Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 4
The German Reformation and Thomas Münzer

VII. The Origin of the Great Peasant War

We have already had occasion to speak of the antagonisms which led to the peasant wars, but it now becomes necessary to point out how the position of the German peasantry at the beginning of the sixteenth century differed from that of their predecessors.

The period of the Hussite Wars may be fairly considered as approximately the line of demarcation at which the decline of the peasantry began, not only at different periods and in isolated localities, but universally.

We see the principal cause of this in the growth of capital, and in the autocratic power of princes with which it was allied.

The inevitable consequence of the development of production and trade in commodities was the increase of capital: Capital, and above all commercial capital, requires a strong government to ensure the home market and to make competition in the world’s emporiums possible. Hence the capitalists supported the development of autocratic princely power, with its two great tools, bureaucracy and mercenary troops. They assisted the princes in their conflicts with the undisciplined masses not with their persons, but rather with their purses, while the latter on their part sought to maintain their hard-won freedom and rights; the nobles and the Church being ranged on one side and the peasants and petty townsmen on the other. In this struggle it was very much to the advantage of the princes and capitalists that the antagonistic classes themselves thus capitalists stood in sharp opposition to each other, and were in a state of embittered conflict.

Capitalists and princes managed to make all these classes more and more dependent on them. Every one sought to throw off his own burden, which thus fell finally with redoubled weight on the lowest ranks of the people; i.e., the city proletarians and the peasants, these forming the great mass of the population. The revolution in prices increased the effect of these burdens.

But while the pressure on the lower classes was augmented, their power of resistance was at the same time diminished. If the position of the peasants themselves was improved in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they did not owe it to the flourishing condition of the towns, particularly the numerous small country towns, in which they found a support against the common enemy. During the fifteenth century, in Germany, the towns fell more and more into dependence on the princes, their independence being finally lost by the end of the century. The comparatively small number which had managed to guard their freedom were mostly large cities, the ruling classes of which had themselves taken the most active interest in the peasant exploitation. These republican cities (and among them Nurenberg was by far the most important) were as much in favour of the princes as Prague had been during the Hussite Wars; but the small town-bourgeois had been the backbone of democracy, and in proportion as these lost their independence the democratic parties lost their strength also.

But the modification of town life made the position of the peasants worse in yet another way during the fifteenth century. Till the fourteenth century, the towns had been the places of refuge which stood open to the peasantry. This compelled the landowners, if they did not wish to lose their labourers, to attach the peasants to themselves; when possible by force, but where force would have failed by kind treatment.

All this was now changed. In the fifteenth century the closing of the guilds against the far too great influx of labourers became more general. This led to the oppression not only of the unorganised town proletariat, but of the peasantry likewise. The path to prosperity in the towns being thus closed to them, it is not surprising that antagonisms should spring up between the petty citizens and the towns and the peasantry, sometimes indeed bridged over by alliances against their common enemies – the Church, the nobles, princes, capitalists – alliances which, however, made their friendship even then a very cool one.

The more the towns ceased to be places of refuge for the peasantry, the less necessity there was for the landowners to be careful of them, for they felt they had a hold on them, since they had nothing to gain in the towns and were not completely destitute in the country. The towns were becoming more and more closed even to the proletarians. A country proletariat now came into existence, which was increased by the diminution and dispersion of the feudal retainers, a natural consequence of the advance into the country of the production of commodities, and the thirst for gold connected with it. The reigning princes promoted this advance wherever they could do so, in order to lessen the independence of the nobles, which was a danger to them.

But the development of production in commodities gave also a greater value to the land; on the one side prompting the country communes to be exclusive, and on the other side causing the landowners to lay claim to and appropriate the common property of the commune as their own private possession.

Let us now consider what all this means. The places of refuge for landless people became closed; at the same time the number of landless people was increased by the natural growth of the population, by the dispersion of the retainers of the nobility, and by the ever-growing burden on the peasantry through State taxation, demands of landlords and the interest of usurers. Hence we cannot wonder that the country proletariat rapidly augmented.

Moreover, it was chiefly the ragged proletariat from which sprang beggars and swindlers, as well as robbers and soldiers.

In the fourteenth century the mercenaries had still been to a large extent the younger sons of peasants, seeking for adventure and booty, who returned to their peasant condition after a few years of military service they shared the class interests of their kin, and were. therefore not available for military service against the peasantry – at least in their own country. After their return from war, they augmented the number of peasants capable of bearing arms. In the fifteenth century the ragged proletariat became more and more prominent among the soldiery; the unclassed, so to speak, who no longer recognised any class-interests, but went through thick and thin for their masters, and were everything to every one – so long as they were paid.

The military capacity for resistance on the part of the peasants must have been diminished by this mercenary spirit and lack of class-feeling, and even to a greater degree by the development which had taken place in the art of war. We have already seen how the Taborites revolutionised this art, and it developed still further in the line adopted by them, for it became increasingly important to exercise the population in the use of weapons, and to train bodies of men in skilful evolutions, in discipline, and in concerted and prompt simultaneous operations of the separate divisions of the army. These new tactics had made democracy invincible in the hands of the Taborites, and now determined the military superiority of the opponents of democracy. The regular soldier was alone in a position to practise these tactics, for the peasants and petty townsmen had no time at their disposal during the insurrections occurring in the second half of the fifteenth and in the sixteenth centuries, in which to train a standing army in their midst, at all comparable with that of the Taborites. That side therefore which could pay the regular soldier secured the victory.

The application of gunpowder to military purposes, which had made rapid strides since the Hussite Wars, operated in a similar way. Gunpowder has been called a democratic invention, because it put an end to knighthood but we cannot discover anything “democratic” in the use made of this invention. The influence of gunpowder in breaking the power of the lower nobility is often very much over-estimated, for it must not be forgotten that it helped quite as much to break up the resistance. of the peasant troops as that of the knightly armies. The economic and military bankruptcy of the lower nobility was determined before the use of fire-arms had begun to be of essential importance in the art of war. The development of fire-arms is the last link in that chain, which was forged in the sixteenth century; after that period the one thing most necessary for carrying on war was money, money – and once again, money! To purchase fire-arms for the exigencies of war and to employ them for that purpose was the privilege of the wealthy possessors of power – i.e., the great towns and the princes. They helped to cast down knighthood, not in order to favour the peasants and petty townsmen, but to afford advantages to capitalists and to uphold princely dominance.

The cost of the military overthrow of the nobles fell upon the peasantry. In the fourteenth century the noble had been hard pressed from above and from below at the same time; from above by the princes (in alliance with the middle class); from below by the peasants. Long did he seek to defend himself from both but finally he submitted to the princes, who henceforth undertook the task of keeping his peasants down. He sold his independence in order to establish his power over his people more firmly for the future.

