The religious revolt offered the tillers of the fields a captivating ideology in which to phrase their demands for a larger share in Germany’s growing prosperity. The hardships that had already spurred a dozen rural outbreaks still agitated the peasant mind, and indeed with feverish intensity now that Luther had defied the Church, berated the princes, broken the dams of discipline and awe, made every man a priest, and proclaimed the freedom of the Christian man. In the Germany of that age Church and state were so closely meshed—clergymen played so large a role in social order and civil administration—that the collapse of ecclesiastical prestige and power removed a main barrier to revolution. The Waldensians, Beghards, Brethren of the Common Life, had continued an old tradition of basing radical proposals upon Biblical texts. The circulation of the New Testament in print was a blow to political as well as to religious orthodoxy. It exposed the compromises that the secular clergy had made with the nature of man and the ways of the world; it revealed the communism of the Apostles, the sympathy of Christ for the poor and oppressed; in these respects the New Testament was for the radicals of this age a veritable Communist Manifesto. Peasant and proletarian alike found in it a divine warrant for dreaming of a utopia where private property would be abolished, and the poor would inherit the earth.
In 1521 a pamphlet circulated in Germany under the title of “Karsthans”—i.e., Pitchfork John. This “Man with the Hoe” and a pen pledged peasant protection to Luther; and a continuation published in the same year advocated a rural insurrection against the Catholic clergy.6 Another pamphlet of 1521, by Johannes Eberlin, demanded universal male suffrage, the subordination of every ruler and official to popularly elected councils, the abolition of all capitalist organizations, a return to medieval price-fixing for bread and wine, and the education of all children in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, astronomy, and medicine.7 In 1522 a pamphlet entitled “The Needs of the German Nation” (Teutscher Nation Notturft), and falsely ascribed to the dead Emperor Frederick III, called for the removal of “all tolls, duties, passports, and fines,” the abolition of Roman and canon law, the limitation of business organizations to a capital of 10,000 guilders, the exclusion of the clergy from civil government, the confiscation of monastic wealth, and the distribution of the proceeds among the poor.8 Otto Brunfels proclaimed (1524) that the payment of tithes to the clergy was contrary to the New Testament. Preachers mingled Protestant evangelism with utopian aspirations. One revealed that heaven was open to peasants but closed to nobles and clergymen; another counseled the peasants to give no more money to priests or monks; Münzer, Carlstadt, and Hubmaier advised their hearers that “farmers, miners, and cornthreshers understand the Gospel better, and can teach it better, than a whole village... of abbots and priests... or doctors of divinity”; Carlstadt added, “and better than Luther.” 9 Almanacs and astrologers, as if giving a cue to action, predicted an uprising for 1524. A Catholic humanist, Johannes Cochlaeus, warned Luther (1523) that “the populace in the towns, and the peasants in the provinces, will inevitably rise in rebellion.... . They are poisoned by the innumerable abusive pamphlets and speeches that are printed and declaimed among them against both papal and secular authority.” 10 Luther, the preachers, and the pamphleteers were not the cause of the revolt; the causes were the just grievances of the peasantry. But it could be argued that the gospel of Luther and his more radical followers “poured oil on the flames,” 11and turned the resentment of the oppressed into utopian delusions, uncalculated violence, and passionate revenge.
