BLESSED FRANZ JAEGERSTAETTER (1907-1943):
“I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by a secular ruler.” (Franz Jaegerstaetter)
“It is not often that soldiers turn out to honour those who have refused military orders. That is just what happened on 28th February this year when a plaque to Franz Jaegerstaetter was blessed at Enns Barracks, Austria, by Christian Werner, the military bishop.
Why Enns? Because that is where Franz Jaegerstaetter reported 70 years earlier, in 1943, having been summoned to serve in Hitler’s armies. Hitler was by then running short of men and the war on the Russian front was going badly.
It was in those barracks that Franz refused to take the unconditional military oath to Hitler. It was there that he was arrested, before being imprisoned in Linz, and then taken to Berlin for court martial.
There was no provision for conscientious objectors under the Nazis. From Berlin, Franz was taken to Brandenburg where he was beheaded on the 9th August 1943.
He might have been one more unknown death in a war that killed so many. But his story was not forgotten and has become an inspiration to many, especially Catholics.
Franz was the only person in his village of St Radegund – just north of Salzburg and on the border with Germany – who voted against the Nazi take-over of Austria in 1938.
His opposition surprised his neighbours because otherwise he seemed just like them. After leaving school with a basic education, and a few misspent years as a wild youth, Franz had settled down as a happily married farmer.
His wife, Franziska, whom he loved dearly, was also from the region and together they had by 1943 three little girls. Franz and Franziska took their faith very seriously. They read the Bible together and Franz became sacristan of St Radegund’s tiny church.
It was that faith which led him along the lonely path of resistance.
Franz had completed six months army training during 1940 and 1941 but was released to go back to his farm.
By 1943 his opposition had grown. He had decided it was impossible as a Catholic to obey a dictator who was, in his words, ‘gobbling up’ other countries and killing so many people. It’s not clear whether Franz can be defined as a pacifist. He might well in other circumstances have defended his country, but Hitler’s war was not one which in good conscience he felt he could possibly support.
Reaching this decision took many months of prayerful thought. Franz wrote down arguments which answered his list of ‘ten questions’ about the dilemma facing him. He consulted parish clergy and the local bishop – all of whom advised him to compromise and fight like everyone else. Knowing that refusal meant the death penalty, his relations and friends tried to dissuade him. Although Franziska hoped that there might be some way to save his life without betraying his conscience, she alone supported Franz to the end. Parting at the station where he set out for Enns was traumatic for them both.
On the night of Franz’s execution the prison chaplain told some Austrian nuns that Franz was the only saint he had ever met. They took his ashes back to St Radegund after the war to be reburied beside the little church.
For several decades Franz remained a controversial figure, challenging Austrians who had acted differently. Too many families had lost husbands, fathers and brothers to think kindly of someone who had refused to fight. Franziska was ostracised by neighbours and unable to claim the pension available to other war widows. For her, managing the farm and bringing up three young children was a lonely struggle.
The significance of Franz’s Christian heroism began to be appreciated with the publication in the 1960s of ‘In Solitary Witness’, a biography by the American sociologist, Gordon Zahn. In the 1980s, a biography by journalist Erna Putz further influenced the attitudes of fellow Austrians.
Since then the heroism of Franz – and Franziska – has been recognised by Church and State. People come to St Radegund from all over the world to honour the man who had the courage to say ‘no’. In 2007, Franz was beatified as a Christian martyr at a celebration in Linz cathedral in the presence of his widow, daughters and grandchildren. The congregation gave Franziska a standing ovation in recognition of her own sacrifice and faith.
She died in March of this year, just two weeks after reaching her 100th birthday, and was buried in her husband’s grave beside the parish church.
Franz’s feast day is the 21st May – a day to remember that there are times when Christians have to say ‘no’ to the politics of the powers and principalities.
Our Kingdom is in but not of this world. It is not only soldiers who have something to refuse – though few of us will have to pay anything like the price Franz paid.”
– This article by Bruce Kent and Valerie Flessati, Vice-Presidents, Pax Christi, was published in “The Catholic Universe” issue Sunday 19th May, 2013. For subscriptions please visit http://www.thecatholicuniverse.com (external link). – “Read more in ‘Franz Jaegerstaetter – Christian and Martyr’, available from the Peace People page of the Pax Christi website, http://www.paxchristi.org.uk “(external link).