In June of 2007, a humble Austrian farmer was declared a saint by the Catholic Church. In 2019, director Terrence Malick is telling his story in A Hidden Life. Malick, the famously idiosyncratic filmmaker, tends to dive into movies exploring spirituality and transcendence and the warring dynamic between animal instinct and enlightened reason. His films have been all over the map, from the taut adaptation of war novel The Thin Red Line to the sprawling, multi-generational family drama of The Tree of Life. A few of his movies over the years have been based on real people; most have not. A Hidden Life is his first movie in a decade and a half based on a real person, and arguably the most direct.
The true story of Franz Jägerstätter is a fascinating one, and inspiring. A man who opposed joining the Nazis, he was executed for his resistance and, decades later, was granted the status of sainthood by the Catholic Church. His life, however, started very humbly.
He Came From A Poor, Rural Background
Jägerstätter was born in 1907 in the small northern Austrian town of Sankt Radegund. In fact, it couldn’t even have been considered a town, but a tiny village nestled close to the Bavarian German border. Rural life at the turn of the century was tough; Jägerstätter’s even more so as the illegitimate child of chambermaid Rosalia Huber and farmer Franz Bachmeier. In those days, having a child out of wedlock was hard for a woman and being in a rural, religious area made it even harder. Too poor to afford to wed, young Jägerstätter’s parents couldn’t remain together. With no husband to support her and no ability in those days for a woman to survive on her own with a child, Rosalia moved back in with her mother, Elisabeth Huber, and raised Franz with her help.
When Jägerstätter was still very young, Bachmeier, his biological father, was killed in World War I, freeing Rosalia up to be courted by other men. When Franz was 10, Rosalia married Heinrich Jägerstätter, who properly adopted young Franz and gave him his last name. Educated in his village’s one-room schoolhouse, Franz nonetheless became an avid reader, encouraged by the support of his step-grandfather.
As a teenager and young man, Franz Jägerstätter might have been considered wild: He was the first in their village to have a motorcycle, led a rowdy group that was arrested more than once for getting into brawls, and fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, Hildegard.
So how did go from that to becoming a saint? The answer: Franziska Schwaninger.
His Marriage To Franziska Schwaninger Reinvigorated His Faith
In truth, Jägerstätter’s life wasn’t that different from other young peasant men at the time, and eventually, he settled down. Franz worked as both a farmhand and miner until inheriting Henrich’s farmstead in 1933, and three years later, he married the deeply pious Franziska Schwaninger. The newlywed couple honeymooned with a pilgrimage to the Catholic seat of Rome and on that trip, Franz was inspired by his wife to begin studying the Bible and the lives of the saints in earnest.
The year he and Franziska were married, he became the local sexton, taking the Eucharist daily and reportedly turning down any offers of remuneration when he gave funeral services. As his faith grew stronger in the mid- to late-1930s, so did the rising tide of Nazism in Austria, putting the devout Jägerstätter at odds with his fellow Austrians. In 1938, after German troops moved into the country, Jägerstätter was the only member of his town to vote against the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Germany. Nonetheless, the town’s authorities suppressed his dissenting vote and declared it unanimously for the annexation in order to cooperate with the local German military.
As His Faith Grew, So Did His Opposition To The War
For the next few years, Jägerstätter remained openly anti-Nazi, his faith urging him to stick to what he felt was right rather than what was easy, even after getting conscripted into the German Wehrmacht in June 1940. During his time in military training, his inner conflict grew. The suppression of the church and reports of the Nazis’ widespread euthanasia program beginning to surface had forced Jägerstätter to question the morality of the Nazi mission and he found he could not support being a part of it. He refused to take the Hitler oath, unwilling to pledge his allegiance to Hitler or to Nazi ideals. More than ever, Franz Jägerstätter was convinced that participation in the war was a most grievous sin.
His frustration only grew after a conversation with the bishop of Linz in which the bishop avoided giving clear answers to the questions of morality that Franz asked, seemingly more content to keep his head down than take a compassionate, devout stance on the matter. “It is very sad,” Jägerstätter wrote at the time, “to hear again and again from Catholics that this war waged by Germany is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism… But now a question: what are they fighting in this Country – Bolshevism or the Russian People?” Hitler’s messages that the Nazi effort merely wanted to support and liberate the Russian people rang false to Jägerstätter, who shrewdly observed that no one who comes in true peace to another country comes with “machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them.”
After seven months of training, Jägerstätter was sent back to Radegund under a special exemption as a farmer and at the intervention of the town mayor. Though they had managed to deflect attention away from Franz for the time being, his pastor and other priests urged him not to refuse if he once again was outright drafted, just as the bishop had, citing his role as a husband and father and provider for his growing family. Instead of softening in his views toward Nazism or easing up on his faith, Jägerstätter joined the Third Order of Saint Francis in December of 1940 and began work at the local parish church. During that time, his military service was deferred again four times, Jägerstätter remaining a conscientious objector who refused to fight. His luck would not hold forever, however.
The Beginning Of The End Came In February 1943
Jägerstätter could not abstain from service indefinitely. Unable to defer being drafted like all the times before, he was finally called to active duty in February 1943, by now a father to three girls. Still, he refused to fight and once again refused to take the Hitler oath, offering himself up as a paramedic instead. His offer was rejected, and when he once again refused to take the Hitler oath, he was thrown into prison at Linz and two months later transferred to Berlin-Tegel. During that time a priest from his village visited him and tried to convince him to think of his family and serve in Hitler’s army but Franz remained steadfast in his convictions. He found renewed inspiration in the story of the Austrian priest, Franz Reinisch, who had been executed for also refusing to take the Hitler oath; Jägerstätter made his peace with the possibility of meeting the same fate. “I can only act on my own conscience,” he said to his attorney. “I do not judge anyone. I can only judge myself.” He then explained that, contrary to what others may think, he did have his family in mind: “I have considered my family. I have prayed and put myself and my family in God’s hands,” the devout man reasoned. “I know that, if I do what I think God wants me to do, he will take care of my family.”
On July 6th, 1943, Jägerstätter faced a military trial where he was accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining of troop morale) and found guilty of sedition. He was sentenced to death. By that time, Jägerstätter had fully accepted his fate; a local chaplain who visited him remarked upon the fact that Jägerstätter appeared completely tranquil in the face of death, at peace with himself and his decision.
On August 8, the night before his execution, Jägerstätter remained firm in his faith and his conviction, writing
“If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering…. People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”
He was beheaded by guillotine and cremated the next day, refusing to bow his head or raise his arm to Hitler to the last. Sixty-four years later, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal communication declaring Jägerstätter a martyr. In October of that year, Franz Jägerstätter was officially beatified by his beloved Catholic Church in a ceremony held at the New Cathedral in Linz.
A Hidden Life is in theaters on December 13, 2019.