Commentary Magazine

In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter, by Gordon Zahn

Conscience and Religion

In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.
by Gordon Zahn.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 277 pp. $5.95.

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian peasant. He was born in the village of St. Radegund, not far from Braunau, where Hitler was born. An illegitimate child, he grew up to be something of a wild one (the first to own a motorcycle in the area), and was perhaps himself the father of an illegitimate child. Then he changed. He married a silent woman, became sexton of the village church, had three children. In St. Radegund, he was the only one to vote against the Anschluss in 1938, to oppose the Nazis openly thereafter, and to refuse to serve in the armed forces. On August 9, 1943, in Berlin, he was beheaded.

Professor Zahn, a Catholic and a pacifist, first heard of Jägerstätter in 1956, while doing research for an earlier book, German Catholics and Hitler's Wars. In 1961, on a grant from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophical Society, Professor Zahn spent the summer in St. Radegund questioning the villagers.

What sort of person was this man Jägerstätter? Before his marriage in 1936, his interests and accomplishments were those of a convivial young man of his time and place. He was fond of girls, dancing, card-playing, and distinguished himself in the gang wars against his counterparts from neighboring villages. After the Anschluss, he avoided the inns but he did not hide his convictions. He refused to contribute to the Nazi charities, which were many and unremitting. Jägerstätter: “I believe the German people were never so deeply involved in the works of Christian charity or so ready to contribute as they are today to the Nazis.” He also refused to accept government compensation for hailstorm damage to his crops. To the greeting “Heil Hitler!” his response was “Pfui Hitler!” He remained a good friend to many in the village. He was a good husband and father. He was a good farmer.

What was the basis for his refusal to serve and where did he get the ideas which cost him his life? His wife was overly religious, and had obviously been an influence on him, but she had done all she could to save him. His cousin, with whom he'd had long discussions, was one of Jehovah's Witnesses, the only non-Catholic for miles around, but when his hour came he joined up. Pastor Karobath, the parish priest, who had lost a foot in the first war, held some views that did not appeal to his flock even in peace-time, and so he had been transferred for the duration, but he had advised Franz to serve. Likewise Father Fürthauer, who had quietly submitted a sample of Franz's writing to a specialist in Vienna. Although the specialist pronounced Franz sane, and there was no very disturbing evidence to the contrary, the feeling in the village was that Franz must be touched in the head, g'spinnt. What else?

What was the attitude of the people of the community toward him and his stand at the time ? Since it was almost certain that he would be executed, there was no question of cowardice. The idea of country ran a bad third to the ideas of family and farm, and the villagers could sympathize with deserters—they had concealed “one of ours” toward the end of the war. A local official did say he thought Franz's refusal carried with it the implication that those who served were “dumbbells,” but what most people felt was not resentment but regret. Jägerstätter: “Again and again, people stress the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, he is free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do).”

What do the people of the community think about the whole affair today ? Franz's widow and children honor his memory. Pastor Karobath, restored to St. Radegund, thinks he has the remains of a martyr-saint in his cemetery and vigorously says so. In his sermons in church and in the inn across the road, he speaks with the double authority conferred upon him by his position and by his missing foot. While some of the villagers are willing to accept the possibility that Franz might someday be formally acknowledged a saint, this possibility is not considered at all incompatible with the community's general disapproval of his action. “The peasant community expects a priest to restrict himself to ‘purely theological’ affairs and not to meddle in more worldly matters,” Professor Zahn writes. “Although Jägerstätter's rejection of military service was to him (and to the pastor) essentially a ‘theological’ matter, the community . . . is more inclined to place it in a political context, as an action challenging the virtually unquestioned obligation of the loyal citizen to ‘do his duty’ when the nation finds itself involved in a war. Thus, for a pastor to maintain that the man who did question that obligation, and did go on to reject the ‘duty’ it would have imposed, is really the only one in the whole community who recognized and performed his true Christian duty is regarded by many, if not all, of the Radegunders as a clear-cut case of ‘meddling.’”

Was that, then, the best the Radegunders could do when they put their minds to the questions raised and incarnated in their midst by Franz Jagerstatter? If so, it is easier to understand the problems of the German hierarchy (whose miserable words and acts Professor Zahn recorded in German Catholics and Hitler's Wars), but harder not to despair.


Few Catholics in other countries have been up to those questions—very few in America, Professor Zahn says—with respect to nuclear war. Meanwhile, back at the seminary, the old shell game goes on but with a new pea. “No matter how brilliantly the moral-theologian-cum-strategists may perform in charting the course of hypothetical fleets at sea or armies locked in combat in remote and uninhabited desert reaches, the weapons they so studiously avoid condemning in toto are being built and designed for the same criminal use that once earned a Herod the ignominy that has not diminished in the course of two millennia.”

Jägerstätter examined Hitler's wars by the dim light of the Church's teaching on “just war,” and decided that they were unjust. Pastor Taimer, of Ach, agreed, and described Franz's position as sound (but advised him to serve).

The accepted theory calls for the good citizen to go along with the secular authority, and to be assured that this authority is responsible before God for its acts. In the Middle Ages, the theory presupposed serfs and a Christian Prince. With Hitler in the role of Christian Prince, the theory left much to be desired, and yet it was used and it worked.

But not on Jägerstätter: “For how can we tell whether the person on whom we wish to shove the responsibility might not have a totally different outlook on the whole situation from ours and regard as a probable good something that we consider evil? . . . It is quite possible that in the judgment of God such a person in high position might bear a lesser responsibility than perfectly ordinary individuals among the common people.”


Since Rome has traditionally had nothing to say about the justness or unjustness of a war, leaving this to the consciences of the antagonists, few of the faithful now look to the Church for guidance in the matter. And yet the impression remains that war is not beyond the moral jurisdiction of the Church, and could, conceivably, be the subject of censure, like divorce, contraception, and books. Hitler's wars (and Mussolini's African campaign before) show how far the Church can go to accommodate some of her members, and incidentally herself. That many more people haven't been scandalized by the Church's passivity may show the wisdom of her policy as policy, but it also shows what—how little—the Church militant means to most people. It also suggests why this is so.

Nevertheless, Professor Zahn believes that the Church alone among the institutions of society has the potential to counteract the force of the secular authority. What hope he has for the individual is in the Church. But since the Church has so often run with the hounds, it is a forlorn hope, really only a wish. There are too many people with the best and the worst of intentions (as in the Third Reich) who are anxious and able to keep such potential as the Church has from being put to the test.

In 1943, the Bishop of Linz was wary of the Gestapo when Jägerstätter came to see him, but reviewing the case in 1946, with the situation normal, he had this to say: “I consider the greater heroes to be those exemplary Catholic men, seminarians, priests, and heads of families who fought and died in heroic fulfillment of duty and in the firm conviction that they were fulfilling the will of God at their post just as the Christian soldiers in the armies of the heathen emperor had done.” The Bishop believed that the case had to be presented to the people in a framework of fundamental Catholic morality “if it is not to create confusion and disturb consciences.”

What nobody in this book seemed to understand at the time, perhaps not even Jägerstätter, was that he believed in God and the hereafter as others didn't—and could afford to live and die as others couldn't.

In Solitary Witness was conceived as a study of “social control and deviance” and so there is a certain amount of sociological to and fro in it. But Professor Zahn is an able writer and so, to judge by his letters and little essays, was Franz Jägerstätter. This is a good book about a great subject.

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