Messianic Communism in the Protestant Reformation

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This article
is excerpted from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought,
vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith.

Zealots: the Anabaptists

Martin Luther must have felt that he had loosed the whirlwind,
even opened the gates of Hell. Shortly after Luther launched the
Reformation, various Anabaptist sects appeared and spread throughout
Germany. The Anabaptists believed in predestination of the elect,
but they also believed, in contrast to Luther, that they knew
infallibly who the elect were: i.e., themselves. The sign of that
election was in an emotional, mystical conversion process, that
of being “born again,” baptized in the Holy Spirit. Such baptism
must be adult and not among infants; more to the point, it meant
that only the elect are to be sect members who obey the multifarious
rules and creeds of the Church. The idea of the sect, in contrast
to Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism, was not comprehensive
Church membership in the society. The sect was to be distinctly
separate, for the elect only.

Given that
creed, there were two ways that Anabaptism could and did go. Most
Anabaptists, like the Mennonites or Amish, became virtual anarchists.
They tried to separate themselves as much as possible from a necessarily
sinful state and society, and engaged in nonviolent resistance
to the state’s decrees.

The other
route, taken by another wing of Anabaptists, was to try to seize
power in the state and to shape up the majority by extreme coercion:
in short, ultratheocracy. As Monsignor Knox incisively points
out, even when Calvin established a theocracy in Geneva, it had
to pale beside one which might be established by a prophet enjoying
continuous, new, mystical revelation.

As Knox points
out, in his usual scintillating style:

Calvin’s Geneva … and in the Puritan colonies of America,
the left wing of the Reformation signalized its ascendancy
by enforcing the rigorism of its morals with every available
machinery of discipline; by excommunication, or, if that failed,
by secular punishment. Under such discipline sin became a
crime, to be punished by the elect with an intolerable self-righteousness

I have
called this rigorist attitude a pale shadow of the theocratic
principle, because a full-blooded theocracy demands the presence
of a divinely inspired leader or leaders, to whom government
belongs by right of mystical illumination. The great Reformers
were not, it must be insisted, men of this calibre; they were
pundits, men of the new learning … [1]

And so one
of the crucial differences between the Anabaptists and the more
conservative reformers was that the former claimed continuing
mystical revelation to themselves, forcing men such as Luther
and Calvin to fall back on the Bible alone as the first as well
as the last revelation.

The first
leader of the ultratheocrat wing of the Anabaptists was Thomas
Müntzer (c. 1489–1525). Born into comfort in Stolberg in
Thuringia, Müntzer studied at the Universities of Leipzig
and Frankfurt, and became highly learned in the scriptures, the
classics, theology, and in the writings of the German mystics.
Becoming a follower almost as soon as Luther launched the Reformation
in 1520, Müntzer was recommended by Luther for the pastorate
in the city of Zwickau. Zwickau was near the Bohemian border,
and there the restless Müntzer was converted by the weaver
and adept Niklas Storch, who had been in Bohemia, to the old Taborite
doctrine that had flourished in Bohemia a century earlier. This
doctrine consisted essentially of a continuing mystical revelation
and the necessity for the elect to seize power and impose a society
of theocratic communism by brutal force of arms. Furthermore,
marriage was to be prohibited, and each man was to be able to
have any woman at his will.

The passive
wing of Anabaptists were voluntary anarchocommunists, who wished
to live peacefully by themselves; but Müntzer adopted the
Storch vision of blood and coercion. Defecting very rapidly from
Lutheranism, Müntzer felt himself to be the coming prophet,
and his teachings now began to emphasize a war of blood and extermination
to be waged by the elect against the sinners. Müntzer claimed
that the “living Christ” had permanently entered his own soul;
endowed thereby with perfect insight into the divine will, Müntzer
asserted himself to be uniquely qualified to fulfil the divine
mission. He even spoke of himself as “becoming God.” Abandoning
the world of learning, Müntzer was now ready for action.

In 1521,
only a year after his arrival, the town council of Zwickau took
fright at these increasingly popular ravings and ordered Müntzer’s
expulsion from the city. In protest, a large number of the populace,
in particular the weavers, led by Niklas Storch, rose in revolt,
but the rising was put down. At that point, Müntzer hied
himself to Prague, searching for Taborite remnants in the capital
of Bohemia. Speaking in peasant metaphors, he declared that harvest
time is here, “so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I
have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed
on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair, soul, body, life
curse the unbelievers.” Müntzer, however, found no Taborite
remnants; it did not help the prophet’s popularity that he knew
no Czech, and had to preach with the aid of an interpreter. And
so he was duly expelled from Prague.

