The Egalitarian Radicalism of Thomas Müntzer

Reformation-era preacher Thomas Müntzer’s menacing of elites and his role in the Peasants’ War won him a lasting reputation as a theologian of revolution. Müntzer fostered apocalyptic dreams of equality in a time of tyrants, only to find his head on a spike.

Engraving of Thomas Müntzer. (Wikimedia Commons)

When the princes finally captured Thomas Müntzer, they put the thumbscrews on him. Shortly before he was beheaded on May 27, 1525, he confessed under torture to starting the Peasants’ War “in order that Christianity should make all men equal.” Any noble who refused to share his goods “amongst everyone according to their need” was “to have his head chopped off or be hanged.” These revelations gave this inflammatory preacher a lasting reputation as a theologian of revolution.

Müntzer was a hero to the German Democratic Republic, whose leaders made a present of his manuscripts to Joseph Stalin and built a grand memorial to him on the site of his bloody defeat at Bad Frankenhausen. Today the local tourist office markets it as “the Sistine Chapel of the North.” However, celebrations of Müntzer as a protocommunist come up against a scarcity of corroborating evidence. Torturers get the answers they want, but Müntzer’s publications and correspondence provide no hint of his opposition to early capitalism or private property.

Andrew Drummond’s skeptical and compassionate biography documents a life that is as much a warning as an inspiration to the modern left. Its evocative, exquisitely detailed panorama of Reformation Germany leads us to reflect on the tangled links between religious zeal and the successful exercise of political power.

A Radical in Search of a Job

“His father had been hanged.” With this arresting opening, Éric Vuillard began his novella, The War of the Poor, a fiery and deliberately loose telling of Müntzer’s short life. No wonder the teenage Müntzer had entered a revolutionary underground that plotted to overthrow the church and the nobility — the Count of Stolberg had strung his father up “like a sack of grain.”

By contrast, Drummond warns us that there is no evidence “whatsoever” to support this “colorful legend.” We are thoroughly in the dark about most of Müntzer’s life. It is hard to be sure even of when he was born — 1489, probably — what education he received or even what he looked like. We do know he was born in the Harz region of Saxony, where the recent discovery of silver had generated turbulence and prosperity.

Did that environment predispose him to religious radicalism? In our almost secular age, it is tempting to view the German Reformation as a social earthquake that merely assumed a religious guise. Drummond quotes Karl Marx’s saying that in “epochs of revolutionary crisis” people “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service,” which, at this time, were biblical.

If Martin Luther’s defiance of the Pope, hostility to a wealthy, celibate clergy, and commitment to the vernacular translation of Scripture were not expressions of social grievances, then their rapid spread throughout German lands may well have been. Perhaps the merchants, miners, and budding humanists of Saxon and Thuringian towns really wanted to throw off the feudal shackles whose ultimate guarantor was a foreign potentate, the Pope.

Although the Reformation’s objectives often rhymed with socioeconomic grievances, Müntzer’s career demonstrates that they were not synonymous with them. Theology mattered not just as a supply of what Marx called “names, battle slogans, and costumes” but as a source of political thinking in itself. When he fully enters the historical record, Müntzer does so as someone on the margins, clinging to the institutions of his day to eke out a living while also kicking against them.

As a university graduate and jobbing priest who wanted to advance Luther’s reforms, he bore a passing resemblance to the luckless adjuncts of our own time — shuttling from place to place in search of security and constantly defending himself against charges of dangerous speech. In 1521, a conservative, scholarly colleague forced him out of a promising post at Zwickau; in 1523, he fled Halle after being implicated in an iconoclastic riot.

When Müntzer finally landed a good pastorate in the Saxon town of Allstedt in the spring of 1523, his priorities were thoroughly otherworldly: a painstaking overhaul of the church’s liturgy. Unlike many other Reformers, he wished to retain the Roman Church’s round of chanted services. However, he translated them into German and published the results — a laborious, highly technical and expensive undertaking in the early days of the printed press. A religious mind like Müntzer’s upends our scales of calculation, weighing apparent trivialities as matters of enormous moment. Every single detail of liturgy was vital because it was the means of bringing the Gospel, locked away in Latin by the Church, to the people.

The Gospel of Populists

What was this gospel? Drummond brilliantly evokes not just its radicalism but its strangeness. Its foundational idea was that the Scriptures shouldn’t be regarded as a difficult text requiring years of study to master. Müntzer’s fearsome polemics, translated with much vim by Drummond, anticipate not so much the socialism of the twentieth century as the raging populism of the twenty-first.

