Usually at this time of year my lovely husband and I would be hiking through the Harz Mountains, just a few hours south of us. I particularly have grown to love the eastern Harz mountains, formerly part of the GDR.
Each autumn we picked out a different base for our hikes, and one year we chose the small town of Stolberg. Each day our hike took us past not only the FRIWI biscuit factory, yum, https://www.friwi.de/ but also the birthplace of Thomas Müntzer.
Thomas Müntzer was born in Stolberg in 1489, moved with his family to Quedlinburg and then studied in Leipzig.
In 1517 he met Martin Luther in Wittenberg and became involved in the discussions which led to the famous ’95 theses.’
In early April 1523, he was appointed as preacher at St John’s Church in Allstedt in Saxony. Müntzer preached his version of the reformed doctrines, and held church services and masses in German. Soon people flocked in their thousands to Allstedt to hear Müntzer speak.
Luther heard of this and wrote to the Allstedt authorities, asking them to persuade Müntzer to come to Wittenberg. Müntzer refused to go. Catholic Count Ernst von Mansfeld tried to prevent his own subjects from attending the reformed services in Allstedt. Müntzer wrote in reply:
“I am as much a Servant of God as you, so tread gently, for the whole world has to be exercised in patience. Don’t grab, or the old coat may tear. (…) I will deal with you a thousand times more drastically than Luther with the Pope.“
This was revolutionary. But there is no happy end: The ‘Bauernkrieg’, Peasants’ War, led to defeat and the capture of Müntzer who was then tortured and finally beheaded on May 27 1525.
It’s understandable that Müntzer was considered a hero in the GDR: a reformer who was also a revolutionary, who took the bible not only as a theological but also a social document.
This weekend we have a public holiday: October 31 is Reformation Day – we remember Martin Luther and his famous 95 theses.
But today I also remember that in the Peasants’ War, Martin Luther was on the side of the princes and did his best to stop the rebels. He published a pamphlet “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants”, which called for ruthless suppression of the revolt. A strange title, as it was actually the German peasantry who were dying in their thousands at the hands of the princely armies. Estimates put the figure at 70,000–75,000, possibly even as high as 100,000.
Somewhere upstairs in our house are my parents’ old photo albums. In one of them is a grainy black and white photo of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, working in his garden. My dad was a music teacher, and Vaughan Williams was one of his favouite composers, particularly his choral music, and particularly ‘Let us now praise famous men’, Ecclesiastes 44:
Let us now praise famous men
and our fathers that begat us
such as did bear rule
in their kingdoms
men renowned for their power
leaders of the people
by their counsel
and by their knowledge
such as found out
musical tunes and
recited verses in writing
All these were honoured
in their generation
and for the glory of our times
but some there be
which have no memorial
who have perished as though
they have never been
Their bodies are
buried in peace
but their name liveth
Our header today is the Playmobil figure of Martin Luther, produced for the ‘Luther year’, 2017.
History is written by the winners, after all.