Solitary, but not alone

Meet the martyr/dad Franz Jagerstatter

Melissa Keating

One theme unifies the stories of all the saints: Christians are never alone. Even in the most isolated circumstances, saints have a profound union with God. This principle is demonstrated by the martyrdom of Franz Jagerstatter, a father and martyr during the Nazi occupation of Austria.

A peasant background

 Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz's cousin and foster sister. / Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz’s cousin and foster sister. /Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz was no St. Therese. He was the illegitimate child of a maidservant in a tiny village in Upper Austria. His mother married when Franz was 10.

Franz was a wild child. He was a womanizer, and even had a daughter born out of wedlock. Gordan Zahn, whose book In Solitary Witness is the definitive work on Jagerstatter’s life, discovered that Jagerstatter was exiled from his community for several years, during which time he stopped attending Mass.

However, Jagerstatter received a passable education in the village’s one-room school schoolhouse before becoming a farmer. Then he met his wife.

 

Marriage transformed him

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

He married Franziska Schwaninger on Holy Thursday 1936. On their honeymoon, they received a papal blessing from Pope Pius XI.

 

Franziska’s effect on her husband was subtle but persistent. Jagerstatter became the sexton of the village Church, meaning he assisted at all the liturgies and maintained the building. This led to him becoming a daily communicant. He began to memorize the Bible and learn the lives of the saints. In fact, he once told his wife, “I could have never imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

 

 

Road to martyrdom

Three of Franz Jagerstatter's four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Three of Franz Jagerstatter’s four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Jagerstatter and Franziska had three girls together, and remained close to his other daughter. In 1938, around the time their eldest daughter was born, Germans invaded Austria.

The Catholic Church in Austria had warned against Nazi socialism for years. Catholics in Germany were facing severe restrictions, including the prohibition of Mass outside of Sundays, even for the holiest solemnities and feast days.   Jagerstatter’s own pastor had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon. His bishop had dictated an anti-Nazi letter to be read in all the parishes several years earlier. That same bishop would declare, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” He was later replaced with a bishop who spoke more cautiously.

The same pope who had blessed Jagerstatter’s marriage, Pope Pius XI, published the encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge“, in which he warned that socials was more dangerous than communism.

 

Buoyed by these witnesses, Jagerstatter was still the only person in his whole town to disavow Anschluss, or the German annexation of Austria. He was dismayed to see many Catholics support the Nazis. One cardinal even demanded that all parishes fly the Nazi flag from their churches on Hitler’s birthday.

 

“I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country,” he wrote.

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./ Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The prevailing idea at the time was that a peasant layman should do what his country told him to do. By this obedience, the people who made the decisions, and not the peasant, would hold moral responsibility for the actions. But Franz couldn’t reconcile that worldview with the fact that he had a freewill, and that he could not call himself a disciple if he bowed that will to a movement he viewed as satanic. He would not fight for the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter's arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter’s arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

At first it seemed that being a farmer would keep him from fighting–Germany’s massive army required equally massive amounts of food. Unfortunately, in 1943 the need for fighters grew, and Jagerstatter was called to active duty. He went to the induction center, where he announced that he would not fight. He was summarily carted to the military prison at Linz to learn his fate.

“I am convinced it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life,” he wrote.

 

 

Saints have saints for friends

Friends, family and even the local bishop visited Jagerstatter in prison, trying to convince him to fight. None of these visitors gave him a convincing argument against his moral convictions about conscientious objection. Instead, they all tried to convince him that God would not hold him accountable for doing what his state ordered. Jagerstatter was unconvinced.

 

“Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives — often in horrible ways — for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith,” he said.

Austria: The first page of Franz's last essay, written while he was in prison. The first sentence reads,

The first page of Franz’s last essay, written while he was 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 my will were in chains.”/Styria Verlag. Used with permission

His wife accepted his need to follow his conscience. He was also part of a movement of Catholic martyrs who gave their life to fight the Nazis.

 

St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) had died the previous August in Auschwitz, almost a year to the day after St. Maximillian Kolbe. Blessed Marcel Callo was just beginning the undercover Catholic activities in his forced labor camp that would eventually lead to his 1945 martyrdom for being “too Catholic.”

Most impressively, Jagerstatter spent May to August of 1943 in the same prison as the renowned Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is not evidence that the two men ever met, or even realized they shared a prison with someone so similar in conviction. Jagerstatter was able to learn, though, of a priest who had been martyred in the same prison for the exact reasons he and so many others shared.

That conviction ultimately cost him his life. He was taken to Berlin, where he was sentenced to death for sedition. His last recorded words before he met the guillotine are,”I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.”

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter's daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads,

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter’s daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads, “Dear Father, come [home] soon.” Franz was in jail in Linz and was later executed./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The Church agreed. During Vatican II, Jagerstatter’s life helped shape the section of Gaudium et Spes that talks about conscientious objectors to war. He was beatified 50 years after his death. His daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the ceremony.

COMING UP: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.