Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

The Black December or Death Knell for an Empire

Rizal languishes for three weeks in Fort Santiago before the inquiry proceedings begin. An action is brought against him on December 11, but the verdict has actually been submitted several days before this with the arrival of the new governor-general, Polavieja, for whose severity the friars asked after they had denounced his predecessor, Blanco, who had issued the carte-blanche permits to Rizal, as too liberal. The trial begins right on Christmas eve.

It is later reported that even Spanish lawyers thought that it was rather justice and not Rizal which was on trial. First of all, for hours, Rizal's brother, Paciano, is tortured. Thumbscrews are driven into his left hand so that he will sign the statement with his right hand, saying that his brother, as head of the "Katipunan", organized and led the revolution. Paciano, nevertheless, remains unflinching even when, in addition to this, he is hanged by his elbows until he loses consciousness.

Worthy of note is the fact that the Noli is accorded a significant place in the indictment. Apparently, the Spanish colonial regime had fully acknowledged the value and influence of the book: "In 1886 he published in Berlin a Tagalog novel in the Spanish language with the title Noli me tangere, a book that overflows with hatred against the mother country. In it, he lashes at the Spaniards with the most infamous insults, defiles the Catholic religion and attempts to prove that the Philippine nation can never be civilized as long as it is ruled by those whom he calls decadent and contemptible Castillians . . . It goes without saying that after the authorities received knowledge of it, the distribution of this work in the islands was forthwith prohibited. However, Rizal succeeded in eluding the government order and in distributing the book throughout the archipelago - with the foreseeable deleterious effects."

Once again the Noli is cited as argument in a dossier to the Governor-General who is supposed to decide on the reprieve of Rizal:
"A careful perusal of the book will show clearly the intention of the author, through ridicule, to discredit two institutions, which belonged to the sustaining pillars of the Spanish sovereignty over these islands, namely, the religious orders and the guardia civil . . . the authorities were given strict instructions to keep this propaganda, offensive to the Spanish sovereignty, away from our borders."

And finally in the state prosecutor's summing up: "It can therefore be assumed as proven that . . . Dr. Rizal, through the publication of his works Noli me tangere and . . . (here more works of Rizal follow) in which religion, the friars and the Spanish government are attacked, wanted to gradually propagate in the people of the Philippines the belief that the expulsion of the religious orders was worth striving for - as a means to the - at least desired indirectly - independence of the country."

But a role as significant as the one attributed to the Noli and the other works was assigned to the Fili too. From the indictment:
"Somewhat later he publishes a second book with the title El Filibusterismo, which he specially dedicates to the memory of the three native priests, who, because of their participation in the revolt of Cavite, were sentenced to death in 1872. He gives them the halo of the martyrs. At the same time, he hurls threats with impunity against the nation which, in the exercise of its rights, could hardly submit to this attack on the legitimate authority."

In the indictment, the "Liga Filipina" and the "Katipunan" are arbitrarily mixed up or are referred to as one and the same organization. Every oral or written remark of Rizal about reforms, human rights, independence, is construed as a call to revolution. Rizal does not know some of the witnesses at all; he does not get the opportunity of a confrontation with them nor of a cross-examination of the witnesses. He is denied examination of the incriminating documents and the services of a professional lawyer. A mere lieutenant is allowed to act as his obligatory counsel for defence.

But even this counsel says in his summing up for the defence that the indictment preferred is not sufficient for Rizal to be convicted. He enumerates the following permissible pieces of evidence: visual inspection of the scene of the crime, admission of the accused, reliable witnesses, the opinion of experts, official documents, or at least, circumstantial evidences. He maintains that Rizal's guilt has not been proven through any of these means. According to the counsel for defence, what remains is his writings which have been known for a long time and, at most, presented transgressions of the censor and the law on the ban of the book. Hence, the verdict would have to be "not guilty".

It was to no avail; it is not a question of justice or injustice here. In its war in two fronts - in Cuba and in the Philippines - the Spanish colonial power is determined to set an example. The head must fall, then the body, the revolution will follow.

