We had set out to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Müntzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ from sixteenth century Germany. Given that it was Germany, we expected everything to be organised down to the last detail – guidebooks, maps of bicycle paths and walking trails, a Müntzer tour linking all the sights, clear signs at each point indicating what Müntzer did where and when and how, even a government agency that focuses on this radical theologian. We found nothing of the sort.
But who was Thomas Müntzer? He was the Reformer who had taken Luther’s teachings to their logical conclusion. As a result, he became the leader of the Peasant Revolution of the 1520s. Preaching, praying, writing, agitating, he had inspired the peasants, miners, weavers and workers to take up arms against their oppressive lords. A revolutionary on the run, he had managed all this while journeying from town to town. But we were also intrigued because Müntzer had been a hero of East Germany, of the DDR. They saw in Müntzer a forerunner of the modern socialist movement. So we wanted to follow in the footsteps not only of Müntzer, but also of the DDR for which he so important.
To Zwickau we went first. It was Müntzer’s first parish, when he was 31 (1520). He had come here with Luther’s recommendation; less than a year later, he was expelled at Luther’s urging. Müntzer’s first church was a surprisingly humble affair: a small stone structure, a few stained-glass windows, a modest steeple, and worn front door. Without signs to assist explorers like us, it was not easy to find.
Beside this modest church is a statue of Müntzer. He looks slightly heavenward and his robes flow out, full of movement and the vigour of his message. Above all, your eyes are drawn to his mouth: full lips, open in speech, anguished concerning the state of the world and the need for God’s intervention. Nearby is another sculpture, made of a rough rectangle of rock. On one side, four horsemen leap forward in grim anticipation, at once both the troops of the princes and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They strain towards a jumble of peasants on foot, who scramble to put up resistance to the apparent power of the horsemen. On the other side of the block of stone is a simple inscription concerning Müntzer and, beside it, clouds from which sunbeams stream. An artist’s way within a communist country of depicting divine inspiration, perhaps, but it also evokes a higher calling, a vision of a better world that beckons.
The church may have been difficult to find, but at least here was some commemoration of Müntzer and the peasants. But then we noted when the sculptures were completed: September 1989, for the 500th anniversary of his birth. Barely weeks before East Germany was invaded by the West. Sculptures are not made overnight; planning a major anniversary does not happen at the last minute. More than a decade was devoted to preparing for the event, yet, at the same time as all this activity, others were undermining the DDR. I could not help thinking of that sculpture of the horsemen competing with one another to hack down the peasants. Was it an unwitting parable of the destruction of the DDR? Initially, they too seem to have succeeded, but the cause of the peasants and miners was not erased so easily.
After Zwickau, Müntzer had tarried in Prague for a few months, and then passed through Reimer, Erfurt, and few other places. In each he preached, developed his theology, wrote and agitated. But Allstedt, in his home state of Thuringia, was to see the next major stage of his work, in 1523-24. And so to Allstedt we went.
On arrival at the only accommodation in town, our footsteps were drawn in a curious way to the small church tower nearby. Surely this can’t be his church. It was too small. But it was his church, and it was a ruin. The tower was somewhat intact, with a clock that had ceased to mark the time and light that continued to shine. The shell of the church remained, with arches and windows through which one could ponder the momentous events that shook these walls. On the wall beside the door was a rusty sign, with letters we could barely make out: ‘Thomas Müntzer Denkstätte’.
It that it? In this building, the first German liturgy was written, printed and performed. In this town, the fiery Sermon to the Princes was delivered, challenging the powers that be and calling the peasants to arms. Is that it? Of course, it remains a slight ‘problem’ that Müntzer rather than Luther wrote the first German liturgy. Or it is so for those who hold Luther to be the hero. Yet Müntzer it was, when he was minister in this church, which is now a ruin.
In the fading light, I looked out over the rolling hills and fields, and thought of the miners and peasants that had been keen on Müntzer’s message. He spoke in a biblical language they understood, of oppressive lords and bosses, of hard labour and rough treatment. No wonder he was sought after hereabouts, with people fired up by his preaching. Today, a town like Allstedt struggles again. Economically, it has been tough since the DDR was overrun. Even the mines, the economic mainstay of the area, are winding down and work is hard to find. Many of the houses are empty, with broken windows and faded ‘for sale’ signs. Many young people leave town, while those who stay find their own amusement with grog and drugs and home-made tattoos.
Would Müntzer’s message resonate here again? Some glimmers remain, such as the perpetual light in the church tower, or the small display concerning his life up in the Schloß. But this too would not have been here were it not for the DDR. Here at least was mention of class conflict, and of Müntzer’s achievements in Allstedt. Here too was the printing press, which had been in the church and which had pumped out those revolutionary texts. Here too was the chapel where he delivered that sermon to the princes. Not a large chapel, but it was a sermon that has reverberated through history.
