Review: FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER – Letters and Writings from Prison

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 51, Advent 2009

Editor – Erna Putz, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2009.

Reviewer: Anna Brown.

In his introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, Jim Forest writes that even though Franz Jägerstätter ‘would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family… [he firmly believed] self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families.’ Jim Forest asks how it is that someone ‘so unimportant,’ a relatively uneducated farmer, could see so clearly while those holding positions of leadership in the Catholic Church or in the Austrian government of the Nazi era were utterly blind. Perhaps, it is not simply a matter of seeing clearly; the message of Jesus in the Gospels, after all, is strikingly clear. What sets Franz Jägerstätter apart is not only his ability to see clearly but also to act upon his insight and to actually pay the ultimate price for his refusal to join the Nazis.

Reading Franz Jägerstätter’s Letters and Writings from Prison, I discovered, was the literary equivalent of walking into a burning building. I, like the Catholic prelates and Austrian officials, wanted to flee while my hide was still intact. At other points in my reading, however, tears would flow down my face as I found it harder and harder to turn away from the truth of his insight and actions.

Accompanying Franz Jägerstätter in his astonishing witness was his wife, Franziska, who recalled: ‘In the beginning, I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it anymore… If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.’

In a letter to his wife on August 8, 1943, the day before he was executed, he wrote, ‘Do you believe that all would go well for me if I were to tell a lie in order for me to prolong my life?’ The lie that Franz Jägerstätter refers to is an oath, of loyalty to Hitler. Had he signed the oath–and it was placed upon a table in his jail cell each day until the day of his death–he would most likely not have been executed. In March of 1943, Franz contemplated giving his consent to serving as a military medic which, like his signature to the loyalty oath, may have preserved his life. Though he seems to have changed his mind about this type of service in July of 1943, his wife is of the belief that the military, in their desire for total control, denied even this work to Franz. At issue was his refusal to pledge his total obedience to Hitler. His was a metanoic response to the ‘better argument.’

There is simply no getting around the agonizing consequences of Franz Jägerstätter’s choice not to join the Nazis. Not only did his family lose an exemplary husband and father, they also lost a provider (the bulk of the family’s labor-intensive farm work was picked up by Franziska and her elderly parents), any monetary compensation or food subsidies that were given by the Nazi government to compliant military families, and their civic reputation. In his introduction, Jim Forest recounts an interview given by Franziska to Gordon Zahn: ‘ … she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbours. Few offered the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.

In an essay that he wrote in 1942, On Today’s Issue: Catholic or National Socialist, Franz Jägerstätter recalls a dream that he had in January of 1938. Those familiar with the life of Franz Jägerstätter know this as the ‘train dream.’ The value of reading about it in Letters and Writings from Prison is getting its full account through Franz Jägerstätter’s own vivid telling, his interpretation, and his analysis of the political and religious situation within which the imagery of the dream may be contextualized.

‘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 Franz Jägerstätter, the train symbolizes National Socialism with all of its sub-organizations and programs (the National Socialist Public Assistance Program, Hitler Youth, etc). As he puts it, ‘the train represents the National Socialist Volk community and everything for which it struggles and sacrifices.’ He remembers that just prior to having this dream, he had read that 150,000 young Austrian people had joined Hitler Youth. He recounts, sadly, that the Christians of Austria had never donated as much money to charitable organizations as they now donated to Nazi party organizations. He realized that it wasn’t really the money that the Nazis were after, it was the souls of the Austrian people. You were either with the Führer or you were nothing. Upon this realization, Franz Jägerstätter writes, ‘I would like to cry out to the people aboard the National Socialism train: ‘Jump off this train before it arrives at your last stop where you will pay with your life!’

His admonition to ‘jump off the train’ is one that must be heard and acted upon, perhaps never more so than today. In his recent meditation on Franz Jägerstätter’s life, Father Daniel Berrigan urges that we not become complacent in these ‘post-Hitler’ times: ‘To speak of today; it is no longer Hitler’s death train we ride, the train of the living dead. Or is it? The same train. Only, if possible (it is possible) longer, faster, cheaper. On schedule, every hour on the hour, speedy and cheap and unimaginably lethal. An image of life in the world. A ghost train still bound, mad as March weather, for hell. On earth… Despite all fantasies and homilies and ‘States of the Union’ urging the contrary. Today, a world of normalized violence, a world of standoff, of bunkers and missiles nose to nose, a world of subhuman superpowers and the easy riders. The train beats its way across the world, crowded with contented passenger-citizen-Christians.’

In one of the close to two hundred brief reflections composed between May and August of 1943, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison is a must-read for the nonviolent activist. Better put, and more in line with Franz Jägerstätter’s own way of being in the world, it is a ‘must-act’ book. In the final months of his life, Franz Jägerstätter wrote, ‘I perceive that many words will not accomplish much today. Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning. People want to observe Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world, Christians who live amid all of the darkness with clarity, insight, and conviction, Christians who live with the purest peace of mind, courage and dedication amid the absence of peace and joy, amid the self-seeking and hatred.’

On the morning of August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was awakened at 5:30 am and told to get dressed. He was driven to the Berlin-Brandenburg prison where he was executed at 4:00 pm that same day. Franziska Jägerstätter recalls that she felt an ‘intense personal communion’ with Franz at 4:00 pm that day. The feeling was so strong that she marked the time and date in a journal not knowing, at the time, that Franz was executed at that exact moment. His ashes, which she received in 1946, were buried on August 9th in St. Radegund’s cemetery, just outside the walls of their parish church.

Though I have recommended this book as a ‘must read/act’ book for nonviolent activists, there may be those who question whether or not this is a book only for Catholic peacemakers. Given the Church’s beatification of now Blessed Franz Jägerstätter in October 2007, this is certainly a book that is much needed for the retrieval, renewal, affirmation, and amplification of the Catholic Church’s work for justice and peace. It will also serve to challenge the Church and its members deeply to renounce warfare and embrace nonviolence, the way of life exemplified by Jesus. Finally, it will serve to remind Catholics of the richness of their own sacramental, liturgical and communal gifts.

Whether we are rooted in a faith tradition or not, the solitary witness of Franz Jägerstätter certainly points to the need for self-reflection and action: What does it mean to be human? Why do I act in the way that I do? Do my actions serve to harm or to uplift life? Am I living in a way that serves the work of peace and nonviolence?

Nonviolence is a way of life and in this regard, the Franz Jägerstätter well runs deep.

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