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
By Andreas Maislinger
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
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
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