It is worthy of note that the name of Ferdinand Blumentritt does not turn up at all in the bill of indictment. Yet, it can hardly be presumed that the close collaboration of the two friends, the decisive influence of Blumentritt on Rizal, the assistance and advice of the Leitmeritzer on decisions concerning the political activity in exile and in the home country - that all of these things were not known to the Spanish court authorities. In their tribulations, they probably did not want to bring on a diplomatic conflict with the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy too. Yet, secretly, all attempts have apparently been made to drag Blumentritt into the mock trial too. Allegedly, there was intervention up to the highest offices: ". . . the Spanish government demanded, even if in vain, the delivery of the Leitmeritz professor from the Austrian government". (Professor Fritz Blumentritt, the oldest son, on September 12, 1930 in the "Leitmeritzer Zeitung" (Leitmeritz Newspaper)) In any case, the story that Emperor Franz Josef himself prevented the extradition of the professor is current within the Blumentritt family up to now.

On December 29, 1896, Rizal is found guilty of establishing illegal organizations and of supporting and inciting to the crime of rebellion, and is condemned to death. He spends his last 24 hours in his death cell where he receives members of his family and writes his letter of farewell [See Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence], the first one to his "second brother ' Ferdinand Blumentritt.

Rizal gives his sister, Trinidad, an old petroleum lamp and whispers to her in English that there is something inside the lamp. Thus is Rizal's famous farewell poem "Ultimo Adios", (Last Farewell) is found. This poem has so far been translated into more than 100 languages. A new German version by the Austrian, Dr. Wilhelm Muster, was made in December 1982 through the initiative of the Austrian Ambassador, Dr. Friedrich Posch and was presented to the National Historical Institute in a ceremony in Fort Santiago:

Last Farewell

Rizal marries his Irish girlfriend according to Catholic rites in the very last hours of his life, after living with her for sometime in Dapitan. They were previously married civilly. On the morning of December 30, 1896, Rizal sets on his walk from Fort Santiago to the Bagumbayan square, now Luneta Park, in the center of Manila at 6:30 6:30 o'clock. Many details are told about this walk; how Rizal, on this walk, tells the priest accompanying him of his earlier strolls in that place; how the military doctor admires the normal pulse rate of Rizal shortly before his execution; how Rizal requests that he be shot in the chest, which is denied him; how he forgives all those involved in his execution.

The Spanish authority set up the ceremony like a fair. Hundreds of men and women of the Spanish colony appeared in their best clothes in order to celebrate the death of their enemy. Troop units were paraded; a musical band celebrated the death of Rizal by playing the national anthem continuously. The firing squad was composed of Filipino soldiers of the colonial army, but behind them stood a detachment of Spanish soldiers with muskets leveled at their "brown comrades" in case they should refuse to shoot their countryman.

Rizal, ready and calm, takes his position opposite his executioners. Roll of drums and a volley of artillery accompany the firing of the soldiers. And even at the moment of his fall, Rizal turns his body so that he ends up lying on his back, with his face to the sun. The elegant Spanish ladies wave their handkerchiefs, the Gentlemen applaud. And while the Filipinos see the execution in enraged silence, calls of "Viva España!" resound thunderously. Long live Spain? Did not those who cried out surmise that the shots which they had just heard were the prelude of the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire in the 7,000 islands?

The execution of Rizal stirred emotions all over the world. The newspapers, which otherwise hardly took notice of this distant country reported about the execution. The international prestige of the Spanish colonialism, already discredited, suffered a heavy blow. Indeed in the Philippines itself, the death of the man, who for millions ot people had been the embodiment of uprightness, of tolerance, of kindness and helpfulness, but above all of liberalism, of freedom and independence, had the effect of a beacon. Thousands of those who hesitated, who were undecided, who were afraid perceived the death of Rizal as a mute call to join up with the revolutionaries whose ranks swelled in the weeks and months that followed.

