Tag Archives: Pope Benedict XVI

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943): Farmer, Husband and Father, Conscientious Objector, and Martyr.

Text by John P. Walsh

Dated October 26, 2017.

In his 17-minute speech at the TED conference in April 2017, Pope Francis talked about the importance of human interdependence, equality, and inclusion. Perhaps surprisingly, the pope stressed the power of the human individual to affect positive change. While one might expect a pope to wax on communal connections reflected in a Gospel passage such as, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), Pope Francis looked instead to the radical nature of the single individual to bring about a message of hope into the world. Pope Francis said: “A single individual is enough for hope to exist and only then it turns into ‘us.’ And so, does hope only exist when it turns into us? – No. Hope starts with the individual ‘you.’ When there is an us, it starts a revolution.” Grounded in an individual’s conscience and action, hope for the world can begin. The pope is savvy enough to know that this message of hope by way of a single individual—and he encourages his TED auditors to be that individual— does not comes without its price. What Mother Teresa of Calcutta said on love the pope adapted to any message of hope: that it cannot be done “unless it comes at your own expense.”

The power of an individual to be the cause of hope with potential to revolutionize even a nation is what Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) dramatizes from history in his 1983 Academy-Award-winning bio-pic film, Gandhi (1983). Early in the three-hour film, in segregated South Africa, young Indian lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is visited at his ashram by an equally young American journalist (Martin Sheen) who tells Gandhi he is an awfully small minority to be taking on governments and empires. But Gandhi replies: “If you are a minority of one – the truth is the truth.”

Questions of the conflict of the morality of individual conscience and the social morality which is directed to the attainment and conservation of the values represented by the state and the nation is part of what the young American journalist, in the film Gandhi, warned the hero about—and which remains in tension in any era, including today. The debate surrounding the nature or limits of individual conscience as well as its interaction with cultural earthly values and things is bound to be— at least philosophically and even theologically— complex and indefinite. Arguments and subtleties become rife when these topics are raised. Following some of the definitions and descriptions of conscience from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) — and as only part of the range for hope that Pope Francis alludes to in his TED speech— the conscience’s normal function relates to resisting action demanded from within or outside the self. Although conscience, according to Bonhoeffer, is not called upon in the face of good—it simply acts—nor includes the whole fabric of life, when the individual conscience encounters a forbidden act, it views it as “a peril to life as a whole, that is to say, disunion with oneself.” Bonhoeffer’s Protestant theology will not boast of having a good conscience except to say that, by it, humans importantly discover their lack of knowledge of God as well as their own corruption and that by this self-knowledge expressed in conscience find a road to God. Bonhoeffer writes: “All knowledge is now based on self-knowledge….Knowledge now means the establishment of the relationship to oneself; it means the recognition in all things to oneself and of oneself in all things. For man who is in disunion with God, all things are in this disunion, what is and what should be, life and law, knowledge and action, idea and reality, reason and instinct, duty and inclination, conviction and advantage, necessity and freedom, exertion and genius, universal and concrete, individual and collective; even truth, justice, beauty and love come into opposition with one another, just as do pleasure and displeasure, happiness and sorrow…All these disunions are varieties of the disunion in the knowledge of good and evil. The point of decision of the specifically ethical experience is always conflict. But in conflict the judge is invoked; and the judge is the knowledge of good and evil; he is man.”

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Franz Jägerstätter (May 20, 1907-executed, August 9, 1943).

On October 26, 2007 at St. Mary Cathedral in Linz, Austria, Pope Benedict XVI in front of 5,000 pilgrims beatified Franz Jägerstätter, a relatively unknown 36-year-old Austrian farmer who was executed by the Nazis in August 1943 because—similar to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music—he was anti-Nazi and refused to fight in their armed forces. Blessed Jägerstätter’s 94-year-old widow, Franziska (1914-2013), and his four daughters, one from a previous relationship, attended the beatification. Franziska rode to the cathedral in the sidecar of a motorcycle, in memory of her husband’s love of motorcycling. After being drafted three times into the German army, Franz Jägerstätter decided after his training and noncombatant military service ended in April 1941 that he would not comply with any future compulsory enlistment in the Third Reich. To this end, he compiled gut-wrenching notes with his opinions on his conscientious objection in the face of the Nazi régime. After her husband’s arrest in early 1943, Franziska hid his writings and brought them into the light of day after the war. By that time,  Franz Jägerstätter lay buried in an obscure and sometimes defaced grave in St. Radegund, Austria, a mountainous village northwest of Salzburg. In notes written during his erratic military service—Jägerstätter had been sworn into the German army on June 17, 1940 at Braunau Am Inn which lasted only a few days before he received a deferment and then called-up again to serve from October 1940 to April 1941 until another deferment —the Austrian farmer examined issues surrounding his refusal to fight anymore. By expounding in writing as well as posing argumentative questions Jägerstätter judged what he should do in response to his deep-seated antipathy to the Nazi régime and its war effort.

