On this date in 1757, Catholic priest Andreas Faulhaber was hanged at the order of Frederick the Great to defend the seal of the confessional.
Frederick had been appointed by the Heavenly Father, and a cruel earthly one, to a task far too monumental to tarry with theology: lifting the Kingdom of Prussia from the morass of German principalities and into the ranks of Europe’s great powers. Frederick was nominally a Protestant, as was the bulk of his domain, and der Alte Fritz once remarked that this profession pleasingly liberated his sovereignty from papal interference; his real doctrine was nothing but pragmatism.
Accordingly, the great enlightened absolutist sponsored Jesuit educators where schools were needed and Jewish merchants where trade was needed.
I’ve seen his good intentions dropped
At the first trumpet blast.
They are nothing more than kings;
And live their lives with bloody things,
They take or rape a few provinces
To suit their ambitious ends
I give up, say goodbye princes
I want no one now but friends.
But Voltaire did not in fact break with his royal admirer and correspondent over Silesia.
Frederick christened his new reign in 1740-42 by ripping the wealthy* province of Silesia away from the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs were Prussia’s Catholic rivals for preeminence in central Europe and Silesia too was heavily Catholic, so Frederick extended over that province as liberal a grant of religious toleration as he might.
But the attachments of men for the kings of their forefathers are not always so easily displaced, and neither are those of kings for the most lucrative soil of their patrimony. Austria made two subsequent attempts to retrieve Silesia; together with Frederick’s initial invasion, these are the Silesian Wars.
The last of the three was itself just one theater of the gigantic Seven Years’ War. The conflict between Prussia and Austria over Silesia, and the complex continental diplomatic entanglements** each power effected in its pursuit, were among the root causes of that entire globe-spanning conflict.
Prussia won the first two Silesian Wars handily, but the third was a much more doubtful affair — indeed, Prussia was well on its way to defeat before the shock death of the Russian empress delivered that country into the hands of an unabashed Germanophile who pulled Russia out of the war.
But in view of Frederick the Great’s strained situation prior to this providential deliverance, some of his Silesian subjects made free to prefer their prospective Catholic/Austrian allegiance to that of their recent conqueror.
Desertions among Silesian conscripts, some of them even escaping to Austrian lines, called down the dark side of the religious toleration policy. Frederick let people pray as they liked so that he could rule as he liked; here, when he suspected the Silesian Catholic clergy of countenancing wartime disloyalty among their flock, those religious scruples had overstepped their proper sphere.
And so at last we come to our day’s execution.
One young man caught attempting to desert Frederick’s army was captured and interrogated by his commanders. He allowed that he had undertaken the sacrament of confession before escaping, and expressed to the priest his intention to abandon the army.
The priest, Father Andreas Faulhaber, was arrested on this basis, but between his calm defense of himself and the deserter’s shifting, unreliable story, the military court found little basis to proceed. The impression one gets is that the contemplated desertion was not the main thrust of the confession and that Father Faulhaber accordingly discouraged the sin in passing but didn’t bother to dwell on the point.
The impression is difficult to substantiate because the padre rigorously kept the seal of the confessional — another imposition demanded by faith that secular authorities who had armies to field preferred not to honor.
But evidently looking to serve notice that the monarch’s religious indifference could not be used to abrogate subjects’ responsibility to the state, Frederick himself ordered Faulhaber’s sudden execution for the morning of December 30.
The unfortunate priest only discovered his impending fate moments before it was enacted, but still refused under the makeshift gallows to give up anything incriminating about his parishioner. “Hang up the Jesuit Faulhaber, but let him not have a confessor,” read the order, according to this decidedly Catholic account, which adds that Faulhaber was not actually a Jesuit at all, and the word only added to invoke the going 18th century prejudice against that order.
Prussia won this war, too. It kept Silesia in Prussian hands, and then German hands, for two centuries. The bulk of Silesia was transferred to Poland after World War II.
* Silesia provided one-quarter of all the Habsburgs’ tax revenue, according to Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters.
** For the Seven Years’ War, Austria made common cause with its traditional foe, France: one consequence of this arrangement was the betrothal of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future French king Louis XVI.