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  ANDREAS HOFER (1767-1810) English

by William D. McCrackan, 1914

A PLAY is acted annually at Meran entitled "Tyrol in the Year 1809." The performance is in the open air. The scene setting represents a Tyrolese mountain village, and the stage accommodates about four hundred performers, all chosen from Meran or the immediate neighbourhood, some of these people, indeed, being descendants of the men who fought in the national uprising of that year, 1809. The scenes are portrayed much as Defregger has portrayed them on his masterly canvases. In the last act the village schoolmaster, surrounded by young and old, tells the story of Andreas Hofer's leadership and martyrdom.

It is well that the struggle of this simple peasant should be retold every year, lest at any time his countrymen should forget the rarest and most heroic figure in their history. Ah, that year 1809! Napoleon had by that time fastened himself upon Europe; he was Europe. When the Archdukes Charles and John of Austria, brothers of the Austrian emperor, in a moment of genuine courage, summoned the great German race to take up arms against the Napoleonic supremacy, there was no response from the Danube to the Rhine, save in the mountains of the Tyrol. Of all the various branches of the German race, the Tyrolese alone heeded the summons. It was nobly pathetic. The nations of the plains, grown impotent with ceaseless war, looked on amazed, while Wordsworth sang encouragement to the mountaineers in his "Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty."

The call to arms of the Archdukes Charles and John was read at all the inns and shooting-stands of the country. Knots of grim sharpshooters gathered in the mountain forges to discuss ways and means, and to repair their weapons. Emissaries travelled through the valleys, recruiting men or collecting provisions and ammunition. Many devoted patriots threw themselves unreservedly into the struggle. There was that Capuchin monk, Joachim Haspinger, and there was Joseph Speckbacher, the chamois hunter.
But the foremost leader of all was Andreas Hofer, innkeeper in the Passeier valley. His appearance is easy to reconstruct from the few portraits which have come down to us and from descriptions by fellow patriots. He was a man of large build, a trifle above middle height, with broad shoulders that were bent forward a little from carrying heavy loads. His face was wholesome and ruddy, his voice gentle. But his most striking peculiarity was his long, black beard, which often grew down to his belt. The Italian soldiers in French service nicknamed him General Barbone on account of it. His costume was that of the Passeier valley, slightly changed to suit his personal taste. There was a jacket of green cloth, a red vest with wide green suspenders, black buckskin breeches, a wide leather belt bearing his initials, blue woollen stockings, and a wide-brimmed, black felt hat. To sum up, Andreas Hofer was a real peasant, and never hoped to be anything else, even when he became commander of the army and regent of the Tyrol. But he was by no means illiterate. He knew how to read and write — not so common an accomplishment a century ago among mountaineers. He could also speak Italian, besides his native German dialect.

The Passeier valley opens northward from Meran; and when you have passed beyond the village of St. Martin with its frescoed houses, you reach a tract which the torrent of the Passer has more than once laid waste. Here Hofer's inn stands by the roadside, opposite a big tree. The name is the Wirth am Sand, or the "Inn by the Gravel." Hofer was, therefore, commonly known as the Sandwirth, or the "Gravel Innkeeper," by a form of contraction which sounds very comical to us, but is customary in the Tyrol.

Andreas Hofer was born at the inn in 1767. His parents died when he was twenty-two, leaving him to carry on the business. As time passed, Hofer added to his regular occupation a commerce in grain, cattle, horses, wine, and brandy; he transported freight over the Jaufen Pass at the head of the valley, keeping as many as sixteen horses for the purpose. In this manner he became known all over the Tyrol; his honesty, good nature, and homely wit made him a universal favourite; so that when the revolt took place, he was one of the men to whom the peasants naturally looked as a leader.

At the first sound of war, on the eleventh of April,  1809, Andreas Hofer crossed the Jaufen Pass with his brave comrades of the Passeier valley, and fell upon the town of Sterzing, forcing the garrison to flee. The French had not entered the field yet, and the place was held by Bavarian troops. Sterzing was extremely valuable to the Tyrolese, but was by no means easy to maintain. Bavarian reinforcements came up, and a struggle took place out on the plain of the Sterzingermoos, as it is called. At first the Tyrolese could make no headway against the Bavarian artillery. It was absolutely necessary to dislodge their cannon. Hofer, therefore, had three loaded hay-wagons driven forward, behind which his best sharpshooters could hide and pick off the Bavarian artillerymen. It is said that two fearless girls actually drove up the first two wagons. When a nation fights like that, it becomes irresistible!

