Last weekend I noticed a few references from the US to the release of a new Terence Malick move, A Hidden Life, which had opened last Friday. It is based on the life, and death, of the Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter, a Catholic Christian who concluded that his faith and his obedience to Christ did not allow him to serve in the German army during World War Two and, in particular, refused the mandatory oath of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler. He made the choice, that act of (higher) obedience, knowing that the mandatory penalty for such refusal was death. He was beheaded in Berlin in August 1943, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
I first stumbled across the Jagerstatter story more than 10 years ago. I’d been intrigued enough to find, and purchase, a book about him, written in the 1960s and drawing on many interviews with people who’d known Jagerstatter, including his widow. But I’d never gotten round to reading it. On Sunday, prompted by the new movie, I pulled the book down from the shelf and have read it over the last few days. It is a challenging and inspiring story. As it happens, the critics seem to like the movie too, but I haven’t seen it and my interest is in his life, and choice. But if a good director’s portrayal of it brings the story to a wider audience, so much the better.
Of course, there were plenty of conscientious objectors in western countries. But the cost of such objection was generally fairly mild and relatively shortlived. That isn’t to take anything away from those who made such a conscientious choice, but any choice that matters almost inevitably comes with some cost.
And Jagerstatter was not a conscientious objector to fighting – or serving – in a war. His objection was much more specific; it was to the nature and character of the Nazi regime and the war it had initiated. It was an evil regime, and Jagerstatter would take no part in its war.
It wasn’t as if he rushed towards death. Although he was one of a small number who hadn’t voted for the Anschluss in 1938 he doesn’t seem to have courted controversy. It was only when his various deferments (presumably being a farmer, when the country needs lot of food) ended and he was called up in early 1943 that he faced the inescapable choice: serve (as most other German Christians of military age did) and bend the knee to evil, or refuse and face death. He wasn’t part of any resistance groups, in fact he wasn’t part of any groups at all. It was a personal stance arrived at through a great deal of thought and prayer.
He was, of course, a devout Catholic – and sexton at his local parish church. He hadn’t always been that devout, but his marriage in 1936 seemed to be a catalyst to a move deeper into the things of God. But he found little or no support among his fellow Austrian Christians. He wrote to and talked to various clergy, even the diocesan bishop, and all seem to have encouraged him to “go along” – not on any particular moral grounds, not articulating a defence of the regime, but for the sake of his wife and family. But the people Gordon Zahn talked to in putting together his book made it clear that although it was an individual choice, there is no sense of Jagerstatter as mentally disordered, obsessive, or the like. Those who knew him and home, and those who encountered him in the six months he spent in German prisons, speak of a calm, clear-headed, thoughtful and prayerful Christian. They couldn’t but respect him, even if some were clearly left uncomfortable by the courage of his choice (one they themselves presumably would not have made).
Of course, there are other Christians – in other times and other places – who have knowingly made choices that would lead to their execution. The martyrologies of the early church are full of such courageous Christians, refusing to worship the imperial gods, refusing the path of (apparent) compromise (outward compliance, inward faith). In another recent film based on Endo’s novel Silence we saw the same sort of courageous obedience in the great persecutions of Japan. But perhaps what gives Jagerstatter’s story special salience – with me, but I’m sure I’n not the only one – is that his was a choice made in a highly advanced western/central European society not that long ago (my parents were alive then), but also that it was a choice ultimately made alone – that much harder than if, say, an entire community of Christians were choosing a path of refusing to bend the knee.
But there are two other dimensions that strike home, and hard. The first – perhaps just sociological – is that Jagerstatter wasn’t particularly highly educated: he was a farmer in a remote Austrian village, with relatively little personal exposure to the wider world, little direct access to books and scholarly writings. And yet he had the Scriptures, and the rituals and teaching of the church, that by God’s grace had formed his faith and made him willing to take, and stand by to the end, a choice that would mean certain death. And it wasn’t some highly some highly publicised death that might galvanise wider discontent. Jagerstatter had no particular reason to suppose that his choice would ever be known by any much outside his small village.
The other, which strikes deeper, is how few German Christians were willing to make anything like similar choices, whether early in the Nazi regime or towards its end. Most went along, more or less willimgly, not necessarily embracing Nazism, but nonetheless bending the knee – serving in the armed forces, waging aggressive war, serving in the institutions of government, saying or doing little or nothing, running no risks.
Jagerstatter himself wasn’t critical of others. He spoke of others perhaps not being given the grace he had been. And all of us – facing few such challenges, now or in prospect – should be wary of judging individuals. And yet evil regimes survive when people won’t pay a price for a higher loyalty, won’t say “thus far and no further”. It is easy to run arguments about the priority of family – although as Jagerstatter noted it was Jesus who spoke of how disciples need to be willing to leave father and mother for his sake – about the ability to do more good inside than outside, and so on. And, of course, the true character of an evil regime is rarely apparent on day one, and often by the time the character is apparent, it is if not too late, at least harder to make a stand on the next compromise given all those already made.
And yet Jagerstatter did, simply, clearly, firmly resolved, and courageously. He knew that his true home was in Heaven, not in the Austrian village, much as he appears to have loved home and farm and family.
And so the question confronts each of us, at least if we are Christians desiring to follow Christ. Could, would, we do as Jagerstatter did? Without facing the specific challenge, we cannot know. And yet one of the reasons why stories like his should be widely taught and known is that as we reflect prayerfully and humbly on the life and faith of martyrs like Jagerstatter it can help us form one another in the capacity to choose God, and not the path of rationalisation and compromise. I give thanks for the life and witness of Franz Jagerstatter, and those few like him in Nazi Germany. They speak of the difference our faith in God should make, of what it can mean to go to him outside the gate knowing that here we have no abiding city, and they challenge and confront us – individually and collectively – about how we can, too often, take the path of least resistance, supported by all manner of rationalisation.
It was Bonhoeffer – who was also executed, in 1945, but who had not made as bold a call re service to the regime as Jagerstatter – who wrote “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. Jagerstatter lived that, in very concrete terms, right to the executioner’s block, resisting all the blandishments – including of German army officers – who urged him to take an easier path. It isn’t a specific choice many of us are likely to face in New Zealand or the US. But even in our countries, the way becomes harder for faithful Christians, and too much of the church seems as interested in getting along with the forces of the world.
But in the People’s Republic of China the choices facing our Christian brethren this year, this Christmas are almost as stark. Perhaps the regime doesn’t execute (many) Christians, but in its determination to assert the supremacy of the Party and to squash any competing loyalties, the choices – loss of job, loss of freedom, perhaps loss of family – begin to approach what the faithful face in Nazi Germany. It is always easier, in the short term, to just go along, to compromise, but it is also the way that leads to the death we should fear much more. And as Jagerstatter found, a determination to follow Christ, in refusing to bend the knee to evil, isn’t exactly the path to popularity even among fellow believers. When Zahn wrote his book in the 1960s it was clear that many of the people in Jagerstatter’s own village were still ambivalent – at one level respecting him, at another perhaps uneasy that his courage was one they might admire but knew hadn’t been theirs, and perhaps still wouldn’t. And the leadership of the Catholic church in Germany during the war hadn’t exactly covered itself in glory, by its demonstration of humble courage.
And yet the power of the examples won out. Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church – the step before sainthood – in 2007, in the presence of his widow who died only this decade aged 100.
I hope to be able to see the movie. Whether or not you can, I encourage you to read and reflect prayerfully on the life, death and discipleship of Franz Jagerstatter. Perhaps especially as we approach Christmas. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to put down the mighty from their seats, and no worthy goal is won without cost. Christ himself willingly chose the path that led to death. For us.