Roger Anderson finds that religion is never far away in the German city of Munster
I look up as I’m walking down the Prinzipalmarkt in the centre of Munster, Germany, and see three cages dangling from the tower of St Lambert’s Church. They’re a grim reminder of the bloody Anabaptist rebellion that took place here nearly 500 years ago.
In 1534, these Protestant zealots – who believed that God’s kingdom was imminent –threw out the Lutheran governors turned Munster into a sort of crazy commune in which menfolk shared goods equally and, as a special bonus, were allowed to have as many wives as they wanted (at least one woman is said to have been beheaded when she resisted the idea).
To cut a long story short, about a year later the Catholics came along and put a stop to the fun and games, restoring what they saw as the rightful order. But that was only after they’d tortured the Anabaptist’s leaders to death using hot tongs, chopped up their bodies and displayed the remains in those very cages now causing me to have a crick in my neck.
At this point, my German friends usher me into the gothic Rathaus just a few hundred yards down the road. This splendid building contains the so-called Peace Hall (or Friedenssaal) where, more than 100 years after the Anabaptists were running amok, European diplomats gathered together to mark the end of another religious conflict: the Thirty Years’ War.
These protracted hostilities, which resulted in the deaths of some eight million people, were primarily between Catholics and Protestants, and drew in many European states. Some commentators have likened the conflict to the current turmoil in the Middle East, due to its religious complexity. I know I never understood the Thirty Years’ War when I was at school.
We move on to Munster Cathedral (or St.-Paulus-Dom), the city’s main Catholic cathedral, crossing the Domplatz, which boasts an imposing statue of a religious figure who played a courageous role in a more recent conflict. The Bishop of Munster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, stood up against the Nazis. He delivered defiant sermons, denouncing Nazi euthanasia, Gestapo lawlessness, and the persecution of the church. A man of principle, after the war Galen turned his oratory against the allied occupation forces, for what he saw as mistreatment of German civilians. Sadly, 80% of this captivating city was destroyed during the war.
Mass was being celebrated in the cathedral when we were passing, so we couldn’t admire the medieval clock, which includes a calendar going up to the year 2071. It’s a weird date, which will probably be seized upon by some religious cult in the near future as a sign of the coming ‘end times’.
We ended the day with a meal at the idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) Holt’ne Schluse, an old inn on Max Klemens Kanal, serving traditional ‘Westphalian fayre’ – basically ham and eggs, ham and cheese, or pancakes. Franz Renfert, the 84-year-old proprietor, regaled us with stories in his thick local accent. He lectured our party for quite a while and, after he had retired behind the bar, I asked our friends, who had been nodding in agreement throughout, what he’d been saying. We couldn’t understand a word, they replied. But it was something to do with Protestants and Catholics.