It was a warm summer night in 1938. In a tiny Austrian village, Franz Jaegerstaetter startled awake, terrified by a vivid dream. In it he saw a “shining train circling a mountain” and men, women, and children rushing to get a place on it. Then, suddenly, he heard a voice that warned: “This train is going to hell.”
Franz’s terror over the dream never faded, and as he pondered its meaning, he came to see the train as symbolizing Nazism. How he responded to this insight proved dangerous for him and disturbing for the people around him. And it raises potentially troubling questions for us.
Was Franz Jaegerstaetter just a dreamer, a man to be dismissed? Or was he a visionary whose life holds urgent meaning for Christians today?
Fleeting Bliss. Born in 1907 in the upper Austrian village of St. Radegund, Franz Jaegerstaetter began life normally enough. He was minimally educated but quite well read. It seems he also had a wild side and ended up fathering a child out of wedlock. Eventually, however, he settled down to a quiet life of farming.
“In his youth,” he was “just like other people,” his pastor wrote, describing Franz in the parish chronicle. But then, “in 1934, he became serious.” Indeed, the young farmer had a sudden, deep personal conversion that anchored his faith and led him to read the Bible regularly. His behavior changed, and neighbors who had deplored his youthful rebellion now criticized his very public devotion. He’s going overboard, some thought as they saw him walking to daily Mass, kneeling in the fields to pray the rosary, and singing hymns as he worked.
In 1936, Franz married the equally devout Franziska Schwaninger. Within a few years, they had three young daughters. The couple was blissfully happy. “Our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish— many people envied us,” wrote Franziska. A devoted husband, Franz was also an affectionate father. He often walked through town pushing his young daughters in their pram— an unsual thing for men of his day.
The rise of National Socialism in neighboring Germany turned this happy existence upside down. On March 11, 1938, Adolf Hitler’s troops crossed the border and annexed Austria. A month later, Austrians went to the polls and approved the takeover virtually unanimously. In the village of St. Radegund, Jaegerstaetter was the only one to vote NO. He was deeply grieved by the failure of his fellow Catholics—including most of Austria’s clergy—to heed earlier warnings from prophetic voices like Bishop Johannes Gfollner of Linz. Gfollner was among the first to reject the Reich’s “racial delusions” and “nationalistic religion” and say it was impossible to be both a good Catholic and a Nazi.
Against the Tide. Intent on not collaborating with the new regime, Franz refused the money he could have received through a Nazi program that assisted families; hardship was more acceptable to him than what he now considered sin. In 1940, he even accepted military service rather than have to ask party officials for an exemption. He emerged more horrified at the evils of Nazism—for example, its policy of euthanasia for people with disabilities. Very publicly, he declared that he would never serve again.
Neighbors, friends, clergy, and family began to get nervous. Though Jaegerstaetter’s political opposition was rooted in religious commitment, they all knew that the penalty for acting on these “wild ideas” was death.
The priests and bishops from whom he sought advice reminded him of his duty to his family. Franz countered: “But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.” Others argued for his duty to his country and stressed his responsibility to obey legitimate authorities. It is those in authority who are to be judged for their decisions, they said, and not ordinary citizens. Franz rejected these arguments, too. It seemed as if his conscience stood alone within the community.
Those around Jaegerstaetter shook their heads. Was there a traitor in their midst? A religious fanatic? Was he “touched in the head”? The priests who counseled him to make a different decision saw no sign of imbalance; the man was zealous, but rational, they reported.
And what about Franziska? For a long time, for the sake of their family, she too tried to dissuade her husband from risking his life. But as relatives and friends harangued him, she became his firm support. “If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one,” she later explained. Her sacrifice united the couple more deeply than ever.
Making the Jump. Jaegerstaetter was not a total pacifist. He would have taken up arms with his fellow citizens had they turned on the Nazis. But when he was again called to active duty in February 1943, his conscience would not permit it. He believed that the war he was being asked to wage was unjust. Remembering his vivid dream about Nazism, he reminded himself and counseled others: “Jump out of the train even if it costs you your life.”
Are we Christians perhaps wiser than Christ himself? Does anyone really think that this massive bloodletting can possibly save European Christianity from defeat—or bring it to a new flowering? Did our good Savior, whom we should always try to imitate, go forth with his apostles against the heathens as German Christians are doing today?
Franz chose the “road to Jerusalem” instead. The first step took him to the train station, from which he would travel to the induction center. In a struggle much like Jesus in Gethsemane, he had to tear himself away. As he was leaving, he hugged Franziska repeatedly. In his emotion, he even took the train in the wrong direction. Writing her later, he poured out his heart:
Dearest wife, I want to thank you again with all my heart for all the love and loyalty and sacrifice which you have given, for me and the whole family. And for all the sacrifices which you’ll still have to make for me. . . .
The next day, Franz reported in, stated his refusal to serve, and was immediately sent to prison. His many letters to Franziska during the following five months of imprisonment are touching—filled with profound reflections on politics and Scripture, and with the loving words which a man approaching death speaks to his wife and children. He encouraged them to become “heroes of the faith” and “to fear God more than man.” He struggled, too, asking God to give him a sign if some other course of action would be better.
Christ too, prayed on the Mount of Olives that the heavenly Father might permit the chalice of sorrow to pass from his lips—but we must never forget this part of his prayer: “Lord, not my will be done but rather thine.”
Jaegerstaetter firmly believed that disciples of Jesus should be known by their love, and even in prison he was thinking of others. Love is the “outer-wear,” the #8220;uniform of Jesus’ disciples,” he wrote. Small, loving acts were his way of life. In one of his letters, he asked for sprigs of edelweiss for a fellow inmate to send as a gift to his beloved. When another cell-mate suffered from hunger, Franz shared his small portion of bread—“a cup of coffee is enough for me.”
Into Glory. The end came suddenly, after a brief trial. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jaegerstaetter was beheaded. He was thirty-seven years old. That afternoon at 4:00 p.m., Franziska felt an “intense personal communion” with her husband that was so strong she marked it in her journal. Much later, she found out he had died at that exact moment.
Franziska is still alive. Fr. John Dear, who spoke with her in 1997, described her as having “the sparkling eyes of Mother Teresa . . . with an infectious joy and loving kindness. She carries herself with humility, a hint of shyness.”
On October 26, 2007, Franziska, then ninety-four, had the joy of witnessing a glorious ending to her husband’s story. She and all four of Franz’s daughters were present in Rome to see Pope Benedict XVI beatify their beloved husband and father. Handing over a gold cup containing her husband’s bone fragments, Franziska wept. And as she leaned over to kiss the urn, she was heard to say, “Now he belongs to us all.”
A Legacy to Ponder. The witness of Franz Jaegerstaetter should make us more than a bit uneasy. He was a martyr for the sake of conscience. We, too, face many issues of conscience and justice in our society. And so we have to ask: Are there any trains from which we, too, are being called to jump? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Acts 5:29). (CCC, 2242)
Developing an “upright conscience” takes prayer and work (see Catechism, 1783-1785). And civil disobedience, even when countenanced by the church, takes courage. Will we find the courage to speak out against the evils of economic disparity, racial injustice, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, morally dubious wars, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons? The visionary words of Franz Jaegerstaetter are sobering:
Words teach, but personal example shows their meaning. . . . People want to observe Christians who have taken a stand in the contemporary world, Christians who live amid all of the darkness with clarity, insight, and conviction.
Dorothy Garrity Ranaghan is a leader in the People of Praise Community. Her new book—Blind Spot: War and Christian Identity—will be available from New City Press later this fall. Quotations in this article are drawn mainly from Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness.