By IHE Fellow David Walsh
Sometimes we have to be hit over the head to notice what we should have known all along. That was the effect on me of watching Terrence Malick’s new movie, A Hidden Life. Even though I had long paid attention to the role of dissidents in confronting totalitarian regimes, somehow I had missed the extraordinary case of Franz Jägerstätter. His significance as an inspiration to the anti-war resistance in the Vietnam era had also escaped me. Not even the beatification of Jägerstätter by Benedict XVI in 2007 had registered on my radar. Somehow it had all just floated past me as so many of the great and small events of life have done. But now, thanks to the arrival of A Hidden Life, I have gained a perspective on an extraordinary witness who lived far from the fame and notoriety by which we usually judge what matters.
Indeed the whole life of Blessed Franz might easily have been bypassed by history, as it is with many uncanonized saints. Even Jägerstätter himself thought that his solitary refusal to serve in the Nazi army, the only Austrian to do so, would be lost and forgotten. He was, after all, an unknown farmer in the Alpine hamlet of St. Radegund. Who would know or care if he refused to take an oath to Hitler, contrary to the overwhelming consensus of his nation and his church, and was summarily executed for his pains? His was an incomprehensible stand in a society largely inclined to yield to what it would not or could not resist. Within his village he was the only “No” vote against the Anschluss. His subsequent refusal to serve meant certain death and nothing but misery for the wife and children he left behind. What could bring a man to step so far out of line with the whole world in which he found himself?
The movie follows the process by which this very ordinary person became capable of bearing extraordinary witness, for no one just wakes up one day and decides to become a martyr to conscience. It is the story of an inner life, that place where all of the important events emerge long before they become visible in the external world. Becoming a witness to truth is a gradual process by which inner conviction comes to outweigh the whole great world. Franz’s conscience responded to the call of God that convinced him that it was the only direction in which truth and goodness lay. No matter what the surrounding voices declared, he held fast to the reality he knew within. To become an accomplice in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime would have been to climb on board the shining train he had seen in his dream. It would have been to ignore the voice that said “This train is going to hell.”
Surely he was not alone in seeing that one could not lose one’s soul even if it meant risking or losing one’s life. Franz’s dream had been the reality many recognized, but few had dared to admit. Even the Church had turned its back on its duty not to temporize with evil. Out of fear for their own lives the local pastor and the bishop failed to support Franz’s determined refusal to serve. He alone held onto the truth of God that outweighed all purely mundane perspectives. Only the Nazi government took any real notice, as they elevated his trial from the provincial court in Linz to the Imperial setting in Berlin. There he was held in the Tegel prison, an institution that held a far more celebrated inmate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The transfer was surely an indication of the danger that Jägerstätter represented. In A Hidden Life, the light of truth finally shines on the regime that is itself under judgment, as its officials confront the unshakeable witness of one who obeys God rather than men.
Nothing of course was changed by Franz’s heroic stand that would be remembered only by his family and the few people who knew him. Yet his gesture was not lost to history. The reason why he is remembered deserves a place in the story, although it is not part of the film that would never have been made without it. It turned out that an American sociologist, named Gordon Zahn, who had received his Ph.D. in 1952 at The Catholic University of America (no less), went to Germany to conduct research for a book on German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. Zahn came across the Jägerstätter story and decided to devote a separate book to it, under the title, In Solitary Witness (1964). It was as a result of this work that the case was taken up by Archbishop Thomas Roberts, who hailed Jägerstätter as an incomparable guide to the teaching on war in the Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes. Without Zahn’s scholarly recounting of Jägerstätter’s life and death, supplemented by the documents and materials assembled by Erna Putz, one of the most important martyrs of the twentieth century would have been lost to memory. Instead, the effort begun by Zahn bore fruit when Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by Benedict XVI in the cathedral in Linz with his wife, Franziska, children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren looking on.
But perhaps the final lesson we must draw from this extraordinary witness can be taken from the title of Malick’s movie. While watching it I had wondered about why he had called it A Hidden Life, since none of the characters made any reference to the phrase. It is only at the end that we are given its source when the director inserts a quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch on the screen:
“ . . . for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Within a worldly perspective, Jägerstätter had lost it all, without accomplishing anything for himself, his family, or his country. His had been a solitary witness to conscience, apparently without impact. Yet it is on such unbidden and unacknowledged generosity that the whole good of the world depends. The only thing missing from that Eliot/Malick assessment is the condition that explains the conviction itself. That is, that in history nothing is lost from history for all that we do remains under the loving gaze of God, for whom there is no such thing as a hidden life.
David Walsh is professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America and author most recently of The Priority of the Person (Notre Dame Press, 2020).