The German Peasants’ War Was Europe’s Biggest Social Revolt Before the French Revolution

Five centuries ago, Germany experienced a massive popular revolt that spread through the countryside and towns. The German lords drowned the revolt in blood, but the popular demands for freedom and equality have resonated right up to the present day.

1881 illustration of insurgents during the 1524–25 peasant uprising in Germany. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some five hundred years ago, in 1524–25, a huge revolt swept through central Europe. Led by the poorest and most oppressed people of Germany, hundreds of thousands rose up and challenged the feudal system itself. It was the largest rebellion of ordinary people to have taken place in Europe since the English Rising of 1381, and there would be nothing else on a scale like it until the French Revolution of 1789.

The German Peasants’ War, as it has become known, was a rising that drew in wide sectors of the population in a revolt that had economic, religious, and social contexts. The scale of the revolt terrified the German ruling class.

One clerk in Upper Swabia, a key area of the rebellion, wrote a report to the regional bailiff, in which he expressed a fear that the rebellion would spread to Bavaria and South Tyrol. If that happened, the clerk said, “no one in these lands would be the peasants’ master.”

Local lords, nobles, and wealthy landowners feared for their lives and those of their families, but they also saw in the rising a threat to the existence of their class. That is why they unleashed the utmost brutality against the rebels, drowning the rising in blood.

In fact, the very name of the “German Peasants’ War” is a misnomer. The rebellion was not confined to the area we now call Germany, it involved social groups far beyond the peasantry, and it was not a war in a military sense, at least until its very end.

Reformation and Class Conflict

When the Peasants’ War exploded, many people blamed it on the figure most closely associated with the growing challenge to the Catholic Church, Martin Luther. To fully understand the Peasants’ War, we need to understand Luther’s Reformation and how it opened up space for a radical critique of wider society, while simultaneously representing the development of a new social order.

In 1517, Luther penned his famous theses, with ninety-five points directed against the way the Church had moved away from religious worship toward secular interests. In particular, Luther was angered by the selling of indulgences — a way to reduce the time the believer spent atoning for their sins in purgatory.

The selling of indulgences led to astonishing growth in the wealth of the Church. In 1515, Pope Leo X had commanded bishops across Europe to raise funds for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As the sellers fanned out across the lands, they pressured everyone to buy indulgences. But the weight of the demands fell most severely upon the poorest and most oppressed layers of the population.

Luther’s celebrated protest at these indulgences was not merely concerned with the indignity and falsehood contained within these scrips of paper. He raged against the power and wealth of the Church, and the way that the Pope could hold sway over so many people. If the Pope really wanted to remit sin, Luther argued, why did he not simply do so, instead of demanding people pay for it? For Luther, the selling of indulgences exemplified everything that was wrong about the Church.

The publication of Luther’s theses kickstarted a movement that is today called the Reformation and eventually led to the splitting of the Christian church into two wings, Catholic and Protestant. But this brief summary cannot do justice to a process that engulfed first Germany, and then Europe, in a period of mass and radical political debate.

In Wittenberg, where Luther was a scholar and monk, hundreds of people listened to his sermons, and they were intensely discussed. Often these discussions developed into protests, as people attacked symbols of the Roman church or demanded that other members of the clergy follow Luther. On one occasion, in Wittenberg, they stormed the Schlosskirche, a church built and maintained by Frederick III, the elector of Saxony and Luther’s prince, demanding that the service adhere to Luther’s new ideas.

A Changing Society

The Reformation was a period of mass ideological ferment primarily focused on the towns and cities of Germany. But it was accompanied by major discontent through the whole of society, not simply urban areas. For many of Luther’s opponents, and indeed for Luther himself, the rebellion that exploded in the German countryside in 1524 was a direct outcome of the religious discontent. Perceptively, the historian James M. Stayer has argued that the Peasants’ War was the “expression of the Reformation in the countryside.”

However, the rising was much more than this. We should not depict the Peasants’ War as merely being the consequence of religious turmoil, as Luther’s opponents tried to do in order to smear Luther himself. This would be to misunderstand the dynamics at the heart of German society in the early sixteenth century.

The Reformation itself, as Karl Marx said, may have begun “in the brain of the monk,” but it was also linked to the wider economic developments of the sixteenth century. The context was the growth of capitalist interests within European society. The demands of the Reformation coincided with the interests of a growing class of people — merchants and manufacturers — who saw the old Church as a barrier to the strengthening of their interests.

