German Peasants' revolt

From New World Encyclopedia

The Peasants' War (in German, der Deutsche Bauernkrieg, literally the "German Peasants' War") was a popular revolt in southern, western and central areas of modern Germany as well as areas in neighboring Switzerland and Austria between 1524-1525. At its height in the spring and summer of 1525, it involved an estimated 300,000 peasant insurgents and resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths. Although sparked by the Protestant Reformation, it was motivated largely by social discontent as the result of increasing economic inequality at a time when the feudal system was coming unraveled.

The Protestant reformation, which began with Martin Luther in 1517, taught that all people are valued by God and can access God directly without the need of priestly mediation. Some Protestants argued from this that the church should be governed by the people, not by a clerical elite. Others translated the teaching into the political realm and argued that all people, regardless of social rank, should participate in governance. These views, extreme for their time, were emphatically not the view of Martin Luther, who upheld the power of the princes. He believed that society needed to be policed in order to prevent chaos and moral laxity.

The reformer who led a significant part of the revolt was Thomas Müntzer, leader of the Anabaptists. He wanted to create a Utopian society ruled by God as a stepping-stone for the creation of God's kingdom. He considered distinctions between the spiritual and temporal realms to be false. Taking his ideas to their extreme, he resorted to physical force opposing all constituted authorities while he attempted to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth that was to uphold absolute equality and the community of goods.

The failure of the peasant's revolt, and of Muntzer's violent but unsuccessful pursuit of his presumed ideal Christian commonwealth in particular, reaffirmed and strengthened the alliance between religion and the state. This would be necessary for the survival of the Protestant Reformation, which required defenders among the princes of Germany to withstand the Roman Catholic assault in the Thirty Years' War. The alliance of church and state would continue in Europe to the present day. It would be another century before the English Reformation would establish the concept that subjects and citizens should have the right to practice their religion without state interference.

Marxists, interested in the element of class struggle, see Thomas Müntzer as a hero of the proletariat whose ideas eventually saw fruition in the Marxist state of what was formerly East Germany.[1]

Thomas Müntzer, in an eighteenth century engraving by C. Van Sichem. No contemporary image of the reformer exists.

Causes of the war

The war was in part an expression of the religious upheaval known as the Reformation, during which critics of the Roman Catholic Church challenged the prevailing religious and political order. A number of historians have cited the "Economic Anticlericalism" inherent in the beginnings of the Peasants' War of 1524-1525. However, the war also reflected deep-seated social discontent. To understand the causes of the Peasants' War it is necessary to examine the changing structure of the seven social classes in Germany and their relationship to one another. These classes were the princes, the lesser nobles, the prelates, the patricians, the burghers, the plebeians, and the peasants.

Social classes in sixteenth century Holy Roman Empire

The princes

The princes served as the main centralizers of their territory. They were nearly autocratic in their reign and recognized barely any authority that the estates attempted to assert. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they needed it. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep forced the princes to continually raise the cost of living for their subjects. The lesser nobility and the clergy paid no taxes and were often in support of the prince. Many towns had privileges that protected them from taxes, so the bulk of the burden fell on the peasants. Princes often attempted to force freer peasants into serfdom through increasing taxes and by introducing Roman Civil law, which was more conducive to those seeking to consolidate power because it reduced all lands to their private ownership and wiped out the feudal concept of the land as a trust between the lord and the peasant involving rights as well as obligations. In maintaining the remnants of the ancient law, which gave the princes their force of legitimacy, they heightened not only their wealth and position within the empire (through the confiscation of all property and revenues) but also their dominion over the peasant subjects. Under this ancient law, the peasants could do little more than passively resist. Even then, the prince had absolute control over all his serfs and their possessions. Until Thomas Müntzer and other radicals like him would reject the legitimizing factors of ancient law and employ "Godly Law" as a means to rouse the people, uprisings would remain isolated, unsupported, and easily put down.

Lesser nobility

The progress of late medieval industry was enough to render the lesser nobility of knights obsolete. The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry diminished the lesser knights' role as heavy cavalry and also reduced the strategic importance of their castles. The knights' luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices continued to rise. They exercised their ancient rights in order to wring what profits they could from their territories. The knights became embittered, due to being progressively impoverished and increasingly put under the jurisdiction of the princes. Thus the two classes were in constant conflict. The knights also regarded the clergy as an arrogant and superfluous estate and envied the privileges and masses of wealth secured by church statutes. In addition, the knights, often in debt to the town, were incessantly quarreling with the town patricians.

