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still from A Hidden Life film

Franz Jägerstätter, a Quiet Martyr

Daniel Hallock

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I shall die, / but that is all that / I shall do for Death.
– Edna St. Vincent Millay

Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20, 1907, in the small Upper Austrian village of St. Radegund. His father had been killed in World War I when he was still a child, and his mother had remarried. As a young man, he gained the reputation of a ruffian; his friends recalled that he was “a little wild in his ways and style of living,” and always “ready for a fight.” But the villagers of St. Radegund noticed a remarkable change that came over Franz sometime around 1936, when he married and traveled with his bride to Rome to receive a papal blessing.

The change was so sudden that it took the villagers by surprise. Some attributed it to his devout wife and others to the pope’s blessing; in any event, Franz soon came to be considered a religious fanatic – perhaps even mentally deranged. He was seen pausing in the midst of ploughing his field to say the rosary, singing hymns while tending cows in the village pasture, or interrupting farm work to read from the Bible. He fasted frequently and gave to the local poor, taking foodstuffs to them in his knapsack. He dedicated himself to working for the parish church and was soon appointed sexton.

It was at this point that Franz began openly to oppose the growing Nazi presence in his country. He returned the greeting “Heil Hitler!” with “Pfui Hitler!” – an extremely dangerous expression of opinion – and he refused to buy the National Socialist mixture of religion and politics. He made no contribution to Nazi fund drives, and rejected his government’s benefits as well, including family assistance programs. Following Austria’s voluntary surrender to Hitler on March 12, 1938, he berated the clergy for praising the Party instead of opposing the April 10 plebiscite: “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 crowd was given a free choice between the innocent Savior and the criminal Barabbas.”

As he struggled over what position to take when faced with the prospect of conscription, he had sought advice from Bishop Fliesser of Linz. The bishop, who tried to dissuade him from insubordination, later recalled: “To no avail I spelled out for him the moral principles defining the degree of responsibility borne by citizens and private individuals for the acts of civil authority. I reminded him of his far greater responsibility for his own state of life, in particular for his family.”

Despite opposition from Church leaders and his neighbors, Franz was unshakable. In a letter to his pastor dated February 22, 1943, he stated:

I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.

Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death; but it seems to me that the others who do fight are not completely free of the same danger of death. People say that four or five men from St. Radegund were in the Stalingrad battle. May God reward these poor fellows in the hereafter for all that they have had to bear in soul and body – for, truly, as far as this world is concerned, it is generally taken for granted that their sacrifices were made in vain. If so many terrible things are permitted by this terrible gang, I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.

Franz Jägerstätter

Franz Jägerstätter

His induction order finally came in the spring of 1943, and though he reported obediently to the authorities at Enns, he made it clear that he could not serve in Hitler’s Army. As was to be expected, he was placed under immediate arrest and taken to the military prison at Linz. Here he waited for what he thought would be a prompt execution.

After having taken his decisive step, Franz received repeated urgent appeals to his familial obligations. A local police official offered to write to the military authorities on his behalf, requesting that he be assigned to noncombatant service; his wife, too, pleaded with him to change his mind. But Franz was resolute: the demands of faith stood above those of his family, and if death was the consequence, he was ready.

If I had ten children, the greatest demand upon me is still the one I must make of myself. … Again and again people stress the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. Yet I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, he is free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do).

Nonetheless, he sought to comfort his wife and children at every opportunity:

Dear wife, you should not be sad because of my present situation. … As long as a man has an untroubled conscience and knows that he is not really a criminal, he can live at peace even in prison. … I think it is better for you to tell the children where their father is than to have to lie to them. … I am always troubled by the fear that you have much to suffer on my account: forgive me everything if I bring injustice down upon you.

While still at Linz, Franz wrote to his wife: “When people ask you if you agree with my decision not to fight, just tell them how you honestly feel. … For if I did not have such a great horror of lies and double-dealing, I would not be sitting here.”

One of his fellow prisoners later recalled, in a letter to Franz’s widow:

I was in the same cell with Franz for a long time, and I can only assure you that we found a good friend in Franz who, in the darkest moments, was always able to find a word of comfort and always managed to give us his last piece of bread from the meager morning and evening meals we took in the cell, while he satisfied himself with a little black coffee. His faith in God and justice was beyond measure…

How painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian.

