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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Thomas Muenzer
(1497–Decapitated, May 27, 1525)

(16 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 33, 16 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Turbulence, ferment, rebellion – thus was the sixteenth century born. New systems, and new ideas grappled with the foundations of old. Capitalism, a lusty infant, spread its arms and crowded the princes and lords who ruled by feudal right of land ownership and serf labor.

The merchant class, the townsmen, grew wealthier, tapped the resources of the known and settled world, spread the tentacles of trade, and challenged the authority of feudal might. In England, where serious upheavals had already taken place, their economic power was clearly established; political power they had yet to seize. In Germany they were first beginning to feel their importance, to grow prosperous.

And as they extended their activities, slowly remolding the basis of social organization, the downtrodden serfs, the newly important artisans, and the newly created plebeians who formed a reservoir of unskilled labor became restive.

The merchants who sought to undermine the traditional authority of feudal lord and church (itself the richest and most powerful of the feudal landowners) were echoed in the mighty thunderbolt that Martin Luther hurled at traditional doctrine, and the established church. Luther took religion out of the hands of a few lords (priests), made it the property of the masses, presented the bible in native German instead of unintelligible Latin. (Religion, the church, completely dominated the thought of the day; social upheaval therefore couched itself in religious terms, sought justification there, etc.)

Goes Beyond Protestant Reformation

Thomas Muenzer was among those who avidly took possession of Luther’s views. A bright young theologian, Luther had even helped him secure a pastorate. An eloquent preacher, he attacked the monks bitterly. Luther had however only cracked the shell of society. Muenzer was soon far ahead of him; shell and all had to go. Luther who had inspired him, now repelled him. For Muenzer bad become a man of action and revolution who ranged himself on the side of the oppressed masses against the rulers, the possessors, and the easy living reformers (like Luther “that easy living flesh of Wittenberg”).

His small, swarthy figure became a popular sight among the plebeians and peasants who listened to his harangues against princes and middle-of-the-way reformers. Way ahead of his day which lacked the material prerequisites for the execution of his views, Muenzer preached the community of goods, the “Inner Light,” in effect the right of each man to hold his own views. Some of his ideas, daring for his time, became democratic commonplaces three centuries later.

Several times he settled as preacher in various German cities; as often he was chased out by the fat-bellies and the worried townsfolk who were willing to go so far in social

criticism, but no further. Denounced by Luther, he encouraged the peasants in Thuringia to rise, together with the urban proletarians and the miners, against the moneyed and feudal lords. Driven out of Muhlhausen he travelled with his close co-worker Pfeiffer through southern Germany. Ungodly rulers, he told those he met, must be driven out killed. The usurpers, he told them, say “Thou shalt not steal” and then grab everything But when an artisan “commits the slightest transgression, he has to hang, and Dr. Liar (Luther) says to all to this: Amen.”

Peasant War Unfolds

Towards the end of 1524, the peasant masses had definitely begun to move towards revolution. Their aims were incorporated in a document, the Twelve Articles, which called for a plain gospel (i.e., religious services in their own language and within their own comprehension and of their own choosing), and freedom from serfdom. By March 1525 the movement was quite general. By May they had considerable successes. But as is the case with every peasant movement, there was no real solidarity between the various sections. Each section waged its battle in a limited and provincial sphere. At the beginning they were favored by the equal disorganization of the lords; but as the lords organized largely under the leadership of Philip of Hesse, and spurred on by Luther, the peasants were beaten in battle after battle. History was much too young for a victorious popular insurrection; the peasants couldn’t reorganize society, a proletariat was lacking to lead them, the next step in social development was capitalism.

In Muhlhausen, Muenzer and Pfeiffer had spread their propaganda. As preachers they had at first demanded the privilege of sitting in at council meetings. At a propitious moment, when the population was called together to answer a muster roll, Muenzer urged the assembled people to kick out the old government and take the reins into their own hands. This they did. A new government was decreed, to be run by an “Eternal Council.” Community of property was proclaimed.

Philip of Hesse moved on Frankhausen where Muenzer with 8,000 men had made his stand. Philip asked for an armistice, but, as he had done in other cases, violated the armistice before it had elapsed. Muenzer’s troops were defeated. 5,000 of them were slaughtered. Muenzer was taken prisoner.

His captors asked him to explain his deeds. He told them he acted and preached as he had because they, the princes, had sacrificed everything to lust and avarice.

Muenzer was handed over to the executioner. For a day he was tortured horribly by thumbscrew and rack, then thrown into the dungeon.

On May 27, two days after his capture the executioner did his work. Muenzer’s mutilated head was lifted on a pike, and displayed as a warning against revolt. It became instead a symbol of the struggle against oppression, an inspiration to future generations of rebels, the founders of German Marxian socialism.

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