The Price of a Life

Today is the 64th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Sunday is the 64th anniversary of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. These detonations are the entire history of nuclear war, so far.

Sunday is also the 66th anniversary of the execution of Franz Jaegerstaetter. Mr. Jaegerstaetter was an Austrian farmer beheaded by German military authorities for refusing to take part in what he considered an unjust war.

Although it’s fun to badmouth Nazis, what was done to Mr. Jaegerstaetter was not unusual for the time. The penalty for desertion was death in armies on both sides of that war and while some avenues of conscientious objection were open, no nation allowed its citizens to disavow the war effort.

Mr. Jaegerstaetter’s actions were based on his religious convictions and while one need not be religious to recognize the evil of the Nazis – or any unjust war – Mr. Jaegerstaetter’s case illustrates the yawning gulf that often opens between preaching and practice.

From accounts of his life, Franz Jaegerstaetter was a typical country youth who sowed his wild oats, got in his share of fistfights, etc. etc. In 1936, he got married, settled down and began a serious investigation of religion and morality.

When the German-Austrian “Anschluss” of 1938 was put to a general vote, Mr. Jaegerstaetter was the only one in his village to oppose it, citing a dream in which he saw a gleaming train that thousands of people ran to board. He heard a voice say, “This train is going to hell.” On waking, he associated the train with Nazism.

So yeah, people probably thought he was a kook. Conscription time came and Franz refused to go. When he cited his faith as the ground of his refusal to fight, he was urged to join up to prevent godless Bolsheviks from destroying European Christianity. (This must have been one of the earliest sightings of “Kill a Commie for Christ.”)

He was offered a place as a non-fighting medic. He refused. He said his objection was not to killing another person in wartime per se, but that any participation on his part would be an admission Hitler’s regime was legitimate and Hitler’s wars were just.

Did Hitler really need Franz Jaegerstaetter’s legitimacy? He already had Goering and Goebbels and von Ribbontrop. Was Jaegerstaetter so grandiose, that he thought the withholding of his consent would matter to anyone? Or is it different? When Jaegerstaetter accepted responsibility for his single grain of sand, did he make it morally impossible for anyone to do less? The Talmud says that someone who saves one life saves the whole world. Perhaps the opposite is also true. Perhaps someone who allows one person to die damns the whole world.

So was Jaegerstaetter Christ-like? In his death, did he accept all the sins of the Germanic people? I don’t think so. The only soul he owned was his own.

His priest and bishop urged him to join the army and fight. They said any citizen who obeyed duly appointed authority was absolved from personal guilt. (Clearly, they had funny ideas about “duly appointed authority.”) Mr. Jaegerstaetter refused. He was asked to think of his family – his wife and four daughters. He wrote: “Many actually believe quite simply that things have to be the way they are. If this should happen to mean they are obliged to commit injustice, then they believe that others are responsible… I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth even though it costs me my life.”

And so it did. After the war, American sociologist Gordon Zahn investigated Mr. Jaegerstaetter’s life. The Bishop of Linz, who’d pleaded with Mr. Jaegerstaetter to go along and get along, told Mr. Zahn – even with full awareness of the horrors of the Nazi regime – that Mr. Jaegerstaetter was wrong and that the true heroes were the Catholics who obeyed, joined up, fought, killed and died.

A bishop’s political reality is precarious. The good shepherd, Jesus said, leaves his flock to find the stray sheep. What if the whole flock strays and only one sheep remains in the green pastures by still waters? Surely, the shepherd must chase the strays, but must he also condone the straying?

A German youth who did join – first the Hitler Youth and then the German army – was Josef Ratzinger. Now he is Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007, he beatified Franz Jaegerstaetter, moving him along the path to sainthood. Pope Benedict says he did not espouse Nazi beliefs. He says he joined and served against his will. I believe him. I am in no position to judge his life (or anyone else’s, for that matter).

I will, however, meditate Sunday on my own failings. At what points does my life touch injustice or evil? Modern society is very good at the division of labor. Like an auto assembly line, we all have to contribute just a bit for something to happen, whether that something is good or evil. Just because someone else is more responsible for injustice in our society does not absolve me of my role – even if the bishop says it does. That’s just another reminder not to let anyone do my thinking for me.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

One Comment

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