Thomas Münzer

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Münzer, Thomas

 

Born circa 1490, in Stolberg, the Harz; died May 27, 1525, near Mühlhausen, Thuringia. German revolutionary, ideologist of the popular current in the Reformation, and one of the principal leaders of the insurgent peasantry and urban plebeians during the Peasant War of 1524–26 in Germany.

Münzer was one of the best-educated men of his time. Originally, he considered himself a follower of Luther and, as a preacher in Zwickau after 1520, he joined the Lutherans in criticizing the Franciscans; he did so, however, from a different point of view. In his opinion, the revolutionary events developing in Germany in the early 1520’s, the success of the Reformation there, and the vigor of the opposition movement in Bohemia were symptoms of an incipient worldwide social and political upheaval directed at the establishment of the “kingdom of god” on earth as a system of social justice. Such an upheaval was preached at that time by several popular sects, especially the Anabaptists.

During a visit to Bohemia in the summer of 1521, Münzer published his “Prague Manifesto,” in which he set forth the basic theses of his revolutionary doctrine and ideas of the Reformation. He called on the working people of Bohemia’s mining regions to revive the revolutionary traditions of the Taborites. In his understanding of the essence of revolution, however, he went further than the Taborites. He believed that the actions of the “zealots of god”—that is, the insurgent masses—would both set off and complete the revolution. During stays in Nordhausen, the Harz (1522), and in Allstedt, Thuringia (1523–24), Münzer openly broke with Luther and the moderate, burghers’ Reformation. He and his disciples, especially the Anabaptists, although few in number, inspired the Peasant War’s most resolute actions.

Traveling through central and southwestern Germany, Münzer preached and published his appeals to struggle, which attracted the peasants and the urban poor. In late 1524 or early 1525 the most radical program of revolutionary action, the Letter of Articles (Artikelbrief), was drawn up in circles close to him. According to F. Engels, the events of the most heroic stage of the Peasant War—the uprising in Thuringia in April and May 1525—developed around the majestic figure of Münzer and under his direct guidance (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 356). After settling in Mühlhausen (Thuringia) in late February or early March 1525, Münzer headed the revolutionary regime there and tried to create in Thuringia and Saxony a united center for the entire Peasant War. However, on May 15 his detachment was defeated in battle near Frankenhausen by the combined armies of the princes. Münzer was taken prisoner, subjected to agonizing torture, and executed.

As Engels observed, Münzer’s religious and philosophical teaching was directed “against all the main points not only of Catholicism but of Christianity generally” (ibid., p. 370). A variety of pantheism, his teaching was also close to atheism. His pantheism was essentially a social doctrine, according to which all “creations” are part of the universal whole and can exist only in it. Consequently, individuals can have no special interests apart from the interests of society. According to Münzer, the Reformation was a transformation of the world in accordance with the triumph of the general interest and the elimination of the evil “godless ones,” or the oppressors of the working masses. Engels characterized Münzer’s social and political program as close to communism, as a “visionary anticipation” of the future, and as a program for the “immediate establishment of the kingdom of god on earth,” by which, in Engels’ words, Münzer “understood nothing else than a society without class differences, private property and a state authority independent of, and foreign to, the members of society” (ibid., p. 371). Münzer’s ideal for the distant future was not devoid of fantastic elements. Nonetheless, he maintained that the future social structure would come as the result of a revolutionary struggle of the masses against their lords and oppressors. The establishment of “community of property” was to begin, in his opinion, with the elimination of the feudal lords and the transfer of all material goods to all the working people by means of a leveling redistribution of land and other wealth among them. Thus, Münzer’s social and political program summoned the peasant and plebeian masses to a struggle for their own vital interests, to an antifeudal revolution.

WORKS

Schriften und Briefe. [Gütersloh] 1968.
Politische Schriften: Manifeste, Briefe. Leipzig, 1970.

REFERENCES

Engels, F. Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii. K. Marx and F. Engels.
Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Smirin, M. M. Narodnaia reformatsiia Tomasa Miuntsera i Velikaia krest’ianskaia voina, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955.
Shtekli, A. Tomas Miuntser. Moscow, 1961.
Bensing, M. Thomas Müntzer. Leipzig, 1965.
Bensing, M. Thomas Müntzer und der Thüringer Aufstand 1525. Berlin, 1966.
Steinmetz, M. Das Müntzerbild von M. Luther bis F. Engels. Berlin, 1971.

M. M. SMIRIN