Franz Jägerstätter and Leopold Engleitner

There are few books that I have so eagerly awaited as this biography of Leopold Engleitner from the province of Upper Austria. Let's not fool ourselves; not every book that is published is of value. Books often appear that merely reproduce facts already known to us or are riddled with errors. So it is not always easy for readers to obtain a clear picture. Too often the title of a book promises much when what it contains is in reality nothing more than an artificially padded out newspaper article.

By Andreas Maislinger

This book is different. At long last we can read the story of this Austrian, one of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the past two decades the rising popularity of oral history has led to a wealth of life stories of people from all kinds of backgrounds being recorded for posterity. Historical research discovered ordinary people. In the process the (mostly young) historians covered every conceivable occupational group. But the majority of the biographies recorded and published dealt with people who followed left-wing, socialist or communist ideals. By way of example I need only mention the wide range of literature and numerous documentaries on Austrians in the Spanish Civil War.

The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses has by no means been ignored by Austrian historical research. The comprehensive documentation on resistance and persecution in the individual federal provinces published by the Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes (DÖW, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance) deals extensively with Jehovah's Witnesses. But that was all there was until the "amateur historian" Bernhard Rammerstorfer came along and wrote a long overdue book about one of Jehovah's Witnesses who was persecuted by the National Socialists. And he has written a gripping book. This opinion is shared by the historian Detlef Garbe, and he should know, since he is the author of the definitive work on Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich, "Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium."

Not only has Bernhard Rammerstorfer managed to write a gripping story but he has spared no effort in following up every detail, however small. The index forced him to verify the spelling of names and to document other statements made by Leopold Engleitner as well. This meticulousness is (unfortunately) often missing from oral-history books.

Franz Jägerstätter is the real reason why I have looked forward to this book so much. I was born in 1955 in St. Georgen on the border between Salzburg, Upper Austria, and Bavaria. When I was a child, my father told me the story of a farmer from St. Radegund who was executed for refusing to fight for Hitler. I remember that even then there were rumors that he had had close contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah's Witnesses were then known. In fact, both his Aunt Maria and his cousin Johann Huber were Jehovah's Witnesses. Unfortunately, very little is known about Franz Jägerstätter's relationship to the Jehovah's Witnesses. In her biography of Jägerstätter, Erna Putz writes that he "had numerous theological discussions with them," which "would have been one of the reasons why he took a deeper interest in religious problems."

Leopold Engleitner recalls a conversation he had with Johann Huber. Shortly after the Second World War, Franz Jägerstätter's cousin told him about the problems he had encountered in St. Radegund following his resignation from the Catholic Church. According to Engleitner's recollection of Huber's statements, the latter was no longer even able to buy milk in the village. The only person who did not spurn him because he had become one of Jehovah's Witnesses was Jägerstätter's mother, and Huber was able to pay the family regular visits. Although Jägerstätter is said to have been rather disparaging at first, he later began to ask serious questions. A study of the Bible in the strictest sense did not take place, however. Engleitner takes care to emphasize this distance and has no intention of claiming Franz Jägerstätter for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Although the farmer from the Austrian Innviertel became one of the best known opponents of Hitler following the publication in the United States in 1964 of the book In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter by Gordon Zahn, I would still like to present a short biography of him.

Franz Jägerstätter was born on May 20, 1907, in St. Radegund near the town of Braunau on the river Inn in Upper Austria. His parents were too poor to marry. During the first years of his life he was brought up by his grandmother. In 1917 his mother married the farmer Heinrich Jägerstätter, who adopted Franz as his son. While living on his adoptive father's farm, he was encouraged to read by a grandfather. Franz had the reputation of being a lively, happy-go-lucky boy. In 1936 he married the deeply religious Franziska Schwaninger. The marriage, which was by all accounts unusually happy, produced three daughters: Rosalia, Maria, and Aloisia. In 1938, Franz Jägerstätter voted against the anschluss (annexation) of Austria to the German Reich. In 1940 he was called up. He completed his basic training and swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler. In April 1941 he was exempted from military service at the instigation of the mayor, who maintained that his was a reserved occupation. He made use of the time he had until his second call-up in February 1943 to prepare his decision to declare himself a conscientious objector and to refuse to join the German Wehrmacht. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was executed in Berlin.

The film director Axel Corti based his film Der Fall Jägerstätter on the above-mentioned book by the American pacifist Gordon Zahn. The leading role was played by Kurt Weinzierl. The film excited such interest that it was repeated on Austrian television after only five months. Franz Jägerstätter's steadfast refusal to serve in the German Wehrmacht under Adolf Hitler caused a controversy that still rages today. In the course of the debate, which has often been intense, his attitude has repeatedly been compared to that of Jehovah's Witnesses, although such comparisons were never more than mere allusions. In order to evaluate these comparisons, what has been needed more than anything else is a biography of one of Jehovah's Witnesses whose study of the Bible made it impossible for him to be "a soldier of Christ and at the same time a soldier of the National Socialists," just as Franz Jägerstätter was.

This biography is now available, and we can compare Jägerstätter's actions with those of Leopold Engleitner. Both came from poor backgrounds and were born at almost the same time. Both were raised as Catholics and searched for answers different from those offered in their immediate surroundings. Whereas Leopold Engleitner found his answers with Jehovah's Witnesses, Franz Jägerstätter never left the Catholic Church and was locked in conflict with his parish priest and even with the bishop of Linz.

It is in this conflict that the principal difference between him and Jehovah's Witnesses becomes evident. After all, Jägerstätter had to resist pressure from his church and force himself to make the decision he made, whereas Engleitner and other Jehovah's Witnesses had the approbation of the leaders of their religious community. True though this is, the chapter "Courageous Change of Religion in the 1930s" in this book shows that the resistance Engleitner had to overcome was every bit as strong as it was for Jägerstätter. Despite the support he received from his brothers in the faith, Engleitner had to assert himself in an environment that was at the least disapproving and at worst downright hostile toward his convictions. Jägerstätter and Engleitner held opposing political views. Had they met, they would have found common ground on the subject of serious Bible study but would have disagreed about Dollfuss and Schuschnigg. My personal wish is that supporters of Franz Jägerstätter and Jehovah's Witnesses meet to discuss the similarities and differences between these two opponents of National Socialism, both of whom were motivated by the Bible. We only have fragments of information concerning discussions between Jägerstätter and Jehovah's Witnesses, but this new book offers the interested reader the chance to bring Jägerstätter and Engleitner together for an imaginary dialogue