Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The German Reformation and its consequences

Merchant Capital

World trade arose in a number of cities because of specially favourable historical and geographical conditions. It started in Lower Italy through the overseas trade with the Orient, with Constantinople and Egypt, but spread from there to the North. It brought into circulation great fortunes which seemed almost immeasurable at the time and aroused the greed of all the ruling classes of Europe.

Here modern capital appears for the first time, and it appears still essentially as merchant capital. But it immediately exerted a disruptive effect on the feudal mode of production. The more commodity exchange developed, the greater became the power of money, for which anybody could obtain anything, which everybody needed and everybody took. At the source of the capitalist mode of production stood not the craft guild master, who with his limited number of journeymen could only achieve moderate prosperity, but the merchant whose capital was capable of unlimited expansion and whose lust for profit was therefore boundless. With merchant capital – the revolutionary force of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries – new life came into medieval society and new ways of viewing things were born.

In the place of the narrow-minded particularism peculiar to the Middle Ages, there came a cosmopolitanism that was at home wherever there was money to be made. In contrast to the guild burgess, who often never left the boundaries of his town his whole life long, the merchant was ceaselessly pushing into unknown territory, overstepping the frontiers of Europe and opening the age of discoveries that reached its peak in the finding of the sea route to India and the discovery of America. On the other hand, however, the merchant opposed to the universality of the medieval Church a national feeling that had only been very weakly developed in the little, self-sufficient communities of the Middle Ages.

In world trade the opposition between buyer and seller became opposition between nations. The mightier the community was to which either belonged, the greater were the prospects of profit. Thus there arose out of world trade a mighty economic interest that, bit by bit, consolidated the loose structure of the medieval states, but also shut them off more abruptly from one another, so that Christianity was divided into sharply distinct nations.

Internal trade contributed in the same measure as world trade to the strengthening of the national state. It lies in the nature of trade that it is concentrated in nodes where commodities from abroad gather to be spread over the whole land by a wide-ranging network of routes and where commodities from inland accumulate to be sold abroad. The whole area dominated by such a node becomes an economic organism which grows more and more integrated and dependent upon the node, the more commodity production drives out production for personal consumption. Thus it also becomes the centre of the cultural life of the area it dominates and the national language begins to supplant, on the one hand, the universal Latin of the medieval church and, on the other, the dialects of the peasants.

It is also obvious that the administration of the state had to fit this economic organization and reinforce the power of the national ruler wherever this power retained some remnant of strength. Trade needed a reliable military commander and a strong army which, in accordance with the character of the economic power it was to serve, was hired for money – an army of mercenaries as opposed to the feudal army of knights. Trade needed such an army to protect its interests at home and abroad, to defeat competitor nations, to conquer new markets, to burst the barriers that the small communities within the state erected against free traffic and to police the roads against the feudal lords, great and small, who proposed to take possession of the profits of trade by the simple method of highway robbery. In short, the unification of all administrative and military power in one hand, princely absolutism, was an economic necessity.

Care was taken however that this modern absolutism never outgrew the power of capital, however forcibly it was applied to peasants and craftsmen, the nobility and the clergy. On the contrary, the more its power came to depend not on landowning but on money, the more dependent it became upon capital. The armies that the prince had to maintain cost a good deal of money and the upkeep of the court, whose pomp and luxury was intended to tempt the rebellious nobility from their castles to the prince’s side, was no less expensive. Insane luxury that swallowed monstrous sums flourished at the princely courts. The princes therefore began to raise taxes with the result that they became more or less dependent on the rich cities, which in return purchased themselves new rights. But even the granting of taxes was not always enough to fill up the holes that constant wars and the extravagance of the courts made in the princely finances, and despite their apparently unlimited power, the modern princes fell into the toils of capitalist creditors.

Revolutionary merchant capital not only created modern absolutism but also transformed the medieval classes of society according to its needs. The lust for gold and silver, the commodity that buys everything, attacked the countryside. Agriculture threw itself into commodity production. Even though the farmer continued to produce for his own consumption, he had in addition to produce a surplus that could be brought to the urban markets in the form of commodities. Agriculture, too, became a source of money and, where conditions were especially favourable, the peasants were able to free themselves from the feudal yoke by converting their fees and services into money payments. But in general, and particularly in Germany, the money payments became a scourge that drove them to desperation without being much use to the feudal lords. Commodity production gave the land itself the character of a commodity, and thus a value that was determined not by the size of the population it could sustain but by the surplus it could deliver. The smaller the number of cultivators in relation to the output, and the more modest their standard of living, the greater was the surplus and with it the value of the land.

Thus a land hunger arose throughout the whole of Western Europe, particularly for woodlands and pastures, whose upkeep required few hands. The medieval nobleman aimed to have land and people. He was richer with every peasant he could chain to the soil and every new settler he could attract. The modern nobility had different aims. They tried to seize the peasants’ land for themselves, particularly the common woods and meadows which were indispensable to peasant production, but also to depopulate the stolen land as much as possible without endangering agricultural activity as a source of money for the nobles. The compulsory labour of those peasants whom the aristocracy still tolerated was raised to the limit. The peasants fell victim to that most oppressive and shameless form of exploitation that is always tied up with the production of commodities based on forced labour. The lust for profit does not even encounter the resistance free workers can put up against capitalist exploitation.

But from the masses of peasants driven from the soil arose the beginnings of the modern proletariat. This proletariat was distinguished from the proletarians of antiquity in that it was not formed from the dregs of exploiting and ruling classes, but from the dissolution of exploited and oppressed classes. For the first time in history there appeared as the lowest class in society a class of free proletarians, which of course as yet had no idea of the historical mission it was called upon to perform – and all the less so since its peasant nucleus was reinforced by elements with completely different social origins through the break-up of the feudal households, which were no longer needed by the aristocracy who had since become courtly parasites or speculative commodity-producers. In part this new proletariat was used by the warlords and the merchants – by the former in their armies, by the latter in the manufactories where the goods that had previously been fetched from abroad were beginning to be produced at home. But these channels were quite insufficient, particularly since the manufactories could only use skilled labour and the majority of soldiers were usually demobilized when the wars were over. Therefore the proletariat in the mass fell victim to poverty and an unruliness that a fearfully cruel and bloody legislation tried in vain to stamp out.

To the extent that the nobility carried out this murderous and rapacious policy its own economic usefulness disappeared. The stronger the central state power grew, the more the police suppressed internal feuding and the nobility ceased to possess an independent military strength, the more superfluous it became for the peasant to have a lord who protected him against the mighty. The feudal aristocracy lay like a great barrier across the path of historical development which, indeed, soon swept aside its weaker elements, the knights and the lower nobility, who stood between the great landlords and the peasants as the petty bourgeois stands today between the big bourgeoisie and the working class.

Just like the modern petty bourgeoisie, the knights tried to prevent their destruction as an independent class through a policy that vacillated between the ruled and the ruling classes. Their death agony often took tragic forms, as with the knights Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen, whom Ferdinand Lassalle made into the heroes of a tragic drama. [1] But the literature of the rising bourgeoisie, arrogant in its expanding power, saw in the declining knights only comic figures like the Don Quixote of the Spanish writer Cervantes, and Shakespeare’s Falstaff.


The break-up of the Papal Church

The gradual transformation of the feudal into the capitalist mode of production had a profound effect upon the most dominant power of the Middle Ages, the Church. Above all this affected the universal domination of the papacy, which had arisen as the leadership of the Christian peoples against foreign enemies and which had reached its peak in the crusades. But those very crusades had become a mighty lever to encourage trade with the Orient and develop the element that was to destroy the feudal world and its monarch the Pope, that is, capital.