After being banished from Allstedt (at Luther’s bidding), Müntzer had become a revolutionary on the run. Hiding, travelling incognito with Ottilie von Gersen, he travelled far and wide, organising, preaching, inspiring the revolution. Eventually, they made their way to Frankenhausen. Using the wide networks of peasants and miners, they had gathered their forces. Schloßen were burnt, lords turned out, armies trained. The lords themselves hired mercenaries and set out to crush the movement. They all converged on Frankenhausen in May of 1525.
In Frankenhausen we found ourselves drawn to climb the grimly named ‘Schlagtberg’. Why? On the top is a simple but imposing circular building, with the appealing features of a DDR construction. It is the Panorama Museum, built for the sake of one painting: the masterpiece by Werner Tübke.
Inside, we climbed the stairs and stepped into the midst of a truly stunning painting. It towers 15 metres above you and then circles around for some 124 metres. Werner Tübke spent more than ten years on the painting (1976-87): three years research; a couple of years producing a 1:10 model; the remainder painting it. The style echoes medieval patterns to some extent, with colour playing a crucial role in its meaning. The painting is far more than a depiction of the battle of Frankenhausen. Full of biblical symbols – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fish of Jonah, the ark, Hagar and her child, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, and much more – it moves between the four seasons of the year. Of course, it concerns the human condition and the continual pattern of human fears, dangers, hopes, and searches for redemption. Yet, one can detect certain emphases: the lords and rulers and bishops do not come out well, and human beings themselves are depicted as caught between sin and salvation, between evil and good, between oppression and freedom. Further, although the initial impression is of the eternal return of the same, the cycle of history is also one of change. Müntzer’s time was the beginning of the shift from medieval society to the beginnings of the modern bourgeois era.
Müntzer of course challenges both the old order and the newly emerging one, for he was a revolutionary. Not unexpectedly, he is a centrepiece of the painting, appearing first as a preacher to the common folk against the evil of Babel, and then at the centre of the battlefield. What struck me most was the way the battle is undecided. Neither the well-armed mercenaries of the princes, nor the simply armed peasants have the upper hand. Their banners remain aloft, especially the peasant one of frÿheit. Müntzer himself stands in the middle, untouched by any blade, looking beyond the battle field. Most notably, there is no scene where he is executed after the battle. The hope of true freedom continues.
On our walk back down the mountainside, I pondered the DDR in the 1980s. The propaganda from Western Germany, which still seeks to set the agenda, would have one believe that the DDR was an economic basket-case and a cultural wasteland. Yet here was a masterpiece from just that period, a stunning commemoration of Müntzer that is also a parable of human history. The time seems to have been more creative than one is led to believe.
In this town, Müntzer and some other leaders had finally been executed on 27 May, 1525, after capture and two weeks of torture. But he had been here before, called by the congregation of Marienkirche in February and then again a couple of months later. It was enough time for the revolution of Mühlhausen, when the common people had seized control of the town council and produced a new constitution. Henceforth, the town was to be governed by the ‘Eternal League of God’, established by popular election from the citizens of the town. Those with power and wealth were deprived of these encumbrances, and justice was exercised by and for the poor – all of which was outlined in the revolutionary Mühlhausen Articles.The problem was that many felt they could now sit back, secure behind the double walls and its guns. A few followed Müntzer to Frankenhausen, where others had gathered, but many stayed behind and did not send aid in the peasant army’s hour of need. The Mühlhauseners were to learn the lesson of revolutions the hard way. Instead of striking swiftly at the forces of reaction, Mühlhausen was soon crushed by the counter-revolution.
Today, Mühlhausen still attempts to claim some historical importance due to the peasant war and Müntzer. Yet that claim is muted by comparison with the time of the DDR. Then, the town was subtitled Thomas Müntzer Stadt. Then, the museums were more elaborate, with greater and more detailed displays. By contrast, today the two museums are minimal, with a sanitising neatness. The few texts and pictures attempt to downplay his importance in the DDR. Stunningly, the displays assert that there was no recognition of Müntzer’s role as a theologian. Rubbish. Obviously, the people responsible for such an assertion have neglected to read Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, who did so much to establish the importance of Müntzer and the Peasant Revolution.
All the same, some items cannot be downplayed so easily. The prime example is the statue by Willie Lammert at the Frauentor gate of the inner walls. Made out of the local white stone, it presents Müntzer holding a Bible close in his left hand (the afore-mentioned museum curators take note), while the other hand rests on a writer’s pallet at his waist. Erected in 1956, it welcomes you to Thomas Müntzer Stadt.
Müntzer and the Legacy of East Germany
In our effort to follow in the Müntzer’s footsteps, we had to find our own way, searching out his traces. What traces there were had been left by the DDR, where he was a revolutionary hero. Indeed, Müntzer’s legacy is inextricably tied up with the legacy of the DRR today. In our search, it had become startlingly clear that the ‘united’ Germany know not what to do with that dual legacy, with both the theologian of the revolution and the DDR. Should they be forgotten or celebrated, marginalised or claimed as one of their own. As the driver of a mini-bus put it, without the DDR, Müntzer would hardly be remembered at all.