For his beatification in 2007—a first step to Catholic sainthood—Jägerstätter’s family and supporters recalled his clear rejection of National Socialism because of their racial policies, including the myth of racial purity; war glorification; state deification; and their declared program of annihilating all faith and religion. Jägerstätter’s total rejection of Nazism echoed Bishop Johannes Maria Gföllner of Linz (1867-1941) whose extensive writings and sermons in this period provided a phrase Jägerstätter would consider his motto: “It is impossible to be a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” When Hitler came to Linz on March 12, 1938 Bishop Gföllner refused to meet with him and lamented other bishops in Austria who were more ingratiating. Bishop Gföllner regarded the myth of racial purity propagated by Nazism as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism.” In 1933 Gföllner wrote: “The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected. This also applies to the radical anti-Semitic racism preached by Nazism. To despise, hate and persecute the Jewish people just because of their ancestry is inhuman and against Christian principles … ”

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Bishop Johannes Maria Gföllner (center) at a celebration in 1935.

Adopting St. Thomas More, St Thérèse of Lisieux and other saints (including the patron of Switzerland) as his role models, Jägerstätter challenged virtually everyone he knew or came into contact with—be it his mother, neighbors, or church or civil representatives— with his developing conviction to refuse to fight for the Third Reich. What was seen to be his civic duty and the only action he could concievably follow so to “save his life” Jägerstätter was having serious doubts over. Even Jägerstätter’s loving wife Franziska argued that he should comply with any conscription order. Less than two years before, in April 1938, Franziska had to insist that he not shirk attending the Anschluss plebiscite which Jägerstätter declared he had every intention to do. On March 12, 1938, less than one month before the plebiscite, German troops occupied Austria and, that same day, Hitler personally crossed the long-closed border to visit Linz. Under penalty of being sent to a concentration camp for electoral truancy, the official turnout for the Anschluss plebiscite was reported at 99.71%—with 99.73% in favor of annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Thirty-year-old Franz Jägerstätter formed part of that microscopic minority in Austria who voted “no” to Hitler’s Anschluss and was the only one of St. Radegund’s 500 citizens to do so. Though never part of an organized resistance, Franz Jägerstätter was soon identified by an informer to the Gestapo as anti-Nazi which the town mayor—who on his own initiative did not report Jägerstätter’s vote to the authorities and had obtained Jägerstätter’s two deferments —quashed. Now as 1941 turned into 1942 and 1943, Franziska once and for all decided to stand by her husband in this matter of his refusal to fight for Hitler in the Wehrmacht after seeing him for many months and years argue his points alone. “If I had not stood by him,” she later explained, “he would have had no one.”

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Franz Jägerstätter on a motorbike in St. Radegund, Austria, following his first deferment in summer 1940 after a few days in the German army.

Für eine „klare Haltung gegen rechtsextreme Umtriebe“ hat sich die Katholische Aktion Oberösterreich (KA) ausgesprochen.

Franz Jägerstätter (third from the left) during training as a military driver in Enns, Austria, in November 1940 during his second call up.

