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Declaration of Catholic Martyrdom of Franz Jagerstatter, Beheaded by the Nazis, Will Support Conscientious Objectors to War

“Jump out before the train reaches its destination, even it it costs you your life” -Franz Jagerstatter

At the beginning of June the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to publish his declaration of the Catholic martyrdom of Franz Jagerstatter. The date for his beatification had been published as October 27, 2007. It will take place in Linz, Austria, where he had his farm and worked at the parish.

Franz Jagerstatter was an Austrian who was martyred because he refused to be drafted into the Nazi army after Hitler took over Austria. He said he could not participate in an unjust war, and for this the father of three little girls was beheaded within six months of his arrest.

Franz was not only a conscientious objector to war, but a selective conscientious objector. He could not join a fight which he believed to be morally wrong.

Biographical accounts of Jagerstatter all mention his rather wild youth and then at some point a deeper religious conversion as a young man.

According to Gordon Zahn, who researched and wrote the powerful book, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), the martyr believed that he could not be a soldier in an unjust war sponsored by a government determined on imperialist expansionism and slaughter of innocents, presenting itself as a substitute for religion which saw and treated his Church as the enemy.

Zahn emphasizes that after his deeper conversion, Franz attended daily Mass, fasted and prayed. In addition to being a farmer, he was the sexton at his parish church. He and his devout wife made a pilgrimage to Rome for their honeymoon. Jager-statter was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi, who discouraged and even forbade military service. Zahn presents Jagerstatter as a contemplative in the world who made the decision not to participate in that war because of his Catholic faith.

He was drafted in 1940 and reported for approximately six months of training. Then he returned to his village, St. Radegund, vowing disobedience to further military orders.

A Train to Hell

When Gordon Zahn visited Jagerstatter’s widow, she presented the martyr’s documents and writings to him. The book includes those writings regarding his decision to resist.

Zahn’s book particularly features the dream that influenced Jagerstatter‘s deci-sion so much:

“Let me begin by describing an experience I had on a summer night in 1938. At first I lay awake in my bed until almost midnight, unable to sleep although I was not sick; I must have fallen asleep anyway. All of a sudden I saw a beautiful shining railroad train that circled around a mountain. Streams of children—and adults as well—rushed toward the train and could not be held back. I would rather not say how many adults did not join the ride. Then I heard a voice say to me: ‘This train is going to hell’. . .

“At first this traveling train was something of a riddle to me, but the longer our situation continues, the clearer the meaning of this train becomes for me. Today it seem to me that that it is a symbol of nothing but National Socialism [Nazism], which was then breaking in (or better, creeping in) upon us with all of its many different organizations—like the NSDAP, NVW, NVF, HJ, etc. In brief, the whole National Socialist Folk Community, together with all those who sacrifice and fight for it. . .

“There are only two alternatives possible: participation in the National Socialist Folk Community [Nazism], and contributions to the red boxes as well, must either help or hinder us Catholics in our efforts to gain salvation. . .

“Thus I believe God has shown me most clearly through this dream, or revelation, and has convinced me in my heart how I must answer the question: should I be National Socialist [Nazi] or Catholic? I would like to call out to everyone who is riding on this train: ‘Jump out before the train reaches its destination, even if it costs you your life!'” [The many children getting on the train in the dream may have been interpreted by Franz as a reference to the pressure for young people to participate in Hitler Youth, to which he was very much opposed; he made sure that his godson did not participate. It is significant that although Pope Benedict XVI, who declared Jagerstatter a martyr, participated for a brief time in Hitler Youth, he quickly ‘got off the train.’]

When everyone else in his community was adopting the required salute, “Heil Hitler,” Franz would respond, “Pfui, Hitler.” His meditations and conclusions on the impact of the Nazi presence in Austria help us to understand his refusal to participate at any level:

“Christ, too, demands a public confession of our faith, just as the Fuhrer, Aldolf Hitler, does from his followers. The commandments of God teach us, of course, that we must also render obedience to secular rulers, even when they are not Christian. But only to the extent that they do not order us to do anything evil, for we must obey God rather than men.””

Others, including priests, tried to convince Jagerstatter to change his mind, in order to save his life, especially since he had a wife and three small children. Jagerstatter, however, expressed his belief that perhaps the best thing he could do for his family was to refuse to cooperate with the Nazis. He would rather his children have a father martyred for following Christ than a Nazi for a father.

In his writings Jagerstatter answers some of the arguments used by his countrymen to defend or rationalize going along with the Nazi occupation and participating in it, even fighting in it: “One can always hear Catholic saying that this war Germany is fighting is probably not so unjust after all because it will bring about the destruction of Bolshevism [Soviet Communism].” His answer: “Whenever anyone has taken up arms to wipe out Christianity (as people have often thought they could in the past), the blood of their victims has always become the new seed and shoots from which Christianity flowered anew with more vitality than before. Now, could this not happen again if one spills Bolshevist blood? Could not this, too, become new seed? Are we Christians today perhaps wiser than Christ himself? Does anyone really think that this massive bloodletting can possible save European Christianity from defeat or bring it to a new flowering?”

