Longhurst: Little-known martyr

Every year, when Nov. 11 (Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the World War I armistice) rolls around, Canadians reflect on the many who gave their lives during that war and the dwindling number of World War II veterans who are left.


Canadian Mennonites also think of the more than 10,000 conscientious objectors who did alternative service in Canada during that war. More than 6,000 of those men were Mennonite.

What we almost never think of are those in Germany who also protested the war — and paid the ultimate sacrifice for it.

If we do, we remember people like theologian ­Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for supporting a plot to kill Hitler in 1944.

Or we think of Sophie and Hans Scholl, two university students who were motivated by their Roman Catholic beliefs to create the White Rose movement to oppose the Nazi regime.

They were arrested by the Gestapo and executed in 1943, along with four other members of the group.

Someone who pretty much nobody outside of Europe has heard about is Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Roman Catholic who was executed for refusing to join the Nazi army. But that may change now that he is the subject of a new Terrance Malick movie, A Hidden Life, due in theaters in December.

Jägerstätter was born in 1907 and lived in St. Radegund, Austria. Finding Nazism incompatible with his Catholic faith, he spoke out openly against Hitler.

When called to military service in 1943, he declared himself a conscientious objector, though his friends warned he was throwing his life away.

As they predicted, he was arrested and thrown in prison. From his cell, he wrote: “I can easily see that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the Nazi Folk community, and is also unwilling to comply with all the demands of its leaders, will thereby forfeit the rights and privileges offered by that nation.

“But it is not much different with God: He who does not obey all the commandments set forth by him and his church, and who is not ready to undergo sacrifices and to fight for his kingdom either —such one loses every claim and every right under that kingdom.”

If anyone could be both a Nazi and a Christian, he went on to say, “such a man, in my opinion, would be a great magician. . . . I, for one, cannot do so. And I definitely prefer to relinquish my rights under the Third Reich and thus make sure of deserving the rights granted under the kingdom of God.”

On Aug. 9, 1943, Jägerstätter was beheaded, leaving behind a wife and three children. In 2007 the Vatican declared him a martyr. Later that same year he was beatified, a final step toward canonization and sainthood.

Before being executed, Jägerstätter wrote these words in his prison cell: “Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal Kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there.

“Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons — and the foremost among these is prayer.”

So this November, we can remember Franz Jägerstätter, too. And go see the movie about him in December.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.

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