A Modern Saint – 8th August 2008
November 4, 2008

This weekend there will be the usual annual pilgrimage to the village of St Radegund, Austria (near the German border) to honour a “brave and simple farmer”. This year’s pilgrimage will be different because the Vatican – with unusual speed – beatified this victim of Nazi horror on October 26, 2007.

The story of Franz Jagerstatter is extraordinary. He was an Austrian farmer born in 1907 and executed in 1943. He accepted a call to military service in June 1940 and took the military oath. The following year he was released from the military to continue his farm work.

In February 1943, with the war going badly for the Nazis, he was called up again. But by this time he had developed doubts about the morality of Hitler’s war. As a Christian he decided that he had an individual conscience and a religious duty to oppose the war.

He was not a pacifist. He made it clear that in different circumstances he would have fought a “just war” in defence of Austria. But he did not regard Hitler’s war of aggression as a “just war”. He came to this conclusion on his own in an isolated rural setting.

He was arrested in March 1943, tried by the Berlin War Tribunal on July 6, 1943 and beheaded on August 9, 1943. The body was immediately cremated. A Catholic priest at the prison said that Jagerstatter was the only saint he had met in his lifetime. Prison nuns noted where his ashes were buried and after the war they took the ashes back to his home village.

But back home there was little support for him. He had been a tearaway in his youth and he had been a bit of a local nuisance. He was not expected to amount to very much.

His neighbours during the war now thought that he had become a religious fanatic. Even when the nuns brought the ashes back after the war, the neighbours complained about their being buried in the village. A local memorial to him was defaced. The villagers evidently hoped that his memory would soon fade away.

But the memory did not entirely fade away.

In 1957, Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist, interviewed Fr Kreuzberg, a former chaplain at the Berlin Prison. Kruezberg had written a book about another priest, Fr Reinisch, who had also been executed at the prison for opposing the war. Jagerstatter heard about the Reinisch death when he was himself in the prison and this helped him realize that he was not the only Christian opposed to Hitler’s war. Kruezberg mentioned Jaggerstatter in the back of his book as a “brave and simple farmer” and this got Zahn interested in his story. Zahn went off to St Radegund to collect more information.

Zahn’s biography of Jagerstter, “Silent Witness” eventually became an international best-seller. For example, Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed that the US Government had lied over the Vietnam War, said that he had been inspired to release the top secret “Pentagon Papers” after reading “Solitary Witness”. The information about how the US (and Australia) had really got involved in the Vietnam War helped turn public opinion against the war and so helped end the campaign.

In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his martyrdom, over a thousand people from around the world converged on the Jagerstatter farm to give thanks for his life and witness. The farmhouse is now preserved as a museum and educational centre.

At last October’s Beatification Mass and Ceremony, in the crowded Linz Cathedral in Austria, were Jugerstatter’s 93 year-old widow, Franziska, with the Jaggerstatter children.