Jägerstätter, a man who acted on conscience


Last week Pope Benedict declared a number of people blessed. Those who aroused most interest were the Catholics killed by Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But perhaps a more significant decision was to recognise Franz Jägerstätter as a martyr. The Nazis executed him for refusing to fight in the war. He was a constant man whose resistance has continued to reverberate.

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer who had reflected deeply on the consequences of his Catholic faith. He was appalled by what Hitler was doing in Germany. After the German army entered Austria and imposed a referendum to approve the annexation, Jägerstätter opposed it. It was overwhelmingly approved by the majority of Austrian voters including those in his village. But even after the Annexation, Jägerstätter’s opposition to the regime led him to refuse benefits that he could have claimed.

He was called up for military service in 1943. He refused on the grounds that it would be sinful to fight. His refusal was grounded in his Christian faith. He sought advice from local clergy and from his Bishop. They all counselled him that he should agree to fight, on the grounds that he had an obligation to support his family and that he should obey the legitimately constituted Government. He rejected this advice, claiming that "just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: we need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons--and the foremost among these is prayer". He was jailed, tried and finally executed.

He was subsequently forgotten. When asked by the United States peace activist, John Dear, if she thought he would be remembered, his wife answered, "Never. I thought no one would ever know about him. I hid his letters under my mattress for decades. Then, in the early 1960s, Gordon Zahn learned of him and wrote his book, In Solitary Witness, and that started the whole thing."

Zahn, a Catholic sociologist, presented an attractive picture of Jägerstätter as a Christian pacifist. I was among the many readers who were moved and challenged by his book when it appeared in the 1960’s. It offered an attractive and simple picture of radical Christianity and encouraged hard thinking about whether modern war could be morally justified. It also had some slight impact on the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, who read and was deeply moved by it, subsequently leaked the Pentagon Papers. They revealed the deceptions that had supported the war and helped turn public opinion against it. Typically, Jägerstätter’s constancy led another generation to think of the issues on which he took his stand.

And now Franz Jägerstätter has returned again to a world in which war is the dominant metaphor for political difference. War is also the strategy of choice to resolve differences in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. The military are increasingly made the human face of peacekeeping.

This time Jägerstätter comes recognised as a martyr by his church. The declaration is significant, because it claims that he died giving testimony to his faith. It blesses the intention of his death as well as the motivation that led him to execution. It says that the eyes out of which he looked at his world and at war were properly Christian eyes. His acceptance as a martyr also recognises his opposition to war to be an act of Christian witness. It recognizes his refusal to put his family before his Christian duty, not to participate in an unjust war, but to be a Christian witness. It recognises his disobedience to the command of the state to wage war, an act of witness. It also recognises his polite refusal to accept the advice he received from priests and bishop as an act of witness.

Jägerstätter is a simple, adamantine figure who stands in the way. He was not a political activist: his inspiration was fidelity to his faith. He hoped others would see what he saw; he did not organise them to do as he did. The path that led him to his death was a lonely one, a path seemingly to oblivion. But he keeps coming to mind at times when we are tempted to accept war as a fact of life and a legitimate resolution of difference.



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Existing comments

Thanks for this, esp the focus on *witness * and *constancy*, Kingdom values to which each one of us must aspire, even if not caught in the terrible dilemmas of one such as Franz Jagerstatter.

And a technical question - does this recognition have anything to do with 'miracles' given in his response to his ministry (personally, I trust not).

Charles Sherlock | 07 June 2007

Jagerstatter presents the paradox of someone who was deeply faithful to the church yet died unsupported in his witness and ethical judgement of what was at stake in Nazi rule.

In this respect he shares much with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The ‘solitary’ character of the witness of these exemplary performers of the faith should not distract our attention from the reality that their witness was rooted in the disciplines and practices of the church. Both Bonhoeffer and Jägerstätter upheld the communal character of the church in a context and location, imprisonment for opposition to an unjust state, where their church communities would not support them a failure grounded in an ecclesiastical confusion of faith with national identity and expressed in the silence of leadership in the face of a state bent on genocide.
Doug Hynd | 08 June 2007

Well done.Bl.Jagerstatter. Pray for us.
fr.Theodore Gillian ofm | 08 June 2007

Rest assured, Charles, that recognition does not imply miracles. In fact,the technicality is that those recognised as martyrs may subsequently be publicly venerated as blessed or saints without any need for miracles.
Andrew Hamilton | 08 June 2007

