Born May 20, 1907
St. Radegund, Austria
Died August 9, 1943
Austrian farmer and conscientious
objector during World War II
During Adolf Hitler's reign as leader of Germany, those who lived in countries ruled by the Nazi Party (the National Socialist German Workers' Party) were subjected to an iron rule. Refusing to follow Nazi orders brought swift, brutal punishment and often death. Few people had the courage to resist. Yet Franz Jaggerstatter, an Austrian farmer with a wife and three young daughters, did show such courage—even when everyone around him said he should go along with the Nazis. He refused to enter military service because he believed it would violate his religious beliefs, knowing very well that his refusal would lead to his execution. Since his death, Jaggerstatter has become a strong role model for other conscientious objectors (those who refuse to fight and kill others on religious or moral grounds).
A lively young man
Jaggerstatter was born in the rural town of St. Radegund, located along the banks of the Salzach River in northern Austria (and only about an hour's drive from Braunau, Hitler's birthplace). His mother, Rosalia, worked as a maid when she became pregnant with Franz; her baby's father, Franz Bachmeier, was also a servant and the two never married. Bachmeier was killed in 1915 while fighting in World War I (1914-18). In 1917, Rosalia married a farmer named Jaggerstatter, who adopted young Franz and began to instill in him a love of books and reading.
Franz attended the local school in St. Radegund, and as he grew up he gained a reputation as a lively—or even wild— young man who enjoyed games, dancing, and driving his motorcycle (the first one seen in St. Radegund) loudly around the village streets. When he was twenty years old, Franz went away for three years to work in the iron ore industry in Steiermark, Austria. Then he returned to St. Radegund and began farming.
Experiences religious awakening
In 1936 Franz married a local girl named Franziska. The couple traveled to Rome for their honeymoon, and during that time in Italy Franz experienced a renewal of his Roman Catholic faith. After the couple's return to St. Radegund, Franz continued his farm work. He attended daily mass and served as sacristan (a church officer in charge of the room in which priests' garments and other items used in the Mass are kept) in St. Radegund's small church. During the next few years, three daughters were born to the Jaggerstatters. Franz was known as an especially devoted father, and even took one of his babies out in a carriage—something the men of that time and place usually didn't do.
"A beautiful train … to hell"
While Franz and Franziska were running their farm and raising their family, Adolf Hitler was busy taking power in Germany. It was during this period that Jaggerstatter had a frightening dream about "a beautiful train" that was "going to hell." It seemed that the train stood for National Socialism (the National Socialist German Workers' Party or Nazi Party; a political system devised by Hitler and his subordinates), which promised order and prosperity but actually involved hatred, cruelty, and murder. Jaggerstatter was alarmed at the way everybody around him seemed eager to jump on this train and join the Nazis, and he shared his views and his distrust of Hitler with his friends and neighbors at local gatherings.
In 1938, Austrians voted on whether their country should join Hitler's empire, which was called the Third Reich. Jaggerstatter was the only person in St. Radegund to vote against the Anschloss, or the joining together of the two countries.
A difficult decision
Jaggerstatter received his first call to military duty in June 1940. Despite his doubts about Hitler and National Socialism, he reported for duty, but was released in 1941 because his farm work was deemed more important than military service at that time. Meanwhile, he thought more about the conflict between his religious beliefs and fighting for a system he did not support. Jaggerstatter was not a pacifist (a person who does not believe in fighting or killing others for any reason); in fact, he stated that he would have become a soldier in an instant if Austrians had chosen to oppose, rather than join, the Nazis. But it was becoming more and more clear to him that he could not kill in the name of Hitler and his followers.
In February 1943 Jaggerstatter received his second call to military duty. Still struggling with his conscience, he consulted the Catholic bishop in the nearby town of Linz. He asked the bishop, "Who can be a soldier for Christ and a soldier for National Socialism at the same time?" The bishop's response was that Jaggerstatter's duty to his country and to his family must take priority over all other concerns. Jaggerstatter's friends and relatives agreed with the bishop and urged him to join the military.
Nevertheless, Jaggerstatter went to the local induction center (where military recruits signed up for service) and told the commanding officer that he had decided to refuse to serve in the military. Jaggerstatter was arrested and taken to the prison in Linz, then transferred to the Brandenburg Prison in Berlin.
Explains his position in letters from prison
While waiting for his trial, Jaggerstatter wrote several letters to his friends and loved ones, as well as a statement explaining why he had taken such an unusual and dangerous stance. In a letter to his three daughters (the oldest of whom was not yet six), he wrote: "I would have liked to spare you the pain and sorrow you must bear because of me. But you know we must love God even more than family, and we must lose everything dear and worthwhile on earth rather than commit even the slightest offense against God." To his wife, Jaggerstatter asserted that he did not want to live like a "halfway Christian, that is more like vegetating than living."
Jaggerstatter's statement from prison begins with this declaration: "These few words are being set down here as they come from my mind and my heart. And if I must write them with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will." Jaggerstatter asserted that he did not owe worldly leaders "blind obedience," and that God had granted him the grace and strength to die for his beliefs.
Trial and execution
Jaggerstatter's trial, held on July 6, 1943, was presided over by military judges who were from the regular army, not Hitler's Schutzstaffel, the Security Squad (known as the "SS"). Even the judges attempted to talk Jaggerstatter out of his position, but he continued to assert that he would not fight for National Socialism. According to the official court proceedings, Jaggerstatter was convicted of the charge of "undermining our military forces" by his "stubborn refusal to fulfill his patriotic duty as a soldier in Germany's perilous war for survival." He received the death sentence.