This change in affairs was not carried out everywhere in the same way or at the same time. In North Germany, and particularly in the eastern portion of it, it was brought about much later; but in South and Central Germany the peasant felt its oppressive effects as early as the fifteenth century, and, certainly, the nearer we approach to the sixteenth century the more down-trodden he became. At the beginning of that era his position had become unbearable, according to the apprehension of those times, though it differed in many respects advantageously from that of the working classes of town and country in the present day.

The increase of rents payable in labour, kind, or money, the greater dependence on the lords of the soil, the confiscation of peasant commune property in field and wood in favour of the landlords (the confiscation of the peasant’s private property took place a little later) could not of course be carried out without violent opposition from the despoiled people. During the fifteenth century one popular insurrection followed another, and they became more frequent and more embittered the further the century advanced.

Then came the Reformation movement, which convulsed the whole nation, and united, at least temporarily, all the local antagonisms into one national class-opposition which extended over almost the whole kingdom. Now also the various peasant agitations joined in one single great movement to throw off the yoke which was crushing them to the ground – the last and most powerful of the great strainings of every nerve among the lower classes on the European continent which had taken place for centuries.

Putting England out of the question, we do not find a similarly grand movement till 1789 in France, where it took place under totally different and more favourable conditions. Irresistible as was the latter revolution, that of 1525 carried the germs of death deep within it from the very first.

With the peasantry other classes rose in arms. Society is much too complicated to make it possible for one class alone to create a great revolutionary disturbance. Nevertheless it is always one class to whose share the vanguard falls in the present day it is the proletariat: in 1789 it was the petty citizens: in 1525 the peasantry.

The allies of the latter we know already; in 1525 the same classes fought together which had assembled under the banner of the Taborites. Now, as then, a portion of the bankrupt lower nobility took their places by the side of the rebels, chiefly in prominent positions as leaders in which position some became heroes through their loyal adherence to their convictions (such as Florian Geyer), while others proved traitors (like Götz von Berlichingen). A large portion also of the town population joined the peasantry, especially in the small towns, the proletariat always being in the front rank. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the condition of German towns differed from that of the Bohemian in the beginning of the fifteenth. The cities were far more intellectually advanced, but politically they had lost much of their independence, and the proletariat was still the only trusty ally of the peasants. The trade-masters and even the trade-journeymen had been estranged from them. In 1525, therefore, the brunt of the struggle lay more on the peasantry than was the case in the Hussite Wars. The towns interfered but coldly, and the movement found no such support as was offered by Tabor a hundred years before in Bohemia. The cities actively expressed their sympathy for the peasantry, not in military but in intellectual relations by influencing their programme.

On the other hand, the insurgents, of 1525 found allies which the Taborites did not have – namely, the miners. These men lived and worked together in great numbers, possessed arms and knew how to make use of them. They were trained in warlike evolutions, and accustomed to be kept under discipline. From a military point of view they stood at a far higher level than all the other ranks of the neighbouring classes of their day, and wherever they entered into any conflict with energy the insurrection remained, in a military sense, invincible.

During the course of the year 1524 every one who was in close touch with the peasants saw clearly that matters must come to a violent crisis, and to a man like Münzer this could not remain a secret. Every peasant had had the same experience as he with shouts of joy they had hailed Luther, who had allowed himself to be borne along on the tide of popularity, stirring up the expectation of all classes. But when the common enemy appeared to be vanquished; when the Pope and his protector, the Emperor, had shown their own impotence in Worms, 1521 when the old authority was overturned, and the question was how to bring about the new order of things when class-antagonisms showed themselves more strongly; when it became necessary to decide the question who should appropriate the fruits of Church reform, the lower or the higher classes – then Luther could come to no decision so long as he was not compelled to do so. From the very first the only determined stand he took was against the communistic enthusiasts; but he resisted every attempt of the lower classes to derive material benefit from the Reformation, by favouring each step taken by the Princes in this direction. They were to become the owners of the Church property, not the peasants. “It is not our business to attack the monasteries,” he writes, “but to draw hearts away from them. When, then, churches and monasteries are lying deserted, let the reigning princes do with them what they please.” [15]

In 1524 it became more and more evident that the lower classes had nothing to expect from Luther’s Reformation. Only through their own power and an armed force would they be able to free themselves from the yoke which was weighing so heavily on their shoulders.



VIII. Münzer’s Preparations for the Insurrection

As soon as it became clear that nothing remained to the lower classes but a resort to arms against all exploiters, revolutionary as well as reactionary, no one was more zealous in preparing for the revolt than Münzer, whose circumspection, energy, and intrepidity, made him the central figure in the revolutionary movement of the exploited classes in Thuringia, and gave him an extensive influence far beyond the borders of that province.

The activity of the man can be measured by the accusations against him which poured into the ears of the reigning Princes of Saxony. For example, a certain Friedrich Witzleben complained that his dependents in Wendelstein, Wollmerstadt, and Rosleben had sent delegates to Münzer, asking his permission for the formation of a league against their master, on the ground that he had prevented their attending the Münzer form of Divine worship. Münzer gave his consent, and very probably showed them how to organise themselves. He managed the organisation of the numerous and warlike Mansfeld miners, and sent a letter to the subjects of Duke George of Saxony at Sangershausen, in which he urged them to stand fast to the Gospel (i.e., by the democratic cause), and to resist its enemies.

Münzer also addressed himself to the Orlamünders, with a view to forming an alliance with Karlstadt, who occupied a position similar to his own at Allstätt. But Karlstadt and his followers belonged to a party who deprecated all violent measures. In a reply, written by the people of Orlamünda “to those at Allstätt”, stating how “Christians should fight” (printed at Wittenberg, 1524), Karlstadt says: “We will not have recourse to swords and spears; rather should we be armed against the enemy with the armour of faith. You write that we should join you, and make an alliance with you. Were we to do so, we should no longer be free Christians, but dependent on men. Such an act would raise a cry of ‘Death to the Gospel!’ and the tyrants would exult and say, ‘These fellows boast of being God’s elect, yet form leagues among themselves, as if God were not strong enough to defend them!’”

While this letter was of no avail to Karlstadt, it really amounted to a denunciation of Münzer, whom Luther put in the same category as the Orlarmünd agitator.

The most serious incident, however, was the betrayal to the Princes by Nicol Rugkert of a secret league in Allstätt, instituted by the agitator. Melancthon informs us that “Münzer kept a register of all who had bound themselves to him, and had sworn to punish unchristian Princes and to establish a Christian government” The league had adherents outside of Allstätt for example, in the Mansfeld valley, Sangerhausen, and even in Zwickau. In his Confession, Münzer sets forth the aim of the organisation to be “An alliance against those who persecute the Gospel.” In regard to what was to be understood by “the Gospel,” he asserts: “It is an article of our creed, and one which we wish to realise, that all things are in common [omnia sunt communia], and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the several necessities of all. Any prince, count, or baron who, after being earnestly reminded of this truth, shall be unwilling to accept it, is to be beheaded or hanged.”

We do not know to what extent the Saxon Princes were acquainted with the aims of the league at that time; but what they did learn was enough, in conjunction with other indictments, to make them summon the dangerous instigator to Weimar; a step to which Luther’s animosity to Münzer was an additional incentive.

