The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels

peasant troops

Chapter 6
The Peasant War in Thuringia, Alsace and Austria

Immediately after the outbreak of the first movement in Suabia, Thomas Muenzer again hurried to Thuringia, and since the end of February and the beginning of March, he established his quarters in the free imperial city of Muehlhausen, where his party was stronger than elsewhere. He held the threads of the entire movement in his hand. He knew what storm was about to break in Southern Germany, and he undertook to make Thuringia the centre of the movement for North Germany. He found very fertile soil. Thuringia, the main arena of the Reformation movement, was in the grip of great unrest. The economic misery of the downtrodden peasants, as well as the current revolutionary, religious and political doctrine, had also prepared the neighbouring provinces, Hesse, Saxony, and the region of the Harz, for the general uprising. In Muehlhausen itself, whole masses of the lower middle-class had been won over to the extreme Muenzer doctrine, and could hardly wait for the moment when they would assert themselves by a superiority of numbers against the haughty honourables. In order not to start before the proper moment, Muenzer was compelled to appear in the role of moderator, but his disciple, Pfeifer, who conducted the movement there, had committed himself to such an extent that he could not hold back the outbreak, and as early as March 17, 1525, before the general uprising in Southern Germany, Muehlhausen had its revolution. The old patrician council was overthrown, and the government was handed over to the newly-elected “eternal council,” with Muenzer as president.

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party”

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. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development. Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government – not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies – is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.

Muenzer’s position at the head of the “eternal council” of Muehlhausen was indeed much more precarious than that of any modern revolutionary regent. Not only the movement of his time, but the whole century, was not ripe for the realisation of the ideas for which he himself had only begun to grope. The class which he represented not only was not developed enough and incapable of subduing and transforming the whole of society, but it was just beginning to come into existence. The social transformation that he pictured in his fantasy was so little grounded in the then existing economic conditions that the latter were a preparation for a social system diametrically opposed to that of which he dreamt. Nevertheless, he was bound to his preachings of Christian equality and evangelical community of possessions. He was at least compelled to make an attempt at their realisation. Community of all possessions, universal and equal labour duty, and the abolition of all authority were proclaimed. In reality, Muehlhausen remained a republican imperial city with a somewhat democratic constitution, with a senate elected by universal suffrage and under the control of a forum, and with the hastily improvised feeding of the poor. 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.

Muenzer, himself, seems to have realised the wide abyss between his theories and surrounding realities. This abyss must have been felt the more keenly, the more distorted the views of this genius of necessity appeared, reflected in the heads of the mass of his followers. He threw himself into widening and organising the movement with a zeal rare even for him. He wrote letters and sent out emissaries in all directions. His letters and sermons breathed a revolutionary fanaticism which was amazing in comparison with his former writings. Gone completely was the naive youthful humour of Muenzer’s revolutionary pamphlets. The quiet instructive language of the thinker which had been so characteristic of him, appeared no more. Muenzer was now entirely a prophet of the revolution. Incessantly he fanned the flame of hatred against the ruling classes. He spurred the wildest passions, using forceful terms of expression the like of which religious and nationalist delirium had put into the mouths of the Old Testament prophets. The style up to which he worked himself reveals the level of education of that public which he was to affect. The example of Muehlhausen and the propaganda of Muenzer had a quick and far-reaching effect. In Thuringia, Eichsfeld, Harz, in the duchies of Saxony, in Hesse and Fulda, in Upper Franconia and in Vogtland, the peasants arose, assembled in armies, and burned castles and monasteries. Muenzer was more or less recognised as the leader of the entire movement, and Muehlhausen remained the central point, while in Erfurt a purely middle-class movement became victorious, and the ruling party there constantly maintained an undecided attitude towards the peasants.

