It has become a truism that history is written by the victors, and the case of Thomas Müntzer (died 1525) would not falsify this. During and after his lifetime he had acquired such high-caliber opponents as the iconic religious reformer Martin Luther, to say nothing of the secular princes of Saxony. Müntzer (also spelled Münzer, or Müncer, or even other ways, meaning “miner”) was thus largely remembered through the eyes of his opponents, until his literary remains were rediscovered in the 19th century. These remains cover a limited stretch of his life, however: his “extant, authentic writings and correspondence from the scant ten years between 1516 and 1525, along with scattered reports about him, are not sufficient sources for writing a genuine biography.” [Seebass, 338] Indeed, “Little can be told with certainty about Müntzer before 1517”. [Gritsch, 1]
An East German coin
This uncertainty has not prevented various factions from advancing their claims for or against him, however. Frederick Engels and Marxist historians have claimed him as a forerunner of revolution, championing the working class against the oppression of the landlords (he became a hero in East Germany‘s Socialist national narrative). Martin Luther and Lutheran historians have despised him as a rebel and revolutionary, because of his role in the German Peasant’s War above all, and a fanatic, because of his propounding the necessity of a mystical and activist spirituality which required spiritual purification through suffering and divine abandonment, for which a special illumination distinct from the biblical text was required — as opposed to the sufficiency of a trusting response to the divine promise in the divine Word as it was set forth in proper preaching and rites of worship, per Martin Luther and the Wittenberg reformers (Müntzer thought that the text of the Bible was dead “Babel” without this illumination and transformation through the Spirit, just as Calvin would in a few short years say that the Bible was not the Word by the act of preaching and the rites of worship, as Luther taught, but was a deposit of divine teaching, requiring the additional illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret it). Anabaptists and other contemporary groups stemming from the so-called Radical wing of the Reformation have a conflicted stance toward him, disapproving of his use of the sword, while looking favorably upon many elements of his theology and spirituality, especially his emphasis on a faith that bears fruit in deeds and on the separation of the chosen people of God from “the world.” (Most current works on him attempt to temper or remove any ideological excesses of previous scholarship, even if they incline one way or another.)
Another East German coin, marking what was presumed to be the 500th anniversary of Müntzer’s birth.
Psychologically, it is very easy to drape upon his words and deeds the most noble or else the basest motives, making chastity of psychological conjecture important for lack of certainty. As a final flourish of uncertainty, we don’t even know what he looked like — the earliest portrait of him was made long after his execution (not that a portrait would be an enormous help in reconstructing his life and motives). Yet despite the lack of certainty on nearly every level, we can say from what we do know that his life was at least iconic for many threads of the modern world, as the war over his legacy illustrates.