For what doth it profit a man,
if he gain the whole world,
and suffer the loss of his own soul?
Matthew 16: 26
Seventy years ago today, August 9, 1943, a 36 year old Austrian peasant, husband and father of two girls, was beheaded in a Berlin prison.
Franz Jägerstätter has refused to serve in Hitler’s army. Unlike many in Germany and Austria, he had realized the horror and the sinfulness of Nazis. Even though religious leaders told him to recall his duty to his family and to his “fatherland,” he insisted that he could not do something that endangered his immortal soul.
This man from the small village of Sant-Radegund, Austria, had an understanding of the horror and evil of Nazism that others lacked. In one of his writings from prison he described a 1938 dream in which he saw people eager to board a train. He heard a voice, “This train is bound for hell.” He identified the train as Nazism and considered it is duty to jump off.
He also had the courage to act. He was the only person in his village to vote against the German annexation of Austria. He also took the brave act of refusing induction into the German army in 1943.
He is a real example of someone who was willing to deny himself and take up the cross, as Jesus calls us to do in today’s Gospel (Matthew 16:24).
He did it even though he was virtually alone.
In an extraordinary letter from prison he wrote his wife about his solitary witness:
Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more that 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 any more 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 this world, I believe it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.
One really has no cause to be astonished that there are those who can no longer find their way in the great confusion of the day. People we think we can trust, who ought to be leading the way and setting a good example, are running with the crowd.
No one gives enlightenment, whether in word or in writing….
Do we no longer want to see Christians who are able to take a stand in the darkness around us in deliberate clarity, calmness, and confidence — who, in the midst of tension gloom, selfishness, and hate, stand fast in perfect peace and cheerfulness — who are not like the floating reed which is driven here and there by every breeze — who do not merely watch to see what their friends will do but, instead, ask themselves, “What does our faith teach is about this,” or “can conscience bear this so easily that I will never have to repent?”
If road signs were ever stuck so loosely in the earth that every wind cold break them off or blow them about, would anyone who did not know the road be able to find his way? And how much worse is it if those to whom one turns for information refuse to give him an answer or, at most, give him the wrong direction just to be rid of him as quickly as possible!
Franz stood alone and is for us a signpost of God in the midst of violence, war, and injustice.
Would that we also be signposts of God’s will – even if it brings the cross.
The quotation from Jägerstätter’s prison letter is taken from Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness. In 2009, Orbis Books published an anthology of his writings: Franz Jägertätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.