Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, who was killed by the Nazis on August 9, 1943, for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army.
Franz, an Austrian peasant, was a husband and father who saw through the deception of the Nazis and refused to cooperate with what he saw as an immoral regime and an immoral war. He not only refused to serve in Hitler’s army, but he had been the only person in his village to vote against the Nazi annexation of Austria.
He was urged by many, including a priest and a bishop, to cooperate but his conscience prevented him from collaboration in what he saw as immoral.
His story might have been forgotten had it not been unearthed by Gordon Zahn, a US Catholic sociologist and conscientious objector. Zahn published his research in the book In Solitary Witness, which included many of the letters he wrote from prison.
Since I read this book I have been moved by the witness of a peasant who held firm, despite all the pressure not only from the Nazis, but even from church authorities.
One of his most moving letters tells of a dream in 1938 of “a shining silver train circling around a mountain. ““This train is going to hell,” he hears. But people refuse to jump off. He identified this train as Nazism. A few years later he showed the world that he would not jump on the train.
In another of his letters he asked, “Is there anything the individual can do?” Though I think it is a limited response to the question his answer is worth praying over:
Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more than an individual can do. If someone were to speak out, it would mean only imprisonment and death. True, there is not much that can be done anymore to change the course of world events. I believe that should have begun a hundred or even more years ago. But as long as we live in the world, I believe that it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.
But the example of people like Franz Jägerstätter has changed the world, moving many people to be willing to speak up for justice and truth, without counting the cost.
Would that there may be more people like Franz.