Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 4
The German Reformation and Thomas Münzer

I. The German Reformation

ÆNEAS SYLVIUS PICCOLOMINI (so often quoted by us), formerly an enthusiast in the cause of Church reform, had made peace with the Roman Pope, and, as a reward, had been given the Cardinal’s hat, 1456. [1] A letter was addressed to the newly-created Cardinal by Martin Mayer (a native of Heidelberg and Chancellor to the Archbishop of Mayence, Ditrich von Erbach), in which, among other things, he says:– “There are thousands of ways in which the Roman See robs us of our gold as if we were a nation of barbarians. From this it has come about that our country, once so famed, which by its courage and blood founded the Roman kingdom and was the king and queen of the world, is now sunk in poverty, a servile and tribute-paying land, and, grovelling in the dust, has for long years been bewailing its misery and indigence. Our rulers, however, have at length awakened from their sleep, and have begun to ponder how they can oppose this evil; aye, they have resolved to shake off the yoke and regain their old freedom, and the Roman Curia will suffer not a little if its princes carry out what they have in their minds.” [2]

In refutation of Martin’s charges Æneas Sylvius deemed it necessary to write a book on the condition of Germany, which appeared in 1458, shortly before his election to the Papal throne. [3] “He were indeed wanting in mental gifts,” he sets forth, “who should assert that Germany is poor.” He endeavours to prove this by a reference to the commerce and mining industry which at that time flourished in Germany and brought in great wealth. “If it be true,” he exclaims, “that where there are merchants there is always great wealth, then must it be conceded that the Germans are a very rich people, since the greater part of them thirst after profits in trade and roam through the most distant lands ... And then consider the veins of silver that have been discovered among you. Kuttenberg in Bohemia, Rankberg in Saxony, and Freiberg in Meissen possess inexhaustible silver mines on their dizzy heights.” He then points to the gold and silver mines in the valleys of the Inn, and Enns to the gold washings on the Rhine and in Bohemia; and finally asks:- “Where in your land is there an inn (diversorium) which has not its drinking cups of silver? What woman, not only among the nobility but among the plebeians, does not glitter with gold? Shall I make mention of the neck-chains of the knights and bridles of the horses, embossed with purest gold; of the spurs and scabbards garnished with precious stones; of the finger-rings and shoulder-belts, the armour and helmets, sparkling with gold? And how beautiful are the utensils of the churches? What number of reliquaries do we find encrusted with pearls and gold? how rich the vesture of the altars and priests”

Hence Germany was well able to contribute to the support of the Roman See. But what would happen to the Pontificate if Germany should cease to fulfil her mission? It would become poor and wretched and incapable of performing its high duties, since the small and uncertain revenues of the Papal States were insufficient for its needs. Without wealth it were impossible to be intelligent and highly esteemed. Moreover the laws of all societies (in omni lege) recognised the necessity of a wealthy priesthood.

There could be no greater contradiction between two statements than is here exhibited. It might be said that only one could be true, the other must be false; and yet both are true. Each by itself gives an incomplete picture of Germany’s condition in the second half of the fifteenth century. They are both true precisely because they are in irreconcilable contradiction the great antagonism of the time is, indeed, accurately reflected by the discrepancy between these statements. It was precisely because this antagonism was irreconcilable, that it could be terminated only by the conflict of the two opposing elements, and the triumph of one.

Mayer’s letter and the reply by Æneas Sylvius show us in the clearest light the pivot on which the Reformation turned, freed from the confused heap of theological wranglings concerning predestination, the Holy Communion, &c., with which it was afterwards overlaid by the Church reformers of various parties.

Æneas Sylvius was right Germany in the fifteenth century was flourishing through its mining and trade. He was also right in affirming that the Papal See was chiefly dependent on the revenues it obtained from Germany for the other great civilised nations of Europe had already to a great extent freed themselves from Papal spoliation.

For this reason the Vatican was obliged to exercise all its powers of extortion upon the German nation, and obstinately refuse even the smallest concession. No relief, therefore, from the Papal exactions could be expected. Germany must either suffer submissively, or throw off the Roman yoke completely.

This conviction continued to acquire strength, for Martin Mayer’s statement was also correct. Although the wealth of Germany was undoubtedly increasing, the Papal claims were nevertheless most oppressively burdensome and very obstructive to economic development.

It was a sufficient injury that she had to bear a burden from which the rest of the civilised nations were free. It is true that in France, England, and Spain the population was taxed for the Church, but the most substantial part of the revenues derived from such taxation remained in those countries and benefited the ruling classes. These seized upon all the lucrative benefices for the members of their own order, or for creatures and parasites from other classes. In Germany, on the contrary, many benefices fell to the share of foreigners – tools, not of the German princes, but of the Pope. All the lucrative clerical appointments in Germany were moreover articles of commerce, which the Pope sold to the highest bidder. [4] Enormous sums flowed into Rome year in year out, and were lost to the great extortioners in Germany – its princes and merchants. Moreover, great as the profits from trading and mining might be, and rapid as was the increase of wealth in Germany, the necessity for money and the greed for gold among the ruling classes augmented in like proportion.

In the fifteenth century the production of commodities for the market had already attained remarkable dimensions, while that for home consumption as the exclusive form of production was, even in country places, in the course of rapid decline. Money began to play a great part in economic life. The necessity for it was ever greater on all sides, but chiefly among the upper classes, not only because their mode of life had reached a most extravagant degree of luxury, but also because money alone could satisfy the constantly increasing demands upon them. Money was also required to pay the mercenaries and officials who supported the absolute monarchy, at that time developing itself funds were needed to attract the independent nobles to its Court and induce them to serve its purposes and lastly means were necessary to bribe the tools of its adversaries. All this implied imposts, raking and scraping townsmen and peasants in order to extract from them all that they could yield, the ordinary revenue rarely proving sufficient and it meant moreover incurring debts – debts the interest of which enforced fresh expenditure. In spite of all exactions and all loans, only a few princes were in a satisfactory financial condition, and hence they felt, as did their subjects, upon whom these and other burdens rested, that they were becoming impoverished in spite of Germany’s increasing wealth, and that it was unbearable to look on quietly while the Pope, for no reason whatever, carried off the cream of the profits and left them the skimmed milk. It was nevertheless by no means a very simple matter to rid themselves of papistical demands.

Undoubtedly the mass of the people suffered like the princes, and indeed even more than they; the lower classes, the peasants, the town proletarians and the class immediately above them, together with the burgesses and the lower nobility, groaned under the dominion of Rome. Even before the days of Wycliffe and Huss they had shown themselves disposed, under Louis the Bavarian, to enter upon a struggle against the Papal Church, though they had, perhaps, to endure quite as much under the increasing demands of the higher nobility, the great merchants and princes and with this state of feeling among them, Bohemia was to learn, as England had done, how dangerous it was for the princes to undermine one of the great powers in the community.