After wandering
around central Germany in poverty for several years, signing himself
“Christ’s messenger,” Müntzer in 1523 gained a ministerial
position in the small Thuringian town of Allstedt. There he established
a wide reputation as a preacher employing the vernacular, and
began to attract a large following of uneducated miners, whom
he formed into a revolutionary organization called “The League
of the Elect.”

A turning
point in Müntzer’s stormy career came a year later, when
Duke John, a prince of Saxony and a Lutheran, hearing alarming
rumours about him, came to little Allstedt and asked Müntzer
to preach him a sermon. This was Müntzer’s opportunity, and
he seized it. He laid it on the line: he called upon the Saxon
princes to make their choice and take their stand, either as servants
of God or of the Devil. If the Saxon princes are to take their
stand with God, then they “must lay on with the sword.” “Don’t
let them live any longer,” counselled our prophet, “the evil-doers
who turn us away from God. For a godless man has no right to live
if he hinders the godly.” Müntzer’s definition of the “godless,”
of course, was all-inclusive. “The sword is necessary to exterminate”
priests, monks and godless rulers. But, Müntzer warned, if
the princes of Saxony fail in this task, if they falter, “the
sword shall be taken from them … If they resist, let them be slaughtered
without mercy….” Müntzer then returned to his favorite harvest-time
analogy: “At the harvest-time, one must pluck the weeds out of
God’s vineyard … For the ungodly have no right to live, save what
the Elect chooses to allow them….” In this way the millennium,
the thousand-year Kingdom of God on earth, would be ushered in.
But one key requisite is necessary for the princes to perform
that task successfully; they must have at their elbow a priest/prophet
(guess who!) to inspire and guide their efforts.

Oddly enough
for an era when no First Amendment restrained rulers from dealing
sternly with heresy, Duke John seemed not to care about Müntzer’s
frenetic ultimatum. Even after Müntzer proceeded to preach
a sermon proclaiming the imminent overthrow of all tyrants and
the beginning of the messianic kingdom, the duke did nothing.
Finally, under the insistent prodding of Luther that Müntzer
was becoming dangerous, Duke John told the prophet to refrain
from any provocative preaching until his case was decided by his
brother, the elector.

This mild
reaction by the Saxon princes, however, was enough to set Thomas
Müntzer on his final revolutionary road. The princes had
proved themselves untrustworthy; the mass of the poor were now
to make the revolution. The poor were the elect, and would establish
a rule of compulsory egalitarian communism, a world where all
things would be owned in common by all, where everyone would be
equal in everything and each person would receive according to
his need. But not yet. For even the poor must first be broken
of worldly desires and frivolous enjoyments, and must recognize
the leadership of a new “servant of God” who “must stand forth
in the spirit of Elijah … and set things in motion.” (Again, guess

Seeing Saxony
as inhospitable, Müntzer climbed over the town wall of Allstedt
and moved in 1524 to the Thuringian city of Muhlhausen. An expert
in fishing in troubled waters, Müntzer found a friendly home
in Muhlhausen, which had been in a state of political turmoil
for over a year. Preaching the impending extermination of the
ungodly, Müntzer paraded around the town at the head of an
armed band, carrying in front of him a red crucifix and a naked
sword. Expelled from Muhlhausen after a revolt by his allies was
suppressed, Müntzer went to Nuremberg, which in turn expelled
him after he published some revolutionary pamphlets. After wandering
through southwestern Germany, Müntzer was invited back to
Muhlhausen in February 1525, where a revolutionary group had taken

Thomas Müntzer
and his allies proceeded to impose a communist regime on the city
of Muhlhausen. The monasteries were seized, and all property was
decreed to be in common, and the consequence, as a contemporary
observer noted, was that “he so affected the folk that no one
wanted to work.” The result was that the theory of communism and
love quickly became in practice an alibi for systemic theft:

anyone needed food or clothing he went to a rich man and demanded
it of him in Christ’s name, for Christ had commanded that
all should share with the needy. And what was not given freely
was taken by force. Many acted thus … Thomas [Müntzer]
instituted this brigandage and multiplied it every day.[2]

