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A HIDDEN LIFE

A Biographical Note
Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited by Erna Putz
Excerpts from the introduction by Jim Forest
(Reprinted with permission from Orbis Books)

Franz Jagerstatter was born on May 20, 1907, in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. His mother was an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber. His father, Franz Bachmeier, was the unmarried son of a farmer from Tarsdorf in the Austrian province of Salzburg; he died in the First World War. After Franz's birth, Rosalia's mother, Elisabeth Huber, a shoemaker's widow, took charge of Franz's care.

Franz's formal education was slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921 he attended the one-room school in St. Radegund, where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there were about fifty to sixty children in all. But one sees from his writing that he was a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind.

Franz's birthplace was as inauspicious as his education. The village of St. Radegund, on the River Salzach, is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart's Salzburg is to the south, Linz to the east, Vienna much further east. The closest major German city is Munich. Hitler's birthplace, the Austrian town of Braunau, isn't far from St. Radegund.

Franz grew up mainly among farmers. The Jagerstatter farm was one among many in the area. It was a region in which Catholicism was deeply embedded. The idea of not being Catholic was, for nearly everyone Franz knew, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he did have a cousin who became a Jehovah's Witness.

One reads in the accounts of saints' lives how pious some of them were from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he wasn't hesitant to get involved in fistfights. He enjoyed all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed. Along with all his neighbors, he went to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making.

In 1930, at age twenty-three, Franz worked for a time in the Austrian mining town of Eisenerz.

Returning to St. Radegund, Franz surprised his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he had purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area had a motorcycle.

In August 1933, a local farm maidservant, Theresia Auer, gave birth to a daughter, Hildegard. Franz was the child's father. The fact that there had been no marriage before the birth, nor would there be afterward, was attributed locally to the determined opposition of Franz's mother, who seemed to doubt that Franz was in fact Hildegard's father. What is striking is that for the rest of his life, Franz not only provided material support for Hildegard, but remained very close to her, visiting her often. Just before his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger, Franz and his wife-to-be offered to adopt Hildegard, but Hildegard's mother and grandmother (who was raising the child) declined.

According to local consensus, the most important single factor attributed to bring about a change in Franz was his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger.

Nearly everyone who lived in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz was, neighbors said, "a different man" afterward.

Franziska Schwaninger, or Fani, six years younger than Franz, had grown up on a farm in the village of Hochburg, about five miles away from St. Radegund. She came from a deeply religious family; her father and grandmother were both members of the Marian Congregation. Her grandmother belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. Before Franziska's marriage, she had considered becoming a nun.

After a short engagement, the two were married on April 9, 1936. Franz was almost twenty-nine, Franziska twenty-three.

It was a happy marriage. Franz once told his wife, "I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful." In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how "fortunate and harmonious" have been their years of marriage.

Years after her father's death, the Jagerstatter's eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. Her daughter responded, "But you and daddy didn't fight."

The Jagerstatter's had three children, all daughters: Rosalia (Rosi) in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia (Loisi) in 1940.

Theirs was not a marriage out of touch with the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska were attentive to what was going on just across the river from St. Radegund in Germany, where Hitler had been German chancellor since 1933.

On March 12, 1938, the Eighth Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German Austrian border. Assisted by the local Nazi movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly took control of Austria then organized a national plebiscite on April 10 to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what had already been imposed by military methods, the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of the Third Reich, ceased to exist as an independent state. What had been Austria was renamed Ostmark.

Well before the Anschluss, Franz had been an anti-Nazi, but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level was a remarkable dream he had in January 1938. Perhaps it was triggered by a newspaper article he had read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people had been accepted into the Hitler Youth movement.

In the dream he saw "a wonderful train" coming around a mountain. The gleaming engine and carriages seemed especially attractive to children, who "flowed to this train, and were not held back." Then a voice said to him, "This train is going to hell." He woke Franziska to tell her of his dream and continued to think about it long afterward. The train, he realized, symbolized the glittering Nazi regime with all its spectacles and its associated organizations, Hitler Youth being one of the most important and spiritual corrupting.

In St. Radegund it was widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, had voted against the Anschluss, but, in the reporting of the new regime in Vienna, Franz's solitary vote was left unrecorded.

It was seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person had dared raise a discordant voice. After all, as Franz was painfully aware, even Austria's Catholic hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward Cardinal Innitzer, principal hierarch of the Catholic Church in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing the Anschluss. The words Heil Hitler! were above his signature.

Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian was subject to conscription. Franz was called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in Braunau, Hitler's birthplace, but a few days later he was allowed to return to his farm, as farmers were needed no less than soldiers. In October he was called back from training as an army driver, but in April 1941, six months later, he was again allowed to return to his farm.

Franz's brief period in the army made him realize that a return to the army was not possible for him. If he were summoned again, even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no.

Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he was told that his main responsibility was to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps that would almost certainly guarantee his death.

While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz noted that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people's families. He pointed out that to accept military service also meant leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. Most of all Franz sought advice from the church's pastors. At the time Fr. Ferdinand Furthauer was the priest in St. Radegund, filling in for Fr. Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon and then been banished from the district.

Far from encouraging Franz, Fr. Furthauer - a young man who felt unprepared for such a situation - wondered if refusing military service, given that execution was the almost certain penalty, was not the same as committing the mortal sin of suicide. In later years Fr. Furthauer wrote to Franziska, "I wanted to save his life, but he did not want any pretense and rejected all falsehood."

