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sale of indulgences in Saxony, Luther hung out on the doors of the Wittenberg chapel, his
ninety-five theses against indulgences. His first protest against the Roman Church was very
timid. Luther protested against corruption. Thesis 21 read: ‘Advocates of indulgences are
mistaken  when  they  say  that  through  papal  absolution  a  man  is  freed  of  all  punishment.’
Thesis 27: ‘It is nonsense to preach that as soon as the penny jingles in the box, the soul
leaves  purgatory.’  Luther  was  surprised  at  the  effect  of  his  theses.  He  gave  impetus  to  a
movement  which  had  started  before  him,  and  it  engulfed  all  classes  of  Germany.  Three
groups  became  engaged  in  the  struggle:  the  Catholic  conservatives,  the  middle-class
reformists,  and  the  plebeian  revolutionists.  As  a  leader  of  the  middle-class  reformist
movement,  Luther  at  first  appealed  to  violence,  to  the  use  of  fire  and  iron  for  the
extermination of the cancer that, he said, was destroying the world. He called for a decisive
struggle against the lay and clerical princes. Between 1517 and 1522, Luther was ready to
enter  an  alliance  with  the  democratic  factions.  Between  1522  and  1525,  however,  he
betrayed  his  allies,  the  peasantry  and  the  lower  clergy.  His  change  was  due  to  the
Anabaptists in Zwickau and the peasant movement. He was also influenced by the uprising
of the knighthood (Autumn, 1522).
At the head of the uprising of the knighthood were Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von
Hutten.  The  former  was  the  commander,  and  the  latter  the  ideologist  of  the  movement.
Their  hatred  for  the  pope  and  the  princes  and  their  striving  for  the  reconstruction  of  a
united  Germany  made  them,  by  the  middle  of  the  Sixteenth  Century,  the  heroes  of  the
German  bourgeoisie.  In  substance,  however,  the  movement  of  united  knighthood  in  a
society  where  capitalism  had  begun  to  develop,  was  reactionary.  Sickingen  and  Hutten
dreamed of a renewed mediaeval state where power was in the hands of the nobles and the
emperor was their subject. They never aimed at freeing the cities or the peasantry, though
they  were  compelled  to  appeal  to  them  for  aid.  In  the  summer  of  1522,  Franz  von
Sickingen  led  troops  against  the  ‘priestly  nest’  of  Trier.  But  the  armies  of  the  united
Rhenish and Suabian princes dealt him a decisive blow. Many castles were destroyed and
many knights perished. Luther did not support that movement, but condemned it as well as
that of the peasants.
In his first works, where he called the princes ‘the greatest fools on earth and the most
heinous  scoundrels,’  and  in  his  first  appeals  relative  to  the  Peasant  War,  Luther  defended
the insurgents. He wrote, for instance, ‘It is not the peasants who arose against you masters,
but God himself, who wishes to punish you for your evil doings.’ Luther hoped to find in
the  peasant  movement  a  support  for  his  struggle  against  Rome.  But  when,  in  April  and
May,  the  peasantry  revolted  all  over  the  country,  burning  and  destroying  castles,  the
movement  assuming  a  communist  character,  Luther  defended  the  princes  against  the
The Peasant War in Germany
– 112 –

insurgent  peasants.  He  attributed  the  movement  to  the  peasants’  easy  life.  He  urged  the
princes to ‘strangle them as you would mad dogs.’ When the insurrection was quelled, he
bragged that he ‘had killed the peasants because he had given the orders to kill.’ ‘All their
blood is upon me,’ he said.
An  alliance  was  established  between  Luther  and  the  princes,  who  were  well  satisfied
with the acquisition of the church estates. The Reformation was profitable both to them and
to the insurgents of the big cities. In 1526, at a Diet session in Speyer, it was for the first
time  decreed  that  the  subject  must  follow  the  faith  of  his  master.  This  saved  the  princes,
who openly joined Luther. It is true that in 1529 Catholic services were reinstated and the
confiscation of the lands of the clergy was halted in the provinces of the Lutheran princes,
but the Lutheran minority protested against this decision – hence the name Protestants.  In
1530, at a Diet session in Augsburg, the Protestant princes submitted to Emperor Charles V
the  so-called  Augsburg  Confession  of  the  Lutherans.  It  consisted  of  two  parts,  the  first
giving  an  exposition  of  the  new  faith,  and  the  second  condemning  the  corruption  of  the
Roman Church and outlining the necessary reforms.
‘We  reject  those,’  says  the  Augsburg  Confession,  ‘who  preach  that  absolution  can  be
reached, not by faith, but by good deeds.’ Man can find favour in the eyes of God, says the
document, only by the word of God and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must not, it
says, confuse the authority of the State with the authority of the pope; the Church has the
power to preach the Gospel and to perform rites, but it should not participate in the affairs
of the State.
The  publication  of  the  Augsburg  Confession  was  not  the  end  of  the  struggle.  In
September, 1555, at the Augsburg Diet, the so-called Augsburg Religious Peace confirmed
the  decision  of  1526  relative  to  the  obligation  of  the  subjects  to  follow  the  faith  of  their
masters.  This  decision  made  it  obvious  that  Germany  was  to  remain  dismembered,  under
the rule of the princes.
Lutherism  became  the  religion  of  the  economically  backward  countries.  It  spread  in
northern and western Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where the princes, the bishops and
the  landlords  became  the  protectors  of  the  Lutheran  Church.  But  even  this  partial  reform
could  succeed  only  as  a  result  of  the  revolutionary  movement  of  the  peasantry,  the  cities
and the knighthood.
14.
 

