Clarifying the Disputed Witness of Franz Jaegerstaetter
September 1991By Gordon C. Zahn
Gordon C. Zahn is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. With Eileen Egan, he co-founded Pax Christi USA, the leading American Catholic peace organization, whose members include over 100 bishops. His books include In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter (recently reissued by Templegate) and German Catholics and Hitler's Wars. His "Kurt Waldheim & Franz Jaegerstaetter: Contrasting Austrian Responses to the Unjust War" appeared in our November 1986 issue.
Almost 35 years have passed since I had the privilege of "discovering" the story of an Austrian peasant beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to serve in the armed forces of the Third Reich. Since my book (In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter) first appeared in 1964, Franz Jaegerstaetter, until then unknown, has won worldwide recognition. Pilgrims come from all over to visit the churchyard where his ashes are buried; the President of Austria (Kurt Waldheim's predecessor) issued a special Award of Honor acclaiming him a national hero; and, what would have pleased him most, a kind of grassroots campaign for his canonization is finally finding echoes in the highest ecclesiastical circles.
There is good reason to believe this movement will now gain additional momentum as the result of the recent unearthing (in Prague) of the official report of the July 1943 proceedings at which he was tried and sentenced to death. This document provides unmistakable evidence of the intensity of his religious motivation and should silence critics who have argued against his cause on the grounds that his was a political, not spiritual, opposition to military service and for this reason undeserving of canonization. The court's summary reveals an unwavering conviction that the war being waged by Hitler's immoral regime was an unjust war and for him to take part would violate his Christian faith. To avoid this he was ready and willing to accept the certainty of death.
This official clarification of the motivation behind his refusal should help strengthen and hasten the promotion of his cause. Unfortunately, that same record introduced a note of confusion that threatens to lessen the meaning and impact of his witness. This ought not endanger the recognition -- in the eyes of many, the reverence -- due his martyrdom. It does, however, raise serious questions that should not be dismissed or ignored.
In 1960 I spent a summer in Jaegerstaetter's home village of St. Radegund, conducting extensive personal interviews with the villagers who had known him as lifelong friend and neighbor, and of course with his widow and three daughters. In addition I tracked down others in Austria and Germany who had been involved with him at the time of his imprisonment and death. On the basis of this information, supplemented by the letters and other statements Franz had written from prison, I sought to reconstruct the sequence of events and draw from it its full meaning for his time and, no less important, for our edification. Most of my informants have since died. The note of confusion to which I refer arises from one sentence in the court record that contradicts a crucial point in my reconstruction and analysis of the Jaegerstaetter story.
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