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A saint who said "no" to Hitler


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Young Catholics

Lucas Buch

Professor at School of Theology

The martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter

The figure of Franz Jägerstätter went around the world thanks to T. Malick's moving film, A Hidden Life. The film is truly impressive, but the life of this Austrian farmer is much more so. This is highlighted by his letters and writings, which have just appeared in Spanish translation in the book Resistir al mal (ed. meeting).

Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded on August 9, 1943, on the outskirts of Berlin. He was 36 years old, married and left, together with his wife Fani, three young daughters. He died full of peace, for although he was aware of the pain he was inflicting on his family and of the evils his behavior could bring them, he was deeply convinced that he could not do otherwise. He could not swear full obedience to a government like Hitler's. He could not fight an unjust war. He could not fight an unjust war. He could not lie. The priest who accompanied him in his last moments recalled that "he lived like a saint and died like a hero". He was beatified in 2007, in the presence of his wife, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren... a family of 60 people. His existence is a point of light in one of the darkest moments in the history of Europe. A star of hope. A witness of conscience staff and of the freedom of the human being.

Erna Putz, author of a biography of Jägerstätter, is also the editor of his writings. She was responsible for collecting the letters that Franz and Fani exchanged during the war years, and for compiling the essays with which he was shaping his convictions.

The letters are divided into two main groups: those written during Franz's military service, between 1940 and 1941, and those following his imprisonment in 1943. The first ones have, logically, a less dramatic tone. Fani tells him things about the family, about work on the farm, about friends, and Franz explains how they live in the barracks and what maneuvers they are doing. It is easy to perceive how his dislike of the regime, which he had already opposed in the referendum of annexation with Germany in 1938, grows. But above all, it is exciting to look into Franz's inner life: the joy he gets from attending a Eucharistic Blessing or Holy Mass ("in this way, I can always take strength for the whole week"); the sense of communion he experiences with other Christians; his progressive acceptance of God's will, in the things of everyday life and in the successive delays that prevent him from returning home; his gratitude to God for all the good things he has received; his gaze fixed on eternal life; his sincere and tender love for his wife and daughters.

After the period of training military, Franz was able to return to his farm: the Reich needed food, as well as soldiers. However, he knew that his status was precarious. At any moment he could be called up. From that period, the book collects some writings that he wrote down in some notebooks and loose papers. The first notebook focuses on questions of doctrine and Christian life. Some of them look like texts for the catechesis. Jägerstätter stresses the need not to be "Christians in name only" and knows that the true category of a person is revealed in suffering. At the same time, he stresses the importance of prayer, the sacraments and reading in order to be authentic Christians. It is surprising that he found time for these reflections, considering the hard burdens that work entailed in the countryside.

The other two notebooks reflect his most pressing concerns: are Nazism and Christianity compatible, can one fight for Hitler in order to avoid the risk of Bolshevism, can a Christian take part in an unjust war, are those who limit themselves to following the orders of their superiors responsible, what should be the attitude of Christians in the status that Austria was going through? There are other more fundamental questions, as for example when he asks himself why God permits evil, when he reflects on death, or when he makes some considerations about his role in the home ("in these difficult times, every father should be the priest of his family") and, in general, about the responsibility of Christians in society, in the Education of their children, in the evangelizing work of the Church. At some points he raises a list of questions... that no one financial aid can answer. It should be remembered that the Austrian hierarchy did not always give a clear message about partnership with the institutions of Nazi Germany. Jägerstätter had been able to talk to some priests, but many of them had been removed from their parishes when they spoke out against Hitler.

Finally, in 1943, he was called up. He had already made up his mind to refuse to take the oath of unconditional obedience to the Führer. His wife knew of his determination. In fact, she had been to a large extent the manager of her husband's Christian life... and she knew his ideas perfectly well. Still, she hoped that everything could somehow be resolved. The book collects some letters from this period, more and more spaced out. In the last part of her internment, in Berlin, she was only allowed to write one a month.

Jägerstätter does not let complaint creep into his letters, although he was not without reason. On the other hand, his letters are full of beautiful details. He does not mind, for example, going hungry, in order to send his daughters three oranges, which they can carry in the Easter procession... Besides, in prison he has to celebrate his seventh wedding anniversary. On the other hand, it is exciting to see how he tries to take care of his devotions and his life of piety, even though he is hardly allowed to see a priest, much less attend to Mass or to receive communion.

Time passes, and Franz's gaze becomes more and more fixed on God and eternal life. During the months he spent in prison in Berlin, where life was hard and attention cruel, his writings consisted of quotations from Scripture, which he copied every day, to which he added a brief reflection. He called the whole: "What every Christian should know". In total, there are more than two hundred texts and reflections. The themes are many. Many of them he had already developed in some of his essays; others respond to his status, to his doubts and concerns... All of them constitute a solid foundation to overcome the uncertainty and isolation in which he lives and to maintain the decision he has made. Thus, for example, commenting on a text of St. Paul, he writes: "Our union with Christ does not protect us from earthly sufferings, but it puts suffering in the perspective of eternal value". In the end, the entries on notebook are limited to a single line.

Franz's last writings are found on scraps of paper. In mid-July he was sentenced to death and was only waiting for the moment of his execution. His lawyer organized a meeting with his wife, who went to Berlin with the village priest. They were allowed to see each other for only twenty minutes. It seemed too little to him, and in an atmosphere that did not make communication at all easy... Therefore, perhaps wishing to fill in what he had not been able to say in that conversation, Jägerstätter describes in these papers the reasons that led him to make the decision that will cost him his life. In addition, he tries to look at human existence in its true extent: "We are fortunate when we can experience a little joy in this life. But what are the brief moments of joy in this world compared to what Jesus has promised us in his Kingdom?"

In his last letter, he bids farewell to his family and leaves his life in God's hands. He writes to his wife: "I ask you once again to forgive me for all that I have caused you to suffer or hurt you (...) I ask everyone else whom I have hurt or upset to forgive me (...) I forgive everyone with all my heart. May God accept my life as an offering for my sin and for the sins of others". He faced an unjust death, as the first Christians had done. Close to God, yes, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, because he was aware that the cause of evil was none other than sin. In the last two thousand years, the saints have done the same thing in a variety of ways: they have become aware of the reality of sin and have discovered that God was counting on them to carry this burden with him and to introduce the light of his Love into the world. Thus they have become signs of hope, stars shining in the darkness of a time that awaits the coming of the dawn.