United with the Austrian troops which had entered the country in the meantime, the Tyrolese marched upon Innsbruck, driving the enemy before them, taking prisoners, and collecting booty of war. A triumphal entry into Innsbruck followed, to the indescribable joy of the whole population of the Tyrol. In a few days the peasants had captured two generals, 130 officers, almost six thousand men seven cannon, and eight hundred horses, — in truth, a remarkable result for so short a campaign. There was not a hostile soldier to be found in the land nearer than Kufstein. In that fortress, however, the enemy still maintained themselves. And all this had been accomplished by the peasants alone, practically unaided, — for the Austrian troops had been of little use, except to swell the numbers. So, when the bands of victors marched home again, what a jubilation there was in their native hamlets!

But the fate of the Tyrol was inevitably linked to that of Europe in general. Napoleon was all-powerful. A second time he took Vienna, and the Austrians were obliged to withdraw their troops from the Tyrol. Seeing the country open, a Bavarian army under General Wrede, and a French one under Marshal Lefebre, rapidly approached, and before the peasants could organize a proper defence, were once more in possession of Innsbruck.

That was on the nineteenth of May, 1809. On the twenty-fifth, Andreas Hofer, having gathered an army of 6,800 men and six cannon, took up a position on Berg Isel overlooking Innsbruck. The first day of the battle was indecisive. Both sides maintained their positions for several days. On the twenty-ninth the battle was renewed by Hofer. For ten hours both sides fought with alternate gains and losses until nightfall. But during the night the enemy wrapped the wheels of their cannon and their horses' hoofs in rags, left their camp-fires burning, and stole quietly away, out of the country.

Next morning the Tyrolese held their second triumphal entry into the capital of their beloved land. For the time being, even the news from the general European seat of war seemed favourable. Archduke Charles of Austria actually defeated Napoleon in the battle of Aspern. But shortly after came tidings of the murderous battle of Wagram, in which the tables were turned again. A humiliating truce was signed by Austria, which left the Tyrol exposed as before to foreign invasion. Marshal Lefebre promptly reoccupied Innsbruck. The country seemed indeed lost at last. Napoleon ordered Lefebre to disarm everybody. Archduke John wrote advising the peasants to submit, saying that a definite peace would soon be concluded between Austria and France, in which the interests of the Tyrol would be guarded as carefully as possible. It seemed a grim joke to the mountaineers, to ask them to let in the invaders without a struggle. They refused to believe that the Austrian emperor could counsel such cowardice. Andreas Hofer issued a proclamation in which he described this news of a truce as a piece of "devilish deceit." He called upon all patriots, old and young, to arm once more and fight for home and honour. Then the last band, the old fellows who had thought themselves of little use, came out to die for their country. They marched forth with ancient mediaeval weapons on their shoulders, long disused halberds, spiked clubs, or antiquated spears. They took leave of their old wives, as the younger men had parted from their sweethearts months before. Only the women and children and the wounded were left to look after their homes. Hofer called Speckbacher, the brave leader of the sharpshooters, and Haspinger, the undaunted Capuchin monk, to his side. The three giants of the Tyrolese revolution stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Marshal Lefebre advanced from Innsbruck to overrun the country. For want of artillery, the Tyrolese erected what they called stone batteries, that is, above the roads they heaped stones upon platforms which were supported only by one or two pieces of timber. When the right moment came, they knocked away the supports, and the whole mass came crashing down upon the helpless foe below. Lefebre, now known as the Duke of Danzig, had already had so much experience with the Tyrolese, that he preferred to send on his allies ahead, to reconnoitre. In this way it came about that a detachment of Saxons were the first to suffer from the fury of the peasants. Over two thousand Saxons were caught in a defile near Mittewald, and almost annihilated by the stone batteries and the renowned Tyrolese sharpshooters. Then Lefebre came up and received his beating. For three days he attempted in vain to dislodge the defenders. At one time the latter seemed to be getting the worst of it; but they recovered, and on the fourth day the newly created Duke of Danzig retired under a terrific fire upon Innsbruck. Hofer had posted detachments of sharpshooters in hiding all along the route, who thinned the ranks of the fugitives as they went. Lefebre himself would have been picked out by them, had he not disguised himself as a common soldier and walked on foot, sheltered between two mounted dragoons.

On the thirteenth of August, 1809, Hofer and his army stood once more on Berg Isel to attack Innsbruck. It was Sunday. Early in the morning Hofer made a characteristic speech. The men cheered, and, as in the previous battles, the first day was undecisive. The two sides were more equally matched than usual, the enemy having only a slight preponderance numerically, but being, of course, far superior in artillery and cavalry. No action took place on the second day, and on the third the French, as once before, withdrew quietly with their allies.

