Thomas Müntzer was born in Stolberg (Harz) in 1489. He received a humanist education and was ordained as a priest. Having already distanced himself from the Catholic Church before Martin Luther, he welcomed the Reformation and married the former nun Ottilie von Gersen.
In 1520 Luther recommended Müntzer for a rectorate in Zwickau. But Müntzer’s ideas were radically different to those of Luther. He was convinced that trust in salvation through Christ was not genuine faith; genuine faith had to develop through an internal process of suffering through which the individual could understand the passion of Christ. He considered faith in the power of the sacraments in the traditional Church just as flawed as Luther’s emphasis on the Bible. For Müntzer, the Last Judgment and Christ’s rule on earth immediately thereafter were impending.
Against “patricos” und “Little Doctors”
Hence he attacked the “patricos” of the old Church and soon criticised the “little doctors” of the Reformation movement just as vehemently as obstacles to the purification of Christianity. In his treatise “Against the Mindless Soft-Living Flesh in Wittenberg” he made clear his conviction that the new theology of the Reformation also supported only the rule of the Godless.
In 1523 Müntzer became pastor of Allstedt, where he conducted the first service in German. He now hoped to receive support from the prince for the necessary purification of the Church, a prerequisite for which he considered to be use “of the sword”. But Duke John I of Saxony declined. Müntzer became aware of the peasants’ revolt that had been underway in South Germany since June 1524 and whose movement had also caught hold in Thuringia.
The peasants as the tool of apocalyptic purification
He travelled through the areas of the revolt and grew stronger in his conviction that both priests and princes were only obstructing the common people in their faith, and that the peasants were the tool for the apocalyptic purification he considered necessary. He thought their revolt created the preconditions for a world in which God’s word would be heard. Müntzer encouraged the peasants to carry out God’s judgment: “At them, while the fire is hot. Do not let your sword get cold!” The peasants took the city of Mühlhausen, where Müntzer preached and gained great influence in the “free city”, which he wanted to turn into a model of a city of God’s kingdom that was dawning. He set out with 300 followers against the approaching princes’ armies for Frankenhausen in Thuringia, where they fought the deciding battle together with the peasant armies. A rainbow – which Müntzer had already chosen as a symbol before the battle – really did illuminate the scene on May 15. “God wishes to cleanse the earth with your help, fight bravely!” he encouraged the rebels.
Appropriated as a precursor of Communism
They didn’t stand a chance against the princes’ landsknecht troops and their firearms. Panic broke out amongst the peasants as they tried to save themselves in a headless flight. 6,000 of them lost their lives; Müntzer was taken captive. He interpreted the defeat as God’s punishment, since the peasants had fought for their own benefit and not for God’s kingdom. Even under torture he would not renounce his teachings and was beheaded. His head was raised on a spike before the gates of Mühlhausen as a warning to others.
Thomas Müntzer was remembered for supporting the peasants in their uprising against oppression, which was inspired by Christian hopes, while Martin Luther sided with the princes. Time and again the name Müntzer has served as a reminder of the social conscience of the Church and society. His appropriation by the government of the GDR as a precursor of Communism was just one of the many misunderstandings he has had to suffer posthumously. The GDR gave the places of his birth and death the official name “Thomas-Müntzer-Stadt” and depicted him on the 5 mark note.