As the biggest property owners of the Middle Ages the Church underwent the same process as the rest of the landed proprietors. In order to use agricultural production as a source of money they ruined the peasant class, seized their common woods and meadows for themselves, and either drove the peasants from the land or squeezed them in the most pitiless manner. Life was no longer easy under the crozier. The growing lust for property led the Church to limit their alms to the poor. Their income in kind, the surplus of which they had earlier gladly given away as they could not consume it themselves, had now become saleable commodities, and the greed for profits that this aroused seized the Church too.

If this made the Church more and more hated by the peasant class, it also failed to win the friendship of the rising bourgeoisie. However much it neglected the care of the poor, it could not give it up entirely without losing its last hold on the masses. To a certain extent it still formed a line of defence against the impoverishment of the masses, whose proletarianization could not be carried through quickly enough as far as capital was concerned. The propertyless were still not delivered bound hand and foot to capitalist exploitation as long as they received alms, however miserable, from the Church. Moreover the religious holidays were a thorn in the flesh of the burgeoning towns. The more numerous they grew, the more they contradicted the capitalist wisdom according to which the worker does not work to live but lives to work.

But above all the capitalist mode of production had no further need of the Church as a teacher and leader. It created its own education and science. It created also its own administrative organs. Only in the countryside did the pastoral clergy remain irreplaceable, just as today in backward countries it has to carry out certain official functions such as those of the registry office. In the 16th century the pastoral clergy was still economically necessary and nobody thought of suppressing it. Growing capital moved all the more sharply against two other arms of the Church that were becoming more and superfluous and therefore damaging to the new mode of production – the monasteries and the Papacy.

The monasteries had become superfluous as agricultural models, as teachers of the populace, as protectors of the poor and as preservers of art and science. They fed thousands of idle monks instead of throwing them out onto the streets to be placed at the disposal of capital as wage slaves. Lacking any function in the state and in society, rude, lazy, ignorant and still immeasurably rich, the monks sank ever deeper into baseness, immorality and every conceivable vice. They became the objects of universal contempt.

The Papacy was as superfluous as the monasteries. It had fulfilled its historical mission with the defence of the Christian peoples against the heathens and the infidels. Since the crusades there had no longer been any threat of danger from Asia. True, a new Oriental power arose in the shape of the Ottomans, the Turks, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and from there threatened Christian Europe. But this attack came from the East, not the South. Its rage was directed not against Italy but the countries along the Danube, particularly Hungary, and then South Germany and Poland. Thus the struggle against the Turks ceased to be the concern of the whole of Christendom, but merely occupied its Eastern bulwarks.

The danger from the Turks contributed considerably towards welding the Hungarians, Czechs and South Germans together into the Habsburg monarchy and preserving in it the German Imperial crown. But the Turkish danger was of no direct interest to the Papacy. Even if Popes continued to collect funds for the fight against the Turks, they soon began to turn these funds to their own uses. The power of the Papacy and the belief in its world-historical mission, which had, until the 12th century, been a means of saving the Christian peoples, became in the 14th century a means of exploiting them.

This exploitation increased with the development of commodity production. Even the Roman Curia was seized by the lust for money. The direct taxes that the Papacy raised from the faithful, the so called Peter’s Pence, were relatively insignificant, but in finding indirect taxes the Popes of the 15th and 16th centuries were as inventive as modern financiers. In the age of merchant capital they correctly recognized that trade was the most respectable way of fleecing people and quickly amassing great fortunes. Therefore they began to peddle church offices, and particularly the remission of sins for cash, the so-called indulgences which became more and more shameless as the years passed. In this way the organization of the Roman Church became just as big and just as tireless a machine for exploitation as once the Roman Empire had been.

In the process the wearers of the triple crown made themselves more and more contemptible to the people of Christendom. They were not only princes of the Church, ruling over the whole of Christendom and interested in the maintenance of the feudal mode of production, they were also the secular princes of more or less the major portion of Italy and as such interested in the development of the capitalist mode of production. So in them juvenile audacity went hand-in-hand with grey-haired lasciviousness; revolutionary contempt for tradition that is proper in a rising class with the unnatural addiction to pleasure of an exploiting class that is rushing towards destruction. The Popes led a dissolute life, which was not a small factor in destroying their standing in the eyes of the Christian peoples, who took all the more exception to it the deeper they were still sunk in feudal patriarchal attitudes and thus steeped in the holiness of the Papacy. In order to maintain belief in itself at least, as the only support left to it as the revolution in society cut the ground from beneath its feet, the Papacy turned to every resource of deception and lies. It became as great a machine for damning people as it was for exploiting them.

So the Papacy lay like a suffocating incubus over all the Christian peoples, and they all had an urgent need to liberate themselves from it. But they did not all have an equal need to tear themselves free from it. It was precisely the economically most developed countries that felt this consciousness least. The Italians became all the more Papist the more commodity production developed, since the domination of the Papacy meant the domination of Italy over Christendom. France and Spain, too, had no intention of splitting from the Papacy. In both countries modern absolutism came to power early. As early as the 15th century the Kings of France succeeded in making the French clergy largely independent of Rome and subordinate to themselves. The King had a decisive say in the appointments to important clerical offices. The raising of taxes for the Pope without the agreement of the King was forbidden in France as it was in Spain, where the Holy Inquisition even became a police tool of the Royal power. These countries had, therefore, freed themselves from Papal exploitation and were all the less prepared to break away entirely from the Papacy in that they were now able to consider making the Pope into their tool and ruling the whole of Christianity through him. They wanted to exploit the Christian peoples as the rulers of the Pope.

It was for these reasons that Italy, France and Spain remained Catholic and not, as we read in the bourgeois Protestant history books, because of their spiritual backwardness. It is completely wrong to grasp the Reformation, which aimed at a complete break with Rome, as a phenomenon of an essentially spiritual nature, a struggle of the higher Protestant against the lower Catholic culture. Since Italy, France and Spain were the economically most developed countries they were also the culturally most developed. Nowhere was the purely secular culture of the time as high as it was there, especially in Italy. But this culture remained ardently Catholic, for the same reasons as the countries themselves.

Secular culture originated in Italy in the following manner: the new mode of production did not need to create for itself an entirely new outlook, a new art and a new science, but found the forms of thought appropriate to its needs in the ancient literature whose heritage had never been extinguished in Italy and all the Mediterranean countries. The study of the old authors was begun as a means of understanding the present and delivering the death-blow to the dying remnants of the feudal outlook. The intellectual tendency that developed under the influence of this study bore the title of Renaissance (rebirth, that is to say, of antiquity) or Humanism (the striving for a purely human culture in contrast with the scholastic theology that was concerned with divine affairs). If ideas really do create material conditions, as the bourgeois historians maintain, then a revival of ancient society would have had to follow from the revival of ancient ideas. In fact, however, the ideas of the Humanists had to accommodate themselves to economic conditions. However enthusiastic they were about the republican writers of antiquity, they still became the advance guard of modern absolutism, recognizing quite correctly that therein was the driving force of historical progress. However much their ancient culture set them at loggerheads with the Christian Church, however impregnated they were with the heathen outlook, however bitterly they attacked monasticism and the Papacy, they still remained determined Catholics, recognizing quite correctly that a complete break with the Papacy would also isolate them from the economically and culturally most developed countries.

