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Great European Lives: Andreas Hofer

Tyrolean militia 1809. In the center Andreas Hofer, leader of the Tyrolean resistance to Napoleon, painted 1819. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

Andreas Hofer led a rural rebel army to fight against Napoleon’s troops to try and claim back Tyrol, a region of Austria that had been given to the German state of Bavaria.

“You’ve been to mass; you’ve had a schnapps. Now forward in the name of God!”

As battle cries go it’s an unusual one but for innkeeper-turned-spearhead Andreas Hofer it was the perfect cry with which to lead his motley mix of trained soldiers and pitchfork-wielding farmhands against the forces of Napoleon.

This citing of two key facets of Tyrolean culture worked, too, inspiring Hofer’s forces to defeat their better trained, better equipped opponents in a number of battles and pull off several ingenious guerrilla-style actions in an attempt to preserve their way of life and worship.

It was enough to make Hofer a folk hero across Europe even during his own lifetime: even contemporary British newspapers evoking ancient memories of Robin Hood by describing him admiringly as “a tall, well-made, strongly built man [who] possesses much natural eloquence. He wears a broad, green Tyrolean hat with a long heron feather in it, his neck and a part of his breast open, and his dress that of a Tyrol peasant”.

Emerging as he did at the height of Romanticism, Hofer had starry-eyed poets reaching for their pens to elevate him to the loftiest heights too.

“Of mortal Parents is the Hero born, by whom the undaunted Tyrolese are led?” wondered William Wordsworth in 1809 in one of several sonnets he dedicated to Hofer, “Or is it Tell’s great Spirit, from the dead, Returned to animate an age forlorn?”

Hofer would animate much more than his own age. In 1893, more than 80 years after his death, the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph travelled to Innsbruck to unveil a monument to Hofer, describing him as “a most noble embodiment of the Tyrolean spirit. He was great both in success and misfortune, a hero both in life and death”.

Hoferian symbolism endured well into the 20th century: his name was lent to anti-fascist resistance groups during the Second World War and when Italian nationalists in the southern Tyrol wanted to make a bold statement to their German-speaking counterparts in 1960, they blew up a monument to Hofer placed on the site of his execution in Mantua.

Yet for all Wordsworth and the rest’s determination to hold him up as the personification of pan-European popular revolution and the quest for individual liberty, Andreas Hofer wasn’t fighting for that. He tweaked the nose of Napoleon not out of revolutionary fervour but fierce loyalty to the Habsburgs, the Catholic church and the Tyrolean way of life. His motivation wasn’t a dreamer’s desire to win freedom for the common man, it was a grim-faced battle to preserve the status quo.

Hofer was an innkeeper, wine merchant and cattle dealer who kept the Sandhof Inn, an establishment popular with travellers at St Leonhard in Passeier that had been in the Hofer family for generations. Always keenly involved with local issues he was elected to the Tyrolean Landtag regional assembly in 1791.

He took up arms for the first time in 1803, fighting against Napoleon’s army in the War of the Third Coalition where he rose to become a militia captain in the Austrian army. Defeat in that war, most notably at the Battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, saw the Tyrol ceded to French ally Bavaria under the 1805 Treaty of Pressburg.

The Bavarians introduced a harsh system of taxes and military control to the region with resources exploited and military conscription becoming mandatory. The Tyrol had been a part of the Holy Roman Empire since the 14th century; for more than 300 years its people had lived, worked and worshipped contentedly under Habsburg rule, their lives regulated by the rhythms of the seasons and the rituals of the Catholic church. Tradition and piety forged the Tyrolean way of life and when the Bavarians threatened significant change it was Hofer, the impassioned innkeeper, the devout militia man, who took up the challenge.

Having travelled to Vienna in 1809 to gain approval from emperor Francis I to commence resistance activities against the occupying force, Hofer began a peripatetic few weeks spreading the word and gathering fighters to the Tyrolean cause throughout the region, travelling so much he took to signing letters “Andreas Hofer, wherever I am”.

Once this groundwork had been laid the rebellion began on April 9, 1809. The previous night sacks of sawdust had been emptied into the Inn river, a prearranged signal to begin the insurrection that was carried by the waterway all the way through the valley. Church bells echoed between the mountainsides, signalling volunteers to gather with muskets, swords, even farm implements, in a rising so swift and well-organised the Bavarian units were soon overpowered and even a column of French troops that happened to be passing through the area was routed. Within two days Hofer’s forces had taken Innsbruck; shortly afterwards the anticipated French reinforcements were also seen off at the first Battle of Bergisel, a hill outside the city.

Within weeks of the victory Hofer could call upon a Tyrolean force 20,000 strong, enough to defeat the reinforced Bavarian army at a second Battle of Bergisel at the end of May. Assuming this would be the end of the matter, having been promised by the emperor that Austria would stand by the Tyroleans, Hofer returned to his inn and resumed serving wine and schnapps to weary travellers.

His rebellious work was far from done, however: within a few weeks Napoleon’s army had defeated the Austrians at Wagram after which Tyrol was again ceded to Bavaria. This time Napoleon sent 40,000 troops to the region with explicit instructions to retake Innsbruck and reassert Bavarian control of the region once and for all. Hofer put down his glass cleaning cloth and returned to the fray. The third Battle of Bergisel on August 13 raged for a strength-sapping 12 hours after which, as the sun set behind the hill, the Tyrolean forces hauled themselves wearily from the battlefield victorious again.

This time, instead of returning to life as an innkeeper Hofer became imperial commandant of the Tyrol in the name of the emperor of Austria. He devised a raft of new laws and even minted new currency. At the end of September Francis pinned a medal to his chest and assured him again that Austria would never abandon the Tyrol.

That promise lasted barely a fortnight. Among the terms of the punitive Treaty of Schönbrunn, signed by Austria on October 14, Tyrol was yet again made part of Bavaria. Stung by what he saw as the emptiness of his emperor’s words Hofer, removed as commandant but granted safety under amnesty, returned to Passeier unable to face another inevitably hollow victory against the invading forces. Enough blood had been spilled, enough lives had been lost in the name of victories negated almost immediately by distant diplomats at the scratch of a pen.

Brooding didn’t come easily to Hofer, however, so when on November 12 rumours reached the inn that Austrian forces had fought back and won important victories he found himself energised again, charging out of the mountains to take on the invaders, gathering his soldiers as he went.

The rumours turned out to be false. His forces, much reduced in numbers, were easily defeated and Hofer was forced into hiding, a price on his head as he hunkered down for the winter in a remote hut high in the mountains. He hid for ten weeks until Franz Raffl, a neighbour living close to the Hofer inn, found the pull of 1,500 guilders too difficult to resist and betrayed the Tyrolean leader’s location to the Bavarians. After ten weeks on the run he was captured by Italian troops and sent to Mantua for court martial.

According to legend the military court, hastily convened in an effort to head off mass protests, had not intended to impose a capital sentence until a communication arrived from Milan in which Napoleon himself instructed, “give Hofer a fair a trial, then shoot him”. In classically heroic fashion the Tyrolean leader faced the firing squad without a blindfold, refused to drop to his knees and pre-empted the commander of his executioners by giving the order to fire himself. To this day the official anthem of the State of Tyrol is Zu Mantua in Banden (‘To Mantua in Chains’), also known as the Andreas-Hofer-lied. It’s not so much a celebration of the Tyrol as the man who, from beard to heron feather, came to embody its rituals, rhythms and even the landscape itself.

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