The Peasants’ War in Germany was a series of conflicts among the various princes in Germany and those who worked under them during a time of both economic and religious change in Germany. The best known and documented conflict surrounds Thomas Müntzer and the revolt in the region of Thuringia in Germany.
The early 1500s was a time of many changes in Germany. In general, the economy was good, and the peasant farmers were able to provide for themselves and their families reasonably well. There was little central authority in Germany, and each region was ruled by a prince, who had varying amounts of authority and power.
This power was tested in small rebellions by the peasants and townspeople, often with negotiated settlements rather than wholesale slaughter as a result. Peasants were the lowest members of society and had few rights.
Generally they worked mines or farmed land and raised livestock belonging to a prince or nobleman, could not marry without permission, did not own any land, and were taxed heavily. At much the same level were plebeians, or commoners, townsmen who worked for craftsmen or merchants at subsistence levels or were unemployed.
Various religious movements were also having influence on the peasants. Since the time of the bubonic plague with all of the attendant death, there was a rising expectation of the end times prophesied in the book of Revelation in the Bible.
Throughout the previous century, small movements and figures rose, prophesying that Christ’s return was imminent. A very different religious movement, the Reformation, began in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when the young monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door.
In his early writings, Luther spoke moderately to both prince and peasant, but many peasants took encouragement from his challenge to the centralized authority of the Roman Catholic Church, advocating a strong role for the local congregation. Their hope was that the local town or trade association would also be strengthened, especially over against the princes.
At the same time, the Reformation heightened the end-time expectations. In 1522, Luther himself had to come out of hiding at Wartburg at great personal risk to deal with the three Zwickau prophets: Thomas Dreschel, Mark Thomas Stübner, and Nicolas Storch.
The three men were agitating the citizens of Wittenberg with their Anabaptist leanings and prophetic visions. Luther succeeded in having them sent out of the city, but that would not be the last time he would have to deal with them.
Conflict between peasant and prince was not unusual. In the early 1520s, there were riots of peasants and other classes in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. Causes were many—for example, in the summer of 1524 revolt broke out in Stühlingen in southern Germany over the countess’s command to gather snail shells on which to wind her yarn.
But the major spark that set off significant battles came in 1524 when Thomas Müntzer returned from Zwickau and Bohemia and began his preaching in the Thuringian city of Allstedt in central Germany.
Müntzer, a former Roman Catholic priest who had wrestled with his faith, had become Lutheran soon after the Reformation began in 1517. In 1520, he ended up in Zwickau and there met Niklas Storch, a weaver with apocalyptic expectations of Christ’s imminent return. Persuaded by Storch’s convictions, Müntzer soon became the preacher in a church attended by many of Storch’s coworkers.
Storch had been proclaiming that the end times were near, that the righteous would soon begin to rise up against the unrighteous (seen as those in authority) and commence the last days prophesied in the book of Revelation.
Müntzer, as a priest and educated man, was able to fill out Storch’s theme. While popular with the masses, such preaching caused the leading townspeople to clamp down on the church, ending with a revolt of the plebeian weavers and others, and Müntzer and Storch’s ejection from the city in 1521.
While Storch, Stübner, and Dreschel went to Wittenberg, Müntzer went on to nearby Prague until he was also expelled from the city. After two years of wandering and preaching, he ended up in Allstedt and there became a popular preacher amongst the peasants and others.
Müntzer’s preaching began to alarm those in authority. In July 1524, Duke John, a prince of Saxony, traveled to Allstedt and ordered Müntzer to preach a sermon. Müntzer, eager to have the opportunity to persuade a prince, thundered against the evil and ungodly, saying, “So don’t let them live any longer the evildoers who turn us away from God.
For a godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly.” When Luther heard of this, he wrote an attack against Müntzer addressed to the princes. Müntzer responded with two tracts addressed to the people, the latter of which was called The most amply called-for defense answer to the unspiritual soft-living flesh at Wittenberg.
This was a clear call to social revolution and prepared the way for what was to come. The patient Duke John summoned Müntzer to Weimar, telling him to cease his preaching and not leave Allstedt. Müntzer’s response was to leave Allstedt, eventually ending up in the nearby city of Mühlhausen.
In Mühlhausen, a man named Heinrich Pfeiffer had been agitating the poorer citizens to take control of the city. Joined by Müntzer and eventually Storch, the agitation increased to a fever pitch. In March 1525, Müntzer began proclaiming that the new league of peasants should march out to war against the godless.
In response, bands of peasants began sacking convents and monasteries, but there was no organized effort until May 1525, when the peasants had organized themselves into an army of approximately 8,000. By that time, at the request of Duke John, a nearby prince, Philip of Hesse, had arrived with a small army to deal with the problems in Thuringia.
Müntzer marched out to aid the peasants with a band of 300 men and on May 15, the army of Philip of Hesse attacked and quickly routed the peasant army, eventually killing nearly 5,000 of the peasants. For his part in it, Müntzer was tortured and beheaded along with Pfeiffer (Storch escaped but was soon captured and killed).
This was not the end of the Peasants’ War. There were no other battles so significant, but it is estimated that some 100,000 peasants and plebeians were killed in the next several years as the various revolts were put down by the princes. The religious overtones were significant in the Peasants’ War.
They were not the principal cause, but rather the match that ignited the fires of the war. The peasants and plebeians were caught in a time of significant transition. As noted earlier, the peasant class was actually rising in economic stature but was still living in significant poverty in comparison to the middle and upper classes of Germany.
The Reformation gave a broader vision for the equality of the people before God, but it was only the more radical elements that proclaimed a classless society. Luther, himself an advocate of the common people, still perceived the various occupations as God-given and did not advocate a classless society.
In the final analysis, the Peasants’ War was one of many such struggles that are endemic to a society in transition. There is a certain irony that the princes who were most moderate toward their people ended up having to put down more ruthlessly the uprising, but the very moderate stance they took encouraged the hope of those promoting revolution.