The German humanists indeed saw the beginnings of the reform movement in Germany with great satisfaction and encouraged it with all their power. But as soon as it became clear that the German Reformation meant the complete detachment of Germany from Rome almost all of them returned to the bosom of the Catholic Church.


The German Reformation

After all this the Reformation, which was acted out most conspicuously in Germany, was in a certain sense a fight of barbarism against civilization. But although one must not lose sight of this when trying to understand the great revolutions of the 16th century correctly, it would be wrong to be misled by it into underestimating the Reformation either historically or morally.

In fighting on the Catholic side to save a threatened civilization, the German Humanists overlooked the fact that the basis of Catholic culture was the ignorance and exploitation of the popular masses, that Germany particularly would have to be kept poor and ignorant if art and science were to flourish under Papal protection in Italy, and that only the victory of German barbarism over Latin civilization could open the way to the historic rise of the German nation. Moreover the Humanists, the most zealous supporters of modern absolutism, deeply detested the Reformation as a movement of the masses. They did not have the slightest interest in or understanding of the needs of the masses. They were soon swept aside by the revolutionary flood and completely forgotten. Only individuals among them, like tile great poets Dante and Petrarch in Italy, the great satirist Rabelais in France, the great thinker Thomas More, the first modern socialist, in England and the great fighter Hutten in Germany have lived on in their works.

Historical progress was bound up not with Humanism but with the German Reformation. In Germany all classes suffered equally heavily from Papal exploitation. They suffered all the more heavily because the Papacy had thrown the whole force of its power to exploit against the German nation since the other advanced nations had closed their borders to it. Even the exploiting classes in Germany became more and more disgruntled under the unbearable burden. All the profitable Church offices in Germany became articles of trade. From them enormous sums flowed year in year out to Rome and thus escaped the great exploiters in Germany, the princes and merchants. No wonder, then, that these brave people became more and more angry the more the Pope took the cream and left them the skimmed milk.

They could not however, like France and Spain, think of liberating themselves from the yoke of the Papacy, breaking the Pope’s domination and using him as a tool for their own rule. Germany, it is true, had a rich share of the prosperity that had been created by the development of commodity production. The craft activities of the guilds in the towns were already producing for broader circles and more distant markets. The weaving of coarse woollen and linen cloths had become a standing and widespread branch of industry, and finer woollens and linen even, as well as silks, were produced in Augsburg. Apart from textiles, those trades in particular had flourished that were associated with the arts and throve on the ecclesiastical and secular luxury of the later Middle Ages: gold and silversmiths, sculptors and carvers of statuary, copper-engravers and wood-carvers, armourers and so forth. Trade kept pace with industry. The great trade routes from India to the North still led through Germany, although the sea route to India had already been discovered. Augsburg was still the great emporium for Italian silks and Indian spices. The South German towns like Augsburg and Nuremberg were centres of a wealth that was considerable for those days. Similarly, the production of raw materials had significantly increased. The German miners of the 15th century were held to be the most skilful in the world, and the flourishing of the towns had torn agriculture out of its earlier medieval crudity. Great stretches of waste land were made productive. Plants to yield dyestuffs and other imported plants were cultivated and in general had a favourable effect on agriculture.

For all this, the upsurge in national production in Germany, significant as it was in itself, could not be compared with the upsurge in other countries. The population was still very thinly spread. Civilization still only existed where it was grouped around individual centres of trade and industry. The interests of these centres were widely separate and only touched upon each other slightly here and there. The South had quite different markets and trade connections from the North. There was scarcely any traffic between the East and the West. No one single town was the industrial and commercial centre of the whole country, like London in England or Paris in France. The whole internal traffic of the country was limited almost entirely to coastal and river navigation and a few great trading highways, from Augsburg and Nuremberg via Cologne to the Netherlands and via Erfurt to the North. Far from the rivers and trade routes lay a number of smaller towns which, cut off from intercourse, continued to vegetate on undisturbed under medieval conditions of life, only requiring a few goods from outside and providing little for external trade.

Thus a modern monarchy could not develop in Germany as it did in the economically developed countries, where it occurred precisely because a flourishing trade and industry indissolubly linked the economic interests of the whole country. Germany could only achieve groupings of interests by provinces, in other words political disunity. The German Emperors of the Habsburg house could not achieve the transformation from a feudal-medieval to a modern monarchy. Despite all their intrigues and acts of violence they could do no more than knit together their hereditary Austrian lands, and it was the threat from the Turks that formed the most effective lever to that end.

Apart from that, the Emperors failed in all their attempts to centralize the German Empire. While in France the great vassals were subordinated to the crown, in Germany they grew to become almost completely independent princes as the logical consequence of the economic fact that they were the representatives of centralization within the disunity, the representatives at least of provincial centralization. Next to them the Emperor became more and more simply the first among equals.

Apart from this decisive fact, the structure of German society in the 16th century was formed, just as everywhere else, under the influence of the new mode of production. The knights, the lower nobility, were caught up in irresistible decay. Within the clergy, the aristocratic faction of Bishops and Abbots, with its gendarmerie of monks, was opposed by the plebeian faction of the pastoral clergy in the towns and the countryside, the former deeply hated by the masses, the latter rather popular, especially since they provided the thinkers and theoreticians for the growing movement. In the towns the guild burgesses fought with the patricians with varying success over the town governments, while the plebeians, as a third urban faction, were still quite undeveloped, feeling themselves to be much more the ruined components of a decaying feudalism than the rising elements of the modern proletariat. Finally the peasants formed the substructure of the whole social organism – a substructure half dead with torture and racked with groans.

It was this chaos of the most varied classes and factions of classes, with their conflicting interests, that gave conditions in Germany their characteristic stamp when Luther, on October 31, 1517, nailed his theses against Indulgences to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and thus gave the signal for the outbreak of the rebellion against Rome that had been simmering in the German nation for decades.

This revolt had already found a much sharper literary expression than Luther’s rather tame theses, which did not even criticize Indulgences themselves, the remission of sins for cash which was payable to the Pope, but their ‘misuse’. The famous Letters of Obscure Men [2] composed by the Humanists had already dealt with the Papacy and the monks in a very different manner. They were satirical shafts of an incomparable sharpness but they were too refined for the people. The humanistic culture was foreign and incomprehensible to the masses. Luther’s theses, on the contrary, which seemed to the Humanists a mere monkish squabble, rested much more on the clerical mode of thought that the masses had inherited from the Middle Ages and which gave all their oppositional movements the appearance of theological heresies. In order to destroy medieval conditions, their apparent divinity had first to be wiped away.

Nevertheless Luther’s theses, which in and of themselves were only a challenge to a theological disputation of the sort that was quite normal at that time, would not have fallen like a spark into an open powder-keg if very urgent economic interests had not stood behind them. After countless previous Indulgences the pomp-loving Pope Leo X issued a new Indulgence that was intended to bring in the enormous sum of 50,000 ducats. He had farmed the Indulgence out as a business proposition against a share of the booty to the Archbishop of Mainz, at that time the leading prince of the German Church. The Archbishop, a Hohenzollern prince, had sent his salesmen out all over Germany to tempt the money out of the pockets of the faithful with more or less the same publicity methods that we find nowadays in the advertisements in the financial press.

These salesmen pounced with special zeal on the territory of the Elector of Saxony, which thanks to its mines was the richest state in Germany. Personally, the Elector Frederick of Saxony was a very pious, devout, even bigoted Catholic, but money matters were no joke in those days either, and he banned the Indulgence sellers from entering his territories. Nevertheless they swarmed around perilously close to the frontiers, so that the Elector gladly permitted Luther to attack the Indulgence seller Tetzel, who was pursuing his murky affairs in Juterbog.