Münzer was fearless enough to obey the summons, and go to Weimar on the 1st of August. Duke John submitted him to an examination, from which, however, he was dismissed unharmed, to await the Duke’s final decision.

But Münzer did not remain for this, as his position in Allstätt had already become untenable. The Princes were threatening the little town with chastisement, and now the Council declared against the agitator, who fled in the night of the 7th-8th of August. He tells us in his Apology that: “When I returned home from the interrogation in Weimar, I intended to preach the earnest Word of God but the Councilmen wanted to deliver me over to the arch-enemy of the gospel; upon perceiving which my longer stay became impossible. I shook the dust from off my feet, for I saw with my own eyes that they esteemed their oath and allegiance far more highly than they did God’s Word.”

The weak renegade Melancthon endeavours here as elsewhere, to cast the odium of cowardice on Münzer. “Thomas’ high spirit,” he says, “ forsook him at that time he ran away and hid himself for six months.”

How small a part cowardice had in Münzer’s flight from Allstätt, and how little disposed he was to hide himself, are shown by the fact that he went from Allstätt direct to a new theatre of war, Mühlhausen, where we find him as early as the 15th of August. Moreover Melancthon’s statement cannot have been merely an error; for in 1525 he must have had a lively remembrance of the fright which seized Luther and his friends in 1524, when they learned that Münzer had gone to Mühlhausen.

Luther at once wrote to his confrères in that town, urging Münzer’s banishment, and asking the Council to summon the impostor and force him to declare who had authorised him to preach. “If he says that God and His Spirit have sent him, like the Apostles, then make him prove it with signs and wanders but forbid his preaching, for when God would change the natural order of things, He signifies it by all manner of miracles.” [16]

Luther had good grounds for energetically combating the communistic agitator. Not only were the signs cf the impending insurrection beginning to multiply, but Münzer was more dangerous in Mühlhausen than in Allstätt, as it was a larger town, containing about 6000 inhabitants and controlling a district of nearly 220 square kilometres. [17] Handicrafts and trade were in a very flourishing condition; woolweaving and cloth manufacture being in an advanced stage of development. “A very large quantity of cloth was woven in Mulhausen, a profitable trade being carried on with it in Russia, and in other countries in that part of the world” (Galletti, Geschichte Thuringens, p.491). The town was not only rich and powerful, but also independent of the Saxon Princes, as it was one of the few free cities still remaining in Thuringia; and if it were to fall into the hands of the communist enthusiasts, they would have a point d’appui which would make them rather dangerous.

Internal affairs were not unfavourable to a popular insurrection in the town, where the great extension of woollen manufacture for export must have produced a fertile soil for rebellious and communistic ideas. In addition to this, Miihlhausen was controlled by “an oppressive, aristocratic government. This free imperial city did not contain more than ninety-six really free burgesses, who formed the Council, and these filled its vacancies exclusively from the patrician class.” [18]

Rebellious sentiments in Mühlhausen were not limited to the urban proletarians, the suburban population and the peasants of the surrounding districts dependent on the town the guild craftsmen were also similarly disposed, although elsewhere they belonged to the privileged classes. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Reformation movement led to a series of violent uprisings among the citizens against the patrician government, in which the populace was led by Heinrich Pfeiffer, a monk who, like so many others of that period, had renounced his vows. Pfeiffer was par excellence the leader of the opposition faction among the well-to-do citizens, such as the guild-craftsmen and merchants, so far as the latter did not belong to the patricians the latter, however, were too strong to allow Pfeiffer to ignore the peasants and proletarians. He therefore addressed himself to these classes, and urged them to unite in a struggle against the town aristocracy.

Moreover Pfeiffer had another ally in the Saxon Princes, who had long craved the possession of the powerful imperial city, and whose purpose seemed to be served by its internal commotion. [19]

The rebellion was encouraged at its outset by Duke John of Saxony, although he afterwards had Pfeiffer executed as a rebel when he became inconvenient.

In spite of all these opponents, the Council must have had a strong following in the town, for the democrats did not achieve a lasting success. Pfeiffer and his partisans won their first victory in 1523, of which the spoils fell to the well-to-do citizens, who alone received a share in the municipal government, while the proletarians and petty craftsmen in the suburbs, and especially the peasants, came off empty-handed.

We are now led to inquire if this unequal distribution of the fruits of victory gave rise to a change in the disposition of the lower classes. One thing is certain the Town Council soon succeeded in banishing Pfeiffer, and Duke John in vain interceded for his return. Nevertheless before long we find him back in Mühlhausen in hot conflict with the Council, fortune smiling first on the one side, then on the other. In the midst of this struggle Münzer arrived in Mühlhausen. The Council was at that time too feeble to comply with Luther’s demands for a citation of the agitator, however willing it might have been to do so. “The honourable Council were as little pleased with Münzer as with Pfeiffer, but the populace retained him by force for he and his confederate Pfeiffer had just incited and led a rebellion against the others.” [20]

Just at this time we find Pfeiffer’s party executing a change of front to the left. They raised claims for the peasants and suburban population as well, and carried the day August 27, 1524. It is impossible to determine how far, if at all, Münzer influenced this change.

Another rupture like that of the year 1523, now began to make its appearance among the victors. In 1523 it was the peasants and suburban population who were discontented; now the burgesses, craftsmen, and tradesmen became alarmed at the peasants and proletarians, who, since Münzer’s arrival, had certainly lost none of their confidence. The burgesses sided with the Council, and as early as September 25th Pfeiffer and Münzer suffered defeat, Münzer being banished, and soon after, Pfeiffer also.

Münzer betook himself to South Germany, like so many others of political prominence in Saxony, e.g., Karlstadt, whom Luther had prevailed upon his sovereign to banish, because he had been very badly received by the Orlamünders in a tour of agitation against that reformer. Münzer’s retreat, however, did not imply even a temporary halt in the movement, but merely the search for a new field of activity. He must have been well informed of the events preparing in South Germany; for Germany (at least South and Central Germany) was at that time covered with a network of secret revolutionary societies, which were in constant intercommunication. The communistic sects in particular supplied a large number of itinerant agitators who kept the different leagues in touch with each other. From the very first establishment of Waldenses, the confidential agents of the communists (“Apostles,” “poor priests,” or whatever name they might have borne) were as a rule, and with only short interruptions, continually wandering hither and thither. The development of migratory habits among the craftsmen was an additional instrument in bringing about a closer union between these classes of society, as it was for every other class. “All migrating craftsmen belonging to the association, masters as well as journeymen, became ‘apostles’.” [21]

Hence, when Münzer repaired to South Germany, he must have been well informed of the condition of things, and have seen that an insurrection was everywhere imminent. At all events, he knew that at the end of August the peasants in Stühlingen had actually revolted, and that the insurrection had rapidly spread to the Swiss frontier. This was sufficient to induce him to go thither as soon as all scope for his activity in Saxony had ceased, beyond all hope of recovery so long as the existing conditions of government continued in that country.

