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
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
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
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)
According to local consensus, the most
important single factor attributed to bring
about a change in Franz was his marriage to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1,
even then Franz took his time, attending Mass
in the local church before reporting to the
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
"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
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
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
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'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.
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