Seventy-three years ago today, a thirty-six-year-old Austrian farmer was beheaded by the Nazis in Brandenburg-Görden prison on the banks of the Havel River in north-eastern Germany. He left his thirty-year-old wife and four daughters ranging in age from 10 to 3.
Franz Jägerstätter was executed because, in March 1943 when he was called for military service in the Wehrmacht, he refused to enlist. He claimed to be a conscientious-objector and affirmed that he was unable to fight on the side of the aggressors in an unjust war. It was a rare stand for a young man to make anywhere in the world in in the 1940’s, least of all a young German/Austrian whose country had joined the Führer in military conquest with almost unreserved enthusiasm.
As he had struggled with his decision in the small village of St. Radegund, Jägerstätter was pressured from almost every quarter, to submit to Nazi authority and fulfill his military duty. Going to war in the Wehrmacht was certainly a risky proposition; but refusal to fight meant certain death as an enemy of the state.
Franz was a devout Roman Catholic. He prayed about his decision and consulted with priests and a bishop. But, even his church failed to support Franz in his courageous and lonely stand.
On 8 August 1943, the day before he died Franz wrote from prison to his wife. In part he said,
Everything will become clear on the Day of Judgment, if not sooner, as to why so many people are struggling today. With my heart, I apologize to you and to everyone else if some of these words that reach your ears are not kind. Did our dear Savior not mean everything? And should we be exempted from his words? For the riches of eternity will not be less if I am defamed by many people.
Almost alone among his contemporaries, Franz Jägerstätter was able to see clearly even before “the Day of Judgment” came. He understood that to fight on behalf of the Nazis would be for him a betrayal of the commandment of love that Jesus had spoken so clearly in his heart. He saw with piercing clarity the horror, violence, and injustice of the Nazi regime and understood that he could not cooperate with such tyranny.
Not everyone saw as clearly as Franz Jägerstätter.
What was it that made it possible for Franz to penetrate the veil of darkness Hitler and his henchmen had cast over the minds of so many people who would have otherwise never countenanced the vicious regime that had come to power in Germany in 1933? How was Franz able to stand, virtually alone against most of his family, his government, his fellow citizens, and most significantly, in opposition to his church which he revered and to which he looked for moral guidance and wisdom in every aspect of his life? How was Franz, who was a deeply loving and dedicated husband and father, able to leave his young family and embrace the prospect of almost certain death?
I do not know the answers to these questions. But the answers may be on their way:
Whether or not Mr. Malick is able to penetrate the mystery of Franz Jägerstätter, the questions are worth asking, particularly at a time of political turmoil, uncertainty, and confusion in the world today. Where do we look for clarity? Who is able to really see through the darkness and confusion of our day? Where do we look for wisdom, light and truth?