woodcut of the fighting

The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels

Chapter 1
The Economic Situation and Social Classes in Germany

The German people are by no means lacking in revolutionary tradition. There were times when Germany produced characters that could match the best men in the revolutions of other countries; when the German people manifested an endurance and energy which, in a centralised nation, would have brought the most magnificent results; when the German peasants and plebeians were pregnant with ideas and plans which often made their descendants shudder.

In contrast to present-day enfeeblement which appears everywhere after two years of struggle (since 1848) it is timely to present once more to the German people those awkward but powerful and tenacious figures of the great peasant war. Three centuries have flown by since then, and many a thing has changed; still the peasant war is not as far removed from our present-day struggles as it would seem, and the opponents we have to encounter remain essentially the same. Those classes and fractions of classes which everywhere betrayed 1848 and 1849, can be found in the role of traitors as early as 1525, though on a lower level of development. And if the robust vandalism of the peasant wars appeared in the movement of the last years only sporadically, in the Odenwald, in the Black Forest, in Silesia, it by no means shows a superiority of the modern insurrection.


Let us first review briefly the situation in Germany at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century.

German industry had gone through a considerable process of growth in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. The local industry of the feudal countryside was superseded by the guild organisation of production in the cities, which produced for wider circles and even for remote markets. Weaving of crude woollen stuffs and linens had become a well-established, ramified branch of industry, and even finer woollen and linen fabrics, as well as silks, were already being produced in Augsburg. Outside of the art of weaving, there had arisen those branches of industry, which, approaching the finer arts, were nurtured by the demands for luxuries on the part of the ecclesiastic and lay lords of the late mediaeval epoch: gold- and silver-smithing, sculpture and wood-carving, etching and wood-engraving, armour-making, medal-engraving, wood-turning, etc., etc. A series of more or less important discoveries culminating in the invention of gunpowder and printing had considerably aided the development of the crafts. Commerce kept pace with industry. The Hanseatic League, through its century-long monopoly of sea navigation, had brought about the emergence of the entire north of Germany out of medieval barbarism; and even when, after the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Hanseatic League had begun to succumb to the competition of the English and the Dutch, the great highway of commerce from India to the north still lay through Germany, Vasco da Gama’s discoveries notwithstanding. Augsburg still remained the great point of concentration for Italian silks, Indian spices, and all Levantine products. The cities of upper Germany, namely, Augsburg and Nuernberg, were the centres of opulence and luxury remarkable for that time. The production of raw materials had equally progressed. The German miners of the Fifteenth Century had been the most skilful in the world, and agriculture was also shaken out of its mediaeval crudity through the blossoming forth of the cities. Not only had large stretches of land been put under cultivation, but dye plants and other imported cultures had been introduced, which in turn had a favourable influence on agriculture as a whole.

Still, the progress of national production in Germany had not kept pace with the progress of other countries. Agriculture lagged far behind that of England and Holland. Industry lagged far behind the Italian, Flemish and English, and as to sea navigation, the English, and especially the Dutch, were already driving the Germans out of the field. The population was still very sparse. Civilisation in Germany existed only in spots, around the centres of industry and commerce; but even the interests of these individual centres diverged widely, with hardly any point of contact. The trade relations and markets of the South differed from those of the North; the East and the West had almost no intercourse. No city had grown to become the industrial and commercial point of gravity for the whole country, such as London was for England. Internal communication was almost exclusively confined to coastwise and river navigation and to a few large commercial highways, like those from Augsburg and Nuernberg through Cologne to the Netherlands, and through Erfurt to the North. Away from the rivers and highways of commerce there was a number of smaller cities which, excluded from the great trade centres, continued a sluggish existence under conditions of late medieval times, consuming few non-local articles, and yielding few products for export. Of the rural population, only the nobility came into contact with wide circles and new wants; the mass of the peasants never overstepped the boundaries of local relations and local outlook.

While in England, as well as in France, the rise of commerce and industry had brought about a linking of interests over the entire country, the political centralisation of Germany had succeeded only in the grouping of interests according to provinces and around purely local centres. This meant political decentralisation which later gained momentum through the exclusion of Germany from world commerce. In the degree as the purely feudal empire was falling apart, bonds of unity were becoming weakened, great feudal vassals were turning into almost independent princes, and cities of the empire on the one hand, the knights of the empire on the other, were forming alliances either against each other, or against the princes or the emperor. The imperial power, now uncertain as to its own position, vacillated between the various elements opposing the empire, and was constantly losing authority; the attempt at centralisation, in the manner of Louis XI[2] brought about nothing but the holding together of the Austrian hereditary lands, this in spite of all intrigues and violent actions. The final winners, who could not help winning in this confusion, in this helter-skelter of numerous conflicts, were the representatives of centralisation amidst disunion, the representatives of local and provincial centralisation, the princes, beside whom the emperor gradually became no more than a prince among princes.