Joachim  of  Floris

 (of  Calabria)  –  An  Italian  mystic  of  the  Twelfth  Century.  His
doctrine of the eternal gospel is known under the name of Joachimism. In his conception,
the Apocalypse teaches us that the world passes through three ages, the age of the Law, or
of  the  Father,  the  age  of  the  Gospel,  or  of  the  Son,  and  the  age  of  the  Spirit,  which  will
The Peasant War in Germany
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bring the ages to an end. The first age, he said, corresponds to the Old Testament, the rule
of lay authority, of external law and the preponderance of the flesh. The second age marks
the  predominance  of  the  clergy,  and  the  combination  of  spiritual  and  material  interests.
This, he said, was the age he lived in. The third age, he prophesied, would soon come and
would  be  marked  by  a  dominance  of  the  spirit  over  the  flesh,  the  monks  becoming  the
ruling  power,  and  the  eternal  gospel  being  the  law  of  the  world.  Joachim  denied  that
humanity was saved by Christ.
Joachim  was  of  an  urban  family.  Stricken  by  the  horrors  of  the  plague  epidemic,  he
became a monk and founded the monastery of San Giovanni in Fiore. He wrote two books:
The  Concordance  Between  the  New  and  the  Old  Testaments  and  Commentary  on  the
Apocalypse.  Several  decades  later  (1260),  the  Joachimites  were  cursed  by  the  pope  and
severely persecuted.
15.
 

Nicolas  Storch

 –  A  cloth-maker  in  Zwickau,  were  he  became  famous  by  preaching
religious communism. Thomas Muenzer was under his influence and asserted that he knew
the  Bible  better  than  all  priests  combined.  In  a  short  time,  a  whole  community,  which
counted twelve apostles in its midst, gathered around Storch. His disciples believed that the
truth was given to him in holy revelations. On May 16, 1521, the community of Zwickau
invited  a  new  preacher,  Nicolas  Hausmann  of  Schneeberg,  a  devoted  friend  of  Luther’s,
and thus Storch’s activities met with a stubborn opposition. He was expelled from the city,
and went to the city of Wittenberg, where the ‘Zwickau prophets’ hoped to find support in
Carlstadt,  a  former  co-worker  of  Luther.  But  they  were  compelled  to  flee  to  southern
Germany  where  Storch  dreamed  of  establishing  the  kingdom  of  God  on  earth.  A  holy
revelation, he said, made clear to him the true paths of social reformation. In 1522, Storch
settled in Thuringia, where he became one of the initiators and leaders of the Peasant War.
In collaboration with Muenzer, Pfeifer and others, he composed a programme of demands,
which declared property to belong to all alike, since God had created all men equally bare
and had given to them everything on the land, in the water and under the sky. All officers,
lay  and  ecclesiastical  alike,  the  programme  said,  must  be  removed  from  their  offices,  or
killed. Every man could freely preach the law of God, as every one had a free will and was
able to accept the good and reject the evil. Storch died in Munich in 1525.
16.
 

György  Dózsa

 –  Leader  of  the  peasant  insurrection  of  the  Sixteenth  Century  in
Hungary. At that time, the struggle between the absolute power of the king and the feudal
lords of Hungary still continued. After the death of King Matthias, who, supported by the
people, had conducted a successful struggle against the feudal lords, the latter regained the
upper hand under Uladislaus, and abolished all the reforms of King Matthias including the
standing army. The country was suffering under the struggles of the feudal lords. In 1514,
The Peasant War in Germany
– 114 –

