearts shake (as theirs must have) if it were to come about that we would have to appear before God’s judgment seat and be accountable for a decision that would affect so many other human beings?”

In this essay he suggests that we not judge, but instead pray for the well-being of those we are tempted to criticize. In one of his last essays, however, he reminds the Catholic leadership that it is better to face the loss of church buildings, for example, than the loss of its people’s faith. He also wonders whether “priests are of much help to us if they must remain silent when they should be speaking out?”

In one of the close to two hundred brief reflections composed between May and August of 1943, Franz Jägerstätter writes, “Love as the outerwear is the ‘uniform’ of Jesus’ disciples. His disciples are known by their love.” Like Dorothy Day, Franz Jägerstätter understood that our ability to love one another is all that matters.

I think here of a conversation that I had last summer with a young man in the Israeli Defense Forces who had been sent to stop our work rebuilding a Palestinian home which had, in prior weeks, been demolished by Israeli civil and military authorities. The young man eventually asserted that he did not want to do what he had been ordered to do, but since he was “wearing a soldier’s uniform” he had no choice. I was deeply appreciative of this soldier’s revelation but I also knew that despite such an admission, it was more than likely that the demolitions of Palestinian homes would continue, as they do even now. What would it take, I wondered, to “disrobe” our soldiers—indeed each one of us—so that we might be better able to put on the garments of love? For Franz Jägerstätter, it was impossible to be a soldier for Christ and a soldier for the National Socialists simultaneously. At the same time, he did not condemn individual soldiers who were “ordered to do what they were doing upon pain of death for an act of disobedience.” Our imperative is to love God and to love neighbor, not to judge neighbor.

Further, we must each see how we have contributed, by our tax dollars, for example, to the situation the soldier finds himself in. As Franz Jägerstätter puts it in relationship to his own time: “Did National Socialism simply fall on us from the sky? I believe that in response we need not waste many words. Whoever was not asleep the last one hundred years knows well enough how and why everything has come about.”

Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison is a must-read for the nonviolent activist. Better put, and more in line with Franz Jägerstätter’s own way of being in the world, it is a “must-act” book. In the final months of his life, Franz Jägerstätter wrote, “I perceive that many words will not accomplish much today. Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning …. People want to observe Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world, Christians who live amid all of the darkness with clarity, insight, and conviction, Christians who live with the purest peace of mind, courage and dedication amid the absence of peace and joy, amid the self-seeking and hatred.”

On the morning of August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was awakened at 5:30 am and told to get dressed. He was driven to the Berlin-Brandenburg prison where he was executed at 4:00 pm that same day. Upon awaiting his execution, he was accompanied by Father Albert Jochmann, a priest who asked if he wished to read from the Bible. Franz Jägerstätter, who had devoted much of his life to Bible study, denied the offer, saying that it would only distract him from the intensity of his prayer. Father Jochmann marveled at his prayerful equanimity in the face of death. He later told a community of Austrian nuns, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime.”

Franziska Jägerstätter recalls that she felt an “intense personal communion” with Franz at 4:00 pm that day. The feeling was so strong that she marked the time and date in a journal not knowing, at the time, that Franz was executed at that exact moment. His ashes, which she received in 1946, were buried on August 9th in St. Radegund’s cemetery, just outside the walls of their parish church.

Though I have recommended this book as a “must read/act” book for nonviolent activists, there may be those who question whether or not this is a book only for Catholic peacemakers. Given the Church’s beatification of now Blessed Franz Jägerstätter in October 2007, this is certainly a book that is much needed for the retrieval, renewal, affirmation, and amplification of the Catholic Church’s work for justice and peace. It will also serve to challenge the Church and its members deeply to renounce warfare and embrace nonviolence, the way of life exemplified by Jesus. Finally, it will serve to remind Catholics of the richness of their own sacramental, liturgical and communal gifts.

The Jägerstätters were a family who had committed themselves fully to the life of the Church by serving within their parish, by keeping to the fasts and Holy days of the Church calendar, by attending Mass and through daily prayer. Letters and Writings from Prison, with its emphasis both on “traditional” and “radical” Catholic values and practices, could also be read in parish communities that are looking for ways to find common and fruitful ground among its conservative and progressive parishioners, its just-war theorists and its pacifists. This is also a book, however, that would encourage those belonging to a faith tradition other than Christianity to plumb the depths of that tradition and find the same richness within. It is self-evident that at the table of love and nonviolence, there is room for everyone.

During his lifetime, Franz Jägerstätter did not enjoy, for the most part, the support of the Catholic hierarchy or community. As Jim Forest notes, “Franz Jägerstätter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone… beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of war… Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer?”

Whether we are rooted in a faith tradition or not, the solitary witness of Franz Jägerstätter certainly points to the need for self-reflection and action: What does it mean to be human? Why do I act in the way that I do? Do my actions serve to harm or to uplift life? Am I living in a way that serves the work of peace and nonviolence?

Nonviolence is a way of life and in this regard, the Franz Jägerstätter well runs deep. Prior to the “large act” of his beheading, he, in the tradition of St. Thérèsa of Lisieux, well demonstrated “the little way” of nonviolence in the world. When another cell-mate suffered from hunger, he shared his meager portion of bread while declaring “a cup of coffee is enough for me.” He was mindful of the human penchant to “give many more death blows with our tongues than with our hand” and counseled discipline and prayer when the temptation to slight another verbally arose.

In a letter sent to Franziska in March of 1943, Franz Jägerstätter wrote, “Dear wife, I wish to ask something of you. Would it be possible to put some pieces of edelweiss in the next letter? A cellmate here requested that I get him some edelweiss. He is a young Frenchman who was condemned to death a few weeks ago. He would like to send edelweiss to his beloved as a farewell gift. She loves flowers.” In this selfless request, Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter show us that every moment is the right moment to serve and to love one another. Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray for us. +

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