IN SOLITARY WITNESS
Prof. Michael Ogunu
There is always risk in standing in the way of evil men whether in government, business or private life. But there are times when one's faith and conscience lead one to risk even life itself. Such was the case of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant who refused to fight in Hitler's war because he believed that the Nazi movement (Hitler's National Socialism) was anti-Christian. Because of his stand, he was beheaded by the Germans in 1943.
Franz Jagerstatter was born in 1907 in the small town of St. Radegund in Austria. His natural father was killed in World War I. His mother married Herr Jagerstatter, a small farmer, who had adopted Franz. After gaining reputation as a rather wild young man, Franz married and settled down to a typical peasant life.
In addition to his farm and household duties, Franz became sexton of the parish church, and was known for his diligent and devout service, particularly in refusing donations for conducting bereavement services, and for joining the bereaved as a fellow mourner. After taking up this work, he began to receive Holy Communion daily. He was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis revived by Pope Leo XIII which he joined on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, in 1940. Franz also became known for his opposition to the Nazi regime (Hitler's government), casting the only local vote against the annexation of Austria by Germany in a plebiscite that was conducted to determine the stand of Austrians on the matter.
When Franz was called to active duty in Hitler's military service, he refused, saying that his conscience would not allow it, despite the pleas of several priests and his bishop who told him that service could be justified. Every single priest, pastor, chaplain and bishop he knew advised him to fight for the Nazis for the sake of his wife and children. He held his ground. He said that it would be better for his four children to know their missing father as a martyr than to keep him as a Nazi collaborator. He accused the Catholic Church in Austria of abandoning her policy of resistance to National Socialism – which had been systematic at least until 1938 – by capitulating to National Socialist ideology (out of fear of Hitler) and treating those who died for Hitler as heroes. In 1937 the Vatican had issued a publication (Mit brennender Sorge) with which Franz was familiar, which was a categorical denunciation of Hitler and National Socialism as anti-Christian. The Vatican had moved swiftly, therefore, to warn the world that Hitler was not deserving of any support. The works of Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, were put on the Index (list of publications forbidden by the Church). This severity was matched by an institutional position, whereby Nazis were debarred access to the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Franz reconciled his Church's advice of subservience to the governing authorities with his conscience by reporting to the induction centre but refusing to serve. Imprisoned in Linz and Berlin, he was convicted in a military trial and beheaded on August 9, 1943. He was survived by his wife and four daughters, the eldest of whom was six.
Jagerstatter's sacrifice was uniformly regarded as foolish by his neighbours, and his story almost forgotten, but for a book entitled: In Solitary Witness written by an American Sociologist Gordon Zahn, who heard of Franz Jagerstatter when researching the subject of German Catholics' response to Hitler.
In his reflection on the life of Franz Jagerstatter, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan (US) said that Franz gave up his life in resistance to sin in the public order.
In June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Jagerstatter was indeed a martyr. On October 26, 2007 Franz Jagerstatter was beatified. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presided at the beatification ceremonies, held in Linz. More than 5000 people gathered in Linz Cathedral to celebrate the beatification. Franz Jagerstatter’s widow Franziska, 94 years old and his four daughters, Hildegard, Maria, Aloisia and Rosalia were there. Twenty-seven Bishops and Cardinals participated including Most Rev. Dr. Ludwig Schwarz, Bishop of Linz, Bishop Luigi Bettazi from Italy and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton from the United States.
What is the significance of the life and death of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter for us? The life and death of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter tells us that a single act of conscience is like a seed in the ground, and that whatever is done for the truth will make a difference, and that it is God that will make that difference acting through us. We too can say NO to the evils in our society and be willing to take the consequences of this NO. And there are consequences. We might not be beatified like Franz, but we are likely to win the crown promised to the faithful. “The crucial lesson to be learned”, Gordon Zahn declared, “is that, however hopeless the situation or seemingly futile the effort, the Christian need not despair. Instead he can and should be prepared to accept and assert moral responsibility for his actions”. “It is always possible”, as Jagerstatter wrote, “to save one's own soul and perhaps some others as well by bearing individual witness against evil”.
The commandments of God teach us, of course, that we must render obedience to secular rulers. But only to the extent that they do not order us to do anything evil, for we must obey God rather than men.
Copyright © Professor Michael Ogunu 2015
Version: 28th April 2015