The Revolution of 1789 in France brought about a period of reaction in Europe, and cooled the desire of the bourgeoisie for a revolutionary struggle, which could only be carried on with the assistance of small traders and the proletariat, against princely autocracy and the aristocratic landed proprietors. In the same way the Hussite war produced a period of reaction not only in Bohemia but in Germany also, and it required a long time for the idea of casting off the yoke of Rome to gain any influence among the upper classes of the Empire.

Then again there was the alliance between the Emperor and the Pope. The Imperial authority was declining very fast in Germany, and the Emperors were afraid that it would diminish still more rapidly if the other traditional authority of the Empire – the Papal – were shaken or destroyed. Moreover there was the danger from Turkey, which directly threatened the Imperial (i.e. the Hapsburg) possessions, a danger which could apparently be averted only by one of the Pope’s organised Crusades.

If one adds to all this the fatal disruption of Germany, which certainly reduced the power of the Emperor to a minimum, but at the same time made concerted action among the opponents of the Pope and Emperor very difficult, it is comprehensible that the Reformation movement in Germany only became strongly pronounced in the century after the Hussite War.

Meantime development was spreading far and wide in all spheres. The means for a religious and military conflict had greatly improved. The art of printing had been invented and artillery had been made more perfect, while the facilities for commerce, and especially for maritime intercommunication, had considerably increased. Shortly before the Reformation, bold navigators had sailed directly across the Atlantic Ocean, for the first time in the world’s history.

The advance of the Turks and nations of Central Asia was the incentive to these voyages, for these nations barred the old paths of commerce to the East. Thanks to the greater perfection attained by European navigation, this did not lead to any interruption in the trade between Western Asia and Europe, but rather to the search for new ways to India – along the coast of Africa on one side, and across the ocean on the other. The age of discovery had begun modern colonial policy took its rise.

By these means not only was the horizon of mankind vastly widened, and a complete revolution of human knowledge initiated, but an economic change was also inaugurated. The commercial centre of Europe was transferred from the basin of the Mediterranean to the shores of the Atlantic. The economic development of Italy was bound down and hemmed in, while on the contrary that of Western Europe was suddenly accelerated by a powerful impetus. Existing antagonisms, as much between classes as between nations, were brought to a climax, and fresh antagonisms were engendered, till the passions peculiar to the new capitalistic form of exaction were unfettered and exhibited with all the strength and recklessness of the Middle Ages, out of the barbarism of which society had just stepped. All traditional, social, and political relations were overthrown all prevailing codes of morality proved unstable. For a whole century a series of terrible wars raged throughout Europe in which the thirst for gold, the lust of murder, and the madness of despair were rampant. Who has not heard of the Eve of St. Bartholomew? Who does not know the deeds of the heroes of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, of Alva in the Netherlands, and of Cromwell in Ireland? There is no need to mention the abominations of contemporary colonial policy.

This mighty revolution, the greatest which Europe had seen since the migration of nations, found its termination in some measure (except in the case of England) in the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648. It arose from the German Reformation, which agitated the whole of Europe and supplied the catch-words and arguments for the combatants till the middle of the seventeenth century, so that to the superficial observer it might seem that in all these struggles religion was the only object in question: indeed, they are called the Religious Wars.

Taking all this into consideration, it is not surprising that the German Reformation movement was vastly more important in historic significance than the earlier agitations of this kind; that it has come to be known in general as the Reformation and that the Germans, though they halted so long after the other civilised nations of Europe in the revolt against Rome, were regarded as the chosen people of religious freedom, destined to carry it to other countries.



II. The Rich Product of the Saxon Mines

The land from which the spark was to fly forth that should kindle the whole world into flame was Saxony. We have seen how important the silver mines were for Bohemia in the fourteenth century; how they had intensified social antagonisms and increased the power of the country and its rulers. In the fifteenth century the produce of the Bohemian mines diminished, while, on the other hand, those of Saxony – namely, in Meissen and Thuringia – reached a dizzy height of prosperity. The silver wealth of Freiberg had been well known in 1171, its mining laws becoming the foundation of mining legislation throughout the whole of Germany. At the close of the fifteenth century, however, it was outdone by Schneeberg, where, in 1471, fresh veins of ore were discovered, which for some time were the most productive of all German silver mines. In 1492 mining was started at Schreckenstein, and in 1496 the foundation-stone was laid of the mining town of Annaberg. In 1516 the mines of Joachimsthal came into prominence (they were partly Bohemian and partly Saxon); in 1519 those of Marienberg.

In Thuringia the most important mine was at Mansfeld. It had been worked since the twelfth century, and yielded copper as well as silver and gold, the bituminous marl-slate being conveyed to Venice, where the process of separation was better understood than in Germany.

The rapidly increasing wealth in the precious metals promoted production and trade in Saxon cities. Erfurt became rich and powerful as the Saxon emporium for trade to the south (Venice), while Halle and, later, Leipzig were the chief marts for the north. North and south, commerce developed most actively in the direction both of production and trade. The line commercial intercourse took from Saxony to Italy passed through Nurenberg and Augsburg, and contributed much to the powerful position taken by these towns from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. With commerce, production also developed, while art and local trade flourished in the above-mentioned towns.

But it was not only town life that was influenced by the rich mines of Saxony their effect in the country was perhaps even greater.

The demand for wood at the mines was an important item it was required partly as timber in the construction of the shafts, for the laying of tracks (with wooden rails, as we see them represented in Agricola’s book On Mines), &c., and partly and especially for fuel in smelting the ore. A regular traffic in wood became quite necessary, and we find that it was already the object of many commercial treaties in Saxony even in the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Other natural products were required in the mining districts, which lay, as a rule, in unproductive mountainous regions at a high altitude, where but little corn grew – much too little to support the crowd of people who gathered about a large mine. The mountain peasants being unable to cultivate the corn for themselves, were forced to buy it. The development of the mines, therefore, greatly promoted the commerce in wheat as well as in wood. It formed, for example, the chief revenues of Zwickau, which lay on the road from the Saxon “Lowlands” to the “Highlands”.

Hence at a very early date the peasants and lords of the soil in Saxony became producers of commodities for the market; and, having once found a market for their produce, it was a matter of indifference to them what they cultivated, provided their productions were saleable. It was not even necessary that it should be wheat, the market for which was circumscribed, while that for plants used in manufacture was much more extensive, e.g., woad, which was used for blue dyes. Nowhere in Germany was this cultivation so widely developed as in Saxony, especially in Thuringia, the centre of the industry being Erfurt. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century, woad is said to have been cultivated in three hundred villages of Thuringia, though the competition from indigo was already very strong. The antagonism between the territorial lords and the peasants which was engendered by this development must, consequently, have reached a great height at the beginning of the Reformation in Saxony. The value of land was very great, and so was the greed of the nobles for it. The system of money duties and the avarice shown by the princes and nobility were most remarkable, as was also the great dependence of the peasantry on the merchants and cultivators. Capitalists, princes, and nobles seized upon the whole profits arising from this commercial prosperity. Thanks to the rapid increase of the precious metals, and the decrease in the cost of production, the price of agricultural produce arose enormously. In Saxony, the centre of the mining wealth, the rise in prices must have been particularly mischievous, for it did not in the least benefit the peasantry, while in the cities it was the cause of serious strikes.

