Reconnaissance: The Trail of Thomas Müntzer

It was a journey of discovery, in all senses of the term. We began with no more than a rough idea: we wanted to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Müntzer. Other than that, we had no idea of how to travel, or where to stay. So each day was a search for routes, for buses and trains where they existed, for a bed for the night, indeed hoping there would be a bed. At a deeper level, it was a search for what traces were left of the Peasant Revolution of the 1520s, and especially of Thomas Müntzer, the theologian of the revolution.

To Zwickau: 24 September 2013

Zwickau was Müntzer’s first parish, after completing his further studies at Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon (he had initially trained as a priest and been ordained in 1513). He had come to the place with Luther’s recommendation in 1520, at the age of 31, to spread the word of the Reformation. We came to the place by rail motor from Leipzig, to a seedy railway station on the edge of town. For us, however, there was no room at the inn, so we ended up in the curious Goldener Helm, a few villages away in Lichtenstein. The next morning we bussed back into town, experiencing what is for me still an extraordinary event: a town bus running through the countryside, from village to village. You can of course run such busses when the landscape is dotted with villages at 3-4 kilometres apart, within sight of one another. It is another story when they are, say, 100 or more kilometres apart.

Back in Zwickau, I was struck by the humbleness of Müntzer’s first church. A small stone structure, it resembled more a country church of the type with which I had become familiar as a child: a few stained-glass windows, a modest steeple, stone blocks and worn front door. To find it, we had to dodge the old fogeys at the local markets and avoid the big church with its high steeple (on advice). At the entry to the church, we came across a simple engraved stone, indicating that Müntzer was minister here for eleven months over 1720 and 1721. Here he was initially in tune with Luther, pushing at the edges perhaps but largely in agreement. It would not be long before he pursued the more radical implications of Reformation teaching and practice.

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To the side of the church we found a statue of Müntzer. He looks slightly heavenward and his robes flow out, full of movement and the vigour of his message. He holds his hands clenched together below his neck. Above all, your eyes are drawn to his mouth: full lips, open in speech, earnest if not anguished about the state of the world and the need for God to intervene. Nearby is another sculpture, made out of a rough rectangle of rock.

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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 sculpture is both 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 is also coupled with the sense of a higher calling, a vision of a better world that beckons.

At least here is some commemoration of Müntzer and the peasants, we thought. But then we noted when the sculptures were completed: September 1989, for the 500th anniversary of his birth. Around the corner were three more sculptures, of workers engaged in cloth production, beer brewing and fruit picking. They too had been erected at the same time, recalling the working basis of the town and its region when Müntzer was in these parts. Yet all these sculpted forms had appeared at a curious moment, barely weeks before East Germany was invaded by the West. Sculptures are not made overnight, nor does the planning and organisation of a major anniversary 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 with 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 was not erased so easily.

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The legacy of Müntzer is thereby caught in the uncertainty over what to do with the legacy of the DDR, for the two are entwined with one another. Marginalisation versus appreciation, efforts to erase and forget versus commemoration, ideological warfare versus resistance and even persistence – we were to see these tensions and more embodied in the further traces of Müntzer.

Zwickau to Allstedt: 25 September 2013

In the astounding Allstedt these tensions were particularly present. Here is the church where the first German liturgy was written, printed and enacted; yet the church is a ruin and the liturgy absent. 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 the Domkirche in Allstedt, in 1523-24.

Before Allstedt, he had been in Prague, the town to which he had journeyed after the year in Zwickau. Prague was not the success for which he might have hoped. There he had preached in the church where Jan Hus had done so a century before. There he had produced the Prague Manifesto, but he stayed only six months. Eventually and via many brief stops, he made it to Allstedt, whither the locals had called him.

He had come to Allstedt, in his home state of Thuringia, via Reimer, Erfurt, and a few other places. We too journeyed through Reimer and Erfurt, although by bus and train rather than horse and cart. Alighting at Oberröblingen, we stepped off the empty platform and vainly sought a bus. We asked a woman in dirty jeans and with soil on her hands, and she offered to drive us to Allstedt. It was barely two villages away. She seemed keen for the company, living along with her four-year old daughter in the old railway station that she had bought for €5,000.