In Thuringia, the princes were at the beginning just as helpless and powerless in relation to the peasants as they had been in Franconia and Suabia. Only in the last days of April, did the Landgrave of Hesse succeed in assembling a corps. It was that same Landgrave Philipp, whose piety is being praised so much by the Protestant and bourgeois histories of the Reformation, and of whose infamies towards the peasants we will presently have a word to say. By a series of quick movements and by decisive action, Landgrave Philipp subdued the major part of his land. He called new contingents, and then turned towards the region of the Abbot of Fulda, who hitherto was his lord. On May 3, he defeated the Fulda peasant troop at Frauenberg, subdued the entire land, and seized the opportunity not only to free himself from the sovereignty of the Abbot, but to make the Abbey of Fulda a vassalage of Hesse, naturally pending its subsequent secularisation. He then took Eisenach and Langensalza, and jointly with the Saxon troops, moved towards the headquarters of the rebellious Muehlhausen. Muenzer assembled his forces at Frankenhausen, 8,000 men and several cannons. The Thuringian troops were far from possessing that fighting power which the Suabian and Franconian troops developed in their struggle with Truchsess. The men were poorly armed and badly disciplined. They counted few ex-soldiers among them, and sorely lacked leadership. It appears that Muenzer possessed no military knowledge whatsoever. Nevertheless, the princes found it proper to use here the same tactics that so often helped Truchsess to victory – breach of faith. On May 16, they entered negotiations, concluded an armistice, but attacked the peasants before the time of the armistice had elapsed.

Muenzer stood with his people on the mountain which is still called Mount Battle (Schlachtberg), entrenched behind a barricade of wagons. The discouragement among the troops was rapidly increasing. The princes had promised them amnesty should they deliver Muenzer alive. Muenzer assembled his people in a circle, to debate the princes’ proposals. A knight and a priest expressed themselves in favour of capitulation. Muenzer had them both brought inside the circle, and decapitated. This act of terrorist energy, jubilantly met by the outspoken revolutionaries, caused a certain halt among the troops, but most of the men would have gone away without resistance had it not been noticed that the princes’ Lansquenets, who had encircled the entire mountain, were approaching in close columns, in spite of the armistice. A front was hurriedly formed behind the wagons, but already the cannon balls and guns were pounding the half-defenseless peasants, unused to battle, and the Lansquenets reached the barricade. After a brief resistance, the line of the wagons was broken, the peasants’ cannon captured, and the peasants dispersed. They fled in wild disorder, and fell into the hands of the enveloping columns and the cavalry, who perpetrated an appalling massacre among them. Out of 8,000 peasants, over 5,000 were slaughtered. The survivors arrived at Frankenhaus, and simultaneously with them, the princes’ cavalry. The city was taken. Muenzer, wounded in the head, was discovered in a house and captured. On May 25, Muehlhausen also surrendered. Pfeifer, who had remained there, ran away, but was captured in the region of Eisenach.

Muenzer was put on the rack in the presence of the princes, and then decapitated. He went to his death with the same courage with which he had lived. He was barely twenty-eight when he was executed. Pfeifer, with many others, was also executed. In Fulda, that holy man, Philipp of Hesse, had opened his bloody court. He and the Prince of Hesse ordered many others to be killed by the sword – in Eisenach, twenty-four; in Langensalza, forty-one; after the battle of Frankenhaus, 300; in Muehlhausen, over 100; at German, twenty-six; at Tungeda, fifty; at Sangenhausen, twelve; in Leipzig, eight, not to speak of mutilations and the more moderate measures of pillaging and burning villages and cities.

Muehlhausen was compelled to give up its liberty under the empire, and was incorporated into the Saxon lands, just as the Abbey of Fulda was incorporated in the Landgraviate of Hesse.

The prince now moved through the forest of Thuringia, where Franconian peasants of the Bildhaus camp had united with the Thuringians, and burned many castles. A battle took place before Meiningen. The peasants were beaten and withdrew towards the city, which closed its gates to them, and threatened to attack them from the rear. The troops, thus placed in a quandary by the betrayal of their allies, capitulated before the prince, and dispersed, while negotiations were still under way. The camp of Bildhaus had long dispersed, and with this, the remnants of the insurgents of Saxony, Hesse, Thuringia and Upper Franconia, were annihilated.

