Gordon Zahn talks with Studs Terkel ; part 1
BROADCAST: Jan. 15, 1965 | DURATION: 00:33:35
Discussing the book "Solitary Witness" and interviewing the author Gordon Zahn. This interview is done in two parts.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Why does a man say "No" to Caesar? Why is it every now and then someone comes along who is different, who says "No," whose conscience is so sharp, that he says "No" to the extent that it costs him his life sometimes? And why is it that a great many go along and don't let it touch their conscience or their lives? This is a question, of course, that troubles everyone centuries, it seems. There's a book, I think one of most remarkable books of recent years, written by Gordon Zahn. Dr. Zahn teaches sociology at Loyola, Dr. Zahn you've been living, you've been visiting professor at Manchester, too.
Studs Terkel And I know you've been involved with the developments, ecumenical developments in Rome, Vatican II, but this book of yours, which is part, which I would describe as a theological detective story, concerns a man named Franz Jagerstatter, it's a new book, it's called "In Solitary Witness: A Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter" and it's published by Holt Rinehart and Winston, and it deals with an, almost a semi-literate, an untutored upper-Austrian peasant, who, of all the people in his village, said "No" with Anschluss, "No" to Hitler throughout, and finally was beheaded. Perhaps you will tell how the story attracted you, theologian/sociologist.
Gordon Zahn Well, I would say that probably the basic attraction it held for me is that my own position with war, concerning war, attracted me to the question of other people who had refused to support the war. I did research in '56 to '57 in Germany, and raised the question "Were there any Catholics who had refused?," particularly Catholics who had been involved in the "Friedensbund Deutscher Katholicans", the Peace League of German Catholics, a very strong peace movement between the two wars, and quite by accident someone referred me to a book dealing with an Austrian priest who had been executed in 1942 because he refused to take the military
Gordon Zahn Yes, Father Reinisch. He refused to take the military oath which included the phrase "unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler," and he said he could not take that kind of oath. It was an inspiring story, but in reading the book I came across an Appendix chapter about a man he called Franz II, a peasant, a married man with three infant children, and so forth. And I guess my layman's bias entered in here, because I thought, well, however much we might admire a Reinisch, we should realize that his special calling as a priest and the amount of education he had had could account for him reaching this type of decision and carrying it through to the end. But how does something like this happen to a peasant? And that's what I wanted to study more deeply.
Studs Terkel So this became a story. So you went to this village where he lived in upper Austria, Sankt Radegund, and you went about, and this man's name was Franz Jagerstatter, he was beheaded eventually.
Gordon Zahn Yes, I spent five weeks there in the summer of 1961. I had visited the village in '57 just to meet the widow and the pastor and decided at that time that I'd have to come back and do a more thorough study. As a sociologist, I have two points of interest that led me to it and justified my getting a grant from the American Philosophical Society, the first being that of the social deviant, a man who stands completely alone against all the pressures of society. And secondly, I was interested, too, in the community aspect. What do these people remember about him now, and what do they think about him now, what do they remember of their evaluations at the time, and so forth. This was really what I thought might also give an interesting facet to the research story, and so I spent five weeks there learning to listen to the dialect, which is not too closely related to the German I knew, but finally managed to reach a point where they would talk to me and I could understand them.
Studs Terkel Before we ask of their reactions, you know, and their memories and that's in this book and it's very powerfully, dramatically offered, very simply offered, as Dwight Macdonald says. Dwight Macdonald, in speaking of this book "In Solitary Witness", says he doesn't "know which to admire more, the remarkable job of research Mr. Zahn has done, or the sentimentality, the loving truthfulness with which he reconstructs Franz Jagerstatter's life and personality." Let's go to the beginning of this man, Franz. He was just a normal farm boy in this community. He was lively, full of life, courted girls. He had the village's first motorcycle, gay blade.
