Today is the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter who was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007. I learned a bit about his life, witness, and sacrifice for peace during my graduate studies as part of my research into nonviolent resistance. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote about nonviolent resistance to the Holocaust:
Although one might consider his 2007 beatification to have shifted his “ordinary” status, Franz Jägerstätter lived a rather ordinary and simple life. His primary occupations were husband, father, and farmer. His marriage to Franziska, a very devout Christian, was happy and deepened his own commitment to his Catholic faith. He was a volunteer parish sacristan and later became a lay tertiary Franciscan. Equipped with only a seventh-grade education, he was nevertheless widely read—periodicals, devotionals, papal encyclicals, lives of the saints, and scripture.
Jägerstätter had a vivid dream in 1938, two months prior to the arrival of Hitler’s army in his native Austria. It was a dream upon which he later reflected and acted.
“Suddenly, I saw a beautiful train, which was going around a mountain. Grown-ups and children were streaming toward it and could hardly be held back. I would rather not say how few adults did not get on the train. Then suddenly a voice said to me: ‘This train is going to Hell’ … And now I realize that it embodies National Socialism, as it descends upon us with all its many organizations.”
“From the very beginning,” notes his biographer Erna Putz, Jägerstätter “refused all cooperation” with the Nazi regime, even refusing government payments for raising children or crop damage. He was the only person in his village to vote “No” to the April 1938 German annexation of Austria, even though the annexation vote had been endorsed by Austrian Cardinal Innitzer. Conscription soon became the fate of able bodied Austrian men, now German citizens.
Jägerstätter was no exception. He received six months of army training in 1941, during which time he realized that he could not in good conscience serve in the Nazi military. As a devout Catholic, he discussed his decision with his priest, who told him in confession that such a decision would be akin to suicide, and even with his local Bishop, who advised him to think of his duty to his family. His resolve was unchanged. He wrote: “Does it still bear witness to Christian love of the neighbor if I commit an act, which I truly regard as evil and very unjust, and yet I continue to commit the act because otherwise I would suffer either physical or economic harm?”
When Jägerstätter was called to active duty in 1943, he declared his refusal to participate. He was beheaded on August 9, 1943. Faced with evil, and commanded to participate in that evil, he responded by seizing the moral initiative, refusing to submit, and being willing both to suffer rather than retaliate and to undergo the penalty of breaking an unjust law.