Cover story -- Franz Jägerstätter
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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

-- CNS

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer, was beheaded in 1943 after refusing to fight in the Nazi army.
'A man for the world'

Beatification honors married farmer's heroic stance

Linz, Austria

Franz Jägerstätter, the simple, devout farmer who was beheaded in 1943 for his defiance of the Nazis on religious grounds and who has become an inspiration to many contemporary peace activists and antiwar resisters, was beatified Oct. 26 in an elaborate ceremony in this city’s cathedral.

Jägerstätter himself might have been amused at the show of affection from the 5,000 who packed the church for the two-hour ritual, and at the praise heaped upon him by some of the more than two dozen bishops who concelebrated. They included Austria’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the modern martyr’s cause, as well as Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and three U.S. priests active in the peace movement.

“For Jägerstätter, everything fell under the maxim, ‘Love of God,’ ” said Linz Bishop Ludwig Schwarz in his sermon. Though Jägerstätter knew that “God would not leave him in his last hour,” Schwarz said that “following Jesus ... for Jägerstätter, meant not only to be taken care of in his sorrow, but it also meant an obligation. The love of God did not allow any apathy. It demanded a clear differentiation between good and evil.”

Peace activists celebrate
Among bishops concelebrating the beatification liturgy for Franz Jägerstätter was Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary of Detroit and a founding bishop member of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace organization. Three U.S. priests also joined a procession of priests for the ceremony: Jesuit Fr. John Dear, who has been commissioned by his religious order to work for nonviolence and oppose war; Fr. Robert Cushing, an outspoken pacifist who was relieved of his duties at his Augusta, Ga., parish in 2005 after he traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to deliver an apology for U.S. bombings there; and Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch, which organizes an annual protest at Fort Benning, Ga., in opposition to the school’s training of foreign military personnel.

Gumbleton has long described Jägerstätter as “a man for the world” and often refers to him as an example of someone whose understanding of the Christian Gospels led him to defy orders of the state. For many years, Gumbleton has regularly traveled to the tiny farm community of St. Radegund, where Jägerstätter lived, to join in an annual Aug. 9 anniversary observance of his death.

-- Tom Roberts

The differentiation may be clear today, but that was hardly the case in Jägerstätter’s lifetime, when he was utterly alone among his villagers in taking his stand and when he was viewed variously as a stubborn religious extremist and as someone who was acting irresponsibly toward his wife and three young daughters. In a long spiritual and intellectual struggle during the late 1930s and early 1940s that culminated in his decision to refuse induction into Hitler’s army, Jägerstätter sought counsel from a number of priests and his bishop. All of them encouraged him to compromise his conviction that serving the German war effort was so incompatible with his Christian faith that conscience compelled him to refuse. The night before his execution, a Catholic chaplain visiting him in his cell pointed to a document on the table between them. Jägerstätter need only sign it and his life would be spared. The priest later recalled that Jägerstätter “smilingly pushed it aside with the explanation, ‘I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.’ ”

Under Pope Benedict XVI, beatifications occur in local dioceses, rather than in Rome, as previously was the case. As a result, a certain sense of a disturbing history pervaded the event here. The cathedral where the ceremony occurred was just steps from the bishop’s residence where Jägerstätter once made his case -- and received little support -- for refusing to join the army. The cathedral also is just blocks from what was once an Ursuline convent, taken over by the Nazis, who used it as a prison and torture center. It was there that Jägerstätter was held for about two months before being transferred to Berlin, where he was eventually sentenced and executed. A plaque at the former prison, now an art gallery and theater complex, relates Jägerstätter’s history with the place.

Ratzinger a draftee

It bears mentioning, too, that two world figures who would play huge roles in Jägerstätter’s life and how it was ultimately judged, one a führer and one a pope, spent childhood years in Linz and in villages in the region. Though born in Braunau-am-Inn, Adolph Hitler considered Linz his hometown and in 1938, 30 years after leaving, he reentered the main square to wild acclaim. When the Nazis incorporated Austria, against little resistance, into the Third Reich, Hitler had elaborate, and mostly unrealized, plans for Linz.

-- Courtesy of the Diocese of Linz, Austria

A portrait of Franz Jägerstätter is displayed in St. Mary's Cathedral during his beatification in Linz, Oct. 26.

The young Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a succession of small towns in southern Bavaria, just a few miles from Jägerstätter’s hometown of St. Radegund. According to Erna Putz, a local journalist and longtime friend of the Jägerstätter family, the future pope who would declare Franz Jägerstätter “blessed” visited St. Radegund as a child and recalled those visits during a later appearance in the town as a cardinal. If there is a symbol for the underlying ambivalence that sometimes surfaced here in conversation about the beatification, it is the fact that Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth when membership was mandatory and had his studies interrupted in 1943 when his seminary class was forced into military service. Later, still a teenager, he was drafted into the regular army and served in a variety of capacities until he deserted in 1945, ending up as an American prisoner of war.

