The Peasant Who Stood Up to Hitler

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When a leader allows himself to break the rules of humanity, it is the duty of every citizen to break the leader’s rules.

So wrote Franz Jagerstatter.

Chances are that you haven’t heard of him. If you’ve seen or heard his name, it more than likely wasn’t in a textbook or classroom. I learned of his courage and integrity in a seemingly unlikely place: the introduction to an anthology of poetry.

That book, Forty Poems on Recent American History, was the very first volume of poetry I purchased for myself. Poet Robert Bly, in his pre-Iron John days, edited it and recounted Jagerstatter’s tale in its opening pages.

During my teen years, that slender volume led me to a lifelong love of some of the poets, such as Pablo Neruda and Hart Crane, whose works were included in it. Their poems have been translated and are read in scores of languages around the world. On the other hand, I’ve yet to run into anyone who’s heard of Franz Jagerstatter.

So I set to learning more about a man who so eloquently articulated the most basic principle of ethical rebellion against governmental tyranny.

He was not an artist, scholar, statesman or even a Ghandian activist who devoted his life to ending violence and injustice. Nor was he a member of a pacifistic religious group like the Jehovah’s Witness or Society of Friends.

Rather, he was an Austrian peasant who was the sexton in his local Catholic church. Like most people of his time, place and social class, he didn’t continue his formal education beyond grammar school. He lived far removed from the creative energy and political ferment of Vienna, Berlin and Paris. His contact with that world came but once a week, when he visited the library of a nearby village.

La Bibliotheque Nationale it wasn’t. But it provided him with intellectual and spiritual sustenance that would fortify him when the S.S. officers came calling. During his seminal pilgrimages to its stacks, he had a ringside seat to the discussions, arguments, discourses and monologues of dialecticians, ethicists, orators and poets of the ages. He internalized their teachings, along with those he gleaned from the Bible, which he had committed to heart.

When the Nazis took control of Austria, they demanded that all of the men report for military service. From October of 1940 through April of 1941, he was in the Army, but was not at the front. He returned home; the following year, he was called up again. But this time Jagerstatter refused, asserting that Hitler’s regime went against the best of what he’d read and experienced in life. He was promptly arrested.

At the local police station, his interrogators realized that he couldn’t be intimidated out of his convictions. So the local magistrates sent in lawyers and professors to "reason" him out of his resistance. At least one of his interviewers expressed admiration for his erudition and his courage of his convictions. Finally, the local bishop visited him as he sat in the gallows and told him, in essence, that his conscience was advising him wrongly and that he should obey the authorities. That way, according to the bishop, at least he would have some chance of survival and living a godly life after the conflict was settled.

But the self-educated farmer was having none of it. In one of his last letters, he wrote to his wife, "If I must write this with my hands in chains, that’s better than having my will in chains." That declaration, and others he made, indicate an astute perception: Whether we obey or defy governmental imperatives, we are making a choice. The responsibility is with ourselves, for God (at least as Jagerstatter understood Him) gave us free will.

It also shows — at least to me — that Jagerstatter had an understanding of how nearly all modern Western governments operate: by making deference and obedience to power "voluntary." Then, when leaders "break the rules of humanity," as he put it, they can claim that they have the people’s support in doing so.

As an example, back in the days of the Vietnam intervention, young men were subject to the military draft. They could choose whether or not they wanted to register for it; however, choosing not to register could lead to a prison sentence. So those who were eligible registered. Once called up, they took the oath to fulfill their military service. Government leaders could then claim that these young men swore, out of their own free will, to do whatever they were told to do. It wasn’t their job to decide whether or not the orders they received were just; their only imperative was to obey those orders.

Of course, this means that in today’s all-volunteer military, said government leaders take even more liberties with the lives of those who enlisted than in the days of the draft. Many soldiers now understand that in Iraq, they have been engaging in a military action that is not only unconstitutional (and illegal by international standards) but also an offense against humanity. (How else can we describe an action that kills children and other innocent civilians in a country whose regime had no demonstrable links to the events of 9/11?) Some have voiced their opposition. In essence, they’re told that because they signed up, they’re bound to do what they’re told, and that they should put their own ethical judgments aside.

That is exactly what Franz Jagerstatter refused to do. He would not allow himself to be inducted. For that, he was beheaded on 9 August 1943.

The tragedy is that he acted alone, and his heroism is seen only in hindsight. However, we now have a critical mass of people who disapprove of what the President is doing with regards to Iraq. More than a few of us see the immorality, not to mention the illegality, of the invasion. (Paul Craig Roberts and other columnists on this site have described, in detail, exactly what is wrong with it.) Many of us are even more troubled by the ways in which the government is curtailing our freedoms, ostensibly to aid in the so-called War on Terrorism. We are being told to comply when the government demands more and more detailed information about ourselves and each other or to allow ourselves to be strip-searched in airports.

The good news, I believe, is that we can still say "no." To paraphrase a favorite writer of mine, nobody can oppress us without our consent. If that isn’t a lesson of Franz Jaggerstater’s life and death, I don’t know what is.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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