In the powerful new movie A Hidden Life, after idyllic scenes of farmer Franz Jägerstätter and his beloved wife, war planes rip the clouds hovering above the beautiful, isolated countryside. Later that night broadcasts of Hitler’s menacing voice resound through the valley. This is Austria in 1940, a world in which it is perilous to be in love — and to be a devout Catholic.
The acclaimed film tells the stirring story of Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector from the small town of St. Radegund. His refusal to serve in the German army resulted in his execution. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
Filmmaker Terrence Malick succeeds in portraying Jägerstätter’s steadfast devotion to his beliefs, despite knowing the ultimate consequences. He also depicts the unbreakable bond between the farmer and his wife, Franziska (called “Fani” in the movie), including how she influenced his faith life. In one scene, Jägerstätter’s furious mother accuses her of endangering her son. “He was different before he met you,” she rails.
Yet the film does not elucidate the confluence of events — almost providential in their cumulative effect — that gave rise to Jägerstätter’s unshakeable faith. Nor does it fully explore how the couple reinforced one another’s faith life, and led to a marriage strong enough to countenance its dissolution through martyrdom. While the film certainly has its merits for bringing this couple’s story to a wider audience, their inspiring story is far richer and more complex than shown on the silver screen.
Simple Life, Complex Times
Yet, despite the complexity, as attested by Franziska, a contemporary person alive and active not long ago, Jägerstätter is relatable. He was married with children and struggled to make ends meet. His actions were heroic, and his faith was extraordinary. But otherwise his life was encouragingly familiar and prosaic.
Jägerstätter was born in 1907 in St. Radegund to Rosalie Huber, an unmarried farmworker. She was forced to leave her baby with her mother, Elizabeth, so she could work. Intensely devout, Elizabeth also was exceptional in her motherly ways. Believing in strict discipline, Austrian parents then typically believed it was misguided to shower affection upon children, but Elizabeth often hugged and coddled her grandchild.
In 1917, Rosalie married Heinrich Jägerstätter, a farmer of modest means but a bibliophile who was more than willing to scrimp to buy books and build a library in his modest home. Availing himself of this library, young Franz delved especially into the Bible and commentaries on Scripture, another unusual feature of his childhood. Such books in those days normally were in the hands of priests alone.
Jägerstätter’s courtship with Franziska also was contrary to the norms of the time. The two were openly affectionate. “I never imagined that being married could be so beautiful,” he told her.
The couple prayed and read the Bible together. Jägerstätter began receiving Communion more often and became a sacristan at church. He also eagerly took to fatherhood. The couple had three daughters, and Jägerstätter raised eyebrows because, also contrary to the norms of the time, he was a father who took an active part in his children’s upbringing. It was common, for instance, to see him pushing a baby carriage around St. Radegund.
Meanwhile, the Nazis in Germany were consolidating their power and preparing for war. What Jägerstätter heard on the radio and read in the newspapers deeply disturbed him, he confided in his wife. Then, in January 1938, shortly before Germany annexed Austria, Jägerstätter had a troubling dream. He saw a train going around a mountain, and adults and children could not hold themselves back from boarding. Then a voice spoke out, “This train is going to hell.” He realized the train represented Nazi Germany.
Jägerstätter boldly refused to cooperate with the Nazis as they insinuated themselves into the daily life of St. Radegund. He made no contributions to the party. Nor did he accept payments or subsidies due to him for raising children and for storm damage to his farm.
As the war heated up, Jägerstätter knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to active service. Villagers urged him to comply. Think of your wife and children, they told him. They also resented his unwillingness to bear the burden of war. Members of local families were dying as soldiers. Who was he to shirk his duty?
Jägerstätter visited the bishop of Linz. The farmer explained why he believed an individual was responsible for his actions. But the bishop replied that a citizen had limited responsibility for the actions of authorities and must place family considerations first. (After the war, the bishop explained his counsel by asserting he feared Jägerstätter was a Gestapo agent.)
