Andreas Hofer and the insurrection in the Tyrol, 1809

Author(s) : DAVEY WRIGHT Hamish
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The insurrection of 1809 in the Tyrol is a fascinating episode in the history of Napoleon and the French Empire. A microcosm of what was taking place across Europe during the period, distilled into a very distinct geographical area at a very particular time, the topics up for discussion are varied and widespread, ideological and pragmatic. For a rebellion that lasted less than a year, it is remarkably rich in detail...


“Let the Austrians do what they will with the Tyrol; under no circumstances do I want to become engaged in a mountain-based war.”1
With these words to Berthier, Napoleon encapsulated his preoccupations, at least to begin with, regarding the Tyrol region and its importance in the war with Austria in 1809. He was more concerned with the southern German theatre and the main body of Austrian troops to think about a small region to the south, perched between Switzerland, Austria and Italy.

The Tyrol region

The Tyrol region had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, and under the rule of the Hapsburg royal family, since the 14th century. Integral to the Tyrolean identity was the Roman Catholicism of which, at least nominally, the Holy Roman Emperor was the temporal protector. The Tyrol would remain under the aegis of the Hapsburgs until the Peace of Pressburg, signed on 26th December 1805 following Napoleon's defeat of Austria at Ulm and Austerlitz, which saw the region ripped away from Austria and into the hands of what would shortly become the Kingdom of Bavaria, part of the Confederation of the Rhine and a client state to Napoleon.2 A few months later, the Holy Roman Empire would cease to exist, and Francis II became Francis I, Emperor of Austria. Bavaria's management, administration and attempted exploitation of the region would be a major cause in the insurrection that would break out at the beginning of April, 1809.

Bavarian domination

Although the Tyrol's pre-Pressburg rights were guaranteed by the treaty in 1805, the economic and personnel demands that Bavaria came under eventually forced the hand of King Maximilian I, and far-reaching economic, administrative and religious reforms were gradually introduced into the region. Between 1806 and 1808, tax demands on the Tyroleans rose by twenty percent.3 At the same time, an economic crisis swept through the region as reserves became depleted, bankruptcies multiplied and trade dried up, mainly due to the imposition of Napoleon's Continental Blockade. Gradually, the Tyrol's institutional framework was reformed and dissolved. A new constitution for the Kingdom of Bavaria was announced in May 1808, reorganising the regions into districts. The Tyrol was integrated, became South Bavaria, and was divided into the three districts of Inn, Eisack and Adige, thus losing its special statute within the kingdom.4 Another result of the newly-introduced constitution was the applicability of the conscription levies which were placed on the Bavarian territories. As rumours circulated about the forthcoming war between Austria and France, fears rose in the Tyrol that new conscripts might line up against their Austrian former allies. A large number of those summoned for duty failed to turn up, instead disappearing into the mountains or over the border into Austria.
Disturbances increased between Bavarian authorities and the Tyrolean population and eventually the Bavaria was forced to abandon its conscription demands in the Tyrol. Finally, and perhaps most telling for the Tyroleans, were the religious reforms that were seen as Bavaria's desire to destroy Catholicism within the region. These anti-clerical, rather than anti-Catholic, reforms included the abolition of Christmas midnight mass in 1806, the closure and sale of Tyrolean convent properties and the expulsion of bishops. Although largely ignored in the countryside, these reforms, coupled with Napoleon's treatment of the pope Pious VII, convinced Tyroleans of the necessity to resist Bavarian occupation. Besides these pragmatic concerns, there was also an ideological basis to the insurrection.

Romantics at heart…

The 19th century also saw the birth of the Romantic Movement, partly in reaction to the 18th century Enlightenment thinking which placed the emphasis on reason, common sense and personal freedom. Romanticism, on the other hand, turned away from rationalism and prized emotion above all else, valuing history, tradition, and in particular, the Mediaeval Age and its Catholicism and hierarchically-structured society. These were ideas that were profoundly threatened by the French Revolution. In this atmosphere began to develop the idea of Austrian nationalism, an important player in which was another Tyrolean, Josef von Hormayr.
Hormayr, born in Innsbruck, entered the Austrian court at the start of the 19th century and became close to Archduke Johann, the younger brother of Francis II. As well as a history on the Tyrol region and numerous anti-Napoleon brochures, perhaps his most important work was the Österreichischer Plutarch, a twenty-volume publication dedicated to the lives of seventy-six Austrian rulers, statesmen, generals and intellectuals. This work replicated the idea that a Catholic, monarchic Austria, as a strong Germanic power, must stand up to Napoleon's tyranny. This image of Austria and dynastic loyalty to the Hapsburgs were deeply rooted in the Tyrolean mind-set. Indeed, Louis-Guillaume Otto, the French ambassador in Vienna in 1809, wrote to Jean-Baptiste de Nompère de Champagny, Minister of External Relations, noting that “The publications of this man [Hormayr] have the greatest influence on the [Tyrolean] rebels' spirit.”5

