ST. RADEGUND, Austria — At a time when Jörg Haider and his far-right Freedom Party are triggering fears in Austrian political circles, a diocese is pushing to have an anti-Nazi canonized.
Franz Jaegerstaetter, a simple farmer who lived not far from the Austrian town were Adolf Hitler was born, sacrificed his life for the belief that a true Catholic could never become a Nazi, researchers said. Jaegerstaetter, who refused to serve in Hitler's army, was sentenced to death by the Reich Military Tribunal and beheaded in August 1943.
Fifty-four years later, in response to a letter from Jaegerstaetter's widow, the government of Germany declared that Franz Jaegerstaetter's trial had been unjust and that he had been convicted “solely for the preservation of the Nazi dictatorship.”
Now, a commission of the Austrian Diocese of Linz has completed work on Jaegerstaetter's canonization cause, and expects to send the documentation to Rome this year.
Said the postulator Manfred Scheuer, on behalf of the diocese: “Franz Jaegerstaetter practiced his faith in piety and charity. He lived as an alert Christian in his political context. With an educated and mature conscience he said a decided no to National Socialism. He was put to death because of his consequent refusal to fight in Hitler's war as a soldier. He died in the clear consciousness of the vocation to be a witness for the King Jesus Christ.”
For more than 20 years after his death, Jaegerstaetter's story was largely unknown outside of his birthplace, St. Radegund, a remote village in upper Austria. Then American sociologist Gordon Zahn, now professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, happened to discover Jaegerstaetter while researching a book on German Catholics’ response to Hitler.
He resolved to tell the story of a single Catholic's heroic resistance to Nazism and in 1964 published In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter (Temple-gate: Springfield, Ill., reprinted 1986).
Jaegerstaetter's Austrian biographer, Erna Putz, also came upon his story while writing an article on St. Radegund parish in 1979. “I had heard about Jaegerstaetter, but as a slightly foolish person, an eccentric,” Putz told the Register.
Then she was introduced to the church sacristan, who happened to be Franziska Jaegerstaetter, Franz's wife. Franziska showed the visiting journalist some of her husband's writings, and Putz was struck when she opened a notebook and read: “Disciples of Christ, by the salt of supernatural values, should keep others from moral decay, but not spoil their lives with too much salt. Love of enemy is not unprincipled weakness, but heroic strength of soul and imitation of the divine example.”
“I realized at that point,” said Putz, “that this man had a deep experience of God. He was not an eccentric, but a mystic. I had a treasure in my hand that I had to share with others.”
Franz was born out-of-wedlock in 1907 to a poor farmer's maid. His natural father died in World War I. Franz was raised by his devoutly Catholic maternal grandmother until 1917 when his mother married a farmer named Jaegerstaetter, who adopted the boy. He finished elementary school and went to work on the family farm.
During his adolescence Franz was regarded as a wild and boisterous youth who enjoyed having a good time. He did, however, attend Mass regularly and despite his limited education, developed a love of reading and writing.
When he was about 20, he left the village for about three years in order to work in the iron mines in the Steiermark region of Austria. This was a socialist environment, which was quite hostile to Catholicism. Perhaps here, according to Putz, he began to realize how precious his faith was to him. Upon his return, he even spoke to his parish priest of his desire to enter a religious order. But the pastor advised against it, telling Franz to remember his responsibility to his parents and the family farm.
In 1936 Franz married Franziska, a deeply religious young woman who encouraged and strengthened her husband's faith. “They were very much in love and their unswerving faith in God helped them through many crises,” says Putz, a good friend of Franziska, who at age 87 is still active in parish activities. The couple had three daughters.
As Franz's faith in God continued to grow, he lost interest in many of his youthful pastimes like drinking and gambling. He began fasting until noon and receiving holy Communion every day.
He served his parish church as sacristan and would refuse to accept money from villagers for funerals and other special services. Even though his own family was poor, he often distributed foodstuffs to needy townspeople during the war years. Though generally well liked by the villagers, Franz was regarded by many as a religious fanatic.
It was Jaegerstaetter's unfaltering faith that led him to develop his growing opposition to the Nazi regime. Whenever he was greeted by the inevitable “Heil Hitler!” he would respond “Pfui Hitler!” He withdrew from the powerful Farmers Organization when it began to support Nazism and stopped visiting local taverns in order to avoid political arguments.
In March 1938, Hitler's tanks crossed the border and occupied Austria. On April 10, a plebiscite was held in which Austrians were asked to say yes or no to the Anschluss.
The vote was almost unanimously yes. In St. Radegund, the only person to vote no was Franz Jaegerstaetter. Family members and friends, including priests, had tried to get him to reconsider, saying that his one negative vote would be pointless; after all, German tanks were already in Austria.