At that point,
the great Peasants’ War erupted throughout Germany, a rebellion
launched by the peasantry in favor of their local autonomy and
in opposition to the new centralizing, high-tax, absolutist rule
of the German princes. Throughout Germany, the princes crushed
the feebly armed peasantry with great brutality, massacring about
100,000 peasants in the process. In Thuringia, the army of the
princes confronted the peasants on May 15 with a great deal of
artillery and 2,000 cavalry, luxuries denied to the peasantry.
The landgrave of Hesse, commander of the princes’ army, offered
amnesty to the peasants if they would hand over Müntzer and
his immediate followers. The peasants were strongly tempted, but
Müntzer, holding aloft his naked sword, gave his last flaming
speech, declaring that God had personally promised him victory;
that he would catch all the enemy cannon balls in the sleeves
of his cloak; that God would protect them all. Just at the strategic
moment of Müntzer’s speech, a rainbow appeared in the heavens,
and Müntzer had previously adopted the rainbow as the symbol
of his movement. To the credulous and confused peasantry, this
seemed a veritable sign from Heaven. Unfortunately, the sign didn’t
work, and the princes’ army crushed the peasants, killing 5,000
while losing only half a dozen men. Müntzer himself fled
and hid, but was captured a few days later, tortured into confession,
and then executed.

Thomas Müntzer
and his signs may have been defeated, and his body may have moldered
in the grave, but his soul kept marching on. Not only was his
spirit kept alive by followers in his own day, but also by Marxist
historians from Engels to the present day, who saw in this deluded
mystic an epitome of social revolution and the class struggle,
and a forerunner of the chiliastic prophesies of the “communist
stage” of the supposedly inevitable Marxian future.

The Müntzerian
cause was soon picked up by a former disciple, the bookbinder
Hans Hut. Hut claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce
that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and give
the power to enforce justice to Hut and his following of rebaptized
saints. The saints would then “take up double-edged swords” and
wreak God’s vengeance on priests, pastors, kings and nobles. Hut
and his followers would then “establish the rule of Hans Hut on
earth,” with Muhlhausen as the favored capital. Christ was then
to establish a millennium marked by communism and free love. Hut
was captured in 1527 (before Jesus had had a chance to return),
imprisoned at Augsburg, and killed trying to escape. For a year
or two, Huttian followers kept emerging, at Augsburg, Nuremberg,
and Esslingen, in southern Germany, threatening to set up their
communist Kingdom of God by force of arms. But by 1530 they were
smashed and suppressed by the alarmed authorities. Müntzerian-type
Anabaptism was now to move to northwestern Germany.

Communism in Münster

Germany in that era was dotted by a number of small ecclesiastical
states, each run by a prince-bishop. The state was run by aristocratic
clerics, who elected one of their own as bishop. Generally, these
bishops were secular lords who were not ordained. By bargaining
over taxes, the capital city of each of these states had usually
wrested for itself a degree of autonomy. The clergy, which constituted
the ruling elite of the state, exempted themselves from taxation
while imposing very heavy taxes on the rest of the populace. Generally,
the capital cities came to be run by their own power elite, an
oligarchy of guilds, which used government power to cartellize
their various professions and occupations.

The largest
of these ecclesiastical states in northwest Germany was the bishopric
of Münster, and its capital city of Münster, a town
of some 10,000 people, was run by the town guilds. The Münster
guilds were particularly exercised by the economic competition
of the monks, who were not forced to obey guild restrictions and

During the
Peasants’ War, the capital cities of several of these states,
including Münster, took the opportunity to rise in revolt,
and the bishop of Münster was forced to make numerous concessions.
With the crushing of the rebellion, however, the bishop took back
the concessions, and reestablished the old regime. By 1532, however,
the guilds, supported by the people, were able to fight back and
take over the town, soon forcing the bishop to recognize Münster
officially as a Lutheran city.

