This Week in History

Execution of a Tyrolese Patriot: February 20, 1810

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here

Emperor Franz

Not all of Emperor Franz’s subjects gave up their resistance to Napoleon after the Treaty of Vienna. In the Alpine valleys of western Austria, called the Tyrol, there lived a stout, freedom-loving peasantry who were loyal to the House of Habsburg and deeply devoted to their Catholic Faith. They would tolerate no one who would dare raise a hand against God or their emperor.

So it was a very bitter pill for the Tyrolese to take when, in 1805, the Treaty of Pressburg forced them to submit to Napoleon’s ally, Bavaria. Yet, at first, all seemed to go well enough. Bavaria’s King Maximilien Josef had promised that life in the Tyrol would go on as it had before, and for a while it seemed he would keep his word.

But Napoleon was pressuring Maximilien Josef; and in the end, the king broke his word. He laid new taxes on the Tyrolese, divided their country into French-style departments, and began drafting their men to serve in the Bavarian army. Worst of all, influenced by his “enlightened” advisors, the Bavarian king tried to crush Catholic worship and practice in the Tyrol. Churches were pillaged of their adornments and sacred vessels; and when priests resisted this tyranny, the Bavarian authorities imprisoned them. The bishop of Innsbruck, the chief city of the Tyrol, was himself exiled for protesting against the government’s acts.

King Maximilien Josef

When Austria again was planning war against Napoleon in late 1808, the Emperor Franz’s son, the Archduke Johann, began corresponding with Tyrolese leaders. In January 1809, three of these leaders went secretly to Vienna, where they met with the archduke. One of these Tyrolese leaders was Andreas Hofer, nicknamed the Sandwirth because he kept an inn (called a Wirtshaus in German) at Sand in the Passeyr Valley. Dressed in the Tyrolese costume (a colorful short coat, knee breeches with a richly embroidered belt, and a broad-brimmed hat), Hofer was imposing with his long, black beard. A horse trader as well as an innkeeper, Hofer had traveled a good deal around the Tyrol. He knew his country well and thus was the natural leader for the rebellion he, his companions, and the archduke now were planning.

On April 9, 1809, Andreas Hofer called on his people to rise against the Bavarians. From all over Tyrol, tens of thousands of peasant men, and even women, answered his call. Other peasant leaders joined the uprising, including Martin Teimer, a tobacconist; Josef Spechbacher, a former poacher; and a Capuchin priest named Joachim Haspinger, who led men into battle holding a large ebony crucifix instead of a sword. Archduke Johann brought an Austrian force into the Tyrol to support the rebels.

File:Andreas hofer mit hut.jpg

Andreas Hofer

Though they were not trained soldiers, the peasants were victorious in battle after battle against the combined French and Bavarian forces. But in May, a French and Bavarian army entered the Tyrol and began pushing the peasants back, burning villages, and massacring men, women, and children. Such violence only encouraged Hofer to further resistance. After the Austrian victory over Napoleon at Aspern, Hofer gathered a force, 80,000 strong, and moved against Innsbruck, where in a struggle on the Isel Berg (a hill overlooking the city), he defeated the French General Lefebvre. On May 30, the Tyrolese entered Innsbruck, where they filed into churches to give thanks to God for their triumph.

To reward his faithful subjects, Emperor Franz I pledged never again to abandon the Tyrol. But after the Battle of Wagram in July 1809, Franz signed an armistice with Napoleon that did not mention the Tyrolese.

When Archduke Johann bade the peasants lay down their arms, Hofer refused. When the French and Bavarians again entered the Tyrol, burning and pillaging as before, the Sandwirth called for further resistance. “It is now not a question of saving our fortunes,” he declared, “no! It is our holy religion that is threatened with open peril . . . For God, for the Kaiser Franz, conquer or die!”

Gathering another huge force, Hofer moved on Innsbruck, driving the French from the city on August 14. The next day, the Feast of the Assumption, the Tyrolese entered the city, where Hofer established himself as governor. Again Emperor Franz pledged his support to the Tyrolese, sending a gold medal to Hofer to recognize his leadership of the Tyrol.

Depiction of Andreas Hofer liberating his people from foreign domination, by Joseph Anton Koch

But with the signing of the Peace of Vienna in October 1809, Franz again abandoned the Tyrol to Napoleon. Much stronger forces of Bavarians and French now entered the mountain valleys and drove the peasant army from Innsbruck. Hofer thought of surrender; but urged—and even threatened—by his own people, he continued the fight.

Still, all was lost. By December 1809, most of the Tyrolese chieftains had accepted amnesty from the French, Father Haspinger fled to Switzerland, and Josef Spechbacher escaped into the mountains. Hofer, now a wanted man, found refuge in a hut on a snow-covered mountainside near his home in the Passeyr Valley. He remained in hiding until mid January 1810 when, betrayed by one of his own people, he was captured and taken a prisoner to Mantua in Italy.

In Mantua, a court-martial tried Hofer; but admiring his courage and devotion to God and country, the judges could not agree on a sentence. After sending a message to Napoleon to ask his will in the matter, they received this reply: Hofer must immediately be shot. The Sandwirth was, however, given one last chance. If he decided to fight for the French, said his captors, he could go free. But Hofer would not play the traitor. “I remain faithful to the house of Austria and the good Kaiser Franz,” he said.

            Farewell, vain world; dying appears to me so

            easy that my eyes do not become wet.

Andreas Hofer’s execution at Mantua

These words Hofer wrote on February 20, 1810, the day of his execution. When led before the firing squad, the Sandwirth refused a blindfold. After being commanded to kneel, he said he would not. “I shall stand before my Creator, and standing I will render up my spirit to him, who gave it,” he said. He then let out a loud cry, “Long live Kaiser Franz!” and covered his eyes to pray.

After a few minutes Hofer dropped his hands and gave the command, “Take good aim—Fire!” Six shots rang out, and Hofer fell to his knees. “Ach! ” he exclaimed, “How badly you aim!” A corporal then took out his pistol and, placing the barrel against Hofer’s head, fired.

In this way, Andreas Hofer at last found peace.

 

A Song for the Hero Hofer

Even today, Andreas Hofer’s devotion and sacrifice are remembered in the Tyrol in what has become the official “hymn” of the region. This is an older recording of the hymn, sung by Emanuel List. The text, in German and English, may be found here.