When I was in high school, in the early sixties, I became more aware of the Holocaust and of the evils of Nazism. I also was struck by the failure of the Church to respond.
The 1963 play The Deputy, which laid much of the blame for the silence on Pope Pius XII, probably overstated the case. But Gordon Zahn’s German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control presented a Church that almost completely acquiesced to Nazi militarism.
Zahn’s research led him to unearth the life and death of an Austrian peasant from the obscure village of Sankt Radegund, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to serve in Hitler’s army and was beheaded on August 9, 1943. Zahn’s book, In Solitary Witness, appeared in 1963.
Jägerstätter fascinated me. He was not at first what one might be considered an exemplary Catholic and even had the first motorcycle in his village. But after his marriage he began to take his faith seriously.
He took it so seriously that he recognized the evil of Nazism and had the courage to speak out. He was the only one in his village to vote against the Nazi annexation of Austria.
Finally when called up to serve in Hitler’s army he refused. Priests and others tried to dissuade him, calling on him to realize that seminarians and other Catholics were serving in Hitler’s army and that his family would suffer.
But Franz stood firm.
In fact in his writings to his family from prison he shows an extraordinary clarity in regard to Nazism that many church leaders lacked.
In one of his writings, written before he was imprisoned, he relates a dream he had in 1938:
“I saw [in a dream] a wonderful train as it came around a mountain. With little regard for the adults, children flowed to this train and were not held back. There were present a few adults who did not go into the area. I do not want to give their names or describe them. Then a voice said to me, This train is going to hell.’ Immediately, it happened that someone took my hand, and the same voice said to me; ‘Now we are going to purgatory.’ What I glimpsed and perceived was fearful. If this voice had not told me that we were going to purgatory, I would have judged that I had found myself in hell.”
For him that train was Nazism and he would have not part in defending it.
He was tried and beheaded.
In 2007, his heroic act was recognized by the Church that had almost abandoned him. He was beatified in Linz, Austria.
Franz is for me a person who saw through the glitter of political evil, who held firm to his love of God and to his conscience, who was not held back by fear.
Would that we had more people like Franz, more people willing to stand firm in the face of injustice, evil, and war.
Would that I might learn from him how to be courageous and truthful in the face of evil.
Blessed Franz, pray for us.
The letter pictured above is on a side altar in the church of Saint Bartholomew in Rome, in the church of the new martyrs and witnesses of the twentieth century. A blog on the church can be found here.