A Martyr for Peace

July 05, 2007

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On July 6, 1943, a Wehrmacht court martial sentenced war resister Franz Jägerstätter to death by guillotine.  The sentence would be carried out on August 9.

The prisoner was given less than twelve hours’ notice:

“This morning, at about 5:30 am we were told to get dressed immediately and informed that the car was already waiting for us. Then I, along with other condemned men, was driven to Brandenburg. We didn’t know what would happen to us. It wasn’t until noon that I was told that the verdict had been confirmed on the 14th and that it was going to be carried out today at 4 pm.”  The prisoner was allowed to write a last letter to his wife and family.  On the desk lay the oath of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler.  All he had to do was sign it;  the Wehrmacht had gone so far as to promise not only to spare his life, but give him training as a medic and a noncombatant assignment in the field — to grant him the status of a conscientious objector.  “Dearest wife and mother,” he wrote.  “It was not possible for me to spare you the pain you are now suffering on behalf of me. How hard it must have been for our dear Savior to cause his dear mother such great sorrow by his suffering and death; and all this they suffered for love of us sinners. I thank my Savior that I was allowed to suffer for Him and also die for Him. I trust in his infinite mercy, that God has forgiven me everything and will not abandon me in the final hour.”

A priest came in around noon to give the condemned the last rites — and one last chance to save his neck.  “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war,” the prisoner said, and politely turned down the offer of religious tracts and a reading from the New Testament.  “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God.” The priest never forgot the joy of his countenance.  It was the same day in 1943 that the Jewish philosopher Edith Stein, now Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, was consumed in Hitler’s Final Solution.

A week before George W. Bush arrived in Rome for their first meeting, Benedict XVI put his signature to a document proclaiming Franz Jägerstätter a martyr of the Church for refusing to serve in an unjust war, such as Benedict and John Paul the Great insisted the Bush war against Iraq has been from the beginning.  The decree means that the Bishop of Linz in Austria, whose predecessor had tried to talk the farmer out of his rash act of resistance, can go ahead with the beatification;  a miracle is not required, as it would be in the case of a Servant of God who was not a martyr.  (A miracle will be required, however, before the Blessed Franz becomes Saint Franz.)   The beatification will take place on October 26—just about the time that some observers expect a departing, lame-duck President Bush to launch a Pearl Harbor style pre-emptive attack (perhaps a nuclear one) against Iran.

The case of Franz Jägerstätter raises two urgent questions for the Christians of our own time, and Americans in particular.  Why did the vast majority of Germans and Austrians follow Hitler so meekly?  What gave Franz the insight to discern the will of God and the resolution to carry it out alone, even unto the death of a criminal?  To take the second first, we might write him off as a case of peasant stubbornness.  We would be wrong.  To be sure, he had little in the way of formal education.  But he did have a motorcycle, the first in his town, at a time when this eccentric hobby necessarily involved not only the thrill of speed, but the constant challenge of keeping a state-of-the art machine in good repair.  In other words, he was neither ignorant nor stupid.  In a later generation he might have been an amateur radio enthusiast or an Ubuntu geek.  He was a Christian cosmopolitan:  at a time when few of his class ventured far from their ancestral homesteads Franz and his bride took the opportunity of their honeymoon to make a pilgrimage to Rome.  And he was a Franciscan tertiary, that is, a member of the Third Order that Francis of Assisi established for laymen to live the Gospel of Jesus in the midst of the world.  As such he would have been forbidden to bear arms in any case according to the original Rule, but he probably had no way of knowing this.

We can’t all hack the Linux kernel, but Rome is still there for us, as close as the modem or cable box, though we may turn our back on her.  The Third Orders are more alive than ever, those of St. Francis, St. Dominic, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and, in an even more ancient tradition, many communities following the Rule of St. Benedict have lay affiliates known as Oblates.  The only reason there is no Third Order of St. Benedict is that there is no First or Second Order — Benedictines are just too decentralized.  Dorothy Day was a Benedictine Oblate; so was Walker Percy.  You don’t even have to be Catholic any more.  The World Community for Christian Meditation is formed around a core of Oblates of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Tuscany.  The Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, the closest thing that that exuberant movement has to a formal organization, was founded under the episcopal sponsorship of the Lord Abbot of Monte Cassino, the successor of St. Benedict himself (the Father of Europe), though it was soon recognized by the See of Rome and enjoys the special favor of Pope Benedict.