1809: war with Austria and insurrection in the Tyrol

In 1809, Napoleon and France dominated continental Europe. Eugène de Beauharnais was installed as viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, Murat was ruling the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Napoleon's brothers and sisters had been crowned as rulers throughout Western Europe. Prussia had been defeated in 1806 and 1807 and Russia was now allied with the French Empire following the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807. Spain had also been invaded in 1808; Austria was isolated, supported only by Britain. The pro-war camp in the Austrian court, under the guidance of Johann Philipp Stadion, Austrian foreign minister, was strong, and seizing on Hormayr's Austrian ideals, pushed Francis towards war. Andreas Hofer had political experience, having served in the Tyrolean Landtag in 1791, had been a captain in the Tyrolean irregulars in 1796 during Napoleon's Italian Campaign, and as an innkeeper was perfectly placed in terms of communicating news of the insurrection. As a local leader, he had also come into contact with Archduke Johann when the latter was forced to abandon the Tyrol after the Austrian defeat in 1805. Secret talks took place between Hofer, Archduke Johann and Stadion in January 1809, and an insurrection in the Tyrol was mooted as a possible diversion to the main military operations in the Germanic states.6 The area was also important in protecting Austria's flank during the war with France, particularly from troops coming up from Italy. Whilst troops departed towards Bavaria and Warsaw, 7,000 troops entered the Tyrol as messengers signalled the outbreak of the insurrection. On 9th April 1809, Archduke Charles crossed the Austrian border into Bavaria and war had begun.
Between 9th and 13th April, the Bavarian troops stationed in the region were massacred or driven out. On 12th April, Innsbruck was captured by Tyrolean tirailleurs. The entire region was in rebellion. By 12th April, 3,000 Bavarian troops had been killed, injured or taken prisoner.7 In particular, the French and Bavarian troops that fought in the Tyrol, used to battlefield combat, found the guerrilla nature of warfare difficult to cope with. The mountainous region limited the possibility for pitched battles. The Tyroleans, fighting as skirmishing sharpshooters, were highly mobile and able to pick off the advancing enemy from high up in the mountains. Alongside this they developed another highly successful tactic: artificial avalanches. A French general serving in the Armée d'Italie in December 1809 noted dispiritedly:
“The enemy can scale the highest of mountains, which are completely inaccessible to us, even for our most nimble voltigeurs [light skirmish troops]. I could not understand how they managed to walk on the snow, whilst we found ourselves up to our necks in it the moment we stepped off the cleared path. I finally discovered their secret. They have round boards, roughly fourteen pouces in diameter [35cm] that they attach to their feet, preventing them from sinking [in the snow]. I immediately had them tested, and they are currently being made for my voltigeurs, but they will not be anything like as skilled with them as the [Tyroleans] are, who are used to them.”8
The French and Bavarian defeats continued to mount up. On 13th April, General Bisson and his troops arrived near Innsbruck, low on ammunition and supplies, only to find themselves completely surrounded by Tyrolean irregulars. They were forced to surrender. By 16th April, Austrian troops had arrived in Innsbruck and the region was declared liberated. In the city, Hofer assumed the title of commander on behalf of the House of Hapsburg.9 Napoleon seemed content to leave the Tyrol to the Austrians, concerned more with events that were to take place further north.10 The French emperor, particularly early on in the insurrection, seems to have been unaware of the severity of events going on in the Tyrol. On 26th April, following Eugène de Beauharnais' retreat before Archduke Johann at Sacile (16th April), he told the viceroy that he need not fear much trouble in the area.11 However the insurrection had already been raging for two weeks, during which time Napoleon had arrived at the Bavarian front, defeating the Austrian army over five days, between 19th and 23rd April.12 Following Bavarian loss of control of the area, Napoleon took the problem seriously, dispatching Lefebvre to bring the Tyrol into line. Schwaz soon fell to Bavarian troops under the command of Karl Philipp Josef Wrede and Lefebvre seized Innsbruck on 19th May. Peace appeared to have returned to the area.