It was not
destined to remain so for long, however. From all over the northwest,
hordes of Anabaptist enthusiasts flooded into Münster, seeking
the onset of the New Jerusalem. From the northern Netherlands
came hundreds of Melchiorites, followers of the itinerant visionary
Melchior Hoffmann. Hoffmann, an uneducated furrier’s apprentice
from Swabia in southern Germany, had for years wandered through
Europe preaching the imminence of the Second Coming, which he
had concluded from his researches would occur in 1533, the fifteenth
centenary of the death of Jesus. Melchiorism had flourished in
the northern Netherlands, and many adepts now poured into Münster,
rapidly converting the poorer classes of the town.

the Anabaptist cause in Münster received a shot in the arm,
when the eloquent and popular young minister Bernt Rothmann, a
highly educated son of a town blacksmith, converted to Anabaptism.
Originally a Catholic priest, Rothmann had become a friend of
Luther and the head of the Lutheran movement in Münster.
Converted to Anabaptism, Rothmann lent his eloquent preaching
to the cause of communism as it had supposedly existed in the
primitive Christian Church, holding everything in common with
no Mine and Thine and giving to each according to his “need.”
In response to Rothmann’s reputation, thousands flocked to Münster,
hundreds of the poor, the rootless, those hopelessly in debt,
and “people who, having run through the fortunes of their parents,
were earning nothing by their own industry….” People, in general,
who were attracted by the idea of “plundering and robbing the
clergy and the richer burghers.” The horrified burghers tried
to drive out Rothmann and the Anabaptist preachers, but to no

In 1533,
Melchior Hoffmann, sure that the Second Coming would happen any
day, returned to Strasbourg, where he had had great success, calling
himself the Prophet Elias. He was promptly clapped into jail,
and remained there until his death a decade later.

for all the similarities with the others, was a peaceful man who
counselled nonviolence to his followers; after all, if Jesus were
imminently due to return, why commit against unbelievers? Hoffmann’s
imprisonment, and of course the fact that 1533 came and went without
a Second Coming, discredited Melchior, and so his Münster
followers turned to far more violent, post-millennialist prophets
who believed that they would have to establish the Kingdom by
fire and sword.

The new leader
of the coercive Anabaptists was a Dutch baker from Haarlem, one
Jan Matthys (Matthyszoon). Reviving the spirit of Thomas Müntzer,
Matthys sent out missionaries or “apostles” from Haarlem to rebaptize
everyone they could, and to appoint “bishops” with the power to
baptize. When the new apostles reached Münster in early 1534,
they were greeted, as we might expect, with enormous enthusiasm.
Caught up in the frenzy, even Rothmann was rebaptized once again,
followed by many ex-nuns and a large part of the population. Within
a week the apostles had rebaptized 1,400 people.

Another apostle
soon arrived, a young man of 25 who had been converted and baptized
by Matthys only a couple of months earlier. This was Jan Bockelson
(Bockelszoon, Beukelsz), who was soon to become known in song
and story as Johann of Leyden. Though handsome and eloquent, Bockelson
was a troubled soul, having been born the illegitimate son of
the mayor of a Dutch village by a woman serf from Westphalia.
Bockelson began life as an apprentice tailor, married a rich widow,
but then went bankrupt when he set himself up as a self-employed

In February
1534, Bockelson won the support of the wealthy cloth merchant
Bernt Knipperdollinck, the powerful leader of the Münster
guilds, and shrewdly married Knipperdollinck’s daughter. On February
8, son-in-law and father-in-law ran wildly through the streets
together, calling upon everyone to repent. After much frenzy,
mass writhing on the ground, and the seeing of apocalyptic visions,
the Anabaptists rose up and seized the town hall, winning legal
recognition for their movement.

In response
to this successful uprising, many wealthy Lutherans left town,
and the Anabaptists, feeling exuberant, sent messengers to surrounding
areas summoning everyone to come to Münster. The rest of
the world, they proclaimed, would be destroyed in a month or two;
only Münster would be saved, to become the New Jerusalem.
Thousands poured in from as far away as Flanders and Frisia in
the northern Netherlands. As a result, the Anabaptists soon won
a majority on the town council, and this success was followed
three days later, on February 24, by an orgy of looting of books,
statues and paintings from the churches and throughout the town.
Soon Jan Matthys himself arrived, a tall, gaunt man with a long
black beard. Matthys, aided by Bockelson, quickly became the virtual
dictator of the town. The coercive Anabaptists had at last seized
a city. The Great Communist Experiment could now begin.

