“A Hidden Life” – Part 1


Terrence Malick’s new film, “A Hidden Life,” dramatizes the final years of Austrian Catholic farmer Franz Jägerstätter. His refusal to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler—required of every member of the Wehrmacht—resulted in his imprisonment, abuse, trial and eventual execution. In Part 1 of this post I will sketch in the film’s historical background; Part 2 will cover my review of the film, plus Jägerstätter’s legacy and his beatification as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Franz Jägerstätter was born out of wedlock in 1907, in the remote Upper Austrian village of Sankt Radegund, to a chambermaid and a farmer who was killed in World War 1. He was subsequently adopted by the man who married his mother. He worked as a farmer and a miner until 1933, when he inherited his foster father’s farmstead. Three years later Jägerstätter married Franziska Schwaninger (1913-2013), with whom he had three daughters.

In 1938 German troops entered Austria, and Franz was the only person in Sankt Radegund to vote “no” in the Anschluss, the plebiscite that resulted in the country’s absorption into the Third Reich. He had one brief period of military training but did not hide his anti-Nazi feelings. In December 1940 Jägerstätter joined the Third Order of Saint Francis; employed as a sacristan in his parish church, he was deferred from military service four times.

In October of that same year, though, Franz was conscripted into the German Army. It was then he refused to take this oath:

“I swear to God this sacred oath
that to the Leader of the German Reich and people,
Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces,
I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared
to give my life for this oath.”

Despite his refusal he was allowed to return home, exempted from service on account of being a farmer. It appears that Jägerstätter’s awareness of the Nazi oppression of the Church and knowledge of the “T4” euthanasia program led him to examine the morality of the war. Franz even traveled to Linz to sound out his bishop on the matter of obedience to God and to the civil regime but he came away feeling that the episcopate wouldn’t confront the issue, for fear of retribution.

Franz was finally called to active duty in February 1943 but declared himself to be a conscientious objector and volunteered without success to serve as a military medic. After being arrested he was imprisoned in Linz before his transfer in May to Berlin-Tegel penitentiary. Franz’s village priest visited him there, trying in vain to convince him to take the loyalty oath. Jägerstätter’s resolve was strengthened when he learned of the execution in August 1942 of priest and fellow Austrian Franz Reinisch.

Like Jägerstätter, Father Reinisch refused to swear fealty to Adolf Hitler, although he said he would swear allegiance to the German people. He was ordered into the armed forces on Easter Tuesday 1942 but had resolved not to take the oath. After a long trial Reinisch was remanded to Berlin-Tegel, whose chaplain denied him Communion for failing to perform his duty. When his death sentence was read out, Reinisch declared, “This convict is not a revolutionary; a revolutionary is a head of state or a public enemy who fights with fists and violence. I am a Catholic priest with only the weapons of the Holy Spirit and the Faith; but I know what I am fighting for.”

Franz Jägerstätter’s military trial, under the charge of undermining of military morale (Wehrkraftzersetzung), took place on 6 July 1943. Convicted and condemned to death by guillotine, he said this before he was executed on 9 August:

“If I must write with my hands in chains . . . I find it better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will.”

Hate was on the inside


(I couldn’t help noticing how the Russian flag was flown in close proximity to the Stars and Stripes.)

On December 18 I traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to be present at a rally held by the Trump 2020 campaign. This is the account of what I experienced that day. The reactions of people that know me ranged from surprise to outright alarm when I told them of my intentions.

“Why would someone that so opposes Donald Trump, even consider attending one of his pep rallies?”

“Be careful! Dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters are crazy, dangerous people.”

“Won’t you be risking your safety by saying the wrong thing to one of the President’s devotees?”

Of course I considered such factors as I mulled over whether to embark upon a two-hour drive to Battle Creek. The conclusion I came to formed a straightforward syllogism:

Donald Trump is President of the United States;

I am a citizen of the United States;

Therefore it is perfectly reasonable for me to attend his rally.

Once I reached the city, all I was concerned about was a.) whether I’d have trouble finding a parking place, and, b.) how far would I have to walk to the venue, on a day when the high was in the 20s.

Thankfully, I found a space in a parking structure that was less than three blocks from the Kellogg Center. The short walk there offered abundant proof that, if I wanted to be exposed to a gathering of the Trump faithful, I’d come to the right place.

