Peasant War of 1524-26

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peasant War of 1524-26

 

(the Great Peasant War), in Germany, the most important revolt of the peasants, supported by some of the townspeople, against feudal oppression. The Peasant War of 1524-26 enveloped all of southwestern and central Germany.

The struggle of the peasantry against the feudal reaction, which had begun to grow stronger in the late 14th and 15th centuries, did not develop until the 1470’s. However, owing to economic advances at the turn of the 16th century (above all, the inception and development of early capitalist relations) and the sharpening of the sociopolitical struggle, which acquired a national program in the slogans of the Reformation, the struggle of the peasantry took on new importance. The Peasant War was the culmination of the social movement characterized by F. En-gels as the first great battle against feudalism and the first act of the bourgeois revolution in Europe (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, pp. 417-18, and vol. 22, pp. 307-08; V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17, p. 47).

In June 1524 peasant disturbances that had broken out in the southern Black Forest turned into an open uprising. The ties between the insurgents and the popular currents of the Reformation were extremely important for the further development of the movement. The revolutionary propaganda of the supporters of T. Miinzer, leader of the masses of peasants and plebeians, was spread primarily by the Anabaptists. It contributed to the consolidation of the demands of the peasants and the lower strata of the towns into a common program of the struggle of the oppressed people against all masters. The first program containing the idea of the overthrow of the social system—the Letter of the Articles (Artikelbrief)—was written in late 1524 or early 1525 by circles close to Munzer. It called for a struggle to achieve the complete emancipation of the “poor and common people” from the oppression of all masters and authorities and for the reorganization of life on the basis of the “common good” and “divine law.”

In February-March 1525 there was another outburst of peasant revolts. More and more of them were mass revolts. In Upper Swabia, which became the center of the uprisings in the spring of 1525, large peasant detachments were formed, including the Baltringen, Allgäu, and Lake groups. Like other regions enveloped by the Peasant War, Upper Swabia was deluged not only with the revolutionary propaganda of the partisans of Munzer, which attracted the poor strata of the peasantry and the urban plebeian masses, but also with the propaganda for moderate tactics, which called on people to seek the reduction of feudal burdens through negotiations. The ideological source of the moderates’ propaganda, which expressed the attitudes of the prosperous peasants, the leaders of peasant detachments, and radical burgher elements, was the teaching of the Zurich re-former H. Zwingli, who had many supporters in southwestern Germany, especially among the burghers. (One of his followers was B. Hubmaier, a preacher in the city of Waldshut, where the peasants and the burgher opposition formed an alliance at the end of 1524.)

Drawn together by their common demand for “divine law,” the three main peasant detachments of Upper Swabia united at a peasant congress in the city of Memmingen. However, within this Christian Association differences arose over the issue of whether “divine law” ought to be understood in the spirit of the Letter of the Articles or in the spirit of the more moderate Zwinglianism. At a time when the peasant masses, stimulated by revolutionary propaganda, were storming the castles of the nobility and destroying monasteries, a compendium of peasant demands generalized from a moderate interpretation of “divine law” was compiled by the moderate leaders. Known as the Twelve Articles, the program stressed the peaceful intentions of the peasants and their aspirations for an amelioration of feudal oppression. It called for the abolition of serf bondage, the diminution of feudal requisitions and the corvee, the abolition of the small tithe, and the restoration of the right to free use of communal lands. Printed in March 1525, the Twelve Articles were widely distributed among the insurgents, who combined its con-crete demands with the revolutionary tactics of the Letter of the Articles.

Meanwhile, the Swabian League, a military and political organization of the major princes, managed to persuade the leaders of the Christian Association to enter into negotiations. On March 25 the league concluded an armistice with the Christian Association in Ulm, thus winning time for the feudal lords to mobilize military forces. On April 4 the forces of the Swabian League, led by G. Truchsess von Waldburg, attacked the peas-ants of Upper Swabia, inflicting on them their first serious defeat at Leipheim. The peasants were routed at Wurzach on April 14, but on April 15 they assembled military forces considerably larger than those of the Swabian League near Weingarten. How-ever, on April 17, Truchsess succeeded in concluding the Treaty of Weingarten with the leaders of the Lake group. The Upper Swabian peasants, in effect, withdrew from the struggle, making it easier for the Swabian League to suppress the uprising in other regions. The lack of coordination of the peasant detachments, the credulity of some leaders, and the treason of others led to the defeat of the peasants of Upper Swabia. In their defeat a considerable role was also played by the tactics of the patrician elite of the towns, who sought to win the confidence of the peasants while at the same time aiding the leaders of the Swabian League with funds and informing them of the situation in the peasant camps.

The uprising broke out in Franconia in late March 1525 near the imperial city of Rothenburg. In early April it spread throughout the region, into the bishopric of Wiirzburg, the valley of the Neckar and Tauber rivers, and Odenwald. Two main peasant detachments operated in this region: the Neckar-Odenwald Troop (or Gay Troop) and the Tauber Troop. The rebels captured and destroyed monasteries and castles and forced many feudal lords to give up foodstuffs and arms to the peasants and recognize the Twelve Articles. In Weinsberg, which they occupied on April 16, peasants led by Jacklein Rohrbach, one of the most radical leaders of the Gay Troop, put 14 nobles to death.

