The Courageous Witness of Bl. Franz Jagerstatter

The time was 1941, the war then raging across Europe had entered its third terrible year, and a young Catholic philosopher by the name of Josef Pieper had just brought out a book, a lovely little thing of less than sixty pages, called A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. Amazingly enough, it survived the Nazi censors, who seemed determined on suppressing anything even remotely hostile to the Third Reich. Was it the thinness of the volume that allowed it to escape the book burners? We’ll never know. But its relentless insistence upon goodness as the norm of reality, and that whoever wishes “to know and do the good must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being,” could scarcely have been more subversive of the ideology of the Reich, which was at that moment busily engaged in tyrannizing half the world.

“The luminous domain of free human action,” he announced on page one, was the subject he had in mind. Within that hallowed setting, he declared, the life of the human being annealed to the good would find its natural footing.  “Virtue,” he told us—on which the happy outcome of the human enterprise crucially depends—“is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.”

Nowhere was that realization in greater or more immediate need than in those nations overrun by the armies of Adolph Hitler; whose depredations threatened not just the peace of Europe, but the survival of all that was good and decent in the civilization of the West.  Certainly by 1941, everyone knew that. Knew also that here was an evil against which great courage would be required. And what is courage but the form that every virtue must take at the point of testing. In a fallen world, in which both the weak and the wicked predominate, being brave is not an option. And Pieper clearly understood the total context in which the embattled soul needs to awaken to the urgency of giving it expression.  “Fortitude,” he explains, “presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous.”

Yes, even in the face of death it is possible to demonstrate real courage. In fact, the least of the wounds inflicted by life in a fallen and broken world remind us of death, prefiguring a presence that is never distant. Even the merest scratch serves as an intimation, a hint of that final and ineluctable fall into dissolution. “Thus every brave deed,” he tells us, “draws sustenance from preparedness for death as from its deepest roots…. A fortitude that does not extend to the depth of readiness to fall is rotten in its root and lacking in effective power.”

Of course, as Pieper is quick to point out, there can be no true value in being brave unless the reason that summons us to show courage is a just and prudent one. That is because all virtue is of a piece and thus one cannot evince examples of this or that virtue of the human heart without implicating all the others. How can the domain of human action remain both free and luminous if the heart is divided, torn to pieces by its own devices and desires? While we may be forced to suffer any number of assaults from without, there can be no merit in a misery arising from a heart willfully rent from within.

Nor would any courageous man want to suffer merely for the sake of having suffered. Pleasuring oneself with pain? There is nothing good to be gained from that. “The courageous person,” he flatly tells us, “is not willing to sustain a wound for its own sake.”   What that means, therefore, is that the brave man is never without fear. Nor is he to be reproached when fear comes his way; fear, after all, is not a state of sin of which we need feel ashamed. Complete fearlessness, in fact, points to a level of insensibility that is hardly human. Instead, the truly brave man will try and master his fear, which he endeavors to overcome for the sake of something—or someone—greater. And for that he is prepared not only to acknowledge the threat posed by death, but to go forward to meet it with a strong and steadfast will—almost as if he were to go forth unto death in search of an old and trusted friend.

However, it is only when the courage needed to do the good takes place in the apparent absence of any prospect of security or success that real courage is shown.  “Whoever in such a situation of unqualified seriousness,” comments Pieper,

in the face of which any glorious soldier falls mute and every heroic gesture becomes crippled, nonetheless advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good, specifically for the sake of the good and thus finally for the sake of God, not out of ambition or out of fear of being taken for a coward: that person is truly courageous.

Examples of those who, despite every horror, stand tall in the saddle, holding aloft the flag of honor and courage, riding with brave resolution into the furnace of death, are obviously not the stuff of which mediocrity is made. (The mediocre, as some wag once put it, are always at their best.) But they will very often appear quite ordinary to others. Until, that is, circumstance compels them to give way and, athwart the expectations of those others, they simply refuse. The young Austrian farmer, Franz Jagerstatter, for instance, whose opposition to German annexation of his country quite baffled everyone in his village, where his was the only vote against an Anschluss that all of Austria appeared to welcome. And while the nation would come bitterly to regret the terms of unification (like a handshake with the hound of hell), at the time Jagerstatter’s refusal greatly annoyed his neighbors. Even more so would his refusal to serve in the Army—concerning which, however, he was not unmindful of the consequences. “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death. 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”

Is it possible that he had read Josef Pieper’s book? Especially the passage where, taking note of “the fundamental capacity of the moral person,” Pieper extols the courage of one who is actually willing “to hearken in silence to the call of the real and out of this recollected silence within oneself to make the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action.” Like a young man’s refusal to become complicit in an unjust war just because it is being waged beneath the banner of one’s own flag. As someone once wisely put it, there can be no flag large enough to cover the infamy of killing innocent people.