The first
mighty program of this rigid theocracy was, of course, to purge
the New Jerusalem of the unclean and the ungodly, as a prelude
to their ultimate extermination throughout the world. Matthys
called therefore for the execution of all remaining Catholics
and Lutherans, but Knipperdollinck’s cooler head prevailed, since
he warned Matthys that slaughtering all other Christians than
themselves might cause the rest of the world to become edgy, and
they might all come and crush the New Jerusalem in its cradle.
It was therefore decided to do the next best thing, and on February
27 the Catholic and Lutherans were driven out of the city, in
the midst of a horrendous snowstorm. In a deed prefiguring communist
Cambodia, all non-Anabaptists, including old people, invalids,
babies and pregnant women were driven into the snowstorm, and
all were forced to leave behind all their money, property, food
and clothing. The remaining Lutherans and Catholics were compulsorily
rebaptized, and all refusing this ministration were put to death.

The expulsion
of all Lutherans and Catholics was enough for the bishop, who
began a long military siege of the town the next day, on February
28. With every person drafted for siege work, Jan Matthys launched
his totalitarian communist social revolution.

The first
step was to confiscate the property of the expelled. All their
worldly goods were placed in central depots, and the poor were
encouraged to take “according to their needs,” the “needs” to
be interpreted by seven appointed “deacons” chosen by Matthys.
When a blacksmith protested at these measures imposed by Dutch
foreigners, Matthys arrested the courageous smithy. Summoning
the entire population of the town, Matthys personally stabbed,
shot, and killed the “godless” blacksmith, as well as throwing
into prison several eminent citizens who had protested against
his treatment. The crowd was warned to profit by this public execution,
and they obediently sang a hymn in honour of the killing.

A key part
of the Anabaptist reign of terror in Münster was now unveiled.
Unerringly, just as in the case of the Cambodian communists four-and-a-half
centuries later, the new ruling elite realized that the abolition
of the private ownership of money would reduce the population
to total slavish dependence on the men of power. And so Matthys,
Rothmann and others launched a propaganda campaign that it was
unchristian to own money privately; that all money should be held
in “common,” which in practice meant that all money whatsoever
must be handed over to Matthys and his ruling clique. Several
Anabaptists who kept or hid their money were arrested and then
terrorized into crawling to Matthys on their knees, begging forgiveness
and beseeching him to intercede with God on their behalf. Matthys
then graciously “forgave” the sinners.

After two
months of severe and unrelenting pressure, a combination of propaganda
about the Christianity of abolishing private money, and threats
and terror against those who failed to surrender, the private
ownership of money was effectively abolished in Münster.
The government seized all the money and used it to buy or hire
goods from the outside world. Wages were doled out in kind by
the only remaining employer: the theocratic Anabaptist state.

Food was
confiscated from private homes, and rationed according to the
will of the government deacons. Also, to accommodate the immigrants,
all private homes were effectively communized, with everyone permitted
to quarter themselves anywhere; it was now illegal to close, let
alone lock, doors. Communal dining-halls were established, where
people ate together to readings from the Old Testament.

This compulsory
communism and reign of terror was carried out in the name of community
and Christian “love.” All this communization was considered the
first giant steps toward total egalitarian communism, where, as
Rothmann put it, “all things were to be in common, there was to
be no private property and nobody was to do any more work, but
simply trust in God.” The workless part, of course, somehow never

A pamphlet
sent in October 1534 to other Anabaptist communities hailed the
new order of Christian love through terror:

For not
only have we put all our belongings into a common pool under
the care of deacons, and live from it according to our need;
we praise God through Christ with one heart and mind and are
eager to help one another with every kind of service.

And accordingly,
everything which has served the purposes of self-seeking and
private property, such as buying and selling, working for money,
taking interest and practicing usury … or eating and drinking
the sweat of the poor … and indeed everything which offends
against love — all such things are abolished amongst us by the
power of love and community.

With high consistency,
the Anabaptists of Münster made no pretence about preserving
intellectual freedom while communizing all material property. For
the Anabaptists boasted of their lack of education, and claimed
that it was the unlearned and the unwashed who would be the elect
of the world. The Anabaptist mob took particular delight in burning
all the books and manuscripts in the cathedral library, and finally,
in mid-March 1534, Matthys outlawed all books except the Good Book
— the Bible. To symbolize a total break with the sinful past, all
privately and publicly owned books were thrown upon a great communal
bonfire. All this ensured, of course, that the only theology or
interpretation of the scriptures open to the Münsterites was
that of Matthys and the other Anabaptist preachers.