In Alsace the rebellion broke out after the movement had started on the right side of the Rhine. The peasants of the bishopric of Strassbourg arose as late as the middle of April. Soon after, there was an upheaval of the peasants of Upper Alsace and Sundgau. On April 18, a contingent of Lower Alsace peasants pillaged the monastery of Altdorf. Other troops were formed near Ebersheim and Barr, as well as in the Urbis valley. These were soon concentrated into the large Lower Alsace division and proceeded in an organised way to take cities and towns and to destroy monasteries. One out of every three men was called to the colours. The Twelve Articles of this group were considerably more radical than those of the Suabian and Franconian groups.

While one column of the Lower Alsace peasants first concentrated near St. Hippolite early in May, attempting to take the city but without success, and then, through an understanding with the citizens, came into possession of Barken on May 10, of Rappoldtsweiler on May 13, and Reichenweier on May 14, a second column under Erasmus Gerber marched to attack Strassbourg by surprise. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the column now turned towards the Vosges, destroyed the monastery of Mauersmuenster, and besieged Zabern, taking it on May 13. From here it moved towards the frontier of Lorraine and aroused the section of the duchy adjoining the frontier, at the same time fortifying the mountain passes. Two columns were formed at Herbolzheim on the Saar, and at Neuburg, at Saargemund, 4,000 German-Lorraine peasants entrenched themselves. Finally, two advanced troops, the Kolben in the Vosges at Stuerzelbrunn, and the Kleeburg at Weissenburg, covered the front and the right flank, while the left flank was adjoining those of Upper Alsace.

The latter, in motion since April 20, had forced the city of Sulz into the peasant fraternity on May 10, Gebweiler, on May 12, and Sennheim and vicinity, May 15. The Austrian government and the surrounding imperial cities immediately united against them, but they were too weak to offer serious resistance, not to speak of attack. Thus, in the middle of May, the whole of Alsace, with the exception of only a few cities, came into the hands of the insurgents.

But already the army was approaching which was destined to break the ungodly attack of the Alsace peasants. It was the French who effected here the restoration of the nobility. Already, on May 16, Duke Anton of Lorraine marched out with an army of 30,000, among them the flower of the French nobility, as well as Spanish, Piedmontese, Lombardic, Greek and Albanian auxiliary troops. On May 16 he met 4,000 peasants at Luetzelstein whom he defeated without effort, and on the 17th he forced Zabern, which was besieged by the peasants, to surrender. But even while the Lorrainers were entering the city and the peasants were being disarmed, the conditions of the surrender were broken. The defenseless peasants were attacked by the Lansquenets and most of them were slaughtered. The remaining Lower Alsace columns disbanded, and Duke Anton went to meet the Upper Alsatians. The latter, who had refused to join the Lower Alsatians at Zabern, were now attacked at Scherweiler by the entire force of the Lorrainers. They resisted with great bravery, but the enormous numerical superiority – 30,000 as against 7,000 – and the betrayal of a number of knights, especially that of the magistrate of Reichenweier, made all daring futile. They were totally beaten and dispersed. The Duke subdued the whole of Alsace with the usual atrocities. Only Sundgau was spared. By threatening to call him into the land, the Austrian government forced the peasants to conclude the Ensisheim agreement early in June. The government soon broke the agreement, however, ordering numbers of preachers and leaders of the movement to be hanged. The peasants made a new insurrection which ended with the inclusion of the Sundgau peasants into the Offenburg agreement (September 18).

There now remains only the report of the Peasant War in the Alpine regions of Austria. These regions, as well as the adjoining Archbishopric of Salzburg were in continuous opposition to the government and the nobility ever since the Stara Prawa, and the Reformation doctrines found there a fertile soil. Religious persecutions and willful taxation brought the rebellion to a crisis.

The city of Salzburg, supported by the peasants and the pitmen, had been in controversy with the Archbishop since 1522 over city privileges and the freedom of religious practice. By the end of 1523, the Archbishop attacked the city with recruited Lansquenets, terrorised it by a cannonade from the castle, and persecuted the heretical preachers. At the same time he imposed new crushing taxes, and thereby irritated the population to the utmost. In the spring of 1525, simultaneously with the Suabian-Franconian and Thuringian uprisings, the peasants and pitmen of the entire country suddenly arose, organised themselves under the commanders Brossler and Weitmoser, freed the city and besieged the castle of Salzburg. Like the West German peasants, they organised a Christian alliance and formulated their demands into fourteen articles.