On May 4, Franz was suddenly transferred to Berlin. There he was placed under the care of a chaplain by the name of Baldinger, who tried to convince him to recant. Baldinger assured him that, as a private citizen, he had no responsibility for the acts and policies of his government; by taking the oath and accepting military service, he would not be endorsing Nazi objectives, but would merely be obeying orders like thousands of other good Catholics. Furthermore, Baldinger advised him that, as an ordinary peasant, he was limited in his “sphere of activity,” and had “neither the facts nor the competence to pass a final judgment as to the justice or injustice of the war.”

When Feldmann [Jägerstätter’s attorney]… point[ed] out that millions of other Catholics found it possible to do their duty to the nation – and he, like so many others, gave particular emphasis to the seminarians and priests, some of whom were actually engaged in combat – the peasant merely replied, “They have not been given the grace” to see things otherwise. Pursuing his line of argument further, the attorney had challenged Jägerstätter to cite a single instance in which a bishop – in a pastoral letter, a sermon, or anything else – had called upon Catholics not to support the war or to refuse military service. The prisoner admitted that he knew of no such instance, adding again that this proved nothing more than the fact that they had not been “given the grace” either.

Turning next to arguments of more theological substance, the attorney cited the familiar scriptural injunction to “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and he asked by what right the peasant thought he could take a position that was “more Catholic” than that taken by priests and bishops, who bore the responsibility for making theological judgments.

Such arguments had no impact on Franz’s conviction. “What is there in all this world more lovely than peace?” he asked in a letter. “Let us pray to God… that a real and lasting peace may soon descend upon this world.”

Franz’s trial was held on July 6, 1943. The two high-ranking officers who served as his judges first lectured him sternly on his obligation to serve the fatherland and warned him that his persistent stubborn refusal meant certain death. Franz maintained that he was fully aware of this consequence, but that his conscience would not permit him to fight. Next, they pleaded with him not to “force” them to condemn him; they even promised that he would not have to bear arms if he would only withdraw his refusal to serve. But he rejected their offer, explaining that such a provision would only add falsehood to an already immoral compromise; from then on, the proceedings were brief and formal.

A few days before his death, Franz wrote his wife:

I thank you once more from my heart for everything that you have done for me in my lifetime, for all the love and sacrifice that you have borne for me. … It was not possible for me to free you from the pain that you must now suffer on my account. … I thank Jesus, too, that I am privileged to suffer and even die for Him. … How painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living.

…The true Christian is to be recognized more in his works and deeds than in his speech. The surest mark of all is found in deeds showing love of neighbor. To do unto one’s neighbor what one would desire for himself is more than merely not doing to others what one would not want done to himself. Let us love our enemies…

This simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.

His wife was allowed to visit him once more in Berlin, and together with a priest, she begged him one last time to change his mind. On the eve of his execution, his confessor Father Jochmann offered him a final means of escape: he had only to sign a document consenting to military service, and his life would be spared. But Franz smiled, pushed the papers aside, and refused; his eyes shone with such joy and confidence that the priest was unable to forget his gaze.

On the evening of the following day, August 9, 1943, Franz walked calmly to the scaffold and was beheaded. His body was cremated and his ashes buried a week later. Once dead, Franz was praised for his conviction; in the company of Catholic sisters who retrieved his ashes after the war, Father Jochmann said, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

In recent years, the diocese of Linz has begun preparations to canonize Franz Jägerstätter, seeking his inclusion in the “register of officially recognized models of Christian life.” But one wonders if the church and country who once tried strenuously to stay his “insane course” have truly understood his message. Franz sought not recognition but the honesty and self-examination becoming those who call themselves followers of Christ. As he had written:

The war which we Germans are already carrying on against almost all peoples of the world, [is not] something that broke upon us without warning – like a terrible hailstorm, perhaps, which one can only watch helplessly and, at most, pray that it will end soon without causing too much damage. … Did Nazism fall down upon us out of a clear blue sky? I think we need not waste many words about that, for anyone who has not been sleeping through the past ten years knows perfectly well how and why things have come to be as they are. … The church let herself be taken prisoner, and ever since she has lain in chains.


This account is adapted from Hallock’s book: Hell, Healing, and Resistance: Veterans Speak.

still from A Hidden Life film

Source: Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life, 2019.

Contributed By photo of Daniel Hallock Daniel Hallock

Daniel Hallock has published three books with Plough. Described by The Nation as “part narrator and part reporter, with all skills polished,” Hallock has drawn praise for his writing from the likes of Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn.

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