Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Franz Jägerstätter

Franz Jägerstätter was someone who possessed the extraordinary courage necessary to resist the "banality of evil" of which Hannah Arendt wrote in her account of the Eichmann trial.

An Austrian farmer, Jägerstätter was the only person in his village to vote against the Anschluss--Hitler's annexation of Austria--in 1938. In 1939, he was drafted into the German army but refused to serve. As a consequence, he was imprisoned, first in Linz and then in Berlin. On August 9, 1943, he was beheaded for his defiance of the Nazi regime.

The pacifist scholar Gordon Zahn brought Jägerstätter's story to light in 1968 in a book entitled In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. It is said that Daniel Ellsberg read the book and was inspired to leak the Pentagon Papers to a reporter in hopes of hastening the end of the Vietnam War.

Currently on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles is the English version of a powerful play by Israeli writer Joshua Sobol recounting Jägerstätter's final days. The play--iWitness--raises the same kinds of questions about conscience and authority that Sophocles' Antigone raises. It is well worth seeing.

Jägerstätter's basis for resisting authority is summed up in this statement from one of his letters from prison: "For what purpose, then, did God endow all men with reason and free will if, in spite of this, we are obliged to render blind obedience?"