On Not Doing Evil So That Good May Come: The Martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter

und nicht vielmehr also tun, wie wir gelästert werden und wie etliche sprechen, daß wir sagen: “Lasset uns Übles tun, auf das Gutes daraus komme”? welcher Verdammnis ist ganz recht. (Romans 3:8)

Luther Bibel 1545

Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life, tells the story of an obscure Austrian peasant, Franz Jäggerstätter. Jäggerstätter, by refusing to sign the mandatory pledge of loyalty to Adolph Hitler during WWII, was found guilty of undermining the war effort, and subsequently executed for his stance against Nazi ideology and the Hitler regime. It was a stance however that cost him not only his earthly life, but also earned his wife, three daughters, and elderly mother the pain and sorrow of losing a husband, father, and son, as well as the pain of enduring social ridicule from local villagers and even fellow church-goers.

Malick’s film is tedious at points, a hallmark of his style which weaves together a pastiche of short, choppy images meant more to evoke emotional responses than directly relate biographical detail. However, enough of Jäggerstätter’s story comes across as the ephemeral pictures of his life move us from an almost idyllic, pastoral existence with his wife, mother and children, to his contentious encounters with local villagers, especially the village mayor, to his brief stint in military training at a nearby camp, and his open refusal to take the Hitler oath, his imprisonment first in Austria, and then final days in Berlin as an enemy of the state– days which ended in a war tribunal and death sentence by guillotine.

While one can nit-pick about Malick’s lack of explicitness regarding Jäggerstätter’s devout Catholic faith– Jäggerstätter was pronounced a martyr of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and later beatified– there is still sufficient content in the film to make it clear that is was Jäggerstätter’s faith in Christ that made him willing to sacrifice his life and the happiness of his family for the sake of truth. One might also wonder whether martyrs like Jäggerstätter are as dour and brooding as Malick makes him out to be, but I will forgo a discussion of this kind for now, even if I suspect martyrdom is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of joy, one born out of the sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

Nevertheless, there is a particular moral dilemma that runs deep throughout the film and that Malick treats with artistic subtlety. It is a dilemma that ultimately indicts the few Roman Catholic clergy that appear in the film, the local bishop and the priest from Jäggerstätter’s village. It is also the crux of this dilemma that underlies the movie’s title “A Hidden Life,” for in the film Jäggerstätter is repeatedly tempted to abandon his defiant stance against Hitler for the simple fact that “it will not change anything of the world” and “no one will ever know about what happened.” In other words, as the various antagonists– the Nazis themselves, village friends, some family, and the clergy– continually point out, even if Franz’ stance is right, even if just, and even if courageous, it is ultimately pointless because it will serve no practical function and it will go unnoticed. It won’t bring about any “greater good” and, in fact, it will be the cause of real harm, harm not only to himself but to his family (the life of a 1940’s alpine subsistence farmer is vividly depicted by Malick, and the viewer comes away from the film with a crystal clear sense of the sheer physical demands of such a lifestyle). The act, like Franz’ life, will simply be lost to time.

However, at each temptation to abandon his convictions and take the Führer’s oath, an act which would facilitate the charges being dropped, and perhaps allow him to serve as an orderly in a hospital, Jäggerstätter nevertheless resists. For Jäggerstätter’s stance is not one grounded in some kind of calculable consequence or mapped out on a pleasure versus pain matrix. It is not a stance grounded in a moral system or ethic that might allow an evil to be done for one’s own sake or even for the sake of some greater good or higher reform. Rather it becomes clear as the film progresses that Jäggerstätter is operating from an entirely different moral sensibility, one that does not make such calculations, even if the natural desire for peace, happiness, and safety constantly attend his inner life. Instead, Jäggerstätter chooses to go to his death for the sake of not participating in an evil deed, and for the sake of maintaining the truth about the reality of intrinsic good and evil. For it is the intrinsic nature of the act of swearing the oath itself which compels him to sacrifice so much, even though legitimate goods (e.g. a life with his daughters, care for his elderly mother, additional children with his wife) could have been obtained by doing otherwise.

