Austrian farmer executed for defying Nazis on path to sainthood

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A poor Austrian farmer who was executed by the Nazis for refusing to fight for Hitler took the first step on the path to sainthood when he was beatified yesterday by a Vatican cardinal at Linz Cathedral, not far from the village where he was born.

Franz Jägerstätter was deeply obscure in his life and no less so in death. But the last man to speak to him before he was executed, a priest called Father Jochmann, said he was the only saint he had ever met. Yesterday, the Catholic Church endorsed his view.

Pacifism may seem an obvious choice for a religion founded on loving one's neighbour as oneself and turning the other cheek, but millions of practising Christians fought on both sides during the Second World War, encouraged by army chaplains. So, to put a man on the road to sainthood because he was a pacifist marks, according to Canon Paul Oestreicher of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, "a historic volte-face – there is no modern precedent".

Jägerstätter was born in 1907 in the village of St Radegund in Upper Austria, not far from Hitler's birthplace. His parents, a farmer and a chambermaid, were too poor to marry. After his father died in the First World War, Franz's mother married another villager and family life improved. The boy received only seven years of schooling but became an avid reader.

As a young man, he got a girl pregnant and had to marry her. His relationship with Franziska, who bore him three daughters, proved to be the rock of his life. He was the first father in the village to own a motorbike and to take his children out for walks. As he matured, religion became more important to him and he became the sacristan of the village church. His decision not to fight was arrived at gradually.

In 1940, aged 33, he was conscripted into the German army and completed basic training. Returning home in 1941 on an exemption as a farmer, he began examining closely the religious reasons for refusing military service. He studied the issues in detail and at one point wrote a series of questions about the morality of the war that he discussed with his bishop. He emerged from that conversation saddened that the bishop seemed afraid to confront the issues.

The mass of Austrian Catholic opinion was reconciled to fighting a war to defeat godless communism – overlooking the fact that Nazism was just as godless. But Jägerstätter refused to accept the Nazis' aims. "It is very sad to hear from Catholics that this war is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism," he wrote.

"But what are they fighting? Bolshevism or the Russian people? When our Catholic missionaries went to a pagan country to make them Christians, did they advance with machine-guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them?"

He added: "What Catholic can dare to say these raids which Germany has carried out in several countries constitute a just and holy war?"

In 1943, after being called to active duty, Jägerstätter reported to his army base and refused to serve. A military court rejected his assertion that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic and sentenced him to death for undermining morale. His offer to serve as a paramedic was ignored. A priest from his village visited him in jail and tried to talk him into serving, but to no avail.

Jägerstätter was guillotined on 9 August 1943. "I am convinced it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life," he wrote before his execution. In a final letter to his wife, he asked forgiveness and said he hoped his life would be accepted by God as "atonement not just for my sins but also for the sins of others".