History: Stones of remembrance

Honoring Jacob Hutter and 11 other martyrs, Austrian memorial invites visitors to 'reflect on how we treat dissenters'

Dec 19, 2016 by

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I had my apple strudel and coffee — not to be missed if you’re visiting Innsbruck, Austria — in a café along Maria Theresa Street. I read again the brass plaque marking the 1536 execution of Jacob Hutter — easy to overlook in the shadow of the famous Golden Roof. Surely, there must be more evidence of Hutter in this city.

Indeed, as I discovered, the city had not forgotten the Anabaptist martyr for whom Hutterites were named, nor 11 other Anabaptists who died here.

A circle of stones at Hutter Park in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorates 12 Anabaptist martyrs. — John E. Sharp

A circle of stones at Hutter Park in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorates 12 Anabaptist martyrs. — John E. Sharp

Along the swift, grayish-green Inn River with the Alps rising high above it, city and regional officials and local church leaders — Catholic, Lutheran and Free Churches — have built a memorial, Übrige Brocken (Remaining Fragments), in a lovely space named “Hutterpark.”

Twelve boulders, representing 12 Anabaptists executed during the harsh regime of Archduke Ferdinand I (1503-1564), are arranged in a circle to represent the communal life of the Hutterites.

Engraved in each stone is one word; together they comprise a verse: “For they shall be as stones in a crown, lifted up as an ensign upon this land” (Zech. 9:16).

In addition to Hutter, the men and women memorialized here are Michael Kürsch­ner-Klesinger, Anna Malerin, Ursula Uchsentreiberin, Ursula Hellrigl, Georg Libich, Michael Zell­er and spouse, Hans Mändel, Eustachius Kotter, Georg Mair-Rack and Niclas Geyrsbühler.

These and many other Anabaptists were terrorized by Ferdinand, who was determined to clear the region of religious dissenters.

How did this memorial come to be?

It began with the formation of the Hutterite Working Committee of Tyrol and South Tyrol in 2005 in order to revisit the injustice suffered by the Hutterites. Roman Catholic bishops of two dio­ceses, Innsbruck and Bozen-Brixen, sent a letter to Hutterite leaders in North America in 2008.

The members of the committee were moved by the story of the Anabaptist martyrs and acted to acknowledge “the great injustice suffered by their forefathers.”

The memorial was dedicated Oct. 16, 2015, supplemented by a symposium on Anabaptists. One can identify the place along the Franz-Greiter Promenade at the covered Hans-Psenner-footbridge over the Inn River.

But why?

A plaque at the memorial invites visitors to “reflect on how we treat dissenters.” Furthermore, the faith of the Hutterites, “their pacifism and their commitment to freedom of thought, as well as their strong sense of community, can be seen as a guiding light for the Tyrolean people.”

As Jesse Hofer wrote on his hutterites.org blog, Archduke Ferdinand, who later became Holy Roman Emperor, “may have been wearing his royal crown and exercising his royal authority when he ordered the execution of countless Anabaptists in the early part of the 16th century, but God has a way of scattering the proud and exalting the lowly. The witness of the martyrs may yet have the final word.”

This witness to the martyrs is not yet the final word, but the story has become visible with the Übrige Brocken memorial in Hutterpark.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.

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