For this reason, we find that class antagonism at the beginning of the Reformation was peculiarly bitter in Saxony, exactly as it had been a hundred years before in the neighbouring country of Bohemia. But in the latter country the mining population had represented a conservative power. Their proletarianism was only in its infancy; the miners were counted among the privileged classes, and, being Germans, were necessarily regarded as partisans of the traditional order of things, i.e., of the sovereign and the Pope. Since that time the proletariat element among miners, and the working of mines by capitalists, had made enormous strides; but in Saxony the miners were not strangers to the country; they possessed no privileges which the overthrow of the existing order of things could affect, but, on the contrary, came more and more into conflict with the ruling powers during the last decade before the Reformation. Far from opposing any revolutionary movement, they were quite ready to join any such that broke out, and their numbers, their aptitude for arms, and the economic importance of their profession, gave them a power with which statesmen had to reckon.

The class, however, which derived the greatest increase of strength from the wealth of the mines was the absolute monarchy, a class which, besides being the most revolutionary of any, was most favoured by all the tendencies of the age.

Although the eager rush for gold and silver was increasing, most of the princes found difficulty in satisfying their need for money by means of taxes and imposts. It was different, however, with the princes within whose territories lay the rich silver and gold mines. Of these the best-filled coffers were possessed by the sovereigns of Saxony. The inheritance of the two brothers, Ernest and Albrecht (1485), had been divided into two parts, Ernest receiving the chief portion, Thuringia; Albrecht the lesser, Meissen. But the silver mines in the mountains had not been divided; they remained the common property of both houses, the revenues being simply shared. Thanks to these revenues, the Saxon princes of the sixteenth century played a prominent part in Germany, taking precedence after the Emperor of Germany.

Paradoxical as it may appear, the residue of the Imperial power at that time rested to a great extent only upon the impecuniosity and avarice of the German princes, especially of the Prince-Electors. The latter had, in reality, become independent sovereigns. If they tolerated the Imperial dignity, it was chiefly in order to find a purchaser to whom they could sell a part, and in truth a very trifling part, of their sovereign rights. The same role which was played at the close of the old Roman Republic, first by the rabble of the capital, and subsequently by the Pretorian mob, was enacted by the Prince-Electors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Every Imperial election was to them a most profitable business, the noble lords taking money in bribes from all the candidates, and finally giving their votes to the highest bidder.

Perhaps the most disgraceful episode in this traffic of elections occurred when the nomination of a successor to Maximilian I was in view, an episode which began during this Emperor’s lifetime and lasted from 1516 to 1519. The two dynasties which had been contending for predominance in Europe, and had alternately made a tool of the pontifical power, now sued also for the Imperial crown – the French dynasty of Valois, and the House of Hapsburg, the centre of whose dominion had slipped away from Germany to Spain.

Nearly all the Electors accepted money from both Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain.

The only prince who took no money was the Elector Frederick of Saxony (of the Ernestinian line, to whom Thuringia had fallen). The other Electors, hankering after the treasures of the joint possessors of the silver mines in Meissen, offered the Imperial crown to him-of course for corresponding fees. But Frederick rejected the offer, well knowing it was not worth the price, and turned the choice upon the House of Hapsburg. Notwithstanding the Tyrolean mines and the flourishing commerce of the Hapsburg Netherlands, in spite also of the might of Spain at their back, the Hapsburgs appeared to threaten the independence of the German princes less than did Francis I, who already possessed a well-organised and compact France.

We will not enter upon the other considerations which demanded the election of Charles, such as the danger from Turkey, &c.

The Elector of Saxony not only became the emperor-maker by virtue of his riches and power, but he was also the centre of the opposition made by the German princes against the Emperor and Pope in their struggle for independence.

The University of Wittenberg, founded by Frederick in 1502, undertook the intellectual guidance of the movement, which was at once inimical to the Pope and friendly to the princes. Luther, who had been a professor in this school since 1508, and had fallen under its influence, finally became its spokesman and the confidential friend and protégé of the Prince-Elector. These events are too well known to require being dealt with in detail. Every one knows how, in 1517, Tetzel came to Saxony to extort money from the people or Pope Leo X. by the sale of indulgences; how Luther attacked him, quarrelled with him, and was carried further than he at first intended by the intervention of the Vatican; how out of the “monk’s quarrel” arose the rebellion of the whole nation against the Pope, and how the latter tried to intimidate the former by his anathemas (1520). But Luther, feeling sure of his prince’s aid, defied the Pope and burnt his Bull; he dared even to defy the newly-elected Emperor, Charles V, who summoned him before the Imperial Diet at Worms (1521). Charles, however, could not deal with him as Sigismund had dealt with Huss, for he knew that the monk was supported by the greater part of the German nation, and particularly by the powerful Frederick of Saxony. Hence the monarch upon whose dominion the sun never set did not dare to interfere openly with Frederick and Luther.

Thus Saxony became the intellectual centre both of the aristocratic opposition to Rome, which proved victorious, and of the democratic, which was crushed. In Thuringia a number of small towns, such as Mühlhausen and Nordhausen, succeeded in maintaining their freedom from princely rule. Erfurt also could count itself a free town. At the beginning of the Reformation it was the chief commercial city of Central Germany, though it was soon to yield its place to aspiring Leipzig, which had already surpassed the old trading town of Halle. The Erfurt University was considered the most eminent in Germany. It became the seat of the new German Humanism, which united itself to the kindred movements in Italy and France, and sought to emulate them in spirited contempt for traditional beliefs.

It was, however, not only the learned and civic, but also the communistic, opposition, that found its greatest support in Saxon towns.