He remained but a short time in Nurenberg, not (as many believe) to kindle a revolt (and he would have found partisans enough in that ancient centre of Beghardism), but only to have a tract secretly printed. Affairs in that town did not seem ripe for an insurrection.

His stay in Nurenberg is best explained by Münzer himself in a letter to Christoph N., in Eisleben. [22] The following passage shows the sad state of his circumstances at that time: “If you can,” he says, “help me towards my living expenses. But if this angers you, I will not have a farthing.” It is evident, therefore, that Münzer had not grown rich in Allstätt and Mühlhausen.

The result of his sojourn in Nurenberg is briefly given by an ancient chronicler named Johann Müllner: “A bookprinter of Nurenberg made bold to print a tract by Thomas Münzer but the Council seized all the copies, and imprisoned the journeyman, who had acted without the knowledge of his master.”

The most high and wise Council, however, by no means succeeded in getting possession of all the copies. Not only was the work circulated before the peasant rebellion, but, in spite of the war to the knife carried on against all insurrectionary writings after that rebellion, copies of this work have been preserved to this day. It is the most vehement and revolutionary of all Münzer’s writings, and is entitled Hoch verursachte Schutzrede, or Apology. [23] With his usual scorn for the prevalent servility of the theologians, he dedicates it to “The Most High First Born Prince and Almighty Lord, Jesus Christ, the gracious King of all kings, the brave Leader of all believers, my most merciful Sovereign and faithful Protector; and to his afflicted Bride, Suffering Christendom.”

After a series of attacks on Luther (Dr. Ludibrii), he goes on to say that he has summoned the Princes of Christendom to seize the sword in defence of the Gospel appealing at the same time to the Bible in justification of his summons. “Nevertheless there comes an eavesdropping gossip – ah! the sly fellow! – and says that I wished to raise a rebellion, as he had discovered from my missive to the miners. He accuses me of this, but conceals another most discreet matter to wit that I proved to the ruling powers that a whole province had the sword within their grasp, as well as the key for the unlocking, and showed from Daniel vii., Rev. vi., and Rom. xiii. 1-8, that the rulers are not masters, but servants of the sword. They should. not act as pleaseth them (Deut. xvii.), but do righteously. It is the greatest abomination on earth that no one will relieve the necessities of the poor ... Look ye! Our sovereign and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery; they take all created things into possession. The fish in the water, birds in the air, the products of the soil – all must be theirs (Isaiah v.). Moreover, they proclaim God’s command among the poor, and say: God hath ordained thou shaft not steal; but themselves do not follow it. Wherefore they oppress the poor husbandmen and craftsmen, and fleece and flay all who are in like condition (Micah iii.). If one of these poor fellows breaks the least jot or tittle of the law, he must hang for it. To all this Dr. Liar (Luther) says: ‘Amen.’ The rulers themselves make the poor man their enemy by their deeds. If they will not abolish the cause of tumult, how can things be well for any length of time? Because I say this, it follows that I must be rebellious. Verily!” The remainder of the work consists of an exceedingly bitter polemic against Luther.

After Münzer had delivered this Parthian shot at his opponent, he left Nurenberg, and went to the Swiss frontier, where he passed the winter. The exact place of his sojourn is unknown. According to Cochläus, he extended his journeyings at that time as far as Halle in Tyrol, a mining district which subsequently became the centre of Anabaptism. Many ascribe to his authorship the celebrated Twelve Articles, in which the rebel peasants formulated their demands while others even assert that he was the cause of the South German insurrection. The last two statements are certainly without foundation, and that of Cochläus is probably equally so.

The reference in Münzer’s Confession to his stay on the Swiss frontier is limited to the following passage, which probably contains all the essential particulars of his activity during that period of his career: “At Klettgau and Hegau I proposed certain Articles on the proper form of government others presented a modified form of these. They would willingly have received me as one of themselves, but, though grateful to them, I declined. I did not incite the revolt in those places, for it was already in progress. Oekolampadius and Hugowaldus requested me to preach to the people there, and I finally complied.”

Münzer, therefore, was not the author of the Twelve Articles, though he had an influence in their production. He looked upon his stay as only temporary; yet he did not remain inactive but continued to agitate “preached to the people,” as he says, or, as Bullinger expresses it: “Sowed his poisonous seed of the peasant insurrection.”

While on the Swiss frontier, he had an opportunity of meeting with the leaders of the Swiss Anabaptists; but though his relations with these men are important to that sect, they afford out little insight into the character of the Thuringian communist and his work. An account of these relations would demand an inquiry into the beginnings of the Anabaptist order. In order, therefore, to avoid undue interruption in the course of this description, we will not pursue this point further at present, but will return to it in the next chapter.



IX. The Peasant War

In the beginning of the year 1525, perhaps as early as January, Münzer left Swabia to return to Thuringia. He had a motive for doing so, for he knew that the outbreak of the movement was imminent.

Like the uprising of the peasants in England in 1381, which broke out simultaneously at all points, the insurrection in Germany was arranged to take place in all parts on the same day, the 2nd of April but it occurred at an earlier date in some localities, owing either to the impatience of the participants, or to force of circumstances. Hence we cannot doubt that the revolt was organised and directed by a widely ramified conspiracy.

The age in which guild secrets could be kept for centuries was also peculiarly favourable to hidden leagues. Not only were sectarian doctrines propagated by means of secret associations, but political deeds were often effected in like manner both in town and country. Many of these associations acquired great importance, such as the Bundschuh (peasants of the shoe) and the Arme Konrad (poor comrade), which were the inaugurators of the Peasant War.

Hence in spite of portents in various places as early as the autumn of 1524, and the zealous preparations for an insurrection during the winter, the ruling classes were taken by surprise so that at the outset the insurgents almost everywhere gained the advantage.

On his way from Swabia, Münzer fell in with bodies of rebels, and on one occasion was within a hair’s-breadth of coming utterly to grief, being taken prisoner in the Fulda district with a mob of malcontents. On the 22nd of February the receiver of taxes in Allstätt, Hans Jeyss, who was always well informed of Münzer’s movements, wrote to Spalatin: “I add for your information that Thomas Münzer has been at Fulda, where he was thrown into prison. The Abbot said to the innkeeper at Schwartzburg, that had he known it was Thomas Münzer, he would not have let him go free.”

Shortly after this (March 12th) we again find Münzer in Mühlhausen, where Pfeiffer had previously made his appearance (December). On March 17th, a successful revolt made them masters of the town being nearly the same day and month in which, more than three hundred years afterwards, the populace in 1848 seized Berlin, and the proletariat gained possession of Paris. Hans Jeyss wrote about the affair to Spalatin, giving remarkable prominence to the part played by Pfeiffer, and ignoring Münzer, but showing an accurate appreciation of the elements by which the fight was won.