The burghers of Franconia were won over to participation in the Peasant War, but they were not united in outlook. Although entrepreneurial elements sought to eliminate the obstacles to their activity set up by the princes and other feudal lords, they adhered to moderate tactics. Impoverished master craftsmen and tradespeople acted more decisively on the side of the peas-ants. In a number of cities, including the imperial city of Heilbronn, democratic elements opened the gates to the peasant detachments.

In the second half of April moderates who favored an alliance with the opposition nobility and who hoped to use the revolutionary movement of the peasants in the interests of moderate reform gained the upper hand in southern Franconia. Led by W. Hipler, they convinced the Gay Troop to invite Gotz von Berlichingen to be its commander. In return for accepting this position, Berlichingen demanded an end to hostile actions against castles and monasteries. Rohrbach and his supporters were forced to secede from the Gay Troop.

In Amorbach in early May burgher advisers drew up the “Declaration of the Twelve Articles,” which formulated the demands of the peasants in vaguer terms and postponed their fulfillment until the implementation of an imperial reform, which Hipler and his supporters were preparing. The reform draft, known as the Heilbronn program, was drawn up by burgher circles and provided for a number of transformations imbued with the spirit of early bourgeois relations and state centralization (for example, legislation applicable to the whole empire, unified currency and weights and measures, the abolition of internal tariffs, and the confiscation of church estates). For its time, the Heilbronn program was a progressive document. How-ever, it was based on a striving toward compromise with the oppositional knights. In effect, it ignored the interests of the peasants, and therefore, it could not promote the development of the revolutionary movement. In early June 1525 the peasant detachments of Franconia were routed by the troops of the Swabian League (the battles at Königshofen on June 2 and at Ingolstadt on June 4).

The peasant and plebeian movement unfolded with particular force in central Germany—in northern Franconia and the region of Thuringia and Saxony. In northern Franconia the Bildhausen and Aura monasteries, which were occupied by the peasants in early April, became bases for the movement. Many cities and knightly castles submitted to the powerful peasant camps, formally accepting the Twelve Articles. In Thuringia and Saxony the uprising was led by Munzer himself. The center of the rebel-lion was the city of Mulhausen, where, as early as Mar. 17,1525, a coup led to the establishment of a revolutionary government. In Thuringia the insurgents occupied cities, castles, monasteries, and manorial estates and partitioned the property of the feudal lords among the peasants and townspeople, proclaiming their actions the beginning of the establishment of universal human equality within and outside the country. Engels characterized the movement in Thuringia as the culmination of the entire Peasant War. However, Munzer’s goal of centralizing the rebels’ efforts and creating in Thuringia a revolutionary center for the whole uprising failed, owing to the peasants’ inability to rise above local interests. No match for the princes’ troops, which were equipped with artillery and led by Landgrave Philip of Hesse, Munzer’s small, poorly armed detachment was defeated at Franckenhausen on May 15, 1525. Captured by the princes, Miinzer was subjected to agonizing tortures and executed (May 27). On May 25, Mulhausen was taken by the princely troops without a fight.

The peasant movement reached its peak in mid-April and May 1525. Scholars estimate that at least 100,000 people took part in the Peasant War during these months. The uprising spread to new regions—Wurttemberg, Baden, Alsace, and the alpine lands. The peasants’ greatest successes were the siege and capture of the city of Freiburg im Breisgau (May 18-23) and the battle at Schladming (July 3, 1525)—the most important peasant military victory of the era of the Peasant War. However, even in these regions peasant actions were suppressed (for example, the rout of the Wurttemberg peasants on May 12 at Boblingen and the defeat of the peasants of Alsace at Zabern on May 16). The struggle lasted longest (until 1526) in the Austrian lands, especially the Tirol. M. Gaismair was an outstanding leader of the Tirolean peasants.

As a result of the defeat of the Peasant War, which was suppressed with extraordinary brutality, the feudal reaction and the power of the princes were strengthened, and the feudal fragmentation of Germany was reinforced.

The history of the Peasant War demonstrated that the main force in the struggle against feudalism at the dawn of capitalist development consisted of the peasants and their allies, the urban plebeians.

REFERENCES

Engels, F. “Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii.” In K. Marx and F. En-gels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Zimmerman, W. Istoriia Krest’ianskoi voiny v Germanii, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1937. (Translated from German.)
Smirin, M. M. Narodnaia reformatsiia Tomasa Miuntsera i Velikaia krest’ianskaia voina, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955.
Bensing, M. Thomas Muntzer und der ThiiringerAufstand 1525. Berlin, 1966.
Bensing, M., and S. Hoyer. Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, 1524-1526. [2nd ed.] Berlin [1970].

M. M. SMIRIN

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.