III. The Enthusiasts of Zwickau

The Hussite War was not without its influence upon the obscure and feeble beginning of the communistic movement of Germany which was comprised under the name of the “Beghard doctrine”. The ruling classes were stimulated by this war to a greater mistrust of, and severity towards, all the suspicious agitations among the lower orders, while, on the other hand, Bohemia became an asylum from which the German emigrants could exert their influence on their own country. Czech Taborites zealously supported the propaganda in foreign lands, and to them also the Hussite propaganda in Germany can almost always be traced back. The Hussite spirit in the armies of the “Brethren” grew so strong that they desired to spread its doctrine over the whole world; and the bold thought was more than once expressed that all Christendom should, either by force of arms or by the path of peaceful teaching, be brought to accept the Truth. The so-called letters of heretics, those popular manifestoes of the Taborites, wherein they summoned all Christians, without distinction of nation or rank, to free themselves from priestly domination and to confiscate Church property, were carried to England and Spain, while in Dauphiné the people sent contributions in money to Bohemia, and began in good Taborite fashion to murder their lords. In the south of Germany we find the Taborite emissaries more active than any others. Two facts in particular did great service to the propaganda – the existence of the numerous Waldenses congregations, and the strong socialistic tendency which made itself noticeable, especially among the lower strata of the town folk, and threatened the rich hierarchy quite as much as it did the Jews. [5]

Of course the communistic sects could only exist in the form of secret societies. The Brethren, therefore, usually resided in out-of-the-way mills, hamlets, and farms, and assembled in small numbers when they held their services, thus avoiding every sort of notice.

After the futile attempt of the Pope and the Emperor to crush Luther, after the burning of the Papal Bull by the latter, and still more after the Imperial Diet at Worms, the cave-dwellers, like other rebellious spirits, plucked up courage to make an advance.

When social and political powers have lost their material foundation, their best support is their traditional credit and prestige. By means of these they can, under certain circumstances, maintain themselves for a long time against superior opponents. But the longer they do so the more terrible is the downfall when, in a trial of strength, this prestige proves to be merely a hollow show.

The Emperor and Pope experienced the truth of this during the years 1520 and 1521. Hitherto no one had ever defied them both at the same time with impunity. The less the lower strata of the people recognised that the princes and knights were in reality supporting Luther, the more isolated he appeared to be consequently the result of the Diet must have influenced the great masses most powerfully. If the truth were so strong that a single monk could defend it, undismayed and unpunished, before the greatest rulers of Christendom, then all who had a good cause to defend might unhesitatingly venture to step forward.

Saxony was the first to move. A few weeks after the declaration of the Diet against Luther and his friends (June, 1521) the people of Erfurt rose in a series of insurrections and put an end to the Catholic Church government. In Wittenberg also there were disturbances but the agitations in Zwickau, which began in the year 1520, are of the most importance to us. From very ancient times and until the Thirty Years’ War, cloth weaving was the chief trade. As early as 1348, when statutes were enacted respecting this industry, the clothmakers formed a guild, which was the most important, and apparently the oldest in the place and in the second half of the fifteenth century Zwickau, next to Oschatz, supplied the largest amount and the best quality of cloth in Meissen, although it did not always come up to the standard of the much admired material from London and the Netherlands. In 1540, two hundred and thirty clothmakers might be counted among the householders but an old and not unfounded tradition tells us that at that flourishing period their numbers amounted to six hundred. [6]

It is with this “flourishing period” that we are now dealing. During the ten years of the Peasant War, from 15,000 to 20,000 stone of wool were used in manufacture, and from 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of cloth were produced annually.

The clothmakers had something more than an economic importance. From their numbers they formed a considerable portion of the population of the town, which at that time contained nearly 1,ooo houses; so that in the “flourishing period” from one-quarter to one-half of the houses belonged to the clothmaker masters in any case they possessed more than 230, and probably nearer 600.

The manufacture of cloth had become an important industry, and the trade was in the hands of great merchants. This was nothing unusual; but the proximity of the Zwickau weavers to the workers in the Saxon mines was a unique circumstance, and the rebellious, defiant spirit of the latter must have given courage to the journeymen clothmakers, while the communistic enthusiasm of the latter must in its turn have infected the miners. We cannot wonder therefore that the communists in and about Zwickau were the first during the Reformation in Germany to dare to assert themselves openly. As early as 1520 we find an organised community there with chiefs, called “Apostles”, as among the Waldenses. The long yearning for the millennium now appeared to them to be on the eve of gratification, through the medium of a frightful visitation from God – a violent revolution. Though their principal adherents were the clothmakers of the town, they gained followers from among the miners, and many persons of education also joined them, of whom we may mention Max Stübner, who had studied at Wittenberg with one of the “Apostles”. Their leader was the weaver Nicholas Storch.

They also acquired some influence beyond Zwickau, and even in Wittenberg itself, where, besides the lower classes, some idealists joined the agitation. At that time class antagonism in the Reformation had not shown themselves; it still bore the aspect, on the one hand, of a national movement without distinction of class, while, on the other hand, it appeared as a purely religious struggle for the purification of the Church and the re-establishment of evangelical Christianity.

We have pointed out how easy it was for the idealists (who were not directly interested in exploiting the lower classes) to show their sympathy with the communistic movement at this stage, supported as it was by early Christian tradition.

The enthusiasts of Zwickau made a deep impression even upon Melancthon, Luther’s friend and fellow-worker. “One sees by many signs,” said he, “that firm spirits dwell in them.” He wrote to the Elector Frederick about Nicholas Storch:– “I have observed about him thus much, that he has the true conception of the Scriptures, with the noblest and highest articles of the faith he has also a great gift of speaking.” Frederick himself, in consequence of the demeanour of the theologians, did not know rightly what to think of the enthusiasts. Melancthon was clever enough not to compromise himself, but to leave to Luther the decision upon the true character of these enthusiastic spirits. But he felt himself so drawn towards them that he took one of the “Apostles” (the Stübner mentioned above) into his house. Luther could not tell him much about the Zwickau sect at first; he lived on the Wartburg, where he was awaiting the results of the ban of the Empire which had been promulgated against him. What the Brethren were driving at however was made clear to him soon enough, and he came forward energetically against them.

Luther’s friend and colleague, Karlstadt, favoured these enthusiasts far more decidedly than did Melancthon. The Lutheran movement advanced much too slowly for Karlstadt’s revolutionary vehemence. He took up the contest against the celibacy of the priests and the Latin Mass much earlier than Luther, who only followed his lead with hesitation. He went further than merely denouncing sacred pictures and the keeping of Lent. Quite in the Beghard and Taborite manner, the learned Professor condemned every form of scholarship, declaring that it was not the learned, but the working classes, who should preach the gospel the former should learn from the latter, and the high-schools ought to be shut.

By far the most prominent among the adherents of the Apostle of Zwickau, however, was Thomas Münzer. From the year 1521 to 1525 he was the centre of the whole communistic movement in Germany. His figure rises so conspicuously in all its concerns, its history is so closely connected with him, and all contemporary evidence about it refers so exclusively to him, that we will follow the usual method and relate Münzer’s history, as the history of the communistic movement in the first years of the Reformation.