“I must tell you,” he says, “of the dreadful discord and tumult caused for a whole day in Mülhausen by a preacher named Pfeiffer. To sum up, Lord Omnes” (the populace) “wrested the government from the Council, which can neither rule, punish, write, nor act in any way against the popular will.”

“After Pfeiffer and Münzer had been banished, and the latter had visited and left Nurenberg, Pfeiffer returned to Mühlhausen, where he busied himself in the neighbouring villages by propagating his views. He complained to the peasants that he had been driven from the town only because he had preached the truth and had wished to deliver the people from the yoke of the Council and ruling authorities, and from all oppression. At his behest the peasants of these villages armed themselves and advanced in a body to the suburb of the town, where he delivered a revolutionary address. As soon as it came to the ears of the Council that Pfeiffer was trying to force his way into Mülhausen, they made ready for resistance, called their forces together, and marched out against him. ust as the fight was about to begin, the burgesses, who should have remained true to the Council, turned against it, and played a villainously treacherous part. Seeing that the populace had fallen away from the Council, the leader of the municipal forces endeavoured to put a stop to the uproar, and, after great labour and trouble, succeeded in doing so; not, however until the Council had been forced to allow Pfeiffer and Münzer to continue their preaching, and a promise had been exacted that nothing should be done without the consent and knowledge of the commune. Thus all power was taken from the Council, and very strange things went on in Mülhausen.”

Very strange things in truth: A communistic community was established in the town.

“This was the beginning of the new Christian government,” writes Melancthon. “They afterwards drove out the monks, and appropriated all the property of the Church. The Knights of St. John possessed a manor at that place, with a large rental; Thomas seized this manor ... He taught that all things should be in common, as is written in the. Acts of the Apostles, and by this means made the people so wanton that they would no longer work. When one of them wanted corn or cloth, he went to some rich man (to whomsoever it pleased him) and demanded it as a Christian right, on the ground that Christ had proclaimed that all things should be shared with the needy. If any wealthy person proved unwilling to give what was demanded of him, it was taken by force; and this happened in many cases. Moreover, those who lived with Thomas in the manor house of the Hospitallers acted in like manner.”

Becherer tells us that: “In the government Münzer was dictator, and managed everything as it pleased him ... In particular, he made the community of goods compulsory; from which it resulted that people left their craft-work and daily labour, believing that before they had consumed the possessions of the princes and barons, the churches and monasteries, God would further provide. This mode of life was carried on by Münzer for some months.” [24]

We need not inquire into the bad effects said to have been produced by the communistic regimen on trade and production, as they have no basis in fact. This indeed is shown by the circumstance that the government of the revolutionary commune at Mühlhausen did not last more than two months; almost exactly the duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, which began March 18th and ended May 28th, while that of Mühlhausen continued from March 17th to May 25th. Indeed Münzer left Mühlhausen before May 12th. And in these few weeks communism is supposed to have exercised a sensible influence on production, in the midst of the most dreadful exigencies of a war which enlisted the services of every labourer capable of bearing arms!

Melancthon, it is true, tells us that communism lasted a year in Mülhausen! Let it be imagined that in the autumn of 1871, a modern author should have written a history of the Paris Commune, in which he stated that it lasted a year! It is difficult to say which is the more surprising, the cool audacity of the “ mild and timid “ Melancthon, or the credulity of his public.

And it is from such “contemporaneous sources” that most of the histories of communistic movements have been compiled!

Meanwhile the falsifications can easily be discovered with the exercise of a little caution. Much more confusion, however, has been created by the completely inaccurate accounts of the part played by Münzer in Mülhausen. Becherer and Melancthon represent him as a dictator whose will was law, and Luther occasionally expresses himself in a similar way. The latter writes in one of his letters: “Müntzer Mulhusi Ilex et Imperator est.

As a matter of fact Münzer’s position was an extremely disagreeable one. He had conquered not by the strength of his adherents, but by a compromise with Pfeiffer’s party, who were not communistic, but outspokenly bourgeois in feeling. Moreover, he did not mount to the head of the government, but remained simply a preacher, and even as such acquired no decisive influence. The policy of the town was entirely out of harmony with his own, and in all important matters he met with opposition from Pfeiffer, who was backed up by the majority.

Mülhausen was no Tabor; the latter may. be designated as a communistic colony and a new institution, to which communists flocked for the purpose of building up an “exclusive people.” Circumstances were quite different in the ancient imperial town of Mülhausen, where the communists found their chief supporters in the proletariat together with some circles of the petty, independent, suburban craftsmen and the peasants of the neighbourhood. These strata of the population were at that time far too weak to force their will upon the middle class. Through a fortuitous combination of favourable circumstances, and a clever and energetic use of them for their own ends, the communists succeeded in playing a decisive part between the two contending parties, much resembling that of the needle on the balance; but toleration was all that they were able to obtain from those who, by their help, had been placed in power. We must not imagine that the whole town of Mülhausen was organised on the communistic basis. At all events, the only gain to the Brethren was the permission to transform their secret organisation into an open one, and to establish a “commune” within the town’s domain, of which the seat was probably the manor of the Hospitallers.

We may judge of the small number of Münzer’s adherents in Mühlhausen from the fact that when he marched away to help the peasants, he was accompanied by only three hundred men.

It is easy to believe Melancthon’s statement that the Münzer commune, “occupying the manor of the Hospitallers,” derived its revenues during the few weeks of its existence, not merely from the labour of its members, but also, and chiefly, from the spoils obtained from churches, monasteries, and castles for we know that the Taborites maintained themselves in a similar way. In those days the goods of the Church were res nullius – no one’s property – which he might seize “who had the power,” chief among such being the princes, while here and there, perhaps, a few poor devils might share in the plunder.

We have already pointed out that Münzer and Pfeiffer were opposed on fundamental principles. But from this contrary, antagonism others arose which were of a tactical nature.

As a petty townsman of pre-capitalistic times, Pfeiffer considered himself the representative of local interests only Münzer, like the communists of his time in general, was, on the contrary, cosmopolitan in feeling. Pfeiffer looked upon the insurrection in Mühlhausen as a purely local event, while for Münzer it was a link in the great chain of revolutionary uprisings, which, by co-operating, were to give the finishing stroke to tyranny and spoliation. That which Tabor had previously been for Bohemia, the fortified town of Mühlhausen was now to become for Thuringia, namely, the point d’appui of the whole rebellion, and in closest touch with the revolts in Franconia and Swabia.

Pfeiffer (and when we speak of Pfeiffer and Münzer we do not refer to the two individuals alone, but to the parties as well, of which they were the most prominent representatives) was, it is true, present in a few predatory expeditions into the neighbouring purely Catholic districts, but he did not contemplate anything beyond a petty town quarrel. Münzer, on the other hand, was well aware that victory in Mühlhausen did not signify the close of the revolutionary struggle, but was only a preliminary to the decisive battle. It behoved him, therefore, to prepare and organise the masses, train them in the use of arms, and combine the revolts in different districts into a common movement.

