Peasants' War, German

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PEASANTS' WAR, GERMAN. The German Peasants' War was among the most significant rebellions in modern European history. The political movements arising from the rebellion fit none of the stereotypes of Europe's peasant revolts. In 15241525 peasant armies briefly shattered the rule of countless lords, small princes, and urban governments in the southern and central parts of the Holy Roman Empire, creating the potential for revolutionary changes had the rebels' political programs been fully realized. The name of the rebellion is a misnomer as it was neither a strictly German affair nor a war involving only the peasants. The rebellion sprawled across southern and central Germany, parts of modern France, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy. The name that chroniclers and writers settled on after the rebellion also masked its strong urban and religious character. The rebellion's ties to the Reformation and urban reform were therefore played down. Efforts to rename the revolt as "an early bourgeois revolution" or "the Revolution of 1525" have, however, been unsuccessful. While the rebel bands ultimately failed to realize their audacious political programs, the rebellion still bears comparison with the other great political upheavals of European history, such as the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917.


The Peasants' War is best understood not as a single revolt but as a set of five closely related regional revolts. The center of the rebellion lay in Upper Swabia in southern Germany. In the summer of 1524 peasant protests against the seigneurial burdens of the counts of Stühlingen and Lupfen spread quickly to nearby villages and lordships. By early March 1525 the rebellion, expanding with stunning speed, had engulfed the Klettgau, the Hegau, the Black Forest, and eventually much of the land between Lake Constance and the Danube River. Ties to evangelical preachers from Zurich were established. Even small towns went over to the rebels. By April, five well-organized bands, totaling 40,000 peasant soldiers, controlled much of Upper Swabia.

From there the rebellion spread north into Franconia and Thuringia, then into the rich lands along the Upper Rhine and the Palatinate. By late April and early May three well-led peasant armies dominated Franconia and won the most significant victories of the rebellion, including seizing the imperial city of Heilbronn, calling a Peasant Parliament, forcing the capitulation of the archbishopric of Mainz (the seat of the chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire), and temporarily capturing Würzburg from its bishop. The risings in Thuringia were more diffuse due to political fragmentation, weak organization, and narrow goals. The participation of many small towns also complicated the politics of rebellion. The Thuringian rebellion was noteworthy for the ideological leadership of the firebrand preacher Thomas Müntzer. In Alsace the rebellion was characterized by the strong role of religion in organizing rebel bands and the links made between the preaching of the Word of God and the rebel programs.

As these rebellions ended, disturbances broke out in the Alpine lands of Tyrol and the archbishopric of Salzburg. Rebels successfully brought their demands to the attention of the territories' diets or estates. In the meantime the army of the Swabian League under Georg Truchsess von Waldburg negotiated a peaceful end to the rebellion in Upper Swabia at Weingarten and then swung north to confront rebel armies in Württemberg and Franconia. The devastating defeats of peasant armies on 15 May at Frankenhausen and then 2 June at Königshofen crushed the rebellion for good. Punitive reprisals by lords and princes lasted into 1526 and 1527.


Social and economic reasons alone fail to explain the rebellions. The roots were political, legal, and even religious in nature. Among the socioeconomic grievances, complaints against the burdens of lordship played a prominent part. Villagers complained of high rents, dues, labor services, tithes, fees, access to common resources, and serfdom. Some scholars characterize these grievances as a response to an "agrarian crisis" of the late Middle Ages. In Upper Swabia, for example, peasants resisted the lords' uses of serfdom to reduce mobility and control peasant marriages and labor. Population growth may also have exacerbated the competition for land and other resources in some regions. These conditions made small-scale revolts common before 1520. When local harvests failed in the early 1520s and lords dealt ineptly with peasants, the possibility of wider protests grew.

Political and religious tensions explain why the local protests of 1524 expanded quickly in scale and organization. The small revolts of the fifteenth century had broken out over the exercise of three different types of political powers. Clashes over lordship itself represented the most serious source of conflict. Lords viewed their rights and privileges as legitimate and just and expected loyal subordination from their subjects. Villagers, on the other hand, tended to view lordship as a reciprocal relationship in which loyalty was offered in exchange for protection and justice. Tensions also ran high over taxes and other burdens as states began to develop. When powerful lords, princes, and prince-abbots consolidated their lands and jurisdictions into more compact territories in southwest Germany, a region of notoriously fragmented lands, the foundations of early modern statesand resistance to themwere laid. The development of courts and the imposition of Roman law also sparked conflicts.

Long-simmering conflicts involving small towns added to the potential for rebellion. Tensions between townsfolk and local government oligarchs formed one source of tension. Towns were also frequently at odds with overlords, local bishops, and the clergy over religious issues, legal privileges, and taxes. When the uprising spread in 1524 and 1525, these local conflicts easily spilled over into rebellion.

Anticlericalism also fueled the rebellion, especially when it mixed with the evangelical programs of the early Reformation. Many bishops, abbots, and abbesses combined formal political powers and lordship over the land in the core areas of the rebellion and provoked protests against ecclesiastical taxes before 1525. When these protests were added to demands to reform the clergy and the evangelical zeal for the Gospel after 1520, anticlericalism gained momentum.


In response to these challenges from feudal lords, rebel bands developed their own political organization, notably through communal assemblies. Village communes had long organized many vital local affairs: crop rotation, the division of labor, and access to common fields. While communes tended to treat their members as equals, creating powerful bonds of solidarity, these institutions were not democratic institutions. Women and those who did not hold property were excluded. Communal assemblies and village notables had experience imposing discipline on their neighbors, however, through customary law, courts of discipline, the parish church, and the local militia. In the century before the rebellion, communal institutions had become even stronger in the heartlands of the Peasants' War. Through them villages developed seasoned leaders, skill and experience in negotiations, and the means to organize marches and protests against lords. As the scale of rebellion grew, the commune provided the basis for larger political organizations: rallies, bands, and even federations. When seasoned by veteran soldiers from the militias or mercenary armies, these peasant organizations could be formidable indeed.