IV. Münzer’s Biographers

Our information about Münzer is very scanty, as is the case with so many unsuccessful revolutionists both before and after him. Notices of him are not lacking, but they come chiefly from his enemies, and are consequently malicious and untrustworthy. The best-known sources of enlightenment are the passages in Melancthon’s Historie Thome Münzers, des anfengers der Doringischen vffrur, sehr nützlich zu lesen, &c., which seems to have been published in the same year (1525) in which the insurrection was suppressed. This account is given in nearly all the editions containing a full collection of Luther’s works. We all know how a time-serving dependent of a prince of that epoch would be likely to write about the prince’s most dangerous enemy. Melancthon had special cause for animosity, since he had long coquetted with the associates of Münzer as we have already seen he had even received and answered letters from Münzer himself, and was obliged to expiate his offence by redoubled indignation.

Accuracy was not the chief object of the “gentle Melancthon”, his only desire being to abuse Münzer. Even on matters of indifferent interest, his statements are wholly untrustworthy.

Sleidan and Gnodalius have simply copied these statements, and from them they have been repeated in the later histories of that period. Münzer was only seen in a true light after the French Revolution, which roused the Pastor G. Th. Strobel, of Wöhrdt (Bavaria) to a study of the Peasant War, and particularly of the Münzer sedition. This led to the discovery of the omissions and contradictions in Melancthon’s statements, which Strobel sought as much as possible to rectify in his own writings (Leben, Schriften, and Lehren Thomae Müntzers, des Urhebers des Bauernaufstandes in Thuringen, Nurenberg and Altorf 1795). This work is the first scientific monograph on Münzer, and that written by Pastor Seidemann (who published a memoir in 1842) can alone be compared with it (Thomas Münzer, eine Biographie, nach den im königlich sächsischen Hauptstaatsarchiv zu Dresden vorhandenen Quellen bearbeitet, Dresden and Leipzic). Seidemann has brought forward a number of new arguments; but in the title of his work he promises more than he performs, for in most of the particulars he relies upon Strobel, from whom he frequently takes excerpts without mentioning their author.

The most recent work on Münzer is by O. Merx (Thomas Münzer und Heinrich Pfeifer, 1523-1525, Göttingen 1889), a doctor’s dissertation, the author of which misses no opportunity of bringing his loyal opinions to light. This brief memoir gives a few details and some chronologically accurate statements, which till then had been buried in contemporary writings or in collections of scattered materials. But it deals wholly with the mere surface of events, and displays no comprehension whatever of Münzer’s purpose or achievements.

All the other monographs on Münzer which we have come across are scientifically worthless but the most pitiable of all is a discourse by Professor Leo, Thomas Münzer, given by order of the Evangelical Society in Berlin, 1856. He has merely copied Seidemann, but has interlarded his statements with servile malevolence. The spirit of Melancthon’s writings appears throughout his discourse, as it does in most of the records of that period down to Janssen and Lamprecht.

We have met with but one among the independent accounts of Münzer, which has correctly estimated the historical importance of the man and his personality. It is that which Zimmermann gives us in his Geschichte des Grossen Bauernkrieges, a work never yet equalled, much less surpassed, in spite of the fact that more than half a century has elapsed since its publication, and although a few of its details were already well known.

Friedrich Engels has given an account of the Peasant War based upon Zimmermann’s work, and with it also a narrative of Thomas Münzer’s deeds, in a publication which first appeared in the sixth number of the review, Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Hamburg 1850, and which since then has repeatedly appeared in pamphlet form under the title of Der Deutsche Bauernkrieg. Although (as he admits in his preface) Engels gathered his data from Zimmermann, he elaborated them independently on the basis of the materialistic conception of history, and with the recent experience furnished him by the revolution of 1848, by which means he acquired a great many new and important glimpses into the causes of the Peasant War, which we have found of the utmost importance in the following account.

On one point – and that certainly an essential one – we cannot agree with Zimmermann. He holds that Münzer was ahead of his age and superior to it. “Münzer was three centuries in advance of his time, not only in his political but also in his religious views.” [7]

Zimmermann came to this conviction after comparing Münzer’s opinions with those of more modern thinkers, such as Penn, Zinzendorf, Rousseau, &c. Had he compared them with the earlier communistic sects, he would have found that Mtinzer moved entirely within their sphere of thought; indeed we have not succeeded in discovering a single new idea in him.

In our judgment also the importance of the man as an organiser and propagandist has been much overrated. The persecution of the Beghards and Waldenses, which had not ceased, indicates that not only the opinions, but also the organisations of the communistic sects, had been preserved up to the time of the Reformation. We may assume that, contemporaneously with Münzer, perhaps indeed before him, as was notorious in Zwickau, countless agitators and organisers were active in promulgating the same opinions, and that in many places secret associations were already in existence, upon whom they could rely for support.

Münzer surpassed his communistic confederates not only in philosophic conceptions and in the talent for organising, but in his revolutionary energy, and especially in his statesmanlike discernment. The communists in the Middle Ages were universally inclined to peace. In revolutionary times it is true they were easily carried away by the fever of sedition. When the Reformation set the whole of Germany in a mighty blaze the communists did not remain unaffected by it, but many of them appeared to doubt the efficacy of violent measures – the South Germans in particular, as they were influenced by the Swiss Anabaptists, who were decidedly opposed to Münzer’s opinion that force alone could procure the spread of the gospel. They wanted to fight with spiritual weapons only – to “conquer the world with the Word of God,” as they expressed it at the time. We shall revert to this in the chapter which deals with the Anabaptists.

Münzer was very far from displaying this peaceful disposition. His vehemence and energy could not be surpassed, though at the same time he was anything but a simpleton or narrow-minded sectarian. He had a very good knowledge of the existing situation, and amidst all his mystical enthusiasm did not fail to reckon with facts. Moreover, very far from limiting his operations to a small community of true believers, he appealed to all the revolutionary elements of his time, and sought to make them serve his purpose.

He failed in his purpose it is true, but his failure was due to circumstances beyond his control. He did what he could with the means at his command, and that an insurrection of unarmed peasants in Thuringia, in 1525, could for a time threaten the very foundations of existing society was owing, in no small degree, to Thomas Münzer – to his extravagant communistic enthusiasm, combined with an iron determination, passionate impetuosity, and statesmanlike sagacity.



V. Münzer’s Early Years

Münzer was born at Stolberg, at the foot of the Hartz Mountains, in 1490 or 1493. [8] All information as to his youth and early studies is lacking. It is certain that he pursued a literary course with success, as he obtained a Doctor’s degree. He became a priest, but his rebellious nature soon declared itself; for in Halle, where he worked as a teacher, he instituted a league against Ernest II, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Primate of Germany and when this high functionary died, in 1513, Münzer could not have been more than twenty-three years old. In 1515 we find him Provost in Frohsa, near Aschensleben, apparently in a nunnery, where, however, he did not remain long. After numerous journeyings in all directions, he finally arrived at a convent in Beutitz, near Weissenfels, to which he had been appointed confessor. Even there he seems to have soon lost patience and to have left the place; for in 1520 he became a preacher in Zwickau, with the consent of Luther, whose struggle against Rome was taken up passionately by the young enthusiast and reformer. This residence in Zwickau decided his future career.

