by James M. Thunder
Released before Christmas, A Hidden Life, is the story of Franz Jaegerstaetter (or Jägerstätter) (1907-1943), an Austrian farmer, who was executed for refusing induction into Hitler’s army. He left behind his wife, Fani, and their three children, one of them with special needs. I use this photo of Franz because it is so jarring to see him in military uniform -- in 1940. The film is written and directed by Terrence Malick who was nominated for Oscars for Tree of Life (2011) and The Thin Red Line (1998).
We will always need stories like Franz’, stories like the elderly Eleazar in 2 Maccabees 6, the seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Wegemer’s A Portrait of Courage (1995), and so many more. We will need them whenever and wherever, as Isaiah says (5:20), what is good is deemed by the world evil and what is evil is deemed by the world good. Franz’ story is timely when so many of us today seek conscientious objection (not only “religious exemption”) to participation in or funding of abortion, to participation in same-sex “marriages,” to participation in sex-change surgeries, to the teaching on these subjects to our children.
If Franz’ life was “hidden,” how was it made public? An American professor of sociology, Gordon Zahn (1918-2007), was conducting research in 1956 post-war Germany when he heard the story of Franz. Among other things, he interviewed Franz’ widow who was extremely close-mouthed. She had been shamed by her neighbors for over 13 years. Zahn published Franz’ story in A Solitary Witness in 1964. It was much, much later that Fani provided her correspondence with her husband. It was translated and edited by University of Notre Dame Professor Robert A. Kreig in 2009 (Franz Jaegerstaetter: Letters and Writings from Prison). He reveals in the introductory pages that reading this correspondence prompted tears. Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol based his play Eyewitness on Franz’ story. It premiered in Tel Aviv in 2002.
I first learned of Franz when I read A Solitary Witness as an undergraduate. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that he was a “martyr” and was therefore eligible to be beatified (which he was later that same year). I was surprised that someone would be declared a martyr, not because his killers were attacking his Catholicism as such, but because his Catholicism caused him to refuse to kill. I was so surprised by this that I published an essay in 2009 entitled Pope Benedict’s Surprise. I wrote that Franz had been executed because he believed in, and acted on, two Christian doctrines: free will and just war. Franz wrote, “For what purpose has God given all people understanding and free will if, as some say, we have no right at all to decide whether this war being waged by Germany is just or unjust? Then what use is our ability to distinguish between what is good or evil?” I concluded my essay with this:
Nine months earlier [before Pope Benedict’s decree], in September 2006, Pope Benedict delivered a lecture in Regensburg, Germany - a talk that subsequently received a great deal of attention. The Pope asked whether it is reasonable to spread one’s religion by violence. Fr. James Schall, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, in his book The Regensburg Lecture, says that Islamic jihadism was not the primary target of the Pope’s question. The larger issue involves the destruction of innocent life for any purpose -- with God’s will serving as the ultimate justification. The Pope was asserting that God created the human intellect with the power and duty to discern right and wrong. Franz…could rightly be called “the saint of Regensburg.” He personifies the argument made by Pope Benedict at Regensburg. Franz…knew it was never right to do wrong, to have even a minor role in destroying innocent human life. I published a second piece, also in 2009, one that was not analytical like the first, but biographical, on this webpage. https://thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=11202 It praised Fani (1913-2013) as much as Franz. He was 29 when he married Fani, then 23, in 1936. While they were engaged, the two of them visited the mother of Franz’ child whom she had had out of wedlock. They offered to rear the child (but the mother declined).
Franz had no formal education after age 14. But he served as the sacristan at the parish church and attended daily Mass. They gave food from their farm to the poor. They prayed together, read the Bible together, read the lives of the saints together. Franz and Fani knew the Nazis and what they were about. Franz once wrote that the Nazis had not fallen from the sky, meaning that they and their policies had not just appeared one day.
Franz and Fani had listened to the pastoral letter of their local bishop, Bishop Gfoellner of Linz, condemning the Nazis, read in all the churches of the diocese on January 22, 1933. Franz adopted as his own the bishop’s phrase, “One cannot be a true Nazi and a good Catholic.” They had also read the Dutch bishops’ statement of 1936 and, in April 1937, in a condensed form prepared by their bishop, Pope Pius XI’s anti-Nazi encyclical, With Burning Concern, http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge.html Franz had a dream in 1938 of a train going to hell and he wanted to alert others not to board it.
I summarized what Franz experienced between the February 23, 1943, notice to appear for induction and his appearance on March 1, when he refused, was arrested, and imprisoned, in this fashion:
Franz heard the arguments of relatives, neighbors, and clergy that he could not sit in judgment on a war, that he had to do his moral duty to save the Fatherland, that he had moral duties to his wife and children, that his religious leaders were not declaring the war unjust even if the regime was evil, that priests and seminarians were agreeing to being inducted, that Nazis were no longer being denied Communion, that it was a morally good thing to crush Soviet Communism, that his refusal would have no impact on the outcome of the war, that he would be committing a form of suicide, that he was actively seeking martyrdom, that he would be foolishly wasting his life, that he may never be ordered to the Front or to kill, that Hitler rather than any of his soldiers should be blamed for prosecuting the war, that he was a religious fanatic, that as a soldier he could help injured soldiers and protect civilians…
Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, Austria, was convicted on July 6, 1943, the anniversary of Thomas More’s beheading. His trial had occurred at Tegel prison, outside Berlin where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been sent three months before Franz. Fani, a widow at age 30, never remarried, never received a war widow’s pension, and was ostracized by her community.
Was A Hidden Life a good movie for the Christmas season and beyond? My answer: Yes, it takes Christ seriously.