Today a peasant who defied the Nazis will be beatified in Austria. Monica King hails the single-minded conscientious objector Franz Rigerstatter
The Times once published an account of a meeting that took place between John Demi anjuk, who was accused of war crimes which took place at Treblinka, a notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland, and Eliyahu Rosenberg, who was one of the few survivors at the camp. The latter explained how, on arriving at the camp and volunteering for "light work", he was immediately led to a mountain of corpses, among whom, he guessed, were probably his mother and three sisters, who had arrived in the camp the previous day. The guard told him that for the next 11 days he would have to clear away the dead bodies out of the gas chambers. This he was expected to do at a running pace, without respite except when he was waiting for more victims to be driven into the gas chambers.
During this time there were many people in Austria who knew of these concentration camps and could even hear the distant wailing of children crying for their mothers, or the voice raised in prayer: "Hear, 0 God of Israel."
One Austrian who stood up to Nazi Germany was Franz Jagerstatter, who was born on May 20,1907. He was the illegitimate son of a man from the village of St Radegund, in Upper Austria, not far from Salzburg. Franz's father was killed in the First World War and in 1917 his mother married one of the local farmers. After leaving school Franz fell in with a gang of village louts and became a terrible nuisance to all around, even to the girls in the village. His life at this time was by no means remarkable, and he was to say of it later that this period of his life was one of "half-baked Christianity". But things changed when he met a devout Catholic girl and married her in 1936. The honeymoon was spent in Rome. Whether because of this visit, or because of the influence of his wife, he returned with greater fervour for the Catholic faith. His parish priest helped, and asked him to become his sacristan.
But Franz was also a thinking man. He could see how impossible it was to reconcile National Socialism with Christianity. Unfortunately for him, he had been one of the few people to oppose Hitler when he marched into Austria in 1938. For this reason he refused to be called up into the German army.
At fast he paid no attention to his call-up papers, but eventually decided that he had to go and discuss his refusal with the German authorities. They, of course, had no understanding or sympathy with his views and immediately put him in prison.
It would have been so easy for Franz to give in to the German authorities. In faci., there were many wellintentioned friends, and even priests, who tried to dissuade him from the path he had chosen. There were even bishops who told him to think of his family and take the military oath, but Franz would have none of it. Like St Thomas More, he was God's servant first and could not go against the voice of his conscience. Like More, he paid the ultimate price: in August 1943 Franz was beheaded.
He was not treated harshly in prison. and he was able to spend much of his time in prayer. He also showed kindness to the other prisoners. One day he asked his wife to send some edelweiss into the prison for a condemned Frenchman who wanted to send the flowers, along with a farewell letter, to his sweetheart in France.
Near the end he wrote to his wife as follows: "Dearest wife, today it is seven years since we spoke our vows of love and fidelity... I also believe that God will give us the grace to keep them until the end of our lives. When I look upon all this joy and the many graces that have been mine for these years, it seems to border on the miraculous."
Today there is much discussion about "just war". Franz Jagerstatter knew the meaning of a just war. He knew that the German army was on its way to overrunning Poland with a view to occupying the whole of Europe. This was not his idea of a just war and so he refused to serve Hitler.
'Just before his execution he wrote the following: "These few words are being set down here as they come from my mind and heart. And if I must write them with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. For this reason I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth even if it costs me life, for you will not find it written in any of the Commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by his secular ruler."
Franz Jagerstatter had no political power to change anything, but he followed the dictates of his conscience — and therein lay his strength.