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Commentary: Muentzer's violent heirs

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   May 21, 2002 at 2:45 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- Americans will see bewildering scenes from Berlin on their television screens Wednesday as they follow President George W. Bush's visit to the German capital.

Ten thousand policemen will try to keep tens of thousands of demonstrators in check, including some extremely violent ones.

Germans call this particular species "Chaoten," a term best circumscribed as muddle-brains. It matters little what their current pet peeves are -- the environment, the war on terrorism, globalization or the protection of the mink. Even if you pensioned off ever mink in the world the "Chaoten" would still be throwing bricks.

They would then perhaps agitate in the defense of the fetuses of one particular breed of chicken whose green eggs produce a disproportionate share of stillbirths. Being German, this commentator is of course not jesting.

At any rate, expect President Bush to be blamed for this, or perhaps one of his successors. The "Chaoten" blight will not go away. After all, it has been around since the 16th century and history shows that it prefers visible targets.

And America is a very visible target.

Of course, muddle-brains are no exclusive German property. Dutch anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn lost his life to a chaotic character valuing the lives of his furry rodent friends more highly than those of fellow human beings.

But like so many things good or bad, chaotic minds such as the ones the world will observe on television stations on Wednesday are arguably more earnest in Germany than any place else.

They have theological roots, and they have a system, even if this might sound like an oxymoron. They have a precise philological definition, too, that defies all attempts at adequate translation. They are called "Schwaermer," meaning enthusiasts or utopians, for want of better words.

To be fair to mainstream Germans, they have in normal times -- and these times are still somewhat normal -- always scorned these disagreeable compatriots.

Luther railed against them with more expletives than he could muster against the pope in Rome -- and for good reason: Luther's nemesis was Thomas Muentzer (1490-1525), the chief ideologue of "Schwaermerei" (enthusiasm), who in return did not pull any punches in his disdain for the Wittenberg reformer.

He called him "Father Pussyfoot," "Brother Soft-Life," "Cousin Step-lightly," "Virgin Martin, the chaste Babylonian woman," "Dear Flesh," and "Arch-Devil."

Remember this is 16th-century talk, no political correctness then.

But the conflict between these two theologians was not really about words. It was about the Kingdom of God -- or paradise, if you will.

Muentzer taught that it was man's Christian duty to force the advent of the Kingdom by pulling the hereafter into the present, in other words, contribute to the establishment of heaven on earth.

He advocated violence as a means to achieve this end. Hence he became the spiritual leader of the Peasants' Revolt (1524-26) and played a leading role in the sacking of castles, monasteries and churches.

Muentzer demanded that "godless rulers, monks and priests" be killed.

Martin Luther supported the peasants' social demands but rejected their methods with grand hyperbole. He appealed to German princes to "stab, beat and strangulate ... the robbing and murderous hordes of peasants."

The conflict between these two 16th-century views -- advocating an orderly improvement of secular life (Luther) vs. violent revolution (Muentzer) -- has remained a feature of the German reality through the centuries. In varying measures, it has also marked neighboring countries.

It is a conflict between reason, which Luther called the "empress of all things" in this world, and a totalitarian revolutionary movement that according to sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was motivated "not by ideas but the murkier depths of the soul."

The Nazis were Muentzer's heirs, as their chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, pointed out in his horrendous opus, "Mythus des 20 Jahrhunderts" (Myth of the 20th Century).

The Communists, too, traced their ancestry to Muentzer. Friedrich Engels (1820-1875) Karl Marx's partner, paid homage to him: "Heaven was to be sought in this life, not beyond, and it was, according to Muentzer, the task of the believers to establish Heaven ... here on earth."

The bliss Engels had in mind was of course one without God -- a "workers' and peasants' paradise," as the East Germans would later call their state. But at least this was a clear goal, which of course failed.

It's hard to figure out what Elysium Muentzer's 21st century heirs are throwing rocks and having their noses bloodied for: a Land of the Free for rodents and terrorists, perhaps, topped by a glorious absence of free trade?

Should you still find all this bewildering, welcome to post-modern confusion! But at least now you know whence the fools hail.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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