Perhaps nowhere in Germany were the peasants so unused to arms, so lacking in military capacity, and so wholly unprepared for war as iri Thuringia. Time therefore was needed to supply them with weapons and to train them in their use.

Münzer did all he could. He was specially solicitous with regard to heavy artillery, and had cannon cast in the monastery of the Barefooted Friars. The value he placed upon these guns – perhaps more as instruments of moral suasion than as weapons of war – is seen from the fact that he sent information concerning them as far as Swabia; and this fact alone shows how eager he was for an alliance with the South German insurgents.

He devoted himself with still greater energy to stirring up and combining the revolutionists in Thuringia displaying a feverish anxiety in speech and writing, and sending letters of exhortation and encouragement in all directions.

The mine-labourers seemed of more importance to him than the untrustworthy Mühlhauseners and badly armed peasants. These miners formed the most warlike and defiant part of Saxony’s population, and in consequence Münzer directed his attention to them. He formed an alliance with those of the Erzgebirge Mountains, after striving first of all to rouse an insurrection among his nearest mining neighbours, the Mansfelders; his friendliness with them ever since his Allstätt days giving him good cause to hope for their aid.

A letter written by him at that time to his confederates in Mansfeld, Balthasar, Barthel, &c., for the purpose of starting the agitation among the miners, is reproduced in Luther’s works as one of “three abominable, revolutionary writings by Thomas Münzer” (xix. p.289 sqq.). It reads: “Before all things, the pure fear of God. Dear brethren, how long will you sleep? How long will it be ere you confess why God of His good will has to all appearance abandoned you? It is high time. Hold back your brethren from mocking at godly testimony, else must you all perish. Germany, France, Italy, are all aroused. Our masters wish to make a game of it but the villains cannot escape their fate. During Easter week three churches were destroyed in Fulda. In Kletgau, Hegau, and Schwatzwald the peasants are up, three thousand strong, and their numbers are growing daily. I am anxious lest the foolish fellows should agree to a treacherous compact, for they do not yet perceive the mischief. Where there are only two of you who trust in God and seek His name and honour, they shall not be afraid of a hundred thousand. But forward, forward, forward! It is high time. Let this letter be given to the mine-associates. My printer will come in a few days. I have received the missive, but cannot do more at present. I had wished to instruct the brothers myself, that their hearts might grow much larger than the castles and armour of all the godless rascals on earth. Forward, forward, forward while the fire is hot! Let your swords be ever warm with blood; forge the hammer on the anvil of Nimrod raze his tower to the ground!”

Münzer’s letter was well received; a large number of miners assembled in the Mansfeld district, disturbances began to arise, and the impetus given to the Mansfelders extended to the mining population near Meissen. “Even before the foolish rioters rushed on to the bloody day at Frankenhausen,” says Hering, “many miners from the revolutionary domain of Count Mansfeld had taken flight to our mountains, either because they saw no promise of good in remaining at home, or because they hoped, by the aid of the ‘new wisdom,’ to play an important part in other places.” [25]

The rioters succeeded in gaining influence, and in assisting an attempt at revolution in the neighbourhood of Zwickau, where the enthusiasts, under Storch and Münzer, had previously acquired power and paved the way for an uprising.

In April there was, in fact, a revolt among the peasants and miners in the Erzgebirge Mountains, which, like similar movements elsewhere in Germany, was not wholly suppressed till after the fight at Frankenhausen.

Münzer was, as a rule, unsuccessful in his efforts to bring about a co-operation of the revolutionary movements in the various districts of Saxony.

He found the separatism of the petty townsmen and peasants too powerful for him. The equality of economic pressure in all places, the stirring up of the whole nation by the Reformation movement, and, last but not least, the indefatigable interlocal activity of the communistic “apostles” had been just sufficient at its commencement to make the insurrection of the peasants and their allies an affair which embraced the largest part of the nation; so that the revolt broke out almost simultaneously in all parts. In its progress, however, and when it became a question of securing the fruits of the early victories and taking advantage of them, the local separatism became more conspicuous than ever; for it was too deeply rooted in circumstances to be suppressed for more than a very short time, and then only to a very small extent.

With this separatism there was associated the fatal childishness of the peasants. That inexperienced folk believed that the word of a prince was, if not better, at least not worse than that of any other honourable man. They had no inkling of the new State craft, which promoted dishonesty and mendacity to the rank of highly estimable princely virtues.

Instead of co-operating, each district and each town which had made cause with the insurgents depended on its own strong arm; and a few empty promises on the part of their rulers (in which they held up the prospect of granting the demands of the insurgents) were sufficient as a rule to scatter the rebels, and induce them to lay down their arms. In this way the princes found time to collect troops, combine, and easily overcome one after another of the isolated peasant masses which, if united, could have made a good stand. Moreover, while on the side of the peasants the absence of any definite plans became more and more conspicuous, the growing danger increased the cohesion and systematic co-operation of the princes.

The rulers rose everywhere in their might to stifle the insurrection in the blood of the rebels. In the last week of April, Truchsess von Waldburg, then leader of the Swabian league’s army, had almost suppressed the revolt in Swabia, Landgrave Philip having done the same in Hesse, while large bodies of veteran troops had been despatched against the insurgents of Franconia and Thuringia.

In the beginning of May the good “evangelical” Landgrave Philip of Hesse united his forces with those of the arch Catholic George of Saxony and a few petty princes, who were afterwards joined by the new Elector of Saxony, John [26], for the purpose of putting an end to the Thuringian revolt. The headquarters of the rebellion were at the town of Frankenhausen, a few miles distant from the Mansfeld mines, and celebrated for its salt deposits, which employed a large number of workmen. [27] Most of the military forces of the rebels had been concentrated at this place and not, as would have been more natural, at Mühlhausen, a well-fortified town provided with artillery, or at a more southern point, e.g., Erfurt or Eisenach, both of which were in the hands of the insurrectionists, and from which it would have been easier to keep in touch with the revolt in Franconia.

The encampment before Frankenhausen seemed of the greatest importance both to the princes and rebels, and, to reach it, Philip of Hesse executed a very singular movement He pushed on past Eisenach and Langensalza, leaving Mülhausen on his right and Erfurt on his left, and marched straight to Frankenhausen. While this evidences the importance of that town, the fact that Philip could perform this movement, without being in the least threatened or even molested by the Mülhauseners or Erfurters, proves the total lack of cohesion, co-operation, and plan among the insurgents.

The importance of Frankenhausen can be explained by its proximity to the Mansfeld mines, with their numerous warlike workmen for if the insurrection had spread thither the princes would have had a severe task before them.

Münzer too was fully alive to the value of Frankenhausen, and did his utmost to direct all his available forces to that place. He also wrote to the Erfurters, but they did not move. Nor could he induce even the Mühlhauseners to go to the help of the men before Frankenhausen. How did the affairs of the peasants of that place concern the petty townsmen of the imperial city? Even the usually energetic Pfeiffer remained inactive, thus obliging Münzer to march out in sole command of his three hundred men after the Mühlhauseners had grudgingly lent him eight mounted cannon.