While firmly against Nazi ideology, Franz’s ultimate refusal to serve in the German armed forces developed more deliberately. After being conscripted twice in 1940, it was during basic training on December 8, 1940 in Enns that Jägerstätter entered the Secular Franciscans. After taking “Third Order” vows in St. Radegund church in 1941, he grew more determined to be a pacifist in regard to the German war effort. Jägerstätter believed as an individual who formed his conscience and acted upon it —in his case, saying a resolute “no” to Nazism, including as a conscientious objector— would “change nothing in world affairs.” But Jägerstätter hoped that his conscientious objection would be “a sign” that not everyone let themselves be “carried away with the tide.” Jägerstätter acted on his conscience until, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta observed, “it came at his own expense.” Any of his thoughtful wrangling—if he hoped it would sway others—did not occur. Almost thirty years after the fall of the Third Reich, some villagers continued to view Jägerstätter’s brand of pacifism as unnecessary, extreme, “religious,” and even traitorous in terms of national defense. At war’s end, except for his wife and daughters—and they were denied state benefits until the 1990’s—there was a handful of anti-Nazi resisters—some of whom were Catholic priests— who supported or otherwise mirrored Jägerstätter’s brand of conscientious objection. But many of the individuals who, like Jägerstätter, acted on what they recognized as a Biblical call to social justice laid in their own obscure, premature graves because they, too, had been condemned as enemies of the state.

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Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter refused to support the Nazis and participate in the war effort, despite a tidal wave of pressure to do so in World War II.

EXCERPTS OF FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER’S WRITINGS:

ON CALLS TO PATRIOTIC DUTY.

“Who dares to assert that among the German people in this war only one person bears the responsibility, and why then did so many millions of Germans have to give their ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? Can one be reproached today for lacking patriotism? Do we still even have a mother country in this world? For if a country is supposed to be my mother country, it may not just impose duties—one must also have rights, and do we have rights here today? If someone becomes ineducable and might be a burden on the state, what happens to them? Would such a mother country be worth defending at all? Which we cannot speak of anyway, because Germany was attacked by no one. Once, I believe, we would have had the right to defend ourselves, and that was four years ago when we were still Austrians…”

ON THE ANSCHLUSS. 

“Let’s just ask ourselves: are Austria and Bavaria blameless that we now have a Nazi government instead of a Christian one? Did Nazism just simply drop on us from the sky? I believe we needn’t waste many words about it, for anyone who hasn’t slept through the past decade knows well enough how and why everything has come about in the way it has…In March 1938, what horror stories weren’t spread and invented here in Austria against Chancellor [Kurt] Schuschnigg (1897-1977), a still Christian-minded man, and against the clergy? Those few who didn’t catch the madness and who couldn’t be persuaded to cast that misguided ‘Yes’ vote were simply labeled fools or Communists, yet today the Nazis still haven’t given up the struggle to maybe win those fools over to the Nazi movement after all, or at least to sacrifice them to their ideology!”

ON WHETHER IT IS A JUST WAR.
“What Catholic can dare to say that these raids which Germany has carried out in several countries, and is still carrying out, constitute a just and holy war?”

ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF HITLER’S PROGRAM
“Oh, we poor German people, bedazzled by delusions of grandeur, will we ever return to reason again? As the saying goes: ‘Nothing comes about by chance, everything comes from above.’ Then did this war, which we Germans are already waging against almost all the peoples of the world, break over us as suddenly as, perhaps, a terrible hailstorm, which one is forced to watch powerlessly, only praying that it will soon stop without causing too much damage? For, thanks to the radio, newspapers, rallies, etc., nearly all of us knew what program Hitler was planning to carry out, and that the shrugging off of the debts and the demonetization of the Reich mark would bring about the very consequences which have now occurred in plenty …”

ON THE GERMAN INVASION OF THE SOVIET UNION.

“It is very sad to hear again and again from Catholics that this war, waged by Germany, is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism. It is true that at present most of our soldiers are stuck in the worst Bolshevist country, and simply want to make harmless and defenseless the people who live there and defend themselves. But now a question: what are they fighting in this country – Bolshevism or the Russian people? When our Catholic missionaries went to a pagan country to make them Christians did they advance with machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them? Most of these noble warriors for Christianity wrote home that if they only had the means to hand things out, everything would go much faster… If we look back a little into history, we note almost the same thing again and again: if a conqueror attacks another country with war, they have not normally invaded the country to improve people or even perhaps give them something, but usually to get something for themselves. If we fight the Russian people, we will get much from that country which is of use to us here. If one were merely fighting Bolshevism, these others things – minerals, oil wells or good farmland – would not be a factor.”

ON BEING MARRIED WITH YOUNG CHILDREN.

“Again and again, people try to trouble my conscience over my wife and children. Is an action any better because one is married and has children? Is it better or worse because thousands of other Catholics are doing the same?”

