Protestant cartoon depicting the pope as a bagpipe-blowing jackass

The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels

Chapter 7
Significance of the Peasant War

After Geismaier's withdrawal into Venetian territory, the epilogue of the Peasant War was ended. The peasants were everywhere brought again under the sway of their ecclesiastical, noble or patrician masters. The agreements that were concluded with them here and there were broken, and heavy burdens were augmented by the enormous indemnities imposed by the victors on the vanquished. The magnificent attempt of the German people ended in ignominious defeat and, for a time, in greater oppression. In the long run, however, the situation of the peasants did not become worse. Whatever the nobility, princes and priests could wring out of the peasants had been wrung out even before the war. The German peasant of that time had this in common with the modern proletarian, that his share in the products of the work was limited to a subsistence minimum necessary for his maintenance and for the propagation of the race. It is true that peasants of some little wealth were ruined. Hosts of bondsmen were forced into serfdom; whole stretches of community lands were confiscated; a great number of peasants were driven into vagabondage or forced to become city plebeians by the destruction of their domiciles and the devastation of their fields in addition to the general disorder. Wars and devastations, however, were every-day phenomena at that time, and in general, the peasant class was on too low a level to have its situation made worse for a long time through increased taxes. The subsequent religious wars and finally the Thirty Years' War with its constantly repeated mass devastations and depopulations pounded the peasants much more painfully than did the Peasant War. It was notably the Thirty Years' War which annihilated the most important parts of the productive forces in agriculture, through which, as well as through the simultaneous destruction of many cities, it lowered the living standards of the peasants, plebeians and the ruined city inhabitants to the level of Irish misery in its worst form.

The class that suffered most from the Peasant War was the clergy. Its monasteries and endowments were burned down; its valuables plundered, sold into foreign countries, or melted; its stores of goods consumed. They had been, least of all capable of offering resistance, and at the same time the weight of the people's old hatred fell heaviest upon them. The other estates, princes, nobility and the middle-class, even experienced a secret joy at the sufferings of the hated prelates. The Peasant War had made popular the secularisation of the church estates in favour of the peasants. The lay princes, and to a certain degree the cities, determined to bring about secularisation in their own interests, and soon the possessions of the prelates in Protestant countries were in the hands of either the princes or the honourables. The power and authority of the ecclesiastical princes were also infringed upon, and the lay princes understood how to exploit the people's hatred also in this direction. Thus we have seen how the Abbot of Fulda was relegated from a feudal lord of Philipp of Hesse to the position of his vassal. Thus the city of Kempten forced the ecclesiastical prince to sell to it for a trifle a series of precious privileges which he enjoyed in the city.

The nobility had also suffered considerably. Most of its castles were destroyed, and a number of its most respected families were ruined and could find means of subsistence only in the service of the princes. Its powerlessness in relation to the peasants was proven. It had been beaten everywhere and forced to surrender. Only the armies of the princes had saved it. The nobility was bound more and more to lose its significance as a free estate under the empire and to fall under the dominion of the princes.

Nor did the cities generally gain any advantages from the Peasant War. The rule of the honourables was almost everywhere reestablished with new force, and the opposition of the middle-class remained broken for a long time. Old patrician routine thus dragged on, hampering commerce and industry in every way, up to the French Revolution. Moreover, the cities were made responsible by the princes for the momentary successes which the middle-class or plebeian parties had achieved within their confines during the struggle. Cities which had previously belonged to the princes were forced to pay heavy indemnities, robbed of their privileges, and made subject to the avaricious willfulness of the princes (Frankenhausen, Arnstadt, Schmalkalden, Wurzburg, etc.), cities of the empire were incorporated into territories of the princes (Muehlhausen), or they were at least placed under moral dependence on the princes of the adjoining territory, as was the case with many imperial cities in Franconia.

The sole gainers under these conditions were the princes. We have seen at the beginning of our exposition that low development of industry, commerce and agriculture made the centralisation of the Germans into a nation impossible, that it allowed only local and provincial centralisation, and that the princes, representing centralisation within disruption, were the only class to profit from every change in the existing social and political conditions. The state of development of Germany in those days was so low and at the same time so different in various provinces, that along with lay principalities there could still exist ecclesiastical sovereignties, city republics, and sovereign counts and barons. Simultaneously, however, this development was continually, though slowly and feebly, pressing towards provincial centralisation, towards subjugating all imperial estates under the princes. It is due to this that only the princes could gain by the ending of the Peasant War. This happened in reality. They gained not only relatively, through the weakening of their opponents, the clergy, the nobility and the cities, but also absolutely through the prizes of war which they collected. The church estates were secularised in their favour; part of the nobility, fully or partly ruined, was obliged gradually to place itself in their vassalage; the indemnities of the cities and peasantry swelled their treasuries, which, with the abolition of so many city privileges, had now obtained a much more extended field for financial operations.