Gordon Zahn Yes, this is what they remember most about him, I think. Person after person said he had the first motorcycle, and his wife had that snapshot of him on his motorcycle that I was able to get to include in the book. And they remember him as a rather lusty fellow, an aggressive man I would imagine, because in these little villages the unmarried young men of the late teens and early 20s, the "buschen" so they're called over there, usually are regarded as something of a unit, an age group, and at the time that Jagerstatter was a young man, it was customary for these gangs, if we would call them, from each little village to engage in warfare with gangs from neighboring villages, and everyone seemed to point out that Jagerstatter was one of the most effective of the fighters in his age group, and actually the leader of his age group, or one of the leaders.
Studs Terkel And what was it within him that made him, after his marriage he became the very devout church sexton, it was the Catholic community, say "No" first Anschluss, right? First Anschluss, then taking the military oath, finally saying "No" altogether.
Gordon Zahn Yes, this is part of the mystery of the story. There's a myth that's been built up in the village that is sort of the reverse of the "good man brought down by the bad woman" story, that here was this wonderful guy, suddenly met and married a very devout, highly religious woman and the myth is that she changed him so that he started going to church regularly--not only regularly, he always did that, I mean he did what everybody else did in the village, but he started going every day, receiving communion every day, and actually became a sexton. And people say that, of course, it was his marriage to this woman that made such a religious fanatic out of him. My--
Gordon Zahn Yes, as describing his stand more. They don't say he was a "fanatiker," but they say that he was so "fanatisch" about his religious commitment and so forth. My own evidence, I think, seems to indicate that he had already changed before he met this woman, before he married her, and this is probably the reason why he married her and chose her as his wife. Now, why did he say "No"? This is, again, a rather interesting mixture, it's certainly political opposition. There are elements, let us say, of, well, Austrian patriotism that come through in some of his writings and some of the questions he asked. He was opposed to Hitler before Hitler came to Austria, and he had told his friends that he would resign from the "Bauernbund," the local farmers' political organization, if they're, if the Austrian party gave any kind of sign of coming to terms with Hitler. And when they did, when Chancellor Schuschnigg visited Hitler, he did resign in protest from this. So there was this political dimension, but certainly far more important to him was a religious dimension. He felt that the Nazi regime was an immoral regime, that everything about it was immoral, and the war in particular was an unjust war, he felt, and therefore as a Christian he couldn't support it. He kept talking about the Nazis persecuting his church and the fact that he would not be entitled to the full privileges of the state even if he did risk his life in fighting for the state. Perhaps he was--there are sometimes indications that he thought of it as more than just immoral, that he saw it as actually diabolical. He has one, in one of his commentaries he makes reference to a prediction by one of the more prophetic writers of recent years in the church, who said that in the year 2000 Lucifer was going to be released on the earth again, and before that, lesser devils. So the implication is, "All right, we've got this lesser devil now and we must fight him."
Studs Terkel This--[unintelligible], he's still--even though this is religious commitment and, fine, there's no doubt he was influenced by readings, teachings of the saints and all, yet there's this commitment over and beyond that, too, of saying "No" to authority--
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Studs Terkel What of course impresses me, Dr. Zahn, about this book as you said earlier, you might better understand a Father Reinisch, priest, you even mention Thomas More here, you refer to Robert Bolt's play, but here was an uncommon Thomas More, but this is the common quote unquote "common man," who through the centuries has always, see, "I'm just doing my job. I'll go along. What can I do?" A family man, not too much academic education, though his letters are quite beautiful. We'll talk about that later, perhaps. But this guy they call the common man, of all in the community, despite all pressures on him, said "No." This is the fascinating
Gordon Zahn And he said "No" to the most important religious figure in his diocese, too. He had a personal meeting with the bishop, in which the bishop, as it was recounted later by someone to whom the bishop apparently described it, held all the principles of moral theology in front of his eyes and told him that it was his duty to consider his family first and to fulfil his obligations as citizens, and so forth. And even then he said "No." It wasn't as it sounds, as we summarize it here, that he was this mind blocked off by some proud assurance that he and only he was right. He was troubled by the fact that he might be sinning by not giving in to authority, particularly in this religious authority. He was troubled by the fact that maybe he was, in a sense, committing suicide, and this, of course, would be sinful in his eyes. He didn't have all the answers, but he had this particular answer, and he couldn't find any reason for bending.
