For fictional writers and political theorists, Münster has something for everyone. Later sympathetic communists and some Mennonites have argued that the sources themselves added in the more salacious details. It’s certainly a possibility for some of the anecdotes, but not all of them. On the other end of the spectrum from the apologists have been those who chalk the entire kingdom’s existence to the frightening and mad charisma Jan van Leiden exhibited. Still others like Anthony Arthur opt for the more direct link to modern terror movements and explain the city’s radicalism as a very human response to the persecution the Anabaptists faced everywhere else. While the latter feels the closest, Münster is unique.
In fiction Jan van Leiden has held sway over many authors. In addition to a slew of novels over the centuries, he has repeatedly become a figure of the stage. In the 19th Century Jean de Leiden is the central character of La Prophete, a French Opera. Jean begins as misguided and easily persuaded to take the throne of Münster, but develops into his more monstrous persona as the story progresses. Beset on all sides, Jean concludes the opera by throwing a feast in his palace to celebrate his coronation. At its climax, he reveals a powder magazine under the floorboards and kills everyone in the explosion. A similarly dark and serious take was offered in Robert Schneider’s 2011 play Kristus, the Monsters of Münster. In this version, Schneider sees in Jan a yearning for justice. His revolutionary challenge to the established order isn’t a cynical bid for power, it is a part of the search for a utopia that loses its way all too quickly.
In other versions Jan van Leiden is more cynical, and more materially driven. In 1991 a history entitled König der letzten Tage (king of the last days) was loosely adapted into a four hour miniseries of the same name. Van Leiden is rather ably played by a young Christoph Waltz, who lends the role the right mix of gravitas and slightly unhinged crazy. Divara herself is also much more prominent, seen as the driving force behind Jan in the early days of Münster, before subsequently losing control of the unleashed prophet king. The miniseries plays up Jan’s sexual appetite, including a memorably bizarre bathtub/prophecy sequence with Divara and a church wide orgy set to a bombastic choir. Much of the narrative hinges on the perspective of a fictional con artist and past associate of the story’s Jan named Sebastian, who stands in as both audience surrogate and a point of reference as Jan veers away from similar tricks into a full blown messiah complex. König also opts to make Jan bisexual, but it’s a poorly implemented choice. Clips can be found on Youtube, but they are decidedly not safe for a work viewing.
Jan has even played the role of supernatural villain. In Dietmar Krüger’s 2012 comic Der Fluch des Wiedertäufters, Jan van Leiden haunts modern day Münster. Rather than dying from torture, he was instead imprisoned alive in his cage on St. Lambert’s. He then stalks the city at night, killing anyone he crosses until plucky paranormal psychologist Kim Luna puts an end to him. Described as “ghostbusters” meets “Indiana Jones” “with a “shot of Dan Brown”, it’s very much a Young Adult kind of story that benefits from the extreme historical distance to its source material.
Divara herself has also taken the starring role in a 2001 opera entitled Divara: Wasser und Blut (water and blood) by Azio Corghi. As the world spirals out of control, Divara stands as witness and Cassandra to the collapse of the Münster kingdom, but she is never in control of her own story. The use of leitmotifs even underscores the point, as Divara alone among the major cast, does not have one.
The most interesting take on the story likely belongs to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s historical Grotesque Comedy die Wiedertäufer. Dürrenmatt was drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War II, and the initial draft of the play, es Steht Geschrieben (it is written), was released in 1947. The reception was divisive, with literal fist fights breaking out among the audience members in the lobby afterwards. Twenty years later Dürrenmatt returned to the story with more experience as a satirist. The revised version hues to the primary beats of the story, and Jan plays out the parts equally of jester, hero, and monstrous villain. Though he arrives in Münster in the back of dung wagon, he passes it off as an angel’s poor aim when the divine being tried to drop him in the city. From there it’s a mad and often whacky dance to the city’s apocalyptic demise.
Given his history, Dürrenmatt unsurprisingly emphasizes the many parallels he sees in the Third Reich and van Leiden’s Münster. He even makes a direct reference to Hitler’s failed career as an artist when Emperor Charles V hears of a mediocre student:
“CHANCELLOR: The painter Hagelmeier is crossed off the list of Academy members, your Majesty.
EMPEROR: An error, Chancellor. Accept him with grace, since he, as a member of the Imperial Academy can harm no one, except the art of painting!”
At the climax, Jan is defeated by the Prince Bishop, only to be congratulated by the besieging nobles. They commend him for playing the greatest role of all time, and they offer him the chance to live, and repeat it again on the “stage of history”. Dürrenmatt sees an apocalyptic show that must go on forever, with the demonic Jan van Leiden always reprising his role as ruinous joker. That’s certainly one way to look at it.
Primary sources on the Anabaptist kingdom are few and far between and I relied on Hermann von Kerssenbrück and Henry Gresbeck for actual accounts of the event. Kerssenbrück is at times clearly out to slander his old enemies, but his narrative is undeniably compelling and the most complete out there. Gresbeck is far more wry and grounded, opting for far fewer observations on the nature of humanity. But his memories are scattered and sometimes jumbled. They were also untranslated from their original colloquial form, which presented no end to the problems in understanding them during the first draft of this report.
For modern source work, I relied heavily on Anthony Arthur’s The Tailor King, which may be the best single summary of the entire story. Some other scholarly and popular histories were also found online to add other perspectives or research into the more dramatic retellings of the story. As always, Dan Carlin gets all the credit for introducing me to the topic and adding his own unique retelling of the human tragedy in these events. A special thanks as well to Translator Christopher Mackay, for wading through all of Kerssenbrück’s hyperbole, bad jokes, failed satire, poor references, and footnoting every Latin pun he couldn’t translate. But most of all I can’t thank Dr. Mackay enough for providing a full copy of his final draft of Gresbeck’s translation I only hope that some future historian will capably do the same to my own work.
 One of these, 2014’s Orfeo by Richard Powers, even uses the overlapping themes of Münster and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidean compound in Waco, Texas as a major narrative thread.