For the third time Hofer entered Innsbruck. He was the hero of the hour. When delegations of students came to greet him with music and banners, the pious peasant reproved them in his rude dialect: "Now pray don't shout and make music; not I, not you, He above has done this." An irresistible popular demand soon showed itself to make him regent of the Tyrol, since Austria was unable to defend the country. At last Hofer yielded, addressing the multitude in the following speech: "Well, I greet you, my dear people of Innsbruck. As you insist upon my being governor, here I am. But there are many by me who are not from Innsbruck. All who want to be my brothers in arms must fight for God, emperor, and country, as brave, good, and honest Tyrolese. Those who don't care to do that had better go home. My comrades in arms won't leave me. Nor will I leave you, as true as my name is Andreas Hofer. Now I've said it, you've seen me, and so God bless you."

Hofer, with considerable regret, took up his residence in the Castle of Innsbruck as regent of the Tyrol. They told him it would never do to have the head of the state living in an inn. His sovereign, the Emperor of Austria, now sent him the golden locket and chain, which is seen around his neck in his portrait. For six weeks he administered the affairs of the country with great simplicity and shrewdness, spending next to nothing upon himself. When he drove, however, he used a four-horse carriage, captured from a French general. Morning and evening he went to church. Priests and peasants always had free approach to him, but other persons had to be announced. His greatest difficulty was in raising money for the current expenses of the country, since it was practically exhausted from continual war. He had silver and copper currency coined, which had on one side the Tyrolese eagle and on the reverse the Madonna. So little of this money was coined, however, and of that little so much was later melted back into Austrian money, that the few pieces in existence are excessively rare.

On the fourteenth of October, 1809, Austria finally concluded the Peace of Vienna, which definitely sacrificed the Tyrol to Bavaria. It was the culminating humiliation which Napoleon inflicted upon Austria, forcing her to sacrifice a full third of her territory.

In those days news travelled slowly and uncertainly. Hofer and his followers refused to believe the first reports of this abandonment, and when the Bavarians and French crossed the frontier to take possession, promptly engaged them. It took an autograph letter from Archduke John to make them pause. The moment was decisive in Hofer's career. Should he obey the imperial mandate, or carry out the task to which he had vowed himself? In this predicament, Hofer, for the first and last time, lost his head. Fine distinctions between duty and honour were too much for him. The carriage was ready which was to take him to surrender, when Haspinger, the Capuchin monk, rushed up and told him that the news about the humiliating Peace of Vienna was a lie, that Archduke John would soon come to their help. To add to the impression created by these words, the messenger who brought the autograph letter fell in a fit, as if under punishment for telling a lie. Instead of surrendering, Hofer called the country to arms. But a few days later, finding that the news of the peace was correct, he issued a proclamation of surrender. In this manner he wavered several times, torn hither and thither by conflicting reports. Finally he withdrew into his native valley to fight it out to the death.

He crossed for the last time over the Jaufen Pass, where he had travelled many a time as boy and man with his wares. To show the pressure to fight which was brought to bear upon him, it should be related how, in his native valley, a man came to him with loaded rifle, and said: " Andreas, now say, will you or will you not? You began it, you must carry it out. This rifle is as good for you as for any Frenchman."

In the neighbourhood of Meran the Tyrolese won their last stubborn victories over the French, displaying a power of resistance which astounded all Europe, crushed as it was under the heel of Napoleon. It caused Wordsworth to exclaim:

"A few strong instincts and a few plain rules
Among the herdsmen of the Alps have wrought
More for mankind at this unhappy day,
Than all the pride of intellect and thought."

One of these victories was won near Castle Tyrol, as if by poetic justice, in the very heart of the country's history, at the meeting-place of its races. The French were driven from the Küchelberg, and finally surrounded. In one place a detachment of French soldiers was entrapped between the peasants and a precipice. Rather than face their infuriated foe, these prisoners stepped to the edge of the precipice, and, horrible to relate, actually jumped, one by one, to a certain death below. In the end the surviving French army was obliged to evacuate Meran, with a loss of 1,200 men.

But that was not all. Another victory was in store for the Tyrolese before the end of the war. In the same night in which the French evacuated Meran, a French company, knowing nothing of the defeat of their comrades, crossed the Jaufen Pass, and stopped at the village of St. Leonhard. Here they were hemmed in, four hundred of them were cut down, and the rest made prisoners.

With this the end of the war had come. From all sides the French poured into the country with reinforcements. The Tyrolese, overpowered by superior numbers, withdrew to the mountains. Every night their watch-fires were seen to climb higher and higher up the slopes, until they glowed from the summits themselves. On the noble peaks near Meran were kindled some of the last signals of revolt; in the woods were gathered some of the last knots of undaunted patriots, who did not know what it was to surrender. They preferred to starve or to be sought out, so that they could sell their lives dearly. The new French commander, Baron d'Hilliers, a humane man, who had conceived a strong admiration for Hofer, tried hard to save the national hero. He sent word to him that he would beg for his pardon at headquarters, if Hofer would only persuade the people of his valley to surrender. But Hofer paid no attention to these overtures. His soul was filled with a nameless sadness. On the second of December he climbed to the highest pasture on the mountain opposite his home, and hid there in a barn with his faithful clerk Sweth. Baron d'Hilliers issued a proclamation, saying:

"Men of the Tyrol, spare me the sorrow of punishing you. ... I ask nothing of you, but that you remain quietly in your houses. Your property, your persons, your religion, laws, customs, all your privileges shall be respected; but those who break their word to me shall be destroyed."

