Brian Johnstone. ‘A Hidden Life’. Why Franz Jägerstätter defied the Nazis.

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Posted 7 April 2020.

A response to the film.

Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life, provides an account of the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian Catholic family man and farmer who refused to fight in Hitler’s war. The film portrays Franz, his wife Franziska (Fani), and their three daughters as important members of a tight-knit rural community. Jägerstätter is called up to basic training, but sent home in 1940 when Germany appears to be winning the War. In 1943, as the War goes on, Jägerstätter and the other able-bodied men in the village are called up to fight.

Their first requirement is to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich. Despite pressure from the Mayor, the Bishop of Salzburg, and his farm neighbours who increasingly ostracise him and his family, Jägerstätter refuses, knowing this decision will mean arrest, and even death. After he endured months of brutal incarceration, his case goes to trial. He is found guilty, and sentenced to death. Despite many opportunities to sign the oath of allegiance, and the promise of non-combatant work, Jägerstätter continues to stand by his beliefs, and is executed by the Third Reich in August 1943, while his wife and three daughters survived.

Recently, a group of Pax Christi members viewed the film, and reviewed the major issues it raises, in the context of a summary of Jägerstätter’s own defence on 6 July 1943 from trial records of the Reich Military Court in Berlin:

Only in the past year had he become convinced that, as a devout Catholic, he was unable to engage in active military service. It was impossible for him to be a Catholic and at the same time a National Socialist. When he complied with the earlier conscription order, he did so because at that time he considered it a sin not to obey state orders. Now, however, God had given him the thought that it was not a sin to refuse armed service. There were matters in which one was obliged to obey God more than man; the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ forbade him to engage in armed service, though he was prepared to serve as a paramedic.

The court rejected his offer to serve in this way …

The issues arising from this statement centre on four questions discussed by the Pax Christi group. The first focussed on the official teaching of the Catholic Church at the time (1943) with regard to the right to conscientious objection to military service, which the Church only recognised at the Second Vatican Council (1959-65).

The accepted theological treatment of the question of war in 1943 was the classic Catholic teaching on ‘the just war’, as spelled out by scholastic theology, and in particular by St Thomas Aquinas following St Augustine.  Catholic theological teaching on the ‘just war’ recognised that there could be a ‘just cause’ for a state to go to war. The clearest such cause was defence against an unjust attack by another state. The War to which Jägerstätter was opposed began, in fact, with an act of aggression by German forces against Poland. One would think that fictions constructed by the German government to justify their attack would scarcely have convinced any intelligent person. But, according to the teaching of theologians, defence was not the only just cause. Some bishops at the time are reported to have held that the dire threat posed by ‘atheistic communism’ would justify war against Russia.

Catholic theology at that time recognised that a particular war could be judged unjust but it was generally taught that such a judgment could be recognised as valid and binding only if it were made by an authority, for example a Council, the Bishop, or the Pope. It was widely agreed that such judgments could not be left to individual soldiers as, it was argued, this would lead to chaos. The doctrine of non-combatant immunity prohibited killing persons who were not participating in the actions of war, as for example, women and children, or the elderly or sick, or, of course, the clergy, unless they were actually engaged in war-making. A particular issue was the conduct of the German army in Eastern Europe. It seems that Jägerstätter knew of this, and that this was one of the reasons for his refusal to serve. He is reported to have said, “We are killing innocent people.”

The second issue centres on the sources that informed Jägerstätter’s decision. When he was trying to find answers to his life-and-death questions, Jägerstätter sought guidance from his parish priest and from his bishop. When first consulted his parish priest was supportive. But this priest was transferred after he delivered a sermon that did not enthusiastically endorse the Austrian government’s war policy in support of Hitler. The priest who followed was sympathetic when consulted by Jägerstätter but nevertheless tried to dissuade him from refusing to accept the government’s policy. This priest argued that the decision not to fight would be useless; it would make no difference. The war would go on despite Jägerstätter’s refusal to fight. In the film the prison interrogator taunts him: “Do you think your defiance will change the course of things?” This kind of argument of supposed beneficial consequences was not what concerned Jäggerstätter.

Jäggerstätter also consulted the local bishop whose response was disappointing. The bishop cited the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans Chapter 13 requiring submission to the governing authorities. He is reported to have said: “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The Church tells us so… ”. Jäggerstätter discussed this conversation with his wife Franziska and surmised that the bishop may have thought he was a government spy seeking to trap him. Perhaps this was the only way that Jäggerstätter could explain why this man of God did not recommend Christ’s love as providing moral guidance.