At first he was a preacher at the Church of St. Mary, and subsequently at St. Catherine’s, in which, as Seidemann says, “he was an interloper”. This fact has seemed very unimportant hitherto, but it does not appear so to us, for the Church of St. Catherine was, to a certain extent, the centre of the journeymen clothmakers’ quarter. They had set up their own altar there in 1475, and the guild had endowed the benefice with a dwelling-house and a yearly stipend of thirty-five florins for the priest. The weavers held their assemblies in the churchyard. The Church of St. Mary, on the other hand, appears to have been the place of worship for the moneyed classes.

Whether a leaning towards the journeymen clothmakers prompted Münzer to solicit the post of preacher in their church, or whether his opinions were the consequence of that step, cannot now be decided. It is certain that, as their preacher, he came into the closest intercourse with them, learned their views, and was immediately influenced in the highest degree by them. A report [9] of his dealings with the journeymen clothmakers was published in 1523, in which we are told that “the journeymen cling to him, and he has held more meetings with them than with the esteemed priesthood. Thus it appears that Master Thomas has shown preference for the journeymen, chiefly for one named Nicholas Storch, whom he praised highly from the pulpit, and has depicted in glowing colours, exalting him above the priests as if he was the only one who had a knowledge of the Bible and was deeply imbued with its spirit. Master Thomas at the same time extolled himself, declaring that he was eager for the truth and possessed the Holy Spirit. It is in consequence of this unseemly conduct that Storch as well as Thomas has dared to establish conventicles after the manner of the Beghards, who set up a cobbler or a tailor to preach. Hence the choice of Nicholas Storch arose through the influence of Master Thomas, who declared his approval of the doctrine that the laity ought to become our prelates and pastors, and be responsible for the faith. Such was the origin of the Storchists, a sect which increased so much among the laity that it was openly said they had formed an association of twelve apostles and seventy-two disciples.”

This was a bold step of the communists, and necessarily led to a conflict. So long as Münzer had thundered against the rich priests he had won the applause of the municipal council and the citizens, but now things were to be changed.

The contest shortly assumed the aspect of a religious war between the two churches – the weavers’ church, St. Catherine, and that of the moneyed class, St. Mary; as a matter of fact, it was a conflict between their respective preachers, Münzer and Johann Wildenau von Eger (Egranus). A dispute between the two began in the year 1520. Either Wildenau was really the debauched person described by his adversary, or else he did not find sufficient support among the citizens in any case, he gave way to Münzer in the spring of 1521.

This success made the journeymen clothmakers bolder, but it must also have made the municipal council and the burgesses more uneasy, and in consequence more inclined to use forcible measures. An opportunity for these was soon found in a weavers’ riot in which however, Münzer was not in the least interested, if we are to credit his letter to Luther of July 9, 1523. Fifty-five journeymen clothmakers were put in prison, while those who were most implicated fled, and Münzer was banished. Nicholas Storch and others left Zwickau also, either at the same time or soon after, as the place had become too hot for them. Going to Wittenberg, where they arrived in December, 1521, they entered into correspondence with Melancthon and Karlstadt, as we have seen. Münzer, on the contrary, turned towards Prague, where he hoped to find associates in the land of the Taborites and a fruitful soil for his ministry.

But Bohemia had become a worse soil for Taborite teachings than even Saxony. The valiant democracy had long since been crushed in decisive battles with the great aristocracy, and the last remnant of the democratic communism which had influenced the Bohemian Brethren had been distorted beyond recognition, the middle-class interest having overpowered the proletariat.

Prague was the last place in the world for a man like Münzer. Even at the time when the power of the Taborites was at its highest point, the town proved at best but a lukewarm friend, while, as a rule, it was a decided enemy to Taboritism. Now it had become a strong pillar of the ruling classes.

Münzer reached Prague in the autumn, and after having posted up an appeal to the Bohemians, began preaching with the help of an interpreter. Scarcely had he become the object of attention, however, when his freedom as a preacher came to an abrupt end. He was placed under police supervision (being accompanied by four guards at a time), and was soon afterwards banished from the town, which he quitted January 25, 1522.



VI. Münzer in Allstätt

From Bohemia Münzer returned to Saxony, staying a short time in Nordhausen, and finally going to Allstätt. Like Zwickau, this place was situated close to a great mining district – the copper, silver, and gold mines of Mansfeld. We may assume that the miners, bold and trained to the use of arms, supported the proletarian tendencies of Allstätt, and that Münzer’s agitation was favoured by their proximity. Hunted as he was from place to place, Münzer certainly found Allstätt a spot where he could work under encouraging conditions. He soon gained a firm footing as a preacher, and we may consider it as a sign of his confidence in the future that he married one of the nuns, named Otilie von Gersen, who had quitted the cloister (Easter, 1523).

In the midst of these personal matters, however, Münzer did not forget the object to which he had devoted himself. He arranged an order of Divine Service entirely in German, being the first among the German reformers who did so, and permitted all the books of the Bible to be read aloud and taken as subjects for sermons, and not the New Testament only. The Old Testament, republican as it is in many of its parts, suited the democratic sects better than the New Testament, which is the product of a Roman imperial association,; and this predilection for the Old Testament can be traced from the Taborites down to the Puritans.

The “hypocritical papistic confessional” was abolished, and the Holy Communion administered in both kinds.

The whole of the congregation were to assist in Divine Service, the privileged position of the priest being done away with. “Our adversaries say that we teach the plough-boys from the field to celebrate Mass,” says Münzer himself.

We find this remark in the first extant pamphlet of his which treats of the new order of Divine Service just mentioned: Ordnung und Berechnung des teutschen ampts zu Alstädt durch Toman Münzer, &c., Alstedt 1524.

Two other publications deal with the same subject, the Deutsch Evangelische Messe and Deutzsch Kirchenampt, &c., Alstädt, probably 1524. In addition to these, Münzer published in Allstätt two propagandist pamphlets, the Protestation and Erdichteten Glauben.

There are also two letters of that time worthy of mention. One (which was to be circulated), dated the 18th of July, 1523: “an earnest epistle to his dear brother at Stolberg to avoid unbecoming tumult,” and exhorting the Fraternity to be patient, as they had not yet attained to a right frame of mind. “It is an exceeding folly that so many of the chosen friends of God should suppose that He would haste to do good to Christendom and come instantly to its help, when no one longs for it, or is really striving to become poor in spirit through suffering and steadfastness.” The people were still too well off. It must be worse with them before it could be better, for “God ordains that tyrants should rage in order that the elect may be filled with a fervent desire to seek Him. The man who has not believed against belief, hoped against hope, hated contrary to the love of God, knows not that God Himself will show mankind what is necessary for them.” In conclusion, he blames the brothers for their luxury and want of firmness. “I understand that you are vainglorious, idle in study, and are shirking your duties. When you drink, you chatter about our cause, but when you are sober you are as frightened as cowards. Mend your lives, dearest brothers, in these things. Shun riotous living; flee the flesh with all its desires be bolder than you have been, and write to me how you have traded with your pound.”

