The German Peasants’ War was an attempt to strike a powerful blow against the then-prevalent economic structure of feudalism. It was the largest uprising in Western Europe before the French Revolution, by some estimates involving up to 300,000 rebels. However, the peasants’ struggles have largely been forgotten by the public. Their ideology, the course of their war, and the aftermath have been pushed to the side, while more recent revolutions have been the subject of far more discussion and debate.
The Peasants’ War took place against a backdrop of social upheaval, both in German-speaking territories and in the larger Holy Roman Empire. The people of nearby Switzerland had recently staged their own revolt, deposing their Habsburg dynasty rulers and claiming independence. Prior, smaller revolts in Germany had been swiftly crushed by their opposition, but they left in their wake literature, art, and the concept of the Bundschuh. Literally translating to “bound shoe,” this image of a tightly-laced work boot represented a united serfdom, and was emblazoned on the banners of organized peasants throughout Germany.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther had been busy disrupting the established order of the Catholic Church when he published his 95 Theses in 1517. This seminal work of the Protestant Reformation railed against the ruling class of Catholic priests, their monopoly on intellectualism, and the collection of exorbitant indulgences. Luther conceived of a “priesthood of all believers,” in which all people would have access to God, and the clergy would lose their right to special protections and privileges under the law. This seemed to pave the way for greater equality between the starkly divided social classes of 16th-century Germany.
Whatever the ideological basis of the revolt, the material conditions of peasant life were certainly poor enough to drive anyone to rebellion. The Holy Roman Empire was divided into hundreds of small fiefdoms, each ruled over by an individual lord or prince. These nobles had near total control over their respective dominions: they possessed the laborers in all but name, and had the right to raise taxes, appoint clergy, and rewrite laws on a whim. Many lords also restricted access to the waters and forests of their territory, which had previously been considered public property for fishing and the gathering of firewood. The poor were required to pay a toll in order to use these lands, and for many it was too costly to afford.
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The harvest season of 1524 in Stühlingen had been a difficult one. The serfs of that territory were already exhausted from the backbreaking labor, and their own profits were severely diminished by the taxes taken by their lords.
The Countess of Lupfen, however, was not yet satisfied. She sent orders to the Stühlingen peasants: they were to gather snail shells for their lady, which her seamstress would use as spools for thread. This humiliating task proved too much for the people and, within a few days, 1,200 peasants had gathered at her gates, refusing to work until their concerns were addressed.
This incident began what is now known as the German Peasants’ War, a series of regional revolts that spread outward from Stühlingen in the southwest. In March of 1525, three of these regional peasant bands gathered at Memmingen to sum up their demands. The resulting document, the Twelve Articles, rejected the idea of serfdom, calling for laborers to be released from their lords’ possession. The peasants also demanded the right to self-determination in the ability to elect and remove clergy members.
As the revolution spread, it captured the attention of two of the time’s most influential intellectuals: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer. Some nobles blamed Luther’s Protestant ideas for fomenting rebellion, and he responded by critiquing both sides: the peasants for disturbing the peace, and the nobility for letting the situation get out of hand. In his view, the peasants should’ve sat idly by and waited for conditions to improve at God’s will.
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Müntzer, however, was a radical reform priest, and proved one of the peasant army’s greatest allies. He brought their concerns before the princes of Germany early on in the rebellion. Müntzer warned that if the nobles didn’t address the peasants’ concerns, the common people would seize power for themselves. Sympathizing with the plight of the peasants, Müntzer took to the battlefield, where he was given a position of high rank in the peasant army.
The peasant bands were loosely organized, consisting of various factions. A small number of peasants had military experience from the Holy Roman Empire’s campaigns in France, and were elevated to leadership roles. In some cases, nobles like Michael Gaismair and Florian Geyer joined the ranks of the peasants, and were often rewarded for their financial and material contribution with positions of power.
Also among the peasant armies was Götz von Berlichingen, an accomplished and fearsome Landsknecht, or mercenary, known for his iron prosthetic hand and foul mouth. According to von Berlichingen himself, he was reluctant to support the peasants, but they had coerced him to join their side with threat of force. He disapproved of the rampant violence, and hoped to rein in the wrathful peasants. Finding himself unable to do so, however, von Berlichingen retreated to his castle and secluded himself there for the rest of the war.
The peasants stormed churches and estates alike, availing themselves of the riches and weapons they found there. The spoils of war were equally distributed by an elected officer. The peasant army was even able to prioritize strategic targets, seizing the cannons many lords kept in their towers for their own use.
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As the peasants grew in numbers and courage, the war became increasingly violent. When peasants took over the castle at Weinsberg in April 1525, the nobles who had been hiding out there were made to run the gauntlet of pikes. In this brutal form of execution, the occupying army forced their targets to run between two rows of peasants who repeatedly struck at them with pointed weapons.
In the aftermath of this violence, Luther published a new work, entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it, he compared the rebels to mad dogs, and likened their work to that of the devil. The manuscript served as a call to arms for the nobility, suggesting that they raise their armies as soon as possible and crush the revolt before it proceeded any further.
The German nobility took heed, hiring legions of well-equipped Landsknecht mercenaries. The peasants fought back, but the superior funding and morale of the Landsknecht proved too much for them. Individual revolts were swiftly squashed, and their leaders (Müntzer included) were captured and executed. Some estimate that of the 300,000 peasants who participated in the war, 100,000 were killed, either in massacres or by execution. Even those who survived were harshly punished by fine. The peasants' army hadn't achieved its lofty vision of securing the serfs' rights and freedom.
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Though many of their contemporaries did not look kindly upon the rebelling peasants, history has sided with them. In his 1850 book The Peasant War in Germany, Friedrich Engels compared their struggles to social unrest in the Germany of his time. Writer Jean-Paul Sartre even penned a play about the war, The Devil and the Good Lord. This helped elevate many of its major players (especially Götz von Berlichingen, whose character in the play develops from a war criminal to a hero of the people) to a kind of legendary status.
But despite all this retroactive goodwill, real change for the peasants of Germany didn’t arrive until many centuries after the war had run its course. This is perhaps why their rebellion has been largely forgotten; swiftly devastated by the nobles they opposed, the peasants’ ideals were never really given a chance to flourish.