Thinking about Jägerstätter: the making of moral meaning

Terrence Malick’s recent film A Hidden Life depicts, as its title suggests, that of the Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter—a life which, in its apparent simplicity of purpose, and in its end, presents the viewer with a kind of moral fable, raising questions that could not, however, be more complex. While academic scholarship on Jägerstätter grows, and his own words are recorded in letters to his wife, what follows engages only the most overt facts and events of his life. For clarity of discussion, knowing these is sufficient to engage the question of what his sacrifice might signify to us today.

On its face, Jägerstätter’s life and death could not be more straightforward. Following the Anschluss of 1938, able-bodied Austrian men were called to serve the cause of the Third Reich, especially once World War II had broken out. Malick’s film initially presents the peasant Jägerstätter, a seemingly ingenuous but deep-feeling Catholic, leaving his wife and three daughters and the farming community of the Radegund mountains, to comply with mandatory military training. He appears wary, but compliant, finding camaraderie with like-minded countrymen, who approach the Nazi incursion on their lives in still uncommitted and perhaps naive terms. Jägerstätter is shown making light of the regulation bayonet training, puppeteering with straw dummies, turning inanimate objects of lethal duty into paragons of whimsical affection. It is a telling image, that recurs at the end of the long film, just before Jägerstätter goes, willingly, to the guillotine—as the viewer knows he must.
This word ‘must’, a sign of duty or obligation, is important because it will soon implicitly take two forms. Firstly, and most obviously, Jägerstätter must be condemned to death for defying Nazi demands made of him as a subject of the Reich. This is the legal register of his death qua execution, however much he or the viewer as a moral agent might deplore the death penalty for any crime, least of all Jägerstätter’s. But the second sense of ‘must’, which we could call an internal counterpoint to the external judicial one, lies with Jägerstätter himself: he must go willingly to his death just because he has consciously, even wilfully, chosen it, knowing it as the irrevocable consequence of what he has done, or failed to do. That is, he must follow and obey his own conscience, which obedience morally transcends the first ‘must’ attached to the punitive status of its consequence. This second sense of must results not so much in his execution—a mere description of his punishment—but rather in a morally saturated death that he has chosen, in all faith, as the most significant decision of his life.

Why does it hold this significance? Jägerstätter could have chosen otherwise, and thereby chosen the continuation of other goods: the love and care of and for his wife and children, or serving his conscientious objection in other ways. But instead he chooses this willed death at the hands of his own moral enemy: not merely the Nazi oppressor, but that part of his own conscience that, in another mind (perhaps mine, or yours), would prefer to take the easier option and choose whatever recourse preserves his life. The Western philosophical locus classicus for this kind of uncompromising moral attitude is Socrates’ acceptance of the penalty of death in the Apology, even though there Socrates initially appeals to the court for lighter sentencing before the verdict is irrevocably brought against him. Once it is, however, Socrates emphasises that he can see no acceptable moral choice between the honour of willing his own execution, and the dishonour of dissimulating his true moral feelings by resorting to the emotive manipulation of the jury. And this is because pursuing the latter course would itself be an instance of doing wrong. He says that “the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot” (Apology 38A-39D). Jägerstätter’s choice is similarly extreme, and perhaps to us incomprehensible. For much of Malick’s film, it is not clear whether Jägerstätter is merely confused, mentally clouded in a way Socrates is not, or in some sense morally Quixotic, carrying through a wager without a clear sense of a reason why. Who in their right mind could make the choice he makes?
Before considering his reasons, what in fact is Jägerstätter being punished for? This is where the radical simplicity of his moral wager could not be clearer—or more confounding. Jägerstätter has, as a conscript, refused to swear allegiance to the Führer. He has earlier signalled this intransigence: in the mountain village, after his initial training but before his explicit refusal, he has failed to perform the acts that in casual social contexts signify conformity to the new norm of submission to an occupying power (the Hitler salute, the donating of funds to the war effort). He refuses this submission because, as he makes clear to the local Catholic clergy (in fact, the bishop of Linz) with whom he has shared his doubts, he does not believe Hitler’s war is just. He therefore believes it is wrong, not merely misguided, to invade sovereign nations and attack their people, killing innocents and destroying the kind of seemingly idyllic lifeworlds Malick has so rhapsodically drawn in the Radegund mountains. Jägerstätter perceives these acts as intrinsically and not just adventitiously wrong, so that to tacitly support them is thus to do wrong himself.
Jägerstätter is able to morally place himself in the position of the Reich’s supposed enemies, who are no enemies to him but rather people he imagines are much like himself and his family in desiring to be left in peace, however different they might be in other ways. Jägerstätter’s implied argument with the priest or bishop (who cautiously empathises but otherwise treads the party line), hinges not merely on a religious intuition that is affronted by the demand to repudiate his Christian formation not to harm his neighbour. It is also a morally defensible claim that what the Nazi forces are doing is wrong, that he therefore cannot swear allegiance to the wrongdoer Hitler, and that his conviction of the rightness of his refusal to submit, considering its consequences, is imperative enough to him to override every other good and loved thing in his life. In this he is much like Socrates. That is, Jägerstätter is willing to trade everything he has and knows, for the singular sake of not betraying his conviction—that is indeed his and apparently no-one else’s, for no others in his milieu are willing to share it with him publicly, which is what makes all the difference.