Luther himself was completely unconscious of the fact that he was acting in a certain sense as the tool of the financial policies of his prince, but it was soon to become clear to him that this business was a matter not of theological heresy but of a very real struggle of interests.


Luther, Münzer, Hutten

As soon as Luther’s theses had given the signal for the open struggle against Rome, the colourful chaos of the different conflicting interests in Germany was simplified, in that the different classes and factions within the classes divided into three great camps, conservative Catholicism, bourgeois reformism and plebeian revolution.

In the conservative Catholic camp gathered all the elements that were interested in the maintenance of the existing state of affairs, with the Emperor at their head. So low had the medieval imperial power sunk that, at the imperial election in 1519, the French and Spanish Kings brawled over the crown. Almost all of the seven Electors responsible for the election had permitted themselves to be bribed first by French, then by Spanish gold. The final winner was the Spanish King Charles, who sprang from the house of Habsburg and was at the same time lord of the hereditary lands of Austria. He could no more afford to break with Rome as the lord of the Austrian hereditary lands than he could as King of Spain. His mercenaries had stormed Rome to subject the Pope to his will, but he could not reject the Papal Church that was the chief instrument of his rule in Spain as it was in the hereditary Austrian lands. Therefore the Emperor Charles V remained a determined opponent of the German Reformation. In this he had the support of the spiritual and some of the secular princes, the richer nobility, the aristocratic faction of the clergy and the city patricians.

In opposition to this conservative Catholic camp stood the great mass of the nation which rose in a passionate rebellion against Papal exploitation. It soon split however into two camps, in one of which gathered the property-owning element of the opposition, the mass of the lower nobility, the guild burgesses and some of the secular princes who wanted to enrich themselves by the confiscation of Church property and were inclined to use the opportunity to make themselves even more independent of Emperor and Empire. This moderate bourgeois party wanted to free itself from the yoke of Papal exploitation but did not want secular exploitation to be disturbed, particularly in so far as they were practising it themselves. In sharp opposition to them there was soon formed a revolutionary party, recruited from the peasants and the urban plebeians, which wanted to remove all secular exploitation at the same time as Papal exploitation. The nature of both parties was strikingly reflected in the nature of their leaders, in Martin Luther at the head of the merely reforming party and Thomas Münzer at the head of the thoroughgoing revolutionaries. Both were clergymen and came from the plebeian faction of the clergy.

Martin Luther (1483-1549) was born in Eisleben, the son of a peasant. After a hard and strict upbringing he had dedicated himself to a clerical career. Intellectually he was not particularly gifted. Many of his contemporaries were bolder and more original thinkers. As a student in Erfurt he had joined the Humanist circle that was formed at the university, but he did not get far with his Humanist education. He seems to have been more attracted by the gay life of the Humanists. This is indicated by the qualms of conscience that drove him, in 1505, to the Augustine monastery in Erfurt and the most drastic penances. In 1509, he was appointed by the Elector Frederick of Saxony as Professor of Theology at the newly formed University of Wittenberg where, in 1517, he published his theses against Indulgences, or rather against the excessively shameless misuse of Indulgences, for he himself said in his theses that whoever spoke out against the validity of Papal Indulgences should be cursed and damned.

Luther himself was extremely astonished by the effect of his theses. He was still under the spiritual spell of the Roman Church, but the clumsy attempts of the Papacy to silence him – the kind of attempts that are always made by ruling classes who have run out of resources, and always with the same lack of success – aroused his peasant obstinacy and the movement which, unknowingly and unwillingly, he had sparked off drove him further and further. He was far more driven than he was the driver, but he won a decisive influence over the masses because he never let the professor in him dominate over the peasant and, much more than all his contemporaries, he possessed a vivid and stirring style of speaking. His services to the German language are his abiding merit. The harder he was pressed by Rome, the more ruthlessly he fought back. He preached violent resistance to Papal exploitation. The plague was to be driven from the globe not with words but with weapons. German hands had to be washed in Roman blood. And Luther was no less sharp in his attacks on the secular princes who did not agree with him. Anyone today who tried to use the language of this ’dear son of God’ against the German princes would quickly find himself in jail on a charge of high treason.

But if Luther never let the professor in him make him forget that he was the son of a peasant, the son of a peasant also never eclipsed the professor. The longer the revolutionary storm raged, the more deeply it agitated the masses and made them feel the yoke of their exploiters at home as much as the depredations of the Pope, the more Luther became a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, unable to lay the ghosts that he had raised. And then the Wittenberg University professor and protg of the Elector Frederick of Saxony made his decision by announcing himself in favour of peaceful and lawful development. After Luther had flirted with the revolutionary democratic elements between 1517 and 1522, he betrayed them all one after the other between 1522 and 1525.

The bourgeois reformer Luther was opposed by the peasant-plebeian revolutionary Thomas Münzer (1490-1525). One cannot really call him an independent thinker either. He produced no new ideas in the movement of his time. But he was able to recognize its revolutionary elements with a penetrating and far-sighted eye and to grasp them with an incomparable force of action. He was a man cast in one piece, unshakable in word and deed. He came from Stolberg in the Harz, where his father is said to have died on the gallows, a victim of Count Stolberg’s despotism. Münzer, like Luther, chose the clerical profession but the revolutionary in him developed early. At fifteen he was already organizing, at the school in Halle, a secret league against the Archbishop of Magdeburg and the Roman Church in general, whose customs and dogmas he treated with the greatest contempt. He was soon driven out of his clerical offices, first in Zwickau, then in Prague. At Allsttt in Thuringia, too, his stay was very short. Before Luther he had already abolished Latin from his services and organized revolutionary propaganda in the area, continuing Luther’s mighty preachings after the latter had decided in favour of peaceful progress.

Münzer’s teachings attacked the central tenets not only of Catholicism but of Christianity. The real, living revelation, he said, was reason, a revelation that had existed at all times among all peoples and still did exist. To set the Bible up against reason, as did the tamed Luther, meant killing the spirit with the letter. Heaven was not transcendental, it was to be sought in this life. The vocation of the faithful was to create heaven, God’s kingdom on earth. As there was no transcendental heaven, so there was no transcendental hell. Christ had been a man like us, a prophet and teacher, not a god. By the kingdom of God, the creation of which on earth was the vocation of the faithful, Münzer meant a society without class differences, private property or a state power independent of and foreign to the members of society. All existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown, all work and all property to be shared in common, and complete equality introduced. A union was to be established to realize all this, not only throughout Germany but all Christendom. Princes and Lords were to be invited to join, and if they did not the union was to overthrow and kill them, weapons in hand, at the first opportunity.

Münzer preached these ideas under the cloak of mystical phraseology, but that only deepened their effect on the masses, who were still completely steeped in religious modes of thinking. People flocked to him from all sides, and Luther could only do what reformists always do in such cases when faced with complete revolutionaries: he denounced Münzer to the Saxon princes. Münzer attacked the latter with challenging boldness, and they dared not even touch him. But the Allsttt council drove him out. Münzer went first to Mülhausen then to Nuremberg. He was again driven out of both towns and then moved to South Germany, a zealous stirrer of the ferment that announced the forthcoming violent outbreak of the peasant class.

