At dinner on the evening before our Mennonite Heritage Tour’s visit to Muenster, one of the people in our group remarked that we needed to “own” Muenster even as we “own” Auschwitz (where we would stop later).
By Auschwitz, of course, he meant the Holocaust, and by Muenster, he meant the historical events of 1534-35 in that city – the “rebellion” of radical Anabaptists in which they tried to establish the “New Jerusalem” there, complete with a king (Jan van Leiden), polygamy, extreme violence, a long siege, eventual victory by a Bishop’s army on the outside, and the killing of hundreds, with the leaders’ bodies displayed as a warning in three cages that still hang on the city’s Lamberti Church.
His comment gave me pause. If “owning” history means to look at what happened, to enter into its achievements or horrors, whatever the case might be, to engage with it morally as well as mentally, then I had certainly done that with Auschwitz over the years.
But it had not occurred to me to do the same with Muenster. I knew only the sketchy details, as above. I’d supposed our Muenster stop might be like viewing a pickled frog in a lab: necessary, perhaps, but just for a quick look, an “ugh!” and on to more palatable things.
After our dinner conversation, however, I resolved to — at the least — pay attention in Muenster. Which I tried to do the next morning as we wandered along brick sidewalks and through a market colourful with flowers and fruits and vegetables, in and out of a church and past famous buildings, craning our necks to see those three cages, way way up… And then, in the museum where the Anabaptist period of the city is also on display, I was grabbed into the history of Muenster by a painting.
The painting tells the dramatic story of Elisabeth Wandscherer, one of sixteen wives of (King) Jan van Leiden. We see her on her knees, dropping her jewelry in front of him. She begs to leave. It can’t be God’s will, she says, that people in Muenster are starving [because of the siege] while the king and his court live in luxury. We see that the king’s hand is fisted. We learn that in the next, unpainted, scene he will have her dragged out and beheaded for her resistance — wielding the sword himself — and that afterwards, he and his other wives and the crowds will dance and sing “To God on high be glory.”