I have been reading a book I was sent for review: The Butcher of Poland by Garry O’Connor. The title refers to Hans Frank, appointed by Hitler to govern Poland after the Nazi invasion. Frank was a villain of the petit-bourgeois kind: unctuous, servile, a corrupt lawyer with inflated ideas of his own destiny as a major player in the Third Reich and a man seemingly with no moral bearings, he was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946. The book employs too much dramatic licence for my liking (as well as uncritically condemning the “silence” of Pius XII) and it was hard to finish it without feeling morally grubby myself. It made me realise that if I were ever to write a biography it would have to be of someone who raised my sights rather than lowered them – someone who inspired me. I don’t think I could dwell imaginatively alongside a creep like Frank for long without getting nightmares.
Thus I was glad to come across an article in Catholic Exchange about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, whose memorial was earlier this week. He was an Austrian peasant-farmer, guillotined in Berlin on August 9 1943 for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army. It was an act of great courage, particularly so because his parish priest and his bishop both tried to get him to change his mind. They may have been correct in the sense that it is not wrong to defend your country as a soldier when it is at war. But suppose you believe this war is intrinsically immoral? The German Jehovah’s Witnesses took a similar stand.
This was Jägerstätter’s dilemma: to go along with the views of those in authority whom he respected, or to follow his conscience, knowing the penalty that would result. As the article states: “He’d considered the options, sought reliable counsel, prayed deeply and weighed the cost.” He was a devoted husband and the father of three young girls and his decision must have been agonising; there were no false heroics about his conscientious objection. “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death” he wrote. “I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.”
Jägerstätter believed that “God will still give me a sign if some other course would be better.” But, as the article points out, “to change his mind because he was going to be executed would have been an object lesson in extreme cowardice and faithlessness that [he] was unwilling to display to his children.”
The article mentions St Thomas More, another martyr to conscience, as well as Robert Scholl, the father of Hans and Sophie Scholl, two Munich students who were also guillotined for trying to raise public awareness of Hitler’s atrocities on the Eastern Front in World War II, and who had been raised by their devout Lutheran parents “to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.”. Another heroic figure is the Austrian nurse and nun, Blessed Maria Restituta Kafka, executed in 1943 for refusing to remove crucifixes from the walls of the hospital in Vienna where she worked as senior theatre sister. I note that her name has been given to the group that has been struggling in recent years to keep the Catholic ethos alive in the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London.
Few of us are called to the kind of sacrifice I mention here. Such people are our exemplars, reminding us that it is the exercise of conscience that makes us truly human.
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