A Solitary Witness

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!”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2009
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