Jäggerstätter was not moved by arguments from authority, even when the authority was that of St. Paul, or rather a cleric’s interpretation of St. Paul. His parish priest also urged Franz to consider the effects of his refusal on his wife and children. Jäggerstätter’s wife and children did indeed suffer; they were ostracised and vilified during and even after the War.

The third issue arises out of the process through which Jägerstätter himself came to his decision to refuse to serve. The film gives the impression that his position as a conscientious objector was an “idea” that came to him, as with an interior illumination that he could not adequately explain or defend. In fact, as Dan Hitchens writes in the Catholic Herald (January 16, 2020), Jägerstätter had thought through the matter and could argue his position vigorously. Fr Karobath, the first priest he consulted and a friend, later recalled that he tried to convince him to give up his views. But, as the priest later admitted, Jägerstätter defeated him again and again with the words of the Scriptures.

As reported by Fr. Karobath, Jägerstätter’s reply to the priest’s arguments was categorical. He asked the priest if he (Jägerstätter) followed the arguments and agreed to serve in the Austrian army in support of Hitler’s wars, could he guarantee that he (Jägerstätter) would not be damned. When the priest could give no such guarantee, Jägerstätter replied that therefore he would not serve. Thus, we can conclude that his decision was vigorously thought through; he could and did explain his position.

It is also noteworthy that Jägerstätter’s primary reference was the Scripture, especially the teaching of Jesus on love. If he had been able to consult the standard texts of Catholic theology on war that were available at that time he would not have found that they had very much to say about Jesus’ love.

There is no indication that Jägerstätter went for guidance to works of theology.  In any case such books would have been in Latin and inaccessible to him. Nor did the parish priest or the bishop, apart from his reference to the letter to the Romans, and a general reference to “the teaching of the Church” appeal to such sources.

There can be no doubt that Jägerstätter’s judgment, together with that of other conscientious objectors at the time was later confirmed by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. In the document entitled “The Church in the Modern World” (December 7, 1975), endorsed laws that would “make human provision for the care of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, however, that they accept some other form of service to the human community” (n. 79). The same Conciliar document also positively commended non-violence, albeit in rather cautious terms:

We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defence which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself. (n. 78)

Advocates of non-violence would object to being assimilated into “weaker parties.” They would claim that they do not choose non-violence through weakness or because they do not have arms available to them. On the contrary, they act from a position of (moral) strength. They might also ask how their refusal to take up military arms and rely on non-violent means could conceivably injure the rights of others.

When, after the end of the war, Austrians finally decided that they had to demonstrate that there had been some resistance against Hitler in their country, researchers and writers focused on the efforts of Communists and political conservatives who offered some resistance.  But they continued to ignore Jäggerstätter. Finally an American sociologist and pacifist, Gordon Zahn, discovered Jäggerstätter’s story and published a book about him that could not be ignored, and compelled Catholics to take up his cause. Jäggerstätter was eventually beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. His wife Franziska was present at the beatification. It is recorded that when she was acknowledged as present at the ceremony there was “thunderous applause.” She lived to 100, and was said to have been a serene and luminous person. May we hope that she too will be beatified by the Church?

The final issue raised during the viewing and reviewing of the film by the Pax Christi was: Why did ‘ordinary people’ for so long resist recognising Jägerstätter? For many Austrians Jäggerstätter was a traitor. We are told that Franziska fully supported her husband’s decision, hence the cost to his wife and children was considerable. Within the Pax Christi discussion group, some took the view that Jäggerstätter ought to have accepted military service to avoid the painful consequences for his family.

Perhaps another reason was, as one commentator suggested, that Jäggerstätter was an ‘ordinary’ man, who had the insight to see the evil of Hitler and the War policy of the German and Austrian governments, and had the courage to resist, which they had failed to do. This begs the question: How was it that other ‘ordinary’ people were unable, or unwilling to do so? Was their refusal blameworthy? Rather than face this question, people ignored Jäggerstätter for decades. This treatment continued even after the war when the Austrian government paid pensions to the wives of the soldiers who had fought for Hitler; but refused to give Franziska a pension until 1950.

Whatever may be the answer to these questions and issues, the task for us today is clear: we must study and develop the doctrine and practice of non-violence. There can be no doubt that Franz Jägerstätter’s judgment, together with that  of the other conscientious objectors of the time, was later confirmed by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

Dr Brian Johnstone is a Redemptorist priest and moral theologian, who has taught in the Alphonsian Moral Academy in Rome and the Catholic University in Washington, as well as in Melbourne.
Photo Typewriter. Marco Verch (trendingtopics). flickr cc.
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