Thomas Münzer’s career caught all the excitement of the time. Appointed preacher at Allstedt (1522), he demanded the extermination of the “godless”—i.e., the orthodox or the conservative—by the sword; “the godless have no right to live except in so far as they are permitted to do so by the elect.” 12 He proposed to the princes that they should lead the people in a communistic revolt against the clergy and the capitalists. When the princes did not rise to the opportunity, he called upon the people to overthrow the princes too, and “to establish a refined society such as was contemplated by Plato, . . and Apuleius of The Golden Ass.” 13 “All things are in common,” he wrote, “and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the several necessities of all. Any prince, count, or baron who, after being earnestly reminded of this truth, shall be unwilling to accept it, is to be beheaded or hanged.” 14 Elector Frederick tolerated this gospel humorously, but his brother Duke John and his cousin Duke George joined with Luther in having Münzer expelled from his pastorate (1524). The irate apostle wandered from town to town, announcing the deliverance of “Israel,” and the imminent Kingdom of Heaven on earth.15
He found a congenial political climate in the free city of Mühlhausen in Thuringia, where the textile industry had gathered a numerous proletariat. Heinrich Pfeiffer, an ex-monk, had already begun there, with the support of the lower middle class, a movement to capture the municipal council from the patrician oligarchy. Münzer preached his radical program to the workingmen of the town and to the neighboring peasantry. On March 17, 1525, the armed followers of Pfeiffer and Münzer deposed the patricians and set up an “Eternal Council” to rule Mühlhausen. According to Melanchthon the victorious radicals drove out the monks, and appropriated all the property of the Church;16 however, no theologian in this age could be trusted to report impartially the activities or views of his opponents. No communist commonwealth was established; Pfeiffer proved abler in practice than Münzer, and tamed the revolt to the needs of the middle class. Anticipating attack by Imperial troops, Münzer organized workers and peasants into an army, and had heavy artillery cast for it in the monastery of the Barefoot Friars. “Forward!” was his call to his men; “forward while the fire is hot! Let your swords be ever warm with blood!” 17
About the same time peasant uprisings were convulsing South Germany. Perhaps a ruinous hailstorm (1524), which destroyed all hopes for a harvest in Stühlingen, served as the trigger of revolt. This district, near Schaffhausen, was not too far from Switzerland to feel the example of the sturdy peasants who had there freed themselves from all but the formalities of feudal power. On August 24, 1524, Hans Müller, acting on a suggestion from Münzer, gathered about him some Stühlingen peasants, and bound them into an “Evangelical Brotherhood” pledged to emancipate farmers throughout Germany. Soon they were joined by the discontented tenants of the abbot of Reichenau, the bishop of Constance, the counts of Werdenburg, Montfort, Lupfen, and Sulz. By the end of 1524 there were some 30,000 peasants in arms in South Germany refusing to pay state taxes, church tithes, or feudal dues, and sworn to emancipation or death. At Memmingen their delegates, under the guidance or influence of Zwinglian Protestants from Zurich, formulated (March 1525) the “Twelve Articles” that set half of Germany on fire.
To the Christian reader peace, and the grace of God through Christ.
There are many anti-Christians who have lately taken occasion of the assembly of the peasants to cast scorn upon the Gospel, saying, Is this the fruit of the new evangel? Is no one to be obedient, but all are to rebel... to overthrow, or perhaps to slay, the spiritual and temporal lords? To all these godless and wicked critics the following articles make answer, in order, first, to remove this reproach from the Word of God, and second, to justify in a Christian way the disobedience, nay the rebellion, of the peasants.
First, It is our humble petition and request, as also the will and intention of all of us, that in the future we should have authority and power so that a whole community should choose and appoint a pastor, and also have the right to depose him. ...
Second, Since the tithe is appointed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New, we will .... pay the just tithe of grain, but in a proper way.... . We will that for the future this be gathered and received by our church provost, whom the community appoints; that out of it there shall be given to the pastor... a modest, sufficient maintenance for him and his... that the remainder shall be distributed to the poor and needy who are in the same village.... . The small tithe we will not give at all, for God created cattle for the free use of men.....
Third, It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, and this is pitiable, seeing that Christ has redeemed and bought us all with the precious shedding of His blood, the lowly as well as the great .... Therefore it agrees with Scripture that we be free, and will be so.... . To our chosen and appointed rulers (appointed for us by God) we are willingly obedient in all proper a d Christian matters, and have no doubt that, as true and real Christians, they will gladly release us from serfdom, or show us in the Gospel that we are serfs....
Sixth, We have a heavy grievance because of the services which are increased from day to day....
Eighth, We are greatly aggrieved, as many of us have holdings that will not support the rents we pay, and the peasants suffer loss and ruin. Let the lords have honorable men inspect said holdings, and fix fair rent... for every laborer is worthy of his hire.....
Tenth, We are aggrieved because some have appropriated to themselves meadows out of the common fields, which once belonged to the community.....
Eleventh, We would have the death dues entirely abolished. We will not suffer it, nor allow widows and orphans to be so shamefully robbed....