Everyone around him is either confounded or confronted by his obdurate will to remain true to this sense of what is right (again, much as Socrates’ associates are). In the filmic telling, Jägerstätter does not necessarily universalise his conscientious objection to all coercive war; there might be other occasions where a will to kill the enemy is for him justified—such as for those engaged in defending themselves against the German depredations, in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Jägerstätter’s objection might not be absolute, but conditional on his own political context. But given that context, there is for him only one right position to hold, and this can only be expressed in his public resistance.

His wife (apparently in fact more religiously devotional than was Jägerstätter himself) sympathises, struggles but ultimately sustains and supports him in his single-minded stance. Her struggle is much more with her fellow villagers, who predictably ostracise her and their children because of Jägerstätter’s failure to conform. She doggedly perseveres, the children naturally unaware of the extent of their alienation. No-one really knows where all this disquiet will tend: could Jägerstätter be in some way pardoned, or let off with a lighter punishment? The often drunk and histrionic village headman, or mayor, who ostensibly holds some public moral authority and is charged with protecting the status quo, is an enthusiastic believer in the Fatherland and in speaking down to Jägerstätter takes on much of the racialized dogma and xenophobia Jägerstätter appears to have both resisted and judged as immoral, simply by his own force of character.

But here is where the moral status of Jägerstätter’s condemnation could not be more confounding. Surely, an objection could hold (and a number of personages do, including his own legal representative when it comes time to face the tribunal formalising his conviction), there is no practical point to his grandstanding. What does it achieve when, locked away with other political and social undesirables, no-one either witnesses or especially cares about his resistance? Even his own people are confused about it far more than they are minimally sympathetic (apart of course from his wife and perhaps his much-suffering mother). When the war will continue in any case, and his death make no difference to its prosecution, surely the welfare of his wife and family should be the more morally significant concern? On this view, Jägerstätter is simply throwing his life and others’ happiness away to no good purpose: his choice, on this reading, is not wrong so much as gratuitous and even stupid. Repeated scenes show Jägerstätter offered the opportunity to sign a single concessionary document that will effectively absolve him of wrong-doing, or certainly attenuate it. If he really disagreed with the war, he could go underground and join the clandestine resistance, as Hitler’s would-be assassins did. And, as noted, nor is Jägerstätter overtly painted as a pacifist, as someone who objects to lethal violence per se. So what drives him to this unremitting degree? To throw his own life on the great Nazi pyre of wilful, senseless destruction?
We have seen that Jägerstätter has given reasons that in their stark simplicity are impossible to mistake: because he does not believe the war is right, he cannot sincerely claim fidelity to its agents (personified in the person of Hitler). Does the crux of his claim lie then in its sincerity? Couldn’t he insincerely claim fealty, but then work to undermine the power it subserves? Of course he could, but then for Jägerstätter that would miss the moral point. If he claims allegiance he would be required to serve Nazi efforts in one form or another. A Nazi officer challenges him with the observation that, even in Berlin’s Tegel prison, where he waits tortuously for his trial, he polishes SS officer’s boots and fills the sandbags that will be used on whatever front to bolster Nazi defences. On this logic he already undermines his own resistance. What difference could there be in his merely signing his submission and doing the same thing (perhaps released and made to work as an orderly or driver), and not signing and still being forced to submit to the coercion of his Nazi tormentors?