At the end
of March, however, Matthys’s swollen hubris laid him low.
Convinced at Eastertime that God had ordered him and a few of the
faithful to lift the bishop’s siege and liberate the town, Matthys
and a few others rushed out of the gates at the besieging army,
and were literally hacked to pieces. In an age when the idea of
full religious liberty was virtually unknown, one can imagine that
any Anabaptists whom the more orthodox Christians might get hold
of would not earn a very kindly reward.

The death of
Matthys left Münster in the hands of young Bockelson. And if
Matthys had chastised the people of Münster with whips, Bockelson
would chastise them with scorpions. Bockelson wasted little time
in mourning his mentor. He preached to the faithful: “God will give
you another Prophet who will be more powerful.” How could this young
enthusiast top his master? Early in May, Bockelson caught the attention
of the town by running naked through the streets in a frenzy, falling
then into a silent three-day ecstasy. When he rose again, he announced
to the entire populace a new dispensation that God had revealed
to him. With God at his elbow, Bockelson abolished the old functioning
town offices of council and burgomasters, and installed a new ruling
council of 12 elders, with himself, of course, as the eldest of
the elders. The elders were now given total authority over the life
and death, the property and the spirit, of every inhabitant of Münster.
A strict system of forced labour was imposed, with all artisans
not drafted into the military now public employees, working for
the community for no monetary reward. This meant, of course, that
the guilds were now abolished.

The totalitarianism
in Münster was now complete. Death was now the punishment for
virtually every independent act, good or bad. Capital punishment
was decreed for the high crimes of murder, theft, lying, avarice,
and quarreling! Also death was decreed for every conceivable kind
of insubordination: the young against their parents, wives against
their husbands and, of course, anyone at all against the chosen
representatives of God on earth, the totalitarian government of
Münster. Bernt Knipperdollinck was appointed high executioner
to enforce the decrees.

The only aspect
of life previously left untouched was sex, and this now came under
the hammer of Bockelson’s total despotism. The only sexual relation
permitted was marriage between two Anabaptists. Sex in any other
form, including marriage with one of the “godless,” was a capital
crime. But soon Bockelson went beyond this rather old-fashioned
credo, and decided to establish compulsory polygamy in Münster.
Since many of the expellees had left their wives and daughters behind,
Münster now had three times as many marriageable women as men,
so that polygamy had become technologically feasible. Bockelson
converted the other rather startled preachers by citing polygamy
among the patriarchs of Israel, as well as by threatening dissenters
with death.

polygamy was a bit too much for many of the Münsterites, who
launched a rebellion in protest. The rebellion, however, was quickly
crushed and most of the rebels put to death. Execution was also
the fate of any further dissenters. And so by August 1534, polygamy
was coercively established in Münster. As one might expect,
young Bockelson took an instant liking to the new regime, and before
long he had a harem of 15 wives, including Divara, the beautiful
young widow of Jan Matthys. The rest of the male population also
began to take to the new decree as ducks to water. Many of the women
did not take as kindly to the new dispensation, and so the elders
passed a law ordering compulsory marriage for every woman under
(and presumably also over) a certain age, which usually meant being
a compulsory third or fourth wife.

Moreover, since
marriage among the godless was not only invalid but also illegal,
the wives of the expellees now became fair game, and were forced
to “marry” good Anabaptists. Refusal to comply with the new law
was punishable, of course, by death, and a number of women were
actually executed as a result. Those “old” wives who resented the
new wives coming into their household were also suppressed, and
their quarreling was made a capital crime. Many women were executed
for quarreling.

But the long
arm of the state could reach only just so far and, in their first
internal setback, Bockelson and his men had to relent, and permit
divorce. Indeed, the ceremony of marriage was now outlawed totally,
and divorce made very easy. As a result, Münster now fell under
a regime of what amounted to compulsory free love. And so, within
the space of only a few months, a rigid puritanism had been transmuted
into a regime of compulsory promiscuity.

Bockelson proved to be an excellent organizer of a besieged city.
Compulsory labour, military and civilian, was strictly enforced.
The bishop’s army consisted of poorly and irregularly paid mercenaries,
and Bockelson was able to induce many of them to desert by offering
them regular pay (pay for money, that is, in contrast to
Bockelson’s rigid internal moneyless communism). Drunken ex-mercenaries
were, however, shot immediately. When the bishop fired pamphlets
into the town offering a general amnesty in return for surrender,
Bockelson made reading such pamphlets a crime punishable by — of
course — death.