Luther himself had originally been sent to study law at university by his father, a relatively wealthy mine owner. In Luther’s own telling, the experience that led him to switch from law to theology and the life of religious devotion arose out of his experience surviving a violent thunderstorm. At that moment, he prayed to Saint Anne, the patron saint of miners, promising to devote his life to religious worship if he survived. For Luther, religion was closely linked to his economic background.

This was also true of those who revolted. The rebellion drew in all the discontented and oppressed into open confrontation with the ruling classes both locally and regionally. The demands of the poor and downtrodden in both urban and rural areas brought together calls for religious reform and economic liberation. Historians have access to hundreds of different examples of the demands raised by the rebellious peasants and townsfolk.

The Twelve Articles produced in March 1525 are the most famous example. This manifesto was quickly distributed and reproduced throughout Germany via the latest communications technology, the printing press. The Twelve Articles offer a fascinating insight into the thoughts of a mass movement that was developing its radical ideas and challenging the status quo.

They were written by representatives of some of the largest peasant “bands,” the military formations of thousands of rebels that were marching through the countryside. The Twelve Articles began with one of the key demands of Luther’s Reformation, calling for the right of congregations to select their own priests, with the salaries of these clergy to be paid from the tithe, a religious tax. Anything left over from the tithe should go to help the poor, not to swell the coffers of the Church.

The articles continued with economic demands, including the abolition of serfdom: “We hereby declare that we are free and want to remain free.” The rebels challenged the way that rich landowners had privatized the land by taking away the rights of ordinary people to hunt, fish, or use resources. One section called for forests to be “returned to the village so that anybody can satisfy his needs therefrom for timber and firewood,” along with former common lands that have been taken away from villagers to enrich the lords.

The Twelve Articles essentially set out a vision of a more egalitarian society, where nature’s resources would be available to all who needed them while the power of the rich to control the peasantry was curtailed. These articles, and hundreds of other documents like them, represented a direct challenge to the authority and power of the feudal ruling class.

Dynamics of Rebellion

As the rebellion spread, the demands being made evolved, often taking up local issues. In urban areas, the focus of the rebels was often less revolutionary, calling for improvements to the economic conditions of laborers and poor people in the towns and cities, but rarely for the existing order to be overthrown.

These local and regional “articles” are much less well known than the Twelve Articles, but they are nonetheless crucial to understanding some of the key dynamics of the rebellion itself. Take the forty-six articles that were formulated in Frankfurt in April 1525 and immediately accepted by the town council. They began with a call for democratic control over the priests and various other religiously inspired points.

However, most of the articles sought to improve the conditions and rights of the poorest. For instance, article seven demanded that “corn should henceforth be taken to a free market, and each person allowed to buy two or three bushels or as much as he can pay for.” Previously, the rich had their own grain measures and could buy from farmers before the produce reached market.

The same article wanted the poor to have the chance to buy grain before the “forestallers” got hold of it and drove up prices. The British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson developed the concept of the “Moral Economy” to describe similar demands that were put forward in the English countryside during the rise of capitalism.

The Frankfurt rebels also wanted the scrapping of tolls and an end to restrictions on the right of people to produce their own food. There is a consistent sense in these documents that ordinary people were sick of petty oppressions and being cheated out of the resources provided by nature. For instance, the seventeenth article reads as follows:

When the Lord God grants beechmast in the forest, then forest wardens talk to the poor folk as though there were no more beechmast to be had and order them to remove their cattle. Afterwards they sell in the surrounding markets. All this happens at the expense of the poor, and can no longer be endured.

For the rebels in town and country alike, Christianity was the framework through which they understood the world, and the Bible was the touchstone for this. The Reformation gave an impetus to the radical use of religion, and it is notable that the peasants saw in the Bible a way to challenge their rulers.

To the peasants, God provided everything they needed to live their lives, but the rich had taken it away. Thus the feudal order was against the will of God and had no legitimacy. This confidence in their belief and the use of the Bible to support their rebellion is exemplified by the last of the Twelve Articles. It challenged critics to find anything in scripture that would contradict the preceding demands. Confident that there was no counterargument available in the Bible, the authors declared they would remove any articles found wanting.

New Interests, New Order

In his account of the Peasants’ War, Friedrich Engels noted that the German cities at the time represented a new set of economic interests. Their rebellious populations wanted a new order, but one that would allow the further development of bourgeois interests.

Engels discussed how the “plebeian opposition” in the towns brought together different groups and forces, from “budding proletarian elements of the germinating modern bourgeois society” to “guild burghers” as well as dispossessed peasants and skilled workers known as journeymen. These disparate forces had varying interests and demands, but the rebellion of the peasantry forced them together.

