Traitor, Fanatic or Saint?
Dorothy Garrity Ranaghan
(published in The Word Among Us)
It was a warm summer evening in 1938. Franz Jaegerstaetter startled awake, vividly aware of his dream. In the dream he saw a “shining train circling a mountain.” Everyone was rushing to get a place on the train, including children. Suddenly he heard a voice that warned: “This train is going to Hell.” His terror in remembering this dream never faded. He came to believe that the train he saw symbolized Nazism. That belief proved personally dangerous. Was he just a dreamer, a man to be dismissed, or was he a visionary whose life holds urgent meaning for Christians today?
Franz Jaegerstaetter, who was born in upper Austria on May 20, 1907 in the tiny village of St. Radegund, was minimally educated, but quite well read. He lived what some would call a “wild life” as a youth. Among his exploits, he is reputed to have fathered an illegitimate child, a daughter. Eventually, however, as most young men do, he settled down in his inherited occupation as a “simple farmer.” Somewhere in the mid l930’s, the villagers remember that he had a sudden and total change of behavior. He had a deep, personal conversion that anchored his faith and led him to read the bible regularly. His devotion became visible. The same neighbors, who were upset by his early rebellion, now became critical of his very public faith. He could be seen walking to attend daily mass. He would kneel to pray the rosary and would sing openly in the fields as he worked. And though he briefly considered joining a religious order, in l938, he chose to marry an equally devout Catholic girl, Franziska Schwaninger.
At first their lives were unremarkable. Within a few years they had three young daughters. The couple was blissfully happy, and he was known as a devoted husband. His wife has written that “our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish—many people envied us.” He was also an affectionate father. In a sight rare for men of his day, he was often seen in town pushing the pram with his young daughters.
Their lives, however, were to be turned upside down. Franz was first called for Austrian military service in June of 1940. He was sworn in and served for the better part of two years, but his experience in the service caused him growing alarm at the evils of Nazism. He was horrified at what was happening to the disabled under the T-4 Euthanasia policy of the regime. Further, he was scandalized by the amount of sexual sin he witnessed in the military. He made very public statements announcing that he would not comply with further conscription.
Neighbors, friends, clergy and family began to get nervous. Though his political opposition was rooted in religious commitment, they all knew that the penalty for acting on these new, “wild ideas,” was death. It seemed as if his conscience stood alone within the community. Ironically, though there is no evidence that Jaegerstaetter knew it, on October 11, 1930, before Hitler had risen to the height of his power, Pope Pius XI is quoted in Osservatore Romano as saying “belonging to the National Socialist Party of Hitler is irreconcilable with the Catholic conscience.” But this was not the advice that Franz received from the priests and bishops to whom he went for council. They reminded him of his duty to his family. Their arguments failed to sway him. In a letter, he later expanded on his reasoning, “Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith nor his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering….People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.” Others argued for his duty to his country, and that he had a responsibility to obey legitimate authorities. It is those in authority, they said, who were to be judged for their decisions, not ordinary citizens. He rejected these arguments.
Sadly, those around Jaegerstaetter shook their heads. Was there a traitor in their midst? Was he crazy? Was he “touched in the head?” Had his devotion gone overboard? Was he a fanatic? Reports from the priests, who counseled him to make a different decision, indicate that they could not see any sign of imbalance. They saw him as zealous, but rational.
Initially, Franz was not a total pacifist. He would have taken up arms with his fellow citizens had they turned on the Nazis. But he believed that the war he was being asked to wage was unjust, and he could not in conscience do that. So intent was he to make sure that he did not collaborate with the regime, that he refused the family assistance benefits to which he was entitled. Hardship was more acceptable to him than what he now considered sin.
On March 11, 1938 Hitler crossed the border between Austria and Germany. When the citizens set out to vote on the annexation of Austria by Germany, [the Anschluss] Jaegerstaetter was the only one in his village to vote NO. Shortly before this annexation, many Austrians including the now famous Baron and Maria von Trapp, decided their families should leave. The von Trapps fled Austria [by train, not by hiking over mountains as in the more romantic movie version] rather than capitulate to the Anschluss. Franz Jaegerstaetter stayed, and it cost him his life.
In March of 1943, he was again called to active military duty. But he had long ago decided that the war was unjust, and that his conscience would not permit him to fight in it. He said “We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons—and the foremost among these is prayer.” Remembering his vivid dream, he reminded himself, and counseled others, to “Jump out of the train [of Nazism] even if it costs you your life.” “Are we Christians”, he wrote, “perhaps wiser than Christ Himself? Does anyone really think that this massive bloodletting can possibly save European Christianity from defeat – or bring it to a new flowering? Did our good Savior, whom we should always try to imitate, go forth with His apostles against the heathens as German Christians are doing today?”
