Today, Münster is best known for its medieval cathedral, for its large farmers' market, and for its even bigger annual Christmas market that draws thousands of tourists. It is also known for its bicycle traffic and for its sky-high housing prices. There's a reason why our hosts -- Andreas and Andrea Hellgermann together with their sons David and Jan -- live about 5 miles outside of town in the rural village of Westbevern, because you can still rent a good sized house for a family there with a small yard for roughly $600 a month. Münster is an undeniably charming small city in Westphalia not far from the Dutch border.
Münster is also a city with a past, and a dark and violent past. It turns out that this a very good place to find some historical perspective on current events in the Middle East, on the sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites in the region, and especially the dramatic appearance of barbaric spectacles of violent fanaticism, especially by the new Islamic State whose megalomaniac leaders claim is the beginning of a new caliphate and of an Islamic apocalypse.
As Tobias Haller reminds us on his blog (here and here), if we want to understand the Muslim present, a good place to look is the Christian past, and there are few better places to look than Münster.
The Anabaptist Uprising of Münster was one of the darkest and most horrific episodes of the Reformation, and we can see a reminder of it looming high above the bicycles, expensive apartments, and farmers' market of the city.
All photos are mine made with my trusty little digital camera except where noted otherwise.
When we look more closely we see three iron cages suspended from the tower . The corpses of three of the leaders of the Anabaptist Uprising were displayed for decades in iron cages like these after their brutal executions. The original cages still exist and can be seen in the municipal museum. These hang from the steeple of Saint Lambert's Church as a kind of memorial to the Uprising. I've heard differing accounts of how long the original cages with the corpses hung from the tower. One Wikipedia account says about 50 years, but I've heard other reliable sources say that the bones were not taken down and buried until the current spire was built in the 19th century. German language Wikipedia says that the cages, and presumably the corpses, were taken down in December of 1881 at the start of the building of the current spire. These replicas were made in 1888.
I would imagine that few people other than historians or seminarians these days have heard of the Münster Uprising. It was a horrifically violent event that dramatically shaped how Catholics and Protestants saw each other, and how Anabaptists saw themselves.
Like today's Islamist extremists, the Anabaptist rebels of Münster were driven by a messianic sense of destiny, that Münster would be the New Jerusalem where the Apocalypse and the Second Coming would begin. The Anabaptist vision of the New Jerusalem of the Saints was as compelling and unrealistic as the Islamist vision of the renewed Caliphate of All the Faithful. Also like Islamist radicals, they were driven by a profound conviction that both society and its hierarchies had failed, that it was time for a radical and even bloody purging of the earth to prepare the Way of the Lord. Like the radical Islamists who want to destroy both Sunni and Shiite establishments, so the Anabaptist rebels of Münster antagonized both Catholic and Protestant leaders. They believed that Luther and Zwingli did not go far enough with their own teachings. They remained very bitter over Luther's role in suppressing the Peasants' War a decade earlier.
Also like today's Islamists, the Anabaptists' methods were ruthless and violent. They believed that all means were justified in the service of Christ's Kingdom.
Wikipedia of the Lambertikirche in the 1870s
Here is an old photo of the Lambertikirche before the current spire was built. The resolution of the picture is not good enough to tell if the cages are hanging from the tower.
For centuries, Münster was ruled by a prince-bishop. The local bishop ruled and governed the city since the early middle ages. By the 1520s, the city's guilds began to chafe under the bishop's rule, especially since Münster was now a very wealthy city. The people who made it wealthy began to demand a say in its governance. In the 1530s, the burghers of the city began to turn to Lutheranism and eventually tossed out their prince bishop.
The Lutheran pastor Bernard Rothman came under the spell of the influential Anabaptist leader Melchior Hoffmann of Strasbourg who preached adult baptism and the Second Coming. Rothman was an eloquent and charismatic preacher who, aided by a baker from Harlem Jan Matthys, another young Dutch tailor Jan Bockelson or Jan of Leiden, and a sympathetic wool merchant named Bernhard Knipperdolling, overthrew the city government in a coup d'etat and proceeded to remake Münster from a wealthy mercantile city into a radical theocracy. The new regime immediately instituted adult baptism and "re-baptism."
It is hard for us to understand the passions surrounding the issue of infant baptism at the time, but we should keep in mind that women had only a 50% chance of surviving childbirth in those days, and children as often as not died before their tenth birthdays. In a world where all the frames of reference were religious, where the spiritual seemed almost palpable, and where death was always present, Baptism was a matter of the safety of innocent souls. The Anabaptists held that Baptism was a conscious decision suitable only for adults capable of making conscious decisions. The Church according to the Anabaptists was the assembly of the Elect called by God and answering his appeal deliberately. Catholic and Lutheran divines taught that the Church was for everyone including small children who were thus entitled to the sacrament of Baptism.
Millenialist passions drove much of the fervor and violence of the Münster Uprising. Many people in the 16th century expected to see the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. Such expectations were not unreasonable. The world seemed to be falling apart all around people of that century. Both Empire and Papacy appeared to be in retreat and on the verge of destruction. Institutions that governed the lives of people for generations either disappeared or were in retreat. The Turks were marching up the Danube river into central Europe as Western Christianity was at war with itself.