Twelfth, If one or more of the articles here set forth .... can be shown to us by the Word of God to be improper, we will recede from it if this is explained to us with arguments from Scripture.18
The peasant leaders, encouraged by Luther’s semi-revolutionary pronouncements, sent him a copy of the Articles, and asked for his support. He replied with a pamphlet printed in April 1525: Ermahung zum Frieden (Admonition to Peace). He applauded the peasants’ offer to submit to correction by Scripture. He noted the charges, now rising, that his speeches and writings had stirred revolt; he denied his responsibility, and referred to his inculcation of civil obedience. But he did not withdraw his criticism of the master class:
We have no one on earth to thank for this mischievous rebellion except you, princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks, whose hearts are hardened against the Holy Gospel, though you know that it is true and that you cannot refute it. Besides, in your temporal government, you do nothing but flay and rob your subjects, in order that you may lead a life of splendor and pride, until the poor common people can bear it no longer.... Well, then, since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, if you do not mend your ways in time.... The peasants are mustering, and this must result in the ruin, destruction, and desolation of Germany by cruel murder and bloodshed, unless God shall be moved by our repentance to prevent it.19
He counseled the princes and lords to recognize the justice of many of the Articles, and urged a policy of kindly consideration. To the peasants he addressed a frank admission of their wrongs, but pleaded with them to refrain from violence and revenge; a resort to violence, he predicted, would leave the peasants worse off than before. He foresaw that a violent revolt would bring discredit upon the movement for religious reform, and that he would be blamed for everything. He objected to the appropriation of tithes by each congregation. The authorities should be obeyed, and had a right to tax the people to pay the expenses of government. The “freedom of the Christian man” was to be understood as a spiritual liberty, consistent with serfdom, even with slavery.
Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets use slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who at that time were all slaves. Therefore your third article is dead against the Gospel.... . This article would make all men equal... and that is impossible. For a worldly kingdom cannot stand unless there is in it an inequality of persons, so that some are free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.20
His final advice, had it been followed, would have spared Germany much bloodshed and devastation:
Choose among the nobles certain counts and lords, and from the cities certain councilmen, and have these matters dealt with and settled in a friendly way. You lords, let down your stubbornness... and give up a little of your tyranny and oppression, so that poor people get air and room to live. The peasants for their part should let themselves be instructed, and give over and let go some of the Articles that grasp too far and too high.21
The peasant leaders, however, felt that it was now too late to retrace their steps; in any conciliation they would sooner or later be punished. They mourned Luther as a traitor, and went on with the revolt. Some of them took quite literally the dream of equality: the nobles were to dismantle their castles, and live like peasants and burghers; they were no longer to ride on horseback, for that raised them above their fellow men. Pastors were to be informed that they were henceforth servants, not masters, of their congregations, and would be expelled if they did not adhere strictly and only to the Scriptures.22 Corresponding demands came from the workmen of the towns. They denounced the monopoly of city offices by the rich, the embezzlement of public funds by corrupt officials, the perpetually rising prices while wages stood almost still. “It would be better for the salvation of the soul,” said one radical, “if the lord prelates were not so rich and luxurious, and if their possessions were divided among the poor.” 23 Wendel Hipler and Friedrich Weigant proposed that all Church property should be confiscated to secular needs; that all transport tolls and tariff duties should be removed; that there should be throughout the Empire one coinage and one system of weights and measures.24
The movement had a colorful assortment of leaders: the innkeepers George Metzler and Metern Feuerbacher, the jolly roisterer Jäcklein Rohrbach, some ex-soldiers and priests, and two knights from Sickingen’s defeated band—Florian Geyer and Götz von Berlichingen “of the Iron Hand”; Hauptmann and Goethe would later choose these two as heroes for vivid plays. Each leader was sovereign over his own group, and rarely concerted his action with the others. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1525, the revolt flared up in a dozen scattered localities about the same time. At Heilbronn, Rothenburg, and Würzburg a commune of labor representatives captured the municipal administration. At Frankfurt-am-Main the victorious commune announced that it would thereafter be council, burgomaster, pope, and emperor all in one. At Rothenburg the priests were driven from the cathedral, religious images were demolished, a chapel was smashed to the ground (March 27, 1525), and clerical wine cellars were emptied with triumphant gaiety.25 Towns subject to feudal lords renounced their fealty; episcopal towns called for an end to clerical privileges, and agitated for the secularization of ecclesiastical property. Nearly the whole duchy of Franconia joined the revolt. Many lords and bishops, unprepared to resist, swore to accept the reforms demanded of them; so the bishops of Speyer and Bamberg, and the abbots of Kempten and Herzfeld. Count William of Henneberg freed his serfs. Counts George and Albrecht of Hohenlohe were summoned before peasant leaders and were initiated into the new order: “Brother George and brother Albrecht, come hither and swear to the peasants to be as brothers to them, for you are now no longer lords but peasants .” 26 Most of the towns received the rural rebels with a hearty welcome. Many of the lower clergy, hostile to the hierarchy, supported the revolt.