Andreas Hofer, however, remained in hiding in his lofty retreat; and a price of 1,500 florins was placed upon his head. A commemoration tablet now marks the hut, sacred to all Tyrolese patriots, where the defeated peasant commander spent almost two months during the winter of 1809-10. Here his wife and son joined him, having been obliged to flee from their hiding-place. Here, too, at last, the whole party was betrayed and captured. Hofer was to become not only a patriot, but a martyr. Some man of the Passeier valley was tempted by the blood-money to tell the French commander at Meran of Hofer's hiding-place. And so it was that, at four o'clock in the morning of the twenty-eighth of January, 1810, six hundred Italian soldiers in the French service surrounded this hut and surprised its occupants. The snow was deep at that altitude. The soldiers dragged forth Hofer, his wife, his boy, and the clerk, bound them and took them down into the valley.

The brutal soldiery could now vent their hatred upon the defenceless hero. They pulled out great handfuls from his beard, so that his face was bleeding and his hair frozen into a bloody mass. But no word of pain escaped from Hofer's lips. He merely comforted his dear ones. " Be brave and be patient," he said to them; "in this way you can absolve yourselves from some of your sins." On the way the sad party passed their old home, the Gravel Inn, which was plundered. In Meran the people wept loudly as their hero passed. He was given a hearing before the commander Huard. To the latter he said simply that he was indeed the author of the Tyrolese revolt; that he had been called to do this by his Majesty, the Emperor of Austria; that he would have surrendered after the Peace of Vienna had not his followers threatened him with death if he did not continue the struggle.

Next day the prisoners were transported to Bozen, where D'Hilliers ordered Hofer's wife and boy to be liberated at once, and the prisoner to be treated with greater care. On the fifth of February, Hofer and his clerk arrived at the fortified city of Mantua in Northern Italy, having received endless testimonies of love and respect from the people on the way. Bisson, commander of the fortress, offered him freedom if he would enter the French army; but Hofer only answered: "I was, I am, and always shall be true to the house of Austria and to my emperor." A few days later Hofer was tried by court martial. No decisive verdict could at first be obtained. Word was sent to Napoleon, at that time stationed in Milan; and immediately there came from him the reply: "Andreas Hofer must be shot within twenty-four hours."

Napoleon probably feared that the Emperor Francis might request clemency, and it would have been embarrassing to refuse such a favour from a brother emperor. Hofer received his death-sentence calmly, and when the time came strode firmly to his martyrdom. His fellow prisoners and wounded comrades clung to him as he passed. He begged their forgiveness if he had been the cause of their misery.

At eleven o'clock on the morning of February the twentieth, 1810, the drums beat on the bastion of Mantua. Hofer stood in the centre of a square of soldiers. He prayed a few moments with the attendant priest, then stood up and faced his executioners. They offered him a handkerchief to bind over his eyes. He refused it. They ordered him to kneel, but he said: "I am going to give my soul to God standing." He is said to have cried, "Long live Emperor Francis," and then himself gave the word of command, "Fire!" Six bullets entered his body; but he only sank to his knees, — they did not kill him. Six more bullets failed to put an end to his life. Then a soldier stepped forward and, placing the barrel of his musket close to Hofer's head, gave him a final thirteenth bullet. Little further remains to be said of the hero. Like a real peasant and innkeeper, his last words to the world are contained in a letter giving orders for a memorial service and wake, to be held in his native village of St. Martin at the Inn of the Unterwirth. The letter was written at five o'clock in the morning before his execution. In it he comforts his wife, and begs all his friends for their prayers; then he specifies that each mourner at the inn shall be served with soup, meat, and a half-measure of wine. Below are added the following words, which deserve to become classic: "Farewell, base world; it is so easy for me to die that not even a tear comes to my eyes."

The good-natured innkeeper and the obstinate fighter died for his country in a manner so dramatic that the world is destined to remember him only as a glorified personification of patriotism, as the great national hero of the Tyrol.

  Source: William D. McCrackan, The Spell of Tyrol, Chapter XXI, Andreas Hofer (1767 - 1810), p. 197 - 216, Boston 1914.

© digital version, Wolfgang Morscher 2009.