On the way, we passed a copper mine, its presence marked by a hill of tailings.

‘People here are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But since the end of the DDR, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

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. Many of the houses are empty, with broken windows and faded ‘for sale’ signs. Many young people leave town to look for work elsewhere, while those who stay find their own amusement with grog and drugs and home-made tattoos.

We stayed at the old Stadtmühle, which has a couple of simple rooms for visitors. Within minutes we were out walking, drawn in a curious way to the church tower nearby. A quick look was all that was needed, we thought, for this one is a small affair. Müntzer must have preached at the church with the higher tower and greater presence some distance away.

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But this was his church; it was a ruin. The tower was somewhat intact, with a clock that had ceased to mark the time. The shell of the church remained, with arches and windows through which one could ponder the momentous events that shook these walls. By the old church door were a couple of faded tombstones, although on their reverse sides we could still make out the verses from Isaiah and Job. A worn-down relief sculpture of a lamb and banner was worked into the lintel of the doorway itself. And beside it was a rusty sign, with letters we could barely make out: ‘Thomas Müntzer Denkstätte’.

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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 (during a later return visit, on 13 July, 1524). challenging the powers that be and calling the peasants to arms. Is that it? You might read of the importance of these acts, especially in a recent novel called Q (by the radical Italian collective known as Luther Blissett/Wu Ming), or in a Verso Radicals book that has republished the Sermon to the Princes, or in the publications by the Thomas Müntzer Gesellschaft. But on the ground, in their material presence, these acts have been decisively marginalised. It is as though the radical legacy of Müntzer, even his historical importance, is cultural rather than material, superstructural rather that infrastructural.

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Thankfully, we later found there was a little more of the material traces, although by no means enough. That evening, a light in the tower drew us back. We met a local couple, who had lived, seemingly forever, right at the foot of the ruins. They spoke of the annual Thomas Müntzer day, which takes place sometime in September each year, of the opening of the ruins, of the light that is perpetually lit in the church tower.

Allstedt to Frankenhausen: 26 September 2013

The next day we were to find some more traces. Up in the Schloß, a museum reserves a corner for Müntzer (much more is given over to Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony, as well as Goethe, who seems to have graced the area with his presence for a few nights). All the same, the museum corner does come from the time of the DDR, another part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Müntzer’s birth. 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 and spread them far and wide. Indeed, the whole of his life was mapped out, as far as it is known, along with some fascinating samples of his writings. In the Schloß’s chapel is the most likely place where Müntzer delivered that sermon to the princes. Not a large chapel, but it was a sermon that has reverberated through history.

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By the afternoon, which grew increasingly chilly, we boarded a bus for Frankenhausen, changing in Arten. Our journey was full of reflection, but less stricken with urgency than Müntzer’s some five centuries ago. After being banished from Allstedt (at Luther’s bidding), he 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 his way to Frankenhausen. Using the wide networks of peasant and miner communication, 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.

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Frankenhausen is quite a contrast to Allstedt. Today, hot springs draw tourists to a town on the hillside, with its sloping and twisting streets, as well as church towers bent at alarming angles. Houses are painted, young people have something to do, shops buzz a bit more. But the only buzz we had was of weariness and the need to find a bed. Intrigued by a sign that said, ‘Hotel Straube’, we followed it into the centre of the old village. The hotel was something your grandparents might have designed, and it seemed as though the visitors were of the same vintage.

Frankenhausen: 27 September 2013

After a reconnaissance of the town the evening before, we had one aim today: to climb the grimly named ‘Schlagtberg’ to the Panorama Museum and seek out the famous masterpiece of Werner Tübke. On a rough track, we clambered up the mountain, stripping down in the unseasonable heat of autumn and stopping to take in the view of the valley where the battle of Frankenhausen had taken place. On the top is a simple but imposing circular building, with the appealing features of a DDR construction.