Before the rising, these urban forces had been a “mob that could be bought and sold for a few barrels of wine,” Engels argued:

The peasant revolts turned it into a party, and even then it remained almost everywhere dependent on the peasants in its demands and actions — a striking proof of how much the town of that time still depended on the countryside.

These forces, according to Engels, had “no wish to see a curtailment of town revenues come about through the abolition of feudal burdens within the town precincts.” The urban revolt in 1525 was thus constrained by the interests of the wealthiest elements in the cities, while the revolutionary demands of the peasantry called for the wholesale upending of serfdom and feudal relations.

German society in the sixteenth century rested entirely on the peasantry. They were the key producing class whose labor provided the basis for everyone else in society. As Engels put it: “Every official estate of the Empire lived by sucking the peasants dry.”

As such, the peasants were horrifically oppressed, and the demands they put forward give a sense of their anger at a feudal system that exploited them at every stage of their lives. They were forced to do “obligated” labor for their lord and to pay extra taxes on marriage, death, or when taking over a new holding.

Moreover, they could be beaten or executed without legal recourse and had to give up a percentage of their produce to the church and to their lords, no matter how good the harvest was. This was the economic basis for the rebellion in 1524, and the scale of the oppression and exploitation of the peasants helps us understand the scale of the rebellion itself.

The Evil Brew

While the German Peasants’ War involved tens of thousands of people and was rightly described by Engels as the first “national peasant revolt,” it was not a revolution that could overthrow feudalism and introduce a new economic order. The peasantry mostly wanted a more equal, just, and democratic society within the established framework.

That said, there were a number of revolutionaries who wanted the rising to go far beyond the limits set by some of its leaders. They understood that oppression would continue unless its root causes were destroyed. The most important of these radical figures was Thomas Münzter.

Münzter’s ideas are often seen as one of the precursors to modern socialist thinking. Reading them today, we can certainly see their relevance to our own times, where nature is commodified in the interests of the rich, and exploitation and oppression blight the lives of so many:

What is the evil brew from which all usury, theft, and robbery springs but the assumption of our lords and princes that all creatures are their property? The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the face of the earth — it all has to belong to them! To add insult to injury, they have God’s commandment proclaimed to the poor: God has commanded that you should not steal. But it avails them nothing. For while they do violence to everyone, flay and fleece the poor farm worker, tradesman, and everything that breathes, yet should any of the latter commit the pettiest crime, he must hang . . . It is the lords themselves who make the poor man their enemy. If they refuse to do away with the causes of insurrection how can trouble be avoided in the long run? If saying that makes me an inciter to insurrection, so be it!

In Thuringia in central Germany, Münzter was able to lead a massive army to challenge the power of the feudal system. Tragically, the forces that he led were not powerful enough to defeat the might of the unified ruling class that was ranged against them.

Shoes and Shells

The German peasantry had already risen up on a number of occasions before the Peasants’ War. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Bundschuh movements were a series of localized rebellions by the peasantry sparked by discontent over issues such as taxation, serfdom, or a particularly oppressive lord.

The Bundschuh referred to the traditional laced shoe worn by the peasants, and it was inscribed on banners and flags by the rebels. While these rebellions were swiftly put down, their rise and experience certainly meant that by the 1520s, there were many people in the German countryside who remembered or had even taken part in such risings.

In 1522, one of Luther’s opponents, Thomas Murner, penned a pamphlet attacking the Reformation. It was illustrated with a picture of a Luther, in armor, cleaning a peasant’s shoe and bore the title “Greasing the Bundschuh.” The meaning was obvious — for Murner, the Reformation would lead directly to a new rising.

The rebellion broke out in 1524. Once again, the immediate triggers were specific local issues. Tradition has it that the rising actually started in June 1524 in Stühlingen, near the modern border between Germany and Switzerland. There, on her family’s extensive estates, the Countess von Lupfen is said to have ordered her serfs to stop collecting the harvest and instead spread out and hunt for snail shells so that she, and her servants, could use them to wind their wool.

Whether this story is true or not, its persistence in traditional accounts gives us a good indication of the frustrations experienced by the German peasantry of the time, and the whims under which they suffered. Whatever the immediate trigger may have been, the risings spread rapidly. Perhaps learning from the failure of previous uprisings, the rebels worked to bring the revolt to other villages and towns throughout their regions.

Bands of peasants, often numbering tens of thousands, roamed the countryside bringing out other villages and spreading the rebellion. They also defeated lords, destroyed castles and monasteries, and forced the local authorities to agree to their demands.