The first serious encounter took place at Leipheim on the Danube near Ulm (April 4, 1525). Under an energetic priest, Jakob Wehe, 3,000 peasants captured the town, drank all discoverable wine, pillaged the church, smashed the organ, made themselves leggings from sacerdotal vestments, and paid mock homage to one of their number seated on the altar and robed as a priest.27 An army of mercenaries hired by the Swabian League and led by an able general, Georg von Truchsess, laid siege to Leipheim, and frightened the undisciplined peasants into surrender. Wehe and four other leaders were beheaded, the rest were spared, but the League’s troops burned many peasant cottages.
On Good Friday, April 15, 1525, three rebel contingents under Metzler, Geyer, and Rohrbach laid siege to the town of Weinsberg (near Heilbronn), whose ruling Count Ludwig von Helfenstein was especially hated for his severities. A delegation of peasants approached the walls and asked for a parley; the Count and his knights made a sudden sortie and massacred the delegation. On Easter Sunday the attackers, helped by some citizens of the town, broke through the walls, and cut down the forty men-at-arms who cared to resist. The Count, his wife (a daughter of the late Emperor Maximilian), and sixteen knights were taken prisoner. Rohrbach, without consulting Metzler or Geyer, ordered the seventeen men to run the gantlet between rows of peasants armed with pikes. The Count offered all his fortune in ransom; it was refused as a temporizing expedient. The Countess, prostrate and delirious, begged for her husband’s life; Rohrbach bade two men hold her up so that she could witness the orgy of revenge. As the Count walked to his death amid a volley of daggers and pikes, the peasants recalled to him his own brutalities. “You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field.... Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops.... You have wrung the last penny out of us.” During the next half-hour the sixteen knights were similarly laid to rest. The Countess was allowed to retire to a convent.28
In nearly every section of Germany peasant bands were running riot. Monasteries were sacked, or were compelled to pay high ransoms. “Nowhere,” says a letter of April 7, 1525, “do the insurgents make a secret of,.. their intention to kill all clerics who will not break with the Church, to destroy all cloisters and episcopal palaces, and to root the Catholic religion utterly out of the land.” 29 This is probably an exaggeration, but we may note that in Bavaria, Austria, and Tirol, where Protestantism had apparently been suppressed, the rebels captured many towns, and compelled Archduke Ferdinand to agree that all preaching should henceforth be according to Scripture—a characteristic Protestant demand. At Mainz Archbishop Albrecht fled before the storm, but his deputy saved the see by signing the Twelve Articles and paying a ransom of 15,000 guilders. On April 11 the townsfolk of Bamberg renounced the bishop’s feudal sovereignty, pillaged and burned his castle, and plundered the houses of the orthodox. In Alsace the revolt spread so rapidly that by April’s end every Catholic or rich landlord in the province was in terror of his life. On April 28 an army of 20,000 peasants attacked Zabern, seat of the bishop of Strasbourg, and despoiled his monastery; on May 13 they took the town, forced every fourth man to join them, renounced all payment of tithes, and demanded that thereafter all officials except the emperor should be elected by popular suffrage, and be subject to recall.30 At Brixen in Tirol a former episcopal secretary, Michael Gasmaier, organized a revolt that attacked all orthodox clergymen, sacked the local monastery (May 12), and remained rampant and unsubdued for a year. In all the valleys of the Inn and Etsch rivers, says an unsympathetic chronicler of the time, “there was such a concourse, cry, and tumult that hardly might a good man walk in the streets. Robbing and plundering... became so common that even pious men were tempted thereto.” 31 At Freiburgim-Breisgau the peasants looted castles and monasteries, and forced the city to join the “Evangelical Brotherhood” (May 24). In that same month a peasant band drove the bishop of Würzburg out of his palace, and feasted on his stores. In June the powerful and warlike Archbishop Matthias Lang was chased from his palace in Salzburg into his castle fortress overlooking the city. In Neustadt in the Palatinate Elector Ludwig, surrounded by 8,000 armed peasants, invited their leaders to dinner, and cheerfully complied with their demands. “There,” said a contemporary, “one saw villeins and their lord sit together, eat and drink together. He had, as it seemed, one heart to them, and they to him.” 32
