The last, and by far the most formidable, of the peasant wars in Europe began in Germany in the autumn of 1524, and broke out into open revolt in the spring of 1525. The general causes of this serious upheaval were much the same as those of the Jacquerie in 1358 and the English Peasant Rising in 1381. But there was no defeat and consequent rapine and devastation by the disbanded soldiery as happened in France after the rout of Poitiers to rouse the peasantry; nor were there such obvious reasons for discontent and forcible resistance as brought about the rising under Wat Tyler and his fellow-leaders in England. On the other hand, nowhere was the continuous oppression of the feudal nobles and the knights more keenly felt than in Central Europe; and the complaints of the peasantry, with their frequent local spasmodic efforts at emancipation from the outrageous tyranny and cruelty, prove that feudalism had ceased to have any “good side” to its brutality, so far as the mass of the people were concerned. Raids, robbery and spoliation by the higher and lower order of landowners had become a portion of the people’s everyday life. There was nothing to restrain the nobles. Appeal by the peasants to the Emperor and courts against this systematic plunder was useless. Such proceedings were regarded as essential to maintain the due standing in court and in castle of all who were raised, by lineal descent or Imperial favour, above the traders and the common herd. Nor did these landed aristocrats and manorial magnificos confine their piracies and lootings to their own or other people’s tenantry. Up and down the Rhine and other important rivers, along the principal trade routes by land – highroads they could not be called – were situated fortified castles, whose ruins, or restored battlements, remain to this day, whence the owners sallied forth with their retainers to exact toll, ransom, or, if need were, complete surrender of their goods, from any traffickers or merchants who passed that way. They contributed part of the risks of home commerce, and their exactions from all sections of the community, directly and indirectly, did much to keep prices at a high level.
Details are not wanting to show how the barons of Central Europe rivalled their fellow-nobles in other lands in their abominable treatment of their serfs and peasants. Perhaps they did not resort quite so frequently as the worst type of French aristocrat to the horrible punishment of cutting off the feet of their serfs when they stood out against ruinous seizure of their crops, nor did they indulge so often in the extremes of lustful cruelty familiar in the annals of other aristocracies; though i [?] this partial limitation of their brutality is of doubtful itude. [?] But in the outrageous treatment of their defenceless people for trifling offences nothing ever exceeded the infamy of the German nobles. Muttering against the lord, accidental failure to accord to him the most degrading evidence of servility, dire [?] to pay in kind or in money the demands of the feudal landowner, were avenged by imprisonment in frightful dungeons, by torture relentlessly repeated, and often by death. Every restriction imposed upon fishing, capture or shooting of game, gathering of wood was rigorously enforced. Customs telling in favour of the tenantry were frequently disregarded, and increased gratuitious service under the feudal corvée was introduced wherever possible. As elsewhere, also, the serfs and peasants were mulcted in heavy fines, or in such penalties as the lord thought proper to enforce on the marriage of their daughters, a power bitterly resented in every country where it was exercised.
As to the inhabitants of the townships, they also had their anccs [?] against the greater nobles from whom they had recently obtained their municipal rights; while the gradual destruction of democratic control in the trade guilds was increasing the influence of the rich masters and traders and putting the free journeymen and craftsmen into the position of dependent wage-earners, with less and less possibility of becoming masters of the craft.
Thus there was plenty of ground for dissatisfaction and resistance in small towns – all German towns were then really small – and country alike. The economic and social antagonisms were never greater; and, at the same time, the extension of the art of printing and the growth of public discussion on religious and secular matters, even among the common people, helped to spread the general discontent.
Other causes are given for the rising at this particular date, in addition to those recited above, which are commonly recognised. The whole feudal system was being shaken, owing to its incapacity to adapt itself to the new forms of industry being introduced, to the unobserved but steady improvements in agriculture, to the substitution of money payments for barter in exchange and in payment of dues, to the extension of trade, the scarcity of the precious metals, and the commencement of production and trade for the world market. Yet it is easy to attach too much importance to nearly the whole of these modifications in the Central Europe of 1525. No doubt the Hanseatic League and Germany generally were beginning to feel the influence on trade of the discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, the diversion of Eastern commerce from the great Mediterranean seaports to the Atlantic by the Ottoman Turks, and the extension of trade with Flanders and England as well as with France and Spain. But that this expansion had got far enough to affect seriously, either directly or indirectly, the position of the peasants who formed the backbone of the insurrection – for Germany produced no Etienne Marcel and had no Paris to form a centre of political influence – may fairly be regarded as unlikely. Nor can it be confidently urged that the feudalism of Germany, taken as a whole, was nearly so far advanced towards its decay and downfall as the intellectual activity then being exhibited might lead us to suppose. There were changes going on which eventually shook the whole edifice. But they were working even more slowly than elsewhere, and continued to do so for generations afterwards. Serfdom did not come to an end in Germany till 1811; and Germany, even in 1920, for all its Republic, is the most feudalist nation in Europe. The Junkers of Germany, living and working upon their great estates, detestable as they are in all national and international relations, are still feudal magnates modernised, with the resources of science at their disposal. There has been no French nor even English revolution in Germany, and the reason for this may be traced back to the sixteenth century.