Studs Terkel Because as we think of this, of his saying "No," there's so many factors in this book that attract you way back even in the small way, in the last Passion Play the village ever had, he, Jagerstatter, played the role of a soldier, a soldier who accepts Christ and says "No" to Caesar.
Gordon Zahn I don't recall exactly how it was, whether he played the part of a Roman soldier who was involved in the crucifixion of Christ, or whether he was one of the soldiers who was astonished by what happened at the time of the crucifixion, but the fact that he played the soldier was I thought interesting.
Studs Terkel But even though the highest diocese in figure and his mother and friends and finally the Nazi, the military soldiers, you are not--at this point--you don't hold yourself so responsible for your government's action in a way. This is, it's more than about Franz Jagerstatter, it's about us, isn't it?
Gordon Zahn Yes. It's about what I would hope we should again become, that what his case illustrates, I think, is an almost primitive Christian insistence upon forming one's conscience about what one is asked to do or ordered to do or decides to do. And then once this conscience is formed to the best of one's ability, accepting the responsibility to follow it through to the end regardless of what that end may be, and it is a primitive Christian response that he's presenting here, and I suspect that there will be some of our more contemporary sophisticated Christians who will find it sort of a crude over-generalization of things that they will--they probably won't join with the villagers in thinking this man must have been mentally unbalanced, although I suspect there will be many who will think that, too. But they will just say, "Well, it's unfortunate he wasn't better educated, because if he were, he would have been able to draw the right distinctions" and so
Studs Terkel Doesn't this appear often the case, and you imply this, indeed you touch upon this throughout your work, the fact that here they were saying, "Well, he's either crazy or a saint." And perhaps neither. He might, indeed, be a saint, but perhaps just this man fulfilling his moral potential as a man in this instance, as a man and a Christian, but this rationalization is easy. Throughout the element of rationaliza--he could have taken that easy way out. All he had to do was sign.
Gordon Zahn Yes, even in the last day, apparently. You know, this always struck me as something of a false note. I didn't think the Nazis operated that way, that here's a man who had been condemned and on the afternoon of his execution he could still have signed a paper and gotten at least out of the execution, but it was a military case all the way through. He never fell into the hands of the Gestapo or the Nazi party apparatus, and so this probably had much to do with it, and all along the line he seems to have succeeded in impressing everyone who had some control over him with the sincerity, these--chaplain after chaplain put themselves out to try to convince him that he shouldn't do this. His defense attorney went to what, looking back I consider very unusual extremes.
Studs Terkel Feldmann.
Gordon Zahn Yes. Risking his own neck possibly to see if he couldn't possibly save this man, and then even the military officials who constituted the trial court were so involved that it is quite likely that when they handed down their sentence, they said, "All right, we'll keep it open if at any point he changes his mind, reopen the case."
Studs Terkel Doesn't this have a special kind of significance, this very phenomenon that to the very last moment even those who did condemn him sought to get him out, as though this man is saying something to them that's bothering him, way, way back, even the most diabolical, that there's something else to life? There's something else to man? He's saying, you know, in saying "Yes" to authority, that they didn't know what to do
Gordon Zahn That's true. If that is there, and I think it is, if that is one of the meanings in this story, then of course he does--he has accomplished what this one priest said he wanted to do, that he wanted to demonstrate to the Nazis that what they were doing was wrong. He wanted to give his life in reparation for the sins of others, this type of--and which is a very, well, religious motivation more than a political one.