Münzer fared no better with the Mansfeld miners. There is, unfortunately, a total lack of minute information concerning his negotiations with these people. In Spangenberg’s Mansfeldischer Chronik (chapter 362) we find only the following notice, still more briefly reproduced by Bieringen in his Beschreibung des Mansfeldischen Bergwerks: “The peasants of Mansfeld were also in revolt. Count Albrecht exerted himself most diligently, and promised the miners all manner of things, in order to keep them at home and prevent their joining the rebellious peasants in the field.”

Albrecht seems to have succeeded. Münzer had good grounds for the fear expressed in the above-quoted letter to the miners that “the foolish fellows would agree to a treacherous compact;” for as soon as their demands had been granted most of them quieted down and troubled themselves no further about the rebellious peasants. They sent out a few reinforcing parties, only to be surprised, however, by Count Albrecht’s cavalry, which held all the roads.

One possibility still remained, namely, to carry the insurrection into Mansfeld itself, and in that way involve the miners in the struggle. But this chance also was not taken advantage of. The peasants before Frankenhausen were foolish enough to engage in negotiations with Albrecht, which he carefully managed to prolong from day to day until the armies of the princes arrived.

The Count had agreed with the peasants for a conference on the 12th of May; but he did not make his appearance, pleading important affairs as an excuse, and, instead, summoned the peasants to a meeting on the next Sunday, May 14th. “ In the meantime,” Luther tells us, “God so ordered that Thomas Münzer came from Mühlhausen to Frankenhausen.” [28]

Münzer, who detected the Count’s artifice, caused the immediate breaking off of these negotiations, and made every effort to provoke a battle between Albrecht and the peasants before the arrival of the princes. The outrageously rude letters written by Münzer to Mansfeld at that time are incomprehensible except as deliberate provocations to that end. Zimmermann looks upon them as evidences of a state of self deception on the part of Münzer, arising from his frenzy and despair; but his arrangement of affairs indicates the possession of a clear intellect.

Meanwhile the Mansfelders did not grant Münzer the boon of allowing themselves to be provoked; and either the consciousness of the weakness of his forces, or perhaps their unwillingness, prevented him from making the attack.

It was soon too late. Münzer had reached Frankenhausen May 12th on the 14th Landgrave Philip of Hesse and Duke George Henry of Brunswick arrived, to be followed on the 15th by Duke George of Saxony with his army.

The fate of the men before Frankenhausen was now sealed, and with it that of the Thuringian insurrection. On one side stood 8,000 badly armed, undisciplined peasants, almost without artillery; on the other, about the same number of well-equipped, veteran soldiers with numerous cannon.

Descriptions of the fight at Frankenhausen have generally been based on Melancthon’s account. According to this, Münzer first of all delivered an eloquent speech to the peasants, which was followed by a still more eloquent one by Landgrave Philip to his troops; whereupon the latter advanced to the attack. “The poor folk, however, stood still and sang ‘Wur bitten wry den heiligen Geist’ (‘Now pray we to the Holy Ghost’) as if they were demented. They neither defended themselves nor fled, many of them trusting to the great promise made by Thomas, that God would show help from heaven; for Thomas had said that he would hold all the balls in his sleeves.” As the miracle did not take place, and as the soldiers continued cutting their way into the ranks of the peasants, these creatures at last took to flight and were butchered in heaps. A strange fight indeed!

Is it possible that Münzer and the peasants could have been such utter fools as they are here depicted?

Let us first of all consider the speeches. That of Münzer is in a style altogether different from his own, and has an empty bathos about it in no way characteristic of him. But on closer inspection the speech of the Landgrave seems a still stranger production. It is a categorical answer to Münzer’s – as if Philip of Hesse had stood by and refuted the former’s complaint point by point! Let us, for example, compare the following passages:–

MUNZER: “But what are our princes doing? They take no interest in the government, turn a deaf car to the poor people, do not administer justice, nor combat murder and robbery, and visit no criminal nor wanton with punishment.”

LANDGRAVE: “Whereas it is invented and fabricated that we do not care for the general peace of the land, and that we do not execute judgment nor combat murder and robbery we now declare ourselves to be, with all our abilities, assiduous in the maintenance of a peaceable government.”

And more to the same effect. The more closely these two speeches are examined, the clearer it becomes that they were not actually delivered, but were devised by the learned schoolmaster on the pattern of the speeches of statesmen and army leaders handed down to us by Thucydides and Livy. They are rhetorical exercises, written for definite purposes, The dissolute mercenaries, gathered from all countries, could not have been impressed in the smallest degree by the prelection of the Landgrave on morals and justice, and the necessity and utility of imposts, and so forth, with the affecting peroration that it was a question of fighting for the safety of wife and child. This hypothetical speech, however, must have raised the Landgrave in the estimation of the educated philistines for whom Melancthon wrote. It was to these that the speech was delivered, and not to the soldiers.

On the other hand, Münzer’s speech is composed with the sole purpose of making him ridiculous. Melancthon makes him say at the close of his address “Let not the weak flesh terrify you, but go boldly to the attack of the enemy. You need not fear the shot, for you shall see that I will hold in my sleeves all the cannon balls fired at you,” &c.

Nowhere in Münzer’s writings has he expressed himself so absurdly about practical things, his mysticism consisting solely in believing that God held direct intercourse with him and that his doctrines proceeded from the Holy Spirit. He never asserted that he could perform miracles. Hence we have no hesitation in pronouncing this speech an impudent invention.

It is, moreover, a clumsy invention so clumsy, indeed, that a hundred years ago Strobel became convinced that not Münzer but “Melancthon was certainly the author” of the speech (p.112). In spite of this, however, it is still used by writers in forming their judgment of Münzer, e.g., by Janssen.

There was little time for speech-making, if the battle is correctly described in the pamphlet entitled, Ain nützlicher Dialogus odder gesprechbuchlein zwischen einem Müntzerischenschwermer zu Frankenhausen geschlagen belangende, Wittenberg, 1525. The enthusiast says: “How now! Is it honourable for princes and barons to give us three hours for deliberation and yet not keep faith a quarter of an hour, but, as soon as they have won over Count von Stolberg with some of the nobility from our side, to begin firing at us with cannon and then immediately attack us?”

All of which means that the princes parleyed with the peasants, demanding their surrender, and gave them three hours’ grace. In the meantime they induced the nobles on the side of the populace to come over to them, and, long before the truce had expired, threw themselves upon the unsuspicious peasants and butchered them.

This certainly was not very honourable, and we can well understand Melancthon’s pains to devise another account of the affair. While, however, his version is wholly nonsensical, the description given in the Dialogus is in exact accordance with the mode of procedure universally adopted by the princes at that time in their dealing with the peasantry. In spite of their superior strength, they resorted to treachery and breach of faith to gain the mastery over their opponents. By this means, and not by any imbecile expectation among Münzer’s followers, that he would actually catch the cannonballs in his coat-sleeves, by far the greater number of the insurgents were slaughtered – from 5,000 to 6,000 out of 8,000! – while the princely forces suffered hardly any loss worth mentioning.