Under these conditions the situation of the classes emerging from mediaeval times had considerably changed. New classes had been formed besides the old ones.

Out of the old nobility came the princes. Already they were almost independent of the emperor, and possessed the major part of sovereign rights. They declared war and made peace of their own accord, they maintained standing armies, called local councils, and levied taxes. They had already drawn a large part of the lower nobility and cities under their lordly power; they did everything in their power to incorporate in their lands all the rest of the cities and baronies which still remained under the empire. Towards such cities and baronies they appeared in the role of centralisers, while as far as the imperial power was concerned, they were the decentralising factor. Internally, their reign was already autocratic, they called the estates only when they could not do without them. They imposed taxes, and collected money whenever they saw fit. The right of the estates to ratify taxes was seldom recognised, and still more seldom practised. And even when they were called, the princes ordinarily had a majority, thanks to the knights and the prelates which were the two estates freed from taxes, participating, nevertheless, in their consumption. The need of the princes for money grew with the taste for luxuries, with the increase of the courts and the standing armies, with the mounting costs of administration. The taxes were becoming more and more oppressive. The cities being in most cases protected against them by privileges, the entire weight of the tax burden fell upon the peasants, those under the princes themselves, as well as the serfs and bondsmen of the knights bound by vassalage to the princes; wherever direct taxation was insufficient, indirect taxes were introduced; the most skilful machinations of the art of finance were utilised to fill the gaping holes of the fiscal system. When nothing else availed, when there was nothing to pawn and no free imperial city was willing to grant credit any longer, one resorted to coin manipulations of the basest kind, one coined depreciated money, one set a higher or lower rate of legal tender most convenient for the prince. Trading in city and other privileges, subsequently to be taken away by force, in order that they might again be sold, seizing every attempt at opposition as an excuse for incendiarism and robbery of every kind, etc., etc., were lucrative and quite ordinary sources of income for the princes of those times. The administration of justice was also a constant and not unimportant article of trade for the princes.

In brief, the subjects who, besides the princes, had to satisfy the private appetites of their magistrates and bailiffs as well, were enjoying the full taste of the “fatherly” system. Of the medieval feudal hierarchy, the knighthood of moderate possessions had almost entirely disappeared; it had either climbed up to the position of independence of small princes, or it had sunk into the ranks of the lower nobility. The lower nobility, the knighthood, was fast moving towards extinction. A large portion of it had already become pauperised, and lived on its services to the princes, either in military or in civil capacity; another portion was bound by vassalage to the sovereignty of the prince; a very small portion was directly under the empire. The development of military science, the rising importance of infantry, the spread of firearms, had dwarfed their military importance as heavy cavalry, at the same time destroying the invincibility of their castles. The knights had become superfluous through the progress of industry, just as the artisans had become obviated by the same progress. The dire need of the knighthood for money added considerably to their ruin. The luxurious life in the castles, the competition in magnificence at tournaments and feasts, the price of armaments and of horses all increased with the progress of civilisation, whereas the sources of income of the knights and barons, increased but little, if at all. Feuds with accompanying plunders and incendiarism, lying in ambush, and similar noble occupations, became in the course of time too dangerous. The cash payments of the knights’ subjects brought in hardly more than before. In order to satisfy mounting requirements, the noble masters resorted to the same means as were practised by the princes; the peasantry was being robbed by the masters with greater dexterity every year. The serfs were being wrung dry. The bondsmen were burdened with ever new payments of various descriptions upon every possible occasion. Serf labour, dues, ground rents, land sale taxes, death taxes, protection moneys and so on, were increased at will in spite of old agreements. Justice was denied or sold for money, and wherever the knight could not obtain the peasant’s money otherwise, he threw him into the tower without much ado, and compelled him to pay ransom.

With the other classes, the lower nobility courted no friendly relations either. Vassal knights strove to become vassals of the empire; vassals of the empire strove to become independent. This led to incessant conflicts with the princes. The knighthood looked upon the clergy with their resplendent grandeur as upon a powerful but superfluous class. It envied them their large estates and their riches held secure by celibacy and the church constitution. With the cities, the knighthood was continually on the war path; it owed them money, it fed on plundering their territory, on robbing their merchants, on the ransom paid for prisoners captured in conflicts. The struggle of the knighthood against all these estates became more vehement as the estates themselves began to realise that the money question was a life problem for them.