The historical significance of Rizal in the world cannot be assessed sufficiently. The three titans of the anti-colonial emancipation struggle in Asia were born within a period of eight years: Rizal in 1861, Sun Yat Sen in 1866 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1869. All of them, educated in the West and influenced by it introduced a period of new thinking in Asia. However, at a time when Sun Yat Sen was still a student and Gandhi a schoolchild, Rizal as the first one among the three was preparing in a concrete form not just the first nationalistic revolution but was aiso consciously developing the thesis of equal rights for the colored people, of the partnership of the countries not governed by the whites in the manner by which it has become the basis of international relations today. Certainly in his time, when the colonial powers were still in a race for Africa, such an idea elicited in the West every negative sentiment ranging from ridicule to disgust.

And it was Blumentritt who helped Rizal formulate and propagandize these ideas, who without being Asian himself, without personal or national motives as an imperial civil servant, or even himself subject of an empire, which although has never been a colonial power in the classical sense, perceived the explosive force of these ideas. How many and which ideas of this structure originated from the head of Blumentritt, how great his share is in the development, which up to today is still continuously active, cannot of course be reckoned mathematically. But the handed down documents speak for themselves.

Thus, Rizal was the architect of the awakening of Asia, the apostle of nationalism in the biggest continent of the world, its first one who called for freedom and independence. And the revolution which he evoked was the first historical proof that the colonized peoples could produce capable politicians and commander-in-chiefs just like the whites, that the derided "coolies" and "buffalo herdsmen" were capable of defeating the European soldiers who were better armed and trained. The dream of the infallibility and invincibility of the white man, which for centuries had been the basis of the colonial rule, vanished. This is the historical service of Rizal, and with his - that of Blumentritt's too.

The immediate effects were not long in coming. Eighteen months and thirteen days after Rizal's death, the Spanish flag was brought down from Fort Santiago where he spent the eve of his death, as a sign of capitulation.

When Blumentritt received the farewell letter and his friend's book, he broke down crying. The book was an anthology of German poems, which Blumentritt himself in the past had sent to his friend in Dapitan and which Rizal had provided with comments and marginal notes.

Blumentritt pulls himself together only after several days so that he is able to write his friends all over the world of the serious loss, with words which are once more proving his prophetic power: "The mark which the execution of our friend Rizal leaves behind is so strong that one can say confidently: From this day on, a new era in the history of the Philippines has dawned."

Blumentritt never got over the shock of the loss of his friend, of his "twin brother", his "second I". But after the first grief, he comes to the decision that he can honor the memory of his friend most effectively if he continues his work, if he continues fighting for "his" Philippines, fosters his contacts and expands them and informs and enlightens the world by the spoken word and in writing about the events in the empire of 7,000 islands. The study room in Leitmeritz becomes, more than ever, a meeting place of the Filipino elite, who as successors of Rizal, set out to organize spiritual and material aid for the revolution and to represent the young republic as unofficial ambassadors there. Numbering among the most prominent are Juan Luna and Felipe Agoncillo. Luna, whose brother Antonio will be considered as one of the most noted generals of the revolution, for his part, ranks among the greatest of the modern Philippine painters, a disciple of modern impressionism, who obtains first prizes in international exhibits in Madrid and Paris and represents the Republic in France. He leaves behind a painting for Blumentritt which shows the flag of the republic waving over the hills of Leitmeritz. Agoncillo was the legal adviser of Aguinaldo, head of the European Commission of the Republic and information minister. As envoy of Aguinaldo to the USA, he attempts to make the Senate reverse its decision to ratify the Treaty of Paris, under which the Philippines had actually just been purchased by the USA from the Spaniards.

Altogether, the Professor from Leitmeritz hardly had time to grieve idly over his friend. The more than precarious truce of Biak-na-Bato, which had been broken again and again by both parties, would probably have led to a trench warfare between the Spaniards and the revolutionaries lasting for years, ending sooner or later, with the collapse of the Spanish colonial power in all parts of the world. And would have brought a solution for the Philippines similar to that in Latin America. But an unforeseeable turn of events transformed an internal conflict in a forgotten corner of Asia into a dramatic international-political conflict of historically-significant proportions.

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created: March 28, 1998
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger