A Solitary Witness
Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, by Erna Putz. Orbis.
Reviewed by Christopher M. Zimmerman
On August 9, 1943, at 4 p.m., a young farmer named Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded in a Gestapo prison in Berlin.
Most people know Jägerstätter through Gordon Zahn’s 1964 book, In Solitary Witness, an account that became a classic of the anti-war movement. In fact, its impact was such that it influenced Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to release the Pentagon Papers in 1971—an act of resistance credited with helping to end the Vietnam War.
“Blessed Franz” (he was beatified in 2007) was undeniably a martyr, and may well be a saint. He has inspired plaques, shrines, sculptures, dramas, and films. But more interesting and pertinent than his blessedness is the witness of his life, as related in his own compelling voice. That voice can be heard in Erna Putz’s new book, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.
Jägerstätter was born in 1907 to an unmarried maid in St. Radegund, Upper Austria. A scrappy boy known for getting into fistfights, he left school at 14 and found work in the area’s iron mines. Returning home, he solidified his reputation as a rebel by purchasing a motorcycle—the only one in the region. A year later, when a local farm girl became pregnant, Jägerstätter was identified as the father.
Though rowdy, Jägerstätter had a serious side. He spoke with friends about joining a monastery, and made efforts to adopt his child. By 1936 he had become, in the words of several who knew him, “a different man,” and had proposed to Franziska Schwaninger, who would become his wife.