First however the revolt of the lesser nobility, the knights, broke out in the autumn of 1522. Its leaders were Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), but the continued popularity of their names must not be allowed to obscure the inwardly reactionary nature of their choice as leaders. The burning hatred that Hutten and Sickingen cherished towards princes and priests and their equally burning enthusiasm for the recreation of the national empire made them, in the mid-19th century the favourites of the German bourgeoisie, who were animated by similar moods. But the empire Hutten and Sickingen wanted to recreate was the medieval one, a kind of noble democracy led by a powerless Emperor and purged not only of princes, but also of towns, with the oppression of the peasants retained. Over against this ideal not only the towns but even the princes represented historical progress. If the rule of the princes did mean disunity in Germany, it still to a certain extent concentrated national forces within the disunity, while the democracy of the Junkers [3], which Hutten and Sickingen represented, would have turned into that aristocratic anarchy from which Poland miserably perished.

The revolt of the lesser nobility was lost before it started. The towns had no more interest in supporting it than did the peasants. The princes had an easy time of it. Sickingen’s castles were quickly stormed and reduced. He himself fell at the siege of his seat at Veste and Hutten died a few months later, in September 1523, a refugee on the island of Ufenau in the lake of Zurich.


The Peasant War and the Anabaptists

A year and half after Hutten’s death the great Peasant War broke out. [4] The growing distress that had come over the peasant class with the transformation from a natural to a money economy had brought about a whole series of peasant uprisings, particularly in South Germany, from 1476 onwards. Among them were the peasant conspiracies that won historical fame under the names of ‘Bundschuh’ and ‘Poor Konrad’. However, they all remained locally limited and were soon suppressed. Only when the Reformation movement had stirred the nation to its depths did a peasant conspiracy succeed in covering the whole Empire, a conspiracy that was to break out on April 2, 1525.

Lassalle, who dramatized and exalted the story of the Knights, Hutten and Sickingen, accused the peasant revolution of being inwardly reactionary in its historical kernel, like the rebellion of the knights. But Lassalle overestimated the movement of the knights as much as he underestimated that of the peasants. The twelve articles in which the peasants brought together their demands lay entirely in the direction of historical progress. They demanded the election and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labour services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration. These demands were all completely right and just and above all they conformed to the prerequisites of the bourgeois period of history. What the German peasants demanded in 1525 was aimed fundamentally at the very things the French peasants achieved in 1789. In his critical assessment of the German Peasant War Lassalle permitted himself to be led astray by an excessively formal conception. He was only willing to recognize a real revolution where an old principle was replaced by a new one. Since he took possession of land to be a medieval principle and industry to be the principle of the new age, he incorrectly denied the Peasant War any revolutionary character because he thought it clung to the principle of land ownership and ignored industry.

The peasants managed to keep their great conspiracy secret. When they unexpectedly rose the ruling classes were so surprised that at first the peasants had, or seemed to have, good prospects. Even Luther, on April 16, advised an amicable settlement. Not the peasants, he said, but God himself, was in revolt against the blood-thirsty tyranny of the princes. What the peasants demanded in their twelve articles was, he said, mainly justifiable, and he advised a peaceful settlement on the basis of the articles. Now, if the bourgeois historians are right to say that Luther’s overwhelming personality made the Reformation, this intervention by Luther ought to have given the Peasant War a different turn. But in fact it did not have the slightest effect, and when the ruling classes had recovered from their first panic, when, that is to say, the princes rose powerfully to stifle the revolt in the blood of the peasants, Luther turned right round and published on May 6 his pamphlet ‘against the robbing and murdering peasants’, in which he urged the butchery of the peasants in the tones of the bloodthirstiest executioner. [5] And yet it was empty boasting when he said that the blood of the peasants was on his head, for the princes, both Protestant and Catholic, needed no encouragement from him to carry out a cruel bloodbath amongst the peasants.

In contrast to Luther, Münzer stood bravely by the rebellious peasants. In Thuringia he was the heart and soul of the Peasant War. He had his headquarters in Mülhausen, which was then an imperial free town, and there set up a sort of communist community, which, however, did not last much over two months (almost exactly as long as the Paris Commune of 1871), from March 17 to May 25, 1525. When the army of the princes approached, Münzer went to Frankenhausen, where the Thuringian peasants had gathered in their masses, and here he suffered with them a terrible defeat. 8000 badly armed and undisciplined peasants, who had scarcely any artillery, were beaten by the same number of well-trained, well-armed soldiers with plenty of guns. Münzer himself was captured and executed after cruel torture. The claim that he died as a repentant sinner remains unproven and is only one of those slanderous libels that the paid hacks of the ruling class always direct against dead freedom-fighters.

As in Thuringia, the peasant armies were broken up with little effort by the armies of the princes in Franconia, Swabia, Alsace, the Black Forest and wherever they had risen. In fact the peasant movement did not fail because its demands were historically outdated but, on the contrary, because they were too early, because the national soil for them was missing, because there was not yet a German nation in the modern sense of the word. Individual towns did, it is true, join the peasants, but even they were only lukewarm and hesitant. The urban patricians showed themselves to be completely hostile. The guild burgesses had a similar policy to Luther. The urban plebeians were still far too underdeveloped as a class to support the peasants effectively. The knights were even less reliable than the towns. They mostly fought on the side of the princes or, if they did in the beginning stand by the peasants, they soon betrayed the uprising, like Gtz von Berlichingen. Only a few knights remained true to the rebels, like Florian Geyer, who was, next to Münzer, the most brilliant figure of the Peasant War.

In general the whole movement was ruined by the local and provincial disunity and the resulting local and provincial limitation. In every area the peasants acted on their own, refused aid to the fellow members of their class in the neighbouring provinces, and were wiped out one after the other in individual battles and fights by armies which for the most part did not number one tenth of the whole mass of the insurgents. One of the princes’ main weapons was the basest treachery which could only succeed because the peasants had sunk too far into wretchedness after centuries of serfdom to see through obvious trickery and deception. The princes lured the peasant hordes with glittering promises, then, when the peasants, credulously trusting these promises, laid their weapons down in order to go home, slaughtered them in their unarmed masses. The blood of the peasants flowed in rivers on German soil. According to the lowest estimates a hundred thousand peasants either fell in the war or were executed afterwards.

And yet, in the long run, this fearful defeat did not worsen the position of the peasant class. They had been squeezed so dry before the war that there was nothing left to take. It is true that many prosperous middle peasants were ruined, many bondsmen were forced down into serfdom, great stretches of common land were confiscated and a great number were made vagabonds or urban plebeians by the destruction of their homes and the laying waste of their fields. But war and destruction were everyday occurrences in those times, and, in general, the peasant class was already too low to suffer a lasting aggravation of their position.

The clergy, the nobility and the towns suffered severely from the peasant war. Monasteries and religious foundations were burnt down and the clergy’s valuables were plundered or melted down. Many of the nobility’s castles were sacked. They had proved incapable of opposing the peasants on their own. Since they had been saved by the princely armies, they fell more and more under the domination of the princes. Because of the half-hearted support the towns had shown for the peasants, the victorious princes levied fines from them and robbed them of their privileges.

Thus only the princes had any real advantages from the peasant war. They seized the property of the Church; a greater or a lesser part of the nobility had to recognize their authority, and the fines from the towns flowed into their coffers. Apart from the secular principalities there were still, it is true, ecclesiastical rulers, town republics, and sovereign Counts and Lords. But in general historical development in Germany was driving towards provincial centralization and the subordination of all the other estates of the empire by the princes.

