Blogs > HNN > Duane L. Cady: Review of Richard Deats's Marked for Life: The Story of Hildegard Goss-Mayr (New City Press, 2009)

Oct 11, 2009 11:43 pm

Duane L. Cady: Review of Richard Deats's Marked for Life: The Story of Hildegard Goss-Mayr (New City Press, 2009)

Duane L. Cady is Professor of Philosophy at Hamline University.

Hildegard Goss-Mayr, an Austrian Catholic peace advocate, has led a remarkable life teaching, organizing, and practicing nonviolence since the end of World War II. Little-known but widely influential, her work began in Europe but took her to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America, always involving local struggles for peace, justice, freedom, and reconciliation. This book fills one void and helps fill another: the first is the absence of secondary material available on the career of Hildegard Goss-Mayr; the second is the scarcity of material available on the successful application of nonviolent direct action to the most difficult problems of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.

Hildegard Goss-Mayr was born in 1930. Her father, Kaspar Mayr, a German Army veteran of World War I, inspired by a Christian vision of peace, became a pacifist after witnessing the carnage of trench warfare. He worked for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), an ecumenical movement promoting nonviolence, and made the family home in Vienna when IFOR moved its office there to further work on German/Polish reconciliation. The rise of Hitler and Nazi racist ideology forced an end to this work and IFOR moved its office to Paris. Kaspar’s travel documents were confiscated so he and his family stayed in Vienna. He was considered a subversive and the Mayr home was kept under surveillance.

Family politics rubbed off on Hildegard. At twelve she refused to salute the Fuhrer’s passing motorcade when her school class was expected to offer the raised arm and “Heil Hitler!” Years later she remarked, “At the time I didn’t realize its importance, but that experience has marked my life.”

At eighteen Hildegard and her brother attended an International Youth Conference in England, organized by the British FOR, meeting others of their generation from throughout Europe seeking to find their place in the post-war world. She began studies in philosophy, philology, and history at the University of Vienna in 1948 and spent her second year studying democracy at a program for German and Austrian exchange students at Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut. Her academic work was so strong that she wrote a senior thesis as a sophomore. After returning to the University of Vienna she received her doctorate in philosophy with a Gold Medal never before awarded to a woman and presented by the President of Austria.

Given the militarism of the Warsaw Pact/NATO Cold War, Hildegard was convinced that East/West reconciliation was needed more than ever. Following World War II the IFOR office had been reestablished and in 1953 Hildegard was asked to join its staff, providing an opportunity to build on her pacifist heritage. Her early work focused on East/West dialogue grounded in truth, advocacy of nonviolence, reconciliation, and establishing contacts through and among churches, all of which were discounted by the two sides of the Cold War. During this bridge-building work Hildegard met Frenchman Jean Goss in 1954.

Eighteen years Hildegard’s senior, Jean grew up in poverty with four siblings and his mother, his father having abandoned the family. When Hitler rose to power and war engulfed France, Jean became a highly decorated soldier, yet he came to realize that he was not killing Hitler but other ordinary men like himself. This realization led to a mystical experience at Easter, 1940, when Jean received God’s nonviolence in one night and found himself captured by the Germans. He witnessed his pacifist conversion to his fellow prisoners and even his captors.

Eventually, a group of prisoners joined him in trying to practice absolute love. After the war Jean joined the French Fellowship of Reconciliation and eventually became its leader. Along the way of his nonviolent activism, Jean met Hildegard in Paris while she was organizing a gathering of Western European Catholic pacifists. Jean the mystic activist joined forces with Hildegard the scholarly organizer. They married in 1957 and worked together through an IFOR center in Vienna that Hildegard had proposed for East/West work.

Organizing through the church, Hildegard taught nonviolence throughout Eastern Europe and Jean distributed pacifist leaflets, even in Red Square. In ’62 they were involved with US/USSR tensions over Soviet missiles in Cuba. Also in the early ‘60s they were influential in the Second Vatican Council urging East/West dialogue. They were part of a “peace lobby” influencing the Roman Catholic hierarchy to rethink their traditional just war position on the grounds that modern warfare does not discriminate between combatants and innocents, and that atomic, biological, and chemical weapons are immoral. Promoting a gospel of nonviolence, the Goss-Mayrs advocated for Church recognition of conscientious objector status and civil disobedience for Catholics opposed to war.

This led them to working with the Church in Latin America, focusing on the plight of the oppressed and nonviolent liberation. They taught nonviolence throughout South America (Adolpho Perez Esquivel, 1980 Nobel Peace Laureate, learned nonviolence from them), and organized a conference in Colombia in 1974 that gathered sixty-five representatives from twenty-two countries and resulted in the creation of Servicio Paz y Justica, perhaps better known as SERPAJ, the leading Latin American peace coalition. In the late 1970s Archbishop Oscar Romero convinced Hildegard of the importance of an international campaign to pressure Latin American governments, shining a light on injustice and human rights violations.

By the mid ‘80s Hildegard was invited around the world to teach nonviolence and organize nonviolent direct actions. Some of her most lasting and visible work was in the Philippines where she persuaded fifteen Bishops to bear witness to one hundred ten other Bishops on behalf of the gospel of nonviolence. Using the church as the organizational structure, the “people power” movement grew. When President Ferdinand Marcos proposed an election to prove he was not a dictator but had popular support, Corazon Aquino, widow of martyred Senator Benigno Aquino, who had attended Hildegard’s nonviolence seminar, stepped up to challenge Marcos. After Marcos’ agents published false election results, the Minister of Defense and head of armed forces defected and declared allegiance to Aquino, the people rallied in support, and the unarmed forces of the Philippines achieved a nonviolent revolution.

Hildegard then turned to Africa, organizing nonviolent action for liberation from colonial powers throughout the continent. Jean’s unexpected death in 1991 was a severe blow, but inspired by Jean’s life and faith, Hildegard continued their work alone. She continues a schedule of speaking and consulting, now a cherished wise elder of the international peace movement.

Richard Deats, former FOR Executive Director and editor emeritus of Fellowship, has told a fascinating story from an insider’s perspective, making Hildegard Goss-Mayr’s remarkable career available to a wide audience. If the book has a shortcoming it is that the reader is left wanting more about the life and work of this incredible woman. The book includes eight short articles by Hildegard Goss-Mayr, a chronology of her life, and a list of works cited. Recommended for academic and public libraries, for use in courses on social change and nonviolence, and for general readers interested in the peace movement.

comments powered by Disqus