But Franz followed his conscience, as he would continue to do until his death. His disappointment in his fellow countrymen is reflected in one of his commentaries: “I believe that what took place in the spring of 1938 was not much different from that Maundy Thursday nineteen hundred years ago when the Jewish crowd was given a free choice between the innocent Savior and the criminal Barabbas.”
In the summer of 1940 Franz was first called up for military service and sworn in on June 17 in Braunau. He was allowed to return home after a few days because the mayor of St. Radegund said that he was needed on the family farm.
He did serve in the army, though not at the front, from October 1940 to April 1941. It was during these months in military training that Jaegerstaetter learned what it meant to be a Nazi soldier and he decided that he would have no part of it. Again he was returned to his hometown, after the mayor insisted that he was “indispensable” to his family.
It was at this time that he declared that he would not comply with further conscription. According to his trial records Jaegerstaetter said “that as a believing Catholic he was not permitted to perform any military service” and “that it was impossible for him to be a Nazi and a Catholic simultaneously.”
When Erna Putz first asked Franziska why her husband did not go to war, the answer was simple: “Because they [the Nazis] persecuted the Church.”
In her research, Putz discovered that of the 1,000 priests in the Diocese of Linz, to which St. Radegund belongs, 40 were sent to a concentration camp, 11 were murdered there, and at least 118 served long prison sentences. Even the St. Radegund parish priest was imprisoned for a “seditious” sermon.
Under heavy pressure from the Gestapo, the Nazis’ secret police, the bishop of Linz urged his priests to avoid any remarks about politics in their sermons so as not to risk having to cease all pastoral work.
Although sympathetic to the clergy's plight, Jaegerstaetter wrote: “Are we being helped much by priests who are forced to remain silent when they should speak out? Is one perhaps helped much by a doctor, when he is brought to a person who is bleeding profusely and that doctor is forbidden to put a bandage on that patient?”
It was obvious to all that Franz's decision to disobey the Nazi army would cost him his life and everyone around him, including his wife, tried desperately to get him to change his mind. But when Franziska saw how deeply Franz was committed to following his conscience, she accepted his decision, though until the end she always hoped, for the sake of their children, that he would reconsider.
To those, including many priests, who criticized his decision on the grounds that he was being irresponsible toward his wife and children, Jaegerstaetter replied: “Again and again people try to trouble my conscience over my wife and children. Is an action any better because one is married and has children?”
In March 1943, Franz Jaegerstaetter appeared at the Enns induction center in order to state his refusal to serve in the army. He was immediately placed under arrest and taken to the military prison at Linz. Franz spent the months before his trial praying, writing and comforting other prisoners. At the beginning of May he was transferred to Berlin, where he was tried before the national court martial and condemned to death for sedition.
On the night before his execution, Franz's confessor made a last attempt to save his life, reminding him that he had just to sign a piece of paper and his life would be spared. But Franz replied: “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.”
On Aug. 9, 1943, Franz Jaeger-staetter was beheaded at Brandenburg, the first of 16 executions. Father Jochmann, a priest who had spent time with the condemned man just before his death, was impressed with his inner strength and serenity. The priest later told a group of Austrian nuns: “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died as a hero. I say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”
Jaegerstaetter was cremated and in 1946 his ashes were brought to St. Radegund, where they were buried by the church wall. Gordon Zahn noted that very few people stopped to pray by Jaegerstaetter's grave when Zahn visited St. Radegund in 1961. Most villagers did not view Jaegerstaetter's actions as heroic. In fact, there was even strong opposition from veterans to putting his name on the town war memorial, though in the end it got there. These veterans, explained Putz, posed a very painful question: “If Jaegerstaetter was right, then what about us? Were we all fools for believing that by obeying the law we were doing the right thing?”
But, over time and with the publication of Erna Putz's biography, Jaegerstaetter's reputation as a man of courage and conviction began to grow.
In 1984, the president of Austria, in response to a nationwide popular petition, issued a special posthumous Award of Honor to Franz Jaeger-staetter.
According to Putz, he is now considered a national hero in his country and not a day goes by that a steady stream of visitors doesn't visit his grave. Groups such as Pax Christi, which strongly supports the cause for Jaegerstaetter's canonization, organize pilgrimages on a regular basis.
Franziska Jaegerstaetter is hoping to see the day when the Church officially recognizes her husband as a martyr as well as a shining example of Christian life.
Manfred Scheuer, postulator for his canonization, said Jaegerstaetter “can be considered as a martyr of faith and justice in the sense of the ecclesiastical tradition. He was faced with the alternatives: God or idol; Jesus Christ or Führer.”
Berenice Cocciolillo writes from Rome.