Young Franz Jagerstatter would pay dearly for his principles. The instant it became clear that he would not allow himself to be conscripted to fight a war he knew to be wicked, he was arrested and sent to prison where, on August 9, 1943, he was guillotined, thus consummating his witness to the good. His heroism, unlike so much of a life lost in obscurity, did not go unnoticed either. The chaplain who ministered to him in the last days and weeks of his life, Fr. Jochmann, was so moved by his holiness and courage that he declared: “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime”

A final, triumphant vindication would come, some sixty or so years later when, in 2007, Pope Benedict declared him to be among the Blessed in heaven. Someone, in other words, whose life of virtue we are encouraged to imitate and so, like the saints and martyrs who light up the night sky, we become the very “utmost of what a man can be … the realization of the human capacity for being.”

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • LarryCicero

    “A fortitude that does not extend to the depth of readiness to fall is rotten in its root and lacking in effective power.”

    When faced with the Islamo-Nazis of today, our leader requests an authorization to use force that is limited in scope, which sends the message of a lack of willingness to fight- to endure a scratch or readiness to fall and an absence of courage and bravery. Instead we are offered excuses as to what the terrorists are, which is simply evil, and told that they are drawn to such behaviors because of lack of opportunity, such as a job. Rather than calling to defeat evil, we are being asked to understand the enemy and sympathize with evil.

    • ForChristAlone

      It’s the difference between being a courageous leader and running the country as if it were the local chapter of “Welcome Wagon.”

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    300 Filipino Catholic laborers and their Bishop huddle in terror in Libya as I write this. Pope and Italian government could, without great difficulty rescue them with a swift operation. But not a word. Any hour it can be too late. 22 Coptic Christians – likewise Egyptian laborers, all young men, already beheaded. In the video their lips move saying “Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus”. HELLO! HOLY FATHER??

    • Joyful in the Truth

      Thank you Professor Regis Martin for this wonderful article on Courage today. It’s just what I needed. I believe the Holy Spirit sent it to me through you! God Bless You!

  • Elder

    Loved your comment about the “mediocre”. The thrust of this article should not make us look outward but inward. Do I have the courage to follow my beliefs? And at what cost? This young man did not look to the Pope or his countrymen to guide his decision. He knew what he had to do and did it.

  • BillinJax

    Reminds me of a line I’ve seen.
    We must first realize and accept that being his child is
    quite enough for anyone. What more could you want than that? For heavens sake,
    is that not the greatest thing you could imagine, being the offspring of the
    God of the universe? Once you take the time to put your arms around that truth
    you can begin to understand just what you are, where you are, and gain control
    of your thoughts in order to properly direct the life graciously given to you
    by your FATHER.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    One recalls the words of Sophie Scholl, also guillotined for producing and distributiong anti-Nazi pamphlets in Munich:-

    “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves -— or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      Saw the White Rose movie about Sophie. Was rather startled by the little ‘portable sized’ guillotine on which she died. What interested me is that this small guillotine is what the Vienna Nazis used as well to ‘harvest’ thousands of perfect headless bodies for Pernkopf’s Atlas – to this day the greatest atlas of human anatomy ever done and STILL in use.

      “How can something so beautiful at the same time be so utterly
      despicable? Herein lies the paradox of the Pernkopf Atlas, as a legacy
      of the Third Reich: the fact that Pernkopf and his illustrators, by
      embracing Nazi ideology and benefiting from the atrocities committed,
      created a Nazi anatomy atlas in which irreconcilable opposites were forcibly reconciled.
      Beautiful anatomical drawings were created, but this was only made
      possible by the unethical and unlawful procurement of the anatomical
      remains of murdered victims of an evil Nazi regime–thus beauty and evil
      were fused.”

      These are the issues that the ‘Sophies’ of the 21st century will face.

  • Marlin

    “In a fallen world … being brave is not an option.”. It’s not optional, or it’s not an available choice? Standard usage? Not to detract from the gravity of the article …

  • Peters Rabbit

    The discussion on bravery and “courage” in this article is precisely why the Catholic group named “Courage” is mis-labeled. It is good that those people are moving away from sin, but they are not expressing the same virtue as the likes of Bl. Franz Jagerstatter et. al. The label of “Courage” (the group) completely distorts the virtue to the point of an entirely different meaning. Turning from sin is not “courageous” or “heroic”, but rather “human.”

