A Lesson From 16th Century Germany

I’m concerned. I believe that the Donald Trump’s “end of political correctness” messages – crowd pleasers at any campaign stop – are nothing more than permission to separate “us” from “them.” For Trump supporters, “us” generally means white men and women, and “them” means Mexicans (all Hispanics, really), African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, and others who don’t look or believe as you do. Trump’s message seems clear. To paraphrase, It’s okay to treat “them” differently (and generally worse than you want to be treated).

I have a friend who said something the other day that has me thinking about Münster Germany. He feels the United States needs a hard reset, and that we have been putting off that reset for decades.

Throughout most of human history, those hard resets have been wars, disease and famine. My friend is not advocating for any of those, but we haven’t had a major kill-off since World War II (pardon the crude language when talking about the sanctity of human life). Our social safety nets and the great advances in medical knowledge keep the less fortunate from dying in really large numbers, and the powerful nations of the world have only fought proxy wars against each other for the past 70 years.

Wars in which a large nation fights a small one don’t generate the same scale of death. The combined death toll during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is likely between 500,000 and 600,000. The World War II death toll was 50-80 million, and there were many fewer people in the world back then.

So what happened in Münster in the early 16th century? Let’s look at a timeline for Münster and parallels to the United States today.

  1. Münster: A powerful merchant class in northern Germany had dominated trade in the Baltic Sea from the late 13th to the end of the 15th century.

U.S. parallel: Good manufacturing jobs were plentiful and the economy was mostly sound from the end of World War II through the end of the 20th century.

  1. Münster: At the beginning of the 16th century, the emerging Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden had broken the Baltic trade monopoly and revenues in northern Germany had decreased.

U.S. parallel: The U.S. granted permanent normal trade relations to China in late 2000 which led to a large shift in manufacturing jobs from the U.S. to China and other low wage countries.

  1. Münster: Power struggles developed between the historically powerful, but declining merchant class and the newly valued class of craftsmen and lesser traders whose importance for the economy had steadily grown.

U.S. parallel: Entrepreneurship and technological skills became a more valuable part of the U.S. economy as manufacturing jobs declined.

  1. Münster: For decades, there was the threat of armed conflict between the classes, but the powerful city council always managed to come together and make an agreement that kept the peace.

U.S. parallel: While there was disagreement between conservatives and liberals as to the best way to manage the economy, the legislative and executive branches generally conducted the business of government for the common good.

  1. Münster: The Protestant Reformation reached Münster in 1531 with the arrival of Bernhard Rothmann. The wealthy merchant class and minor aristocrats remained Roman Catholic, while the skilled laborers and craftsmen were persuaded by Rothmann’s Lutheran message.

U.S. parallel: The U.S. housing bubble burst and the Great Recession began at the end of 2007. Federal and state governments struggled to meet the needs of their citizens when job losses skyrocketed and revenues dropped. The recession was caused by risky and irresponsible behavior by banks and homeowners. Strong opinions developed about blame and the best path forward.

  1. Münster: Persecution of the Lutheran faith by the Catholic Archbishop and his followers on the city council had radicalized Rothmann who rejected infant baptism and became an Anabaptist, the most radical religious group of the day. Many of Münster’s plebian classes followed suit.

U.S. parallel: Financial commentator Rick Santelli suggested a Chicago Tea Party in response to President Obama’s proposed mortgage relief plan, and the TEA Party began in early 2009. The other end of the spectrum was claimed by the Occupy Wall Street movement beginning in July 2011. These two extremes pulled politicians from the political center which made compromise difficult.

  1. Münster: By late February 1534, the Anabaptists were firmly in control of Münster and expelled Catholics from the city without allowing them to take their possessions. Moderate Lutherans were also subjected to poor treatment if they did not convert to Anabaptism, and the loyalties of late converts were questioned. The city council still had some moderates, and they pleaded with the Archbishop for help, but the Anabaptists’ power increased.

U.S. parallel: The federal government shut down non-essential operations and furloughed 800,000 workers without pay for three weeks in October 2013 because conservative members of Congress wanted to reduce or eliminate funding for selected programs, and the president did not agree with those plans.

  1. Münster:The Archbishop withdrew to a neighboring town and began the siege of Münster, which as the Prince Bishop, was the city that God wanted him to control for the good of God’s Church. The Anabaptist leaders within the city tell their followers that Münster is the New Jerusalem and that is where the second coming will be.

U.S. parallel: People on the political extremes describe a country under siege by the other side, and a presidential candidate tells his followers that he can make America great again.

  1. Münster: The Anabaptist leaders did horrible things to those who questioned their rule, and the Archbishop’s troops slaughtered the starving women and children who were allowed to leave the city. The city fell to the Archbishop’s troops in late June 1535, and the three surviving Anabaptist leaders were tortured for months, and burned at the stake in January 1536 (which was a much worse fate than I thought it was).

U.S. parallel: To be determined, but it may be the hard reset which my friend believes the country needs. It depends on how far we fall into the “us” versus “them” trap. I hope it’s a happier story than that told in Münster’s history (or Hitler’s legacy, for that matter).

About tonyj126

I'm a 50+ married man who always seems to have a large backlog of work to do, but also a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Much of the work I do is volunteer or taking care of extended family members. I suffer from, as my priest calls it, "the sin of self-sufficiency," which means I can figure out how to do most things myself, and consequently, reduce the need for community to solve problems. As a logical extention (at least to me), I find myself called to comtemplate the country's and the world's woes and offer my observations. I hope someone out there will find them useful.
This entry was posted in Economics, Religion, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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