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Memory of Austrian peasant's martyrdom lives.

Aug. 9 was the 50th anniversary of the execution of Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian peasant who refused induction into Hitler's Nazi army. Execution is perhaps too neutral a word to describe what was an act of heroic witness or martyrdom on Jaegerstaetter's part.

Jaegerstaetter had perceived the evils of Nazism even before Hitler came to power. He was the only person in his village, St. Radegund, to vote against the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. About this time, Jaegerstaetter had a dream in which be saw a beautiful train traveling on a mountainside with scores of people, children included, scrambling to get on board. A voice warned, "This train is going to hell." Unlike many fellow Catholics who joined the Nazi train in its murderous rush to destruction, Jaegerstaetter refused to become a passenger.

At the time of Jaegerstaetter's refusal to be inducted into the Nazi army, because of his conviction that the war they were embarked on was unjust, accepted teaching in the Catholic church was that citizens had a duty to fight when the state proclaimed a war it considered just. This meant that there was no room for conscientious objection on the part of Catholics. And so Jaegerstaetter was informed by his pastor, Fr. Karobath (who otherwise opposed the Nazis), and by the bishop of Linz that his moral obligation was to join the army and fight for the Nazis. Even when the war was over, the bishop of Linz persisted in regarding Jaegerstaetter as "innocently erroneous" in the conscientious disobedience for which he was beheaded. And, the bishop argued, the fact that he was innocently erroneous should preclude Jaegerstaetter becoming a model for others to imitate.

A model he has become, however, despite the bishop's reservations. Jaegerstaetter's heroic witness was cited by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 as it changed Catholic teaching to sanction conscientious-objection status for war resisters. Daniel Ellsberg was inspired by Jaegerstaetter when he set about publishing the Pentagon Papers, an event which swung much public opinion against the Vietnam War. Ironically, many Catholic bishops and others initially defended the war as the lesser of two evils: The greater evil was the threat of communism, which threat bad also led the bishop of Linz into regarding the Nazi war as just.

Gordon Zahn's In Solitary Witness (on which I have drawn for this piece) has kept the memory of Jaegerstaetter's martyrdom alive and influential. His canonization by the pope is appropriate and would be an important statement about the primacy of conscience and the fallibility - sometimes - of moral guides where warfare and issues of public morality are concerned.

Fr. Paul Surlis is associate professor of social ethics at St. John's University, Jamaica, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:Franz Jaegerstaetter
Author:Surlis, Franz
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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