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Gordon Zahn It's one, incidentally, that we have not used too often in recent decades and possibly even centuries. I know I was talking to a friend of mine, a Catholic judge up in Minnesota some years ago, and he was as, I had mentioned that I was going to use the quotation from Reinhold Schneider that I do use at the beginning. I've been very much impressed by it. He says, "There is no hiding the fact that it is much harder to be a Christian today than it was in the first centuries, and there is every reason to predict that it will be even more difficult in the near future. When it becomes the 'sacred duty' of a man to commit sin, the Christian no longer knows how he should live. There remains nothing else for him to do but bear individual witness--alone. And where such witness is, there is the kingdom of God." Well, when I mentioned this quotation to my friend, he said that it's a shame but that the term" witness" has almost been left entirely to the Protestants, and that Catholics have not given enough--used the term "witness" or the related term "testimony," give testimony of your faith often enough, so that's why I chose the title.
Studs Terkel "In Solitary Witness" of course, alone, you know, I remember in working out my review of your book, which obviously moved me tremendously, I was thinking of this hymn, this early American hymn, "You've got to cross that lonesome valley and you've got to do it by yourself. No one else can cross it for you."
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Gordon Zahn Yeah. This is, at the last moment there's no one else to turn to. And it is in his case, certainly, and I suspect in the case of every martyr that has been known and even saints, possibly who haven't been martyred, there's that personal confrontation with their conception of God that has to
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, as a non-devout man myself, that is, non- devout in the orthodox sense of the word, this is even beyond--it is, here is a case of religious commitment, deep religious commitment, and yet it's not removed as you point out later from Thoreau, of whom he never heard, a man first subject afterwards.
Gordon Zahn Yes. This is I think true, that Christian witness of this, religious witness of this type is not so completely divorced from the other forms of total commitment and total sacrifice that are not related necessarily to Christian or religious motivations just because a man is a good man. He may suddenly feel that there's something he can't do, and he's going to refuse even though it means prison or worse.
Studs Terkel And yet here specifically though, was a Christian, was a devout Catholic, was Franz Jagerstatter, who said, "I cannot serve two masters. I'm--as a Christian I must choose Christ rather than Caesar." In a way.
Gordon Zahn Yes. He saw it as a choice between two communities, which I like as a sociologist, needless to say. The National Socialist folk community and the community of saints, and he says, "Some people might be able to reconcile the demands made by both of them, but to do that you must be a pretty good magician. I can't do it. Therefore I prefer to choose a community of saints over the folk community."
Gordon Zahn He kept peeling off the things, not doing any more than was actually required at this moment. And then finally everything is peeled away, there was nothing left, and then he had to go through the thing.
Studs Terkel Well, since we're talking about acrobats saying "No" and "Yes," one of the most powerful discoveries I made in reading your book was the area itself. He's from Sankt Radegund, this village northeast, now within a radius of what, 30 miles, were three men born: Hitler. Eichmann. Jagerstatter. Isn't this the story of the human race?
Gordon Zahn Yes, I see it as, again, this is non-sociological, but I at least suggested the possibility that this could be a mystical dimension that obviously we can't reach here. It is the human race in general, and more specifically to me, it's [just a?] [this?] Confrontation between Caesar and Christ,
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Gordon Zahn Who wasn't asked to do anywhere near as much as Eichmann was, but still refused to do it. I mean, what was involved in giving a few pennies to a collection supposedly being taken up to help the poor in the winter? He refused to do this because he saw this as a mark of commitment to the Fuhrer, and that one might not do as far as he was concerned. They stopped asking him for these donations after a while, passing the hat or these little red boxes as he calls it, they stopped bothering him because they knew he wouldn't give anything.
Studs Terkel This leads them to his relationship during this time of his life and his rebellion in saying "No" to the rest of the community, the villagers, and this is in this in your book, too, what now--how do they, what was his physical, his social relationship to them now? He was, he used to drop in to the tavern now and then for a cider. No longer now.