  • Jdonnell

    Good discussion of courage. It is, however, a lot easier to praise heroes of the past than current ones, like Snowden. Or Bp. Romero, who was murdered by Reagan and US-supported terrorists. The writers and readers of Crisis have not been known to call for the arrest of US war criminals, who lied the country into war in Iraq. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld,, for a start, need to be held to account. Where is the courage regarding this issue. It’s not so easy to deal with issues close to home as those far away in time and space.

    • RufusChoate

      Romero was executed under Carter before Reagan became President or even had an opinion about El Salvador. So that was cute.

      The problem is only silly people and Islamist think and believe that the Iraq War was illegal in spite of it being the most judiciously legal action in American history with over 10 years of UN and American positions to substantiate it.

      • Jdonnell

        You keep your nearly flawless record of being wrong intact here. Romero was 1) not “executed.” He was assassinated and not “under’ Carter, who was not president of El Salvador. Your errors are indications of a bad education, by the way.

        Your second comment is equally erroneous. Just about the entire world regards the Iraq war as illegal, as well as immoral. Bush’s cohort can’t even dare to visit many countries for fear of being arrested as war criminals.
        The US bishops opposed it from the get-go as immoral. They didn’t speak loudly, just loud enough for the record. This leads me to wonder if you supported the Iraq war.

        • RufusChoate

          Trying to walk back your idiocy is cute but you don’t have to try so hard. Your quote: “murdered by Reagan and US-supported terrorists.” Carter was the US president when Romero was executed by a El Salvadoran paramilitary group under command of former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson in March 1980. Reagan was inaugurated on January 22, 1981 and had no influence on Foreign Policy before that time.

          The stated policy of the United States from 1991 on for Iraq was regime change and was supported by multiple Congressional and UN votes and sanctions.

          • Jdonnell

            You slide over all the errors I pointed out in my reply–the sort of errors that suggested that you had a bad education. Your are right about Carter. I got ahead of myself in wanting to say something about Reagan’s horrible Salvador policy of supplying money, arms, and terrorism training (at Ft. Bragg) to the murderous regime there. El Salvador’s military killed about 20,000 peasants in the (false) name of fighting communism.

            Your citation is not the statement of the bishops’ opposition to the Iraq war, which is referred to in what you peddle. The earlier bishops’ statement said in clear terms, ” Based on the facts that are known to us, we continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature. With the Holy See and bishops from the Middle East and around the world, we fear that resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.* And more. The bishops then went on to hide their light under a basket.
            The idiocy is all yours.

            • RufusChoate

              The murder of Oscar Romero was grave injustice and foolish but the attendance in 1971 at the School of the Americas by Roberto D’Aubuisson had nothing to do with it.

              The USCCB statement was the only one made by them as body. It is incumbent for you to produce contrary evidence and not from a section or secretariat of the USCCB but the entire body.

              You just aren’t comprehending that you are simply wrong about the illegality of the the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Both were legal and justified by International and US Law receiving multiple votes of overwhelming majority support in the US Congress over a 12 year period and two Presidents and in the UN under multiple votes in both the General Assembly and the Security Council.

              It is Leftist sophistry to pretend otherwise. The one caveat to both wars that I have is that they should have been far more punitive, short and no effort to install western democracy of Islamic culture and all troops removed from the theater of operation after the regimes and their military capability were annihilated after 30 days at most.

              • Jdonnell

                Your characterization of Bishop Romero’s martyrdom–shot by US funded weapon and bullets as he stood at altar saying Mass–as “foolish.” You make no comment about the 20,000 peasants also killed by US funded soldiers, and thus one might conclude that killing them was not foolish. Assassinating Romero was criminal and evil; foolish is an attempt to side-step what happened to him and his country.

                Your recitation of excuses re. the legal issue of the war is another side-step. As the head of the UN has said, “”I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” The Security Council resolutions did not make it legal. US excuses that the war was an act of “self-defense” are, of course, nonsense.
                When you approve of “far more punitive” war, I am reminded of your silence on the Salvadoran massacre.
                Finally, you don’t know where I am on the right-left spectrum. Lots of conservatives have opposed Bush’s wars too.

                • RufusChoate

                  The actual firearm that killed Romero was never determined. The US never directly funded the murder of anyone in El Salvador it funded and supplied a Military.

