The Common Good
December 2009

A Solitary Witness

by Christopher M. Zimmerman | December 2009

Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited by Erna Putz. Orbis.

On Aug. 9, 1943, a young Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded in a Gestapo prison in Berlin. To older readers, he may be familiar as the subject of Gordon Zahn’s 1964 book, In Solitary Witness, an account that became a classic of the anti-war movement. To younger readers, he is probably just another unpronounceable German name. But that may change with Erna Putz’s new book, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.

Born in 1907, Jägerstätter was a rebellious youth known for his rowdiness and for fathering a child out of wedlock. Marriage changed him, however, as did the political changes of the late 1930s that swept his once-isolated village into the stream of the Second World War. Austria became part of the German Vaterland, and like every other young man, Jägerstätter, now a father of three, knew he would be required to defend it. When the call came, he reported for duty. (After a few days, he was dismissed: The country needed farmers as badly as soldiers.) Later he was called up again, this time for training as an army driver.

Older than many of his fellow trainees, Jägerstätter felt out of place. On one occasion, he secretly jumped the barracks walls to attend Mass. In December 1940, he joined the Third Order of St. Francis.

In April 1941, Jägerstätter was again dismissed. Back home, he plunged into his work as a farmer—and as a sexton. His devotion was remarkable, and soon villagers who had clucked at his youthful excesses were wagging their tongues about his habit of attending weekday Mass, going to confession, and even leaving his work to pray.

There were other reasons for the gossip. When a plebiscite was called to ratify Germany’s takeover of Austria, Jägerstätter had dared to vote “no.” Even more boldly, he would often return the greeting “Heil Hitler!” with “Pfui Hitler!”

While such behavior was dangerously brash, it was also the fruit of a deep personal experience—a dream he had had: “I saw a wonderful train as it came around a mountain … Children flowed to this train, and were not held back … Then a voice said to me, ‘This train is going to hell.’” Jägerstätter later wrote that though the train’s significance was at first a mystery to him, it soon became clear: It represented Nazism and everything it stood for.

Well-meaning friends advised him to stay out of politics, yet he agonized. When God and the state made competing claims, shouldn’t one’s first allegiance go to God? Eventually he resolved that serving in the Führer’s army, which required a mandatory oath of allegiance to him, was impossible for a true Christian. If called up again, he wouldn’t go.

On Feb. 23, 1943, Jägerstätter was ordered to report for active duty. The next day, after attending Mass, he went to the nearest base and announced his refusal to serve. The state’s reaction was swift. On March 2 he was taken to a nearby military prison. On May 4 he was transferred to Berlin-Tegel (Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a fellow prisoner), and on July 6 he was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out August 9.

Apart from prison letters, Putz’s new volume contains a goldmine of other pieces. The opening sentence of the last selection, written just hours before Jägerstätter’s death, bears quoting here: “Although I am writing with my hands in chains, this is still much better than if my will were in chains.” The sum impact of this remarkable man’s witness, of course, is far larger than that of his writings. As he himself put it, “[M]any words will not accomplish much today. Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning. Even if we are silent as a wall … 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.”

Jägerstätter was such a disciple of Jesus and calls us to be the same: People who not only consider the course of our lives, but who strike out on new trails according to our beliefs.

Christopher Zimmerman lives with his wife and children in a small Christian community in Harlem.

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