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A Martyr for Conscience

In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter

by Gordon C. Zahn
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 277 pp., $5.95

Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self

by Melita Maschmann
Abelard-Schuman, 223 pp., $4.00

Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan

translated and edited by Abraham I. Katsh
Macmillan, 350 pp., $6.95

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.” (The Latin original has for “the wars,” iusta bella.) So runs the thirty-seventh of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the doctrine of the Church of England. It is directed against one of the horrible heresies of the Anabaptists, who held that the world and all its doings were under the power of the evil one. The Anglican Article represents fairly enough the consensus in practice of most Christians (apart from the Anabaptists and other small sects) in this matter from the age of Constantine down to modern times. It is still the doctrine, it is safe to say, of Cardinal Spellman, of Archbishop Makarios, and the Patriarch of Moscow, and of a variety of other divines, Catholic, Prottestant, and Orthodox. It has persisted in somewhat uneasy partnership, uneasy in theory if not in practice, with another theological doctrine, that of the Just War. Aquinas asks, in that section of his Summa Theologiae entitled De Bello, utrum bellare sit semper peccatum. There is a whole battery of implications in that semper. It suggests that the presumption is that war is sinful, but that under certain very carefully defined and restricted circumstances it may be justifiable; and these conditions, as they are stated by Aquinas and elaborated by later theologians in the same tradition, are such that most of the wars of history are by these criteria to be condemned. What certainly follows, as a matter of logic, from the doctrine of the Just War, is that in any given war (for the sake of simplicity, I take only those cases where there are not more than two parties concerned) there are only two possibilities: that the war is sinful on the part of both parties; or that the war is sinful on the part of one of the parties.

It seems then to follow that the individual Christian who takes this doctrine seriously is bound to conclude that the commandment of the Magistrate is as likely as not, perhaps more likely than not, to be a commandment to sin; and thus the good Christian is bound to obey such a commandment only after a long and suspicious scrutiny has reassured him that in this case, at any rate, the war can be justified. The situation is even more complicated; for it is the common teaching of those theologians who discuss the matter that a war which is just in its initial stage can become unjust through the adoption by the belligerent of intrinsically wicked means—the direct and intentional killing of the civilian population, for example—to gain a victory.

The casuistry of the Just War has remained for the most part an apparently pointless theological exercise because it has in practice been emasculated by another doctrine: that in matters of war and peace the good intentions and wisdom of the Magistrate are to be presumed, for the private citizen has neither the information at his disposal nor the expertness in handling moral issues that would entitle him to set his judgment against the judgment of his rulers. An instance of this kind of thinking is, characteristically, provided by the Catholic bishops of North Rhine-Westphalia who in 1958 stated that “no Catholic is bound in conscience…to reject the defensive measures the majority of responsible politicians consider necessary in the present situation.” Since the majority of responsible politicians in every regime of every ideological hue seems to have no objection in principle to incinerating vast populations with nuclear weapons—after all, this has been done once, in Japan, at the bidding of responsible politicians—since as I write, villagers who happen to get in the way are being fried in napalm, again at the bidding of responsible politicians, one is inclined to ask what, if anything, is ruled out by the teaching of theologians as unworthy of the Christian man. How is it, to put the point more brutally, that men who are prone to fall into a state of great excitement over adultery and fornication, and the circumstances that are thought to induce them, rarely become excited about the very real possibility that those to whom they speak may be required at any time to engage in a war that by the classic standards to which they profess to give their loyalty is unjust—that is, may be required to commit the deadly sin of murder?

A part of the explanation would have to be given in the categories of sociology. It is therefore appropriate that a sociologist, Dr. Gordon Zahn, who has already given us a fine study of Catholic attitudes in Germany during the second war, should now have addressed himself to the problem constituted by the complacency of Christians before the murderous violence of our period. He has done so by examining a singular case: that of a man who, unlike almost all his fellow-Catholics and unlike almost all the men of his nation, refused to serve in Hitler’s army on the grounds that the war was unjust and that the regime that demanded his service was a wicked enterprise.