ON THE CHURCH HIERARCHY.

“If the Church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?”

ON THE CAUSE OF ALL THE INJUSTICE AND SUFFERING. 

“Ever since people have existed on this earth, experience teaches us that God gives people free will and has only very seldom noticeably interfered in the fate of individuals and peoples, and that therefore it will be no different in the future either, except at the end of the world. Adam and Eve already completely ruined their destiny through their disobedience towards God; God gave them free will and they would never have had to suffer if they had listened more to God than to the tempter. Even His beloved Son would then have been spared infinite suffering. And so it will remain until the end of the world: that every sin has consequences. But woe to us if we always try to avoid shouldering those consequences and aren’t willing to do penance for our sins and errors.”

Nationalratspräsidentin Barbara Prammer gratuliert Franziska Jägerstätter zum 99. Geburtstag

Franz Jägerstätter’s wife Franziska on her 99th birthday (center) with two of their three daughters, Maria (left) and Aloisia (right). With local dignitaries in 2012.

Nationalratspräsidentin Barbara Prammer gratuliert Franziska Jägerstätter zum 99. Geburtstag

Visiting Franz Jägerstätter’s gravesite in S. Radegund, Austria, in 2012.

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At the Beatification for Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, conscientious objector, on October 26, 2007 at St. Mary Cathedral in Linz, Austria.

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Franziska Jägerstätter with Bishop Ludwig Schwarz, Beatification of Franziska Jägerstätter, October 26, 2007.Jagerstatter-window-Newman-Centre-rev-e1487610325818

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Austrian layman Blessed Franz Jägerstätter depicted in stained glass in St. Radegund with his beloved motorcycle .

Franz Jägerstätter sought advice from friends and clergy about his intention to be a conscientious objector. His decision caused arguments in his family and among his friends. One local priest told Jägerstätter that his decision to not serve in the Nazi military was “suicidal” and although the church hierarchy had accommodated Nazism under the rationale to keep Austrian Catholic parish church doors open to bestow the sacraments, Jägerstätter was, at least in this instance, refused absolution. Since Bishop Gföllner’s pastoral letters had significant influence on Franz Jägerstätter’s evaluation of Nazism, he hoped to receive helpful advice from Gföllner’s successor, Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser (1896-1960). Prepared as usual, Jägerstätter brought eleven difficult questions to ask the bishop. But this new bishop, the Anschluss already in place, was  taciturn. Fliesser did not resolve Jägerstätter’s questions but reminded him of his family responsibility. Jägerstätter bristled, however, at the bishop’s traditional advice that as a soldier he would not be held accountable by the church for following orders.  Jägerstätter wrote: “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?” To be fair to the bishop, some have claimed his cautious response was that he feared Jägerstätter could be a Nazi spy. Others claim that such a pall of collective dread had settled over the populace that the bishop could not understand or accept how one individual farmer could be so truly courageous. Later, at Jägerstätter’s trial that condemned him, Jägerstätter simply said: “The Bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”

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Jägerstätter shirt. On the back it has this quote by Jägerstätter : “I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living.”

Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20, 1907 between Salzburg and Braunau am Inn as the illegitimate child of Rosalia Huber, a housemaid, and Franz Bachmeier, a farmer. Jägerstätter was only 15 months younger than German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was also murdered by the Nazis for his nonconformity. Franz was first cared for by his paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Huber.

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Birthplace of Franz Jägerstätter. Born on May 20, 1907, Jägerstätter was an illegitimate child of a housemaid and a farmer.

After Franz’s father died in World War I, Rosalia married prosperous farmer Heinrich Jägerstätter in 1917 who adopted the boy. As Franz’s formal education ended when he was just 14 years old, it was out of necessity as much as pleasure that he remained an avid reader. “People who don’t read,” Jägerstätter quipped, “will never be able to stand on their own feet. They will all too easily become a football for the opinions of others.” Many in St. Radegund were impressed by this popular young man who rode a motorbike he bought in the mining town of Erzberg, Austria, with his earnings.

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Franz Jägerstätter at 18 years old. The young man was an avid reader, worker, and motorcycle rider.

