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OPEN MEETING – FEBRUARY 6th 2008
On February 6th 2008 an open meeting was held at St. Vincent’s Centre, Carlisle Place, under the title: ‘Resisting Evil: A Twentieth-Century Martyrdom’ with an illustrated talk by Bruce Kent. The talk was followed by some reflections on the issues involved by Major-General Sir Sebastian Roberts of the UK Defence Academy, and general discussion. The text of the talk is as follows:
FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER - ANOTHER SIDE OF COURAGE
Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer born in 1907 and executed in 1943, had probably never heard of Hanoi or Saigon. He would never have believed that his convictions could have affected events in places so far away. But they did. Long years after his execution, Daniel Ellsberg read Gordon Zahn's biography of Jägerstätter, ‘In Solitary Witness’. He was so moved that he decided to release the top-secret Pentagon Papers, and so hastened the end of the Vietnam War.
Devout Catholic that Jägerstätter was, he would never have dreamed that his life story would be put before the bishops of the world as it was at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and play its part in persuading his Church to support the individual right to conscientious objection to military service. That the Catholic Church has just beatified him, and that many Catholics are urging that he be declared a saint would be unimaginable to the Jägerstätter of 1943.
Millions died in the long six years of the Second World War. The world paid a heavy price for not putting a stop to the rise of Hitler's type of nationalism. Many civilians and soldiers died bravely. Jägerstätter was not the only one to die as a conscientious objector, for refusing military orders, or to die leaving a wife and family behind. What I find so uniquely encouraging about his story is the courage of an unknown, insignificant man who did not even know that other Catholics shared his convictions and were also prepared to die for them. It has had a profound effect not only on the country and the Church that he loved, but on the wider world as well.
That he was right is now generally acknowledged. At the time of the Waldheim scandal an Austrian paper began its editorial 'Waldheim, we did not expect you to be a Jägerstätter but...'
An Austrian President and one-time Secretary General of the United Nations was being compared unfavorably to an unknown farmer from Upper Austria.
The account of Jägerstätter's life can be quite briefly given. Probably because of poverty his parents did not marry and his father was killed in 1917 fighting in the First World War. His mother later married a farmer in the little village of St Radegund which stands on a buff high above the Salzach river which divides Austria from Germany. Franz went to the local school, then to work on the land, and from all accounts was a bit of a local nuisance. He was one of the lads, led one village gang against another and got into fights. He owned the first motor cycle in the village and on it he roared around the neighborhood.
He also fathered an illegitimate daughter whom he acknowledged and supported - though he did not marry her mother. She subsequently married someone else.
When he settled down and became more serious he married, in 1936, a local girl, Franziska Schwaninger. It was a marriage of great happiness in every way. In April 1943 he wrote to Franziska from prison, describing 'all the happiness and graces that have come to us in these seven years some of them close to a miracle'. Three little girls were born to them. Today they all live locally with their own families. Alive, too, is his widow, a gentle, confident 94-year-old. She served as the village sacristan for many years, taking up the role from Franz after his death. At the beatification ceremony in Linz cathedral the congregation gave her a standing ovation, honouring her own quiet heroism and long years of sacrifice in the face of the hostility following her husband’s resistance.
Two months before Hitler marched into Austria Franz dreamed about 'a beautiful train which was going round a mountain...it was a train going to hell.' It was the train of National Socialism which so many were trying to get on. In the village inn Franz made clear his opposition to Hitler's takeover. Indeed he was the only one in the village to vote against the Anschluss, though his vote was not recorded.
The atmosphere in the area was one of fear. Of the thousand priests in Jägerstätter's diocese of Linz, 118 served prison sentences for anti-Nazi activity. Forty were sent to concentration camps and, of those, 11 were murdered.
Despite his views Jägerstätter accepted a first call to military service in June 1940 and took the military oath. He was released to continue farm work in 1941. But his doubts about Hitler's war continued to grow. When he was called up again in February 1943 he went off to Linz to consult the Bishop. In preparation for that visit he wrote down some of his questions in advance. 'Which Catholic can dare to call the murderous raids Germany has already undertaken in several countries, and is still undertaking, a just a holy war? Who can be a soldier for Christ and a soldier for National Socialism at the same time - to fight for Christ's victory and that of his Church and at the same time to fight for the victory of National Socialism?'
The Bishop, probably aware that the Secret Police were hunting for Pastors who offered ‘disloyal’ advice, gave him answers which would have been standard anywhere. Your duty to your family is your first priority. Gordon Zahn quotes a German theologian whose views were well publicised at the time 'The individual has but one course open to him: to do his best with faith in the cause of his Volk'.
The advice of Fr Henry Davis, a Jesuit authority writing in England in 1940, about individual responsibility was not so very different: 'The rational presumption is, unless the contrary is quite evident, that the State has come to its decision on just and sufficient grounds.'
Jägerstätter was not a pacifist. At one point he made it clear that in different circumstances he would fight in a 'just war' in defence of Austria. In his last letter from prison, with his hands in chains, he still made the distinction between just and unjust wars. He was clear that he could not leave it to others to decide which was which.
