Franz Jägerstätter was born on 20th May 1907 in St. Radegund, Upper Austria (Diocese of Linz), as the child of the unmarried farm maidservant Rosalia Huber. Being a maid and a farm laborer, she and the father, Franz Bachmeier, could not afford to marry. The child’s grandmother, Elisabeth Huber, a loving, pious woman of wide interests, undertook to bring up the child. There was a great deal of hunger and hardship in the region during the First World War. At school, Franz suffered discrimination because of his poverty. In 1917, his mother wedded the farmer Heinrich Jägerstätter, who on marrying her, adopted his wife’s son. Inspired by his (adopted) grandfather, Franz showed great interest in books as an adolescent, including religious literature. He inherited the farm from his adopted father.
From 1927 to 1930, Franz Jägerstätter worked in the iron ore industry in Eisenerz (Styria, Austria). There, he felt spiritually and religiously uprooted and went through a crisis which made him question his faith and the meaning of life. In 1930, he returned to his home village with a deepened belief in God.
In 1933, Franz fathered a child out of wedlock, Hildegard. The mother of the child was Theresia Auer, a maidservant on a farm in the neighborhood; she later said “We parted from one another in peace; he begged my forgiveness.” Father and daughter enjoyed a good relationship.
In 1935, he met Franziska Schwaninger, a farmer’s daughter from the neighboring village of Hochburg. They married on Holy Thursday, 1936. At his suggestion, they traveled to Rome for their honeymoon. Together, they ran the Leherbauernhof farm. His marriage marked a turning point in Franz Jägerstätter’s life. According to his neighbors, he became a different man. Franz and Franziska prayed together, and the Bible became their book of reference for everyday life. Franziska says of this time: “We helped one another go forward in faith.” From 1941, Franz Jägerstätter was also the sacristan at St. Radegund. Three daughters were born to the couple: Rosalia (*1937), Maria (*1938) and Aloisia (*1940). Franz Jägerstätter once said: “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”
Right from the very beginning, Jägerstätter refused to cooperate or support the Nazis, who took over power in Austria in 1938, as he viewed Christianity and Nazism as being completely irreconcilable. Franz Jägerstätter had a dream which he felt was a warning to him against Nazism: in it, he saw a train carrying innumerable people to perdition, and its meaning was “unveiled” to him as representing the Nazi Party with all its attached organizations.
In 1940, Jägerstätter was conscripted to perform military service, but was twice brought home by the authorities in his home village, on the grounds of his “reserved civilian occupation” as a farmer. He did not wish to obey a third conscription order, for he regarded fighting and killing so that Hitler could rule the whole world as a sin. His mother, relatives and several priests who were his friends all tried to change his mind. Even though his wife Franziska hoped there would be a way out of the situation, she stood by him in his decision: “If I hadn’t stood by him, he wouldn’t have had anyone at all.”
In extensive writings, Franz Jägerstätter explained the reasons for his actions: for him, to fight and kill people so that the godless Nazi regime could conquer and enslave ever more of the world’s peoples would mean becoming personally guilty. Franz prayed, fasted and sought advice. He also requested a talk with the Diocesan Bishop of Linz, Joseph Calasanz Fliesser.
Among other things, the Bishop told Franz that, as the father of a family, it was not his task to decide whether the war was righteous or unrighteous. Franziska Jägerstätter accompanied her husband to Linz, but did not take part in his talk with the Bishop. She remembers the moment when her husband came out of the Bishop’s consulting room: “’He was very sad, and said to me: ‘They don’t dare themselves, or it’ll be their turn next:’ Franz’s main impression was that the Bishop did not dare to speak openly, because he didn’t know him – after all, Franz could have been a spy.”
After being conscripted once more, Franz Jägerstätter reported to his regular military company at Enns on 1st March 1943, but immediately stated: “that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which one must obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” (Excerpt from the reason given for the judgment of the Reich Court-Martial, dated 6th July 1943.)
