The rejection of private property, the holding in common of possessions, the total rejection of the institutions of state or religion
Thomas Müntzer (1488-1525) was a leading figure in the 16th century German peasants’ uprising against the tyranny of church, wealth and property.
The inspiring revolutionary preacher was executed by his aristocratic enemies after being captured at the Battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525.
The massive revolt in which he played a key role was a radical offshoot of the Protestant Reformation, but was also clearly a continuation of the peasant uprisings of the Late Middle Ages.
Georges Lapierre remarks in L’Incendie millénariste that we see here exactly the same radicalism, characterised by “the rejection of private property, the holding in common of possessions, the total rejection of the institutions of state or religion, whether Catholic or Protestant”. (1)
His co-author Yves Delhoysie traces this continuity back to Müntzer’s friend Nicklaus Storch, who had been deeply influenced by the heretical anti-authoritarian Christianity of the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit.
Delhoysie points out that these ideas would have been very much in the air in the region in which Müntzer lived – “Thuringia had been a bastion of heresy from the 13th to the 15th century”. (2)
Ernst Bloch identifies a clear connection between Müntzer and “the old German mysticism” of Meister Eckhart, although this spirituality had now been radicalised by an active millenarianism looking forward to a new heavenly age and the overturn of the established order. (3)
In his study of Müntzer, Bloch describes him as “a believer fully aware that his superterrestrial mission depends on miracles and the strength of his mystical exaltation”. (4)
Bloch judges the uprising “the most spiritual revolution that the world had known up to that point”, (5) and sees it as drawing on ancient roots and representing essentially “the breaking out and the expansion of the old heretic movement”. (6)
Müntzer was initially recommended as a preacher by Martin Luther, whose authoritarian version of Protestantism was to make him a sworn enemy of the peasants’ struggle for freedom.
When Müntzer was thrown out of Augsburg in 1521, and his supporters rioted in protest, a much broader insurrection was sparked.
Having escaped to Prague, postered a denunciation of the power of the princes in Mühlhausen, and sought brief refuge in Nuremberg, Müntzer joined with Anabaptists – anti-authoritarian opponents of child baptism as a denial of free choice – to tour around Alsace, the Black Forest and Switzerland, stirring up revolt as they went.
From 1524, class war broke out all around Lake Constance, east to The Tyrol and Salzburg, west to Alsace and north to Franconia and Thuringia. Everywhere the people were rising up. 12,000 men under the blacksmith Ulrich Schmid in Ulm, 7,000 men in the Oberallgäu.
Although these were termed peasant wars, the scope was much wider. Many towns were involved, and miners were notable among the ranks of the rebels. The 1525 insurrection at Mühlhausen saw the victorious population proclaim the communality of goods and the suppression of all authority.
The revolt continued in Neckar, Odenwald, Franconia and Württemberg. The people overthrew the administration in Rothenburg, Pfullingen was taken by rebels, the townspeople of Stuttgart opened the gates to the peasants, insurgents attacked Würzburg and the bishop fled.
Peasants around Strasbourg rose up and seized Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr in the Vosges. By mid-May the whole of Alsace was under the control of the insurgents and the French King felt forced to send in a 30,000-strong army to try to crush the rebellion.
The historical and political importance of Müntzer was recognised in the 20th century by communist East Germany and his portrait was featured on a five-mark banknote.
Video link: Thomas Müntzer film trailer (3 mins)
1. Georges Lapierre, ‘Introduction au millénarisme’, L’Incendie millénariste (Paris: Os Cangaceiros, 2011), p. 28.
2. Yves Delhoysie, ‘Le millénarisme et la chute du monde Chrétien’, L’Incendie millénariste, p. 129.
3. Ernst Bloch, Thomas Münzer, théologien de la révolution, trans. Maurice de Gandillac, (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2012) p. 294.
4. Bloch, p. 108.
5. Bloch, p. 96.
6. Bloch, p. 89.