At the end
of August 1534, the bishop’s armies were in disarray and the siege
temporarily lifted. Jan Bockelson seized this opportunity to carry
his “egalitarian” communist revolution one step further: he had
himself named king and Messiah of the Last Days.

himself king might have appeared tacky and perhaps even illegitimate.
And so Bockelson had one Dusentschur, a goldsmith from a nearby
town and a self-proclaimed prophet, do the job for him. At the beginning
of September, Dusentschur announced to one and all a new revelation:
Jan Bockelson was to be king of the whole world, the heir of King
David, to keep that Throne until God himself reclaimed his Kingdom.
Unsurprisingly, Bockelson confirmed that he himself had had the
very same revelation. Dusentschur then presented a sword of justice
to Bockelson, anointed him, and proclaimed him king of the world.
Bockelson, of course, was momentarily modest; he prostrated himself
and asked guidance from God. But he made sure to get that guidance
swiftly. And it turned out, mirabile dictu, that Dusentschur
was right. Bockelson proclaimed to the crowd that God had now given
him “power over all nations of the earth"; anyone who might
dare to resist the will of God “shall without delay be put to death
with the sword.”

And so, despite
a few mumbled protests, Jan Bockelson was declared king of the world
and Messiah, and the Anabaptist preachers of Münster explained
to their bemused flock that Bockelson was indeed the Messiah as
foretold in the Old Testament. Bockelson was rightfully ruler of
the entire world, both temporal and spiritual.

It often happens
with “egalitarians” that a hole, a special escape hatch from the
drab uniformity of life, is created — for themselves. And so it
was with King Bockelson. It was, after all, important to emphasize
in every way the importance of the Messiah’s advent. And so Bockelson
wore the finest robes, metals and jewellery; he appointed courtiers
and gentlemen-at-arms, who also appeared in splendid finery. King
Bockelson’s chief wife, Divara, was proclaimed queen of the world,
and she too was dressed in great finery and had a suite of courtiers
and followers. This luxurious court of some two hundred people was
housed in fine mansions requisitioned for the occasion. A throne
draped with a cloth of gold was established in the public square,
and King Bockelson would hold court there, wearing a crown and carrying
a sceptre. A royal bodyguard protected the entire procession. All
Bockelson’s loyal aides were suitably rewarded with high status
and finery: Knipperdollinck was the chief minister, and Rothmann
royal orator.

If communism
is the perfect society, somebody must be able to enjoy
its fruits; and who better but the Messiah and his courtiers? Though
private property in money was abolished, the confiscated gold and
silver was now minted into ornamental coins for the glory of the
new king. All horses were confiscated to build up the king’s armed
squadron. Also, names in Münster were transformed; all the
streets were renamed; Sundays and feastdays were abolished; and
all new-born children were named personally by the king in accordance
with a special pattern.

In a starving
slave society such as communist Münster, not all citizens could
live in the luxury enjoyed by the king and his court; indeed, the
new ruling class was now imposing a rigid class oligarchy seldom
seen before. So that the king and his nobles might live in high
luxury, rigorous austerity was imposed on everyone else in Münster.
The subject population had already been robbed of their houses and
much of their food; now all superfluous luxury among the masses
was outlawed. Clothing and bedding were severely rationed, and all
“surplus” turned over to King Bockelson under pain of death. Every
house was searched thoroughly and 83 wagonloads of “surplus” clothing

It is not surprising
that the deluded masses of Münster began to grumble at being
forced to live in abject poverty while the king and his courtiers
lived in extreme luxury on the proceeds of their confiscated belongings.
And so Bockelson had to beam them some propaganda to explain the
new system. The explanation was this: it was all right for Bockelson
to live in pomp and luxury because he was already completely dead
to the world and the flesh. Since he was dead to the world, in a
deep sense his luxury didn’t count. In the style of every guru who
has ever lived in luxury among his credulous followers, he explained
that for him material objects had no value. How such “logic” can
ever fool anyone passes understanding. More important, Bockelson
assured his subjects that he and his court were only the advance
guard of the new order; soon, they too would be living
in the same millennial luxury. Under their new order, the people
of Münster would forge outward, armed with God’s will, and
conquer the entire world, exterminating the unrighteous, after which
Jesus would return and they would all live in luxury and perfection.
Equal communism with great luxury for all would then be achieved.

