The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels
Four hundred years have passed since the great Peasant War in Germany. It differs from similar peasant uprisings of the Fourteenth Century in Italy, France and England, in that these uprisings were of a more or less local character and were directed against the money economy then in the process of development, while the Peasant War, unfolding in the epoch of early capitalism which was creating a world market, was intimately related to the events of the Reformation. This more complex historic background, compared with the background of the Fourteenth Century, rendered more complex the class grouping whose struggle determined the whole course of the Peasant War. The role of proletarian elements also becomes more pronounced compared with earlier uprisings.
It was natural that, with the growth of a democratic movement in Germany, especially after the July Revolution in France, attention should be directed towards the study of the great Peasant War. A series of popular brochures and works examining individual phases of the movement made their appearance, and in 1841 there was published the monumental work of [Wilhelm] Zimmermann, which, to the present time, remains the most detailed narrative of the events of the Peasant War in Germany.
It was also natural that the German communists, confronted with the necessity of determining how far the peasantry could be relied upon as a revolutionary factor, should have carefully studied the history of the Peasant War. Their attention was particularly drawn to the leaders of the Peasant War, one of whom was Thomas Muenzer. It is characteristic that as early as 1845, Engels, in one of his first articles for the Chartist Northern Star, called the attention of the English workers to this “famous leader of the Peasant War of 1525,” who, according to Engels, was a real democrat, and fought for real demands, not illusions.
Marx and Engels, who very soberly regarded the role of the peasantry in the realization of a social revolution never underestimated its role as a revolutionary factor in the struggle against the large landowners and the feudal masters. They understood very well that the more the peasantry falls under the leadership of revolutionary classes which unite it, the more capable it is of general political actions. Led by the revolutionary proletariat, supporting its struggle against capitalism in the city and the village, the peasantry appeared to be a very important ally. This is why Marx and Engels, during the revolution of 1848–49, mercilessly exposed the cowardly conduct of the German bourgeoisie, which, currying favour with the Junkers and afraid of the proletariat, had refused to defend the interests of the peasantry.
It was with the aim of instructing the German bourgeois democracy that in 1850, Engels, supported by the factual material collected by the democrat, Zimmermann, wrote this splendid account of the German Peasant War. First, he gives a picture of the economic situation and of the class composition of Germany of that time. Then he shows how out of this soil spring the various opposition groups with their programmes, and gives a colourful characterisation of Luther and Muenzer. The third chapter contains a brief history of the peasant uprisings in the German Empire from 1476 to 1517, that is, to the beginning of the Reformation. In the fourth chapter we have the history of the uprising of the nobility under the leadership of Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten. The fifth and sixth chapters contain a narrative of the events of the Peasant War as such, with a detailed explanation of the main causes of the peasants’ defeat. In the seventh and last chapters the significance of the Peasant War and its consequences in German history are explained.
Permeating the whole of Engels’ work is the idea of the necessity of a merciless struggle against the feudal masters, the landlords. Only a radical abolition of all traces of feudal domination, he said, could create the most favourable conditions for the success of a proletarian revolution. In this respect Engels was in full harmony with Marx, who wrote to him later (August 16, 1856), “Everything in Germany will depend upon whether it will be possible to support the proletarian revolution by something like a second edition of the Peasant War. Only then will everything proceed well.”
Quite different was the conception of Lassalle, who overestimated the significance of the uprising of the nobility, idealized Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten, and treated the revolutionary movement of the lower plebeian strata too contemptuously. In his opinion, the Peasant War, notwithstanding its revolutionary appearance, was in reality a reactionary movement.
“You all know,” he said to the Berlin workers, “that the peasants killed the nobles and burned their castles, or, according to the prevailing habit, made them run the gauntlet. However, notwithstanding this revolutionary appearance, the movement was, in substance and principle, reactionary.”
The Russian revolutionary populists, especially the adherents of Bakunin, often identified Lassalle’s view of the peasants with the views of Marx and Engels. In this they followed Bakunin’s lead, who wrote the following:
“Everybody knows that Lassalle repeatedly expressed the idea that the defeat of the peasant uprising in the Fourteenth Century and the strengthening and rapid growth of the bureaucratic state in Germany that followed it were a veritable triumph for the revolution.”
According to Bakunin, the German communists viewed all peasants as elements of reaction.
“The fact is,” he added, “that the Marxists cannot think otherwise; worshippers of state power at any price, they are bound to curse every people’s revolution, especially a peasant revolution, which is anarchic by its very nature, and which proceeds directly to annihilate the state.”
When Bakunin wrote these lines, there was already in existence the second edition of Engels’ work on the Peasant War, with a new preface (1870), in which the inconsistency of Liebknecht and other contemporary German social-democrats on the agrarian question was criticised. In 1875, the third edition appeared, with an addendum which emphasised still more the sharp difference between the views of Marx and Engels on the one hand, and Lassalle on the other.
It must be noted that in the last years of his life, Engels devoted much labour to the study of the Peasant War, and was about to recast his old work.
In 1882 be wrote a special addition to his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, devoted to the history of the German peasantry. On December 31, 1884, he wrote to Sorge: “I am subjecting my Peasant War to radical reconstruction. It is going to become a cornerstone of German history. It is a great piece of work. All the preliminary work is almost ready.”
The work of preparing the second and third volumes of Capital for publication, prevented him from carrying out his plan. In July, 1893, he wrote to Mehring, “If I succeed in reconstructing anew the historic introduction to my Peasant War, which I hope will be possible during this winter, I will give there an exposition of my views” [concerning the conditions of the breaking up of Germany and the causes of the defeat of the German bourgeois revolution of the Sixteenth Century].
When Kautsky was writing his book on the forerunners of modern socialism – it appeared in parts – Engels wrote to him on May 21, 1895:
“Of your book, I can tell you that the further it proceeds, the better it becomes. Compared with the original plan, Plato and early Christianity are not sufficiently worked out. The mediaeval sects are much better, and the later ones, more so. Best of all are the Taborites, Muenzer, and the Anabaptists. I have learned much from your book. For my recasting of the Peasant War, it is an indispensable preliminary work.
“In my judgment, there are only two considerable faults:
“(1) A very insufficient insight into the development and the role of those elements entirely outside of the feudal hierarchy, which are déclassé, occupying almost the place of pariahs; elements that form the lowest stratum of the population of every medieval city, without rights and outside the rural community, the feudal dependence, the guild bonds. This is difficult, but it is the chief foundation, since gradually, with the decomposition of feudal relations, out of this stratum develops the predecessor of the proletariat which, in 1789, in the faubourgs of Paris, made the revolution. You speak of the proletarians, but this expression is not entirely exact; when you count among your ‘proletarians’ the weavers, whose significance you picture very correctly, you may rightly do so, only beginning from that epoch when the déclassé non-guild journeyman weavers made their appearance and only in so far as the latter were in existence. Much work is still required in this connection.
“(2) You have not sufficiently taken into account the situation of the world market, in so far as one could speak of such a market at that time, and the international economic situation of Germany at the end of the Fifteenth Century. However, only this situation explains why the bourgeois-plebeian movement under a religious cloak, having suffered defeat in England, the Netherlands and Bohemia, could achieve a measure of success in Germany in the Sixteenth Century. This was due to its religious cloak, whereas the success of its bourgeois contents was reserved for the following century and for the countries which had utilized the development of the world market that had in the meantime taken another direction, namely, Holland and England. It is a great subject, which I hope to be able to treat briefly in the Peasant War ,if I only succeed in taking it up!”
Death – Engels died several days after the writing of this letter (August 5, 1895) – prevented him from completing this work.
Last updated on 15 July 2020