The Anabaptist regime that ruled Münster from 1534 to 1535 saw itself as the focal point for the millenialist yearnings of all of Christendom, that Münster was the New Jerusalem destined to prepare the world for Christ's triumphant return in glory. The regime ordered all books in the city except the Bible to be burned. Private property was abolished and all goods were held in common. Polygamy was instituted with one leader, Jan of Leiden, taking 16 wives. Women who were reluctant were frequently forced into such marriages. Dissension was forbidden. Dissent, defeatism, or even complaining was answered with swift summary execution, either by hanging or beheading. Wealthy nobles and burghers, and later small shopkeepers, professionals, and craftsmen, fled the city. The poor, especially from the surrounding countryside, flocked to the Anabaptist cause.
In 1534, the Prince Bishop of Münster Franz von Waldek returned with an army of Imperial troops, and with Lutheran princes and their armies as eager as the Catholics to stamp out the Anabaptist contagion. This immense army laid siege to the city. The self-appointed prophet of Münster Jan Massys lead a small army of 12 men, perhaps emulating Gideon or King David, to meet that besieging army. They fully expected divine intervention to break the siege. Instead, they were hacked to pieces and Massys' head stuck on top of a tall pole for the besieged city to see.
Jan of Leiden, a mere 25 years old, succeeded Massys as the ruler of the city. He ruled with a combination of charisma, effective theater, and brutality. On one occasion, he appeared naked in the market square and fell into a trance, not emerging for about 3 days; a very effective and dramatic way of establishing his rule by prophetic revelation. Jan of Leiden, together with his 16 wives, lived in luxury from the plunder of the wealthy mercantile city's goods while the rest of the population of Münster starved during the siege. According to one account, starvation was so acute that people scraped the whitewash off of buildings, mixed it with water, and drank it as "milk."
In 1535, the city was betrayed and Imperial troops stormed into the city. Unknown thousands of people died. In 1536, Jan of Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and another follower Bernhard Krechting were publicly executed.
The three men were publicly tortured to death by red hot pincers tearing their flesh. Their corpses were placed in iron cages and left hanging for generations from the spire of the Lambertikirche.
In the wake of the violence of the Uprising, both Catholic and Lutheran leaders effectively used its horror as a deterrent to further armed uprisings of its kind. Anabaptists themselves were horrified, and it is in part a legacy of the Uprising that they would later embrace pacifism.
For a fascinating account and discussion of the Münster Uprising, see this BBC4 program with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Lucy Wooding, and Charlotte Methuen together with host Melvyn Bragg.
info site maintained by the City of Münster.
Today, Saint Lambert's church is a beautiful medieval German hall church. I was told that photography of the interior was forbidden since it disturbs worshippers. So, I used this photo from a government tourist website.
Another legacy of the Uprising is that Münster remains a very Catholic city.
Another major historical event, and a better known one, that happened in Münster is the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War, the most destructive in German history until World War II (some historians argue that it was more destructive than World War II).
The long religious warfare on the European continent ended in a grinding stalemate. It became clear to all combatants that there would be no military solution, that no Protestant or Catholic faction would emerge a clear winner. After so many decades of brutal and destructive warfare, people were exhausted and tired of fighting. One True Churches decided that enough was enough and that it was time to learn to live with each other. Princes had the liberty to decide the religion of their realms, but their subjects who dissented now had the right to practice their faith unmolested. International borders were established and made inviolable. State piracy and privateering was outlawed. Protestant states like the Dutch Republic now had Catholic recognition. Protestants now recognized the legitimacy of Catholic sovereigns. Mutual agreement created an early system of international law that minimized conflict and destruction.
I predict a similar end to the upheavals in the Middle East, but not any time soon. People will eventually become exhausted from all the fighting and destruction and decide to live with each other. The old colonial agreements that came out of World War I that shaped the modern map of the Middle East are coming undone. That map, which is unsustainable, will eventually be redrawn. Let us hope that sectarian passions will eventually be spent, and that reason and charity may once again prevail.
Below is a Youtube of the clock striking noon. It is very much as we experienced it, complete with the crowds humming along to the hymn tunes, but fortunately without the child throwing a tantrum in the video.
I just love these old clockwork gizmos, all done with weights, springs, and gears.
Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878 - 1946) was a nobleman (a Count) in the tradition of Münster's former prince bishops. He preached courageously against Nazi campaigns to make an "Aryan" Christianity, to purge the religion of its Jewish content, and to delete the Old Testament from the Christian Scripture. Cardinal Von Galen preached against the arrests of priests and other clergy, against seizures of church property, against Alfred Rosenberg's program to modify Christianity to bring it in line with Nazi ideology, and against Nazi racial ideology. Cardinal Von Galen is especially remembered for his passionate condemnation of Nazi euthanasia campaigns against the disabled.
Andreas Hellgermann doesn't think all that much of Cardinal von Galen. He was silent on the question of the Jews. Andreas much prefers Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that any cleric who does not protest the destruction of the Jews has no right to say the Christian liturgy.
I find the Cardinal to be a courageous and good man, though a very unattractive character.
The Wonder Tree of Telgte
Outside of Münster in the small town of Telgte is a 750 year old Linden tree, one of the oldest in Germany, that is the site of an old miracle. At some date in the distant past according to pious legend, lightning struck this tree and revealed a miraculous sculpture of the Pieta or Sorrowful Virgin made out of the tree's wood.
In the niche below the image is a reliquary displaying a finger of Cardinal von Galen. Ew.