After the victory was won the troops pushed on into Frankenhausen, and, as Landgrave Philip himself wrote on the following day, “All males found there were slain and the town given over to pillage.”

Münzer, with a part of the vanquished forces, fled into the town, and as the enemy’s cavalry was at his heels, rushed headlong into one of the first houses near the gate, disguised himself by wrapping up his head, threw himself on a bed, and feigned illness. But his artifice failed. A soldier who entered the room recognised him by the contents of his satchel. He was immediately seized, and brought before the Landgrave of Hesse and Duke George. “When he came before the princes they asked him why he had thus led the poor folk astray. He answered defiantly that he had acted rightly and had purposed punishing the princes” – a truly bold reply! Melancthon, who tells us this, momentarily forgets that he always represents Münzer as being exceptionally pusillanimous.

The princes at once had him put to the rack and feasted on his agonies, after which he was sent as a “booty-farthing” to Count Ernest von Mansfeld. “If he had before ‘been cruelly tortured,’ he was now, after a few days, ‘barbarously dealt with’ in the tower of Heldrungen “ (Zimmermann).

It was here that he was tortured into making the confession, from the protocol of which we have so repeatedly quoted. He revoked nothing, and, concerning his secret league, revealed only such things as could not injure anybody. Not one of the confederates named by him is mentioned among those who were executed hence he probably inculpated only such as had already perished. As the fight of Frankenhausen had broken the force of the movement in Thuringia, nothing further remained to the princes but to take bloody revenge – a task which they carefully accomplished.

It being a sufficient cause of congratulation that the Mansfeld miners remained peaceable, they were left for a time unmolested. Spangenberg tells us that it was not until the next year that “the miners began to be somewhat harshly dealt with, by the imposition of additional labour, from which, in spite of energetic remonstrances, they could obtain. no relief.” On the contrary, troops were sent to “quiet” them, and they were deprived of all freedom of speech and of meeting.

Worse still was Mülhausen’s expiation for its desertion of the insurgents’ cause at the critical moment. From Frankenhausen the allied princes at once pushed on to the imperial city. In vain did the town appeal for assistance to the Franconian insurrectionists. These now treated the Mülhauseners as they themselves had treated the defenders of Frankenhausen. As soon as the siege began (May 19th) despondency spread rapidly among the rebellious citizens. Seeing that all was lost, Pfeiffer escaped on the 24th, with four hundred men, to gain the uplands of Franconia; but the cavalry of the princes overtook him, and made him prisoner, together with ninety-two of his men.

On a written promise of mercy from the princes, Mülhausen capitulated May 25th. In practice this mercy consisted in the execution of several citizens and the pillage of the town. The city, moreover, lost its independence, and fell into the power of the Saxon princes, who thus gained what they had hoped for from the insurrection; while the rebels, who had helped them to gain their ends, were executed, including Pfeiffer and Münzer, who had been brought to Mühlhausen.

Pfeiffer died defiant and unrepentant. With regard to Münzer, Melancthon naturally asserts that he was “very faint-hearted in the last extremity.” As evidence of this he relates, that, from downright terror, Münzer was unable to utter a single word, and consequently could not repeat the Creed. Duke Henry of Brunswick had therefore to recite it for him. Immediately afterwards, however, our authority makes the man who was speechless from terror deliver one of those eloquent addresses so much beloved by the classical and rhetorically-educated schoolmaster.

The other chroniclers of the time make no mention of Münzer’s “faint-heartedness” (compare Zimmermann, ii. p.444). In addition to the utterly worthless testimony of Melanethon, there is only one piece of evidence from which it is possible to draw conclusions as to the agitator’s despair in his last days, viz., his letter to the Council and commune of Mülhausen, written in his prison at Heldrungen, and dated May Uth. In this he exhorts his friends not to exasperate the higher authorities, as his death was deserved, and was well calculated to open the eyes of the “foolish.” He implores them to look after his poor wife. Once more he beseeches them not to provoke the authorities for purposes of self-interest, as they had already done, but to abandon the rebellion and beg the pardon of the princes.

Without doubt this letter betrays faint-heartedness. We cannot agree with Zimmermann, who puts a more favourable construction upon it.

But is the letter genuine? It did not proceed from Münzer’s own hand. He himself says that he dictated it to a certain Christoph Lau. Why did he dictate it? Why did he not write it himself? For whose interest was it that such a letter from Münzer should come to Mülhausen? We answer, for the interest of the princes alone. It was composed on May 17th, and on May 19th the siege began. It was calculated to make this siege easier, and to produce despondency among the besieged. Is not the assumption probable that Münzer’s name was made use of by the princes for carrying out one of those tricks of war so common at the period?

The least that can be said, is that the document is highly suspicious and is not sufficient to corroborate Melancthon’s statement.

Hence we can truly say that nothing certain is known regarding Münzer’s last moments, and that the accusations of pusillanimity on his part are unsubstantiated.

It does not in the least affect our judgment of the man whether his nerves were or were not completely under his control to the very last. We have dealt with this question only because the great stress laid on Münzer’s alleged cowardice, without any tangible basis, is of significance, not for him, but for his opponents.

But the furious attacks on Münzer made by the advocates of reaction have themselves proved the most powerful means of keeping his memory green among the populace of Germany, and of preserving their undiminished sympathy for him.

In the eyes of the German working-classes Münzer was and is the most brilliant embodiment of heretical communism.




15. Luther’s Complete Works, Leipzig 1729, Vol. xix. p.240. The above was probably written towards the end of July, 1524.

16. Luther’s Complete Works, xix, p.236

17. Merx, p.48.

18. Zimmermann, Bauernkrieg, i. p. 191, Zimmermann availed himself of important researches among the State Archives at Mühlhausen.

19. Johann Becherer, Newe Thuringische Chronica, Mülhausen 1601, p.473.

20. Compare Zimmermann, op. cit., i. p.194.

21. C.A. Cornelius, Geschichte des Münsterschen Aufruhres, Leipzig 1860, p.41.

22. Transcribed in Luther’s Complete Works among his writings against Münzer and the rebellious peasants (xix. p.245).

23. Hoch verursachte Schutzrede und autwort wider des Gaistlose Sanfft lebende Fleysch zu Wittenberg, welches mit verklarter weysse durch den Diepstal der heiligen Schrift die erbermdliche Christenheit also guntz jämmerlich besudelt hat, Thomas Müntzer. Alstedter.

24. Becherer, op. cit., p.479.

25. Geschichte des sächsischen Hochlandes, p.203.

26. John’s brother, the peace-loving Frederick, had died on the 5th May.

27. G. Sartorius, Versuch einer Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs, Berlin 1795, p.319.

28. Erschreckliche Geschichte und Gerichte Gotts über Thomas Münzer, Luther’s Works, xix. p.288.


Last updated on 23.12.2003