Innsbruck changes hands

However, upon capturing a French messenger, the Tyrolean command learned of Lefebvre's planned withdrawal from Innsbruck to Salzburg. Seizing the opportunity, hostilities were relaunched on 29th May, driven in part by news of the defeat of French troops at Aspern-Essling on 21st and 22nd May. Tyrolean tirailleurs captured the Berg Isel, a large hill and important strategic point to the south of Innsbruck. On 30th May, Hofer retook Innsbruck as Bavarian troops fled. As celebrations broke out across the region, tension began to mount between Hormayr and Hofer, Hormayr becoming jealous of Hofer's popularity.13 With Hormayr busy with the administrative, financial and defensive reorganisation of the Tyrol, Hofer returned home on 9th June.

Austria abandons the Tyrol

Between 5th and 6th July, French troops defeated their Austrian counterparts at Wagram. On 12th July, Austrian Archduke Charles signed the armistice at Znaim, which explicitly stipulated that Austrian troops should be evacuated from the Tyrol and the Vorarlberg. By 21st July, the Tyrolean rebels had received confirmation of the armistice, and the fact that Austria had abandoned them. Napoleon commented in his letter to Lefebvre that the armistice was merely to buy him some time to deal with the insurrection. “When I agreed the armistice, it was principally to subdue the Tyrol.”14 No longer prepared to ignore the insurrection, the French emperor wasted no time in instructing the Duc de Dantzig: “I want you to be in Innsbruck by 1st August. No remonstrating, be harsh. Disarm the country, take a large number of hostages, and make examples.”15 20,000 French, Bavarian and Saxon troops invaded the Tyrol from the north; 10,000 Italian troops came up from the south. Lefebvre seized control of the northern towns, encountering no resistance. Hormayr and his administrative staff fled Innsbruck, leaving the region without any leader. By 1st August, Lefebvre was installed in the city, and had published a decree ordering the inhabitants to disarm and the surrender of the insurrection's leaders. And yet, retaking the area was not to be a simple task. Firstly, Bavarian troops searched the local population, and then French and Bavarian troops under General Rouyer headed south to secure the remaining unpacified regions. But at the Eisack valley they faced resistance, coming up against Tyrolean tirailleurs and artificial avalanches. As Lefebvre followed with 7,000 men, he too was ambushed en route and forced to negotiate. And after days of negotiation, on his return to Innsbruck, he was harassed by Tyrolean irregulars the entire way. Canons, men and horses lined the route, abandoned, injured or dead. Too conspicuous in his own uniform, the French general was forced to wear that of a simple dragoon. The Berg Isel fell to the Tyroleans on 13th August. Faced with diminishing supplies and munitions, Lefebvre retreated with the remaining troops. Once again, Innsbruck belonged to Hofer and his men. On 15th August, Hofer became regent of the Tyrol, in the name of the emperor. Beset by problems, the regime would last two months. Hofer struggled to re-establish any administrative system in the city, the vast majority of the workers having fled with the Austrians or otherwise unwilling to work under a simple paysan. The treasury was also nearly empty and trade was almost non-existent. With the farmers away from their homes, crops began to fail and food became scarce. Many returned home.

The end of the line

As negotiations between France and Austria continued following the armistice, 16 With the Treaty of Schönbrunn signed on 14th October 1809, Austria was hit with war indemnities of 85 million Francs and the loss of a huge amount of territory, including Carinthia, Croatia and Galacia, which all went to France. The Tyrol became a Bavarian territory again. On the same day, Eugène de Beauharnais was given the mission of conquering the Tyrol. Following his retreat from Innsbruck, Lefebvre had been replaced by the Duke Drouet d'Erlon as head of the Bavarian forces. On 21st October, with Bavarian, French and Italian troops pouring into the region, the Tyroleans abandoned Innsbruck for the Berg Isel. Winter was closing in and with food shortages growing, Hofer's support declined and many of his men dispersed back into the mountains. On 28th/29th October, Hofer learnt of the peace treaty that had been signed by Austria. Abandoned by his beloved emperor, he took refuge in alcohol.17 The Tyrolean morale had been broken. By the evening of 1st November, Drouet d'Erlon had recaptured Innsbruck and the Berg Isel. Over the next few weeks, Hofer surrendered to the French, only to break his word shortly after and call for the resumption of hostilities. By 11th November, 1809, the Tyrol was entirely occupied. As reprisals were being carried out across the region, Hofer fled into the mountains with a large bounty on his head. On 5th January 1810, he was betrayed and denounced to the authorities, yet it was another three weeks before he was captured. On 28th January, he, his wife and his son were taken to Bozen, before eventually his family was released on 30th January. Napoleon learnt of the capture at the start of February and ordered Hofer to be tried immediately and executed.
Despite Hofer's devotion to the Hapsburg family, Francis I made little effort to intervene. Metternich was keen to treat with France, and neither was prepared to disrupt relations by raising the rather difficult subject of the innkeeper who had defied Napoleon for months. Austria needed breathing space to recover from the 1805 and 1809 wars and with Napoleon's “divorce” from Josephine finalised on 16th December 1809 and Marie-Louise Hapsburg lined up as a replacement, neither country looked to upset matters. On 20th February 1810, Hofer was executed by firing squad. Eight days later, the Tyrol region was divided up between Bavaria and the newly-created Illyrian Provinces. By March, conscription had been re-introduced. Indeed, a Tyrolean contingent would serve alongside Napoleon during the Russian campaign of 1812.

