A Hidden Life
By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2020

Acclaimed film director Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life has brought renewed and needed attention to the life of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian husband, father, and farmer whom the Third Reich martyred for his refusal to swear an oath to Hitler.

Malicks’s cinematic style is off-putting to some. Voices are detached from the actors, scenes are shown in out-of-sequence snippets, and the camera constantly sweeps in and around the actors like Malick attached cameras to guardian angels. Also, the movie is long — just a few minutes short of three hours.

All of this, however, is combined with incredibly beautiful and sometimes long shots of nature, farming, children and lovers playing, and towering mountains. I was reminded of a comment by a critic about another Malick movie. He said there was not a single shot in the movie he would not mind having framed and mounted in his office, even if he did not understand it. Fortunately, the story told in
A Hidden Life is not difficult to understand, even if some viewers might struggle to understand why Jagerstatter acted as he did.

Franz Jagerstatter lived in Sankt Radegund, a small town high in the mountains of Austria near the German border. Even today the town has only a few hundred people. As a young man, his life was typical, though he had a child out-of-wedlock. A few years later he became more serious about his Catholic faith, perhaps in part to marrying the deeply religious Franziska. The newlyweds spent their “honeymoon” making a pilgrimage to Rome.

Jagerstatter publicly opposed Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. When a referendum on the annexation was held Jagerstatter was the only person in the town to vote against it. Village authorities hid his vote and reported that the local vote was unanimous. Because farmers were needed to support the war effort Jagerstatter was deferred for military service several times. He was finally called up in 1940 and completed basic training. He refused to take the oath to Hitler, but authorities apparently overlooked his refusal and sent him home under the farmer exemption.

His experience at basic training and reports that came in about Nazi regime made him further question not just the regime, but the morality of the of the war itself, including claim that the war and Hitler were necessary to stop the Communists. The village began to turn on him and his family. Meanwhile, they lived under the ominous threat that someday he would have to face authorities for his position.

In addition to his wife and three young daughters, Jagerstatter cared for his mother, a sister-in-law, and a godson whose father had died. He understood his obligations to them and his responsibilities to his community. He asked his priest for guidance. The priest reminded Jagerstatter of his familial obligations, but arranged a meeting with the bishop. The bishop advised Jagerstatter of his “responsibilities” to civil authorities and his “far greater” responsibilities for his own life and his family’s.

Jagerstatter was called for active duty in 1943. He refused combat duty and the Hitler oath. He was later deported to Berlin, far from the remote mountain village of Sankt Radegund. Within a month he was sentenced for “undermining military morale” and executed by beheading.

When the course of history turns, so do opinions. When the war ended and the Nazi atrocities were revealed, people who had supported or made peace with the Hitler regime found ways to praise or at least acknowledge those who stood firm against the defeated reich. Not so with Jagerstatter. In the eyes of the village and his fellow countrymen, Jagerstatter’s “crime” was not that he refused to give an oath to Hitler. It was the fact that he abandoned his family and community. In addition, in their eyes, his actions — because he based them on the Catholic faith — implied that the rest of them had made the morally wrong choice.

In truth, like St. Thomas More before him, Jagerstatter did not judge his neighbors. He only followed his own conscience. Nevertheless, he remained unpopular and relatively unknown. When Gordon Zahn set out to write a book about Jagerstatter in the late 1950s to early 1960s many of the subjects interviewed still had bitter or ambivalent views about him. Why couldn’t he just say the words and spare his family? Doesn’t Paul tell the Romans to obey civil authority? What good did it do anyway? He didn’t stop Hitler and the war continued.

This last question goes to the heart of Malick’s depiction of Jagerstatter’s life. Does a “hidden life” make any difference? Eventually, through the work of people like Zahn, Jagerstatter’s story did become known. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared Jagerstatter a martyr and he was later beatified. His widow, still alive and living in Sankt Radegund, along with his four daughters — including the child born out-of-wedlock — were at the beatification ceremony.

Even if it had never become known, Jagerstatter’s choice would still have mattered. To God, every “hidden” life is significant beyond our imagination. Jagerstatter trusted that what mattered in his life was obedience to God above all. The rest would be in God’s hands.

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The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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