(Editor’s note: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, the subject of this book review, will receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award on Sept. 20 in Christ the King Chapel on the campus of St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The public is invited to the ceremony, which begins at 3 p.m.)
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. “Marked for Life: The Story of Hildegard Goss-Mayr” by Richard Deats fills one void and helps fill another: the first is the absence of secondary material available on the career of Hildegard; the second is the scarcity of material available on the successful application of nonviolent direct action to the most difficult problems of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Hildegard 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. Family politics rubbed off on Hildegard. At 12 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.”
She began studies at the University of Vienna in 1948 and spent her second year studying democracy at Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut. 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 Austria’s president.
Following World War II the IFOR office had been reestablished and Hildegard joined its staff in 1953. Her early work focused on East/West dialogue grounded in truth, advocacy of nonviolence, reconciliation and establishing contacts through and among churches. During this bridge-building work, Hildegard met Frenchman pacifist Jean Goss in 1954 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.
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. The Goss-Mayrs also 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 resulted in the creation of Servicio Paz y Justica, 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 15 bishops to bear witness to 110 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, 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. Jean’s unexpected death in 1991 was a severe blow, but inspired by his life and faith, Hildegard continued their work. Today she is a speaker, consultant and 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.
(Duane Cady is professor of philosophy at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.)