Remembrance: In a small Austrian village, one man opposed Hitler
by Steve Weatherbe
Coming in December is A Hidden Life, a movie about an Austrian farmer who defied his family, his community, and the full force of the Nazi totalitarian state – to the death. The celebrated director and push behind the ambitious, nearly three-hour-long film is Terry Malick.
Hanz Jagerstatter was a conscientious objector in Nazi Germany, beheaded in 1943 by the German Army for refusing to serve and fight.
Jagerstatter was always a standout: the illegitimate son of a farm labourer, who was too poor to marry. As a young man, he fathered an illegitimate daughter of his own.
All this in the tiny mountain village of Saint Radegund, in Austria close to its border with Germany. Though a Sunday mass goer, he liked to drink, and led a small gang of village youths into fights in area taverns. He went off to make some money in the mines, returning for good on the community’s first motorcycle. He met and married the love of his life, Franziska Schwaninger, and under her tutelage became a daily communicant and sacristan at the local church, a little too devout for a real man, in the eyes of other male villagers. His mother had by now married a successful local farmer who died, leaving him the farm.
The village could not have been oblivious to Nazism’s rise. In 1933, the local bishop issued a frank letter read aloud in every church in the diocese calling Nazism “spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.” Hitler’s obsession with Aryan racial purity, the bishop described as “backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism.”
However, other church leaders approved as did many, if not most, Austrians when Hitler’s German army swiftly occupied their country in 1938. When Hitler ordered a plebiscite to ratify it, everyone in St. Radegund voted for it except Jagerstatter. But either to protect him or themselves, the village contrived to lose his negative ballot.
By now the father of three daughters, Jagerstatter thought a lot about Nazism. He had a powerful dream of a glittering train carrying countless multitudes of happy people to hell.
Making no secret of his opposition, if anyone greeted him with a “Heil Hitler” he would respond with “Phooey Hitler.”
His village protected the dissident at first. When the local public health nurse was asked by the Nazi organizer based in a nearby town to make a list of anti-Nazis, Jagerstatter’s name was on it. Happily for him, the mail lady opened the nurse’s outgoing letter and took it to the mayor, who promptly destroyed it.
When Jagerstatter was ordered to report for military training, and he grudgingly departed, the mayor declared his farm work an essential service and he was exempted.
But this could only last so long. Other men, at first the bachelors, but then the married, the village’s fathers, brothers and sons, were being conscripted. Why not Jagerstatter? He, meanwhile, was hardening in his resolve, bolstered by reading between the lines of news reports and letters from friends and cousins on the Eastern Front.
His mother and his new parish priest advised him to join the army, which he might survive, rather than refuse service, bringing certain death. His bishop told him it was not his job to decide on the sinfulness of lawfully-given orders. If the orders forced him to commit a mortal sin, it would condemn the officers issuing the order, not him. This Jagerstatter simply could not accept. He suspected the cleric was hiding his real opinion for fear Jagerstatter was a Nazi provocateur. (The Nazis did indeed use agents to extract incriminating statements from clergymen).
Franziska, almost alone, supported him. She too, she later admitted, would have preferred he join up, but believed she owed him her complete support, knowing how seriously he had considered the issue.
Inevitably, the stubborn farmer was called up again. After a tearful farewell to his wife and family, he reported for duty, but only to state his refusal to serve. A lengthy imprisonment followed and more attempts to dissuade him. Ultimately, he was guillotined.
Jagerstatter’s story remained something of a secret until American sociologist, Gordon Zahn wrote a biography, In Solitary Witness. Zahn found that Jagerstatter’s experience was typical. Many clergy themselves were imprisoned in concentration camps for vocal dissent.
More power, more praise to Hanz Jagerstatter and his supportive wife, and to other dissenters like Sophie and Hans Scholl, who worked out their moral duty with God’s help only, knowing the fatal consequences.