Every saint that gets canonized has to have a certain number of "miracles" attributed to them. However, if they're martyred they don't need as many.
Jeffrey Jones | 08 June 2007

Thank you Andrew for your explication of the values that Franz Jagerstatter lived. Timely indeed when values are in collision today and some catholic politicians are citing their stance to act on conscience even when to do so places them in conflict with the their religious leaders.
Ern Azzopardi | 08 June 2007

Andy many thanks for your clear and decisive message and for your constancy to your bearing witness of Jesus. Ferruccio
Ferruccio Romanin SJ | 08 June 2007

Brave man!
Naomi Arnaud | 08 June 2007

Jagerstatter's belief and actions, consistent with primacy of conscience remind us of pressure being seen to be imposed upon some persons when those persons are obliged to act in relation to many current issues;both here in Sydney(parliamentarians voting on permitting new aspects of stem cell research),as well as those persons resisting military call-up in Iraq.

Courage and primacy of conscience !



MAUREEN T.COUCH | 08 June 2007

Jagerstatter's belief and actions, consistent with primacy of conscience remind us of pressure being seen to be imposed upon some persons when those persons are obliged to act in relation to many current issues;both here in Sydney(parliamentarians voting on permitting new aspects of stem cell research),as well as those persons resisting military call-up in Iraq.

Courage and primacy of conscience !



MAUREEN T.COUCH | 08 June 2007

Hi all,

Christian nonviolent resistance is alive and well in Australia. See http://pinegapontrial.blogspot.com/ for a blog of the current trial [early June 2007] of the Pine Gap 4 who are facing 7 years imprisonment for shutting down the Pine Gap war machine. see also www.pinegap6.org for donations and support.

Loving supporters are building a short term Christian community around the court case taking action in response to the trial.

today Bryan Law reminded the members of the Jury that Jesus was a great'lawbreaker' in the name of justice and truth. God's law of love - Love God and love your neighbour as yourself - that was Jesus reminder of law.

Love Margaret

margaret pestorius | 08 June 2007

Wow, isn't it great that a faithful man had courage and conviction to follow a path so radically different to others. There are friends in Alice Springs on trial for entering Pine Gap - a place where the USA gathers intelligience for war. These peace activists, all Christians, will be inspired by Jagerstatter.
Patricia Gates | 09 June 2007

The courage of Jagerstatter was amazing. This is an issue that my wife and I have often talked about. What would it be like living in an occupied country? How would you survive? I think that in his case I would have joined the armed forces, not out of conviction, but just to survive. Could we argue, that this is what Joseph Ratzinger himself did as a teenager in Germany. I don't blame him.
Peter Burger | 09 June 2007

This is inspiring and an example to others. I know of a seminarian in the Pallottine Order in Germany who also refused to take the oath of obedience and was executed. Superiors of the religious Orders placed their members under obedience to take the oath. All a bit contradictory.
Ken Haddock | 10 June 2007

Salut ! Like Rev. Andrew and Daniel Ellsberg I was extremely moved by "In Solitary Witness" in the 60's and I have often recalled Franz to friends. Bravo, Pope Benedict! Bien a` vous de la part de Kevin, aged 85, French national, supreme cross of honour 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice'---Ecumenism.
Kevin G. Smith | 11 June 2007

Funny you should say that Maureen. Many years ago I was given the gift of Gordon Zahn's book In Solitary Witness by a young man who had listed at the back the 15 page numbers which contained the writings of Franz Jagerstatter on the importance of chastity and the Catholic teachings on contraception, sterilization, abortion and suicide. (He was strong on the obligation for Catholics to have "informed" consciences)

Cardinal Pell's recent statements pale beside Jagerstatter's! For example page 222 : "We sometimes shudder when we hear of the horrible deeds perpetrated by the Russians in this war. Is the horror any less when it is possible for one to deliberately murder his own child who has never done anyone harm and who is still in a state of perfect innocence?" Elsewhere he stated "the statististical fact that the entire four years of World War 1 did not account for as many deaths among the German people as did the number of children murdered every year by abortion"

Just as Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland has recently compared the 40 years of aborton in the UK to the equivalent of "two Dunblanes a day." This is why Franz Jagerstatter was such an inspiration to Joan Andrews a heroine of the American prolife movement...and such solace as she languished in jail in 'witness' to today's holocaust. Solitary Witness is a very worthwhile read Maureen.
Denise M Cameron | 12 June 2007

to know of franz's witness and life one cannot help but have hope for all of us inthis violent world. he gave me much hope and affirmation during viet nam war.
paul quinlan | 30 June 2007

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