Jägerstätter was then taken to the military remand prison in the former Ursuline convent in Linz. Two months’ prison in Linz, with all the torture and bullying, precipitated a great crisis. The young farmer was in danger of losing his faith. Yet the experience of happiness with Franziska remained with him as a lasting sign of God’s presence.
At the beginning of May, Franz Jägerstätter was transferred to the military remand prison in Berlin-Tegel. He asked to be allowed to serve as a paramedic: this request was denied. on 6th July 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was condemned to death for “undermining military morale” and was also “stripped of his worthiness to serve in the army and of his civil rights“.
Through Father Heinrich Kreutzberg, he learned that one year before the Austrian Pallottine priest Father Franz Reinisch had refused to perform military service for the same reasons and had died for his convictions. This news gave Franz support and comfort in his situation. The Eucharist, the Bible and a picture of his children were very important to him during this time.
On 9th August 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was taken to Brandenburg/Havel and beheaded. Two pastors, Father Kreutzberg in Berlin and Father Joch¬mann in Brandenburg, regarded him as a Saint and Martyr. In 1965, while working on the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas D. Roberts SJ (Archbishop of Bombay, India from 1939 to 1958) said, in a written submission on Franz Jägerstätter’s lonely decision of conscience: “Marty¬rs like Jägerstätter should never feel that they are alone.”
On 7th May 1997, 54 years after his execution, the verdict of death on Jägerstätter was annulled by the District Court of Berlin. The annulment was equivalent to an acquittal and represented a moral and legal justification of his actions. The District Court based its decision on the assumption that the Second World War had not served the interests of the people but, rather, the Nazis’ striving for power. Anyone who, like Jägerstätter, opposes a crime cannot be a criminal.
From 1989 onwards, the testimonies of those who had known Franz Jägerstätter were gathered, by order of Bishop Aichern. After the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, a historical-theological commission and the Linz Cathedral Chapter had all voted in support of the step, the procedure to beatify Franz Jägerstätter was officially opened in 1997, was concluded at the diocesan level on 21st June 2001, and the records consigned to the Congregation for Sanctification and Beatification in Rome.
On 1st June 2007, the Vatican officially confirmed the martyrdom of the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (1907-43). His beatification will take place in St. Mary’s Cathedral (the ‘Mariendom’) in Linz on 26th October 2007.
(From: Franz Jägerstätter, Christian and Martyr, by Erna Putz; Franz Jägerstätter. Remembrance and Prayer. Novena)
Diocesan Bishop Dr. Ludwig Schwarz and Bishop Dr. Manfred Scheuer (Postulator of the beatification procedure) issued the following statement concerning the beatification:
(in: Franz Jägerstätter – Martyr. A Shining Example in Dark Times).
“The Church is hereby expressly recognizing the courageous attitude of this faithful man, who still has so much to say to us today.
“The commemoration of Franz Jägerstätter stands within the context of many interrelated aspects: his wife, his children and his family, the Church, through his beatification, questions of saintliness and martyrdom, social and political issues in the examination of our own wartime past, the war generation, inhumanity and the terror of the Nazis, and the ethical and educational issues of war and conscientious objection, non-violence, peace education and disarmament, of authority, conscience and obedience.
“Franz Jägerstätter is a prophet with a global view and a penetrating insight which very few of his contemporaries had at that time; he is a shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience, an advocate of non-violence and peace, a voice of warning against ideologies, a deep-believing person for whom God really was the core and centre of life. His prophetic witness to Christian truth is based on a clear, radical and far-sighted analysis of the barbarism of the inhuman and godless system of Nazism, its racial delusions, its ideology of war and deification of the state, as well as its declared program of annihilating Christianity and the Church. His educated, mature conscience led him to say a resolute ‘No’ to Nazism and he was executed due to his consistent refusal to take up arms as a soldier in Hitler’s war.”