Ancient tradition, medieval spirituality, modern resistance.  Traditional Christians throughout the world, including this Pope, treasure Dietrich von Hildebrand‘s Transformation in Christ, many without being aware of Hildebrand’s Benedictine roots, or thinking much about the fact that the book originated in two retreats Hildebrand (a layman, of course) gave at his villa in Florence for German and Austrian anti-Nazis.  Hildebrand had been a full-time anti-Nazi propagandist in Vienna before Austria was absorbed by the Reich;  I have seen no evidence that Jägerstätter was directly influenced by Hildebrand’s agitation, but you can’t help wondering.  During the same dark period, evangelical theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was going from place to place organizing the underground church, conspiring to rescue Jews — and to assassinate Hitler.  From time to time he would take refuge at Kloster Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, where even today the monks distill some wonderful liqueurs, and even a kind of cologneFrancis II, present heir to the Stuart claims to the thrones of England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, received his education there — after he was liberated from Dachau.  At the age of eleven, the uncrowned prince was rounded up in Budapest after that ill-fated attempt on Hitler that would cost Bonhoeffer his head.

But the question remains, why did so many Christians, even Catholics, fall for Hitler, a man who openly denounced Christian faith as a Jewish pollution?  American sociologist Gordon Zahn explored this deeply painful issue in German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars.  In the course of his research Zahn discovered Jägerstätter, and eventually wrote In Solitary Witness about him, a book which probably inspired more effective dissent against the Vietnam War than all the turgid Marxist tracts of Marcuse and friends;  it was soon forgotten here.  To understand German Christians we don’t have to look far.  America, like Germany was once a Christian country, the last great power to acknowledge, at least in practice, the lordship of Christ.  I say in practice — there is nothing in the Declaration of Independence about Jesus, at least not directly.  But the opening of that document is a key statement of the basic principle of Christian civilization, that all of us are created equal, at least in the sense of having basic God-given human rights which cannot be taken away from us, and which God does not permit us to give away, as He did not permit the martyred Franz to sign the Hitler oath.  The idea of fundamental, universal, and unalienable human rights is unique to our Christian civilization, anathema to Nazis, Communists, Islamists, and, I regret to say, some Jews, secular as well as religious.  According to Middle Eastern philosophy you have no human rights if you refuse to submit to Mohammedan rule — or if you show yourself to be an enemy of the Jewish people and their State.  The enemies of God, in this view, are justly subject to expropriation, enslavement, massacre, and torture.

It is in relation to torture that George Bush proved himself a traitor to America and to Christ.  When his “advisors” demanded that he use forbidden methods in secret prisons he asked the American military for their opinion.  They responded as true patriots, admitting that such practices are immoral, illegal, contrary to the American military spirit — and useless from a practical point of view.  Of course the real purpose of torture is not to obtain information of military import, but to gratify sadistic lusts, and to degrade not only the prisoners, but whole subject populations, first of all in their own eyes, to demoralize the demonized enemy.  Whether inspired himself by such motivations or merely intimidated by sinister forces, the Commander in Chief abandoned our men in uniform to follow the instructions of his foreign advisors while America’s nominal Christians clicked their heels.  How did this shame come to pass?

Like Germans of the Weimar Republic after the mass inflation wiped out their life savings in the 1920s, many Americans have become in the wake of 9/11 a frightened and vindictive people.  When we say we are Christian, we mostly mean that we are frightened, of homosexuals, pornographers, drug users, “terrists,” you name it.  We look for leaders who best act out our vindictiveness, the Nixons, the Giulianis.  Already in 1920 the late Henry Mencken was predicting a Giuliani presidency with his remarks about the road to power in America beginning in the office of the ambitious, unscrupulous prosecutor.  “Conservative” Christians may talk about the right to life, but will embrace the most anti-life strongman as long as he seems vindictive enough.  The evangelicals caved on life back in the Nixon days.  In 1971 and 1974 the Southern Baptist Convention came out strongly in favor of legal abortion, at first in limited circumstances, then more generally.  As “patriotic Americans” they had already consented to industrialized murder, to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and (many of them) My Lai.  A fetus wasn’t a human being, any more than a Jap or a Gook.  The Baptists, to their eternal honor, have lately begun to repent, and now form a powerful part of the pro-life movement.  But the Evangelical movement as a whole, as represented by the likes of Cal Thomas, congratulates itself on its maturity—that is, on its new refusal to emphasize any belief that might embarrass churchgoers in the company of liberals, as Paul Gottfried so tellingly points out.  The essence of Evangelicalism, at least in the public sphere, is reduced to hysterical jihad against the Muslim menace.