Organized Revolt

The nobility liked to portray the peasant rebels as unthinkingly violent and bent on destruction, having been encouraged by shadowy, nameless rebels, with the ultimate inspiration deriving from Luther or Müntzer. However, the rebellion was far from an unorganized rising. In fact, it was characterized by careful organization and thoughtful demands.

As we have seen, these demands usually took the form of a series of articles, and historians have hundreds of such documents, detailing the rebel concerns. They offer a fascinating insight into the late medieval world and frequently demonstrate how religious and social demands were inseparable.

The sixty-two articles written by the rebellious Stühlingen peasantry included economic and social demands as well as complaints that would become ubiquitous throughout the areas affected by the rising. Some related to the power of the lords: peasants needed permission to marry outside of their community, and the lords could “ride over the fields, hawking, beating, and hunting without any restraint . . . and damage and devastate the crops.” They could also claim someone’s property when they died or were imprisoned.

While the loss of common land and “enclosure” was much less of an issue than it was in England from the sixteenth century onward, the power of the lord to deprive the peasantry of traditional rights fed popular anger. The peasants complained that the “water that runs through our holdings” had been leased out to fishermen:

We are burdened by our lords and their officials with numerous insufferable labor services, and through these we are so hindered from cultivating our holdings, which lie in an inclement district, that we do not know how to nourish our wives and children; also we cannot and may not even perform for our lords that which we are obliged to do.

Demands like these, from hundreds of different areas, were the inspiration behind the better-known Twelve Articles.

Events 150 or so kilometers from Stühlingen provide us with an insight into how the peasants organized. Like many such rebellions before and since, they used traditional festivals and gatherings to find likeminded radicals, as one chronicler recounted:

When the hour was at hand, at which the fire of this revolt was to be lit, it happened in Shrovetide (as it is called), when people are accustomed to visit one another, that about six or seven peasants in a village near Ulm, called Baltringen, came together and discussed many of the current troubles. As was the custom among peasants at that time, they travelled from one village to another as if calling on neighbors, and ate and drank together in convivial fashion; the peasants in the village then also journeyed onwards with them. If anyone asked where they were going or what they were doing, they replied, “We are fetching Shrovetide cakes from one another.” And in such company they travelled about every Thursday and grew every time in numbers, until they were four hundred men.

Baltringen became one of the main centers of the revolt and gave its name to one of the major armed peasant bands, the Baltringer Haufen.

Luther’s Choice

Accounts of the Peasants’ War, even from hostile witnesses, show how the peasants constantly met, discussed, and debated their rising. This was very much a democratic rebellion. The field ordnances of the bands, while operating under military discipline, made sure that members would “hold communal assemblies often, for nothing confirms and upholds the common band more cordially together.”

With risings spreading across south and central Germany, and the peasant rebellion also finding widespread support within towns and cities, the German ruling class could not stand by. The huge bands destroyed hundreds of castles and forced the nobility into retreat. Terrified letters testify to the fear on the part of the lords. Not only might they lose their heads, but the basis of their entire society was under threat.

At this point, Martin Luther showed his true colors. In response to the Twelve Articles, Luther penned a detailed repudiation of the peasants’ demands, insisting that it was unchristian to rebel against your rulers.

On the one hand, his “Admonition to Peace” did not let the princes and lords off the hook. Luther argued that their actions in ignoring the gospel and making unjust economic demands had caused the rebellion. However, he went on to address the peasants, firmly insisting that their uprising was wrong: “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion.”

Exposing his real attitude, Luther depicted rebellion against established authority as a greater evil than injustice:

The rulers unjustly take your property; that is the one side. On the other hand, you take from them their authority . . . Therefore you are far greater robbers than they.

Surprisingly, the rising itself had not been marked by a great deal of bloodshed on the part of the rebels. This did not stop Luther from penning a furious polemic after the so-called massacre of Weinsberg, when a rebel army killed seventy nobles. His pamphlet “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” still has the power to shock today with its encouragement of lordly violence.

Luther urged the “dear lords” to “stab, smite, slay” their opponents: “If you die in doing it, good for you! A more blessed death can never be yours.” Anyone who fought the peasants would be a “true martyr in the eyes of God” if they did so as a Christian who “tolerates the gospel,” while those who rebelled would be condemned as “an eternal firebrand of hell.” He went on to condemn all those who sided with the peasants: “Anyone who consorts with them goes to the devil with them and is guilty of all the evil deeds that they commit.”