The other letter, an exposition of the 19th Psalm, he wrote in May, 1524; and it was published in 1525 by Johannes Agricola of Eisleben, in order to prejudice the people against Münzer and prove to them “that all the world may perceive how the devil intends to make himself equal with God.” [10] It does not contain any remarkable ideas which had not been expressed under different forms in Münzer’s writings at that time.

The exposition of the second chapter of Daniel, which also appeared at Allstätt, will be noticed in due course.

The first of these publications (the Ordnung des deutschen Amts) contains all the essential characteristics of the Münzer philosophy; his mysticism, disdain of the Bible, contempt of learned men, and finally his pantheism and religious tolerance. But he disdained the Bible only in so far as it is not supported by the voice of interior revelation, which could only be won through suffering – through asceticism.

We have already given examples of his mysticism.

The following passage shows his pantheism clearly enough: “He” (man) “must and ought to know that God is in him he is not to imagine Him to be a thousand. miles away, but that heaven and earth are full, full of God; that the Father unceasingly forms the Son in us; and the Holy Spirit, through heart-felt sorrow, interprets in us none other than the Crucified.”

Münzer’s religious tolerance is evident from the following injunction: “No one ought to be surprised that we celebrate the Mass in German at Allstätt. We are not the only ones who make use of a ritual differing from the Roman; at Mediolan [Milan] in Lombardy, many have a mode of celebrating Mass different from that in use at Rome. The Croats, Bohemians, Armenians, &c., celebrate Mass in their own tongue the Russians have quite other genuflexions, and yet they are not devils on that account. Ah? what blind, ignorant beings we are, that we should dare to be Christians in external pomp only, and quarrel with one another over it, like mad, brute creatures.” Even the heathen and Turk are not worse than Christians. God will “not despise our retrograde, dull Roman brothers.”

These are assuredly great and deep thoughts for that era but they are not peculiar to Münzer. We find pantheistic mysticism in earlier times among the brothers and sisters of the Free-Spirit.

Even Münzer’s religious tolerance had its forerunners, for we know that it had astonished Æneas Sylvius among the Taborites, and was also advocated by the Bohemian Fraternity. This religious tolerance was, nevertheless, interpreted in a very limited sense. It was impossible that it could extend to every religious question, at an epoch when all the great causes of contentions in the State and in society appeared under the garb of religion. Münzer hated all hypocritical tolerance behind which timidity and lack of character concealed themselves. “There is nothing upon earth,” he exclaims, “that has a better shape and mask than imaginary goodness, and this is the reason why all corners of the earth are full of hypocrites, amongst whom none are bold enough to venture to speak the truth. The godless have no right to live, except in so far as they are permitted to do so by tine elect.” [11] This passage seems a contradiction to the other which shows Münzer’s toleration, but the contradiction vanishes when one considers to what this toleration is applied. It applies simply to international relations it is the result of his acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the people. Every nation, he declares, may organise its religion as it thinks proper it is a matter of indifference to us. What concern is it of ours if the Turks and heathen believe what they please, or if the “ retrograde Roman brothers” celebrate the Mass in their own way. We wish for nothing except that we should be allowed to regulate our own affairs according to our necessities. No animosity therefore ought to exist against foreign nations. Münzer’s proclamation of relentless class-war in their own country is not by any means in contradiction to this opinion.

But this statement is taken from one of his later writings; those hitherto given are of a peaceful character – as peaceful as is possible to a fiery soul. They are propagandist writings, dealing principally with questions of religion and church organisation, and containing no revolutionary threats or appeals. Münzer was not yet a rebel, nor even in open opposition to authority. He had, however, quarrelled with Luther, personal rivalry being apparently the cause.

Perhaps no period proved so distinctly how little Luther’s personal initiative gave rise to the Reformation as the years 1522 and 1523.

He not only allowed himself to be driven by circumstances without recognising their inner connection, but he was even outstripped in the career on which he had entered by others. While he remained in quiet contemplation on the Wartburg and translated the Bible, the energetic elements of Wittenberg, led by Karlstadt, and influenced by the Zwickau enthusiasts who happened to be in that town, forestalled the practical results of a conflict with Rome by abolishing celibacy, monastic vows, fasting, the adoration of pictures, private Masses, &c., so that later on Luther had nothing to do but to accept and sanction these reforms that is in so far as he did not abrogate them.

One year after these occurrences at Wittenberg, the man who already considered himself to be the leader in the struggle for “Gospel truth,” allowed himself to be surpassed by Münzer in one matter – the order of Divine Service in German for the latter introduced it into Allstätt and with such success that there was nothing for Luther to do but to copy it. He did not wish, however, to appear before the world as an imitator Münzer’s innovation must be kept out of sight till his own copy of it was established. There was a simple way of securing this end, of which Münzer himself speaks in his apology (Schutzrede) wherein he accuses Luther of having, through jealousy, “induced his Prince not to permit my Service to be printed.”

This accusation Luther never answered.

The rivalry of the two reformers did not tend to make their intercourse more friendly. But the true ground of their differences lay deeper.

Luther had not yet taken any decided action with regard to the democracy, not being certain of the side to which the reins of power would fall. But his civic instinct was too much developed for him not to see that communistic sectarians should in no case be permitted to thrive.

He had recognised this as early as 1522, when the Zwickau enthusiasts had begun to gain influence in Wittenberg but as neither Melancthon nor the Prince Elector had taken any decided stand, it became impossible for him to remain any longer on the Wartburg. Hastening, therefore, to Wittenberg early in 1522, he dispersed these dangerous people, Storch going to South Germany, where he disappeared. Luther sought to silence Karlstadt in the same way as he had silenced Münzer, and caused his writings to be confiscated by the authorities. In consequence of this, Karlstadt betook himself first to the country near Wittenberg, where he bought a property and wished to live as a peasant among peasants, desiring them no longer to call him doctor, but neighbour Andreas. We soon find him again, however, actively agitating and organising with great success in Orlamünda, where he regulated the Church community on wholly democratic principles, and made a clean sweep of all Catholic ceremonies.

When Münzer appeared again in Allstätt, Luther, who knew of his connection with the people of Zwickau, could not but look upon him with distrust, which increased in proportion to Münzer’s importance. Moreover, the stings of jealousy contributed greatly to render Luther extremely indignant. But the man was difficult to get at. In vain Luther summoned him to Wittenberg for the purpose of examining him Münzer declared that he would only appear among a community in which he was in no danger.

