“A Hidden Life” – Part 1

220px-Franz_Jägerstätter

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.”

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