Working as a farmer in Teising, Germany and, in 1927, in the iron ore industry in Eisenerz, Austria, Jägerstätter returned to St. Radegund in 1930 where, in 1933, this “raufer” soon fathered an out-of-wedlock child. There was no question that 26-year-old Jägerstätter would not marry Theresia Auer, a working maid. At first he even disputed his paternity, but then helped care for both the mother and child (named Hildegard) and forged an affectionate lifelong father-daughter bond. This experience started Jägerstätter on a different path in life. His future wife, Franziska Schwaninger (1913–2013) of Hochburg, Austria, was working as a dairy and kitchen maid when in 1934, the 21-year-old Austrian woman met Jägerstätter at a local parish social. One of the first questions Franziska asked “raufer” Franz was whether he attended church. From the start of their relationship, her religiosity influenced him. Franz and Franziska were married on April 9, 1936, during Holy Week. Working as a farmer, in the next four years Jägerstätter and Franziska had three daughters. Franziska included Jägerstätter’s illegimate daughter as part of the family. After 1945, however, Hildegard lost contact with her half sisters. This family riff is attributed to their grandma Rosalia (Jägerstätter’s mother) who never liked Theresia Auer, Hildegard’s mother.

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Wedding photograph of Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter in spring 1936. After their wedding they set out to Rome, Italy, and received Pius XI’s papal blessing. Within the year Pius XI published and had proclaimed from Catholic pulpits in Germany his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With burning concern”) which condemned leading aspects of the Third Reich.

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The peasant mother of Franz Jägerstätter (left), his three daughters, Maria, Aloisia and Rosalia, and his wife, Franziska. Franziska sent this photograph to Franz on November 3, 1940 when he was in the military service (basic training) from October 1940 to April 1941. It was the town mayor who  obtained repeated deferments for Franz Jägerstätter.

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Photograph of Maria, Louisi and Rosi.

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In Austria in 2007 an American Benedictine sister (center) visits with her hosts, Aloisia and Richard Meier. Aloisia Meier was the youngest daughter of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter.

After many delays, Jägerstätter was finally called to active duty a  third time on February 23, 1943.  It was the day after Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed for high treason. Three weeks earlier, the German public was informed of the official surrender of the German Army at the Battle of Stalingrad. It marked the first time the Nazi government admitted to a failure in the war. Able-bodied Austrian farmer Jägerstätter reported to duty at Enns (Austria) on March 1, 1943 and promptly declared his mulled-over conscientious objection. The Nazis responded by putting him in jail. A priest from home visited him and repeated the advice to do his civic duty and come out of jail. Jägerstätter refused and was sent to Linz prison for the rest of March and April 1943 and then transferred to Tegel prison in the western suburbs of Berlin in May 1943. Incarcerated at Tegel in the same time period was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was there from his arrest on April 5, 1943 until October 1944. Bonhoeffer would be moved to Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse) in Berlin where he stayed until February 1945. Until Bonhoeffer’s execution by hanging at Flossenbuerg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, the theologian had been also transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and to Regensburg. There is no known evidence that Franz Jägerstätter and Dietrich Bonhoeffer met one another at Tegel. Jägerstätter did learn at Tegel that a Catholic priest was executed as a conscientious objector citing reasons very much like his own. This single individual’s martyrdom brought a message of hope to Jägerstätter’s plight. Bonhoeffer wrote some of his best known letters at Tegel and Franz also sent missives.  In one letter to his wife Franziska he wrote: “Most beloved wife, today I received with joy your dear letter. Not a God or a church gives a commandment requiring that we must under a burden of sin commit ourselves in an oath to obeying the civil authorities in all matters. I cannot take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war. The true Christian is to be recognized more in his deeds than in his speech. Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and endure for all eternity.”

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Yard at Tegel prison in Berlin.

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The sign Jägerstätter’s daughters hold reads: Lieber Vater komm bald! (Dear Father come [home] soon!). This is the photograph sent to 36-year-old Jägerstätter held in Tegel prison that brought him tears of joy.