There is probably more in the contention that the great rise of Protestantism in Germany, the growing revolt against Catholicism, then in its most corrupt and criminal period of Roman supremacy, had some effect, like Lollardism and “the hedge priests” in England, in rousing a new spirit in the people. It is certain that the most widely spread agitatory literature, and the most vigorous section of the propagandists, adopted a strong Biblical and religious tone. Curiously enough, however, the demand for the salvation of the individual hereafter took precedence of the forcible attempt to secure individual well-being here. How far the one really anticipated or produced the other it is difficult to say. The strict school of economic determinism is of opinion that the whole Protestant movement, in its widest sense, was a purely psychological expression of social and economic striving for individual emancipation below. It may be so, but it is difficult to descry this exclusively material influence at work to produce the revolt against the domination of Rome in religion from Huss and others onwards. Moreover, there is the very clearest historic proof that in different countries, as well as in parts of the same country, Catholicism, when apparently defeated and at its last gasp, not only retained its hold upon territory it was still controlling, but even regained ground previously lost. This ecclesiastical success was achieved, although the economic and social movement went on, there as elsewhere, in the same way as before.
But that is aside from the matter in hand. The truth appears to be that in all great historic periods the two elements of progress are so closely allied that it is impossible to separate them. As is well pointed out by Bax in his history of this same Peasants’ War, every new religion partly absorbs, and partly is absorbed by the preceding dominant creed. So also the economic progress goes on below, only influenced at special times by the form of religion favoured above. But the fact that the peasants in Germany took not only their phraseology, but even some of their revolutionary proposals from the Jewish sacred and secular literature embodied in the Bible, as many of the English peasants did in their revolts, and the English middle class did during its revolution a hundred years and more later, only proves that mankind can turn its most effective and popular theological literature to immediate social use.
Unquestionably the success which the peasants achieved at first against their lords and landowners was largely due to the absence of the armed and trained men of the nobility, who were following Emperor Charles V in his campaign against Francis I, which ended in his crushing defeat of the French king at Pavia. There was also the hereditary contempt for the serfs and peasants which led the aristocracy and knighthood to believe that they were something less than men, and that, therefore, in spite of the numerous local risings for revenge which preceded the greater outbreak, the attack could never be really serious. They were mistaken. If there had been any organised and centralised control of the local risings, had the peasants found any really capable military leader, such as Götz von Berlichingen might have been, they would have done much more than they did. But, above all, what was needed was a combination between town and country, a consolidation of political and rural action all round. Yet for this the time was not ripe, and the lack of comprehension, not to say the antagonism between the peasants and the growing class of indigent townsfolk, was a weakness throughout.
The first important rising occurred in the Black Forest in August, 1524. As elsewhere, the peasants found a local leader of some military experience. Clearly the whole country was ready for revolt, since the unrest spread so rapidly that by the end of October the peasants had a formidable force which induced the magnates of the district to negotiate seriously with them and to promise certain concessions. The demands of the peasants were extremely moderate, dealing only with obvious injustice and oppression relating to the land. All the suggestions of reform on the side of the lords were the merest pretence, put forward to gain time to concentrate their own forces, and collect a body of free companies and other mercenaries to co-operate with them. The nobility never had any intention of giving way on any point; and they relied upon bad faith and treachery, as well as organised force to retain their rights of oppression over their serfs and villeins. In March, 1525, the peasants formulated their famous twelve articles,drawn up by a minister,and forming a curious mixture of Biblical aspiration and simple claims for decent treatment. These twelve articles were accepted in their original form all over Germany. But, divested of the theological phraseology, they were thus summarised by the peasants of one district:
Gospel shall be preached according to the true faith.
There is nothing here of the revolutionary and idealist programme which soon after came to the front, as the towns began to have their say in the matter. Men such as Hipland, Weigand, Gaismayer, Pfeiffer and, above all, Münzer, had far wider projects, religious and political, in view than these simple agrarian reforms. They were, in fact, to use the phrase of a much later time, Christian Socialists, or socialisers of a theological turn of mind, who desired to institute that Kingdom of God upon earth, which varies so remarkably in conception according to the idea of the divinity obtaining at the time, and the material conditions which seem to be required for its realisation. Men and women, however, peasants and proletarians alike, have always been found ready and even eager to sacrifice themselves for what is no more than a genial hallucination. It certainly was so in Germany at this period. But there were others who naturally, however hopelessly, struck with all their force at the enemies of the common people; especially after it had been discovered that the ruling caste, as has been invariably the case throughout history, rarely or never kept faith with their subordinates in revolt. In some cases members of the nobility and their families were quite justly put to death for their crimes, and in many cases their castles, which were no better than dens of thieves and robbers, were looted and burnt to the ground. But taken as a whole, and considering the intolerable outrages – blinding of eyes, torture of every kind, and ruthless massacre where convenient – beside the tyranny to which they had been subjected, it is wonderful that the peasants and the townsfolk were so moderate in their treatment of their foes during the early months of 1525, when the movement was nearly everywhere successful. The peasants had been fortunate enough to secure an able and apparently honest general, in the person of the Knight Florian Geyer, whose policy in the town of Rothenburg was completely successful and brought over the whole people to the side of the peasants. But there was still no thorough and permanent discipline among the insurrectionary forces. The peasants everywhere miscalculated their strength, and in the absence of competent leaders ran wholly unwarranted risks. In short, notwithstanding their victories at the beginning of the movement, and the rallying of Mulhausen and other towns to the side of the “Evangelical Brotherhood,” with the peasants generally, it is now easy to see that they could not have gained a permanent victory over their hereditary enemies and that the townspeople were as incapable as themselves.
