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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY TWENTY FIVE A Sense of Frustration

Speaking of sausages – this text arrived from a friend who was a senior diplomat in Germany: I will never forget being in Weimar during the State visit of Mitterand and watching him being asked to try a Thüringer Bratwurst. His face! The horror!… Today I'm pedalling into Muhlhausen, one of the largest intact medieval towns in Germany. We didn't bomb it and even the Nazis failed in their attempts to destroy the synagogue, so it is one of the few remaining in Germany. Not that Nazi evil didn't seep through this town: 2,000 mentally ill and disabled people were murdered and there was a forced labour camp for women – until the spring of 1945 when they were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

Untermarkt, Muhlhausen (c)

While I pedal, the Race Marshal has already disturbed the medieval peace with her booming Harley and is sitting in the Untermarkt, by the fountain, enjoying an Americano and a salty pretzel – a breakfast homage to John Augustus Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, who was born here. Roebling went to Berlin to learn the new art of building suspension bridges and emigrated to the United States in 1831, when he was 25. He and his brother Carl bought 1,500 acres of Pennsylvania where they intended to establish a German utopia. In the early nineteenth century, Pennsylvania was one of the more tolerant of the states, with a tradition of religious freedom dating back to its founding by the Quaker, William Penn. Unfortunately, Roebling's utopia didn't catch on and when bridge building commissions started to arrive, he used the land instead to make wire ropes. He was a remarkable bridge builder: the bridge he put across the Ohio River in 1863 had the longest single span in the world – until the Brooklyn Bridge was finished.

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge at Cincinnati (c)

Not surprising then that he was chosen to link Manhattan to Brooklyn – but he did not live to see his concept realised. In 1869, two years into the Brooklyn Bridge commission, an East River ferry lurched into the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot. His toes were amputated and he might have survived – but, as a young man in Berlin, he had gone to a series of lectures given by Hegel and had become interested in natural philosophy. One consequence was a thousand page treatise explaining his concept of the cosmos; another was that he knew how to treat his foot himself with alternative medicine - and he died of tetanus. But it is not for Roebling that we have come to Muhlhausen. We have come to explore the complex world of Thomas Muntzer, one of the instigators of the Great Peasants' Rebellion, who was beheaded here in 1525 – around the same time that Tilman Riemenschneider was in chains, also for offering support to the peasant forces.

Thomas Muntzer (1608 engraving by Christoffel Van Sichem)

One of the experiments that Lavoisier, the 'father of modern chemistry' and the man who named both oxygen and hydrogen, conducted while still alive was to agree with his assistant that when the guillotine removed his head, he would blink his eyes rapidly for as long as he retained consciousness. Lavoisier's theory being that the guillotine, while it may have been democratic, was not humane.

It may be that as the axe fell and consciousness drained away, Muntzer considered his life and how he had come to this end. The likelihood is that he died feeling deeply frustrated because even twelve months before there had been every chance that he could have succeeded in his ambitions. In his preachings and writings, Muntzer had pared back the messages of the Bible until he reached a proto-communist ideal for Germany that inspired peasants across the land with the will to make his vision a reality.

Or at least, Friedrich Engels thought so. In his book about the Great Peasants' Rebellion, written in London in 1850 and published by Karl Marx in Hamburg, Engels says: "Only in the teachings of Muenzer did these communist notions find expression as the desires of a vital section of society. Through him they were formulated with a certain definiteness, and were afterwards found in every great convulsion of the people, until gradually they merged with the modern proletarian movement."

Muntzer naturally opposed the Catholic Church: in his first appointment as a priest in Braunschweig in 1514, he spoke out against the common practice of selling indulgences. Two years later he met Martin Luther and was part of the debate that contributed to Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. Luther may have nailed copies to the doors of All Saints' Church and other churches in Wittenberg, but the critical act was to send them to the Archbishop of Mainz - on 31 October 1517, the start of the Reformation in Germany.

In 1521, Muntzer was dismissed from his new post in Zwickau for his part in riots against the local Catholic priests and moved to the small town of Allstedt. There he preached in German and he drew in huge crowds. One of the local aristocrats tried to forbid his subjects from attending. Muntzer wrote to him, ordering him to stop such repression, threatening to “deal with you a thousand times more drastically than Luther with the Pope."

Looked at in isolation, Muntzer was clearly heading for a fall – but from his perspective these were times when change was everywhere: the Renaissance of culture and the arts was in full bloom. And the Reformation, challenging the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, was running fast on a tide of literacy: mass communication had become a reality with Gutenberg's first use of movable type in 1439. By the early 1500s, there were over 10,000 publications circulating in Germany with a total print run of 10 million copies. The middle classes could now enter the previously Latin-shrouded preserve of education and knowledge, a process aided by Luther's translation of the New Testament into German. The bulk of the publications were religious pamphlets and they fuelled opposition to the Catholic Church and the Papacy. The Protestant wave, personified by Luther, crashed into the established church in January 1521 in the city of Worms. Here, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, called together his liege princes to determine the Catholic Church's response. This assembly, the Diet, summoned Luther to debate his opinions. Luther did not give ground: he maintained his attack on the absolute authority of the Pope, saying any doctrine not found in the Bible should be rejected and that indulgences were wrong - an individual's salvation lay through faith alone. The Diet, of course, found against Luther and in his Edict of 25 May 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor forbade "anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic" - and Luther was excommunicated. As far as they could, the forces of the Empire went after Lutherans: in December 1521, the Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp was forced to recant. Two of his monks refused and were burnt at the stake. But Luther himself escaped. He had been given assurances of safety to persuade him to go to Worms – but fear for his life on the way home led to his protector Frederick III of Wittenburg to organise a mock kidnap by masked horsemen who carried Luther off to the safety of Wartburg Castle, on the Elbe at Eisenach. Under all the ferment of Renaissance and Reformation, at the bottom of society, the peasantry and serfs were themselves in a state of ferment, stirred by Muntzer and others. From the 1490s onwards, there had been sporadic local uprisings by an underclass increasingly oppressed by taxes, land grabs and injustice by their local lords. Then finally, in 1524, a rash of separate uprisings coalesced across Germany and Austria into the most major rebellion in Europe until the French Revolution. The Deutscher Bauernkrieg, the Great Peasants' Rebellion of 1524 - 25, began in the south west and spread to central and eastern parts of Germany as well as Austria and into Switzerland. Thomas Muntzer was recognised as a key instigator and recognised himself as one of the de facto leaders. It was his moment of truth: as rebellion blazed, he stepped forward.

a creation by Chef Raabe (c)

I hate to close on a cliffhanger (the term comes from Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes when it was serialised and, in one episode, a character was left hanging off a cliff) but the rest of Muntzer's story will have to be tomorrow. The Race Marshal has managed to get us a booking at Restaurant Raabe (no relation) and his for his 89 euros menu offers truffles with hamachi fish jus, cucumber and peas in a foam of potatoes; sweetbreads with mushroom ragout; and creamed goat cheese with plums and green peppers. Here is a very peaceful film of the somewhat self-conscious folk group Henningway performing for two spectators in the medieval street. At about 1min 20 secs a couple wander through, beer glasses in hand. At 4 mins 56 secs you realise that there are other people in Mulhausen -

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