Since Münzer would not go to Wittenberg, the Saxon Princes (Frederick, with his brother and co-regent, the Duke John) came to Allstätt, induced to do so by the disturbances which had taken place in the neighbourhood of that town. They not only attempted nothing against Münzer, however, but even permitted him to deliver an oration before them, which was bolder than had ever been made before reigning princes. This speech alone suffices to contradict the gossip about Münzer’s cowardice, which is traceable through all the anti-democratic statements concerning his movements.

Far from disavowing his revolutionary views, Münzer in his oration declared revolution necessary, adding that it was best for the Princes to place themselves at its head, otherwise the rebellious people would stride over them. This discourse displayed no very great confidence that the reigning Princes would act upon the appeal, but it nevertheless proves that Münzer did not consider it as wholly impossible to gain at least the Prince Elector to his side. [12]

The Prince Elector indeed showed great indulgence towards these popular movements, as we have seen in the case of the Zwickau enthusiasts. To this circumstance it is possibly due that Münzer was dismissed unhurt by the Regents, though perhaps this may have been also owing to the consideration which Münzer enjoyed in Allstätt. Duke John possessed far more class-feeling than his brother Frederick, and when Münzer published his discourse [13] fell into such a rage that he exiled Nicholas Widemar of Eilenburg, the printer of Münzer’s pamphlets, from Saxon territories. In vain Münzer protested against this in a letter dated July 13th. Widemar was prohibited from printing anything whatsoever without the sanction of the authorities at Weimar.

The only effect on Münzer’s resolute nature was that he had a new propagandist pamphlet printed in the neighbouring town of Mühlhausen, where a popular movement had just been victorious it was entitled, An unveiling of the False Beliefs of the Faithless World. [14]

On the title-page he calls himself “Münzer with the Hammer”, in allusion to a passage in Jeremiah xxiii. 29, in which the Lord says, “Is not My word ... like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” “Dear brethren,” he continues, further on in the title-page, “let us also make the hole wider, to the end that all the world may see and understand who are those great ones of the earth who talk so blasphemously of God, and have made Him like to a painted dummy.”

This shows the whole character of the pamphlet. It begins with a polemic against the clergy, who deceive the poor and advises the latter to emancipate themselves from priestly rule. “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. Whoever taketh honours and goods into possession will be eternally lost to God at the last, as God declares in the 5th Psalm, that their heart ‘is very wickedness’. For this shall the violent and sullen men be thrust from their seats. The government and authority of godless, foolish men storm and rage against God and His Anointed,” yea, some few are now beginning to “put their people into the stocks, into the pillory, and to scourge and flog them, and, worse than all, to threaten all Christians, and to torture and ignominiously put to death their own people as well as strangers, so that, after all the troubles of the elect, God will neither be able nor willing to behold such misery any longer.” God puts more on His own people than they are able to bear, and it must and will end very soon.

The Princes are the scourges with which God punishes the world in His wrath. “Therefore they are nothing else than executioners and warders. That is their whole office.”

It is not they who are to be feared, but God. But no one need despair of God. With Him nothing is impossible, not even the triumph of communistic revolution. “Many people may fancy it to be a very wild delusion. It seems to them impossible that such an undertaking should be set on foot and accomplished as the putting down the godless from the seat of judgment, and exalting them of low degree. Indeed it is a grand belief notwithstanding, and will yet do a great deal of good.” The impossible will become possible, “and it may establish a refined society such as was contemplated by Plato the Philosopher (De Republica), and Apuleius of the Golden Ass.”

The remainder of the pamphlet is only repetition. If we compare it with Münzer’s earlier publications in Allstätt, a marked difference is observable. The Exposition of the second chapter of Daniel forms a transition stage between the latter and the former. The question now for Münzer was rather how to urge on and incite his associates, than to convince and persuade those who did not share his views. And it is no longer ecclesiastical, but political and social revolution to which he attaches the greater importance. The Exposition was an attempt to enlist the Princes in favour of the subject of revolution; but now the Princes are the chief enemy and not the Pope, and the question was no longer of vague conceptions of the “Gospel,” but of pure communism “such as was contemplated by Plato the Philosopher,” whose work on the State, Münzer must therefore have known.

This change of purport and tone in Münzer’s agitation had certainly been brought about in part through his conflict with the Princes, which plainly showed him that he could accomplish his designs only by resisting his rulers. But perhaps in a considerably greater degree the cause for this change probably lies deeper still, being based upon the general change of conditions for just at that time the first feeble flicker of the Peasant War was showing itself. It was now becoming a question of acting, not merely of preaching.




1. Two years later he was made Pope, Pius II, and in that capacity saw fit to condemn his earlier writings as heretical.

2. Ullman, Reformatoren, etc., p.214.

3. We avail ourselves of the Leipzig edition of 1496:– Enee Sylvii, de Ritu. Situ. Moribus ac Conditione alemanie, Lyptzick.

4. “It is not easy to get a lucrative benefice here,” said Hutten once, “unless one has been of service to the Holy See, or has sent large sums of money to Rome for bribery, or bought the living through the direct mediation of the Fugger family. “ (Die römische Dreifaltigkeit, Speeches by Ulrich v. Hutten, translated and edited by David F. R. Strauss, Leipzig, p.106.) The Fuggers were indeed zealous Catholics, and did not spare money in the conflict with Luther.

5. Fr. B. Bezold, Geschichte der deutschen Reformation, pp.127, 128.

6. E. Herzog, Chronik der Kreisstadt Zwickau, vol,i. p.234.

7. op. cit. 2nd ed., vol.i. p.162.

8. Seidemann says it was in 1490, but Zimmermann has found it also stated as occurring in 1493.

9. To be found in the Appendix of Seidemann’s work, Münzer, p.109 sqq.

10. Ausslegung des XIX. Psalms Coeli enarrant durch Thomas Münzer an syner ersten Jünger ainen, Wittenberg, 1525.

11. Exposition of the second mystery of Daniel (Auslegung des andern Unterschiedes Daniels).

12. “If you would be a true regent, you must begin your government at the roots.” The roots of idolatry must be destroyed. The sword is the means of exterminating the godless. “In order that this should be done honestly and in accordance with the law, it must be done by our dear fathers, the Princes who profess Christ with us.” If, however, they do not do it, the sword will be taken from them, (Daniel vii.), for they profess Him with their lips and deny Him by their deeds: After this he spoke against hypocritical tolerance, concluding with the appeal: “Only be bold! He Himself will rule to whom all power is given in heaven and in earth, as St. Matthew says in his last chapter. May He keep and guard you to all eternity. Amen.”

13. Ausslegung des andern untersyds Danielis des propheten.

14. Aussgetrückte emplössung des falschen Glaubens der ungetrewen Welt. Thomas Münzer mit Hammer, Mühlhausen 1524.


Last updated on 23.12.2003