God’s Communists

Müntzer Mark-1975
Müntzer on an East German Five Mark Note. The DDR often went to great lengths to draw historical connections to past Communism as a way of contrasting and ignoring the German state’s more recent and nightmarish dive into Fascism. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

While Luther argued for a spiritual change, it didn’t take long for others to link the Reformation to changes they longed for in the temporal world. One of the more radical thinkers to crop up on the scene was Thomas Müntzer. Originally a disciple of Luther, Müntzer quickly wandered away from the man he later called the “fat skin of Wittenberg”. Müntzer has acquired a bit of a reputation as a proto Communist, even appearing on East Germany’s money during the nation’s brief existence. While the message he and his adherents carried is thoroughly peppered with theology, it’s easy to see things that would make Marx tug at his beard enthusiastically:

[T]he time has come when a bloodbath must come over this hardened world because of its unbelief. When that happens, I know for a fact that all those who were not willing to sacrifice their possessions for God’s sake will have to do so for the devil’s, and without his thanks. Why do you let yourselves be led around by the nose for so long? For it is well known, and can be easily proven from the Scriptures, that lords and princes, because of the way they are now acting, are not Christian.[1]

Müntzer and a handful of others preachers like him soon found an attentive audience in the German peasant class; a group that could now read for themselves in Luther’s newly published bible all of the innate hypocrisies riddling the modern administration of the Catholic Church. And the peasants found plenty to infuriate them. They were nickel and tithed their entire lives by the Church and the nobility. Especially with the rise of the more urban wealthy, many peasants found themselves hemmed in and legally trapped on their land by a defensive and jealous noble class. They also had to compete directly with the beer, food, and finished products the monks and nuns themselves produced and often sold, all tax exempt and below market prices. It would have been enough to make anyone reach for their pitchfork and mob up. In 1524 the underlying pressures fostered by serfdom and centuries of oppression mingled with new messages and banners of religious and social reform to create the German Peasants War. The Holy Roman Empire exploded like a powder keg, and over the next year almost 300,000 peasants were under arms across the countryside. By 1525 there was even a real sense of organization to the revolution. Calling themselves the Bundschuh[2], the peasants and many of their allies in the city guilds attempted to organize. In early 1525 they released the 12 Articles, a list of civic and religious reforms including the end of serfdom and the freedom to remove or retain their community preachers.

Bundschuhfahne_Holzschnitt_1539_Petrarcas_Trostspiegel
The Bundschuh rings a German nobleman. The contrast in armor, weapons, plumage and even posture all hint at the menace and disparity between each side in the confrontation. Photo Credit: Petrarcas Trost

While later communists like Friederich Engels would make much of revolution, the ending was never really in doubt. After the initial shock of angry mob violence wore off, the region’s lords quickly reached into their coffers and hired all the mercenaries they needed to squash this. Well aware that he was only alive thanks to his noble patrons, Luther also denounced Müntzer and his ilk in typically angry terms. After a year as many as 100,000 peasants were dead in the fighting. Müntzer himself was defeated at the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525, and was tortured and killed.[3] For the Anabaptists of Münster the war adds an important context, and explains much of the discomfort the princes of the region felt when they heard revolutionary ideas coming from the city.

The same year the son of a blacksmith in Münster was finishing his theological education as a Catholic minister. While born poor, Bernard Rothmann had quickly impressed his family with his obvious intelligence and theological bent. Recognizing a talent when he saw it, Rothmann’s uncle had brought the young man into the Catholic Church for further schooling and a life in the upper ministry. But Rothmann couldn’t forget his roots, and the same sense of injustice that burned in Müntzer and the peasant rebels drove him to attack the problems he saw in the Church. For five years he kept at this, until his uncle finally handed him a bag of money and sent him off to Cologne for tutelage under the Archbishop, hopefully getting the younger man out of his hair. Instead, Rothmann traveled, meeting with figures of the Reformation like Martin Luther. While Luther was apparently impressed by the young man’s intellect, there was something disturbing hidden behind his eyes. Writing to Luther, one of his colleagues remarked that Rothmann was “gifted”, but it remained to be seen whether he would turn out “extremely good” or “extremely bad”.

