Franz Jagaerstatter (1907-1943)
Franz Jagaerstatter said no to Adolph Hitler. He was convinced that Adolph Hitler was wrong. Of all the millions of German and Austrian people under Nazi domination few said no to Hitler. Few among the laborers, farmers, common soldiers or the elite dared to oppose the Fuhrer and his government. It seemed that they did not have the courage to resist him. As in all armies throughout world history there were soldiers who deserted the German army. As in all wars, there were some patricians and nobles who disagreed with theft leaden. But very few men and women from the lower class and very few from the middle and upper classes resisted Hitler. And still fewer yet, opposed Hitler because of a religious and moral conviction; a religious and moral conviction that enabled them to come to the conclusion that Hitler was engaged in an unjust war of aggression, and that his regime was civil, thereby deserving their non-cooperation. Franz Jagaerstatter had these convictions.
Bishops, priests and pastors, Roman Catholic and Protestant, fell in line with Hitler's demands. Very few religious leaders refused to cooperate with him because of their Christian religion and their Christian ethics. Some notable exceptions were Provost Lichtenberg of Berlin, Father Alfred Delph, a Jesuit priest, Father Franz Reinisch, a Pallotine priest, Pastor Niemoller and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two Lutheran ministers who believed that -their Christian religion did not allow them to obey Hitler. Their conscience led them to speak out against the Nazi ruler. Their defiance finally led to their execution. The pastors of the Protestant Confessional Church in Germany also stood firmly for the religion When faced with Hitler's wrath however, they did not do so openly but went underground. Most Christians in Germany and Austria supported their Fuhrer in World War II. Many Christian leaders actively assisted him. Many passively acquiesced, as did their followers.
But the peasant, Franz Jagaerstatter, said no to Hitler. He said that his conscience and his religious beliefs prevented him from serving in Hitler's army which was intent upon the pursuit of an unjust and immoral war. He knew that this stand would mean death. But he preferred death rather than to submit to Hitler and to Hitler's evil orders.
Who was this poor simple farmer with an eighth grade education who made himself unique among millions? Who was this peasant who stood by his religious beliefs and his Christian morality and defied a powerful ruler while others obeyed the civil and military laws of the despot?
Franz Jagaerstatter was an Austrian farmer born in the rural community of St. Radegund, in the Salzback valley, a few miles from the border with Bavaria. His birth date is given as May 20, 1907. After his father was killed in World War I, his mother married a farmer named Jagaerstatter who adopted Franz.
In the country school he was considered a bright student, excelling in reading and- religious study. He attended school until the compulsory school leaving age of 14. He then helped his parents with work on the farm.
Franz was considered a wild youth by the villagers. He was an active member of his village gang, which fought the gangs of neighboring villages. It was rumored that he fathered a child and paid child support monies for some years. He had to leave St. Radegund for a year or so because of his bitter fight with another young man over the affections of this local fraulein. While away from St. Radegund, he worked in a mine and bought a motorcycle with his savings, the first motorcycle in the village. He had his days of hot rodding, of drinking and gambling in the local taverns, of chasing the frauleins, of gang friendship and fighting and all the other boisterous activities of a young man intent upon having fun legally or illegally. These antics would come to an abrupt end.
Soon after he returned from "exile," the villagers of St. Radegund noticed a change in him. It was reported that he acted differently from the old fun loving, carefree Franz Jagaerstatter. He became more serious gave up drinking and gambling in the tavern and stopped brawling. He became conscious of his Roman Catholic religion and started reading religious books, especially the lives of the Christian Saints. He became quieter and seemed more peaceful. During this time, Franz enquired about joining a monastic order, but the parish priest advised him to stay home and help his father operate the farm. Whatever brought about this change is not quite understood. Was it religion? Millions of German and Austrian Christian youths had the same religious upbringing as Fran. They however, obeyed the state government and went to kill in Hitler's declared wars. They did not heed their religious teaching which says, "Thou shalt not kill".
Franz Jagaerstatter obeyed this commandment. He told the people of St. Radegund that he would not serve in Hitler's army, not even in the Ambulance Detail or the Medical Corps. And he told them this years before his final induction call in February 1943. He refused to take the oath to serve Hitler and the Nazi army. As his priest recalled him saying, "I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war" (Zahn.107).
All this defiance was against the Nazi state law of August 1938 which required, "The death penalty shall be levied against anyone who publicly advocates or incites the refusal to perform the required service in the German army" (Zahn.89). Franz Jagaerstatter knew this law. He said his conscience would not allow him to obey it.
During the time when Jagaerstatter underwent his religious conversion, he had just come home from a short period of military training. It may have been then that he realized that he could not, in good conscience, proceed to be a soldier. Maybe he then realized the moral incongruity between his Christian ethics and man's inconsistency in using the 6th commandment (Thou shalt not kill") for his own purposes.
