by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
Two recent anniversaries lend themselves to paradoxical reflections.
Each year August 9 marks the date on which the United States launched the second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On the same date two years earlier, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter was executed by the Nazis.
The horror of this second atomic bombing exceeds that of the first, if one can measure such abominations. Still, the question which Nagasaki raises points to a comparison with Hiroshima. Why the decision to do the unthinkable again?
Clearly the president of the United States and his military knew immediately the utter devastation which the first bomb had caused. As the U.S. airmen flying away from an obliterated Hiroshima that day and looked back at the “mushroom cloud” over the city, they later reported that “there was almost no talk I can remember on our trip back to base.” The only word another heard was, “My God, what have we done?”
Still President Truman forged ahead with the second bombing three days later: Was it to save U.S. lives before the planned invasion of Japan? or to show the Russians, who were increasingly perceived as dangerous enemies, that the United States had possession of this ultimate weapon? Or perhaps the Allies’ policy of “unconditional surrender” toward Germany and Japan in World War II demanded the utter destruction of both.
So much can be inferred about Truman’s mindset here. Killing in order to prevent killing; utter vengeance against an enemy which had initiated the war; no consideration of negotiating with them. One further thought emerges. It is not too much of a stretch to surmise that, for Truman, these political and military motives were ultimately based particularly on a mortal fear of the Russians. Fear surely underlies much of the violence resorted to by humans against one another. Fear that has the power to drive human beings into such horrific actions as the murder, first of 80,000 then three days later 40,000 human beings.
The story of Franz Jägerstätter presents another side of fear – fear which is overcome even in the face of terrible consequences for oneself and one’s family. The story of this quite ordinary citizen of Nazi-occupied Austria and a member of his parish in St. Rategund village has become
increasingly familiar. As an able-bodied young man it was demanded that Jägerstätter enter the war on the Nazi side and swear an oath of fealty to Adolf Hitler. He refused to do either.
He found within himself a depth of Christian integrity that despite the advice of his parish priest and the bishop of that diocese and despite the fact that practically every other Austrian Catholic had submitted to these Hitlerian demands and despite being a husband and father – he could not bring himself to have any part in the war or swear the oath.
The words of playwright Robert Bolt come to mind here. In his Introduction to “A Man For All Seasons,” Bolt writes: “Thomas More became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self… and he was overcome by an absolute primitive rigor and could no more be budged than a cliff.”
Ordinary people like us ask, what must have been the inner agony of this ordinary man after his momentous refusal in June of 1940 – his incarceration and three years on death row knowing he would finally be brutally executed?. How did maintain such an extraordinary posture of integrity and resolve?
Jägerstätter’s letters from jail offer insights here. They speak of his being motivated by a vivid sense of acting for the sake of the love of God and neighbor. In his last recorded words before being beheaded he wrote: “I am completely bound in inner union with God.”
Two defining decisions faced by two human beings: one submitting to fear; the other overcoming it.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.