An Irishman's Diary

On August 9th, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded in a Berlin prison, the first of 16 prisoners to suffer the death penalty…

On August 9th, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded in a Berlin prison, the first of 16 prisoners to suffer the death penalty on that day. Unlike the others, however, this Austrian farmer is not likely to be forgotten, now that the Catholic Church has taken the first steps to have him beatified. Padraig Ó Cuanacháin writes

A native of Radegund, not far from Salzburg, Franz as a young man, was regarded as a bit of a troublemaker, involved in several fights and the owner of the first motorcycle in the locality - hardly the person one would expect to oppose Hitler and die in solitary witness for his beliefs.

The annexation of Austria by Hitler in 1938 and its incorporation into the greater German Reich made him a local leader of opposition to the Nazis. His dislike of Hitler and National Socialism was heightened when he learned of Hitler's ill-treatment of the Jews and the horrors of the extermination programme for the mentally ill.

In February 1943, when he was summoned to Linz military barracks for active service with a motorised unit, he stated his intention of refusing to fight in what he regarded as an immoral war. He was promptly arrested and sent on to Berlin to stand trial before a court martial.

Before his final act of defiance he had ample time to formulate his ideas and strengthen his conscience. He was a married man with three young children. Priests and relations pleaded with him to think of his family before sacrificing his life as a conscientious objector.

But this farmer with no special education saw to the heart of the matter: "It is sad to hear from Catholics that this war is not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism in Russia. But now a question: what are we fighting in that country - Bolshevism or the Russian people? History teaches us the same thing again and again. If a conqueror attacks another country they have not invaded the country to improve people, but to get something for themselves such as minerals, good farmland and oil wells".

He met Bishop Fliesser of Linz and had some disturbing questions for discussion. "What Catholic can dare say that these attacks which Germany has made on several countries constitute a just war? . . Who dares to assert that only one person among the German people bears the responsibility in this war?"

The bishop can hardly be faulted for striving to save Jägerstätter's life and advising him to submit to the authority of the State. But the Austrian bishops must be condemned for not standing up to the evils of National Socialism and indeed effectively supporting Hitler by ruling that the oath taken by all soldiers, "I swear by God to obey the Führer unconditionally", could be taken by Catholics.

One of Jägerstätter's final statements may be as true today as it was during Hitler's regime in Germany: "If the Church stays silent in the face of evil, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?"

When the President of the court martial put it to him that millions of other Catholics, including priests and seminarians found it impossible to take up arms, Franz replied that they had not been given the grace to see things otherwise. He was sentenced to death. Up to the time of his execution he had an opportunity to withdraw his objection, save his life and be assigned immediately to an army probation unit.

Father Jochman, the prison Chaplain, was so impressed by his courage and sincerity before death that he declared that he was the only saint he had met in his life. It was this priest who arranged after the war for the return of the ashes to the village church in Radegund. That has now become a place of pilgrimage and a centre for the movement for beatification and canonisation of this most remarkable man.

Down through the centuries the Catholic Church has made accommodations with the controlling establishments in which it seemed to be "embedded". Edicts of excommunication were issued against those who struggled to change the system, never against the exploiter, the imperialist, the slave owner or the dictator. There were, of course, honourable exceptions. Bishop Count Clement von Gallen certainly proved himself a nuisance to Hitler as did some heroic ministers and priests such as Father Maximilian Kolbe.

In Austria, it was an ordinary farmer who made an honourable stand and was faithful until death for Christianity and Catholicism - in sad contrast to the church's leader, Cardinal Innitzer, who, when Hitler occupied Austria, ordered all church bells to peal in Hitler's honour and the Swastika to be flown from all steeples.

It is to be hoped that the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter will open a wide discussion on the political role of the Catholic Church down through the centuries, and especially on its mission at the present time.