About ten minutes by motor car from Tegal prison, in the period between August 1939 and February 7, 1945, the Reichskriegsgericht filed almost 1,200 sentences of capital punishment for various forms of treason, spying, resistance (frauen und männer des widerstand) and conscientious objection (kriegsdienstverweigerer)—and nearly 90% of these death sentences were carried out.  Accused by the Third Reich of undermining Wehrkraftzersetzung (or “military morale”) —as had been passive resisters Sophie Scholl (1921 – 22 February 1943) and other members of the White Rose — Franz Jägerstätter was found guilty at military trial at the Reichskriegsgericht, the highest German military court during the period of national socialism, and sentenced to death on July 6, 1943. Standing before the second panel of the national court martial led by Werner Lueven, Jägerstätter was “condemned to death for sedition” and, sentenced to loss of civil rights and of eligibility for military service, punitively cut off from society. The written judgment of the court is a summary of Jägerstätter’s path to conscientious objection. It reads: “In February 1943 the accused was again called up, by written command, for active service with motorized replacement unit 17 in Enns from 25 February 1943. At first he ignored the call-up, because he rejects National Socialism and therefore does not wish to do military service. Under pressure from relatives and the persuasion of his local priest, he finally reported on 1 March 1943 to the permanent company at motorized replacement unit 17 in Enns, but immediately announced that because of his religious views he refused to do armed military service. During questioning by the court officer, despite detailed instruction and advice as to the consequences of his conduct, he maintained his negative attitude. He explained that if he fought for the National Socialist state, he would be acting against his religious conscience. He also assumed this negative attitude during questioning by the court investigating officer of Division No. 487 in Linz, and by the representative of the national court martial. However, he declared himself willing to serve as a medical orderly as an act of Christian charity. At the main trial he repeated his statements and added that it was only during the last year he had reached the conviction that as a believing Catholic he could not perform military service and could not simultaneously be a National Socialist and a Catholic. That it was impossible. If he had obeyed the earlier call-up, he had done so because at that time because he had regarded it as sinful not to obey the commands of the state. Now God had made him think that it was not a sin to reject armed service, There were things over which one should obey God more than man. Because of the command ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ he could not fight with weapons. He was however prepared to serve as a medical orderly. The accused had already been a soldier for six months  (1940-41 call-up), had taken the oath of loyalty to the Führer and Supreme Commander of the Army, and during his period of service was amply informed about the duties of the German soldier. Nevertheless, despite being told about the consequences of his conduct, he stubbornly refuses for personal reasons to fulfill his patriotic duty in Germany’s hard struggle for survival. Accordingly, the death sentence is pronounced.”

Facade of Reichskriegsgericht, Berlin.

In this building at Witzlebenstrasse 5, Berlin, on July 6, 1943, the Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter was sentenced to death by the Supreme Military Court of the Third Reich (Reichskriegsgericht) on grounds of his conscientious objection to military service. In addition to dealing with various charges of treason, this building dealt with proceedings associated with Hitler’s “Night and Fog” decree. The order of December 7, 1941 directed that persons captured in occupied territories who acted to undermine German troops were to be taken “by night and fog” to Germany to face trial in special courts which could ignore procedures and conventions for a prisoner’s humane treatment.

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Memorial sign outside today’s former Reichskriegsgericht building in Berlin.

Following his July 6, 1943 condemnation by the supreme military tribunal, Jägerstätter was given several weeks at Tegel to ponder his conscience’s perilous consequence. The Third Reich, desperate for manpower in 1943, allowed conscientious objectors to recant their objection unconditionally and be immediately assigned to a military probation unit. The practice of conscientious objection was relatively rare in Western societies prior to World War II. It was only after the military defeat of Hitler that the Catholic Church began to vocalize a mission to be a moral advocate in terms of social justice. Throughout World War II individuals like Jägerstätter but also Bonhoeffer, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alfred Delp, S.J., Blessed Nikolaus Gross, Max Metzger, Erich Boch, Ernst Volkmann and others stood up for their faith as well as human rights and were executed as enemies of the state. In their lifetimes these martyrs’ actions received little to no sympathy from bishops or ordinary Catholics because social justice— including conscientious objection—was basically absent from standard church teaching. Even with the advent of democracy, there remained the church’s ancient teaching that governments derive their authority from God and citizens should obey them. However, the obvious illegitimacy of the Nazi regime despite legalities helped make religious sense of disobedience, refusal, and conscientious objection by Jägerstätter, Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, etc., who cited Biblical and philosophical truth and justice as greater than state authority—and, oftentimes, church authority. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) proved sufficiently intrepid to try to get in front of this new spiritual juggernaut of social justice that had martyrs’ blood spilled upon it. On February 18, 1946 he appointed three new German Cardinals who had publicly opposed the Third Reich. Yet for the rest of this Germanophile pope’s time on the seat of Peter, the church’s goals and objectives for social justice remained vague and ambiguous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945). Lutheran pastor and theologian, it was after the failure of the July 20, 1944 plot on Hitler’s life—and discovery of Abwehr documents (Abwehr was a German military intelligence organization Bonhoeffer had joined) relating to the plot—that Bonhoeffer, already under Nazi arrest, was accused of conspiracy.  Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging at Konzentrationslager Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by American soldiers.