Amid this torrent of events Luther issued from the press of Wittenberg, toward the middle of May 1525, a pamphlet “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” Its vehemence startled prince and peasant, I prelate and humanist, alike. Shocked by the excesses of the infuriated rebels, 1 dreading a possible overturn of all law and government in Germany, and stung by charges that his own teachings had loosed the flood, he now ranged himself unreservedly on the side of the imperiled lords,
In the former book I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and be instructed.... . But before I look around they, forgetting their offer, betake themselves to violence, and rob and rage and act like mad dogs.... It is the Devil’s work they are at, and in particular it is the work of the archdevil [Münzer] who rules at Mülhausen.... I must begin by setting their sins before them.... Then I must instruct the rulers how they are to conduct themselves in these circumstances.....
Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God and the Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well.... For rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down.... Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will strike you, and a whole land with you.....
He rejected the supposed Scriptural warrant for communism:
The Gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who do of their own free will what the Apostles and disciples did in Acts iv. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of a Pilate or a Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, would have other men’s goods common, and keep their own goods for themselves. Fine Christians these! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants.
To Catholic rulers he offered his forgiveness if they smote the rebels without trial. To Protestant rulers he recommended prayer, contrition, and negotiation; but if the peasants remain obdurate,
then swiftly grasp the sword. For a prince or lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of His wrath (Romans, xiii), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows.... If he can punish and does not—even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood—then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit.... The rulers, then, should go on unconcerned, and with a good conscience lay about them as long as their hearts still beat.... . If anyone think this too hard, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable, and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour.33
It was Luther’s misfortune that this outburst reached its readers just about the time that the forces of the propertied classes were beginning to subdue the revolt; and the Reformer received undue credit for the terrorism of the suppression. It is unlikely that the endangered masters were influenced by the pamphlet; it was in their temper to handle the insurgents with a severity that would serve as a deterrent in unforgettable memory. For a time they had bemused the simple peasants with parleys and promises, and had thereby persuaded many of the bands to disperse; meanwhile the masters organized and armed their levies.
At the height of the turmoil Elector Frederick died (May 5, 1525), himself calm and at peace, admitting that he and other princes had wronged the peasant, refusing to join in extreme measures of retaliation, and leaving to his successor, Duke John, urgent counsels of moderation. But the new Elector felt that his brother’s policy had been unwisely lenient. He joined his forces with those of Duke Henry of Brunswick and Philip Landgrave of Hesse, and together they moved against Münzer’s encampment outside Mühlhausen. The opposed armies were matched only in number—each some 8,000 strong; but the ducal troops were mostly trained soldiers, while the peasants, despite Münzer’s home-made artillery, were indifferently armed, poorly disciplined, and disordered with natural fright Münzer relied on his eloquence to restore morale, and led the peasants in ayer and hymns. The first barrage of the princely cannon slaughtered hundreds, and the terrified rebels fled into the town of Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525). The victors followed, and massacred 5,000. Three hundred prisoners were condemned to death; their women pleaded mercy for them; it was granted, on condition that the women should beat out the brains of two priests who had encouraged the revolt; it was so done, while the triumphant dukes looked on.34 Münzer hid, was captured, was tortured into confessing the error of his ways, and was beheaded before the headquarters of the princes. Pfeiffer and his 1,200 soldiers defended Mühlhausen; they were overcome; Pfeiffer and other leaders were put to death, but the citizens were spared on paying a total ransom of 40,000 guilders ($1,000,000?).