Gordon Zahn No, he stopped going. Everyone of course interpreted this, too, as mark of his religious fanaticism, that he gave everything up, all pleasures and so forth. He did give up card playing, and as far as drinking is concerned, however, his wife said he continued to drink "most" at home. M-O-S-T, not drink the most.
Gordon Zahn Sort of a strong cider, strong cider that they have. And the reason he didn't go to the tavern is because he always got into arguments. And, so, it's not a question of his just, you know, being stubborn "I won't do it and, but I'll keep my neck out of too much trouble." He spoke up, and it wasn't only in the little village where I suppose he could feel somewhat safe, because people would always remember their personal ties to him. But if you remember this one case, he and his young confirmation godchild as he calls him--
Studs Terkel Huber.
Gordon Zahn Took a trip, yeah, Franz Huber, took a trip and at Freilassing, this rail junction between Austria and just outside of Salzburg, he apparently got into an argument with the bartender over this type of thing, so here's a man even in these times who apparently found it possible to speak out against the regime.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking now of the others who have met Franz Jagerstatter. What happens to them? Here is this, a crank, crackpot, fanatic, crazy, and yet there's something he says. You talk what happened as you--you interviewed. Now, you lived in this village for five weeks and you did interviews.
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Gordon Zahn Very cooperative. Yeah. There was only one that I suspect got out of answering questions, but even this may not have been such a case, it might just have been that--I had arranged with a woman's nephew to interview her. She supposedly had been one of his schoolmates, and when I showed up for the interview she wasn't there and she had left word that she had not been one of his schoolmates and therefore could not give me information. Well, since she lived in the village she could certainly have given me information, but it may just be that this was the reason why she didn't.
Studs Terkel But they were cooperative, and yet they said they preferred that--there were two Franzes, there was the young Franz who just lived life, just [relaxed this?] and who chased the girls and drove the motorcycle. And there was other Franz who bothered them. They preferred the first.
Gordon Zahn Oh, certainly. They preferred the first, but they pitied the second. They didn't resent him in any sense. Let's say they--no one was sharply critical of him in the sense that we might expect here. They pitied him because he was mentally ill as they see it, or is not really responsible for what he did, and so it's a terrible thing that such a nice guy should come to such a sad
Studs Terkel This reminds me of something. Thus, he had to be crazy, this man, you know. It's too bad he was crazy, too bad he was touched, you know. Recently, though, he had been turned--he's been described as fraudulent by William Bradford Huie, the pilot, the navigator of the Enola Gay, one of the ships that bombed Hiroshima. Claude Etherley. How sad it is that this man is so touched, yet Claude Etherley's conscience burned, you see. And, so, in a sense it's not too unrelated.
Gordon Zahn No, there is a parallel there. Jagerstatter, of course, didn't involve himself in these dramatic outbursts against society that have brought Etherley into trouble with the authorities and so forth, but Jagerstatter was troubled in his conscience about what he might have to do, and Etherley is troubled in his conscience about what he did, but both of them have this same burning idea that we are responsible for our actions, and this is the essence.
Studs Terkel You quote Camus here, "When a man's 'No' means a 'Yes,'" if I may just, which is again a theme. "A man," in Albert Camus' words, I was quoting Dr. Zahn's book, early part of it, "Who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation--who also says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion." So it's really a "Yes," is it not?
Gordon Zahn Yes. This would be mainly Jagerstatter saying, "It was a 'No,' but throughout it, it is, I must do, I must give honor to Christ, to my God" and so forth, and this was the whole way in which he saw it, as.