Hans-et-Sophie-Scholl

Hans Scholl (German, 22 September 1918 – 22 February 1943) and Sophie Scholl (German, 9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943). Upon distributing anti-Nazi political resistance leaflets on February 18, 1943 at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, students Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were immediately arrested. On February 22, 1943 they were tried in the Volksgerichtshof and found guilty of high treason. They were executed by beheading the same day.

Alfred Delp

Alfred Delp, S.J. (German, 15 September 1907 – Berlin, 2 February 1945) was a member of the Kreisauer Kreis composed of men and women from a variety of backgrounds who were opposed to Hitler’s Nazi regime. Delp was arrested in 1944, sentenced to death and executed in 1945. Delp’s book Facing Death, written during his six months imprisonment has been compared to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

Nikolaus_und_Elisabeth_Groß

Blessed Nikolaus Gross (German, 30 September 1898 – 23 January 1945) and Elizabeth Koch Gross (March 11, 1901-February 21, 1971). An anti-Nazi journalist, Nikolaus Gross was arrested on August 12, 1944 in connection with the failed plot to kill Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair (July 20, 1944). In September 1944 he was taken to Tegel prison where Elizabeth visited him twice and saw torture markings on his body.  Gross was hanged on January  23, 1945 at Plötzensee Prison.

bolz

Servant of God Eugen Bolz (German, 15 December 1881 – 23 January 1945) was a politician and member of the resistance to the Nazi régime. Bolz had been Protestant Württemberg’s first Catholic president when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Since Bolz loathed the Nazis, they immediately forced him from office and sent him to a concentration camp. When he was released, Bolz went into semi-retirement near Ulm, where he was constantly monitored by the Gestapo. In 1942 Bolz secretly accepted the post of Culture Minister in a shadow German “government in waiting” ready to replace Hitler. But when the plot to kill Hitler failed on July 20, 1944, Bolz was arrested where he was tried and, on January 23, 1945,  beheaded at Plötzensee Prison.

MMetzger

Max Metzger (German, 3 February 1887 – 17 April 1944) was  a Catholic priest and longtime peace activist in Germany. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Metzger was arrested many times by the Gestapo. A pamphlet writer, his 1943 essay on German state reorganization in a post-war world was given to a courier who betrayed him.  Metzger was arrested on June 29, 1943. The presiding judge at his trial said Metzger and people like him should be “eradicated.” Fr. Metzger was executed in Brandenburg prison on April 17, 1944.  

Father Franz Reinisch

Franz Reinisch (1903-1942), an Austrian Catholic priest, was conscripted for military service in the Third Reich on September 12, 1941. Reinisch refused to swear allegiance to Hitler but publicly noted he would swear allegiance to the German people so to join the Wehrmacht. Reinisch was arrested and charged with undermining military morale. Brought to Tegel, a prison chaplain denied Reinisch communion for failure to perform his civic duty. Tried and convicted, Reinisch was moved to Brandenburg in Berlin where he was beheaded by guillotine on August 21, 1942.

Papst-Franziskus-Pater-Reinisch385

Pope Francis with a portrait of Franz Reinisch.

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Ernst Volkmann (1902-1941). Ernst Volkmann had to die because he refused to fight for Nazi Germany on religious grounds. In 1929, he married Maria Handle from Bregenz, Austria, with whom he had three children. He ignored all Wehrmacht conscription orders, which is why Ernst Volkmann was arrested in June 1940. The Berlin court sentenced him to death on July 7, 1941. A month later on August 9, at 5:05 am, Ernst Volkmann was beheaded in the Brandenburg-Görden prison.

