Andreas Hofer: A Real-Life Tyrolean Rebel
The story of La Fille du Régiment is entirely fictional—but the political backdrop to the plot is steeped in history, including an actual Tyrolean rebellion during the Napoleonic wars. In 1805, Napoleon defeated the Austrian army at the Battle of Austerlitz; in the ensuing peace treaty, large portions of Austria were ceded to the French government and Napoleon’s satellite states in Central Europe. Among the regions newly under Napoleonic control was Tyrol, a mountainous area that spans parts of modern-day Austria and Italy. The Tyroleans, however, were not happy about being used as pawns in this game of geopolitical chess. The region had been part of Austria since the 14th century, and Tyroleans were proud Austrian patriots. In April 1809, an uprising broke out in Tyrol against the French invaders. The leader of this rebellion was an innkeeper and horse trader named Andreas Hofer.
The Tyrolean rebels were vastly outnumbered by the French and their allies. Yet they were far better equipped than the French soldiers to handle the steep, mountainous terrain of the Alps. For instance, the French had never before seen snowshoes and were thus amazed by the Tyroleans’ ability to walk on top of deep snow! Moreover, French soldiers were used to fighting on a battlefield, and the Tyroleans’ guerrilla tactics—which included burying enemies under man-made avalanches—took the French completely by surprise. Within a week, Hofer’s forces had driven the French out of the region and re-instated the Austrians as the leaders of Tyrol.
Initially, Napoleon took little interest in what he viewed as a meaningless skirmish in a minor region. But the efficiency with which Hofer’s forces expelled the French troops made Napoleon take the Tyrolean insurgence seriously. He sent more troops into Tyrol, instructing his generals not only to squash the rebellion but to do so with such brutality as to make an example of Hofer and his followers. By the beginning of August, the Austrians had been expelled from Tyrol; by November, the insurrection had been quelled definitively. In January, Hofer was arrested, and on February 20, 1810, he was executed by firing squad. Yet Hofer has never been forgotten. Today, the official anthem of the Austrian state of Tyrol is the “Andreas Hofer Song.”
Depending on who you ask, Andreas Hofer was either a loyal hero or a treasonous villain. Why might some people view him as heroic while others view him as villainous? How might these competing perspectives affect how he has gone down in history?