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Sunday, 28 June 2009

Franz Jagerstatter


The story of Franz Jagerstatter was preserved for us through the work of the sociologist Gordon Zahn. His account of Jagerstatter's life, In Solitary Witness brought us an account of the moral clarity and courage of this Austrian peasant in his refusal to serve in the German army in World War II that has continued to haunt me.

Franz Jagerstatter : Letters and Writings from Prison edited by Erna Putz, Translated into English with Commentary by Robert A Krieg (Orbis Books, 2009) brings us much closer to both Franz and his wife Franziska. Here we have the letters between the couple that have survived as well as a complete collection of his writings, essays, meditations and brief theological reflections.

The letters and writings that Putz has assembled provide us with view of Franz and his wife that does not differ substantially from that provided by Zahn in the 1950s but pulls the picture that Zahn provided into somewhat sharper focus in at least some respects. The correspondence between the couple portrays the depth of their relationship, the concerns about maintaining and operating the farm during his absence and a traditional Catholic piety that was deeply engrained into the pattern of their daily lives.

Jim Forest in the Introduction to the book notes the overlapping presence in Tegel of both Bonhoeffer and Jagerstatter - an occurence that has not been previously noted in print at least prior to my discussion in the Zadok Perspectives article "Voices from Tegel Prison 1943-44: The 'Solitary Witness' to the 'body of Christ' of a Berlin Theologian and an Austrian peasant' (No 93, Summer 2006.

The account of Jagerstatter's spiritual practices in these documents highlights the point I made in that article that while he was solitary in the judgements he reached about the Nazi regime and his refusal to serve in the military his life was deeply shaped by practices of prayer and participation in the liturgrical life of the church and spiritual reading.

The ‘solitary’ character of the witness of these exemplary performers of the faith should not distract our attention from the reality, ... , that their witness was rooted in the disciplines and practices of the church. Both Bonhoeffer and J├Ągerst├Ątter upheld the communal character of the church in a context and location, imprisonment for opposition to an unjust state, where their church communities would not support them, a failure grounded in an ecclesiastical confusion of faith with national identity and expressed in the silence of leadership in the face of a state bent on genocide. (p17)

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