Full Review of Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison

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.

As for the wedding, it shocked the parish. Married at six in the morning, the young couple was on the road by noon, headed for Rome, to visit sites associated with the early church.

* * *

By 1940, St. Radegund had been jerked into a drastically altered world. Hitler had “annexed” Austria to the Vaterland, and a war was in full swing. Like every other young man, Jägerstätter (now a father of three) knew he would sooner or later be conscripted. The call came in mid-June, and Jägerstätter reported for duty. A few days later, however, he was dismissed. Apparently the country needed farmers as badly as soldiers. In October, he was called up again, this time for training as an army driver.

Jägerstätter and Franziska’s correspondence makes up the first chapters of Putz’s book. The content reveals a couple who loved each other deeply, and covers everything from the spiritual to the mundane. Aside from worrying about her husband and mothering three little ones, “Fani” had her hands full butchering a pig, spreading manure, catching stray cows, and raking hay. She never complained. Jägerstätter tenderly advised her from afar on farm work and overdue bills and repeatedly encouraged her to trust in God.

A married man older than many of his fellow trainees, Jägerstätter felt out of place. But if he chafed at the close quarters and coarseness of army life, he found refreshment through reading and prayer. 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, even for a Catholic Austrian of his day. 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 was known to return the greeting “Heil Hitler!” with “Pfui Hitler!

Brash and provocative as such behavior might seem, in Jägerstätter’s case it was the fruit of a deeply personal experience -- a dream he had had: “I saw a wonderful train as it came around a mountain … Children flowed to it, and were not held back … Then a voice said, “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.

* * *

By 1941, Jägerstätter had been called up twice for training, and gone. But the longer the war went on, the less sure he was that he would be able to obey a third time. Well-meaning friends advised him to stop talking politics. Yet he agonized. When God and the state made competing claims, shouldn’t one’s first allegiance go to God?

Shortly before Jägerstätter’s return home, his priest, Father Karobath, had been jailed for an anti-Nazi sermon and then banned from the district. Jägerstätter traveled to see him, in order to share his views. Father Karobath listened, but tried to dissuade him from refusing military service. So did the new parish priest, Father Fürthauer.

Jägerstätter was not convinced, and took Franziska to the nearest large city, Linz, to seek the advice of Bishop Joseph Fliesser. Among other things, Jägerstätter asked him how one could reconcile fighting for Adolf Hitler with fighting for Christ. The bishop reiterated the conventional teaching of the time: that the sin of an ungodly order rests on the head of the government authority who issues it, not the citizen who follows it.

While disappointed in Fliesser’s response—to Jägerstätter, the gift of a free will carried the obligation to answer for one’s own deeds—he stopped short of judging him: “The bishop has not experienced the same grace … granted me.” In the meantime, he continued to search on his own. 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 would refuse to go.

On Feb. 22, 1943, the dreaded conscription letter came in the mail, ordering him to report for active duty. After signing the postal receipt, he remarked, “I’ve signed my death sentence.” The next day, he attended Mass at a local church and reported to the nearest base, where he announced his refusal to serve.

The state’s reaction was swift. On March 2 Jägerstätter was taken to a military prison in Linz. On May 4 he was transferred to Berlin-Tegel (Bonhoeffer was a fellow prisoner). On July 6 he was sentenced to death by a military tribunal. A week later, Franziska made the long trip to visit him. She was given only 20 minutes, and was accompanied by Father Fürthauer and an attorney. Both tried in vain to get Jägerstätter to recant. On Aug. 9, the sentence was carried out.

* * *

Jägerstätter’s chronology has been public knowledge for years. What makes Putz’s book striking is the man who comes to life through it, and the radiance of his testimony: his zeal in obeying his conscience, no matter how dangerous the consequences; the humble assurance that God would guide him; and his peace in the face of eternity.

In one letter, Franziska confesses to having nurtured the hope that Jägerstätter might change his mind. He replies that he, too, would like to avoid death, “but not through lies … I trust in God to let me know if it would be better for me to do something different.” Later Jägerstätter writes that he would be ready to serve in the medical corps, if necessary, since there a person “could actually exercise Christian love in concrete ways.” But he was never given this option.

For all his grappling, Jägerstätter was not self-centered or preoccupied with his own needs. A cellmate later recalled that he once gave away his bread. He begged “Fanj” to send him a dried flower for a condemned fellow prisoner heartbroken over the prospect of never seeing his fiancée again.

Franziska’s letters reflect a woman of uncommon strength. Her security did not depend on the presence of a husband, but in the assurance that they were united in faith. “Dear Franz,” she writes. “Our girls hope for your return. How I would rejoice, if it be God’s will … However, one must accept everything with gratitude … God will not send us more suffering than we can bear.”

Franziska encouraged Jägerstätter’s continued involvement as a father, even if an absent one, and asked him to write directly to his daughters. His replies make for some of the most touching passages in this book.

On Aug. 8, he wrote to Franziska, apologizing “for any unnecessary or unkind words.” Presumably he was referring to their last conversation, when he had grown openly annoyed at Father Fürthauer’s attempts to change his mind. “But,” he went on, “should I prolong my life by telling a lie? You know that … ‘whoever does not hate … wife and children cannot be my disciple.’ We cannot ignore Jesus’ words.”

In a final note written the day of his execution, Jägerstätter asked forgiveness of his wife and anyone else he might have pained through his actions: “May God accept my life as a sin offering.”

When the end came, he declined the offer of a priest who had come to read to him, and spent his last hours in silence -- a man alone with his God. (Perhaps he was not so alone. Franziska, who did not know the day of his death until much later, felt an “intense personal communion” with him on Aug. 9, at 4 p.m. The feeling was so strong that she made a mental note of the date and time.)

* * *

Aside from the letters, Putz’s volume contains a goldmine of other writings never before available in English. Drawn from loose papers and notebooks, they address a wide range of topics, from the value of reading and thinking for oneself, the necessity of testing one’s character through suffering, and the importance of following one’s conscience, to the responsibility of the individual in a society that has turned its back on God.

Though Catholic in their expression, Jägerstätter’s insights are ecumenical in nature. Several passages recall the Imitation of Christ, or even the letters of the Apostle Paul. The opening of the last piece in the book, written just hours before Franz’ death, bears quoting here: “I am writing with my hands in chains, but this is still much better than if my will were in chains.”

Jägerstätter’s writing is not stylistically refined. He made no attempts to polish his thoughts. But a book was the last thing he had in mind: “I perceive that many words will not accomplish much. Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning. Even if we are silent, people need to see Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world who live amid all the darkness with conviction; who live with purity and dedication amid the absence of peace and joy, amid self-seeking and hatred.”

Jägerstätter speaks prophetically into our time. His voice injects a double note of hope and caution into the wilderness of our day, where mind-numbing gadgetry, information overload, and media-induced hysterias have turned us into zombie-like herds. Though grounded in compassion, his witness bespeaks freedom from worldly considerations and concerns. Most important, it calls us to consider the path of our own lives, and to remember that it is not enough to merely think for ourselves or speak our minds. We must live according to our beliefs.

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

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