DISCUSSION TOPICS - some things to think about...?
Set out below are some random (but, we hope, related) thoughts that may prove useful to pursue, in any effort to understand Müntzer's place in the historical record - not just in Germany, but across northern Europe and even, arguably, North America. All contributions to these topics, and any new ones, will be welcomed.
Facts and Fantasies
To understand Müntzer's place in history, we need to succeed in two things. Firstly, to prise apart what is factual and what was said about him by his contemporary (and later) opponents. It is a commonplace that 'history is written by the victors'; Müntzer's case is no different. We therefore need to step with caution and not blindly accept all that was reported as said, even if the report is highly attractive. It is a vital precaution, because we have to have a clear idea of who he was - and who he was not.
Secondly, we need to understand that what made him a radical, a revolutionary, was not some proto-Marxist insight into the social and economic conditions of the day; Müntzer only arrived at revolutionary positions through the inspiration of his own theology. Marxism was not an option to anyone in the 16rh century. The easy option is still to regard him simply as a "communist", and to ignore just how he arrived in a position of opposing worldly authority.
Omnia sunt Communia - wishful thinking?
Did he ever really say - apart from in his 'Confession' - that omnia sunt communia - "everything should be owned in common"? Let us look at the facts:
1. under 'painful' confession, he named the leaders of the Allstedt League and stated that the Articles proposed by this league included the proposition that 'omnia sunt communia'.
2. under 'willing' confession, he argued that Princes should be restricted to riding with 8 horses, a Count with 4 and a nobleman with 2.
It is a little difficult to square the first statement with the second. It is nigh impossible to obtain any other documentary evidence that the League had any such aim. It is also a little problematic to identify the Allstedt League with Müntzer himself. And last, but not least, it is impossible to extrapolate such a communistic proposition from Müntzer's own writings and letters. There is certainly no other statement of like intent to be found.
Hans-Jürgen Goertz has argued that Müntzer's theology was 'the theology of the Revolution, but not of the time after the Revolution'; by this he suggests that his theology was very specifically not about establishing some kind of communistic society in which property was shared equitably - which rather blemishes the picture of Müntzer as a proto-communist.
So was this phrase, that all should be held in common, simply an expression of the great underlying fear of his interrogators? And here's a thought: even if Müntzer did not actually hold a belief in common ownership - does that actually matter? Does it detract from his historical importance? Does it make him any less a figure in the radical pantheon?
For a lengthier discussion of this issue, why not read this essay analysing Müntzer's (and Luther's) attitude to the `Common Man` and the 1525 rebellion?
Religion and Social Revolution
Thomas Müntzer has for long been associated with the Peasant Uprising in Germany of 1525, and is justifiably considered a social revolutionary. Friedrich Engels was one of the first socialists to identify his importance in European history and thereby started a process of re-appraisal that still has momentum today. This combination of zealous 16th century theology and radical social politics sometimes makes him a difficult figure to appreciate. But an understanding of that dialectic between religious belief and political action is - surely ! - not without interest in the modern age. That having been said: transplant him into the 21st century and you might be sorely disappointed in him. But, of course, he cannot be transplanted: he was a man of his time, and spoke and thought in the manner of his time, both liberated and also constrained by a radical religion - and yet despite all that, he was undeniably a revolutionary of his time and a man of admirable intentions.
Hidden from sight
Awareness of Müntzer's historical importance is far higher in Germany than it is in (say) the UK or USA. But some things never change. The German Lutheran Church (and with it, many of the Protestant churches which owe a debt to Lutheranism) is entering the home-straight of a decade of Luther celebrations, leading up to the 500th anniversary of his posting of the Theses in Wittenberg (1517). But in all these celebrations, the name of Müntzer has virtually vanished again from view.
But why should this be? Yes, the 500th anniversary celebrates Luther; but would it not be more honest to take into account Luther's struggle with the radicals, and to explain why he thought that such radicalism was dangerous for his ultimate goals?