Franz turned for guidance to his former pastor, Fr. Karobath. "We met in the Bavarian town of Tittmoning," Karobath recalls. "I wanted to talk him out of it [Franz's decision to refuse further military service], but he defeated me again and again with words from the scriptures."

Franz even managed to meet with the bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser. Franziska was in the adjacent waiting room. When Franz came out of the bishop's consulting room, Franziska recalls that he "was very sad and said to me: 'They don't dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.'" Franz had the impression that the bishop didn't discuss his questions because it was possible that his visitor might be a Gestapo spy.

Having gone through his training, nearly two years went by without Franz's receiving a summons to return to the army.

Throughout that period, each time mail was delivered to the Jagerstatter farm, both husband and wife were in dread. Finally on February 23, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. "Now I've signed my death sentence," Franz remarked while putting his signature on the postal receipt. He was ordered to report to a military base in Enns, near Linz, two days later.

The same day he wrote to Fr. Karobath, whom he still regarded as his pastor even though the priest had been sent to another parish, "I must tell you that soon you may be losing one of your parishioners.... Today I received my conscription orders.... As no one can give me a dispensation for the danger to the salvation of my soul that joining this movement [the Nazis] would bring, I just can't alter my resolve, as you know.... It's always said that one shouldn't do what I am doing because of the risk to one's life, but I take the view that those others who are joining in the fighting aren't exactly out of life-threatening danger themselves. This parting will surely be a hard one."

It was indeed a hard parting. At the station in Tittmoning, Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train's movement forced them out to separate. The conductor was furious.

Even as he boarded the train, Franz was already two days late for his appointment at Enns. But, after all, there was no need to arrive on time-once he reached Enns, he and Franziska had every reason to think, it might be only days or weeks before his execution. His late arrival could not make the punishment any worse.

Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1, even then Franz took his time, attending Mass in the local church before reporting to the barracks.

The following day, having announced his refusal to serve, Franz was placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. Franz's stay in Linz lasted three months. Though many others were tried and sentenced at Linz (a Catholic priest who visited prisoners there recalled having accompanied thirty-eight men to their executions), Franz was not one among those tried.

No one knew better than Franziska how carefully thought out was the position Franz was taking.... Even so, it was impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life.

She wrote to him while he was in Linz, "One does God's will even when not understanding it." Even so, she confessed that she nurtured "the small hope that you would change your decision... because you have compassion for me."

"I want to save my life but not through lies," wrote Franz to his wife. "In [the army base at] Enns people wanted to trap me by means of trick questions and so as to make me once again into a soldier. It was not easy to keep my conviction. It may become even more difficult."

Without warning, on May 4 Franz was taken by train to the prison at Tegel, a suburb of Berlin. It had been decided that Franz's was "a more serious case" requiring a Reich Court Martial in the capital rather than a provincial trial. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement.

On July 6 a brief trial occurred. Franz was convicted of "undermining military morale" by "inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army." This was a capital offence. Franz was sentenced to death. From this point on, he was kept in handcuffs.

In a final effort to save Franz's life, his court-assigned lawyer, Friedrich Leo Feldmann, arranged a visit by Franziska and the priest of St. Radegund, Fr. Furthauer, in the hope they could convince his client to change his mind. Were he to do so, Feldmann was confident the court would withdraw its sentence.

Their twenty-minute meeting was Franz and Franziska's last. It happened on July 9 in the presence of armed guards. Not to their surprise, the visitors found that Franz saw no honorable alternative but to continue with his refusal of military service.

Back in St. Radegund, Franziska wrote to Fr. Karobath to report on the meeting with Franz in Berlin, commenting with bitterness, "They [the military officials] could easily have assigned him to the medical corps, but they were naturally too proud for that, for it might have looked like a compromise on their part."

On July 14, Franz's death sentence was confirmed by the Reich's War Court. On August 9, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel where, at about 4:00 p.m., he was killed by guillotine.

The priest who accompanied Franz to his execution, Fr. Albert Jochmann, standing in that day for the chaplain at Brandenberg, later told a community of Austrian nuns about Franz's final hours. In the early 1960s, one of them, Sister Georgia, having learned that Gordon Zahn was at work on a biography of Franz Jagerstatter, wrote to Zahn to relate what the chaplain had said. Visiting Franz shortly after midnight on August 9, he noticed on a small table in Franz's cell a document that, should Franz sign it, would allow him to leave prison and return to the army. When Fr. Jochmann pointed it out, Franz pushed it aside, saying, "I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war."

Sister Georgia continued: "Later he was to witness the calm and composed manner in which he [Franz Jagerstatter] walked to the scaffold." He told the sisters, themselves Austrian, "I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime."

During his time in Berlin, Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction, and even happiness.

Part of the happiness he experienced was thanks to the support he found in the Catholic chaplain Fr. Heinrich Kreutzberg. It was a great consolation for Franz to hear from him that a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had, just a year earlier, been in the same prison and died a similar death for similar reasons.

After Franz's death, Fr. Kreutzberg wrote a long letter to Franziska in which he noted, "I have seen no more fortunate man in prison than your husband after my few words about Franz Reinisch."

Franz's final letter home was written the morning of his execution.

Franz Jagerstatter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knew that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service was incomprehensible - an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community, and even his church, which had called on no one to refuse military service.

Franz knew that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of the war. He would soon be forgotten. Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during the Nazi era. -Jim Forest

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