The concentration camp at Mauthausen was about 12 miles from Linz. While Jägerstätter indicated that he was aware of “slaughter” being conducted by Nazis, he apparently made no reference to Jews. Mauthausen held mostly foreign anti-Nazis and religious resisters from its founding in 1938 until 1944 when it began to receive huge numbers of Jews from Hungary and other concentration camps.

Jägerstätter’s life and now his beatification, the second step to sainthood, after a person is declared “venerable,” presents a “challenge and encouragement” to those aspiring to live the Christian faith “with coherence and radical commitment” even when facing “extreme consequences,” said Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the papal representative who presided over the beatification Mass. Jägerstätter’s life was a challenge to both the church, which often justified acquiescence to the state during the Nazi era, and to the wider culture. His example raises anew perennial questions around the competing demands of God and Caesar, including what obligations a Christian has as a citizen of a state, what constitutes legitimate authority and what is the significance of individual conscience.

Too divisive

Those advocating Jägerstätter’s cause said they had been told in the past by Vatican officials that his beatification would not occur until the World War II generation had passed on because the memories were too severe. The assumption was that honoring Jägerstätter’s decision would prove too divisive, implying that those who had agreed to fight or who had argued for prudence in confronting the state -- that is, the vast majority­ -- had been wrong. Jägerstätter himself may have provided a resolution in his letters from prison in which he expressed gratitude for the “grace” that had been provided him. He emphasized he made no judgments of those who disagreed with him, particularly priests and the bishop, and he urged that no one else judge those who did not follow the same path.

To be fair, the priests Jägerstätter spoke with were not pro-Nazi, and several of them later went to prison for various degrees of defiance of the Hitler regime. Thousands of others were taken to concentration camps. At Dachau, for example, more than 1,000 of the dead were Catholic priests; so many priests were interned at Dachau that they had their own barracks, the Priesterblock.

-- AP Photo/ruba

Franziska Jägerstätter, center, at the beatification ceremony for her husband at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, Oct. 26.

If Jägerstätter had difficulty finding a sympathetic ear among the hierarchy in his day, the current cardinal of Vienna has embraced him as a model. Schönborn first read of Jägerstätter when he was a seminarian and said he has developed a personal devotion to him,

The city of Linz is just a few hours ride from St. Radegund, where Jägerstätter’s 94-year-old widow, Franziska, still lives in the family home, and to which pilgrims returned the day after the beatification for further observances. She and her daughters Maria, Rosalia and Aloisia were present for the beatification as was Jägerstätter’s fourth daughter, Hildegard, born out of wedlock to another woman before his marriage to Franziska. His widow and all four daughters were introduced from the altar during the ceremony. When Franzisca was introduced, the congregation erupted in spontaneous applause that lasted for nearly half a minute. As Putz explained, the beatification represented a moment of vindication for a widow who, over the years, had inspired resentment among some who blamed her for the change in her husband’s outlook and thus ultimately the path he took to his death.

At one point during the ritual, the widow moved to the sanctuary where she kissed an urn containing a bone fragment of her husband before turning it over for preservation at the cathedral.

Their letters

The period of Jägerstätter’s incarceration is rich with correspondence between him and his wife. The letters detail his political views and how he came to such resolve. They also reveal that the Jägerstätter story, as much as it is one of courage and moral strength, is also one of enduring love between two people who, as Franziska is quoted in Putz’s book, “got on very well indeed ... We were really fond of one another.”

-- Courtesy of the Diocese of Linz, Austria

Franziska Jägerstätter holds a box containing a bone fragment of her husband, Franz.

While Franziska tried to change Franz’s mind at the start, the letters they exchanged while he was in prison indicate that she came to an understanding of his conviction and supported the action he was taking.

The correspondence further provides an intimate view of the deepening faith of Jägerstätter as he approaches an almost mystical state at the end.

Referring to the stream of arguments he had heard aimed at changing his mind, he wrote, “For instance, one is simply fighting for the German state, inasmuch as Christ commanded that one must obey the secular rulers ... This last part is admittedly true, but I do not believe that Christ ever said that one must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked.”

In that same letter he asks, “Can there be any talk of defense of the Fatherland when one invades countries that owe one nothing and robs and murders there? What more can we Catholic Austrians lose if we fight no further for the German state? ... That we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something I cannot and never will believe.”