                  A Civil War is always violent and cruel with great collateral damage. You might have missed that fact in your reading of history.

                  The war in El Salvador was a Civil war between the Military Junta Government and their allies against the Soviet, PRC and Sandinista, Cuba, Bulgaria backed Communist insurgency with 70,000-80,000 killed over a 10 year period.

                  It is largely irrelevant with your comments about Romero. The number of 20,000 deaths was the count of the rebel deaths while the death squads tolls is either increased or decreased depending on the El Salvadoran political opinion and both the Communists and the Junta used terror in the war.

                  Sad but not exactly a guiltless exercise by the Left and one salient point that the Left likes to avoid is that the Communist actually lost the Civil War.

                  I didn’t comment on the number of deaths because it was inaccurate and don’t really want to spend all of my free time correcting you.

                  You take any statement you wish from the left making declarations about illegality it is meaningless political filler. No credible Legal authority has even attempted to address or prosecute any American or British leader for a violation of International Law or Domestic Law.

                  It might be interesting to report that Kofi Annan and his family became multi-millionaires by engaging in fraudulent and corrupt trade in violation of the UN food for Oil program aiding their rearming.

                  • Jdonnell

                    You really are an apologist for fascism. Your pseudo-history is just that. The murdered peasants were not communists; that was just the excuse made by the genocidally-inclinded murderers and their apologists like you. You may not be aware that the head of the Salvadoran military, who lives in the US on the money he took from the Salvadorans, was tried in a deportation court, lost his case and has been ordered to be deported form the US. The case against him was overwhelming; he was the flunky of the US, mouthing lies about human rights, while presiding over an army that was in the business of slaughtering Salvadorans, by day in uniform and by night as death squads. What is relevant about Romero to all this is that he requested a halt in the killing supplies that the US was happily providing. Your nonsense about a “Communist insurgency” is just a clichéd repetition of a long discredited cover-up.

                    • RufusChoate

                      The murdered peasants and others in the cities were killed in the war and the terror by both the Left and the Right in El Salvador. There was also a fair amount of murder on personal vendettas that were concealed in the general carnage. I didn’t condone murder (which is the illegal killing) but what I do understand that you don’t that every Communist Insurgency for the last 70 years used terror, summary execution and propaganda to the international Left to repeat ad nauseum to portray themselves as victims and yet in spite of this international pressure and international aid the Left lost both the War and the support of the Peasants very early on which is odd that the Left never bother to remember.

                      You missed the point about Romero. He took a political position that the military viewed as a threat to their chances of beating the Communist insurgents so he was removed. Lamentable, cruel, sinful but logical considering the existential threat they faced. Romero was immediately apotheosized by the Communist Left as a propaganda piece in their attempt to delegitimize the regime which is odd since one of their most important directives and goals was to abolish the Church and confiscate its property. Romero’s death is not controversial but his involvement in stating his opinions is still controversial in El Salvador.

                      Why not actually research the civil war before you post because it is pretty tedious correcting you?

                      I have not really followed the disposition of any one involved in the El Salvadoran Civil war since college so your point is meaningless.

                      p.s. I have mentioned this else where but it bears repeating for clarity. I was a Communist who had extensive contacts and relations with many far left Americans who were key advisers to both the Sandinistas and the FMLN in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These friends would regale our group with how easy it was to deceive and manipulate people like you in the international Left with their misinformation repeating Lenin’s name for you: “Useful Idiots”.

                    • Jdonnell

                      Your foolish assumption about a “Communist revolution” in El Salvador is a joke. This latter-day McCarthyism (yes, I expect you’d defend him too) has traditionally been a screen to cover mass murder, which is just what happened in El Salvador. You refer to killing on both sides as if they equaled out, which is also false; the vast majority were killings by the military. Romero asked to have the arms flow to the military killing machine ended; that’s what got him killed. You call him “political,” I–and the Pope–call him Christian. Even you use of the word, “removed,” is just a euphemism for what happened; he was assassinated at the altar. I attended much of the trial/hearing of Gen. Vides Casanova at which repeated military atrocities were recounted, some by former Ambassador (and Catholic) Robert White. Other, subsequent ambassadors, serving under Reagan, and who testified at the trial, showed themselves to have paid lip serviced to human rights, while certifying that the military deserved continuing support. The trial verdict was that Vides was shown to be so guilty of allowing torture and mass murder to go on that he was ordered to be deported. That’s a better context for “removed.”