Lessons from Information Revolution 1.0
Whenever I teach in Erfurt at our planetary school of public policy, I live at the monastery where Martin Luther lived, before he started his career as a professor in Wittenberg. The Augustine monastery has been transformed into an upscale hostel and the rooms have been named after important church reformers. Last week, I stayed in the Thomas MÃ¼ntzer room. The story of the two men who lived during the first information revolution (print) can teach us important lessons about our own time.
In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on his personal blog, the church door in Wittenberg. The printing presses, the blogging platform of the time (there was no blogger, moveabletype, or wordpress) rapidly distributed his entry in Europe. The rather arcane and academic text started probably the biggest transformation of the European world of the last 500 years. Even though his ideas radically changed our world, Luther himself was not perceived as a radical by his contemporaries, however, Thomas MÃ¼ntzer was. The theological differences between the two seem trivial from a 21st Century perspective,
MÃ¼ntzer believed and taught of the “living word of God” (i.e., continued revelation and prophecy), the banning of infant baptism, and that the wine and bread of the Eucharist were only emblems of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice [wikipedia].
But politically, they were far apart. While Martin Luther played the game of politics conservative and sucessful, Thomas MÃ¼ntzer did not. He was tortured, beheaded for his participation in the peasant revolutions of 1524/1525, and forgotten by mainstream history:
In studies of the Reformation, MÃ¼ntzer has often been ignored. To Protestant historians, he was a short-lived radical. MÃ¼ntzer was then adopted by socialists as a symbol of early class struggle due to his promotion of a new egalitarian society which would practice the sharing of goods. MÃ¼ntzer’s movement and the peasants’ revolt formed an important topic in Friedrich Engels‘ book The Peasant War in Germany, a classic defense of historical materialism. Engels describes MÃ¼ntzer as a revolutionary leader who chose to use biblical languageâ€”the language the peasants would best understand. He then became a symbolic hero for the East German state (German Democratic Republic, GDR) in the 20th century, appearing from 1975 on their five mark banknote. On the Frankenhausen battlefield, the GDR built a huge memorial containing the world’s largest painting by Werner Tuebke, with MÃ¼ntzer as central figure.
More recent studies, however, have been more sensitive to the context of MÃ¼ntzer’s life. He stands as a symbol of one of the many theological directions which could have been taken by the Reformation movement in its earliest stages [wikipedia].
In hindsight, it was not so much the doctrinal differences between the two men that mattered in the long run, it was the general idea of empowerment that worked itself as a algorithm through history. It took around 150 years until 1648 when the balance of power in Europe had been re-established and took almost 400 more years until democracy was mainstreamed on the European continent. Was that necessary? Do we need more Martin Luthers or Thomas MÃ¼ntzers of network society? What are strategies to move the emancipatory spirit forward? How long will it take until a new balance of power is established? What type of society can we create? By when?