Backwaters of History No.8 – Münzer and the Thuringian Revolt
Eight thousand men were on a hill near Frankenhausen listening to a speech from their leader. They had fortified themselves behind a barricade of farm wagons and carts and, during the period of a truce arranged with their foes, they were debating the terms of surrender offered them.
At the foot of this hill, the Schlachberg, was encamped a well-armed and disciplined army, also of eight thousand men, led by the Duke of Saxony, the Duke of Brunswick and the Landgraf of Hesse. On the 15th of May, 1525, the dukes had granted the truce to the army of ill-armed peasants and workers on the hill-top, to give them time to consider the terms offered, unconditional submission and the surrender of the peasants’ leaders, particularly Thomas Münzer.
Some of the insurgents on the hill were for accepting the terms in the face of the formidable opposition lined up against them. Münzer had the two foremost advocates of surrender beheaded and then proceeded to harangue his following. He denounced the enemy with more than his accustomed vehemence, he made rousing allusions to Biblical heroes, how small forces of chosen people had conquered hosts and he concluded by pointing to a rainbow that appeared, just at the moment, as an omen of success.
Before the period of the truce had expired, and whilst the peasant army was still unprepared, the enemy opened cannon fire on their camp and charged through the barricade, mowing down the defenceless peasants left and right, pursuing those who escaped into the town of Frankenhausen where the massacre continued. Münzer was discovered in hiding and, after a period of imprisonment and a letter of “confession” to his followers, he was beheaded. So ended the most significant battle of the German Peasants’ War.
The Middle Ages closed on a scene of economic transformation. Commercial activity was shaking the foundations of the feudal system. The feudal peasant and the feudal lord had obligations to one another and the peasant had a measure of security together with a limitation to the degree of exploitation to which he was subject. This was changing to a system of merciless exploitation where taxes, tithes, etc., were continually increased and new methods ever being devised to extract more surplus wealth from the peasantry, which the feudal lord could change into florins, guilders or ducats. Common land was seized and tenant farms confiscated thus giving rise to a class of proletarian cotters.
This increase in exploitation and oppression gave rise to the great peasant revolts throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The peasants, armed with spears and axes, rose against their tormentors in France in the 1350’s, in England in the 1380’s, in Germany throughout the fifteen century culminating in the Peasants’ War of 1525, and later in Sweden and Denmark.
The economic changes gave rise to a confused mass of conflicting interests. The nobility, the peasantry, the merchants, the artisans, the proletarians, the wealthy priesthood and the poor wandering priests, all had interests peculiar to their own grouping. But through these various oppositions there was a dividing line that gave the majority of the people a mutually common enemy—the Catholic Church. The wealthy, grasping Catholic Church, centralised at Rome, was regarded by all strata of society as the exploiter par excellence, sucking wealth from all the sections of the community and pipe-lining it over the Alps to the Papal headquarters.
On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg and gave impetus to a movement which took him and others along with it. Luther started by fighting only against the excesses of the Catholic Church but was carried along by the current to urge violence and the use of fire and iron for the extermination of the cancer that he said was destroying the world.
The struggle that developed was between the Catholic conservatives on the one hand and an alliance of middle-class reformers and revolutionary peasants and proletarians on the other. The peasants at the outset aimed at a re-establishment of their feudal liberties. The famous twelve points around which most of the German peasant revolts centred are evidence of the outlook. Condensed they were:
Abolition of tithes.
Interest to be limited to 5 per cent.
All water to be free.
All woods and forests to be free.
All game to be free.
Abolition of villeinage.
No obedience to a lord, only to the emperor.
Re-establishment of old-time justice.
The right to elect persons in authority.
Abolition of death dues.
Re-establishment of the common lands that had been appropriated.
As the revolt grew, large sections of the peasants accepted and supported the communistic teachings of men like Thomas Münzer and Nicolas Storch. The middle-class allies drew away from these communist groupings and Luther turned on them ferociously, urging the nobles and merchants to strangle the peasants as they would mad dogs.
Münzer’s teaching, like all teaching of the time, was cloaked by religion. Freedom and Equality must reign on earth. The princes and the nobles denied freedom and equality to the poor, so they must be overthrown and the “common man” must be raised in their place. This was the kingdom of God and all who would not become citizens must be killed or banished. The great barrier to a real awakening of the inward light was the riches of the world. So, in the kingdom of God, there must be no private wealth. All things must be held in common. That was the essence of the teaching that caused thousands of peasants to flock around Münzer.
After a brief and adventurous career (he was only 28 years of age when he was executed) Münzer made his headquarters in Muhlhausen, where he joined forces with Heinrich Pfeiffer, an ex-monk who was the preacher and leader of the local merchant guildsmen and artisans. Pfeiffer and Münzer with their joint forces overthrew the patrician council that governed Muhlhausen and established themselves as benevolent dictators of the town and surrounding districts. Münzer proceeded to put his communist teachings into practice. He took over the Johanniterhof, the monastery of the monks of St. John, and established an equalitarian organisation holding its wealth in common. Thousands of peasants from the surrounding countryside flocked to the town where Münzer preached to them from the Marienkirche, sending out missionaries to the districts around. The communist agitation spread to Erfurt, Coburg and into Hesse and Brunswick.
During the two months of Münzer’s regime in Muhlhausen, Pfeiffer with a large section of the town population, concerned themselves not with communist ideas but with their own local revolt and establishing their own power in the local government. When word was received that the armies of the Dukes were marching against the town and Münzer took his force out to meet them, Pfeiffer remained inactive inside the walls of the town.
A body of Münzer’s followers were encamped on the hill outside Frankenhausen and he marched his poorly armed and untrained force to support them. It was here that he met the military defeat that ended his career and his life. The Dukes then turned on Muhlhausen where most of Pfeiffer’s supporters deserted him in terror and surrendered the town. Pfeiffer was pursued, captured and, with Münzer, tortured and beheaded.
Münzer had visions of a universal social revolution and he was one of the few leaders of the Peasant War who tried to bring unity into the German peasants’ movement by establishing communications between centres, His teachings expressed the vague desires of a vital section of the society of his day. Through him they were given a certain definiteness and in every great social convulsion since his days those ideas arise until they merge into the ideas of the working class of to-day.
History abounds with examples of revolutionary classes seeking and using the support of workers and peasants to gain their ends then turning ferociously on them when they start to voice aspirations of their own. Martin Luther offers an outstanding example. His words when the peasant revolts were being suppressed show his spite and viciousness.
” . . . the murderous and plundering hordes of the peasants. They should be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog. Therefore, dear gentlemen, hearken here, save there, stab, knock, strangle them at will, and if thou diest thou art blessed; no better death canst thou ever attain.”
(The Peasant War in Germany, by F. Engels.)
Books to Read:
The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels.
The Peasants’ War in Germany 1525-26 by E. Belfort Bax.
Essay, “The Reformation” in “Crises in European History” by Gustav Bang.