The most impressive aspect of the rebellion was the way in which some well-led bands began to act like sovereign political organizations. This occurred when oaths of loyalty were imposed, ordinances issued, and constitutions drafted. Recognition came, often coerced, from local nobles and other political authorities. The most notable of these organizations was the Christian Union of Upper Swabia. In some areas, such as Tyrol and Salzburg, peasants worked through territorial diets or estates. When Archduke Ferdinand summoned the Tyrolean Estates in the summer of 1525, two hundred peasant delegates came. The whole proceeding was observed by representatives from Italian and German principalities. Rebels also forged alliances with small towns. Some towns, such as Memmingen in Upper Swabia, simply went over completely to the rebels. Most towns made alliances of convenience while pursuing goals quite different from those of their allies from the countryside. These were brittle alliances. In other cases peasants subjugated a town or city, as when the army of the Odenwald-Neckar Valley seized Heilbronn and made it the capital of the rebellion in Franconia. The challenge to the lords lay in the fact that the peasant armies undermined established loyalties, creating solidarity where it had not existed before and making large political associations and even revolutionary political programs possible. To some the possibility was not far-fetched that the lands between Lake Constance and the Danube might simply "turn Swiss," successfully throw off their noble overlords, and assume federal forms of government modeled on the Swiss Confederation to the south.

No other peasant rebellion in Europe advanced political programs as original as those of the Peasants' War. The best known of these programs was the Twelve Articles of the Peasantry. As the program of the Upper Swabian rebellion, the Twelve Articles envisioned a radical restructuring of society that would acquire its legitimacy through the Gospel. Once considered a utopian program, the Twelve Articles are now seen to be a concise distillation of peasant grievances from across much of Upper Swabia. They were also widely adopted by rebel bands in the Black Forest, Franconia, Thuringia, the Upper Rhine, and Alsace. Other notable political programs included Friedrich Weigandt's "Draft of an Imperial Reformation," Thomas Müntzer's "Eternal League of God," Michael Gaismair's draft constitution for Tyrol, and, later, Hans Hergot's utopian treatise on the transformation of Christian society. Scholars differ in their assessment of these programs. Some see them as conservative documents. Others stress their revolutionary potential.

The connections of the rebellion with the early German Reformation are now indisputable. For a long time scholars played down the association, stressing the socioeconomic nature of many grievances and the coincidental timing of the revolt with the early evangelical movements. How to assess the role of religion in the rebellion is difficult, however. Some scholars see in the revolt an explosive extension of the evangelical movements into the countryside and look upon 15241525 as a turning point in the Reformation as a whole. Certainly evangelical preachers preached to rebel armies and some helped draft lists of grievances. Other preachers provided ideological justification for the revolt in divine law and the Gospel. In Franconia preachers even formed up their own company of soldiers. Rebels who looked to Martin Luther, however, were disappointed. Luther condemned the rebels and, while blaming greedy and oppressive lords for the rebellion, appealed to the authorities to crush the rebellion without pity. In southern Germany, however, Huldrych Zwingli's theology inspired in part several political programs, including the Twelve Articles. There were also a few preachers who, like Thomas Müntzer, aroused millenarian hopes for the rebellion.


One should not assume that the violent repression of the rebellion meant that it ended without consequences. In the short term the reprisals were harsh. Chronicle accounts emphasize how bloody and violent the reprisals were. Somewhere between several tens of thousands and 100,000 peasants lost their lives in the rebellion's aftermath. The authorities especially targeted leaders for trial and execution. Fines and other punishments were common. Not everywhere was the aftermath violent. The Upper Swabian rebellion ended through peaceful negotiations.

More difficult to assess, however, are the long-term effects on lord-peasant relationships in the Holy Roman Empire. Many lords and princes seem to have exercised more caution in their dealings with the peasantry after 1525 so that disputes might not escalate dangerously. In southern Germany serfdom weakened and ceased to expand. At the Imperial Diet of Speyer in 1526, the committee reviewing grievances of the common man recommended a return to customary levels of exaction and just treatment of peasants. A solid case can also be made that fears of another rebellion contributed to the tendency to channel disputes into the courts and commissions of arbitration, thereby giving the empire ways of defusing rural conflict through legal institutions. Popular support for the Reformation also waned in the aftermath of the rebellion as public authorities guided the evangelical movements into a "magisterial Reformation." In this way religion lost much of its capacity to legitimize radical political protest in the empire.

Views of the Peasants' War have naturally reflected political attitudes in modern Germany. In the nineteenth century Leopold von Ranke dismissed the rebellion as an event unworthy of serious analysis. Conservatives to this day play down the rebellion's political significance. By contrast Friedrich Engels saw it as a pivotal turning point in German history and laid down a socialist view of the event. Not surprisingly East and West German historians in the 1960s and 1970s clashed over the meaning of the Peasants' War. Marxists saw in it an "early bourgeois revolution" while some liberal West German historians viewed it as a "system conflict" or a revolution and high-water mark of a populist communal tradition. Given the importance of the war, it is likely to remain a controversial subject for historians.

See also Feudalism ; Holy Roman Empire ; Luther, Martin ; Reformation, Protestant ; Serfdom ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


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Thomas Robisheaux