The clergy

The clergy, or prelate class, was to lose its place as the intellectual authority over all matters within the state. The progress of printing and extended commerce as well as the spread of renaissance humanism raised literacy rates throughout the Empire. Thus the Catholic Church's monopoly on higher education was also reduced. The passage of time had seen regional Catholic institutions slip into corruption. Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding several offices at once) were rampant. Some bishops, archbishops, abbots (heads of monasteries, or Abbeys) and priors (who head friaries) exploited their subjects as ruthlessly as the regional princes did. In addition to the sale of indulgences, they set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation over Church corruption would eventually lead the Roman Catholic Priest Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 and to impel other reformers to radically rethink Church doctrine and organization.


As guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians were confronted with increasing opposition. The patricians were wealthy families who sat alone in the town councils and held all administrative offices. Similar to the power of the princes, they could gain revenues from their peasants in any way possible. Arbitrary road, bridge, and gate tolls could be instituted at will. They gradually revoked the common lands and made it illegal for a farmer to fish or to log in what was once land held by all. Guild taxes were exacted. All revenues collected were not formally administered and accounts in town books were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud were commonly practiced and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became continually richer and ever more exploitative.


The town patricians became progressively more criticized by the growing burgher class. The burgher class was made up of well-to-do middle class citizens who often held administrative positions in guilds or worked as merchants themselves. To the burghers, their growing wealth was reason enough for their claim to the right of control over town administration. They openly demanded a town assembly made of patricians and burghers or at least a restriction of simony with several seats going to burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy, who they felt had overstepped its bounds and failed to uphold its religious duties. They demanded an end to the clergy’s special privileges such as freedom from taxation and a reduction in their number. The burghers altered the guilds from a system of artisan and journeyman apprentice to that of capitalist management and proletariat. The burgher “master artisan” owned his workshop and its tools. He allowed the apprentice use of the shop and tools as well as providing the materials needed in order to complete the product in exchange for pay according to a synthesis of the length of labor as well as quality and quantity of the product. Journeymen no longer had the opportunity to rise in the guild ranks and were thus held in a position deprived of civic rights.

Thuringia's location within Germany.


The plebeians were the new class of urban workers, journeymen, and vagabonds. Ruined petty burghers also joined their ranks. Urban workers and journeymen resembled the modern working class which necessarily takes shape in any capitalist system. Journeymen, although technically they were potential burghers, were barred from higher positions by the wealthy families that controlled them. Thus their position as “temporarily” outside the bounds of civic rights became much more of a permanent installment of early modern industrial production. The plebeians did not even have property that ruined burghers or peasants held. They were landless citizens, without rights, and a testament to the decay of feudal society. It was in Thuringia that the revolution which centered around Thomas Müntzer would give the plebeian working faction the greatest expression. Their demands were of complete social equality as they began to believe, with the aid of Müntzer, that their burgeoning society was driven by them from below and not the other way around. The existing hierarchical authorities of the time were quickest to put down such explosive ideals, which posed the greatest threat to their traditional authority.

The peasants

The lowest strata of society remained the peasant. The peasant supported all other estates of society not only through direct taxation but in the production of agriculture and the keeping of livestock. The peasant was the property of whomever he was subject to. Be it bishop, prince, a town or a noble, the peasant and all things associated with him were subject to any whim whatsoever. Countless taxes were exacted on the peasant, forcing more and more of his time to be spent working on his lord’s estate. Most of what he produced was taken in the form of a tithe or some other tax. The peasant could not hunt, fish or chop wood freely in the early sixteenth century as the lords had recently taken these commonly held lands for their own purposes. The lord had rights to use the peasant’s land as he wished; the peasant could do nothing but watch idly by as his crops were destroyed by wild game and nobles on the chivalric hunt. When a peasant wished to marry, he required the lord's permission as well as having to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garment and his best tool. The justice system, staffed by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, would not provide the peasant any solace; the upper classes survived by exploiting the peasant and plebeian classes and saw the danger in offering them equality. Generations of servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas. The peasant’s only hope was a unification of ideals across provincial lines. Müntzer was to recognize that the more recently diluted class structures provided the lower stratum of society with greater force of legitimacy in their revolt, as well as more room for political and socio-economic gains.

Class struggle and reformation

The newer classes and their respective interests were enough to soften the authority of the old feudal system. Increased international trade and industry not only confronted the princes with the growing interests of the merchant capitalist class but widened the base of lower class interests (the peasants and now the urban workers) as well. The interposition of the burgher and the necessary plebeian class weakened feudal authority as both classes opposed the top while naturally opposing each other. The introduction of the plebeian class strengthened lower class interests in several ways. Instead of the peasantry being the sole oppressed and traditionally servile estate, the plebeians added a new dimension which represented similar class interests without a history of outright oppression.