Gordon Zahn After two weeks. I didn't feel that I should come right into the village and say I'm studying this man, because I didn't know at what point--how they felt about him. In fact, I had misinterpreted an event from '56 to suspect that they had either suppressed all mention of him or had forgotten him completely. I had asked a young girl who drove a taxi to take me to visit Mrs. Jagerstatter and she didn't know any Mrs. Jagerstatter, but it's this involved business of there, they go by their house names there, and so they would have known him as [Laierbauer?] rather than Jagerstatter, but on the other hand I still felt that there might be some reticence in talking about him, particularly since I knew from the pastor that there have been from time to time opposition to, including his name on the war memorial or things like this. And I had also had a letter from his widow indicating that she was aware that people in the village still took it evil, which would be something they still resented the fact that her husband was not a soldier. So I decided it would be best to use some different covers for a couple of weeks. Then when I finally did start interviewing, there was no problem at this point. They were very willing to help. One evening after I left the group at the gasthaus drinking stube and went upstairs, I understand one of the men did raise the question as to whether it was really wise to stir the whole thing up again, you know. But he prefaced this by saying "Of course, the professor is a wonderful man," and so on and so forth, so it wasn't that he wouldn't help or anything, it was just, is it good to do this.
Studs Terkel Don't we come to this point again? Is it wise to stir up this whole thing and is it wise, then, to stir the, wild metaphor, muddy waters of the conscience in a way here, that's buried, let's forget this man who did this thing and who showed us, perhaps.
Gordon Zahn I think this is undoubtedly, probably the deepest explanation of this type of attitude. But even--there's a more immediate explanation, too. I think he may have been saying this out of pity. "Isn't it best to just not bring up these dark things about this man?" You know, it's not that they're ashamed of him. His in-laws, I thought they might be ashamed of the fact that he had not done this, but no, they weren't. They thought he should have thought of his family more and done something to stay with them, or to at least take the chance of coming back to them, and, but they didn't resent him. He's no skeleton in the closet as far as his in-laws are concerned, certainly not as far as his family is
Gordon Zahn And it, in a sense I suppose, we could say that in human calculation you can understand why these people felt that way, even his mother. What does one man do in a case like this? It certainly isn't going to change anything. He's not going to bring Hitler down. He's not going to bring the war to an end. Had he gone in and done what a couple of the other men said they did, you know, never fire at anyone, one even gave me a description of a rather tricky means he used to stay in sick bay all the time. And, so, that he was never called upon to give any active service. Now, Jagerstatter could have done something like this.
Gordon Zahn Yes.
Gordon Zahn He reported as ordered to this induction center, but several days late. I suspect he did this to spare his family any difficulty of having them come haul him away from the house. But at the same time, he did show up and he did pointedly declare immediately, "I'm here, but I'm not going to serve." And ended up in military prison.
Gordon Zahn Yes. I think this is--again, I'm not sure of the explanation of this, it's my impression that it's a combination of her awareness of the fact that they sort of hold her responsible for what happened. It is also, I think, her personality, that she is not the kind that would be particularly outgoing to other people, and so, for instance, the two in conjunction have her sort of a loner in the community. She comes to mass every day, but she doesn't stand around and chat like some of the
Studs Terkel Is it also the, I know that you did speak with her, too, it's almost the fact that she may have this feeling toward the other members of the community aside from the fact that they may hold her responsible, other than that, she herself holds them responsible for their inactions. I don't know.
Gordon Zahn It's possible. She never made any critical statements of the others. In the one interview I scheduled with her, I raised the question as to whether the others had come to help when her husband was taken away, and her answer was that very few had. And while I was noting that down, having asked another question, she told me, "You don't have to write that down," you know, and this took me somewhat aback, it seemed a perfectly innocent question and answer. And when I asked what she had said, she said that "Franz had always said that we should forget the bad about people," and so I told her, "Well, I just want my notes to be complete" and so forth, I would put it down. And at this point I noticed she started crying. Now, she'd gone through all sorts of things, she had gone through the detailed description of her visit to him in the Berlin prison and so forth, without breaking down, but this notion of having criticized, spoken of criticism, seemed to have been at least the straw that broke this particular camel's back. Perhaps it had all been building up and this just merely loosened it, I don't know.
Gordon Zahn Yes.