Meanwhile Truchsess took the town of Böblingen by negotiation, and from within its walls turned his guns upon a rebel camp outside (May 12). Those of the peasants who survived this cannonade were cut down by his cavalry; this ended the revolt in Württemberg. Turning next to Weinsberg, Truchsess burned it to the ground, and slowly roasted Jäcklein Rohrbach, who had directed the “Massacre of Weinsberg.” Truchsess marched on to rout peasant forces at Königshofen and Ingolstadt, recaptured Würzburg, and beheaded eighty-one chosen rebels as a memento for the rest (June 5). Florian Geyer escaped from Würzburg into obscurity, and remained a cherished legend. Götz von Berlichingen surrendered in apt time, lived to fight for Charles V against the Turks, and died in his own bed and castle at eightytwo (1562). Rothenberg was taken on June 20, Memmingen soon afterward. The revolt in Alsace was crushed by the slaughter of from 2,000 to 6,000 men at Lipstein and Zabern (May 17–18). By May 27 some 20,000 peasants had been killed in Alsace alone, in many cases after surrender; the air of the towns was fetid with the stench of the dead.35 Markgraf Casimir had some of his surrendering peasants beheaded, some hanged; in milder cases he chopped off hands or gouged out eyes.36 Saner princes finally intervened to reduce the barbarism of the retaliation, and at the end of August the Diet of Augsburg issued a rescript urging moderation in punishments and fines. “If all the rebels are killed,” one philosophic noble asked, “where shall we get peasants to provide for us?”37
In Austria the revolt continued for a year. In January 1526, Michael Gasmaier proclaimed throughout Tirol the most radical of the revolutionary programs. All “godless” (i.e., non-Protestants) who persecuted the true Word of God, or who oppressed the common man, were to be put to death. All pictures and shrines were to be removed from the churches, and no Masses were to be said. Town walls, towers, and fortresses were to be demolished; there should now be only villages, and all men were to be equal. Officials and judges were to be chosen by universal adult male suffrage. Feudal rents and dues were to end at once; tithes were to be collected, but were to be given to the Reformed Church and the poor. Monasteries were to be converted into hospitals or schools. Mines were to be nationalized. Prices were to be fixed by the government.38 For a time Gasmaier, with clever strategy, defeated the troops sent against him, but he was finally outwitted, and fled to Italy. The Archduke Ferdinand set a price on his head, and two Spanish cutthroats earned the sum by assassinating him in his room in Padua (1528).
The losses of German life and property in the Peasants’ Revolt were to be exceeded only in the Thirty Years’ War. Of peasants alone some 130,000 died in battle or in expiation. There were 10,000 executions under the jurisdiction of the Swabian League; Truchsess’ executioner boasted that he had killed 1,200 condemned men with his own practiced hand. The peasants themselves had destroyed hundreds of castles and monasteries. Hundreds of villages and towns had been depopulated or ruined, or impoverished by huge indemnities. Over 50,000 homeless peasants roamed the highways or hid in the woods. Widows and orphans were legion, but charity was heartless or penniless. The rebels had in many instances burned the charters that recorded their feudal dues; new charters were now drawn up, renewing the obligations, sometimes more leniently, sometimes more rigorously, than before. Concessions were made to the peasants in Austria, Baden, and Hesse; elsewhere serfdom was strengthened, and would continue, east of the Elbe, till the nineteenth century. Democratic beginnings were aborted. Intellectual developments were stunted; censorship of publications increased, under Catholic and Protestant authorities alike. Humanism wilted in the fire; the Renaissance joy in life and literature and love gave way to theology, pietism, and meditations on death.