An epilogue to the peasant war was the bloody persecution and extermination of the Anabaptists. They shared Münzer’s communist views but differed from him by not approving of a policy of violence and by being completely peaceful in outlook. But if they did not want to rebel with arms against the state, they still wanted to have as little to do with it as they did with the Church. They had their name from the fact that they rejected the baptism the church carries out on new born children. They demanded re-baptism or rather adult baptism, to which only an adult capable of thinking for himself should be subjected. What has today become a religious quirk was once a revolutionary programme, before which the ruling classes trembled.

Since the Anabaptists were of a peaceful disposition they did not share Münzer’s fate, but their peaceful disposition did not prevent Catholic or Protestant princes from declaring a bloody open season on them. Even the impotent imperial authority took part in this unworthy persecution. In 1529 the Imperial Diet of Speyer imposed death by burning as the penalty for Anabaptism. All over Germany flames sprang up round the stakes at which the imprisoned Anabaptists suffered a heroic martyrdom. Thus they were exterminated in Germany or driven over the frontier, and finally the Anabaptists in the Netherlands realised that they would have to fight back with the same methods that were being used to persecute them, that is with weapons. Jan Mathys, a baker in Haarlem, and Johann Bockelson, a tailor in Leyden, were the heads of this Anabaptist tendency. In the old Catholic town of Münster, a main centre of the Roman Church in North West Germany, they found a place to arm the opposition against their brothers’ persecutors. The town was involved in a violent struggle with its Bishop, whom the burgesses could not get rid of without the help of the town plebeians, so that the latter had a great deal of power. The Anabaptist movement succeeded, completely legally, in taking over all the positions in the town government and put up such a stubborn and spirited opposition to the Bishop’s attacks that finally the whole empire had to be called upon to break it. The town was reduced by hunger only after a fifteen-month siege, and on the terrible morrow of its brave defence the Christian Bishop celebrated his victory. But what one bourgeois historian after the other has been repeating for the last four hundred years, that the Anabaptist regime in Münster was a dissolute orgy of inhuman cruelty and bestial lust – that is impudent invention and bare-faced lies.


Jesuitism, Calvinism, Lutheranism

The victory of the princes in the great Peasant War, whose main origin was rooted in the fact that the conflict of the economic interests in the various parts of Germany had prevented the rise of a great modern nation, was further strengthened by the incipient impoverishment of the towns. The main reason for this was that world trade had begun to move from the Mediterranean beaches to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

The capture of Constantinople by the Turks blocked the trade routes to the Orient, so that the ever-developing commodity production was forced to seek new markets and new trade routes. With the age of great geographical discoveries came modern colonial policies, from which Germany was excluded by her geographical position. Her economic growth was more and more thwarted and with it disappeared the possibility of her political centralization. Germany’s gradual but irresistibly advancing impoverishment provided fresh support for the rule of the princes. Of course it also made their rule all the more unbearable for the German people, in that the intensity of the plunder grew in proportion to its difficulty.

Of the three great party groups that had formed at the outbreak of the German Reformation, the plebeian revolutionary party had been stifled in the blood-letting of the Peasant War and the bourgeois reformist party had received a shock in the war from which it needed a long time to recover. Nor was the Catholic conservative party unmarked by the stormy passage of time. From now on three new parties were built which, it must be said, won European significance far beyond the frontiers of Germany.

They were Jesuitism, Calvinism and Lutheranism. They all still bore a religious colouration but were, beneath their ecclesiastical forms, politico-economic organizations. All three, despite their dogmatic religious differences, sprang from a common ground: they were as different from the feudal medieval Church as the feudal mode of production is from the capitalist. Jesuitism was Catholicism reformed on a capitalist basis. If the Papacy had become a means and instrument of rule of the great modern monarchies that had developed out of the needs of the capitalist mode of production, then it had to be placed upon a capitalist footing if it was going to be an effective means and instrument of that rule. This is precisely what the Society of Jesus ensured in making the Catholic Church fit the new economic and political conditions. It reorganized the whole educational system through the study of the classics, the highest form of learning that then existed, and thus far adopted the heritage of Humanism. It had its trading posts throughout the then known world and provided the princes, in the form of father confessors, with the most experienced and cunning ministers.

Modern absolutism however only temporarily suited the interests of the growing towns – not permanently, and only so far as the creation of great unified economic and trading areas was concerned. For them it was not an end in itself but only a means to an end. As soon as it felt inclined to be an end in itself, they reminded it emphatically that it only lived by their grace. Calvinism was the banner under which first the towns of the Netherlands rose against Spanish, then the French towns against French absolutism. Calvin had introduced this doctrine in the rich trading city of Geneva, and with its democratic church constitution it suited the interests of the most advanced city burghers. It is true that part of the nobility in Holland and France professed Calvinism, but only because they had more or less common interests with the rebellious towns. Wherever Calvinism became an exciting fanatical power bourgeois interests were to the fore. Alongside the absolutist-capitalist society of Jesus this can be called bourgeois-capitalist religion.

Lutheranism, finally, was the religion of the economically backward countries that had been most heavily exploited by Rome, but had the least prospects of either annihilating or dominating Rome. Thus they had to break with Rome completely but were unable to intervene decisively in the great competition to take over its inheritance: Lutheranism held sway in North and East Germany, in Denmark and in Sweden. These were countries where the towns were comparatively under-developed and the nobility strongly predominant. In West Germany, where the towns were stronger and more numerous, Calvinism took the lead. Where Lutheranism ruled, capitalist development took a long time to work its way out of the feudal chaos. It created no revolutionary bourgeoisie. On the contrary it made the landlord into an owner of property, the knight into a commodity producer. This happened particularly in the arable lands east of the Elbe. Here the Church paid for the ‘pure doctrine of God’ with their goods, the peasants with ever-increased exploitation.

In conformity with these backward conditions Lutheranism was a backward religion. Ever since his betrayal of the peasants Luther had become a crawling servant of the princes. Out of his translation of the Bible, which, with its presentation of simple primitive Christianity, had contributed not a little to the excitation of the masses, he henceforward made a sort of princely catechism that no bootlicker of monarchy would have found objectionable. The princes, Bishops and Junkers were the patrons of the Lutheran Church. It was much more sharply divided in this respect from the democratic church constitution of Calvinism than in all the hair-splitting about the Last Supper. The Dutch Calvinists accused the spiritual life of the Lutheran Church of being a ‘worse than bestial stupidity.’

Thus the German Reformation, after the revolutionary fire had been extinguished with the blood of the peasants, became a campaign of robbery and plunder by the German princes and their ever-growing emancipation from Imperial authority. The Princes’ ‘Reformation’ consisted of naming themselves heads of their national churches, having Lutheranism developed by their court chaplains as a religion of narrow-minded subordination, and particularly of pocketing the rich property of the Church themselves. These princely ‘Reformations’ were all aimed at the same goal, for all the colourfully chequered variety of their external manifestations. The history of the Hohenzollerns provides a particularly classical example of this. Only the Junkers got a share of the booty, and perhaps the urban patricians who, because of the decay of the towns, had to be satisfied with what they got. The masses, the peasants and the town plebeians gained not the slightest benefit from the robbery of Church property.

