Tell us about Thomas Muentzer and how he comes from being a
protégé of Luther to something altogether different.
Thomas Muentzer is an example of what can happen when apocalyptic scriptures
become widely accessible. Muentzer took the images of the apocalypse, the
images of a desperate struggle between the forces of righteousness and the
forces of evil, and applied it to the peasantry of Europe in his own day. And
he preached to the peasants that the wealthy people of the day are in fact the
evil ones whose destruction is foretold in the Book of Revelation. And
thousands of peasants followed him, and in fact there was a tremendous
slaughter ... . Thomas Muentzer had assured his followers that their struggle
against the landowners, against the rulers and the leaders of the day, was a
divinely ordained struggle, and that in the war that would follow, they would
be spared, that God would intervene. ... When the final showdown comes in 1525,
the peasants are arrayed against the German princes and their army, and Thomas
Muentzer continues to assure them, even at the last moment, that Christ will
intervene on their side. This is the apocalyptic moment foretold in the
Revelation. They're singing hymns. They literally are awaiting a glorious
triumph. Muentzer assures them that he will catch the cannonballs in his
shirthhsleeves. Of course, it turned into a slaughter. Five thousand ill-equipped peasants were slaughtered. The Peasants' Revolt was utterly
destroyed. It was one of those incredible explosions of apocalypticism that
arise in history.
Who was Thomas Muentzer?
Thomas Muentzer started as a follower of Martin Luther's. He may have even
heard some of Luther's lectures. He certainly read Luther. The message he got
from Luther, above all, was "scripture alone". And when he read scripture
alone, he went his own way. For Luther, Thomas Muentzer was the epitome of
someone who misunderstood the message. Luther saw this as a spiritual battle.
Thomas Muentzer was not willing to make the distinction between spiritual and
worldly that Luther was. So Thomas Muentzer, in reading the Bible and
especially the Old Testament, felt that to be a good Christian you had to
change society in various ways, and that just like the prophets had used force
to convert the infidels in the Old Testament, that Muentzer and his followers
had the right to use force to deal with those people who opposed the gospel.
Luther did not believe in that. For Luther, that was Satan at work. And he
called Thomas Muentzer the Satan at Allstadt (that's where Muentzer was
Tell me about Muentzer's role in the Peasants' War.
Thomas Muentzer had a role in part of the Peasants' War. The Peasants' War
occurred over large parts of the empire. But in one part in the north-central
area, Thomas Muentzer was the leader of a band of peasants. And for those
peasants, he was taking the Old Testament images and bringing them to life, and
telling them that just as all Christians were supposed to be free spiritually,
they also were all to be equal and free economically and politically. This was
the rallying cry that galvanized his supporters. This was the rallying cry
that brought the princes together to oppose it. ...
One of the most famous battles in the Peasants' War occurred at Frankenhausen,
where the armies of the princes in the cities met the peasants' bands led by
Thomas Muentzer. The princes, by one report, attempted to find an end to the
fight. The peasants, however, saw a rainbow in the sky, and Muentzer's flag
had a rainbow on it, harkening back to the rainbow that Noah was given, the
covenant with God. And so as the princes load their cannons and the cavalry
gets ready to charge, the peasants are singing, "Come, Holy Spirit," believing
that this battle is the final battle of Armageddon, and that God was going to
break in and stop it right there. But instead, the cannons fired. The knights
charged. Of about 8,000 peasants, about 5,000 lost their lives. And Muentzer
himself was captured, cowering under a bed; tortured, executed. That was the
end of Muentzer's apocalyptic vision.
What has Muentzer's legacy become?
Muentzer is important largely because the East German state in the
20th century, borrowing from Engels and Marx in the 19th
century, needed their own hero. They needed their own usable history for their
own apocalyptic vision of how history was going to go. And so Thomas Muentzer
became for Marxist history the Martin Luther. And that's why he's important.
If it had not been for Marxism, we would hardly talk about Thomas Muentzer.
But because of the Marxist view of how histories work, they needed someone who
stood for the proletariat, and that was Thomas Muentzer.
Marxists have their own view of history, which is apocalyptic in a secular
sense. And in that history there are developments that go along. And you can
read history in the same way you do with religious apocalypse. And in reading
history, they needed a figure early on who stood for the common people. And in
the Reformation, since Martin Luther was seen as the person who led the
bourgeoisie, Thomas Muentzer was seen as the person led the proletariat. And
so for Marxists, in their reading of history, Thomas Muentzer is central as
part of this longer move towards the eventual proletarian state.
When Marxists speak of "Workers of the world, unite," they're talking about
that final end, of the apocalypse, the end where history reaches its end in the
proletarian state, where the workers own everything and they run everything.
That is the goal, the apocalyptic goal. It's seen as foreshadowed ... in the
abortive attempt of Muentzer to unite the peasants together. But Muentzer was
too early, in terms of the way history works, and so he had to fail. ...
When East Germany was still Communist, they told a story which was to encompass
everyone and make sense of their history, and through that history to say that
East German state was inevitable. And one of the great heroes in that was
Thomas Muentzer. He was a tragic hero because he died. But he was part of
history's inevitable, inexorable move towards the East German state.
Thomas Muentzer started out as a follower of Martin Luther. In the early
stages, he takes up Luther's call for the Church to be reformed. Over time,
however, Muentzer takes a different interpretation of the prophecies of the
Bible, and carries the call for reform on to a new level of polemic, not only
against the Catholic Church but eventually against Luther himself. Whereas
Luther saw the battle of the end times as being primarily a spiritual and
theological battle, for Muentzer it's a real political and military revolution.
... In his interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and more generally
his apocalyptic framework, Thomas Muentzer is clearly borrowing the tradition
of Joachim of Fiore. He talks explicitly about the three ages and the
transformations of the last age. The end time, the one he is expecting right
around the corner, is to be a revolutionary change. That's very important for
White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas
at Austin, and acted as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"|
Muentzer has a very specific interpretation of the end time expectations that
he draws from scripture. He combines the passage from Matthew 24, where you
have the harvest at the end of the age, with the passage from Revelation 14,
the "grapes of wrath" passage where the angels swing the sickle and gather in
the harvest. He really understands now that this is the time when only the
elect will be left behind. Everyone else will be taken away to torment. And
then he adds another element. He sees himself as the divinely appointed,
divinely inspired agent of God. He even says, "Now is the time of harvest.
God has appointed me for this task. I've sharpened my sickle."
Why are peasants in particular drawn to Muentzer's apocalyptic vision?
In a way very different from others of the time, Thomas Muentzer sees the
revolution at the end of the age to have a very particular social and economic
impact. It's not a moral reform. It's not a spiritual form. It's economic.
He's worried about the poor. And the working classes, especially in the
growing cities of that time, were particularly drawn to his message. This was
going to be a class revolution. ...
Despite [the] horrible defeat that [Muentzer and his followers] faced,
Muentzer's legacy is not one that disappears so easily. Later generations,
particularly in Germany, would look at him .. as a hero, as a proletarian
rebel. Marxism would come along later and think of him as a saint, as a
martyr to the cause. The very fact that the state, the symbol of oppression,
are the ones who had killed him, only proves the fact that he's a prophet, that
he's the one really calling for the people to rise up against big
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