In Styria, in Upper Austria, in Carinthia and Carniola, where new extortionate taxes, duties and edicts had severely injured the interests closest to the people, the peasants arose in the Spring of 1525. They took a number of castles and at Grys, defeated the conqueror of the Stara Prawa, the old field commander Dietrichstein. Although the government succeeded in placating some of the insurgents with false promises, the bulk of them remained together and united with the Salzburg peasants, so that the entire region of Salzburg and the major part of Upper Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola were in the hands of the peasants and pitmen.

In the Tyrol, the Reformation doctrines had also found adherence. Here even more than in the other Alpine regions of Austria, Muenzer’s emissaries had been successfully active. Archbishop Ferdinand persecuted the preachers of the new doctrines here as elsewhere, and impinged the rights of the population by arbitrary financial regulations. In consequence, an uprising took place in the Spring of 1525. The insurgents, whose commander was a Muenzer man named Geismaier, the only noted military talent among all the peasant chiefs, took a great number of castles, and proceeded energetically against the priests, particularly in the south and the region of Etsch. The Vorarlberg peasants also arose and joined the Allgaeu peasants.

The Archbishop, pressed from every side, now began to make concession after concession to the rebels whom a short time before he had wished to annihilate by means of burning, scourging, pillaging and murdering. He summoned the Diets of the hereditary lands, and pending their assembling, concluded an armistice with the peasants. In the meantime he was strenuously arming, in order, as soon as possible, to be able to speak to the ungodly ones in a different language.

Naturally, the armistice was not kept long. Dietrichstein, having run short of cash, began to levy contributions in the duchies; his Slavic and Magyar troops allowed themselves, besides, the most shameful atrocities against the population. This brought the Styrians to new rebellion. The peasants attacked Dietrichstein at Schladming during the night of July 3rd and slaughtered everybody who did not speak German. Dietrichstein himself was captured.

On the morning of July 4, the peasants organised a jury to try the captives, and forty Czech and Croatian noble prisoners were sentenced to death. This was effective. The Archbishop immediately consented to all the demands of the estates of the five duchies (Upper and Lower Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola).

In Tyrol, the demands of the Diet were also granted, and thereby the North was quieted. The South, however, insisting on its original demands as against the much more moderate decisions of the Diet, remained under arms. Only in December was the Archbishop in a position to restore order by force. He did not fail to execute a great number of instigators and leaders of the upheaval who fell into his hands.

Now 10,000 Bavarians moved against Salzburg, under Georg of Frundsberg. This imposing military power, as well as the quarrels that had broken out among the peasants, induced the Salzburg peasants to conclude an agreement with the Archbishop, which came into being September 1, and was also accepted by the Archduke. In spite of this, the two princes, who had meanwhile considerably strengthened their troops, soon broke the agreement and thereby drove the Salzburg peasants to a new uprising. The insurgents held their own throughout the winter. In the Spring, Geismaier came to them to open a splendid campaign against the troops which were approaching from every side. In a series of brilliant battles in May and June, 1526, he defeated the Bavarian, Austrian and Suabian Union troops and the Lansquenets of the Archbishop of Salzburg, one after another, and for a long time he prevented the various corps from uniting. He also found time to besiege Radstadt. Finally, surrounded by overwhelming forces, he was compelled to withdraw. He battled his way through and led the remnants of his corps through the Austrian Alps into Venetian territory. The republic of Venice and Switzerland offered the indefatigable peasant chief starting points for new conspiracies. For a whole year he was still attempting to involve them in a war against Austria, which would have offered him an occasion for a new peasant uprising. The hand of the murderer, however, reached him in the course of these negotiations. Archbishop Ferdinand and the Archbishop of Salzburg could not rest as long as Geismaier was alive. They therefore paid a bandit who, in 1527, succeeded in removing the dangerous rebel from among the living.


Last updated on 15 July 2020