Thus the power of the princes grew continually. The attempt of the imperial authority to reimpose itself, that is, ideologically expressed, to recreate the Catholic religious unity of Germany, failed completely and only proved that the particularist rule of the princes was too deeply rooted in Germany’s economic conditions to be removed. The Emperor Charles V, it is true, defeated several Protestant princes at the battle of Mühlberg in 1545, but this was only because other Protestant princes supported him for the sake of selfish advantages that he had promised them. It was precisely these princes who rose against him immediately he actually tried to reimpose the imperial authority after that victory. They bought an alliance with the French King with the basest betrayal of the empire, by the cession of the bishoprics of Toul, Metz and Verdun to France, and thus managed to defeat the Emperor. In the Treaty of Passau and later in the religious peace of Augsburg, religious freedom for the imperial estates, that is to say for the authorities of each state, was enacted in 1555. Each imperial estate, each state authority, received the right to make whatever religious arrangements it thought fit within its own area. The religious peace of Augsburg rested on the principle cuius regio, eius religio (‘whoever rules, his religion’). That means, whoever possesses the land also possesses the right to determine the religion of its inhabitants. Religious freedom only permitted the inhabitants the right to emigrate should they feel a conscientious objection to their ruler’s efforts for their ‘salvation’. This ‘salvation’, that is to say the forcible conversion of the population to the religion of their rulers, was carried out by the Protestant princes no less than by the Catholics.

Thus the religious peace of Augsburg left the schism of the Church and princely sovereignty untouched. But this peace left two decisive questions unsolved. It placed its seal, it is true, upon the German princes’ previous plundering of the Church, but it did not decide what was to happen to the ecclesiastical territories, of which there was still a great number in Germany. The Protestants demanded that the principle of cuius regio, eius religio should not apply in these areas. Their Protestant inhabitants were to continue unhindered in their faith. The Catholics on the other hand demanded that the ecclesiastical princes should have the same right of ‘salvation’ as the Protestant princes. The other difference of opinion, however, arose over the so-called ‘Ecclesiastical Reservation’ that was demanded from the Catholic side. According to this, any imperial ecclesiastical estate, high prelate, archbishop, bishop or abbot who became a Protestant was to lose his Church offices and dignities. The Protestant princes would have nothing to do with this because it cut them off from the easiest way of pocketing ecclesiastical property.

No agreement was reached on these differences. The real questions of power involved were too important for the two sides to convince each other by ideological and religious arguments. On the one hand, in the sixty years following the religious peace of Augsburg, the Protestant princes were able to gain control of more than a hundred ecclesiastical archbishoprics, bishoprics, foundations and abbeys, despite the Ecclesiastical Reservation. On the other hand the ecclesiastical princes who remained true to their religion made full use of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio and began a Counter-Reformation which was skilfully led by the Jesuits and once more opened up a sphere of influence for the Catholic religion, particularly in South and West Germany. A big catch for the Jesuits were the Dukes of Bavaria, whom whey were able to tie to the interests of the Catholic Church, more it is true by the offer of material advantages than by spiritual eloquence. When in 1607 Duke Max of Bavaria used some religious quarrel as an excuse to attack the free city of Donauworth and incorporate it into his own possessions, this impudent act of violence was the signal for a general muster of the armies. A part of the Protestant princes formed a Union under the leadership of the Elector Palatinate, whereupon the Catholic princes formed a League under the leadership of Bavaria. The Protestant Union was still-born, particularly since the leading and greatest Protestant prince, the Elector of Saxony, stayed aloof from it out of jealousy of the Palatinate and out of a greed for land which he hoped to see satisfied by the Catholic side. The Catholic League on the other hand became a real force. In Duke Max of Bavaria it had a determined and capable leader, and a great number of ecclesiastical imperial estates, particularly the three ecclesiastical electorates, provided it with a firm framework.


The Thirty Years’ War

Thus the two armies were standing face to face when an internal crisis in the hereditary Austrian lands of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Upper and Lower Lusatia and Upper and Lower Austria, gave the signal for the fight. In these lands, too, the Jesuit Counter-Reformation had achieved great successes. In particular they had won a fanatical pupil in the Imperial Heir Apparent, the Archduke Ferdinand of Styria. When he came to rule, and was also elected German Emperor in conformity with the tradition that linked the German Imperial throne with the ruling house of Habsburg, he single-mindedly followed the policy of subduing his hereditary possessions to the unity of the Catholic Church. He encountered violent opposition however, particularly in the Kingdom of Bohemia, where the Protestant Estates even declared that by his attempts at a Catholic restoration he had forfeited his claim to the throne, and chose the Elector Frederick of the Palatinate as his successor, in the hope of gaining thus the assistance of the Union. The Union, however, showed itself completely incapable of acting. The League supported the Emperor all the more energetically. On November 8, 1620, at the battle of the White Mountain, near Prague, their General, Tilly, totally defeated the upstart and moreover completely incompetent King. Bohemia fell once more into the hands of the Emperor, who subjected it mercilessly to a bloody political and religious restoration.

With this the flame of war seemed to have been stamped out. But now the Kaiser’s allies demanded their reward in the form of booty from the Elector Palatine, who had fled his lands. The Bavarian Duke particularly laid claim, as head of the League, to the title of Elector of the Palatinate and a share of the Palatinate possessions, and the Emperor showed himself willing to honour, as German Emperor, the debts he had incurred as King of Bohemia. At an Imperial Diet at Regensburg, he fulfilled the wishes of the Bavarians against the impotent protests of the Protestant princes. Thus the power of the Emperor became so great that foreign powers like France, Holland and England began to look askance, particularly since the Austrian and Spanish branches of the house of Habsburg were closely connected. Then England and Holland incited the King of Denmark, with plentiful funds, to offer a strong army along the Elbe and the Weser as a rallying point and stronghold for the Protestant princes in Germany. But the Emperor was now sufficiently reinforced to field a great military force. He accepted the offer of the Bohemian magnate, Wallenstein, to raise him a strong army, and that experienced field commander more than fulfilled his promises in carrying out his task. The war with Denmark began in 1625 and four years later, in 1629, by the peace of Lübeck, Denmark pledged never again to interfere in German affairs. The Imperial arms dominated North Germany too.

Above all the Emperor had his General to thank for this success. Albrecht Wallenstein (1583-1634) followed in Germany the same aim as did Richelieu at the same time in France: the creation of a purely secular monarchy, that was to raise itself, free of all religious differences, over the heads of the quarrelling princes, soften the internal class differences and turn the whole energy of the nation outwards. Wallenstein subordinated the Catholic estates no less than the Protestant ones to the Imperial authority. He was no fanciful politician but had a very clear goal which, as the French example showed, was not only attainable but was in line with historic progress. All religious bickering was most deeply abhorrent to Wallenstein. Although he was himself a Catholic and had been raised by the Jesuits, he still considered that there would be no peace in the Empire until a Bishop had been separated from his head. Wallenstein failed because the sovereignty of the Imperial Estates was far too deeply rooted in the economic conditions of the Germany of the day for him to tear them loose. Not only the princes, Catholic as well as Protestant, opposed him, but so did the towns. The Hansa towns, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck and the others, refused to provide him with ships to dominate the Baltic, and while Wallenstein was already full of the most farsighted plans for conquering Constantinople and driving the Turks out of Europe, the town of Stralsund victoriously opposed him when he demanded they should accept an Imperial garrison.