the  pope  declared  a  new  crusade  against  the  Mohammedans.  György  Dózsa,  who  had
become  famous  as  a  warrior  in  the  fight  against  the  Turks,  was  offered  the  post  of
commander.  Within  twenty  days  he  gathered  a  people’s  militia  numbering  60,000  men.
Dózsa  was  the  head  of  military  operations.  He  was  accompanied  by  two  priests,  who
aroused the soldiers, peasants and city folk by their sermons. The feudal lords were loath to
let  their  servants  join  the  crusade,  and,  as  harvest  time  was  approaching,  they  demanded
their  return.  In  reply,  Dózsa  and  the  priests  appealed  to  the  people  to  rebel.  The  peasants
arose  all  over  Hungary,  and  the  war  with  the  feudal  barons  began.  The  situation  of  the
peasantry in Hungary of that time was less intolerable than it was in the other countries, but
having  a  little  more  freedom  in  Hungary,  the  peasants  felt  more  keenly  the  yoke  of
serfdom. Incessant wars with the Turks were ruining the country, the population was being
enormously  depleted,  and  the  peasants  found  themselves  in  a  position  to  force  upon  the
feudal  lords  a  number  of  concessions.  The  peasants,  however,  being  skilled  in  the  art  of
war,  hoped  for  full  liberation.  The  lower  clergy  of  the  villages,  hating  the  princes  of  the
Church, joined the peasants. But they, along with the city middle-class, which also joined
the peasant movement, soon betrayed it.
The  leaders  of  the  peasant  uprising  (1514)  preached  that  the  nobles  were  a  criminal
class  which  had  enslaved  the  body  and  the  soul  of  the  peasant.  They  encouraged  the
destruction  of  the  houses  and  the  castles  of  the  lords.  György  Dózsa,  who  had  taught  the
peasants the use of arms, called them to rise all over the country. An army of feudal barons
under John Zápolya moved against him. This army, aided by the city middle-class and the
nobility, the former allies of the peasants, suppressed the movement cruelly. György Dózsa
offered long and stubborn resistance. He proclaimed a republic declaring the power of the
king  and  the  privileged  classes  abolished.  Notwithstanding  the  sympathy  of  the  peasant
masses  throughout  the  country,  György  Dózsa  was  defeated  at  Temesvár.  His  execution
was a refined torture. He was placed on a red hot iron throne, his head was adorned with a
red  hot  iron  crown,  and  a  red  hot  iron  sceptre  was  forced  into  his  hand.  Dózsa’s  only
exclamation  was:  ‘These  hounds!’  No  less  than  60,000  peasants  were  killed  in  this
uprising. The lords in Diet assembled, decided to increase the burden of the peasantry and
declared serfdom a perpetual institution.
17.

The War of the Roses

(1455–1485) – After the termination of the Hundred Years’ War
between England and France (1339–1450) and after the English armies were compelled to
evacuate  France,  a  bloody  war  started  between  the  two  dynasties,  Lancaster  and  York,
which  lasted  over  thirty  years.  The  Lancaster  dynasty,  with  a  red  rose  as  its  emblem,
represented the interests of the large feudal masters in Wales and in the north where their
large estates were located. The York dynasty, with a white rose as its emblem, depended on
The Peasant War in Germany
– 115 –

the  commercial  southeast,  the  city  population,  the  peasants  and  the  House  of  Commons.
The  stubborn  feud  between  the  two  dynasties  was  to  decide  whether  England  would
become  an  absolute  monarchy  in  case  of  the  victory  of  the  York  dynasty,  or  whether  it
would be divided among the feudal masters with the victory of the Lancaster dynasty.
As early as the Fourteenth Century, large land possessions concentrated in the hands of
a few noble families. In the Fifteenth Century, the House of Lords counted only one-third
of  its  old  members.  The  surviving  dynasties  annexed  the  land  of  those  families  that  had
disappeared.  When  the  Hundred  Years’  War  was  over,  the  army  was  disbanded  and  the
former  soldiers  taken  into  the  service  of  the  feudal  masters.  In  the  second  half  of  the
Fifteenth Century, the war between the two dynasties began. In the battle of Northampton
(1460), York captured the king and compelled the House of Lords to recognise him as the
protector of the state and the heir to the throne. He was defeated by the army of the hostile
dynasty, but his son Edward returned to London victorious (1451). Edward’s armies dealt
mercilessly with the nobility. In the Taunton battle, forty-two knights and two lords were
executed, while Warwick, one of Edward’s commanders, saw to it that little harm was done
to the Commoners.
The  ascension  to  the  throne  of  Edward  IV,  that  is,  the  victory  of  the  White  Rose,
marked the beginning of the period of absolutism. Edward IV did not raise the question of
his  election  by  the  English  Parliament.  He  expelled  all  feudal  masters,  even  his  closest
friends  who  opposed  his  will  (his  fight  against  Warwick,  ‘the  maker  of  kings’).  In  his
struggle  against  the  feudal  masters  he  used  hired  armies,  thus  making  the  feudal  militia
superfluous.  He  cruelly  annihilated  the  adherents  of  the  Lancaster  dynasty.  To  make  his
victory  secure,  he  refused  to  make  new  compulsory  loans,  and  to  secure  the  aid  of  the
peasantry he demanded of Parliament laws prohibiting the dispossession of peasants. Thus
the War of the Roses strengthened absolutism in England.
The Peasant War in Germany
– 116 –

Document Outline

  • The Peasant War in Germany
  • Contents
  • Preface to the Second Edition (1870)
  • Addendum to the Preface
  • Chapter 1 The Economic Situation and Social Classes in Germany
  • Chapter 2 The Main Opposition Groups and their Programmes; Luther and Muenzer
  • Chapter 3 Precursors: Peasant Uprisings, 1475–1517
  • Chapter 4 Uprising of the Nobility
  • Chapter 5 The Peasant War in Suabia and Franconia
  • Chapter 6 The Peasant War in Thuringia, Alsace and Austria
  • Chapter 7 Significance of the Peasant War
  • The Twelve Articles of the Peasants
  • Comments by D. Riazanov
  • Facsimile of opening pages from the 1870 edition
  • Notes

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