'THE' Reformation and the early Reformation
The years from 1517 to 1525 are described as the 'Early Reformation'. This period stretches from the moment when Martin Luther nailed his agenda to the door to the time when the popular uprisings of Southern and Central Germany were put down in bloodshed. But do not be fooled: this period was by no means one belonging solely to Luther. There was at that time no co-ordinated movement directed from Wittenberg; beyond the faltering reach of Luther's group, a host of reform-minded churchmen, theologians, lay-preachers and social radicals, inspired by the feeling of social unrest and philosophical change, came up with their own proposals for changes in both Church and State. While Luther was clearly a leading figure, we cannot ignore the thoughts and actions of people like Karlstadt (pictured here to the right), Müntzer, Zwingli, Storch and many others who pursued their own beliefs, mostly in a localised arena, with the support of the urban and rural poor - and very often in opposition to Luther. It was only after Luther had thrown in his lot with the feudal princes of Saxony, in 1520, that 'his' Reformation slowly began to take on the form of 'the' (i.e. top-down) Reformation; and precisely at that time did the ways of Müntzer and Luther begin clearly to diverge.
The German Reformation - and almost certainly any other large-scale religious reformation in any other European country, along with any kind of social revolution - proceeded in stages, following the pattern of the dialectic, each stage arising from and negating the one before. At some vital stage, such an accumulation of contradictions tips over into the "event" that we see from the far side of history. But the details are just as much of interest than the result.
A productive exercise might be to plot, year by year and month by month, when the reform movement moved qualitatively forwards in Germany, and at which points Luther's Reformation faltered or gained dominance. The picture, we suspect, will be very colourful indeed. Of course, it would be virtually impossible to state when the German reformation 'began' or 'ended' - arguably, it began at least 100 years before, in Bohemia; and that argument itself can take us farther back in time.
Debate and Slander
It is notable that Luther never took on Müntzer in disputation or reasoned written argument. On several occasions, Müntzer did offer to debate - but only in a public forum, and not in a closed or university setting: Luther never took him up on that offer. This did not prevent him from mocking Müntzer's perceived fear of 'hole and corner' colloquy, and effectively accusing him of cowardice. In his open attacks on Müntzer - two pamphlets printed in 1524, one to the Princes of Saxony, the other to the town council of Mühlhausen - he chose to hurl insults and slander at him, naming him a 'Satan' and worse. While Müntzer wrote at least two letters to Luther (1520 and 1523), Luther did not reciprocate, preferring to leave all correspondence to his Wittenberg colleagues Agricola and Spalatin. One reason for this avoidance of serious debate was quite simply that Thomas Müntzer was very well-read, and his arguments, as we see them in print, were founded on close readings of the Bible. It might have proved very difficult indeed for Luther to demolish this theology. And he never even tried. He concentrated on pointing out the frightful consequences of Müntzer's activity - the threat to civil society.
Does this indicate the same problem as above - an unwillingness to engage with contradiction?
For some further thoughts on this, please feel free to read the following articles:
- A short essay examining the steady rift between Müntzer and Luther.
- A translation of Martin Luther's Open Letter to the Honourable and Wise Mayor, Council and Whole Community of the Town of Mühlhausen, written in August 1524 in an attenpt to have Müntzer ejected from Mühlhausen.
- A translation of Martin Luther's Letter to the Princes of Saxony, Concerning the Rebellious Spirit , written in June 1524 - a denunciation of Müntzer's activities and teachings.
- A translation of Müntzer's pamphlet, The Express Unmasking of the False Belief, written the late summer of 1524, in response to Luther's two `Letters`.
The Bible or the Dead Letter
In opposition to Luther, Müntzer taught that true faith was founded not on the 'dead letter', but on 'living experience'. So when you read any of Müntzer's letters and printed works, you may find it bizarre that he quotes so much from the Bible. This is no contradiction, however, if one understands that Müntzer considered the Bible to be simply a record of how faith came to people in the past - it is a valid and verifiable historical document; but in no way was it the final word. And that is where Luther saw the danger: if the common man was permitted to understand his spiritual life without any intervention from the pulpit or university, then what was to stop the common man from going one step further and questioning his station in life?
This dialectic between the actual relationships in the world, and their reflection in thought, leads us down some interesting paths.
(A provoking parallel: Leon Trotsky, in his book 1905 - concerning, not surprisingly, the 1905 Revolution in Russia - wrote scathingly of 'the scholasticists who regard themselves as Marxists only because they look at the world through the paper on which Marx's words are printed... )