The Peasant Who Defied Hitler

Saint Radegund is a village too small to have its own post office, too remote to be reached by normal transportation facilities. Yet in the tiny graveyard of its centuries-old church lie the ashes of a simple farmer who defied a tyrant who had brought all of Europe to its knees. It is a quiet place; one feels a holy place. It may someday be a place of pilgrimage.

—America, July 5, 1958

The pilgrims have been coming for several years now to the place I described above, sometimes singly, more often families, occasionally church groups (not only Catholic). They gather at the grave of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant executed by the Nazis on August 9, 1943, for refusing to serve in the German army. This update is justified not only by the gratifying fulfillment of my 1958 predictions, but by the prospects of significant developments in his case.

As a 1956 Fulbright Fellow in Germany, I focused my research on the role played by religious communities, particularly the Roman Catholic church, in providing moral support to the German war effort even while rejecting the evils of the Nazi regime and its philosophy. German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars (1960), the result of that research published by a reputable Catholic house, Sheed & Ward, was dismissed by many of my fellow Catholics as intentionally defamatory and provoked concern that I was permitted to continue teaching at a Catholic university.

Although in the course of my research I had regularly sought out evidence of opposition to the war effort, the harvest was slim. The church had neither condemned the ongoing war as unjust, nor even hinted that Catholics might, much less should, refuse to support it. There were, however, individuals who did speak out in criticism and were sent to concentration camps and/or killed for doing so. One, a priest named Franz Reinisch, had been executed for refusing to violate his vows and serve in the military. To get a fuller account of his story, I visited one priest who had written a book on him published after the war and interviewed another who had served as chaplain at the prison where the execution had taken place. It was in conversations with the latter that I learned about Jägerstätter.

His was, at least to me, the real story. A priest—given his calling, his education, his training—might be expected to take such a stand; but the witness of a simple peasant who had a wife and three young daughters at home deserved more intensive study. A year later, with another research grant, I was able to spend several months in his village, Saint Radegund, and interview his family and anyone else who could furnish clues to what the sociologist in me defined as an extreme example of “socially deviant” behavior.

In Solitary Witness, my biography of Jägerstätter, appeared in 1964, predictably enjoying a more favorable reception than its predecessor. It was soon translated into a number of foreign language editions, and an Austrian film version was made of it entitled Verweigerung (The Refusal), with a cast headed by one of Austria’s most popular actors. But that is not the end of the story. In 1996, a historical/theological commission was established by the bishop of Linz (Saint Radegund’s diocese) with the task of considering Jägerstätter’s cause for canonization. I was privileged to serve as a “corresponding member,” reviewing and commenting upon the commission’s reports. In March 1997, the commission submitted a favorable recommendation, and the bishop has announced that a formal canonization process will begin this month. Needless to say, there is still a long way to go and a long time to wait before a final decision is reached.

Even so, interest in Jägerstätter continues to grow. In keeping with a policy introduced by the current German government, his widow and daughters have had his conviction repealed. Of greater relevance, perhaps, on May 20, Archbishop Schoenborn of Vienna, who had been a leading force on the Linz commission, hosted a prominent scholarly gathering to celebrate “Franz Jägerstätter Day,” declared to mark Jägerstätter’s ninetieth birthday. In a handwritten note, the archbishop reported to me that the Vienna celebration generated “great interest in TV and [the] public.”

What will come of these developments is impossible to say, but the fact that things have come this far was beyond my wildest expectations in 1958. Most purist academics committed to sociology as a “value-free” science might not approve, but I find this sociologist’s clearly “value-centered” discovery of a prospective martyr-saint the crowning achievement of his professional career.

 


Related: A Man of Peace, by Michael Hovey

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

Gordon C. Zahn (1918–2007) was a frequent contributor to Commonweal, writing on conscientious objection and pacifism. He was an American Catholic conscientious objector to World War II, and taught sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Boston.

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