But, almost without outside support, he came to the conclusion that Hitler's was a wicked war and that in no circumstances would it be right to again take an unconditional oath of obedience. '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 his secular ruler'.
There is some evidence that at least at one stage he might have been willing to accept service in the medical corps, but that would have made little difference in reality since he would first have had to serve with a weapon in a punishment unit. His final letter to his wife was written from Brandenburg prison, with his hands chained together, on the morning of his execution. It is one of the most moving and courageous letters that I have ever read. It ends: 'These few words are being set down here as they come from my mind and heart. And if I must write them with my hands in chains I find that 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.'
Such views led directly to his death. Under arrest from March 1943 he was tried and condemned by the Berlin War Tribunal on 6 July and beheaded in Brandenburg Prison on 9 August. He was the first of 19 so to suffer in that prison on that day. To be executed first was considered to be a privilege. After 19 the execution room would have been a charnel house. His body was immediately cremated. That night the prison chaplain went back to the hospital where he lived and told some Austrian sisters who worked there that their fellow-countryman executed that day was the only saint he had met in his lifetime. Having noted the place where Jägerstätter’s ashes were buried, the nuns planted flowers there.
The general opinion in St Radegund was that he had become a religious fanatic. For a black and white film - The Refusal - made in 1971, many local men were asked their opinions. If not actually hostile many thought that Jägerstätter had become rather extreme. His wife was even called a murderess for not making stronger demands on him to force him to change his mind. As it was he had anguished about the future facing his wife and daughters.
His story, even after the war, was suppressed in the local diocesan paper. At the same time his courage was not forgotten. On their first visit back to Austria after the war, the nuns from Brandenburg brought back Jägerstätter’s ashes. The parish priest of St Radegund - who had been dismissed during the war for his anti-Nazi views – had them reburied in a grave just outside the door of the little church. More than that, despite stiff local opposition, he added Franz's name to the list on the churchyard war memorial of over 50 men who had died during the war adding the phrase ‘ also died a hero’. This addition was later defaced.
Within Austria knowledge of Jägerstätter's witness began to spread. It was not until 1957 when Gordon Zahn, the American sociologist, interviewed Fr Kreuzberg, a former chaplain at the Berlin-Tegel Prison, that the Jägerstätter story reached an international audience. Kreuzberg had written a book about a priest, Fr Reinisch, who had been executed for refusing the military oath. (Fr Reinisch's example had given great comfort to Jägerstätter in prison since he then realised he was not alone in his convictions.) At the end of the Reinisch book, in an appendix, Kreuzberg had mentioned Jägerstätter as a 'tapfere and schlichte Bauer' (brave and simple farmer). Zahn, himself a wartime conscientious objector, decided to investigate, visited St Radegund, and soon set about writing In Solitary Witness.
Not long afterwards, Jägerstätter's example was presented to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council by the Jesuit Archbishop Thomas Roberts, whose courageous condemnation of nuclear deterrence made him less than popular in Church circles. Roberts told his fellow bishops that they 'should consider this man and his sacrifice in a spirit of gratitude'.
Since then there have been many articles, books and films. An annual pilgrimage, organized by the Austrian journalist, Erna Putz, takes place every year in St Radegund on 9 August. Though there are still some differences of opinion within the Austrian Church, both Cardinal Koenig and the present Bishop of Linz are active supporters of the Jägerstätter cause. In 1993 a large group from England, which included the Anglican Bishop of Huntingdon, took a full part in all the events of the 50th anniversary commemorating Jägerstätter's death. Over a thousand, many from other countries, shared in a Mass in blazing sunshine, just outside the restored Jägerstätter family farmhouse now preserved as a museum and educational centre. The Bishop of Linz, sometimes nearly in tears, spoke about the courage of its one-time occupant. Mrs Jägerstätter, her children and grandchildren, were all present. In a gesture of sensitivity a book containing the names and photographs, in alphabetical order, of all those from St Radegund who died in the war, was placed on the altar. Later, after speeches from local politicians, there was a massive picnic.
Such details will not be of interest to everyone. What is of interest is that Jägerstätter's life continues to give courage to conscientious objectors around the world from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds. That there are orders which cannot be obeyed is a lesson yet to be learned. Said Field-Marshal Keitel before his execution in 1946 for war crimes, 'It is tragic to have to realise that the best I had to give as a soldier - obedience and loyalty - was exploited for purposes which could not be recognised at the time. I did not see that there is a limit set even for a soldier's performance of his duty'. Jägerstätter was one of those who at the time did recognize evils that Field Marshals would not or could not.
Since then the wheels of the Vatican have turned more rapidly than anyone expected. It was rumoured early in 2007 that Franz would be beatified as a martyr. So it happened.
On Friday 26th October the massive cathedral in Linz was filled with those who came to the Beatification Mass and Ceremony - amongst them several military chaplains in army uniform. Franziska Jägerstätter was there, not only with her own three daughters, but with Franz’s first daughter as well.
On the following Sunday the tiny village church was overflowing, with large crowds outside, local brass band, TV crews and many visitors from other countries. St Ragegund has already become a place of pilgrimage for all those, religious or not, who want to pay their respects to a very ordinary man who was willing at such a price to say NO.