He attacked universities and mocked theologians as “donkey-farting” or “foolish, scrotal” doctors whose display of expertise concealed an eagerness to suck up to godless elites. Luther was the primary target of his obsessive attacks: “Doctor Tread-Softly” was more obscurantist than the Pope because he had “smeared” the mouth of the nobility with “honey” by assuring them that the Bible contained nothing to disturb their comfort. One of his pamphlets coined a hundred and one different insulting epithets for Luther, a hit rate even Donald Trump might envy.

Despite this egalitarianism, Müntzer did entrust the interpretation of Scripture to an elite, one whose qualifications were spiritual rather than intellectual or monetary. Only those who had known extreme pain could participate in — or, in Müntzer’s daring phrase, “complete” — the sorrows of Jesus Christ and thereby comprehend his teachings. Müntzer called them the Elect. While the English term suggests the complicated systems of salvation later introduced to Protestant thought by Calvinism, Müntzer’s idea was much simpler: because grace came through pain, not only academic qualifications but also external sacraments such as baptism were irrelevant.

The psychological origins of Müntzer’s masochistic spirituality are now impossible to recover, but its usefulness in internecine conflicts is clear. Every setback, every act of persecution merely confirmed his faith that “no one can find God’s mercy without being forsaken.” It was perhaps this sustaining faith in the ennobling consolations of failure that makes him a man of the Left. Luther’s judgment was as shrewd as it was characteristically nasty: “He invented a great cross on which he suffered.”

Apocalyptic Dreams

Suffering constituted the first pillar of the Elect’s authority. The second was dreams. During his time in Zwickau, he mingled with a group that claimed dreams provided them with direct access to God. Even cautious Reformers, such as Luther’s enforcer Philip Melanchthon, initially admired their charismatic assurance before deeming dreams an unstable source of wisdom and a threat to social order. Müntzer saw it differently: dreams were the key to unlocking Scripture.

His most famous sermon was an essay in how to read dreams properly. Taking as its text King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of an enormous statue, composed of different materials, Müntzer argued that the prophet Daniel had grasped its meaning: it symbolized the passage of successive regimes in history, which would culminate with the reign of the Messiah. While the Middle Ages had not lacked for apocalyptic thinkers, such a detailed chronology of salvation, which synced it with historical events, was a daring innovation.

Müntzer’s own dreams were no less millenarian. He believed that imminent, shattering convulsions would herald the Second Coming. The harvest was ripe, and it was time to sharpen the sickles. Some apocalyptic dreamers, like his contemporary Andreas Karlstadt, waited patiently for Christ’s coming, but Müntzer wanted to fight for it. Yet the political reach of his violent imagination was initially unclear. Drummond ventures the idea that Müntzer offered a form of “democracy” to the towns in which he operated. What he truly craved was though a theocracy, in which God would rule “as our friend.”

If not democratic, his preaching was superbly demotic. Müntzer warned German princes to their faces that if they did not use their swords “for the destruction of the godless,” then they would be taken from them. He vehemently criticized lords who blocked access to his teaching. When Count Ernst of Mansfeld ordered his archers to shoot at villagers who trekked to hear his sermons, Müntzer reviled him by letter, signing himself “the destroyer of the faithless.”

He was happy at first to wage war with the written word. The fragmentation of authority in early modern Germany allowed him to work on the islands between hostile jurisdictions. Although Allstedt was surrounded by Count Ernst’s domains, it was an exclave, under the lax oversight of a Saxon prince whose agent soon became his friend. Mühlhausen, his final theatre of operations, was no less useful a power base: it was an Imperial Free City that governed itself. The fact that his zeal did not question property rights eased the friction between the iconoclastic Müntzer and the conservative burghers who ran such places.

During a brief spell in thriving Nuremberg, he befriended Christoph Fürer, a mining magnate, councilor, and one of the city’s richest men. Upon his return to Mühlhausen after a brief exile, Müntzer helped install a new, ardently Protestant governing body for the city. Drummond notes that it was hardly “some kind of early soviet” — but why would it have been?

The Peasants’ War

Müntzer’s emergence as a figurehead for the social levelers of the Peasants’ War is something of a puzzle. Luther, who was nervous that his theology of spiritual freedom would be held responsible for destroying social order, accused Müntzer of generating the conflict. But the truth was the opposite: far from Müntzer inspiring the rebels, they grounded his zeal in practical considerations. Müntzer had always spoken for the “poor” or “the people,” but as is so often the case in Christianity’s history, these were salvific rather than sociological terms, referring to the “poor in spirit,” who hungered not so much for bread as for the Gospel. Their enemies were not the rich, but the godless — especially Luther.