Entrepreneurs hawked all manner of pro-Trump swag along my route. There was clothing, signs, flags and buttons, whose content ranged from the quasi-sublime to the patently outrageous. I was solicited to sign petitions that supported a variety of right-wing causes, and people tried to hand me leaflets explaining how leftist billionaires were conspiring to defeat the President’s reelection. To put it simply, I didn’t see anything unexpected.

I joined the thousands of folks—yes, thousands—that were waiting to enter the Kellogg Center. The rally was scheduled to begin at 7:00, and I got in line around 3:00. We snaked back and forth, becoming tightly packed as more and more people arrived. Among the crowd were women, men and children; I have to say that the overwhelming majority of them were Caucasian. They were clad in all manner of dress, from dirt stained work clothes to suits and fur coats. The common denominator was the red baseball cap, which proclaimed the wearers’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump.

In an effort to blend in I sported my red MAKE ORWELL FICTION AGAIN ball cap. Occasionally a person whom I passed would catch sight of it, flashing a frown or a puzzled look. A few folks volunteered that they recognized the saying’s connection to “1984,” but none of them appeared to understand what I meant by it.

The doors were supposed to open at 3:00 but, if that was indeed the case, it was taking a long time for security to process the attendees. As the line crawled along its constituents were gradually being transformed into human Popsicles.

At least the pace offered opportunities to interact with the people around me. I overheard little being said that lauded the President or condemned his “enemies.” Now and then someone carrying an anti-Trump sign circulated among us but they were usually ignored. I’d sworn not to utter anything that could be construed as critical of the President, and I managed to keep my oath. Thus, the conversations in which I engaged were short, and rather banal. (“Freezing to death?” “Yeah. You?”)

A giant electronic screen had been erected on the edge of the Kellogg Center plaza. In addition to braying an endless loop of classic rock and country music tunes at earsplitting volume, the screen flashed the myriad list of items that weren’t permitted in the auditorium. Thank God I had resisted the temptation to bring along ammunition or a drone!

At intervals a cheery voice from the mega-screen reminded us that, while President Trump defended the First Amendment as staunchly as the Second Amendment, protesters would not be tolerated in the Kellogg Center. Attendees in the vicinity of a miscreant were instructed to hold up their signs and shout “Trump! Trump! Trump!” to help security identify those to be removed. (There was a designated area outside the venue where those wishing to exercise their right to free speech could do so. That is, if they didn’t die of hypothermia first. Did I mention how cold it was?)

After two and a half hours of waiting, my section of the line got close to the venue’s parking garage entrance, where we were to be screened. At this point things ground to a halt. As there was no way of knowing how much longer the wait would be, I wasn’t the only person getting antsy.

At last patience gave way to desperation. The orderly procession devolved into a polite mob. Unfortunately, there was but a single gap in the metal barrier placed before the parking garage. The space behind the barrier was already jam-packed, and the irruption of the rest of us into it threatened to make for a difficult situation. Arguments broke out when people started climbing over the barrier but I do not think any fisticuffs ensued.

By now the event preliminaries were getting underway, broadcast on the jumbo screen. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited and we sang the National Anthem. Meanwhile, a steady trickle of folks that had had enough of waiting began to abandon ship. A minister gave an invocation that, to my way of thinking, was short on the separation of church and state, and long on uncritical praise for Donald Trump. Without exception the speakers that followed him excoriated the President’s opponents.

It was about that time I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes; a graceful exit was called for, and I tottered back to my car on frozen feet. Being unable to stick it out until I could be admitted to the arena disappointed me: I wanted to get a personal sense of the vitriol that typifies Donald Trump and many folks that are on his side. Still, what was displayed on the big screen made it palpable, even in the cold.

And what about the people I encountered that bracing afternoon? I didn’t see anyone foaming at the mouth, and only a handful wore shirts with an illustration of Trump giving the finger, above the caption, “F**k Your Feelings!” Some readers of this post may be vexed that I didn’t get into arguments, but, as I noted above, that was not my rationale for journeying to Battle Creek.

I do wonder, though, how the Popsicles with whom I’d spoken so cordially reacted when Donald Trump later chose to insult the memory of the late John Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives in the history of the Congress, in his home state . . .