The clergy, representatives of the ideology of mediaeval feudalism, felt the influence of the historic transformation no less acutely. The invention of the art of printing, and the requirements of extended commerce, robbed the clergy not only of its monopoly of reading and writing, but also of that of higher education. Division of labour was being introduced also into the realm of intellectual work. The newly arising class of jurists drove the clergy out of a series of very influential positions. The clergy was also beginning to become largely superfluous, and it acknowledged this fact by growing lazier and more ignorant. The more superfluous it became, the more it grew in numbers, thanks to the enormous riches which it still kept on augmenting by fair means or foul.

The clergy was divided into two distinct groups. The feudal hierarchy of the clergy formed the aristocratic group – bishops and archbishops, abbots, priors and other prelates. These high church dignitaries were either imperial princes themselves, or they reigned as vassals of other princes over large areas with numerous serfs and bondsmen. They not only exploited their subjects as recklessly as the knighthood and the princes, but they practised this in an even more shameful manner. They used not only brutal force, but all the intrigues of religion as well; not only the horrors of the rack, but also the horror of excommunication, or refusal of absolution; they used all the intricacies of the confessional in order to extract from their subjects the last penny, or to increase the estates of the church. Forging of documents was a widespread and beloved means of extortion in the hands of those worthy men, who, receiving from their subjects feudal payments, taxes and tithes, were still in constant need of money. The manufacture of miracle-producing saints’ effigies and relics, the organisation of praying-centres endowed with the power of salvation, the trade in indulgences was resorted to in order to squeeze more payments out of the people. All this was practised long and with not little success.

The prelates and their numerous gendarmerie of monks which grew with the spread of political and religious baiting, were the objects of hatred not only of the people but also of the nobility. Being directly under the empire, the prelates were in the way of the princes. The fast living of the corpulent bishops and abbots with their army of monks, roused the envy of the nobility and the indignation of the people who bore the burden. Hatred was intensified by the fact that the behaviour of the clergy was a slap in the face of their own preaching.

The plebeian faction of the clergy consisted of preachers, rural and urban. The preachers were outside the feudal hierarchy of the church and participated in none of its riches. Their activities were less rigorously controlled and, important as they were for the church, they were for the moment far less indispensable than the police services of the barracked monks. Consequently, they were paid much less than the monks, and their prebends were far from lucrative. Being of a middle-class or plebeian origin, they were nearer to the life of the masses, thus being able to retain middle-class and plebeian sympathies, in spite of their status as clergy. While the participation of the monks in the movements of their time was the exception, that of the plebeian clergy was the rule. They gave the movement its theorists and ideologists, and many of them, representatives of the plebeians and peasants, died on the scaffold. The hatred of the masses for the clergy seldom touched this group.

What the emperor was to the princes and nobility, the pope was to the higher and lower clergy. As the emperor received the “common penny,” the imperial taxes, so the pope was paid the general church taxes, out of which he defrayed the expenses of the luxurious Roman court. In no country were his taxes collected with such conscientiousness and rigour as in Germany, due to the power and the number of the clergy. The annates were collected with particular severity when a bishopric was to become vacant. With the growth of the court’s demands, new means for raising revenues were invented, such as the traffic in relics and indulgences, jubilee collections, etc. Large sums of money were thus yearly transported from Germany to Rome, and the increased pressure fanned not only the hatred towards the clergy, but it also aroused national feelings, particularly among the nobility, the then most national class.

In the cities, the growth of commerce and handicraft produced three distinct groups out of the original citizenry of medieval times.

The city population was headed by the patrician families, the so-called “honourables.” Those were the richest families. They alone sat in the council, and held all the city offices. They not only administered all the revenues of the city, but they also consumed them. Strong in their riches and their ancient aristocratic status, recognised by emperor and empire, they exploited in every possible way the city community as well as the peasants belonging to the city. They practised usury in grain and money; they secured for themselves monopolies of various kinds; they gradually deprived the community of every right to use the city forests and meadows, and used them directly for their own private benefit. They imposed road, bridge and gate payments and other duties; they sold trade and guild privileges, master and citizen rights; and they traded with justice. The peasants of the city area were treated by them with no more consideration than by the nobility and the clergy. On the contrary, the city magistrates and bailiffs, mostly patricians, brought into the villages, together with aristocratic rigidity and avarice, a certain bureaucratic punctuality in collecting duties. The city revenues thus collected were administered in a most optional fashion; city bookkeeping was as neglectful and confused as possible; defraudation and treasury deficits were the order of the day. How easy it was for a comparatively small caste, surrounded by privileges, and held together by family ties and community of interests, to enrich itself enormously out of the city revenues, will be understood when one considers the numerous frauds and swindles which 1848 witnessed in many city administrations.