The decentralisation of Germany, the widening and strengthening of which was the chief result of the war, was at the same time the cause of its failure.

We have seen that Germany was split not only into numberless independent provinces almost totally foreign to each other, but that in every one of these provinces the nation was divided into various strata of estates and parts of estates. Besides princes and priests we find nobility and peasants in the countryside; patricians, middle-class and plebeians in the cities. At best, these classes were indifferent to each other's interests if not in actual conflict. Above all these complicated interests there still were the interests of the empire and the pope. We have seen that, with great difficulty, imperfectly, and differing in various localities, these various interests finally formed three great groups. We have seen that in spite of this grouping, achieved with so much labour, every estate opposed the line indicated by circumstances for the national development, every estate conducting the movement of its own accord, coming into conflict not only with the conservatives but also with the rest of the opposition estates. Failure was, therefore, inevitable. This was the fate of the nobility in Sickingen's uprising, the fate of the peasants in the Peasant War, of the middle-class in their tame Reformation. This was the fate even of the peasants and plebeians who in most localities of Germany could not unite for common action and stood in each other's way. We have also seen the causes of this split in the class struggle and the resultant defeat of the middle-class movement.

How local and provincial decentralisation and the resultant local and provincial narrow-mindedness ruined the whole movement, how neither middle-class nor peasantry nor plebeians could unite for concerted national action; how the peasants of every province acted only for themselves, as a rule refusing aid to the insurgent peasants of the neighboring region, and therefore being annihilated in individual battles one after another by armies which in most cases counted hardly one-tenth of the total number of the insurgent masses – all this must be quite clear to the reader from this presentation. The armistices and the agreements concluded by individual groups with their enemies also constituted acts of betrayal of the common cause, and the grouping of the various troops not according to the greater or smaller community of their own actions, the only possible grouping, but according to the community of the special adversary to whom they succumbed, is striking proof of the degree of the mutual alienation of the peasants in various provinces.

The analogy with the movement of 1848-50 is here also apparent. In 1848 as in the Peasant War, the interests of the opposition classes clashed with each other and each acted of its own accord. The bourgeoisie, developed sufficiently not to tolerate any longer the feudal and bureaucratic absolutism, was not powerful enough to subordinate the claims of other classes to its own interests. The proletariat, too weak to be able to count on skipping the bourgeois period and immediately conquering power for itself, had, still under absolutism, tasted too well the sweetness of bourgeois government, and was generally far too developed to identify for one moment its own emancipation with the emancipation of the bourgeoisie. The mass of the nation, small bourgeois artisans and peasants, were left in the lurch by their nearest and natural allies, the bourgeoisie, because they were too revolutionary, and partly by the proletariat because they were not sufficiently advanced. Divided in itself, this mass of the nation achieved nothing, while opposing their fellow opponents on the right and the left. As to provincial narrow-mindedness, it could hardly have been greater in 1525 among the peasants than it was among the classes participating in the movement of 1848. The hundred local revolutions as well as the hundred local reactions following them and completed without hindrance, the retention of the split into numerous small states — all this speaks loud enough indeed. He who, after the two German revolutions of 1525 and 1848, and their results, still dreams of a federated republic, belongs in a house for the insane.

Still, the two revolutions, that of the Sixteenth Century and that of 1848-50, are, in spite of all analogies, materially different from each other. The revolution of 1848 bespeaks, if not the progress of Germany, the progress of Europe.

Who profited by the revolution of 1525? The princes. Who profited by the revolution of 1848? The big princes, Austria and Prussia. Behind the princes of 1525 there stood the lower middle-class of the cities, held chained by means of taxation. Behind the big provinces of 1850, there stood the modern big bourgeoisie, quickly subjugating them by means of the State debt. Behind the big bourgeoisie stand the proletarians.

The revolution of 1525 was a local German affair. The English, French, Bohemians and Hungarians had already gone through their peasant wars when the Germans began theirs. If Germany was decentralised, Europe was so to a much greater extent. The revolution of 1848 was not a local German affair, it was one phase of a great European movement. The moving forces throughout the period of its duration were not confined to the narrow limits of one individual country, not even to the limits of one-quarter of the globe. In fact, the countries which were the arena of the revolution were least active in producing it. They were more or less unconscious raw materials without will of their own. They were molded in the course of movement in which the entire world participated, a movement which under existing social conditions may appear to us as an alien power, but which, in the end, is nothing but our own. This is why the revolution of 1848-50 could not end in the way that the revolution of 1525 ended.