The two biographers, Zahn and Putz, disagree on one point, whether Jägerstätter would have accepted a position in the military as a medical worker. Zahn contends that he refused such an offer. Putz says later documents show that he sought such a position, but that it was not an option.

No heavy heart

From prison in Berlin, he wrote, “Dearest wife, as long as I am not unhappy, there is no need for you to be heavy of heart or to weep. Only do not forget me in prayer, even as I will not forget you.”

In that same letter he thanks her for sending pictures of the children, “which also brought me great joy -- as well as moist eyes. ... It would be such a joy if one could spend the few short days of his life in this happy family circle. But if the dear Lord has decided otherwise for us, then that is also well and good.”

To his children he writes: “Of course, it would be much better for me if I could see you again in person. But you should not let yourselves be disappointed ... Today there are many children whose fathers cannot come or who will never come again. I am very happy to see from Mother’s letter that you always pray diligently. ... It would make me very happy if you grow into good and brave children.”

One of his final letters ends, “Dear wife, forgive me everything by which I have grieved or offended you. For my part, I have forgiven everything. Ask all those in Radegund whom I have ever injured or offended to forgive me too.”

A priest named Albert Jochmann, who often heard confessions of men held in the Berlin prison, attended Jägerstätter in his final hours. The priest had died before Zahn began research for the biography, but a nun who had been assigned to a Catholic hospital in Berlin from 1938 to 1946 and who had spoken to Jochmann following Jägerstätter’s execution, offered details.

She said that Jochmann entered Jägerstätter’s cell the night before the execution. He was the priest who said the prisoner refused to sign the document that could have spared his life. He said Jägerstätter had already received the last sacraments in the afternoon. Jochmann offered to bring Jägerstätter devotional reading material but the prisoner declined and he also declined to hear readings from scripture. According to the priest, Jägerstätter explained, “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God.”

According to the nun’s report, the priest accompanied Jägerstätter the next day to the scaffold where he was beheaded. He marveled at the prisoner’s calm. That evening he said to a number of the sisters: “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

Tom Roberts, former NCR editor, is NCR news director. His e-mail address is

From wild youth to martyrdom
Jägerstätter -- first introduced to the wider world through In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter -- a detailed biography by sociologist and Catholic peace activist Gordon Zahn -- was hardly a model of piety or sanctity in his youth. Most accounts depict him as a popular, fun-loving and somewhat wild young man who “chased after” young women and was not known to back down from a fight. One brawl with a soldier resulted in a jail sentence of several days.

It is obvious, however, that serious questions were percolating beneath the surface and came to the fore following a brief period during which he questioned his faith and gave up any religious practice. In 1927, Jägerstätter went to work in the iron ore industry in Eisenerz, Austria. He stopped going to church for a time, but in 1930, according to Putz’s recent short biography, A Shining Example in Dark Times, “he returned to his home village a stronger believer than ever.”

Around that period, Jägerstätter considered entering religious life, but his parish priest advised against it, counseling him to take over the family farm. He married Franziska, a devout young woman, in 1936, an event that was widely perceived as causing a deep change in his life.

During their years together he became more prayerful, reading a considerable amount of religious material and pondering deep questions about one’s obligation as a Christian, particularly in relation to the state. In addition to his farming duties, he became sexton at the church, where he never took money for his duties.

When the Nazis rolled into Austria, Jägerstätter began to voice his opposition to the regime. He reported for military training in 1941 but was able to return after his village petitioned for his release because of his value back home. He had apparently come to new awareness during the training stint. Upon returning he declared that he would not resume military service because Germany was fighting “an unjust war.”

He refused to contribute to collections taken up by the Nazis for social causes and he refused to accept normal government allotments for farmers, though his family verged on poverty. Despite his own predicament during that period, he had a reputation for delivering food to needy families. He also began avoiding the local pubs because his political views and criticism of National Socialism often precipitated bitter arguments.

Jägerstätter received his conscription papers in late February 1943, and reported to a barracks at Enns, where on March 2 he stated his refusal to serve and was immediately transferred to the military prison at Linz. He remained there until May when he was transferred to Berlin, where he was executed Aug. 9.

-- Tom Roberts

On the Web
Jesuit Fr. John Dear writes about the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter in his latest Web column on

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton talks about what Jägerstätter means for contemporary Christians in his latest homily, which is also found on A transcript and an audio file of the homily are available for download.

The national Catholic peace movement Pax Christi USA has good resources about Jägerstätter including books and DVDs. Visit

The official Franz Jägerstätter Web site, maintained by the archdiocese of Linz, is

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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