Portrait-of-Pope-Pius-XII-008

Almost immediately after the war was over, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) appointed three German bishops to be Cardinals who had publicly defied the Third Reich. These were Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen (16 March 1878 – 22 March 1946), Konrad Maria von Preysing (30 August 1880 – 21 December 1950) and Josef Frings (6 February 1887 – 17 December 1978). A fuller development for social justice as a mission of the church would need to wait for future popes.

In his last letter written from Brandenburg-Görden prison where he was executed on August 9, 1943, Jägerstätter wrote these words: “Now I’ll write down a few words as they come to me from my heart. Although I am writing them with my hands in chains, this is still much better than if my will were in chains. 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…. People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”

Jägerstätter was then led out to the executioner’s guillotine and beheaded on August 9, 1943. Franziska did not learn of her husband’s death until about a month later. She had sent him a letter in early September 1943 but the response came from the prison chaplains at Tegel and Brandenburg who informed her of his death. Sometime after that, Franziska received the official announcement of the execution of her husband, together with his last letter, from the Nazis.

Franz Jägerstätter’s final essay

First page of Franz Jägerstätter’s final essay written in prison. The first sentence reads: “Now I’ll write down a few words as they come to me from my heart. Although I am writing them with my hands in chains, this is still much better than if it were my will in chains.”

LEGACY.

Thomas Merton was influenced by the life of Franz Jägerstätter. Merton included a chapter on Jägerstätter in his popular 1968 book Faith and Violence (University of Notre Dame Press – available in several reprinted editions).

Gordon Zahn (1918-2007) from Loyola University in Chicago, wrote A Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter in 1964. Zahn was a conscientious objector during the World War II who related that one of the great moments of his life was when he heard a student during the Vietnam War say he was burning his draft card “in memory of Franz Jägerstätter.” Zahn was a guiding light in the Catholic peace movement as a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. Today Pax Christi focuses on human rights and security, disarmament and demilitarization, a just world order and religion and peace. Its president Kevin Patrick Dowling, a South African Redemptorist. Its website: http://www.paxchristi.net/about-us/why-pax-christi

The Refusal (Der Fall) is a 94 minute-dramatized film about Franz Jägerstätter. Directed by Alex Corti with a screenplay by Hellmut Kindler, it stars Kurt Weinzierl and
Julia Gschnitzer as Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter. It was originally released in (West) Germany in 1971. Villagers are interviewed almost 30 years later.

Der Fall Jägerstätter

Kurt Weinzierl (Franz Jägerstätter), Michael Janisch (Corporal) in The Refusal.

CATHOLIC MASS READINGS FOR OCTOBER 26:

Reading – Romans 6:19-23

Brothers and sisters:
I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your nature.
For just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity
and to lawlessness for lawlessness,
so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from righteousness.
But what profit did you get then
from the things of which you are now ashamed?
For the end of those things is death.
But now that you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God,
the benefit that you have leads to sanctification,
and its end is eternal life.
For the wages of sin is death,
but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 1:1-2,3,4, and 6.

R. (Ps 40:5) Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Blessed the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

Alleluia-Philippians 3:8-9

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I consider all things so much rubbish
that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel – Luke 12:49-53

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

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Grave of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, St. Radegund, Austria.

FRANZISK
Franz_Jagerstatter_icon

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter icon: On the path to Catholic sainthood. Patron of Conscientious Objectors.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Pope Francis TED Speech, April 2017 – – https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_only_future_worth_building_includes_everyone?language=en. Web. – retrieved October 26, 2017.

Gordon Zahn, A Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, Templegate Publications; revised edition, 1986.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics,The Macmillan Company, New York, 1968.

Diözese Linz, Franz Jägerstätter 1907 – 1943 – Martyr, Katholische Kirche in Oberösterreich, n.d. Web. – retrieved October 26, 2017.

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper & Row Publishers, NY, 1975.

Robert A. Krieg, Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany, Continuum, NY, 2004.

Martin Conway, Catholic Politics in Europe, 1918-1945, Routledge, 1997.

Walter M. Abbott, S.J., The Documents of Vatican II, Guild Press, NY, 1966.

The Holy See, The Vatican, n.d, Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943) – Biography. Web. – retrieved October 26, 2017.

Eran Putz, Franz Jägerstätter Martyr – A Shining Example in Dark Times, Grünbach: Steinmassl, 2007, Print and Web. – retrieved October 26, 2017.

Footnotes will be made available on request.