Baylor University recently demonstrated the kind of maturity the pundits are praising.  The University denied tenure to the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis J. Beckwith. A philosopher of international repute, Beckwith was a fierce a critic of abortion—and one of those thinkers who, without denying Darwinism, thought it should not be imposed as dogma by the state.  Baylor backed down, but not without a great deal of soul-searching on all sides:  Professor Beckwith’s led him back to the Catholic Church of his childhood.  Just last year, Evangelical theologian Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University, published a remarkable book entitled When We Talk about God… Let’s Be Honest.  In it, he insists that the Christian who is really honest with himself has no higher opinion of Jesus Christ than a Muslim or a Reform Jew would have, and a lower one than any Hindu.  All who uphold the Creed can be safely dismissed as dishonest.  If this be maturity, let us become again as little children!  The Christian who stands against the worship of the state, the holocaust of the unborn, the systematic torture and degradation of our rulers’ enemies, will find as little support among these so-called Evangelicals as Jägerstätter found among the so-called Catholics of his time.

The grass isn’t much greener on the Catholic side of the street.  The already partly homosexualized American Church stood almost alone against abortion, its moral standing compromised by its own blessing of total war for unconditional surrender and by its insistence that lay people follow their own inclinations in matters of war and contraception.  What support could Paul VI expect for Humanae Vitae when the most articulate Catholic in North America had already defied the Blessed John XXIII with the slogan Mater si, magistra no?  In the four and a half decades since the conservative Catholic intelligentsia set its face against Rome, the New Left has become the Neocon Center.  The Lutheran firebrand who said Che Guevara deserved his defeat because he lacked the revolutionary will to terror now advises the President in the collar of a Catholic priest, and the author of A Theology for Radical Politics lectures Popes on the moral necessity of preemptive war.

Even Hitler didn’t start with Jews, that is, with neighbors other Germans saw every day, and when he got around to them, a great many Germans didn’t have the heart to give them up.  He started with lives that were more obviously “unlebenswürdig,” lives not worth living, not worth keeping alive, not worth allowing to live.  The Pope well remembers a cousin being taken off, and later learning that his life had been judged unworthy and terminated.  Then it was the handicapped.  Now it is any child whose mother doesn’t want him, or can be persuaded — by boyfriend, parent, teacher, guidance councilor — to have him terminated.  Some people who still believe that abortion is a sin for themselves think it a great virtue to abort others.  A nation that will crush the skull of a half born baby as an act of liberation will not object greatly when the police ram the broken stick of a toilet plunger up a Haitian cab driver’s rectum.  When this happened here in New York, one heard a certain amount of muttering that it was about time “those people” were taught a lesson, muttering we would not have heard twenty years ago.  We have been on the road to Abu Gharaib — and Guantanamo — for a long time.

Where is light to be found today?  In the Catholic Church, to be sure, in so far as it is faithful to the See of Rome, and in the Peace Churches in so far as they are faithful to their Gospel roots.  The main stream of Protestantism and its Catholic hangers on, as far as we can tell, is theologically confused, spiritually sterile, and morally bankrupt.  As with the German churches of the Hitler years, it is dominated by modernism, the social gospel in one form or other, and neoconservatism.  In other words there is little belief in the literal truth of Christianity, much faith in the ability of government to create and sustain a moral social order, and a despairing conviction that we must use whatever means seem necessary, because only the naïve trust God’s providence in history.  Some oppose the Bush regime, but most of those would have supported, and indeed did and do support, tyranny, torture, and terrorism when practiced by regimes of the Left.  They are neocons too, the tired spawn of Reinhold Niebuhr.

A recent PBS biography of Bonhoeffer sniffed that Neibuhr at Union Seminary left the German theologian cold, with the clear implication that the realities of life in Nazi Germany would teach him better.  I think not;  Bonhoeffer did well to look rather to the black churches of Harlem.  But Reinhold had a brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, not so well known today because he did not serve our secular masters so well.  Richard broke with Reinhold over Asia, thinking the Christian had enough to do to keep the Gospel alive in his own milieu without demanding the government send troops to police the rest of the world.  Richard’s model of Christian action and resistance was St. Benedict, and of course it is with the Benedictines that Bonhoeffer found refuge and inspiration.  We could do worse in our own bad times than read or, better, reread Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Hildebrand’s Transformation in Christ, and make an occasional toast of Kloster Ettal (I prefer the bitter variety), if you can get it, to the memory of the martyrs of Germany and Austria, known and unknown.


Frank Purcell is a philosophy teacher living in New York City.

Icon of Franz Jägerstätter by Fr. William McNichols, used w/permission, courtesy of Trinity Stores, 800-699-4482.

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