rebel peasants in Waldenburg Castle, 5 April 1848

The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels


The preceding lines were written over four years ago, but they are valid also at present. What was true after Sadowa and the partition of Germany is being confirmed also after Sedan and the erection of the Holy German Empire of Prussian nationality. Little indeed are the "world shaking" activities of the States in the realm of so-called big politics in a position to change the trend of historic development.

What these grand activities of the States are in a position to accomplish is to hasten the tempo of historic movement. In this respect, the originators of the above-mentioned "world-shaking" events have made involuntary successes which to themselves appear highly undesirable, but which, however, they must take into the bargain, for better or worse.

Already the war of 1866 had shaken the old Prussia to its foundations. After 1848 it was difficult to bring the rebellious industrial element of the western provinces, bourgeois as well as proletarian, under the old discipline. Still, somehow, this was accomplished, and the interests of the Junkers of the eastern provinces, together with those of the army, again became dominant in the State. In 1866 almost all the northwest of Germany became Prussian. Besides the incurable moral injury to the Prussian crown, by the fact that it had swallowed up three other crowns by the grace of God, the centre of gravity of the monarchy had moved considerably westward. The four million Rhinelanders and Westphalians were reinforced, first, by four million Germans annexed through the North German Alliance directly, and then by six million annexed indirectly. In 1870, however, eight million southwest Germans were added, so that, in the "new monarchy," the fourteen and a half million old Prussians (all the six East Elbian provinces, among them, two million Poles) were opposed by twenty-five million who had long outgrown the old Prussian junker feudalism. So it happened that the very victories of the Prussian army displaced the entire foundation of the Prussian State edifice; the junker dominance became ever more intolerable, even for the government itself. At the same time, however, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the workers made inevitable by the impetuous growth of industry, relegated to the background the struggle between Junkers and bourgeoisie, so that the inner social foundations of the old State suffered a complete transformation. Ever since 1840, the condition making possible the existence of the slowly rotting monarchy was the struggle between nobility and bourgeoisie, wherein the monarchy retained equilibrium. From the moment, however, when it was no more a question of protecting the nobility against the onslaught of the bourgeoisie, but of protecting all propertied classes against the onslaught of the working-class, the absolute monarchy had to turn to that form of state which was expressly devised for this specific purpose – the Bonapartist monarchy. This change of Prussia towards Bonapartism I have discussed in another place (The Housing Question). What I did not stress there, and what is very important in this connection, is that this change was the greatest progress made by Prussia after 1848, which only shows how backward Prussia was in point of modern development. It is a fact that the Prussian State still was a semi-feudal State, whereas Bonapartism is, at all events, a modern form of state which presupposes the abolition of feudalism. Thus Prussia must decide to do away with its numerous remnants of feudalism, to sacrifice its junkerdom as such. This, naturally, is being done in the mildest possible form, and under the tune of the favourite melody, "Always slowly forward." An example of such "reform" work is the notorious organisation of districts, which, removing the feudal privileges of the individual junker in relation to his estate, restores them as special privileges of the big landowners in relation to the entire district. The substance remains, it being only translated from the feudal into the bourgeois dialect. The old Prussian junker is forcibly being transformed into something akin to the English squire. He need not have offered so much resistance, because the one is just as foolish as the other.

Thus it was the peculiar feat of Prussia not only to culminate, by the end of this century, her bourgeois revolution begun in 1808-13 and continued in 1848, but to culminate it in the present form of Bonapartism. If everything goes well, and the world remains nice and quiet, and we all become old enough, we can still perhaps live to see – about 1900 – the government of Prussia actually relinquishing all feudal institutions, and Prussia finally reaching a point where France stood in 1792.

Speaking positively, the abolition of feudalism means the introduction of bourgeois conditions. In the measure as the privileges of the nobility fall, legislation becomes more and more bourgeois. Here, again, we meet with the chief point at issue, the attitude of the German bourgeoisie towards the government. We have seen that the government is compelled to introduce these slow and petty reforms, but in its relation to the bourgeoisie, the government portrays these small concessions as sacrifices in favour of the bourgeoisie, as concessions yielded by the crown with difficulty and pain, and for which the bourgeoisie must, in return, yield something to he government. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, though quite aware of this state of affairs, allows itself to be fooled. This is the source of the tacit agreement which is the basis of all Reichstag and Chamber debates. On the one hand, the government reforms the laws at a snail pace tempo in the interests of the bourgeoisie; it removes the impediments to industry emanating from the multiplicity of small states; it creates unity of coinage, of measures and weights; it gives freedom of trade, etc.; it grants the freedom of movement; it puts the working power of Germany at the unlimited disposal of capital; it creates favourable conditions for trade and speculation. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie leaves in the hands of the government all actual political power; it votes taxes, loans and recruits; it helps to frame all new reform laws in a way that the old police power over undesirable individuals shall remain in full force. The bourgeoisie buys its gradual social emancipation for the price of immediate renunciation of its own political power. Naturally, the motive which makes such agreement acceptable to the bourgeoisie is not the fear of the government but the fear of the proletariat.

