Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and a senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
In the February edition of Maclean’s, columnist Scott Gilmore writes in praise of shame, a quality or virtue noticeably lacking in our national and international politics. “Being Catholic,” he writes, allows him to see the connection between consequences and shame. If the culture does not see this connection – indeed denies it exists – then shame loses its hold, along with truth, integrity, the compelling power of facts, accountability for personal behaviour and the heavy weight of conscience. “The ideals of peace, order and good government," he says, "are built on a base of shame.”
We are all diminished.
Are we truly shamed by the dread aftershocks of the horror that is Auschwitz-Birkenau? Have we become acclimated to that particular horror? January 27 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Russian troops, and this should occasion some serious soul-searching by all those in power who tolerate the methodical dehumanizing of the Other, the peripheralization of the stranger, the dehumanizing of the adversary.
How fortuitous then that in the same month of the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation we should have the wide release of filmmaker Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. A biopic that chronicles the extraordinary witness of an ordinary man in a dark time in Austrian history, the film is classic Malick: luscious, luminous and incandescent, but also foreboding, grim and devastating.
This hidden life – the life of Franz Jagerstatter – is a portrait of quiet courage, a dramatic statement of the power of one person against a mighty tyranny, a stark and yet beautiful illustration of the dignity of unassailable conviction in the presence of ubiquitous uniformity. It is the life of a sequestered saint, the conscience of Austria.
A bit of a roué in his early years – fathering a child out of wedlock and brawling occasionally – Jagerstatter was a slightly-out-of-sync local largely inured to the tempest on the horizon in his picturesque village of Sankt Radegund, nestled in the mountains, a paradisal oasis. He eventually settled down, married a devout Catholic, had three daughters, did duty as the parish sacristan, and then reluctantly went off for his military training in 1940-41. But he refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and bided his time.
In 1943, he was called up for active service in the Wehrmacht – after the Anschluss of 1938, Austria was fully annexed as part of the Third Reich – and the option of being a conscientious objector was not in the cards.
As was the case for Thomas More, there was always going to be a price for resistance, and although he was an obscure farmer in a remote village, Jagerstatter had to be dealt with. Like the former Chancellor of Henrician England, his family, friends, respected clerics and others implored Jagerstatter to submit – to hold whatever reservations he had in check, to conform for the sake of familial peace, religious rectitude, social harmony.
But convinced “that it is still best that I speak the truth even though it costs me my life,” he persisted in his obstinacy, declined the counsel of his bishop, who urged him to renounce his scruples and serve in the army. Jagerstatter was no fanatic lusting for martyrdom; he just couldn’t see a way out other than betraying his conscience. He had to stand firm.
In his many prison commentaries and in his letters, Jagerstatter was direct in his accusations of ecclesiastical and political complicity in an unjust war. His call for radical defiance was grounded in his maturing faith: “That we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something that I cannot and never will believe.”
For that, he was beheaded, and declared an “enemy of the state.”
Mr. Malick’s film is not hagiography. It is not a eulogy to the lone-wolf defier, or a swan song for the preciously innocent. It reflects the filmmaker’s attraction to the metaphysical probe – Mr. Malick is an astute critic of German philosophy – and his predilection for the ineffable. It is not a flawless portrait; Jagerstatter is not idealized in his martyrdom.
Rather, the Austrian farmer – Blessed Franz, as he is now, poised on the penultimate step to canonization – serves as a stark reminder to our generation, 75 years removed from the freeing of the last inhabitants of Auschwitz, that the Leni Riefenstahl reels capturing the rallies of Nuremberg in the 1930s unnervingly echo in the contemporary rallies that dot the political landscape of Europe and America.
The price of conscience is not a distant memory. The hidden life, in the end, must be a public life. That is how we preserve our humanity.
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