The religious vision of the peasants — a misnomer as it included many townspeople, too — was much more concrete. They wanted to smash feudalism, viewing its dues as a violation of God’s law. In the summer of 1524, Protestant faith injected new energy into long-standing protests against the exactions of noble and clerical landlords. In southwest Germany, the peasants learned tactics from Swiss and Bohemian Protestants, finding in the Scriptures battle cries against inequalities. Müntzer’s visits to them were not about seizing control or crafting their manifestos but learning from an already vibrant movement.

Luther’s most famous hymn claimed that “our God is a mighty fortress,” but God was not much help against castles. The enemies of the peasants withdrew to their strongholds, patiently awaiting the opportune moment to strike back with concentrated and ultraviolent measures. As in later centuries, counterrevolutionaries succeeded because they were as patient as they were vicious.

The Cranach portraits with which Drummond illustrates his book capture the gross power of the German elite: their gimlet eyes gaze into the distance with the calmness of men used to taking their pleasures and biding their time. Peasant armies lacked a strategy to overcome these men, because they were preoccupied with sustaining their presence in the field. Targeting the larders of monasteries and manors was both an act of protest and a practical necessity. Troops had to be fed and watered. These raids were a tactic rather than a strategy and one with diminishing returns: you could not drain the same beer cellar twice.

Although Müntzer helped lead a militia from Mühlhausen to join the rebellion, he was its chaplain rather than its general and could not steer its meandering course, which involved much more robbing than killing. A critical setback occurred when they failed to take Heldrungen, the stronghold of Müntzer’s old enemy, Ernst of Mansfeld.

Ernst and his princely allies assembled the mercenaries who trapped Müntzer’s crowd of amateurs on a hill near Bad Frankenhausen. The rebels had an emblem of God’s favor, a rainbow that shone overhead. But the princes had heavy artillery. After opening fire without warning, they broke the rebel militia. In the ensuing panic, they massacred thousands.

God’s Truth Destroyed

Following Müntzer’s capture in Bad Frankenhausen, the princes had a brief and cordial debate with him on theology, but then reinscribed their authority on his body. After torturing Müntzer at Heldrungen, they sent him to Mühlhausen to be decapitated, sticking his head on a stake to rot. Drummond, who excels at such gory details, tells us that a few weeks later, the town executioner got six groschen for propping Müntzer’s carcass up against the walls.

The princes and their theological allies did not just manipulate and desecrate Müntzer’s remains, they molded his memory too. There is much we will never know about his role in the disaster or his reaction to it. Did he steady his men by making the mad claim he could catch bullets in his sleeves? We only have their word for it. However, a letter written to his “dear brothers” of Mühlhausen — or rather one bearing his signature since torture had left his fingers too mangled to hold a pen — does provide a glimpse into Müntzer’s perspective. It chastised them for their failure, because they “only considered their own profit and thus destroyed God’s truth.”

At the bitter end, Müntzer returned to his original faith that the Gospel called for the creation of a kingdom of God, rather than a mere improvement in social conditions. His death secured the victory of Luther’s quietism, which condemned efforts to overturn economic inequalities in the name of Christianity. This had a profound and enduring impact on Germany’s Reformation and its political culture.

Drummond gamely inscribes him in a “global and permanent” tradition of revolution, but the reality is that Müntzer’s views initially led nowhere. Although tiny groups of radical Protestants, commonly called Anabaptists, invoked him for a while in their efforts to bring about the millennium, they too were savagely repressed. Mühlhausen today is not a new Jerusalem, but a sleepy Thuringian town that boasts it is home to the largest Bratwurst Museum in the world.

In The War of the Poor, Vuillard refused to depict Müntzer’s remorse, preferring to imagine him victorious to the end. Drummond’s footnotes scold Vuillard’s “uninhibited carelessness,” but the criticism misses its point. For Vuillard, “true history” is not something found, but consciously made. We are at liberty to fabricate icons from a fragmentary past to revive our moral energies today.

His imagined — even imaginary — Müntzer is not a dead prophet, but a living writer, who sustains our faith in the power of speech to shake the cages that contain us. Drummond knows infinitely more about Müntzer’s world than Vuillard. And he is right that it is unhistorical to neglect the jagged doctrines that led him into doomed rebellion against the powers of his age. In the end though, he and Vuillard do not much disagree: it is not Müntzer’s now alien beliefs, but his stinging eloquence that earns him his place in the radical imagination.