Moreover, with the exception of Rohrbach and Pfeiffer, they appear to have found no thoroughly determined civilian leaders, while they did not entrust one of their military chiefs, Geyer, with supreme command; and Götz von Berlichingen, whom they forced into their service, betrayed them at the first convenient opportunity. The failure of the attack upon the important and to them practically impregnable fortress of Frauenburg, and the collapse of their forces at Mulhausen, accompanied and followed by other disasters all over Germany, discouraged the whole movement; while the return of the Imperial soldiery from Italy and the enlistment of ferocious mercenaries from the east of Europe, as well as of similar but possibly less butcherly bodies close at hand, put the nobles, with their Suabian League and ruthless general, in possession of irresistible forces. They used them in similar merciless fashion to that practised by their brethren of the same class in France and England. Those of the peasants and townsfolk who were massacred wholesale with the utmost brutality, men, women and children, came off best. Details of what befell the others who were taken alive, especially those against whom the nobility and chivalry entertained special animosity, rival the tales of Red Indian torments. Breaking on the wheel, roasting slowly alive, the application of “the question,” in its most horrible and lingering form, were common methods of high-minded vengeance of the same character as those practised by Richard II and his barons, Charles the Bad, the Black Prince and other warriors of renown. Few prisoners underwent even the form of trial, and fully twenty thousand people in a single district, many of whom had taken no part whatever in the rising, were, according to the records of the time, slaughtered in twenty-four hours, often under circumstances of inconceivable atrocity. The class war, as then carried on by the chivalry of Germany, was as frightful in every way as the vengeance taken on the defeated slaves and peasants under the Roman Republic in Italy and Sicily and in Gaul. Mercy was unknown. Even now in Rothenburg the people point to the channels down which blood poured in streams when the day of the lords in that unfortunate township had fully come. It is, in short, impossible to exaggerate the crimes committed at the expense of the common folk by the Junkers of that day.
What adds to the sadness of this terrible story is the fact that Martin Luther, his associate Melanchthon and their friends, after having done much to adjure the peasants to overthrow their masters – Luther abusing the latter with a fury at least equal to that which he used towards his religious opponents – turned round upon the defeated peasants, and hounded the German nobility on to their monstrous cruelties. The hatred he showed towards these unfortunate serfs and peasants entirely destroys his reputation for humanity. There was no real desire on his part to raise mankind in this life. Melanchthon was even worse. Not content with aiding his friend of Wittenberg in his denunciation of the weak who did the work of the world while they were living, he actually went out of his way to misrepresent and vilify their leaders when they were dead. This proves that, with Protestant and religious subversionist, just as with Catholic reactionist, class goes for even more than creed. Holy men of all religions have been found on the side of the most ruthless persecutors of the people.
But much as we may detest the frightful deeds of the Duke of Saxony and the scarcely less frightful incitations to murder of Luther, no amount of righteous indignation can conceal from us the truth that the peasants’ war of Germany failed, not because of the ruthlessness of the nobles, the lack of discipline of the peasants and poorer townsmen, or the bitter animosity against them of the men of God. It failed because the class in revolt had not reached the stage where its economic and social emancipation was possible. Had they won in the field, what would they have done in the Council Chamber? Their social defeat would only have been delayed a few years from their sheer incapability of holding their ground in economics. Their insurrection was in every way but that fully justifiable.
On the other hand, we must admit that the terrible manner in which the rising was crushed did help to throw back the social development of Germany, and this was still further crippled by the Thirty Years’ War and its widespread devastations. The emancipation of the serfs of Germany was hindered, not hastened, by the force of the peasants at the beginning and the greater force of the nobles at the end. Yet, convinced as we may be of this law of unseen economic advance in all Western communities, that anticipation of social events by armed action cannot give freedom to the class whose members have not been prepared for the transformation by changes irrespective of their volition or consciousness, nevertheless we cannot withhold our sympathy and admiration from these uneducated and untrained champions of the people who, in England, France, Germany and other countries, kept alive, by their courage and self-sacrifice, the aspirations of mankind towards liberty in days of misery and despair. Their defeats made ready the road to complete victory generations or centuries after they themselves had been slaughtered.
Last updated on 7.7.2006