Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Blessed Franz Jagerstatter
By John Janaro (’85)
Franz Jagerstatter—an Austrian farmer, husband, father, and Nazi resister—was beatified and declared a martyr in 2007 for being faithful to his conscience. He was executed in 1943 because his conscience forbade him to serve in the German army, to take an oath of obedience to Hitler, or to cooperate in any way with the Nazi war machine. He maintained his position even against the common opinion of the Catholic Church in Austria and Germany (and numerous priests who tried thus to counsel him) that Catholics could fight for their country without endorsing or participating in the evil intentions of the Nazi regime. Franz never spoke against those who fought or the hierarchy who authorized them. Rather, he held himself accountable for the particular grace God had given him, the prophetic insight that solidified his conviction that the Nazi regime was antithetical to the Gospel and that its war of conquest and plunder was unjust.
But the early life of this Austrian peasant showed little sign of the luminous solitary heroism for which he is celebrated today. Franz was born in 1907 in the small Austrian village of Sankt Radegund. After a basic education, he took up farming the land he would eventually inherit, and also took his place among the boisterous young men of the village. When they weren’t working, these fellows played cards, engaged in sports, danced, and got into fights among themselves or with the youth of neighboring villages. Above all, they sought the company of young women. Franz was popular and had a bit of daring in those days. Like everyone in the area, he was a Catholic of ordinary observance, but by age twenty he was becoming restless. He lapsed from the practice of his faith for a while, went to work for wages in the iron mines in Eisenerz, and returned after three years riding his own motorcycle (a first for the village).
Now back to church, and occasionally making pilgrimages to the nearby Marian shrine at Altotting, Franz had not entirely lost his “wild streak.” In 1933, he fathered a child with one of the local women. (Though he was unable to marry the mother, he remained attentive to his eldest daughter for the rest of his life.) After this liaison, Franz realized that he wanted to commit to settling down on the farm and living his life with more consistency. He realized that he needed a companion to share every aspect of life. On April 9, 1936, he married Franziska Schwaninger, a devout Catholic from Hochburg. There was some great grace and some hidden beauty in this relationship that marked a radical transformation in his life. After they returned from a honeymoon-pilgrimage in Rome, villagers noticed that he had changed. The lovable, fun, trouble-making youth had more than matured; he was going to weekday Masses and receiving Communion frequently with his wife, studying the Bible, and developing firm convictions right around the time Austria “joined” Hitler’s “Greater Germany.” His conversion to a deeper faith corresponded to the beginning of his refusal to capitulate to Hitler or participate in the Nazi regime’s social program. It was the beginning of a witness that would ultimately separate him from his wife and daughters, his village, and his own life—so that he might remain faithful to Christ and attain eternal life.