Jagerstatter’s Witness Applies to Iraq

Pope Benedict’s declaration of Jagerstatter’s martyrdom gives tremendous encouragement not only to conscientious objectors to all war, but also especially to those who believe that it would be wrong for them to participate in the present conflict in Iraq. The declaration of the martyrdom of a selective conscientious objector is a statement of a profound truth and a clear call to follow Jesus’ teachings on a practical level.

Specifically, this step of Pope Benedict XVI gives hope and support to Catholics and others who have come to believe that they cannot participate in the present conflict in Iraq. The Center on Conscience and War, which advises military personnel on CO discharges, reported at the beginning of June 2007 hundreds of soldiers have applied for conscientious objector status just since January of this year. Unfortunately, as in previous wars, often these applications are not approved and a number of those objectors of conscience have gone to prison for refusing to fight in Iraq.

As we were talking with an immigrant woman who cared for one of the paralyzed undocu-mented workers we assisted until his death a few months ago, after an intense day of meeting one suffering or desperate person after another, we mentioned the Holy Father’s decision as a source of hope. Her immediate response came from her awareness of the court martial and imprisonment of Camilo Mejia in 2004. Mejia, the son of a well-known Nicaraguan singer, had been in the U. S. Army, then the Florida National Guard, and was deployed to Iraq, where he was an exemplary and popular soldier. But according to the Common Dreams News Center, “unbeknownst to the other soldiers. Camilo was changing as he experienced the horror of war—the firefights, the ambushes, the excessive use of force. He watched the Iraqis quickly turn from welcoming to hostile. . . He was also deeply disturbed by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners he witnessed. In fact, months before the appearance of the Abu Graib photos, Camilo complained to his superiors about conditions at a makeshift detention camp near the Baghdad airport where Iraqis were arbitrarily arrested and detained, and where he and his men were directed by three unidentified interrogators to “soften up” prisoners for questioning. They were taught to stage mock executions, clicking pistols near the ears of hooded prisoners, or to bang on metal walls with sledgehammers to keep prisoners awake for up to 48 hours.

“On March 15, 2004, surrounded by his family and supporters from the anti-war movement, Camilo surrendered to military authorities and filed for discharge as a conscientious objector. He became the first veteran from Iraq to challenge the morality of the war and refuse to fight. ..

“Camilo’s stellar team of lawyers and experts, including West Point graduate and Vietnam conscientious objector Louis Font and international law professors Francis Boyle and Jules Lobel, threatened to make the trial an explosive indictment of the entire war. And given the global outrage against the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the defense planned to show that months before the abuses became public, Camilo had already spoken out against the cruel treatment of prisoners, as well as the slaughter of civilians and the needless deaths of American GIs.

“But military judge Col. Gary Smith quickly squelched those plans, ruling out issues related to the legality of the war, the abuse of prisoners, and Camilo’s conscientious objector claim. By denying all the defense motions, the judge denied Camilo the possibility of a fair trial. . .

“‘What an incredible irony that we’re prosecuting soldiers in Iraq for violations of international law and we’re prosecuting a soldier here because he refused to do the same things,’ said former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a member of Camilo’s defense team.'”

“Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers’ fame agreed that Camilo is a hero. “Sergeant Mejia served his country bravely and well in Iraq, but he is serving his country better, and just as bravely, in his refusal to participate further in what he correctly identifies as an illegal war using illegal means.”

Camilo was sentenced to prison for a year. Common Dreams published his letter from prison: “I was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 and returned home for a two-week leave in October. Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say. People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors—the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was decapitated by our machine gun fire. The time I saw a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child, or an old man on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had taken the lifeless body of his son.

“I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.

“And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. We weren’t helping the Iraqi people and the Iraqi people didn’t want us there. We weren’t preventing terrorism or making Americans safer. I couldn’t find a single good reason for having been there, for having shot at people and been shot at.

“I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal … I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq. . ..”

Martha’s concern as she had heard about this soldier’s conscientious objection was that her young son not be put in such a situation. She knew that at present there is no military draft, but that poor Hispanic youth in the United States are recruited early into ROTC Army training with the promise of assistance later with college tuition. Martha vowed to never allow her son to participate in ROTC. This may not be easy to achieve. High schools in lower-income neighborhood which serve Mexican Americans and immigrant youth are saturated with the ROTC presence. The local public school for 6 th to 8 th graders has ROTC as one of the electives. When one student who stayed at Casa Juan Diego transferred in during the middle of the year, that student was placed in ROTC simply because the classes of all other electives were filled. The irony is that the children of the undocumented, despised by many simply for being undocumented, are being sent to fight U. S. wars in foreign lands.

May Franz Jagerstatter give all hope and the courage to live by their consciences in spite of societal pressures and poverty.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, July-August 2007.