The patricians took care to make dormant the rights of the city community everywhere, particularly as regards finance. Later, when the extortions of these gentlemen became too severe, the communities started a movement to bring at least the city administration under their control. In most cities they actually regained their rights, but due, on the one hand, to the eternal squabbles between the guilds and, on the other, to the tenacity of the patricians and their protection by the empire and the governments of the allied cities, the patrician council members soon restored by shrewdness or force their dominance in the councils. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the communities of all the cities were again in the opposition.

The city opposition against the patricians was divided into two factions which stood out very clearly in the course of the peasant war.

The middle-class opposition, the predecessor of our modern liberals, embraced the richer middle-class, the middle-class of moderate means, and a more or less appreciable section of the poorer elements, according to local conditions. This opposition demanded control over the city administration and participation in the legislative power either through a general assemblage of the community or through representatives (big council, city committee). Further, it demanded modification of the patrician policy of favouring a few families which were gaining an exceptional position inside the patrician group. Aside from this, the middle-class opposition demanded the filling of some council offices by citizens of their own group. This party, joined here and there by dissatisfied elements of impoverished patricians, had a large majority in all the ordinary general assemblies of the community and in the guilds. The adherents of the council and the more radical opposition formed together only a minority among the real citizens.

We shall see how, in the course of the Sixteenth Century, this moderate, “law-abiding,” well-off and intelligent opposition played exactly the same role and exactly with the same success as its heir, the constitutional party in the movements of 1848 and 1849. The middle-class opposition had still another object of heated protest: the clergy, whose loose way of living and luxurious habits aroused its bitter scorn. The middle-class opposition demanded measures against the scandalous behaviour of those illustrious people. It demanded that the inner jurisdiction of the clergy and its right to levy taxes should be abolished, and that the number of the monks should be limited.

The plebeian opposition consisted of ruined members of the middle-class and that mass of the city population which possessed no citizenship rights: the journeymen, the day labourers, and the numerous beginnings of the lumpenproletariat which can be found even in the lowest stages of development of city life. This low-grade proletariat is, generally speaking, a phenomenon which, in a more or less developed form, can be found in all the phases of society hitherto observed. The number of people without a definite occupation and a stable domicile was at that time gradually being augmented by the decay of feudalism in a society in which every occupation, every realm of life, was entrenched behind a number of privileges. In no modern country was the number of vagabonds so great as in Germany, in the first half of the Sixteenth Century. One portion of these tramps joined the army in war-time, another begged its way through the country, a third sought to eke out a meagre living as day-labourers in those branches of work which were not under guild jurisdiction. All three groups played a role in the peasant war; the first in the army of the princes to whom the peasant succumbed, the second in the conspiracies and in the troops of the peasants where its demoralising influence was manifested every moment; the third, in the struggles of the parties in the cities. It must be borne in mind, however, that a large portion of this class, namely, the one living in the cities, still retained a considerable foundation of peasant nature, and had not developed that degree of venality and degradation which characterise the modern civilised low-grade proletariat.

It is evident that the plebeian opposition of the cities was of a mixed nature. It combined the ruined elements of the old feudal and guild societies with the budding proletarian elements of a coming modern bourgeois society; on the one hand, impoverished guild citizens, who, due to their privileges, still clung to the existing middle-class order, on the other hand, driven out peasants and ex-officers who were yet unable to become proletarians. Between these two groups were the journeymen, for the time being outside official society and so close to the standard of living of the proletariat as was possible under the industry of the times and the guild privileges, but, due to the same privileges, almost all prospective middle-class master artisans. The party affiliations of this mixture were, naturally, highly uncertain, and varying from locality to locality. Before the peasant war, the plebeian opposition appeared in the political struggles, not as a party, but as a shouting, rapacious tail-end to the middle-class opposition, a mob that could be bought and sold for a few barrels of wine. It was the revolt of the peasants that transformed them into a party, and even then they were almost everywhere dependent upon the peasants, both in demands and in action – a striking proof of the fact that the cities of that time were greatly dependent upon the country. In so far as the plebeian opposition acted independently, it demanded extension of city trade privileges over the rural districts, and it did not like to see the city revenues curtailed by abolition of feudal burdens in the rural area belonging to the city, etc. In brief, in so far as it appeared independently, it was reactionary. It submitted to its own middle-class elements, and thus formed a characteristic prologue to the tragic comedy staged by the modern petty-bourgeoisie in the last three years under the head of democracy.

Only in Thuringia and in a few other localities was the plebeian faction of the city carried away by the general storm to such an extent that its embryo proletarian elements for a brief time gained the upper hand over all the other factors of the movement. This took place under the direct influence of Muenzer in Thuringia, and of his disciples in other places. This episode, forming the climax of the entire peasant war, and grouped around the magnificent figure of Thomas Muenzer, was of very brief duration. It is easily understood why these elements collapse more quickly than any other, why their movement bears an outspoken, fantastic stamp, and why the expression of their demands must necessarily be extremely indefinite. It was this group that found least firm ground in the then existing conditions.

At the bottom of all the classes, save the last one, was the huge exploited mass of the nation, the peasants. It was the peasant who carried the burden of all the other strata of society: princes, officialdom, nobility, clergy, patricians and middle-class. Whether the peasant was the subject of a prince, an imperial baron, a bishop, a monastery or a city, he was everywhere treated as a beast of burden, and worse. If he was a serf, he was entirely at the mercy of his master. If he was a bondsman, the legal deliveries stipulated by agreement were sufficient to crush him; even they were being daily increased. Most of his time, he had to work on his master’s estate. Out of that which he earned in his few free hours, he had to pay tithes, dues, ground rents, war taxes, land taxes, imperial taxes, and other payments. He could neither marry nor die without paying the master. Aside from his regular work for the master, he had to gather litter, pick strawberries, pick bilberries, collect snail-shells, drive the game for the hunting, chop wood, and so on. Fishing and hunting belonged to the master. The peasant saw his crop destroyed by wild game. The community meadows and woods of the peasants had almost everywhere been forcibly taken away by the masters. And in the same manner as the master reigned over the peasant’s property, he extended his willfulness over his person, his wife and daughters. He possessed the right of the first night. Whenever he pleased, he threw the peasant into the tower, where the rack waited for him just as surely as the investigating attorney waits for the criminal in our times. Whenever he pleased, he killed him or ordered him beheaded. None of the instructive chapters of the Carolina[3] which speaks of “cutting of ears,” “cutting of noses,” “blinding,” “chopping of fingers,” “beheading,” “breaking on the wheel,” “burning,” “pinching with burning tongs,” “quartering,” etc., was left unpractised by the gracious lord and master at his pleasure. Who could defend the peasant? The courts were manned by barons, clergymen, patricians, or jurists, who knew very well for what they were being paid. Not in vain did all the official estates of the empire live on the exploitation of the peasants.

Incensed as were the peasants under terrific pressure, it was still difficult to arouse them to revolt. Being spread over large areas, it was highly difficult for them to come to common understanding; the old habit of submission inherited from generation to generation, the lack of practise in the use of arms in many regions, the unequal degree of exploitation depending on the personality of the master, all combined to keep the peasant quiet. It is for these reasons that, although local insurrections of peasants can be found in mediaeval times in large numbers, not one general national peasant revolt, least of all in Germany, can be observed before the peasant war. Moreover, the peasants alone could never make a revolution as long as they were confronted by the organised power of the princes, nobility and the cities. Only by allying themselves with other classes could they have a chance of victory, but how could they have allied themselves with other classes when they were equally exploited by all?

At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century the various groups of the empire, princes, nobility, clergy, patricians, middle-class, plebeians and peasants formed a highly complicated mass with the most varied requirements crossing each other in different directions. Every group was in the way of the other, and stood continually in an overt or covert struggle with every other group. A splitting of the entire nation into two major camps, as witnessed in France at the outbreak of the first revolution, and as at present manifest on a higher stage of development in the most progressive countries, was under such conditions a rank impossibility. Something approaching such division took place only when the lowest stratum of the population, the one exploited by all the rest, arose, namely, the plebeians and the peasants. The tangle of interests, views and endeavours of that time will be easily understood when one remembers what a confusion was manifested in the last two years in a society far less complicated and consisting only of feudal nobility, bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie, peasants and proletariat.


Last updated on 15 July 2020