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Passing through vast doors and a spacious entry lobby, 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. Although it is painted flat, the perspective gives the impression of drawing in at the top. We felt as though we were in a dome. Werner Tübke spent ten years on the painting: three years research; a couple of years producing a 1:10 model; the remainder painting it, with 14 assistants. 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 at Frankenhausen. What struck me most was the way the battle is undecided. Neither the well-armed mercenaries of Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, and the other lords, nor the simply armed peasants streaming from the wagons, 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 and seeming to cross himself. Most notably, there is no scene where he is executed after the battle. The hope of true freedom continues.

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On our walk back down the mountainside, picking our way over quartz, limestone and marble, we came upon a grassy knoll. Upon it is a carved stone, recalling the style of a headstone. The date of the Battle of Frankenhausen – 15 May, 1525 – is inscribed on the stone, while at the top flies a banner proclaiming the same slogan of the peasants: frÿheit. As we dropped further down the slope, 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 of those times was an economic basket-case and a cultural wasteland. Yet here was a masterpiece of art, 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.

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Frankenhausen to Mühlhausen: 28 September 2013

In the crisp air of an autumn morning, we tracked down a minibus that would take us to Sondershausen (its station still decked out with DDR features) and then the train to the fateful Mühlhausen. In this town, Müntzer and some other leaders had finally been executed on 27 May, 1525, after almost two weeks of excruciating torture and interrogation. But he had been here before, called by the congregation of Marienkirche in February and then again, briefly, a couple of months later. It was enough time for what should be called the revolution of Mühlhausen, when the common people of this imperial free city 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 city, based on God’s justice. 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 at this moment was that many felt they could sit back, secure behind the double walls and its guns, assuming that they could bargain with the princes and would be left in peace. A few followed Müntzer to Frankenhausen, where others had gathered, but many stayed behind and did not send the crucial aid in the peasant army’s hour of need. The Mühlhauseners were to learn the lesson of revolutions the hard way. As Lenin would point out later, revolutionaries need to act swiftly and with a united front, taking advantage of the disarray of their opponents and before the counter-revolution can be organised. Mühlhausen was soon crushed by that counter-revolution.

Today, Mühlhausen still attempts to claim historical importance due to the peasant war and Müntzer. Yet that claim is somewhat muted by comparison with the time of the DDR. Then, the town was subtitled Thomas Müntzer Stadt, although you can still find postcards with just that name for the place. Then, the museums were more elaborate, with greater and more detailed displays. By contrast, today, the Bauernkrieg museum (am Kornmarkt) relies on a minimal display, one that is neat and tidy in a way that sanitises peasant life in Müntzer’s time. Luther is even credited with the possible inspiration for the peasant war, overriding the importance of Müntzer. And the museum in Marienkirche, where Müntzer preached for a few weeks in early 1525, has an even smaller display, barely worth the three euro entry fee. A few texts and pictures, a map of his many movements, and a cabinet that recognises yet downplays his importance in the DDR. It mentions the sections of the armed forces named after him, the clubs and school programs devoted to his legacy, yet it describes the coins and medallions and artworks as ‘curious devotional’ items. Stunningly, it asserts 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.

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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 held ready at his waist. Given that the site of his execution is not known, this has become the place. Erected in 1956, it also welcomes you to Thomas Müntzer Stadt.

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This was to be our last contact with the material legacy of Müntzer – for now at least. This journey may have begun as a journey of discovery, but it ended with the realisation that it was really a reconnaissance mission. We had touched on only some key points in the itinerary of Müntzer’s brief life (1489-1525). In doing so, we had to find our own way, for the material traces are scattered here and there. Uncharacteristically for Germany, there is no Radweg that enables one to follow his steps, with its maps for walking and riding a bicycle. There are no guides, signs, even brochures that assist one in pursuing his trail. Above all, it had become startlingly clear that Müntzer’s legacy is a troubling one for the locals, if not Germany and its theo-political history. They know not what to do with that legacy, whether to forget or celebrate, to marginalise or claim as their own. That Müntzer and the peasants are now inseparable from the DDR only makes the situation more intriguing. As the driver of a mini-bus simply put it, without the DDR, Müntzer would hardly be remembered at all.

Obviously, a more involved exploration beckons, a month or more on a bicycle at least. We can’t wait.

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