Franz Jägerstätter was a peasant of Upper Austria, illegitimate (not that this counted for much in the easy Austrian milieu), a bit “wild” in his youth, happily married with a family, the village sexton, devout but not withdrawn—his invariable response to the greeting “Heil Hitler!” was “Pfui Hitler!”—unconnected with any resistance groups, with a piety rooted in the deep if narrow tradition of the Counter-Reformation. He was beheaded in a Berlin prison on August 9, 1943. He had no reason to suppose that his fate would hold any interest for the world. He was certainly a martyr for conscience. The hard question for the Catholics of Austria, and of the world, is whether he was a martyr for the truth.

Jägerstätter never showed the slightest traces of fanaticism or “enthusiasm.” He had an abundance of common sense; and he was therefore at pains to take advice about what he took to be his moral predicament. The advice he received, from his own parish priest, from his friends and relatives, from members of the clergy, from his bishop, was in every case that his immediate duty was to his family, that the civil authority, that is, the Nazi Government, had a prima facie right to demand his services, and that he would therefore be acting wrongly in risking imprisonment and death. After all (it was insinuated), he would probably, in view of his known foibles, be assigned to some duty that would not entail combatant service. (It seems likely that he was in fact offered this way out by the army authorities.) He rejected the advice and the temptation; and he went to his death absolutely alone, humanly speaking, and yet with exactly the same firmness Thomas More showed on the scaffold. From one point of view, Jägerstätter was a more remarkable man than More, for More acted out his drama with the eyes of Europe upon him.

The central issue between Jägerstätter and those who advised him to conform to the harsh demands of his time is that of the right of the individual to judge the policy of the State (the judgment of “the majority of responsible politicians”). Here Jägerstätter simply refused to become entangled in the intricacies of argument. He pointed to the simple facts that were known to everyone. He wrote, for example:

People today come up with every conceivable argument to put the issue and the conflict in a favorable light. For instance, one is simply fighting for the German State, inasmuch as Christ commanded that one must obey the secular rulers even when they are not religious. This last part is admittedly true, but I do not believe that Christ ever said that one must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked…Have we Austrians forgotten the year 1938 in so short a time? Can I still say that I have a Fatherland when I live in a country where I have nothing but duties and no longer possess any rights? Above all, can there be any talk of defense of the Fatherland when one invades countries that owe one nothing and robs and murders there?

Those who live under conditions of terror often display attitudes and subscribe to arguments of which they are at bottom ashamed. What is now the judgment on Jägerstätter of those who thought him wrong in 1943? One man, his parish priest, holds that he acted rightly and that the village of St. Radegund can now boast a martyr and a saint. As for the rest, the villagers don’t condemn him and even accept him as one of their own; but the general judgment is that he carried things to extremes, was perhaps a bit cracked, and is to be censured for disregarding his primary duty to his family (who did not in fact suffer on his account and are still accepted members of the village community). Most remarkable of all, his bishop is still of exactly the same mind. True, he admits that he is to be admired as a martyr to conscience; but “I consider the greater heroes to be those exemplary young Catholic men, seminarians, priests, and heads of families who fought and died in heroic fulfilment of duty and in the firm conviction that they were fulfilling the will of God at their post just as the Christian soldiers in the armies of the heathen emperor had done.”