Similarly, the dilution of the class struggle brought fiercer opposition to the Catholic institution from every one of the classes within the new hierarchy of the late medieval age. Once made aware of it, the lower classes (plebeian and peasant alike) could no longer stand the exploitation they had suffered from the upper classes, believing the clergy to be among the most guilty. The burghers and nobles despised the perceived laziness and looseness of clerical life. Being of the more privileged classes by entrepreneurship and tradition respectively (and both by exploitation), they felt that the clergy was reaping benefits (such as those from tax exemption and ecclesiastical tithes) to which they had no right. When the situation was propitious even the princes would abandon Catholicism in favor of political and financial independence and increased power within their territories.

After thousands of articles of complaints were compiled and presented by the lower classes in numerous towns and villages to no avail, the revolution broke. The parties split into three distinct groups with inexorable ties to the class structure. The Catholic camp consisted of the clergy, patricians and princes who opposed all opposition to the order of Catholicism. The moderate reforming party consisted mainly of the burghers and princes. Burghers saw an opportunity to gain power in the urban councils as Luther’s proposed reformed church would be highly centralized within the towns and condemned the patrician practice of nepotism by which they held a firm grip on the bureaucracy. Similarly, the princes could gain further autonomy not only from the Catholic emperor Charles V but also from the needs of the Catholic Church in Rome. The plebeians, peasants and those sympathetic to their cause made up the third revolutionary camp led by preachers such as Müntzer. This camp desired to break the shackles of late medieval society and forge a new one entirely in the name of God.

Peasants and plebeians in Germany compiled lists of articles outlining their complaints. The famous 12 articles of the Black Forest were ultimately adopted as the definitive set of grievances. The articles' statement of social, political and economic grievances in the increasingly popular Protestant thread unified the population in the massive uprising that initially broke out in Lower Swabia in 1524, and quickly spread to other areas of Germany.

Zwickau prophets and the Peasants' War

On December 27, 1521, three "prophets," influenced by and, in turn, influencing Thomas Müntzer, appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch, and Mark Thomas Stübner. Martin Luther's reform was not thorough enough for them. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Luther practiced infant baptism, which the Anabaptists considered to be "neither scriptural nor primitive, nor fulfilling the chief conditions of admission into a visible brotherhood of saints, to wit, repentance, faith, spiritual illumination and free surrender of self to Christ."

Luther at age 46 (1529), by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Uffizi Gallery

Reformist theologian and Luther associate Philipp Melanchthon, powerless against the enthusiasts with whom his co-reformer Andreas Karlstadt sympathized, appealed to Luther, who was still concealed in the Wartburg. Luther was cautious not to condemn the new doctrine off-hand, but advised Melanchthon to treat them gently and to prove their spirits, lest they be of God. There was confusion in Wittenberg, where schools and university sided with the "prophets" and were closed. Hence the charge that Anabaptists were enemies of learning, which is sufficiently rebutted by the fact that the first German translation of the Hebrew prophets was made and printed by two of them, Hetzer and Denck, in 1527. The first leaders of the movement in Zürich—Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier—were men learned in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

On the 6th of March Luther returned, interviewed the prophets, scorned their "spirits," forbade them to enter the city, and had their adherents ejected from Zwickau and Erfurt. Denied access to the churches, the latter preached and celebrated the sacrament in private houses. Driven from the cities they swarmed over the countryside. Compelled to leave Zwickau, Müntzer visited Bohemia, resided two years at Alltstedt in Thuringia, and in 1524, spent some time in Switzerland. During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary doctrines in religion and politics with growing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success.

In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, the peasant's revolt became, under the leadership of Müntzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods. The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed as it was by the execution of Müntzer and several other leaders, proved only a temporary check to the Anabaptist movement. Here and there throughout Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands there were zealous propagandists, through whose teaching many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader should arise.

Final failure

The peasant movement ultimately failed as cities and nobles made their own peace with the princely armies which restored the old order in often still harsher form under the nominal overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger brother Ferdinand.

The religious dissident Martin Luther, already condemned as a heretic by the 1521 Edict of Worms and accused at the time of fomenting the strife, rejected the demands of the insurgents and upheld the right of Germany's rulers to suppress the uprisings, but his former follower Thomas Müntzer came to the fore as a radical agitator in Thuringia.


  1. PBS, Apocalypticism Explained: Thomas Müntzer. Retrieved September 9, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blickle, Peter, Thomas A. Brady, Jr. and H. C. Erik Midelfort (tans.). The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a New Perspective. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1985. ISBN 0801831628.
  • Engels, Friedrich. The Peasant War in Germany, 3rd ed. New York: International Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0717807207.
  • Kuenning, Paul P. Luther and Muntzer: Contrasting Theologies in Regard to Secular Authority Within the Context of the German Peasant Revolt. Waco, TX: J. M. Dawson Studies in Church and State, Baylor University, 1987.
  • Martinson, Steven D. Between Luther and Münzer: The Peasant Revolt in German Drama and Thought. (Frankfurter Beiträge zur Germanistik). Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1988. ISBN 3533039102.


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