One could probably infer that the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans would have not only been known to the devoted Catholic, but that they had sunk deeply into his soul. Of course Jäggerstätter would have had something like Luther’s translation above available to him, but the ESV puts Paul’s words this way:

And why not do evil that good may come? – as some people slanderously charge us [the Apostles] with saying. Their condemnation is just.

Here Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that the Christian life will always be fundamentally different from other attempts at morality. To suggest one do evil so that some good may come, even the good of divine mercy, is slanderous and worthy of condemnation. For as followers of Christ there are no “necessary “evils which are pardonable for the sake of some greater goods (leaving aside debates about Just War Theory). The Christ follower cannot do or support that which is intrinsically evil so that good consequences may result, regardless of how tempting those consequences might be or even how objectively good they might be. As such, this posture will always put the true Christian at a disadvantage to those who are worldly-wise, for while the Christian may want the same end, the same goal as the non-believer, the Christian will be bound by conscience to go about it only in ways that align with the will of God, and in a manner coordinate with his divine laws. The Christian’s options for working toward the good are, in this sense, much more limited.

At one point in the film, mere days before Jäggerstätter’s execution, his wife, accompanied by the parish priest, visits him in the Berlin prison where he awaits his final moment. The priest again, in almost Screwtape-like fashion, begs Franz to recant and take the Hitler oath saying, “God only cares about what is in your heart, not about what you say.” Failing to understand that the act of speaking on behalf of Hitler’s program itself is acquiescence to evil, and even participation in it, the priest becomes not the voice of Christ calling us to transcend our weakness (to “come and die” as another German martyr would put it only a few years later), but that of the enemy, luring us into giving in to our weakness. One is left to wonder if attitudes like that of the village priest had not permeated throughout 1940’s Germany and Austria, if the war would not have come to a much quicker end, and many lives been saved.

In the end it is Fani– Jäggerstätter’s faithful wife– who, in spite of her fears of being left alone to raise three daughters, till the soil, and care for Franz’ elderly mother, understands her husband’s calling, telling him in Christ-like fashion “whatever you choose, I am with you.” For it is Christ who also says to us: “Look, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In this exhortation, Fani Jäggerstätter herself joins in Christ’s sufferings for the Good, an act which should also earn her the title of hero of the faith.

Franz Jäggerstätter, martyr of the Church, knew therefore not only the companionship of a faithful wife, but the partnership of the Holy Spirit, and like John and Peter understood that to fail to preach Christ in the midst of persecution is to adhere to the laws of men over the Law of God. What Jäggerstätter also knew was that our actions speak as loudly as our words, and that often our action for the sake of Christ will mean that we speak words of truth when called to do so, and refrain from speaking falsehoods, even when put to the ultimate test.

Jäggerstätter’s act of defiance not only resulted in his being martyred in the same manner as the Apostle Paul, but created enduring hardship for his surviving family. Moreover, had he recanted there might have been the chance to serve in a hospital and even save lives as an orderly (this is hinted at in the film, another form of the same temptation). But, in the end, it was his Christian character that testified to that particular reality, that one Truth that gives us true hope, and that allows us to find the strength to refrain from that which is evil. For from evil no true good ever comes. That reality that Franz understood is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the hope for eternal life in Christ.

This is however a point that will likely be missed by most if not all of the film’s critics, who will see Jäggerstätter’s sacrifice as merely a tortured wrestling between something concrete and real, versus something abstract and obscure (a good principle of sorts). But, for the Franz Jäggerstätter of history this was not a choice between the concrete and the abstract, or between the real and the metaphorical, it was a choice between the finite and the infinite, between the contingent and the necessary, between the shadow of this world that is fading away and the truly real world that is to come.

Franz Jäggerstätter : Martyr of the Church

In a culture given over to “ends-justifying-the-means” thinking it is good to note that Jäggerstätter’s tempters were wrong on two counts: one, in that his life did change the world, as every act of pure love does, and two, in that it did not remain hidden, as both his beatification and Malick’s movie demonstrate.

2 thoughts on “On Not Doing Evil So That Good May Come: The Martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter”

    1. Thank you for the kind comments George. We need more films about martyr’s like Jaeggerstaetter; to help strengthen us in times off trouble.

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