Jägerstätter understood what was at stake. Two priests he was especially close to were imprisoned because of their opposition to the Nazis. Still, when finally required to report for duty, he told the military officer in charge he would not serve. Almost immediately, he was locked up in a military prison in Linz.
Now an outcast herself in St. Radegund, Franziska supported her husband’s decision. The two exchanged a series of loving letters. “My dearest wife,” he wrote in 1943, “I want to thank you for your love, faithfulness and sacrifice. And for all the suffering you will still have because of me.”
Later that month, she wrote back, “Of course, we know our dear Lord didn’t spare even his heavenly mother from suffering, and she was pure and free from sin. So we human beings must not complain when God sends us suffering. God’s will be done, no matter how it hurts, though I don’t understand it.”
She also updated him on their daughters: “The girls are, of course, always asking about you, especially little Loisi, who asks, ‘When is Daddy coming home?’ She just takes it for granted that you will come home and bring some sausage.
“The bigger ones understand you can’t come back so fast. Maria likes to pray for her daddy, and Rosi already makes small sacrifices so the Christ Child will bring her daddy back.”
His children picked violets in the spring and sent them to his new prison in Berlin. Jägerstätter decorated a picture of Mary with the flowers and held May devotions in his tiny cell.
Knowing what was coming, his spirits flagged. Thoughts of suicide plagued him. But during Holy Week he rallied. “This week especially has to give us courage and strength,” he wrote Franziska. “It makes this fate easier to bear. What is our little suffering compared with what Christ endured?”
Trial of Faith
Jägerstätter’s trial took place on July 6, 1943. His defense attorney argued that he was not a coward hiding behind his religion: He was sincere in his opposition to service. The judge was not moved, and Jägerstätter was found guilty of undermining the military.
On Aug. 3, he wrote Franziska: “Dear wife and mother, I thank you once more from my heart for everything that you have done for me in my lifetime, for all the sacrifices that you have borne for me. I beg you to forgive me if I have hurt or offended you, just as I have forgiven everything … my heartfelt greetings for my dear children. I will surely beg the dear God, if I am permitted to enter heaven soon, that he will set aside a little place in heaven for all of you.”
Six days later, on Aug. 9, he was beheaded.
The Nazis tried to destroy all traces of him. His body was cremated and his ashes buried in a secret location. But his story was kept alive by the kindly prison chaplain, Father Heinrich Kreutberg, who had offered consolation to him in his final days. The admirable priest worked with the rector of the cemetery where his ashes were located and he also enlisted the aid of several local nuns to retrieve them and rebury them in St. Radegund.
Franziska also preserved his story and perpetuated his memory, saving his letters and eventually cooperating with a biography published in Austria and then a TV documentary. Even in the latter stages of her long life, she traveled to churches and schools, including in the United States, to eagerly recount her husband’s sacrifice. In 1992, she spoke at length about her husband’s life at Loyola University in Chicago
Jägerstätter’s story did not go unnoticed by the Church. At Vatican II in the early 1960s, Church officials weighed the merits of conscientious objection. There was strong sentiment for allowing proper authorities, not individuals, to decide on the merits of a war. But Jägerstätter’s ordeal helped shape the final document, asserting that individuals indeed could determine if a particular war is just in its goals or its execution.
Two weeks after turning 100, Franziska died in 2013. Six years earlier, she was at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Linz for her husband’s beatification ceremony. Even for years after the war ended, many St. Radegund villagers harbored bitter feelings toward her. Her pension as a widow was denied for several years, and the village also initially refused to list her husband’s name among other dead on a war memorial.
But the huge crowd at the cathedral gave her and their daughters a sustained standing ovation when introduced. During the emotional ceremony, in a final gesture of their sacred bond, Franziska strode to the sanctuary, approached an urn containing a bone fragment of her martyred husband and gently kissed it.
As Blessed Franz himself wrote to his beloved wife, “Even if yet more difficult things should come, all shall someday work out for the best for him that abides in love.”
Jay Copp writes from La Grange Park, Illinois.