Miserable as the bourgeoisie appears in the political realm, it cannot be denied that as far as industry and commerce are concerned, the bourgeoisie fulfils its historic duty. The growth of industry and commerce mentioned already in the introduction to the second edition has been going on with even greater vigour. What has taken place in the Rhenish-Westphalian industrial region since 1869, is unprecedented for Germany, and it reminds one of the rapid growth in the English manufacturing districts at the beginning of this century. The same thing will happen in Saxony and Upper Silesia, in Berlin, Hanover, and the southern States. At last we have world trade, a really big industry, and a really modern bourgeoisie. But we have also had a real crisis, and we have a truly mighty proletariat. For the future historian of Germany, the battle roar of 1859-64 on the field of Spicheren, Mars la Tour, Sedan, and the rest, will be of much less importance than the unpretentious, quiet, and constantly forward-moving development of the German proletariat. Immediately after 1870, the German workers stood before a grave trial – the Bonapartist war provocation and its natural sequence, the general national enthusiasm in Germany. The German workers did not allow themselves to be illusioned for a moment. Not a trace of national chauvinism made itself manifest among them. In the midst of a mania for victory, they remained cool, demanding "equitable peace with the French Republic and no annexations," and not even the state of siege was in a position to silence them. No glory of battle, no phraseology of German "imperial magnificence" attracted them. Their sole aim remained the liberation of the entire European proletariat. We may say with full assurance that in no country have the workers stood such a difficult test with such splendid results.

The state of siege of wartime was followed by trials for treason, lèse majesté, and contempt of officers and by ever increasing police atrocities practised in peace time. The Volksstaat had three or four editors in prison simultaneously; the other papers, in the same ratio. Every known party speaker had to face court at least once a year, and was usually convicted. Deportations, confiscations, suppressions of meetings rapidly followed one another, but all to no avail. The place of every prisoner or deportee was immediately filled by another. For one suppressed gathering, two others were substituted, wearing out arbitrary police power in one locality after the other by endurance and strict conformity to the law. Persecution defeated its own purpose. Far from breaking the workers' party or even bending it, it attracted ever new recruits, and strengthened the organisation. In their struggle against the authorities and the individual bourgeois, the workers manifested an intellectual and moral superiority. Particularly in their conflicts with the employers of labour did they show that they, the workers, were now the educated class, while the capitalists were dupes. In their fights, a sense of humour prevailed, showing how sure they were of their cause, and how superior they felt. A struggle thus conducted on historically prepared soil must yield great results. The success of the January (1874) elections stood out, unique in the history of the modern labour movement, and the astonishment aroused by them throughout Europe was perfectly deserved.

The German workers have two important advantages compared with, the rest of Europe. First, they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe; second, they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called "educated" people of Germany have totally lost. Without German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific Socialism (the only scientific Socialism extant) would never have come into existence. Without a sense for theory, scientific Socialism would have never become blood and tissue of the workers. What an enormous advantage this is, may be seen on the one hand from the indifference of the English labour movement towards all theory, which is one of the reasons why it moves so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions; on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion created by Proudhonism in its original form among the Frenchmen and Belgians, and in its caricature form, as presented by Bakunin, among the Spaniards and Italians.

The second advantage is that, chronologically speaking, the Germans were the last to appear in the labour movement. In the same manner as German theoretical Socialism will never forget that it rests on the shoulders of Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, the three who, in spite of their fantastic notions and Utopianism, belonged to the most significant heads of all time and whose genius anticipated numerous things the correctness of which can now be proved in a scientific way, so the practical German labour movement must never forget that it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements, that it had utilised their experience, acquired at a heavy price, and that for this reason it was in a position to avoid their mistakes which in their time were unavoidable. Without the English trade unions and the French political workers' struggles preceding the German labour movement, without the mighty impulse given by the Paris Commune, where would we now be?

It must be said to the credit of the German workers that they have utilised the advantages of their situation with rare understanding. For the first time in the history of the labour movement the struggle is being so conducted that its three sides, the theoretical, the political and the practical economical (opposition to the capitalists), form one harmonious and well-planned entity. In this concentric attack, as it were, lies the strength and invincibility of the German movement.

It is due to this advantageous situation on the one hand, to the insular peculiarities of the British, and to the cruel suppression of the French movements on the other, that for the present moment the German workers form the vanguard of the proletarian struggle. How long events will allow them to occupy this post of honour cannot be foreseen. But as long as they are placed in it, let us hope that they will discharge their duties in the proper manner. It is the specific duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer understanding of the theoretical problems, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old conception of the world, and constantly to keep in mind that Socialism, having become a science, demands the same treatment as every other science – it must be studied. The task of the leaders will be to bring understanding, thus acquired and clarified, to the working masses, to spread it with increased enthusiasm, to close the ranks of the party organisations and of the labour unions with ever greater energy. The votes cast in favour of the Socialists last January may represent considerable strength, but they still are far from being the majority of the German working class; and encouraging as may be the successes of the propaganda among the rural population, more remains to be done in this field. The slogan is not to flinch in the struggle. The task is to wrest from the enemy's hands one seat after the other, one electoral district after the other. In the first place, however, it is necessary to retain a real international spirit which permits of no chauvinism, which joyfully greets each new step of the proletarian movement, no matter in which nation it is made. If the German workers proceed in this way, they may not march exactly at the head of the movement – it is not in the interest of the movement that the workers of one country should march at the head of all-but they will occupy an honourable place on the battle line, and they will stand armed for battle when other unexpected grave trials or momentous events will demand heightened courage, heightened determination, and the will to act.

London, July 1, 1874.