Franz married in 1936. He and his wife traveled to Rome for their honeymoon. In those days it was unusual for someone to travel to Rome from a small village in Austria. This act illustrates his sincere religious feeling and his need to be blessed by the Pope in St. Peter's square. This marriage, blessed in Rome, resulted in three daughters for the Jagaerstatter--Rosalie, born September 1, 1937, Marie, born September 4, 1938, and Aloisia, born May 5, 1940. Many of Fran's friends accused his wife of being too religious and influencing him to decide not to serve in the army. They also accused her of acquiescing in her husband's decision not to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler or to ask for pardon. They were wrong on both counts according to Dr. Gordon C. Zahn's book on Franz Jagaerstatter. Zahn said that Franz's wife was a devout Catholic whom he probably chose because of her deep religious conviction and that Mrs. Jagaerstatter did plead with her husband to sign the oath of allegiance in order to save his life.
Hitler marched across the border into Austria on March 11, 1938 and annexed it. After militarily occupying the country, he gave the Austrians a choice in a poll on April 10, 1938 to confirm his Anchluss (Union of Austria with Germany). Franz Jagaerstatter was one of the few Austrians to vote against the union because he loved Austria very much. He always considered himself an Austrian and not a German, and wanted no part of Hitler or his government in Austria. He compared the rape of Austria to the seduction of a decent innocent girl by an aggressive overpowering adventurer. He wrote, "Such a girl can pray day and night and still not have her prayers heard until she ends the relationship; and she may not shrink back from any hardship even if he should threaten to kill her or ruin her reputation" (Zahn.33). Franz also believed that the Catholic Church in Austria had betrayed its trust and succumbed too easily to Hitler. He thought that the church should have resisted and wished that, ". . .the Austrian Catholic clergy, from the very beginning at the time of the April 10 plebiscite, had set themselves firmly in opposition, instead of actually praising the Party in order to help it win an almost un2ninlous victory at the polls. . .(and). . .capitulate to the National Socialists" (Zhn.47). all that Franz could say when the villagers greeted him with "Heil Hitler" was "Pfui Hitler".
In 1940, the sexxton of the Roman Catholic Church, the only church in St. Radegund, died. After ascertaining that the sexton's family did not want the job, Franz accepted the position when offered it by the priest. This offer was made to Franz because of his exemplary life as a Christian in the community. The priest had noticed that Franz came to communion every day and fasted every morning after communion as a mark of respect for the sacred body of Jesus. The priest had also noticed Fran7's pilgrimage to the nearby shrines, his absence from the gambling and drinking at the two local taverns, and his exemplary family life. Thus Franz Jagaerstatter added the position of sexton of his church to his regular duties as a village farmer.
Jagaerstatter commitment to his duty as sexton in an excellent manner is attested to by the parishioners. For example, although it was customary for the sexton to take money -for prayers of remembrance for the dead, Franz never took the money. He not only prayed with the family but also took a place in the procession as a member of the bereaved family. He gave food from his own meager supply to the poor of St Fadegurd and he himself remained poor. He remained happy in his life with his family. He sang hymns as he worked in the fields and was grateful to God for allowing him to enjoy the beautiful countryside. He also refused the state aid that he was entitled to as the father of three children. Thus he was consistent in his opposition to Hitler and in his non-cooperation with any state scheme.
An incident, which helped Fran come to his decision was a dream or trance which he experienced some years shortly after his marriage. He saw a train packed with people coming around a mountain curve. When it stopped everyone was boarding it, and an angel informed him that the train was going to purgatory and took him along for the ride. He felt the most excruciating pain during the few seconds he spent in purgatory and was only relieved by his sudden awakening to consciousness. He interpreted this vision to mean that most of his countrymen were bound for hell if they continued to ride along with Hitler and the Nazis.
All this came to an end when he was served his final papers to report to the army for actual military duty on March 1, 1943. He sought the advice of his bishop at Linz, who kept him waiting for a long time, finally telling him to obey the civil authorities and submit to the military command as all the other Catholics were doing. The bishop also called his attention to his duty to stay alive for his wife and children's sake. Franz's plan for civil disobedience and defiance of Hitler's laws found no sympathy with his learned bishop. It was unfortunate he could not have consulted with India's religious leader. He would have found understanding and sympathy with Mahatma Gandhi, who at that very moment was pulling the lion's tail, in offering Satyagraha (non-violent disobedience) to his British ruler's unjust regime in India.
