The Witness of Franz Jaggerstatter”
A Review of
Letters and Writings from Prison.
Reviewed by Anna Brown.
[ This review originally appeared in The Catholic Worker,
and is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission ]
Letters and Writings from Prison .
Erna Putz, ed.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
[Franz Jagerstatter, a Catholic, Austrian farmer and married father of three daughters, was beheaded on August 9, 1943 by the Third Reich at the Berlin-Brandenberg Prison. Imprisoned in March of 1943, Jagerstatter was convicted of “undermining military morale” by “inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army,” and condemned to death in July of 1943 by the Reich’s Military Tribunal. Jagerstatter was 36 years old when he died. In October of 2007, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic Church.]
In his introduction to Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison, Jim Forest writes that Jagerstatter “would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family … [he firmly believed] self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families.” Forest asks how it is that someone “so unimportant,” a relatively uneducated farmer, could see so clearly while those holding positions of leadership in the Catholic Church or in the Austrian government of the Nazi era were utterly blind. Perhaps it is not simply a matter of seeing clearly; the message of the nonviolent Jesus in the Gospels, after all, is strikingly clear. What sets Jagerstatter apart was not only his ability to see clearly but also to act upon this insight and to actually pay the ultimate price for his refusal to join the Nazis.
Accompanying Jagerstatter in his astonishing witness was his wife, Franziska, who recalled: “In the beginning, I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it anymore … If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”
Reading Jagerstatter’s Letters and Writings from Prison was the literary equivalent of walking into a burning building. Like the Catholic prelates and Austrian officials, I wanted to flee while my hide was still intact. At other points, however, tears would flow down my face as I found it harder and harder to turn away from the truth of Jagerstatter’s insight and actions. During these moments, I recalled a passage from Plato’s Republic: “We must be persuaded by the better argument.” At first glance, this statement may seem rather pedestrian, something a first year philosophy student would dutifully write down in a notebook, dredge up for the final exam and then forget. Of course there is so much more in this statement than is revealed at first glance. Namely, that we are to come to insight by means of persuasion and not by violent force. More so, when we come upon such insight, we are to respond metanoically, which is to say, we are to change our lives and commit our entire being to this insight.
In a letter to his wife on August 8, 1943, the day before Jagerstatter was executed, he wrote, “Do you believe that all would go well for me if I were to tell a lie in order for me to prolong my life?” The lie that Jagerstatter refers to is an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Had he signed the oath – and it was placed upon a table on his jail cell each day until the day of his death – he would most likely not have been executed. In March of 1943, Franz contemplated giving his consent to serving as a military medic which, like his signature to the loyalty oath, may have preserved his life. Though he seems to have changed his mind about this type of service in July of 1943, his wife is of the belief that the military, in their desire for total control, denied even this work to Franz. At issue was his refusal to pledge his total obedience to Hitler. His was a metanoic response to the “better argument.”
In an essay that he wrote in 1942, “On Today’s Issue: Catholic or National Socialist,” Jagerstatter recalls a dream that he had in January of 1938. Those familiar with the life of Jagerstatter know this as the “train dream.” The value of reading about it in Letters and Writings from Prison is getting its full account through Jagerstatter’s own vivid telling, his interpretation, and his analysis of the political and religious situation within which the imagery of the dream may be contextualized. “I saw [in a dream] a wonderful train as it came around a mountain. With little regard for the adults, children flowed to this train and were not held back. There were present a few adults who did not go into the area. I do not want to give their names or describe them. Then a voice said to me, ‘This train is going to hell.’ Immediately it happened that someone took my hand, and the same voice said to me: ‘Now we are going to purgatory.’ What I glimpsed and perceived was fearful. If this voice had not told me that we were going to purgatory, I would have judged that I had found myself in hell.”