The Reformation itself almost perished in the Peasants’ War. Despite Luther’s disclaimers and denunciations, the rebellion had flaunted Protestant colors and ideas: economic aspirations were dressed in phrases that Luther had sanctified; communism was to be merely a return to the Gospel. Charles V interpreted the uprising as “a Lutheran movement.”39 Conservatives classed the expropriation of ecclesiastical property by Protestants as revolutionary actions on a par with the sacking of monasteries by peasants. In the south the frightened princes and lords renewed their fealty to the Roman Church. In several places, as at Bamberg and Würzburg, men even of the propertied class were executed for having accepted Lutheranism.40 The peasants themselves turned against the Reformation as a lure and a betrayal; some called Luther Dr. Lügner—” Dr. Liar”—and “toady of the princes.”41 For years after the revolt he was so unpopular that he seldom dared leave Wittenberg, even to attend his father’s deathbed (1530). “All is forgotten that God has done for the world through me,” he wrote (June 15, 1525); “now lords, priests, and peasants are all against me, and threaten my death.” 42
It was not in his character to yield ground or apologize. On May 30, 1525, he wrote to Nicholas Amsdorf: “My opinion is that it is better that all peasants be killed than that the princes and magistrates perish, because the rustics took the sword without divine authority.”43 In July 1525, he published An Open Letter Concerning the Hard Book against the Peasants. His critics, he said, deserved no answer; their criticisms showed them to be rebels at heart, like the peasants, and no more deserving of mercy; “the rulers ought to seize these people by the cap and make them hold their tongues.” 44
If they think this answer is too hard, and that this is talking violence and only shutting men’s mouths, I reply that this is right. A rebel is not worth answering with arguments, for he does not accept them. The answer for such mouth is a fist that brings blood from the nose. The peasants would not listen... their ears must be unbuttoned with bullets, till their heads jump off their shoulders. Such pupils need such a rod. He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must listen to the headsman when he comes with his axe.... Of mercy I will neither hear nor know anything, but give heed to God’s will in His Word.... If He will have wrath and not mercy, what have you to do with mercy? Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Amalek when he failed to execute God’s wrath as he had been commanded? .... You who are praising mercy so highly because the peasants are beaten, why did you not praise it when the peasants were raging, smiting, robbing, burning, and plundering, until they were terrible to men’s eyes and ears? Why were they not merciful to the princes and lords, whom they wanted to wipe out entirely?
Mercy, Luther argued, is the duty of Christians in their private capacity; as officers of the state, however, they must normally follow justice rather than mercy, for since Adam and Eve’s sin man has been so wicked that government, laws, and penalties are needed to control him. We owe more consideration to the community endangered by crime than to criminals endangering the community.
If the intentions of the peasants had been carried out, no honest man would have been safe from them, but whoever had a pfennig more than another would have had to suffer for it. They had already begun that, and they would not have stopped there; women and children would have been put to shame; they would have taken to killing one another too, and there would have been no peace or safety anywhere. Has anything been heard of more unrestrained than a mob of peasants when they are fed full and have gotten power? .... The ass will have blows, and the people will be ruled by force.45
Luther’s extreme statements about the Peasants’ War shock us today because social order has been so well established that we presume on its continuance, and can treat with lenience those few who would violently disturb it. But Luther faced the harsh reality of peasant bands transforming their just grievances into indiscriminate pillage, and threatening the complete overturn of law, government, production, and distribution in Germany. Events justified his premonition that the religious revolution for which he had risked his life would be gravely imperiled by the conservative reaction that was bound to follow an unsuccessful revolt. He may have felt some personal debt to the princes and nobles who had protected him in Wittenberg and Worms and the Wartburg, and he might well wonder who would save him against Charles V and Clement VII if princely power ceased to shield the Reformation. The one freedom that seemed to him worth fighting for was the freedom to worship God, to seek salvation according to one’s conscience. What difference did it make whether, in this brief Vorspiel to eternal life, one was a prince or a slave? We should accept our state here without complaint, bound in body and duty, but free in soul and the grace of God.
And yet the peasants had a case against him. He had not only predicted social revolution, he had said he would not be displeased by it, he would greet it with a smile, even if men washed their hands in episcopal blood. He too had made a revolution, had endangered social order, had flouted authority not less divine than the state’s. He had made no protest against the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property. How otherwise than by force could peasants better their lot when ballots were forbidden them, and their oppressors daily wielded force? The peasants felt that the new religion had sanctified their cause, had aroused them to hope and action, and had deserted them in the hour of decision. Some of them, in angry despair, became cynical atheists.46 Many of them, or their children, shepherded by Jesuits, returned to the Catholic fold. Some of them followed the radicals whom Luther had condemned, and heard in the New Testament a summons to communism.