A Beautiful Jail is Still a Jail: Rupert Mayer in Ettal

Father Rupert Mayer was a war hero and an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime.  My last post described how visitors flock to his bronze bust in St. Michael’s Church in Munich to honor his memory.

RupertMayer12-12

After imprisoning him in Landsberg Prison (where Hitler himself had once spent a few months before he came to power), the Nazis sent Father Mayer to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  However, they were reluctant to actually kill such a well-loved figure.  So in 1939 they sent him to remote Ettal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the border with Austria.  He spent the rest of the war under house arrest, forbidden to preach or speak in public.

Another Nazi opponent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent the winter of 1940-1941 at the Abbey.  He worked on his book Ethics while there.  I can imagine conversations between the two brave men of conscience during long winter nights.

The little village of Ettal is close to the Austrian border, with spectacular mountains and lakes all around.  The area is so beautiful that King Ludwig II chose it for his favorite home palace, Linderhof, just a stone’s throw away. The village is pretty, surrounded by biking  and hiking paths. There’s a tempting bakery and a couple of cozy old hotels, one of them run by the monks.

EttalTown

The monastery has a turbulent history of its own, having been secularized at times. But for most of the time since the 1300s, monks have welcomed visitors, brewed a world-renowned beer, distilled herbal liqueurs, and made cheese. Since the 1700s, they have run a well-regarded college preparatory school with free tuition. In summer, people bike over from nearby towns like Oberammergau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  They picnic in the grounds and tour the distillery and cheese-making facility.

The Baroque church is spectacular, with a dome painted to imitate the heavens.  

InsideDome

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not under arrest during his time in Ettal; he was able to carry his message of resistance out into the world after he left.  Shortly before the war’s end, he paid with his life.

I’ve been to Ettal twice, both short stops in winter, within a year or two of a terrible scandal.   Both times were in December; probably the students were on holiday break.  In 2010, abuse of students by a few monks during the 1960s through early 1980s was exposed and presumably dealt with.   The village was friendly, but the church and monastery felt secretive and closed-off.  Although the church doors were open and candles were lit, no one was around.  I was glad to take a quick look and leave. I’m sure summer would be much more pleasant and informative.

Reportedly some of the Ettal community members were actively involved in plots against Hitler during the war. The buildings are huge and sprawling. I can well imagine plots and secret meetings in the honeycomb of hallways, classrooms, monks’ cells, and dormitories. Ironically, the place where the Nazis confined Rupert Mayer was probably one of the safest havens for those who tried to plot the downfall of the regime.

Father Rupert Mayer was a man of action. I’m sure the worst part of his long confinement was being unable even to preach from the pulpit of the beautiful Baroque church. He was so dangerous to the Nazi regime that he had to be silenced, even in the remote backwater of Ettal.

Pulpit detail, Mattana photo, public domain

Pulpit detail, Mattana photo, public domain

Join me next time for more explorations into some of the byways of European art and history.

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