The 20th Century was the most violent in human history a time when the percentage of civilians war casualties rose from five percent to ninety percent. The 20th century also may have produced more martyrs than any other century.
I have met the survivors of those who gave their lives on every continent. For forty-five years since becoming a young volunteer in Viet Nam during the war I have asked how people like me with all our flaws and our own wounds of war might train ourselves with people everywhere who want a better choice than simply being at the mercy of the cascading explosive force for ever higher weapon technology. In this search certain voices and lives have sustained and deepened my commitment.
We are now a week away from Hiroshima Day, August 6 when we will remember the bomb that killed so many and its continuing threat to all of us. This year I will also be remembering the death on August 6, 1943 of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant whose name was once unknown beyond his village but is now inspiring devotion, confidence and courage around the world. I first learned of his life, as a peace activist during the Viet Nam war when I searched for friends, and colleagues who could encourage me in the walk of faith through the minefields of Washington D. C. and beyond. His story was first brought before the world in 1964 by Gordon Zahn’s work, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. Perhaps I was drawn to him because of the Germanic roots we share.
Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. Refusal to serve mandatory military service in war time was a criminal offense in Germany, and Jägerstätter was sentenced to death and executed at age 36. Jagerstatter spent his entire life except for military training and his imprisonment in Berlin, in his native village of Sankt Radegund, Austria where he had a basic elementary education. An illegitimate child he had a reputation of being wild and himself fathered an illegitimate child. Around the time of his marriage in 1936 to Franziska Schwaninger a women from a neighbouring village he experienced a spiritual awakening and began to become more deeply involved in his village church life.
By 1938 when Hitler’s forces arrived in Austria he became convinced of the evil of the Third Reich and was the only person in his village to vote against the take over. He was drafted and went through military training where his plea to be assigned to emergency medical duty was rejected. During these years his spiritual life grew through Bible study and prayer. He may have been influenced also by several priests in the region who were also detained for speaking out about the Nazi program. Three daughters were born to his family. As call up to active military service awaited him, he sought counsel from priests and bishops who advised him that his growing convictions about killing and war should be moderated so that he could care for his family and be a responsible husband. Despite this advice his convictions about God’s love and non participation in the war grew. Neighbours uniformly regarded his sacrifice as foolish and his story may have been forgotten had it not been for Gordon Zahn’s book.
After frequent delays Jägerstätter was called to active military duty in February 1943. By this time his internal sense of a confident call to what today we refer to as Christian nonviolence led him to refuse to enter active duty whereupon he was imprisoned in the Austrian city of Linz. Later he was moved to Berlin where he was tried in a military court and beheaded on August 9, 1943, two years to the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U. S. on the city of Nagasaki, Japan.
In the closing months of his life with the words and advice of responsible fatherhood ringing in his ears he wrote that it was clear to him that refusing to cooperate with the Nazis was the most precious gift he could give to his wife and daughters. He wrote that it would be better to have a father who was killed serving Christ than to have a Nazi for a father. He spoke of his eternal homeland in the spirit of God’s timeless and universal purpose as taking precedence over the drumbeat of “the Fatherland”.
After his death the memory of his witness lay silent for years. Villagers rarely spoke of him because of the enormous dissonance of his lonely witness and perhaps because of their own growing apprehension of how they had been swept up by history. His final words captured in a letter from prison now ring bells of hope around the world.
“I must write them [these lines ed.] with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering, a strength far stronger than all the might of the world. The power of God cannot be overcome. . .
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 neighbour. To do unto one’s neighbour 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, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love.”
Jägerstätter could not have known that his life and death (now referred to as martyrdom) would become the stuff of Saints. On October 27, 2007 after a lengthy process he was beatified in the Cathedral in Linz, Austria before 5000 people from around the world. Writer, priest, and nonviolent visionary John Deer SJ described the great ceremony in the same city where Jagerstatter was once imprisoned. “There were many consoling, inspiring, uplifting moments last Friday … at the beatification of the anti-war hero Franz Jagerstatter. The resounding applause for his 94 year-old widow Franziska. The reading of the declaration. The unfurling of the 30 foot banner with Franz’s photo and the sight of dozens of bishops and cardinals standing up, looking up–at last!–to Franz. But the most moving was the presentation of his relics. Franziska kissed them, gave them to a cardinal for the Cathedral in Linz, then wept. She knows it now. Franz no longer belongs to Austria. Now he belongs to the world. And his work is just beginning.”
Franz has been my companion for some forty years, a gift when my imagination needed sparking, courage when moments of hard decisions were upon me, and inward peace when so much confusion surrounded me. He has been a partner and I believe continues to cheer me on in his sometimes lonely but firm and stubborn Germanic way.
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