Defeating the Revolt

The lords took this message to heart. Putting aside their differences over Luther’s challenge to the Pope for the time being, they united to defeat the peasants.

This was not an easy task. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were in arms, in thousands of different bands. The mercenary forces of the nobles were not strong enough to overcome their enemies, so they took on separate armies and sought to divide the peasantry.

In the end, it was the peasantry’s lack of military experience that proved to be its biggest weakness. A series of military confrontations saw one peasant army after another defeated, with the survivors murdered in cold blood afterward. While thousands of peasants were killed in these battles, there were usually just a handful of casualties on the side of the professional armies.

For example, the Battle of Frankenhausen, which ended the uprising in Thuringia, saw up to ten thousand peasants killed — most of them as they fled the battlefield in disarray after just a few minutes. This battle eliminated one of the stronger areas of the rising.

It was also perhaps the most radical force in the revolt, as it was led by Thomas Müntzer. After the battle, Müntzer was captured and brutally tortured, allegedly admitting under the thumbscrews that he and the rebels wanted a world where “all things are to be held in common” (“omnia sunt communia”).

Whether Müntzer ever actually said this, even under torture, is doubtful. However, it has become for subsequent radicals a phrase emblematic of the hopes and aspirations of many involved in the rising.

Other similarly violent battles brought an end to the rebellion in different parts of Germany. The nobility set about restoring its order and taking its revenge. Discontent did not immediately vanish because of the defeat of the peasantry, though occasional flare-ups of rebellion in the months and years after 1525 were swiftly defeated.

Engels and the Peasants’ War

In the nineteenth-century account of the Peasants’ War by Engels, he argued that the rising was driven by class conflict, rather than being a religious war, as it was usually understood. The Reformation and the Peasants’ War arose out of the contractions of later medieval society, as a new economic order was beginning to emerge.

Engels did not study and write about events in 1525 purely for historic interest. He was trying to understand the cowardice of the German bourgeoisie in the revolutions of his own time. In 1848, mass revolutionary movements had exploded across Europe, seeking to sweep away the remnants of the old aristocratic, feudal order.

In theory, this would give the new bourgeoisie the opportunity to profit from the accumulation of capital without any hindrances. In Germany, however, the fear of revolt from below prompted bourgeois elements to back off from a final confrontation with the old order and side with the aristocracy. The conclusion Engels drew from this experience was that the German working class would have to be the power driving the revolution forward, without relying on the leadership of the new capitalist class.

In 1525, the German bourgeoisie was not yet powerful enough to really make its interests known, although there were some small, hesitant steps in this direction. Witness how in 1525 some rebellious towns and cities produced articles inspired by peasant demands with an economic agenda of their own. They called for changes to taxation that would benefit the emerging forces of merchant and manufacturing capital.

As Engels noted, the only class that gained from the 1525 revolution was that of the princes, since sixteenth-century German society was too fragmented for a united movement against feudalism to emerge. By 1848, however, things had developed much further:

The revolution of 1848 was not a local German affair, it was one phase of a great European movement. The moving forces throughout the period of its duration were not confined to the narrow limits of one individual country, not even to the limits of one-quarter of the globe.

Seeing Further

At the heart of the events of 1524–25 were individuals who saw much further than the narrow confines of bourgeois interests. Thomas Müntzer raged against a world where a tiny number of princes dictated how the masses lived and died. He cursed the way they carved up nature in their interests and lived in luxury while the masses starved. Müntzer was expressing a discontent that echoes down the centuries to us today.

The thousands of rebellious peasants who called for a more egalitarian and democratic society in their articles and demands were the precursors of those who continue to fight for a better world today. In 1525, the basis for that society did not yet exist, and the peasant utopias envisaged by the rebels could not survive. Engels summed up this contradiction in his comment on the world-historical tragedy of Thomas Müntzer:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved.

As Engels concluded: “The social change, which so horrified the Protestant middle-class contemporaries, in reality never went beyond a feeble and unconscious attempt prematurely to establish the bourgeois society of a later period.”

However, Engels understood that there was another side to the rebellion. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were prepared to rise up against the authorities, defying both the church and the nobility, is inspirational in itself. They took the ideas of figures like Martin Luther and drew out a radical kernel from the Reformation.

Their hope of democratic control of their faith and an end to serfdom, oppression, and exploitation might not have been realizable at the time, but tens of thousands were prepared to take up arms and face down professional mercenaries on the battlefield in the hope of victory. They died fighting for a better world, and that is why today, five hundred years later, we should celebrate the German Peasants’ War as a revolutionary struggle, ahead of its time.