Greater dissent
meant, of course, greater terror, and King Bockelson’s reign of
“love” intensified its intimidation and slaughter. As soon as he
proclaimed the monarchy, the prophet Dusentschur announced a new
divine revelation: all who persisted in disagreeing with or disobeying
King Bockelson would be put to death, and their very memory blotted
out. They would be extirpated forever. Some of the main victims
to be executed were women: women who were killed for denying their
husbands their marital rights, for insulting a preacher, or for
daring to practice bigamy — polygamy, of course, being solely a
male privilege.

Despite his
continual preaching about marching forth to conquer the world, King
Bockelson was not crazy enough to attempt that feat, especially
since the bishop’s army was again besieging the town. Instead, he
shrewdly used much of the expropriated gold and silver to send out
apostles and pamphlets to surrounding areas of Europe, attempting
to rouse the masses for Anabaptist revolution. The propaganda had
considerable effect, and serious mass risings occurred throughout
Holland and northwestern Germany during January 1535. A thousand
armed Anabaptists gathered under the leadership of someone who called
himself Christ, son of God; and serious Anabaptist rebellions took
place in west Frisia, in the town of Minden, and even in the great
city of Amsterdam, where the rebels managed to capture the town
hall. All these risings were eventually suppressed, with the considerable
help of betrayal to the various authorities of the names of the
rebels and of the location of their munition dumps.

The princes
of northwestern Europe by this time had had enough; and all the
states of the Holy Roman Empire agreed to supply troops to crush
the monstrous and hellish regime at Münster. For the first
time, in January 1535, Münster was totally and successfully
blockaded and cut off from the outside world. The Establishment
then proceeded to starve the population of Münster into submission.
Food shortages appeared immediately, and the crisis was met with
characteristic vigour: all remaining food was confiscated, and all
horses killed, for the benefit of feeding the king, his royal court
and his armed guards. At all times the king and his court ate and
drank well, while famine and devastation raged throughout the town
of Münster, and the masses ate literally everything, even inedible,
they could lay their hands on.

King Bockelson
kept his rule by beaming continual propaganda and promises to the
starving masses. God would definitely save them by Easter, or else
he would have himself burnt in the public square. When Easter came
and went, Bockelson craftily explained that he had meant only “spiritual”
salvation. He promised that God would change cobblestones to bread,
and of course that did not come to pass either. Finally, Bockelson,
long fascinated with the theatre, ordered his starving subjects
to engage in three days of dancing and athletics. Dramatic performances
were held, as well as a Black Mass. Starvation, however, was now
becoming all-pervasive.

The poor hapless
people of Münster were now doomed totally. The bishop kept
firing leaflets into the town promising a general amnesty if the
people would only revolt and depose King Bockelson and his court
and hand them over. To guard against such a threat, Bockelson stepped
up his reign of terror still further. In early May, he divided the
town into 12 sections, and placed a “duke” over each one with an
armed force of 24 men. The dukes were foreigners like himself; as
Dutch immigrants they were likely to be loyal to Bockelson. Each
duke was strictly forbidden to leave his section, and the dukes,
in turn, prohibited any meetings whatsoever of even a few people.
No one was allowed to leave town, and any caught plotting to leave,
helping anyone else to leave, or criticizing the king, was instantly
beheaded, usually by King Bockelson himself. By mid-June such deeds
were occurring daily, with the body often quartered and nailed up
as a warning to the masses.

Bockelson would
undoubtedly have let the entire population starve to death rather
than surrender; but two escapees betrayed weak spots in the town’s
defence, and on the night of June 24, 1535, the nightmare New Jerusalem
at last came to a bloody end. The last several hundred Anabaptist
fighters surrendered under an amnesty and were promptly massacred,
and Queen Divara was beheaded. As for ex-King Bockelson, he was
led about on a chain, and the following January, along with Knipperdollinck,
was publicly tortured to death, and their bodies suspended in cages
from a church tower.

The old Establishment
of Münster was duly restored and the city became Catholic once
more. The stars were once again in their courses, and the events
of 1534–35 understandably led to an abiding distrust of mysticism
and enthusiast movements throughout Protestant Europe.


Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion
(1950, New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 133.

Quoted in Igor Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon
(New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 57.

This appeared

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
He was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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