Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jägerstätter's Witness

There is an excellent article at First Things on the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, who will be beatified tomorrow. He was executed for refusing to serve in Hitler's army. Author William Doino points out Jägerstätter, who started on a wild course in life and had a conversion after a trip to Rome, was following the Pope's teaching in the encyclical against Hitler, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), in front of the Nazi terror.
After Hitler’s forces annexed Austria, completing the Anschluss, Jägerstätter was the lone voice in his village to oppose it and was appalled by the willingness of his many countrymen, including high-level prelates, to aquiesce. “I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country,” he wrote, “than this hour when one watches in silence while this error spreads its ever-widening influence.” Commenting on the Austrian plebiscite, which gave approval to the Anschluss, he lamented: “I believe that what took place in the spring of 1938 was not much different from what happened that Holy Thursday 1,900 years ago when the crowd was given a free choice between the innocent Savior and the criminal Barabbas.” Jägerstätter himself became an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime and refused all cooperation. When a storm destroyed his crops, he declined any assistance from Germany. He stopped attending social events to avoid heated arguments with Nazi apologists. As the takeover of Austria proceeded, Jägerstätter knew he would be asked to collaborate at some point. In early 1943, it came: He was ordered to appear at the induction center at Enns, where he declared his intention not to serve. The next day, he was hauled off to a military prison at Linz, to await his fate. “All he knew when he arrived,” writes Zahn, “was that he was subject to summary execution at any moment.” A parade of people—relatives, friends, spiritual advisers, even his own bishop—pleaded with Jägerstätter to change his mind. Some did not disagree with his anti-Nazi convictions or his moral stance; they simply argued he could not be held guilty in the eyes of God if he offered minimal cooperation under such duress, given the extreme alternative. Jägerstätter, however, saw things differently. He believed Christians were called precisely to meet the highest possible standards—“be thou perfect,” said Our Lord—even at the cost of one’s life, if fundamental Christian principles were at stake. Serving Germany in a nonmilitary post would simply make it easier for someone else to commit war crimes. He could not participate in the Nazi death machine, even indirectly. He would not be swayed: “Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives—often in horrible ways—for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith.” Indeed, he added, “the important thing is to fear God more than man.”
Jägerstätter reminds me of Margaret Clitherow, in that friends and family opposed and misunderstood his sacrifice. His story was not popular until recently, and the rise of his cause for beatification is a witness to his holiness and the value for us of his witness. The risk in his story is that he will be used as an example for a particular course of action, e.g., against the war in Iraq or as some permanent model of conscientious objection against all military involvement. That would miss the point of the source of his certainty in Christ and the particular way in which he lived his faith openly in his times according to his acute conscience.

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