Andreas Hofer and the history of the insurrection

Napoleon never fully understood the insurrection or the reasons for which Hofer was fighting. Despite the mantra by which Hofer lived, “for God, the Emperor and the fatherland”, Napoleon never appeared to grasp that it was an ideological war against the French revolution and everything that it sought to eradicate, including conservative, traditional social hierarchy and the Catholic religion, as much as a war of liberation in reaction to the reforms implemented by Bavaria. Hofer's devoted loyalty to the Hapsburgs, although with hindsight misguided, remained incomprehensible for the pragmatist Napoleon, who never hesitated to dethrone a king or lock up the pope if it suited his needs.
However, the history of the insurrection and Hofer's role has become caught up in the historical debate and the legendary retellings that followed his death. The first issue up for debate was the role that Hofer played in the insurrection. His strongly held ideological views and devotion to the Austrian crown made him a perfect figurehead in the rebellion against the Bavarian forces. Equally, he rarely intervened in tactical discussions of a military nature. His leadership and his worth in battle came from his presence, the strength of his belief, and the moral and symbolic authority that he brought.18 Jean Sévillia notes that “Hofer's legitimacy was neither purely of a military nature, nor purely political. It was based on feudal order […] founded on a moral pact which linked [him] and the Archduke Johann and, above that, the Emperor Francis I.”19 He embodied the Tyrol region: a paysan, deeply religious, profoundly loyal and reservedly modest. His regency was characterised by the emphasis he placed on hospitality, piety and tradition. Even his thick, dark beard, modest attire and large hat contributed to his image as the embodiment of the Tyrol. Debate over his involvement was not long in coming; on 4th March, 1810, just two weeks after his death, the Gazette de France, reporting on Hofer's execution, remarked that he was “not a bad man, nor dangerous in himself, but his was caught up in his enthusiasm, and many terrible things were committed in his name. This man had absolutely no knowledge of military tactics, administration or politics; he was simple and ignorant. The Tyroleans venerate him, in sorts…”20 Already at this point, Hofer had become a Tyrolean symbol.
Then, in 1817, Hormayr published anonymously his Geschichte Hofers, his history of the insurrection and Hofer's actual involvement in it. Highly critical of the innkeeper, he also sought to claim the credit for the creation of the Hofer myth and emphasise his role in the events. Despite the politics involved in such an attempt, it does serve to illustrate the uncertainty around Hofer and the 'legend' of Hofer. His story greatly appealed to the Romantics of the time and those that came later. William Wordsworth dedicated a poem to him. In 1830, James Robinson Planché adapted the story of William Tell for an opera based on Hofer and the insurrection. Numerous histories appeared during the middle period of the 19th century, in French, Italian, German and English, many almost fictional in their retelling of the insurrection and Hofer's role. The image of Hofer was also embraced in the name of various different causes: German unification and Pan-Germanism during the 19th century (despite the fact that he was in fact fighting Bavarian occupation21), an anti-Nazi, anti-fascist resistance movement in the south Tyrol named the Andreas Hofer Allianz in 1939…