On March 1, 1943 he wrote: “Today I am going to take the difficult step.” That step, the first in his personal “road to Jerusalem,” took him to the train station and the train which would take him to the induction center. In a struggle much like Jesus in the garden of olives, he had to tear himself away. As he was leaving, he hugged his wife repeatedly. In the emotion of the moment he took the train in the wrong direction and wound up being late to report.
Franziska had tried for a long time to dissuade her husband from his viewpoint for the sake of their family, but in the end she stood by him. “If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one,” she explained. His letters to her during the six months of imprisonment that would follow are touching and filled with profound ruminations on politics and scripture, and with the loving words a man approaching death says to his wife and children. He encouraged them that “we must become heroes of the faith,” adding that “the important thing is to fear God more than man.” He struggled, asking God to give him a sign if some other course of action would be better. “Christ too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the Heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from His lips—but we must never forget this part of his prayer: ‘Lord, not my will be done but rather Thine.”
Even in prison he was thinking of others. He firmly believed that disciples of Jesus should be known by their love. “Love,” he wrote,” is the “outer-wear,” is the “uniform of Jesus’ disciples.” Small, loving acts became his way of life in prison. In one of his letters he asked his wife to send some pieces of edelweiss for a fellow inmate to send to his beloved for a gift. And when another cell-mate suffered from hunger, he shared his small portion of bread, declaring that “a cup of coffee is enough for me.” He was also conscious of the power of speech, noting that we “give many more death blows with our tongues than with our hand,” and so he counseled discipline and prayer when tempted to verbally lash out against another. In one of his letters to his wife he asked her forgiveness “for any unnecessary or unkind words.”
After a brief trial, on August 9,1943, Franz Jaegerstaetter was beheaded. He was 37 years old. Franziska writes that she felt an “intense personal communion” with Franz at 4 p.m. that day that was so strong she marked it in her journal. It was much later that she found out that he had been beheaded at that exact moment.
Franziska is still alive.(amended: Franziska died on March 16th, 2013 at the age of 100) Fr. John Dear spoke with her in 1997, and wrote that “She looks like Georgia O’Keefe, has the sparkling eyes of Mother Teresa,…with an infectious joy and loving kindness. She carries herself with humility, a hint of shyness.” Franziska Jaegerstaetter was able to witness a glorious ending to this tragic story. On October 26th of 2007, Franz Jaegerstaetter was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI. Franziska, then 94, and all four of his daughters, [those from their marriage as well as the illegitimate daughter], all in their 70’s, were able to come to Rome to witness the Church name their beloved husband and father, a saint. Handing over a gold cup containing his bone fragments, Franziska wept. And according to eye witnesses, as she leaned over to kiss the urn, said: “now he belongs to us all.”
Pilgrims now travel to St. Radegund to pray at the grave which holds the ashes Franziska had received in a simple box after his death. The site is just outside the chapel where Franz used to attend Mass. The eidelweiss of his beloved Austria covers the gravesite.
The witness of Franz Jaegerstaetter should make us more than a bit uneasy. He was a martyr for the sake of conscience. We too face many issues of conscience and justice in our society. Current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been condemned by the Vatican, Pope John Paul II calling them a “defeat for humanity.” Yet Christians participate. As Fr. Daniel Berrigan notes, alluding to Jaegerstaetter’s train dream, even today, “the train beats its way across the world, crowded with contented passenger-citizen-Christians.” Are we too being called to jump off this train? Franz Jaegerstaetter the visionary, prophet and martyr would say yes. The role of a prophet is to speak the universally applicable Word of God to concrete situations, to see what others cannot. Will we heed the prophets? The Catechism of the Catholic Church [paragraph 2242] states that:
The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directions of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, the fundamental rights of persons or the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21). “We must obey God rather than man” (Ac 5:29).
Civil disobedience, even when countenanced by the Church, takes courage. Will we find the courage to speak out against the evils of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, economic disparity, racial injustice, stockpiling of nuclear weapons and our nation’s sometimes morally dubious wars of aggression? The visionary words of Jaegerstaetter are sobering. “Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning…People want to observe Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world, Christians who live amid all of the darkness with clarity, insight, and conviction…” Will we dare take a stand with both words and actions for our convictions? We will probably not face death for our actions, but for standing against these social evils we may be reviled, we may be mocked, we may be called names. We can only hope that like Franz Jaegerstaetter, one of those names will be – saint!
The primary resources for quotations in this article are from: Zahn, Gordon, In Solitary Witness. Holt, Rinehard and Winston. New York, l964.
and from the personal reflections of Fr. John Dear.
Dorothy Garrity Ranaghan, is a founding member of the People of Praise Community. B.A. Duquesne University; M.A.[theology] University of Notre Dame, author of
Blind Spot: War and Christian Identity New City Press, 2011.