Of course, the terrible challenge to the Catholic authorities offered by the case of Franz Jägerstätter, if he is to be spoken of as a witness, not only to conscience—a Jehovah’s Witness would be this—but also to the truth, is this: he in witnessing to the truth, convicts them of unfaithfulness to the truth; and this is humanly hard to accept and, in the case of those who are very conscious of the dignity and the legitimacy of their office, may even seem incredible. And yet there he stands, this Austrian peasant, showing in and through his ordinariness, his complete lack of singularity, his appeal to nothing beyond his Bible and his catechism, his utter rootedness in his peasant Catholic milieu, that in summoning the Church of prophets and martyrs to speak for him he, of all those who lived in Austria after 1938, had the best right to do so. Zahn has written a brilliant and dangerous book. I see that David Miller, who recently burned his draft card in public, presumably because he thinks the American intervention in Vietnam unjust, is a Catholic. Perhaps the tame psychologists who think such young men maladjusted will soon begin to speak of the Jägerstätter syndrome.

What are we to say of those who, in the blood and filth of those years, managed to remain on easy terms with their consciences as they obeyed the rulers of the Third Reich? One of them, Melita Maschmann, who carried her enthusiasm to the point of discharging the duties of a fairly high official in the Hitler Youth, has written an account of what she calls her “former self.” It is in the form of a long letter to a Jewish school friend from whom she necessarily parted. On the whole, I found it a disagreeable book. We see how fortunate Jägerstätter was in his peasant narrowness and his simple education. Miss Maschmann is the product of a bourgeois family, chauvinistic and philistine. She was well educated and from an early age was conversant with the best writers. She gives a detailed description of a music festival held under the auspices of the Hitler Youth at St. Thomas’s, Leipzig, where she was much impressed by a performance of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Her whole account of the occasion is for the purpose of explaining to her correspondent that “one could…find within the Hitler Youth satisfaction for one’s deepest cultural needs.” It is absolutely clear that Miss Maschmann means well and that she is no longer a Nazi; but her failures of understanding and of taste are prodigious. One example will be enough. Miss Maschmann was in charge of a camp for girls, some of them Germans from the Reich, some of the Volksdeutsch, some of them Polish girls from “good” families pretending to be German (these last had taken their Abitur at German schools). “I was convinced that German culture was vastly superior to that of Poland and that these alert young people would have turned towards things German one day almost of their own accord, because they were sensitive to the values with which they came into contact here…. In retrospect, admittedly, I feel that there was always an element of estrangement between the girls and myself which was not overcome. It was rooted in the uncertainties of the political situation. But I should like to think that on a personal level we liked and respected one another.” It is to be expected that when she speaks of a boy who was killed by a stray bullet at the end of the war, the bullet is described as coming from the weapon of a negro soldier, not an American soldier. (Miss Maschmann is not responsible for “negro” in place of “Negro”; for this her publishers must be censured.)

Kaplan’s Warsaw diaries cover the period from September 1939 to August 4, 1942. They were written day by day in what we are told is a fine Hebrew and form a precious record of Jewish life under Nazi rule. Kaplan was a learned man, a teacher. He was highly intelligent, very proud, full of passion and irony, a faithful though not very orthodox Jew, now praising the God of Israel, now chiding him for his apparent indifference to his people. He was of White Russian origin, and this betrays itself in a certain contempt he has for Polish Jewry and a simpleminded desire to think well of the Russians even when all the appearances are against them. But he loved the justice of the mind; so that in the end he pays without grudging his tribute of admiration both to the Polish Jews and to the antisemitic Poles. He takes a fierce delight in noticing that the Poles, unlike, say, the Czechs or the Norwegians, never produced a single collaborator of any note. His most bitter comments are upon the Judenräte and the Jewish police. On this matter his judgment strengthens what we may without too much absurdity call the Arendt thesis.

Kaplan and his wife are believed to have been murdered in the extermination camp at Treblinka. Unlike Jägerstätter, they had no choice in the matter. But as one forces oneself through Kaplan’s mordant account of the insanities of German rule in Warsaw, one sees that it is the oppressor who is enslaved, ravaged by the libido dominandi, Kaplan who is the free man. The powers of evil show themselves to be most vulnerable at precisely the point where they think themselves to have triumphed: on the scaffold with Jägerstätter, in the gas chamber with Kaplan. Beati, qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam.

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