Yet during the 20th century, very little was written in France.22 In Austria, Hofer remained in the collective memory. A statue of the rebel was erected at the Berg Isel in 1893 and in 1909, the centenary celebrations of the insurrection saw 33,000 tirailleurs parade in Innsbruck. 1959 was celebrated with a parade of 26,000 tirailleurs. The Austrian monarchy of Hofer's triumvirate may be no more, but in the Tyrol, Hofer was not forgotten. Yet the exploitation of Hofer's image, indeed the 'idea' of Andreas Hofer, remains paradoxical, to the extent that many have lost sight of what he did and what he was actually fighting for. Hofer was fighting for his Catholicism, his Emperor and his homeland. It was not individual liberty that he was fighting for, but freedom from Bavarian domination. He wanted a return to Habsburg rule, despite being used and then abandoned by the Austrian Emperor to whom he was so devoted.
Hofer remains a Tyrolean national hero, the very symbol of Tyrolean identity, and, to a certain extent, of Tyrolean independence. The “freedom-fighter” hero remains a popular image; the reluctant one, even more so. Otto W. Johnston sums it up neatly thus: “Suffering, endurance, the building of character, and the offer of hope constitute the substance of Hofer's myth.”23 The fatherland, a distant third in Hofer's triumvirate, has taken precedence, usurping the other more conservative tenants that Hofer valued more highly. The image that many have of Hofer today is that of a revolutionary, fighting for his homeland and for individual freedom. Yet Hofer's insurrection was very anti-revolutionary in its ideals: this was not self-determinism and he was not looking forward. His regard was firmly set on the past, on a more conservative time, and more conservative values.


General Victor Bernard Derrécagaix, Nos Campagnes au Tyrol : 1797-1799-1805-1809, Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot et Cie.: Paris, 1910
Lee S. Harford, Jr, “Napoleon and the subjugation of the Tyrol”, in Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850 Proceedings 1989, (eds. Donald D. Howard & John C. Horgan), Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, Florida State University: Tallahassee (Florida), 1990, pp. 704-711
Otto W. Johnston, “The Myth of Andreas Hofer: Origins and Essence”, in Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850 Proceedings 1989, (eds. Donald D. Howard & John C. Horgan), Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, Florida State University: Tallahassee (Florida), 1990, pp. 720-728
Michel Kerautret, Les grands traités de l'Empire (1804-1810) : Documents diplomatiques du Consulat et de l'Empire, tome 2, Nouveau Monde/Fondation Napoléon: Paris, 2004
Jean Sévillia, Le Chouan du Tyrol: Andreas Hofer contre Napoléon, Perrin: Paris, 1991
Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, volumes XVII et XVIII 1808-1809, Bibliothèque des Introuvables: Paris, 2002
Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, volumes XIX et XX 1809-1810, Bibliothèque des Introuvables: Paris, 2002


1. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, vol. XIX et XX, 15030 pp. 448-449
2. Article 8, Treaty of Pressburg, 26 December 1805, in Michel Kerautret, Les Grands Traités de l'Empire (1804-1810) : Documents diplomatiques du Consulat et de l'Empire, 2004, p.134
3. Jean Sévillia, Le Chouan du Tyrol : Andreas Hofer contre Napoléon, 1991, p.78
4. Ibid., p.81
5. Letter from Otto to Champagny, 18 June 1809, quoted in Sévillia, 1991, p.33 (translation: author's own).
6. Lee S. Harford, "Napoleon and the subjugation of the Tyrol", in Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850 Proceedings 1989, 1990, p.704
7. Sévillia, 1991, p.118.
8. Raoul de Broglie, Souvenirs français dans le Tyrol, quoted in Sévillia, 1991, pp.119-120
9. Sévillia, 1991, p.125.
10. "I am leaving the Austrians masters of the Tyrol." Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, vol. XVII-XVIII, 15030, 15 April 1809 (translation: author's own). 
11. "“Turn your attention to the Tyrol, where you have absolutely nothing to fear." Ibid., 15128, 26 April 1809 (translation: author's own).
12. Battles at Teugen-Hausen, Abensberg, Landshut, Eckmühl and Ratisbon.
13. Sévillia, 1991, p.155
14. Ibid., 1991, p.161 
15. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, vol. XIX et XX, 15559, 20 July 1809, pp. 267-268
16. Sévillia, 1991, p. 189 (translation: author's own)
17. Ibid., p.197
18. Ibid., p.148
19. Ibid., 1991, p.125
20. Gazette de France, 4 March 1810, quoted in Sévillia, 1991, p.224 (translation: author's own)
21. Sévillia, 1991, p.237 
22. Ibid., p.231
23. Otto W. Johnston, "The Myth of Andreas Hofer: Origins and Essence", in Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850 Proceedings 1989, 1990, p.727
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