Jägerstätter might justifiably think that because he is imprisoned and forced to do this work, his refusal of fidelity is the only means he has left to not merely express, but enact, his resistance: to continue to actually resist. So he is compelled not to sign, irrespective of the conditions in which he is coerced to act. But, again, what really justifies his will to resist if it otherwise makes no difference to the larger moral event of the war in which it is subsumed? If Jägerstätter really cared for others, and not only for principle, wouldn’t he take his chance of getting out of prison alive, to fight on the side of the right to which he appeals, as so many others did, and for which they too died—but in the very act of making a difference to the outcome of the war in a way Jägerstätter himself chooses not to.

Jägerstätter’s concern, as suggested, appears to have a cognitive basis: like Socrates, he refuses to do what he knows to be wrong. At this point a moral realist—someone who holds that there are mind-independent moral facts that it makes a difference ethically to know and understand as such—might be tempted to claim that what undergirds Jägerstätter’s decision is just the existence of these facts. Unlike others, he has because of their existence grasped the unadorned and absolute rightness of his judgement, and will see it through without compromise. He is, in this sense, a true Kantian deontologist without knowing it, especially inasmuch as his realisation has the force of reason rather than irrational belief. After all, Jägerstätter sees nothing so important to his life than to recognise this, and in this recognition all else falls away, including that very life. As Kant claimed, such a truth and its apprehension transcends the phenomenal world of affect, sentiment and partial preference, and partakes of noumenal reality as those things all fail to.

Viewed in this light, Jägerstätter’s will to what seems an otherwise pointless demise appears abstract and possibly mistaken. At least so it seems from a utilitarian, and secular, ethical perspective. After all, he is not an urbane intellectual, a political sophisticate, an ethicist. But he is a believer in God. Framed as it is within the lens of religious belief, and the faith that tests and tempers that belief in real-life ways, Jägerstätter’s conviction is configured ambiguously. Malick’s film, too, emphasises this religious, as well as existential, dimension of trust in a greater power, transcendental as well as moral, otherworldly and this-worldly, that lies somewhere between a theistic design behind these worst of human tribulations and an ultimate meaning, however elusive, to which the human animal can appeal as sanctioning his faith in what is true, good and right.
Franz’s wife Franzi perhaps personifies the former in a more traditional theistic sense (though she is not, significantly, forced to put her own life on the line as he is), while Franz himself, in his evident torment and possible doubt, seems to embody the great unanswered questions of all religious and moral questioning: what does all this suffering and strife mean, and is what I do, or don’t do, ultimately of any meaning within it? When Jägerstätter is finally sentenced to death (the judge appears just as doubtful of the rightness of his own role in this deterministic machine as the bishop has been), and the endgame of his resistance is played out to its last, mute appeal, there is a palpable sense in which we, the audience, have been witness to a terrible exercise in futility and little more. Jägerstätter buys his conviction at such a great cost, but what does the conviction amount to beyond his solipsistic fidelity to it? (One other prisoner says he is charged with treason, but he seems to be a sole case.) A principled man lives by his principle, and is executed for it as an inconvenience: end of dismal tale.

Should we care, not so much about his principle, but his intransigence in holding it? Consider again the nature of his objection. Jägerstätter says that he is willing to die for the sake of resisting wrong-doing, and the war is wrong. Is he wrong about its wrongness? If we consider the degree of unjustified slaughter the Nazis unleased in Europe and much of the world, his conviction is hard to fault, and this remains true even considering that at the time of his resistance and execution he would have had no means of knowing its full extent, most obviously, in the Holocaust. So Jägerstätter seems doubly historically justified in his resistance. That his death made no concrete difference, that it brought no benefit, to the sufferers of that violence again suggests that Jägerstätter is protesting its wrongness not on utilitarian grounds, but deontological ones: that he refused, in obeying his moral conscience, not only to do wrong but more significantly to tacitly affirm its prosecution by a failure to protest against it. We have seen that his protest makes no transactional difference to the wrong itself. But it does retroactively act by pointing to the fact that, by the failure of a collective resistance (or one that if large enough might have made a real difference) something as evil as the Holocaust was enabled to occur. That was wrongness enough, and Jägerstätter’s public resistance, long after the event, is substantially vindicated on those grounds alone.