Parish priests in St. Radegund and other neighboring villages also offered Franz no consolation. He was left alone with his convictions, deserted by his bishop, his priest, his friends, his co-religionists and his countrymen. Franz's interpretation of the true Christian religion, his belief in the commandment not to kill, his faith in the lives of the saints and his love and devotion to God as shown through Jesus Christ, God's son, kept him faithful to his decision not to serve in the German army or take the oath of allegiance to Hitler. Jagaerstatter wrote the following to Reverend Karobath a few weeks before his final induction call, "Everyone tells me.. .that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death, but it seems to me that the others who do fight are not completely free of the same danger of death. If so many terrible things are permitted by this terrible gang (the Nazis), I believe it is better to sacrifice one's life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying" (Zahn 59).
Thus Fran? Jagaerstatter was still determined not to serve in Hitler's army. He probably had made up his mind many years before he reported to Thins military center as he was summoned to do. When he told the authorities that he would not join the army, he was put under military arrest and sent to prison at Linz.
What did the local people think of Franz Jagaerstatter decision? According to Dr. Gordon C. Zahn who researched this question at the village of St. Radegund, the villagers thought that Franz went overboard on religion and became mentally deranged. This would explain why he defied the military call by Hitler. It also explained why he obeyed the teachings Of his religion and the command of God rather than his government. Of course, all of the men of the area who were called by the Nazi army served. Fifty-seven of them lost their lives in Hitler's battlefields, mostly on the Russian front. Their families did not comprehend how a normal person could refuse the order to go to war. Many bishops, priests and seminarians were in the Nazi army. They had all directed their parishioners to obey the command of Hitler to fight Hitler's enemies as he had ordered them to do. It takes an extraordinary person to stick to the dictates of his own conscience and resist the routine behavior of millions of his fellow Austrians and Germans. Such a man was Franz Jagaerstatter. He wrote from prison to his wife, `Dear wife, you should not be sad because of my present situation. For we cannot know God's mind, or which of the many paths he leaves us to travel and still reach the right goal. As long as a man has an untroubled conscience and knows that he is not really a criminal, he can live at peace even in prison" (Zahn.65). Many of his fellow villagers thought he had become a strange person and wished to forget about him. But one or two of them thought that the sacrifice of his life for his moral conviction and his understanding of his religion was the act of a saint. Father Karobath, one of the priests who served in St. Radegund in Franz's days, surely thought so.
In prison, Franz was a model inmate. Many times he fasted and gave his food to his cellmates. A French prisoner wanted some flowers to send to his girlfriend who liked flowers very much. Franz requested some Edelweiss (wild flower of the Austrian highlands) from his wife in order to make the Frenchman and his Mend happy. (The French were considered as the enemy by Austrians and Germans because of Hitler's declaration. After the war the French were considered friends while the Russians had become the enemy.)
Franz kept up his religious devotion by daily prayers and reading of the Bible and other religious materials. As another of his cell mates, a Frenchman, remembered, "His faith in God and justice was beyond measure--thus one saw him sunk in prayer the whole day through, his rosary his constant companion. In the same way, the Easter communion we received together in April, 1943, brought him great happiness" (Zahn.78). Mother cell mate remembered Franz's great love for his own country, Austria. This certainly kept his mind focused against Hitler who had raped his beloved country.
The lawyer appointed to defend Franz tried his best to save Franz from the gallows. This lawyer, F.L. Feldmann, persuaded the court judges to see Franz privately before the trial in order to talk Franz out of his refusal to cooperate. But it was to no avail. Even after the death sentence was passed the lawyer appealed for pardon. All Franz had to do to save his life was to sign the paper left in his cell. But Franz refused to do it. He was bound in his obedience to God's command not to kill.
Towards the end of July, 1943, the lawyer summoned Mrs. Jagaerstatter to come to Berlin's Tegel prison where Franz was taken for the final disposition. Mrs. Jagaerstatter came, accompanied by Father Furthauer, the parish priest of St. Radegund. The priest tried every argument to change Franz's decision, but Franz persisted. Franz was overjoyed to see his wife, who, knowing that her husband had already made up his mind and was at peace with his conscience, did not ask him to relinquish his decision on her account. As he had previously written to her ". . . someone argues from the standpoint of the family do not be troubled, for it isn't permitted to lie even for the sake of the family. If I had ten children, the greatest demand upon me would still be the one I must make of myself. . May God accept my life in reparation not only for my sins but for the sins of others as well" (Zahn.102-103).
On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagaerstatter was beheaded by the Nazi military authorities. His body was cremated and his ashes buried in Brandenburg on August 17, 1943. The chaplain who witnessed Fran's last days marveled at the peace and composure which Franz experienced in communion with God. This same chaplain, Father Jachmann, said to the Austrian sisters who ministered at the prison, "I can only congratulate you on this countrymen of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I say with certainty shat this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime" (Zahn.107). One of those sisters was instrumental in finding Franz's ashes in Brandenburg and transferring them to St Radegund for burial in the church and country which Franz loved so much.
- In Solitary Witness, The Life and Death of Franz. Jagaerstatter by Gordon C. Zahn. Holt Rinehart & Winston, N.Y. 1964