For Jagerstatter, the train symbolizes National Socialism with all of its sub-organizations and programs (the N.S. Public Assistance Program, Hitler Youth, etc.). As he puts it, “the train represents the N.S. Volk community and everything for which it struggles and sacrifices.” He remembers that just prior to having this dream, he had read that 150,000 Austrian young people had joined Hitler Youth. He recounts, sadly, that the Christians of Austria had never donated as much money to charitable organizations as they now donated to Nazi party organizations. He realizes that it wasn’t really the money that the Nazi’s were after, it was more the souls of the Austrian people: You are either with the Fuhrer or you are nothing. Upon this realization, Jagerstatter writes, “I would like to cry out to the people aboard the N.S. train: ‘Jump off this train before it arrives at your last stop where you will pay with your life!’”
His admonition to “jump off the train” is one that must be heard and acted upon, perhaps never more so than today. In his recent meditation on Jagerstatter’s life, Father Daniel Berrigan urges that we not become complacent in these “post-Hitler” times: “To speak of today; it is no longer Hitler’s death train we ride, the train of the living dead. Or is it? It is. The same train. Only, if possible (it is possible) longer, faster, cheaper. On schedule, every hour on the hour, speedy and cheap and unimaginably lethal. An image of life in the world. A ghost train still bound, mad as March weather, for hell… Despite all fantasies and homilies and ’states of the union’,’ urging the contrary. Today, a world of normalized violence, a world of standoff, of bunkers and missiles nose to nose, a world of subhuman superpowers and the easy riders. The train beats its way across the world, crowded with contented passenger-citizen-Christians.”
Jagerstatter’s 1942 admonishment is accompanied by rather stunning verses of compassion for those who have decided to board the “train to hell.” His compassionate remarks are directed particularly to the Austrian clergy who capitulated to the Nazi regime: “I am not throwing stones at our bishops and priests. They are human beings of flesh and blood as are we … Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and to decide for themselves whether they wanted to live or to die … Would not our hearts shake [as theirs must have] if it were to come about that we would have to appear before God’s judgment seat and be accountable for a decision that would affect so many other human beings?” In this essay and others, he suggests that we not judge but instead pray for the well-being of those we are tempted to criticize. In one of his last essays, however, he reminds the Catholic leadership that it is better to face the loss of church buildings, for example, than the loss of its people’s faith. He also wonders whether “priests are of much help to us if they must remain silent when they should be speaking out?”
In one the of close to two-hundred brief reflections composed between May and August of 1943, Jagerstatter writes, “Love as the outer-wear is the ‘uniform’ of Jesus’ disciples. His disciples are known by their love.” Like Dorothy Day, Jagerstatter understood that at the end of the day, our ability to have loved one another is all that matters. I think here of a conversation that I had last summer with a young man in the Israeli Defense Forces who had been sent to stop our work of re-building a Palestinian home which had, in prior weeks, been demolished by Israeli civil and military authorities. The young man eventually asserted that he did not want to do what he had been ordered to do but since he was “wearing a soldier’s uniform” he had no choice. I was deeply appreciative of this soldier’s revelation but I also knew that despite such an admission, it was more than likely that the demolitions of Palestinian homes would continue, as they do even now. What would it take, I wondered, to “disrobe” our soldiers – indeed each one of us – so that we might be better able to put on the garments of love? For Jagerstatter, it was impossible to be a soldier for Christ and a soldier for the National Socialists simultaneously. At the same time, he did not condemn individual soldiers who were “ordered to do what they were doing upon pain of death for an act of disobedience.” Our imperative is to love God and to love neighbor, not to judge neighbor. Further, we must each see how we have contributed, by our tax dollars, for example, to the situation the soldier finds himself in.
Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison, from which I have retrieved only a few precious nuggets, is a must-read for the nonviolent activist. Better put, and more in line with Jagerstatter’s own way of being in the world, it is a “must-act” book. In the final months of his life, Jagerstatter wrote, “I perceive that many words will not accomplish much today. Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning … People want to observe Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world, Christians who live amid all of the darkness with clarity, insight, and conviction, Christians who live with the purest peace of mind, courage and dedication amid the absence of peace and joy, amid the self-seeking and hatred.” On the morning of August 9, 1943, Jaggerstatter was awakened at 5:30 am and told to get dressed. He was driven to the Berlin-Brandenburg prison where he was executed at 4:00 pm that same day. Upon awaiting his execution, he was accompanied by Father Albert Jochmann, a priest who asked if he wished to read from the Bible. Jagerstatter, who had devoted much of his life to Bible study, denied the offer, saying that it would only distract him from the intensity of his prayer. Father Jochmann marveled at Jagerstatter’s prayerful equanimity in the face of death. He later told a community of Austrian nuns, “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 I have ever met in my lifetime.” Franziska Jagerstatter recalls that she felt an “intense personal communion” with Franz at 4:00 pm that day. The feeling was so strong that she marked the time and date in a journal not knowing at the time that Franz was executed at that exact moment. She buried his ashes on August 9, 1946, in St. Radegund’s cemetery, just outside the walls of their parish church.
Though I have recommended this book as a “must read/act” book for nonviolent activists, there may be those who question whether or not it’s only for Catholic peacemakers. Given the Church’s beatification of now Blessed Franz Jagerstatter in October 2007, this is certainly a book that is well-needed for the retrieval, renewal, affirmation, and amplification of the Catholic Church’s work of justice and peace. It will also serve to deeply challenge the Church and its members to renounce warfare and embrace nonviolence, the way of life exemplified by Jesus. Finally, it will serve to remind Catholics of the richness of its own sacramental, liturgical and communal gifts. The Jagerstatters were a family who had committed themselves fully to the life of the Church by serving within their parish, by keeping to the fasts and Holy days of the Church calendar, by attending Mass and through daily prayer. Letters and Writings from Prison, with its emphasis both on “traditional” and “radical” Catholic values and practices could also be read in parish communities that are looking for ways to find common and fruitful ground among its conservative and progressive parishioners, its just-war theorists and its pacifists. This is also a book, however, that would encourage those belonging to a faith tradition other than Christianity to plumb the depths of his/her own tradition and find the same richness within. It is self-evident that at the table of love and nonviolence, there is room for everyone.
During his lifetime, Jagerstatter did not enjoy, for the most part, the support of the Catholic hierarchy or community. As Forest notes, “Franz Jagerstatter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone… [B]eyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of war… Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer?” Whether we are rooted in a faith tradition or not, the “solitary witness” of Jagerstatter certainly points to the need for self-reflection and action: What does it mean to be human? Why do I act in the way that I do? Do my actions serve to harm or to uplift life? If I am committed to peace and to nonviolence, why? Am I living in a way that serves the work of peace and nonviolence?
Nonviolence is a way of life and in this regard, the Jagerstatter well runs deep. Prior to the “large act” of his beheading, Jagerstatter, in the tradition of St. Therese of Lisieux, well demonstrated “the little ways” of nonviolence in the world. When another cell-mate suffered from hunger, he shared his meager portion of bread while declaring “a cup of coffee is enough for me.” He was mindful of the human penchant to “give many more death blows with our tongues than with our hand” and counseled discipline and prayer when the temptation to slight another verbally arose. In a letter sent to Franziska in March of 1943, Jagerstatter wrote, “Dear wife, I wish to ask something of you. Would it be possible to put some pieces of edelweiss in the next letter? A cell-mate here requested that I get him some edelweiss. He is a young Frenchman who was condemned to death a few weeks ago. He would like to send edelweiss to his beloved as a farewell gift. She loves flowers.” In this selfless request, Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter show us that every moment is the right moment to serve and to love one another.
Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, pray for us.
Anna Brown teaches political science and is the Director of the Social Justice program at Saint Peter’s College, Jersey City, NJ. She is a member of the Kairos community, Witness Against Torture, and the Garden State-Los Amates (El Salvador) Sister Cities Program.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com