Here empirical history confirms the deontologically necessary intuition to never compromise moral duty, and so makes it right in this contingent sense as well. But this doesn’t get at the heart of what Jägerstätter finally means by the wrongness and rightness he is willing to die for. In true Kantian fashion he seems to insist on the idea that it is intrinsically wrong to repudiate one’s own conscience, not merely because of these various contingent effects (which after all he cannot foresee when he makes his decision), but because to do so is also to wrong the self, and indeed the most important part of the self, the part that in being more morally significant than any other of the self’s goods or preferences, overrides them all and thereby sustains the integrity not merely of that moral self but the very notion of the normative as such. With Kant, Jägerstätter is not merely saying that it is good to resist evil, to the best of one’s capacity. He is saying it is unoptional if we want to sustain morality—on whatever metaphysical construal—tout court.

This seems to get closest to the crux of what Jägerstätter wants to impress, however hopelessly, upon the lifeworld into which he has been thrown. His martyrdom, in its moral as opposed to its soteriological Christian register, suggests that in order to keep the good alive, it is necessary to be willing to give one’s life even to an idea of the right irrespective of its other effects. Those who fail to will this sacrifice are tacitly doing bad, or enabling its hegemony, inasmuch as they resist overt, explicit refusal. In this sense, Jägerstätter’s sacrifice is properly existential in that by doing by not-doing, in refusing to do anything he knows is wrong, he succeeds in doing moral work of the highest order. And while not utilitarian in motive, the effects of a purely deontological will to refusal can achieve remarkable historical shifts. If, counterfactually, Jägerstätter with everyone else in the Austria—or France, Czechoslovakia or Poland—of his time had been casually willing to not obstruct Nazi totalitarianism, the moral climate that conduces to a totalised control would have allowed any given value- or truth-claim to become socially normative, and its effects permissible. In our own time, the acts of a Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, or Snowden, Manning and Assange, in refusing the failure to resist, might well prove in time to have a similar moral valence.

Jägerstätter did not require the metaphysical sanction that, intellectually, might suppose his resistance to be justified by a metaphysical guarantee of its rightness. The notion of such a guarantee is precisely what a moral anti-realist would reject as philosophically gratuitous. But it is important not to confuse this philosophical reservation with the thing that Jägerstätter incontrovertibly did need in order to see through his singular conviction to its end. He needed the personal faith—in himself, his own intuition of truth—to know that there are non-negotiable moral truths from which other moral claims derive, which must be safe-guarded and honoured, if need be, to the death. In this sense, his sacrifice is singular, but it is not senseless in the way it might have seemed. Its rarity and extremity of expression are what make it difficult to rationalise, but considered in these moral terms it can be conceived as eminently, quite literally, sense-making.

Because of this, it is possible that the religious form in which Jägerstätter’s life and conviction was conceptually and existentially structured, obscures its properly ethical basis. The religious dimension provides the cultural context in which his act of moral faith can be traditionally construed, while a Kantian context appears to provide it with an intellectual basis. But I would suggest that Jägerstätter’s Catholic faith in a beneficent God is implicitly serving his more compelling intuition that his sense of rightness is the one thing he finally has in his own (rather than God’s) power and possession, in an otherwise deterministic situation, to not merely represent but to embody as such, to incarnate in his very body.

His success in doing so does not make his act (of non-action) normative. Very few will be called to that degree of faith in extremis. For this reason also it is hard to conceive of his sacrifice as a Kantian categorical imperative when it is not universalizable, despite its deontological cast. And if Jägerstätter does right by holding to the right, it is not God who guarantees it, but Jägerstätter himself, in his own human faith in what he knows to be true, even if no-one else (especially when no-one else) will accompany him there. That he was, decades later in 2007, canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict is, admirably, the means for the Catholic institution to recognise his greatness. But his moral greatness itself, in all its dire torment, came from the mortal man alone. It’s a greatness that doesn’t need transcendental sanction of either religious or metaphysical kinds. Rather, its greatness lies in the immanent making of moral meaning, failing which it can all too imperceptibly slip away.

Martin Kovan

Martin Kovan is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His short and long-form essays, articles, fiction, poetry, and interviews, have been regularly published in Australia, and in the US, UK, France, Hong Kong, India, and Czech Republic. His philosophical monograph A Buddhist Theory of Killing: a philosophical exposition was published by Springer in 2022.

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