On August 9, 1943, Jaggerstatter was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison. His remains were cremated and buried on the prison grounds. Back home in St. Radegund, he was regarded as a religious fanatic, and his wife was criticized for not forcing him to change his mind. For almost twenty years, Jaggerstatter was remembered only by his closest survivors.
Jaggerstatter's story comes to light
Jaggerstatter might still be unknown today if not for the efforts of American sociologist Gordon Zahn, who uncovered his story while he was in Europe conducting research on German Catholic support for World War II. Zahn had learned of Father Franz Reinisch, a Catholic priest executed in 1942 for refusing to pledge unconditional obedience to Hitler, from another priest, Father Kreuzberg. In a book written by Father Kreuzberg, Zahn discovered the story of "Franz II," as Kreuzberg called Jaggerstatter.
Intrigued by Jaggerstatter, Zahn (who had also been a conscientious objector during World War II) traveled to St. Radegund and interviewed his widow and others who had known him. He learned that after the war, Jaggerstatter's ashes had been returned to his home village and buried near the door of the St. Radegund church. A sympathetic priest had also insisted—despite protests that Jaggerstatter was a coward who refused to fight while other men sacrificed their lives for their country—that Jaggerstatter's name be added to a list of St. Radegund's war dead.
In 1964, Zahn's book In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaggerstatter was published. In Austria, public opinion about Jaggerstatter remained mixed, but much of the rest of the world embraced him as a religious martyr (a person who makes a great sacrifice for the sake of a belief or principle) and role model. His example helped to persuade the Catholic Church to officially support the individual's right to object to military service based on religious and moral grounds. His name was also cited when, in 1970, the United Nations expanded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include a provision for conscientious objection.
Although some individuals still question Jaggerstatter's position, his homeland has come to celebrate him as a hero of conscience. Streets in Vienna, Linz, and other Austrian cities have been named for him, celebrations in his honor have been held, and a petition has been submitted to the Vatican to have him named a saint. The Jaggerstatters' old family farmhouse has been turned into a center for study and meditation. In a gesture of reconciliation and goodwill, a cycle of twelve etchings on Jaggerstatter by Austrian artist Ernst Degaspari has been displayed at Yad Vashem, the center for Israel's Holocaust Memorial.
In addition to these public tributes, Jaggerstatter's words and courage inspire those individuals struggling to follow their own consciences. In an article in the New Statesman and Society, Bruce Kent writes that "Jaggerstatter's life continues to give courage to conscientious objectors around the world from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds."
Where to learn more
Balfour, Michael. "A Portrait Gallery: Franz Jagerstatter." In Withstanding Hitler in Germany 1933-45, pp. 231-33. London: Routledge, 1988.
Zahn, Gordon. In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaggerstatter.New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.
Jabusch, Willard F. "A Tale of Two Towns." America (July 16, 1994): 4.
Kent, Bruce. "The Man Who Said No to Hitler." New Statesman and Society (May 6, 1994): 20.
Moore, Donald J. "Franz Jagerstatter: Conscience vs. Duty." America (February 19, 1994): 12.
Zahn, Gordon. "In Celebration of Martyrdom." America (February 19,1994): 8.
Putz, Erna. "Against the Stream: Franz Jaggerstatter" (translated by Michael Duggan). [Online] Available http://c3.hu/bocs/jager-a.htm (October 23, 1998).
What Is a Conscientious Objector?
A conscientious objector is a person who refuses to participate in a war because his or her own conscience tells him or her that it would be wrong to take part. This stand may be based on religion (some religions believe that violence and war are never justified), politics (a person may disagree with the reason a country has gone to war), or philosophy (someone may object to the idea of war without being a follower of a religion).
There are several types of objectors. Some refuse to serve in combat but will agree to perform noncombatant duties, while others also refuse noncombatant service but will work in civilian jobs rather than fight. A third type of objector, often called an absolutist, not only refuses to fight but also to accept any alternative to fighting.
Conscientious objectors have existed throughout history. The ancient religions of Buddhism and Jainism (which date back to the sixth century before Christ) were based on nonviolence, and the early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. During the Middle Ages, Christians began to see a difference between just and unjust wars.
After the Protestant religions broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, some of them began to include conscientious objection in their beliefs. These included the Mennonites, the Society of Friends or Quakers, and the Brethren, all of which still exist and still promote nonviolence. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were joined by such churches as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists.
Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, who took a nonviolent stand as he led his country to independence, had a major influence on the way people viewed the conscientious objector. Now groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and War Resisters International try to provide support for those who refused to fight.
The United States did not have a draft (by which qualified young men are required to serve in the armed forces) before World War I, except during the Civil War, when an objector was allowed to send someone to war in his own place. During World War I, U.S. law recognized objectors if they were members of churches that had nonviolence as part of their official beliefs. These objectors still had to report to duty, but they were assigned to noncombatant units. Some of those who refused noncombatant service were sent to work on farms, while many absolutists were imprisoned. Conscientious objectors in Austria-Hungary and Germany were sent to insane asylums, while those in France were often shot as deserters.
During World War II, about 100,000 Americans were classified as conscientious objectors. United States law recognized those who refused to fight "by reason of religious training and belief," but those who objected on political or philosophical grounds were excluded. Objectors performed alternative service in such areas as reforestation, flood control, soil conservation, dairy testing, and caring for mental patients. About 6,000 absolutists were imprisoned.
Great Britain had the same three categories of objectors as the United States (no combat, no noncombatant service, no service whatsoever) but conscientious objector status could be claimed on religious, political, or philosophical grounds. In Germany, as Jaggerstatter's case shows, conscientious objectors were shot or sent to concentration camps, while in Japan some objectors entered the army but then refused to aim their guns at the enemy.