Comparing Dominique Colas and Alberto Toscano (2020)

In the Winter Term of 2020, I led a seminar at Brock University on the theme of “fanaticism”. The post below was material related to the course meeting on 27 Jan. 2020. The subject for the seminar was a comparison of two books…

Covers from Colas (1992 / 1997) and Toscano (2010 / 2017)

Covers from Colas (1992 / 1997) and Toscano (2010 / 2017)

Was Martin Luther a fanatic? Dominique Colas would almost certainly say “no”, since he interprets Luther as an early defender against “the fanatical desire of the Church to crush civil society beneath the City of God” (p. 98) on the one hand, and against those 16th-century “flailers” such as Thomas Müntzer who “desired civil society’s death and meant to apply the Bible to the letter toward that end, without delay and without compromise” (p. 99) on the other hand. Yet Colas’s view of Luther does not ignore some tensions in Luther’s anti-fanaticial views:

     Nothing in Luther’s denunciation of fanaticism protected him from the same madness, the same systematic hatred, a hatred directed at the individuals or groups who are then treated as profaners who must be purged and destroyed.

–Colas, “Preface to the English Edition,” p. xix

In light of Colas’s attention to aesthetics (particularly 16th-century art and iconoclasm), I am a little surprised he didn’t discuss images such as the one below.

Image of a 7-headed Martin Luther

Image of a 7-headed Luther-Monster, by Hans Brosamer, from J. Cochlaeus (1529). The captions above each of the 7 heads are: Doctor, Martinus, Luther, Clergyman, Fanatic (Schwirmer), Visitor, and Barrabbas.

For more on the 1529 political cartoon of Martin Luther, go to pages offered by German History in Documents and Images, Luthermania, and Google Arts and Culture. The version of the image included above is shared from Luthermania and the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 4.0).

… I updated the page a few times …

Here’s the first update: There are cases where groups of rebels who were formerly denounced as “fanatics” (or the like) are rehabilitated as part of a national founding myth. Two famous cases are 1) the heroic portrayals of the Zealots of Masada in Israel, and 2) the equally heroic portrayals of Thomas Müntzer and the “peasants” of 1525 in the German Democratic Republic (aka Communist-ruled East Germany).

A striking instance of 1) is the miniseries Masada. See the IMBD entry at As of January 2020 it was still possible to find the series on YouTube (first part of four at this link). Note that this 1981 series was nominated for 3 Golden Globe Awards and won several Emmy Awards. Peter O’Toole was the star as a Roman oppressor.

A striking instance of 2) is the Panorama Museum at Bad Frankenhausen, the location of the Peasants’ War battle where Müntzer was taken prisoner and soon thereafter executed. In the days of the GDR Bad Frankenhausen was the site of a Thomas Müntzer Festival, run by film producer Alf Teichs. It is also still the home of a monumentally large painting created in the 1970s and ’80s by Werner Tübke in a specially built museum. You can still find an English reference to an article from Central German TV (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, MDR) from 2010 in the WayBackMachine in which the painting is called “The Sistine Chapel of the North”.

The website for the Panorama Museum, while in German, does share lots of images, including this one (below) of its starring art installation, a 14-metre high and 123-metre long circular canvas completed in 1987 that depicts the 1525 Battle of Frankenhausen.

Panorama Museum Bad Frankenhausen, Germany

Interior of the Panorama Museum Bad Frankenhausen, Germany

For more details and images, visit

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ANOTHER UPDATE in the form of a series of quotations with highlighted text in orange

“Whether it is the short-circuit between Lenin, Hitler and Thomas Müntzer in Norman Cohn’s seminal The Pursuit of the Millennium (aptly translated into French as Les fanatiques de l’apocalypse), Michel Foucault’s sympathetic analogies between the ‘spiritualization of politics’ in the Iranian Revolution and the figures of Cromwell and Savonarola, or Hegel’s pairing of Mohammed and Robespierre in The Philosophy of History, the discourse on fanaticism often seems to suggest that when it comes to the politics and subjectivity of unconditional conviction we can ignore chronology and geography.”

Excerpt from: Alberto Toscano, “Introduction” to Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea


“But the most influential depiction of Müntzer as a fanatic is to be found in Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium, a text that proposes a short-circuit between the distant past of the Peasants’ War and the political exigencies of the present, lending its weight to the vastly influential idea of ‘political religion’.”

Excerpt from: Toscano, Fanaticism, ch. 2


“For Engels, there is a short-circuit between the primitive communist millenarianism of the peasants’ rebellion – drawn from the ideational reservoir of early Christianity – and a realizable communist future.”

Excerpt from: Toscano, Fanaticism, ch. 2


“Rather than a historically determined contradiction or an irrational gap between theological semblance and political weakness, Bloch sees in Müntzer – the emblem of the tensions and potentialities of the peasants’ revolt – the short-circuit or disjunctive synthesis between the poles of these supposed disjunctions.”

Excerpt from: Toscano, Fanaticism, ch. 2


“For Cohn, this apocalyptic politics is marked by a refusal of representation and mediation; it aims at a total, unanimous community, devoid of internal strife. Key to this bold short-circuit across the ages, with its symptomatic use of analogies impervious to massive historical discrepancies, is the idea of a basic continuity in the structure of feeling of apocalyptic militancy, whether in explicitly religious or deceptively modern and technocratic guise.”

Excerpt from: Toscano, Fanaticism, ch. 6


“Significantly, in a characteristic methodological short-circuit which he pioneered in Homo Sacer’s treatment of bare life and sovereignty, Agamben turns for help to a debate between Carl Schmitt and the theologian Erik Peterson.”

Excerpt from: Toscano, Fanaticism, ch. 6