At the very time that Wallenstein was brought up short at the walls of Stralsund, Richelieu, after a fourteen month siege, took the fortress of La Rochelle, the centre of French Protestantism (the Huguenots). From now on he had his hands free for his foreign policy, and undertook an extensive fight against the house of Habsburg to ensure the French monarchy’s predominance in Europe. Although Richelieu was as much a Catholic as Wallenstein, and even a Cardinal of the Roman Church, he kept his policies free of any religious prejudices. He incited the Catholic princes in Germany against the Emperor just as much as he tried to persuade the Protestant King of Sweden to attack Germany. But Richelieu found his most effective ally in the German Emperor himself. For his own part he had not cruelly persecuted the defeated Huguenots, but on the contrary permitted them the political rights they could claim under the actual legal conditions, so that he was able to turn the united strength of France outwards. The German Emperor on the other hand, when Wallenstein laid the northern, predominantly Protestant part of Germany at his feet with the Peace of Lubeck, had no more sense than to sow new discord between the two religions. Much to Wallenstein’s annoyance, and in sharp conflict with Wallenstein’s policies, Ferdinand II enacted in 1629, at the same time as the Peace of Lübeck, the Edict of Restitution, that is to say he ordered all the ecclesiastical properties alienated since the religious Peace of Augsburg to be given back to the Catholics. He fanned the flames of the religious quarrel in North Germany at the very moment that an invasion of the foreign enemy into North Germany was imminent.

In summer 1630 King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594-1632) landed with an army on the Pomeranian coast. Long cajoled by France, he had hesitated for a long time before daring to commit the resources of tiny Sweden, which in those days counted no more than a million and a half inhabitants, to an attack on the great empire of Germany. It is a gross falsification of history to say that he finally got involved in the difficult undertaking to save the Gospel, the Protestant faith, in Germany. He was very far from such thoughts. He certainly tried to use the religious quarrel freshly fanned by the Emperor for his plans of conquest after his invasion of Germany, but he did not for a moment think of risking his kingdom to save German Lutheranism, nor is that to his discredit. On the contrary, he was historically completely justified in being solely motivated by the economic and political interests of the Swedish monarchy, which would have been most severely threatened had Wallenstein’s plan to spread Imperial dominion over the Baltic succeeded. Gustavus Adolphus acted thoroughly consistently and logically as a monarch of his time with his invasion of Germany. He can, however, lay no claim to the dubious reputation of having been a knight errant of Lutheranism.

His contemporaries, too, saw no more in his attack on Germany than there actually was: the war of a foreign conqueror. However much the princes and towns had already sinned against the Emperor and the Empire, they refused, even the Protestants among them, to join Gustavus Adolphus. Only in the town of Magdeburg, although that was the commanding position in North Germany, was there a pro-Swedish party; Gustavus Adolphus sent them Colonel Falkenberg as a leader until he could himself come to protect them. In this he was hindered for a while precisely by the Protestant Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony. What permitted him to march into Germany was a betrayal of the Emperor and Empire by the Catholic princes, incited, as Gustavus Adolphus himself was, by France. The reinforcement of the imperial authority that Wallenstein was carrying out was a thorn in the flesh of the Catholic princes as much as it was of the Protestant. At the Diet of Regensburg they demanded of the Emperor the dismissal of Wallenstein and of part of his army, under the threat that otherwise they would elect not the Emperor’s son but the French king as successor to the throne. The Emperor had to give way. He had to dismiss Wallenstein and part of his army, the rest being placed under the command of Tilly, who was the General of the League, and as such dependent on the orders of the Catholic princes.

Thus Gustavus Adolphus met no opposition to equal him in Germany. Tilly was not the bloodthirsty tyrant that Protestant historians have made him out to be, but he was still a mediocre general. After long hesitation whether he should attack the Swedish army or Magdeburg he threw himself upon the town. He succeeded in taking it, but only as a heap of ruins. The Swedish Colonel, Falkenberg, who died in the assault, had ordered it to be set alight when he saw it could no longer be held. The fearful catastrophe was however ascribed to the conquerors of the town, and since the whole world knew how the Emperor had ransacked Bohemia after Tilly’s victory at the White Mountain, great excitement arose in all the Protestant areas. Even the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony now gave up their opposition to Gustavus Adolphus, who amalgamated the Saxon troops with his own and annihilated Tilly’s army at the battle of Breitenfeld on September 17, 1631. Thus North Germany fell into the hands of the Swedish King and South Germany lay a helpless prey before him.

He did not hesitate a second over taking possession of his prey, although, from the standpoint of Swedish interests, he could have sought peace as soon as he had driven the Imperial forces out of Northern Germany. In predatory incursions, ravaging and destroying, he travelled through the rich ecclesiastical lands around the Main. He held a luxurious court in Mainz during the winter of 1631-1632, then set out for Bavaria, which he ravaged like a vandal. Even his patron, France, was unhappy about the overwhelming increase in his strength, but this Protestant soldier of God had two unshakable defenders in the Grand Turk and the Pope, who honoured in him the oppressor of Habsburg power. The Pope, at that time Urban VIII, who felt himself to be through and through an Italian prince and was drawn by his interests more to the French than the Austro-Spanish side, saw in the heretic king a saviour sent by God. The Emperor was much wiser in recalling Wallenstein to the supreme command than he was in his unsuccessful efforts to obtain the Papal blessing. With amazing speed Wallenstein put a new army onto a warlike footing and drove the Swedish King out of South Germany onto the Saxon plain, where Gustavus Adolphus died at the battle of Lützen on November 16, 1632.

His death changed nothing in the general course of events. Gustavus Adolphus had long passed the peak of his career as a conqueror. The setback that the Swedish army suffered lay in the very nature of things. Sweden could not defeat Germany, and Gustavus Adolphus could not have changed that even if he had lived much longer. But nor could the Imperial authority be restored. When the Emperor once again failed Wallenstein in his plans, and Wallenstein tried to pursue his political goals on his own, the mighty instrument that he thought he had created in his army broke him. His Generals and Colonels deserted him and he fell to the daggers of the Emperor’s assassins. Of all the parties that were struggling against one another on German soil, no single one could force a decision, so that the reins of the war fell into the hands of France. The Swedish conquerers were now no more than Swedish mercenaries, as indeed Gustavus Adolphus had been. As such they were among the most vicious of Germany’s plunderers and ravagers.

After lasting thirty years, the war died of general exhaustion. No great advanced nation has had to suffer comparable destruction. Germany was thrown back two hundred years in its development. It took two hundred years to regain the economic position it could claim at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. In the Peace of Westphalia, which closed the war in 1648, France seized for herself the richest cities of Western Germany. In the North the Swedes took the estuaries of the Oder, the Elbe and the Weser. Both countries retained the right to intervene in German affairs. The last vestiges of the authority of the Emperor and the Empire had irrevocably disappeared. The economic origins of the German Reformation continued to exert their effect. The ‘Liberty of the Estates’, that is, the sovereignty of the territorial ruler, triumphed all along the line. Even the right to conclude treaties with foreigners was guaranteed to them in the Peace of Westphalia.




1. Franz von Sickingen – Strongly nationalistic drama written in 1859 by Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64), one of the founders of German Social Democracy and an opponent of Marx.

2. Letters of Obscure Men (Epistolae obscurorum virorum) – A collection of satirical, strongly anti-clerical letters written at the beginning of the 16th century by various hands. One of these was Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523, see below), a member of a poor knightly family, who became a monk then fled and wandered through Europe. With Franz von Sickingen attempted to get the knights to assert themselves against the German princes.

3. Junkers – Members of the Prussian nobility.

4. Peasant War – Uprising of the German peasantry at the beginning of the German Reformation (1525); it was put down by the German princes with great cruelty. In 1856 Marx wrote to Engels: ‘Everything in Germany will depend upon whether it will be possible to support the proletarian revolution with something like a second edition of the Peasant War.’ Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany was written in London is 1850 – as he wrote – ‘under the vivid impression of the counter-revolution that had just been completed’ in Germany.

5. Luther’s pamphlets were called respectively An admonition to Peace on the Basis of the Twelve Articles and Against the Thieving and Murderous Peasants.


Last updated on 16.2.2004