In 1936 Franz Jägerstätter wrote to his godchild: “I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living…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 some day, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith.” When the plebiscite to approve Germany’s annexation of Austria was held on April 10, 1938, Jägerstätter was the only person in his town of Sankt Radegund to vote no. Although not involved with any political party, Jägerstätter was openly anti-Nazi and publicly declared he would not fight for the Third Reich. He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis in 1940 and worked as a sacristan at his local parish church. In 1940, at age 33, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and completed basic training. Returning home in 1941 under a military exemption as a farmer, he began to examine the morality of the war and discussed the matter with his bishop. Jägerstätter emerged from the discussion saddened that the bishop seemed afraid to confront the issue.
After numerous delays, Jägerstätter was called to active duty in February, 1943. Maintaining his position against fighting, upon reporting for military service on March 1, he declared himself to a conscientious objector. His offer to serve as a paramedic was rejected. A priest from his village visited him in jail and tried unsuccessfully to convince him to serve. Accused of Wehrkrafzersetzung (“undermining military morale”), after a military trial, he was sentenced to death and executed at Brandenburg-Gorden Prison in August, 1943. His last words as he was led to the guillotine were:“I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” The prison chaplain who ministered to him that day later remarked, “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have met in my lifetime.” Franz Jägerstätter is, unquestionably, an inspiration to people of all faith traditions. His witness demonstrated that a Christian with a well formed conscience could indeed make a difficult and principled choice during a moral crisis of unprecedented proportion, even when that choice meant forfeiting his life — in the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth.
Before his death, Jägerstätter was criticized for failing in his duty as a German citizen, especially by fellow Catholics who served in the Wehrmacht. The town council of Sankt Radegund at first refused to allow his name to be included on the town’s war memorial and a pension for his widow was not approved until 1950. Jägerstätter’s story was not well known until 1964, when Gordon C. Zahn published Jägerstätter’s biography entitled, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.
In June, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic exhortation declaring Jägerstätter a martyr. In October 2007, Jägerstätter was beatified a saint, becoming the second Nazi-era resister to be beatified by Benedict XVI; two years earlier Benedict beatified Cardinal Clemens August von Galen. Ironically, Jägerstätter was martyred on the one-year anniversary of St. Edith Stein’s martyrdom at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Newsweek reviewer of In Solitary Witness, wrote: “In death as in the months of his imprisonment, Jägerstätter was a solitary witness…Zahn wonders pointedly whether a church which asks too little of its members will have the courage in the future to demand enough.” And Thomas Merton, in his review of Zahn’s biography, wrote: “The real question raised by Jägerstätter’s story is that of the Church’s own mission of protest and prophecy in the gravest spiritual crisis man has ever known.”
Jägerstätter’s inspirational story of conscience was indeed remarkable, but, unfortunately, such stories were the exception rather than the rule. Regrettably, there were many, many more stories of people mindlessly obeying unjust authority; of bystanders feigning ignorance of what was occurring. Guilt certainly falls on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but a measure of guilt also falls on the doers of duty and on the bystanders. Cain, in the Book of Genesis, asks this provocative question “…Am I my brother’s keeper?” Gen. 4:9 God’s resounding answer in the affirmative is unequivocal. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the leading Jewish theologian of the twentieth century, wrote: “We must continue to remind ourselves that…all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.