The year 1525 also brings us to the formal beginnings of the Anabaptists themselves. The concept of infant baptism had long been a central tenet of the Catholic Church, and thinkers in the already radical city of Zurich began to question it. How could a baby affirm their belief in Christ and the Church before they could even talk? What was the point in this ritual dunking if it wasn’t about choosing to be Christian? Such thoughts led Conrad Grebel to the first rebaptism in 1523. By 1525, Grebel and other leading thinkers began to blend in many of their own concerns for private property, and even Zurich decided they could no longer put up with the oddball sect growing in their midst. Grebel packed his bags, and along with the other early converts took his message out into the world.

Täuferdisputation_1525 Heinrich Thomann
The scene in 1525, where Grebel split from other leading Protestants like Huldrych Zwingli. Photo Credit Heinrich Thomann

Grebel and the other prophets called themselves The Brethren, or sometimes The Company of Christ. To the rest of the world they were die Wiedertäufer, or the Anabaptists. There was an energy to their structure of beliefs. Sermons were lively events, full of sweeping rhetoric and often divine inspiration. Speaking in tongues, wild dancing, and miracles were all supposed to be present and consistent signs that God was tuning into the daily lives of the Anabaptists. It was a stark contrast to men like Luther who sourced their revelations and theological beliefs strictly to the Bible and other Godly precedent. Even beyond the services the Anabaptists preached a joy for life. Food and drink were to be savored, not neglected in fasts, and provided it was within the bounds of marriage sex was nothing to be frowned on. There was also no point in going out and getting people to convert on the end of a sword, new followers had to “choose” in a way that wasn’t born of conversion. To their perspective, there was no saving the majority of society; those who were willing to listen to their message and accept a second dunking could join them in experiencing the joy of sect. Not that the rest of the Christian religious world appreciated being told they were unworthy by a group of hippy dippy anarchists.

The Anabaptist movement spread like wildfire over the German countryside, and like most intellectual epidemics it frightened the authorities everywhere it appeared. At a time when open war was never out of the question, the group was met with bipartisan hostility from both Lutherans and Catholics. By 1529, the young and extremely powerful Hapsburg Emperor Charles V[4] was worried enough to take personal interest in the Brethren. Never one to mess around, Charles ordered the mass extermination:

of every Anabaptist and rebaptized man and woman of the age of reason. [They shall be condemned and brought from natural life into death by fire, sword, and the like, according to the person, without proceeding by the inquisition of the spiritual judges; and let the same [punishment be inflicted on the] pseudo preachers, instigators, vagabonds, and tumultuous inciters of the said vice of Anabaptism.[5]

Anabaptist Burning Jan Luyken
An Anabaptist convicted by the Inquisition is put to death in the Spanish Netherlands. Note the hands clasped in prayer, even as they approach the fire. Photo Credit: Jan Luyken

Favored methods of Anabaptist murder included the “third baptism”, where the victim was tied to the end of a ladder and held underwater until they drowned. Failing that, death by fire was a close second.

The wholesale murder didn’t stop the spread of Anabaptism, but they did force it underground and into the hands of a new generation of leaders. It’s also fair to say that the constant threat of death hardened the attitudes of many of the brethren. Portions of the movement began to take on a downright apocalyptic perspective. In addition to their own persecution, in 1527 Rome itself had been sacked by disgruntled mercenaries in Charles’ employ. The world seemed to be ending.

[1] Rothbard. M. 2009. Messianic Communism in the Protestant Reformation.

[2] laced shoe, a pun on peasant footware and the nature of their alliance

[3] The Bundschuh flag utilized a rainbow as its symbol, in reference to God’s pact with Noah. Needless to say they took it as a positive sign when a similar rainbow appeared over Frankenhausen. As it happens, hymns and enthusiasm lost to pikes and cannons in one of the more psychedelically colorful battles of the era. The scene was captured by Werner Tübke at the behest of Communist East Germany on a colossal 400 foot oil painting.

[4] Emperor Charles V is a fascinating character in his own right. He was essentially the only man to rule both the Austrian and Spanish branches of the Hapsburg family simultaneously. Small wonder he spent his entire life fighting the French, the Ottomans, his own subjects, the French again, and sometimes all of them simultaneously.

[5] Arthur, A. 1999. The Tailor King. Pg. 10

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