For many years I've seen our people starve and suffer
How many more will die
Before we stand and fight
They ask me Arhys,
"Could things be any tougher?"
The answer's no surprise,
"Yes, you bet your life!"
Commander Arhys of the Ravenskill Rebel Militia
I was introduced to Thomas Müntzer by Carl Trotz, in his novel The Last of the Freemen. Harm is taking Erin to his friends in a rural area in order to get some milk for her baby. Erin asks of the people she is about to meet:
“I didn't know these people were here, so close to us,” Erin said.
“They keep a low profile.”
“Are these people Amish, or Mennonites?”
“Neither. They have full beards, you see? I mean, with mustaches. They’re Müntzerites, followers of Thomas Müntzer, the Protestant rebel who lived five hundred years ago. They haven’t rebelled since then, though, maybe because most of them were massacred the last time they tried.”
I do not recall coming across Müntzer before; having checked my most likely source, it turns out I have…barely; a couple of paragraphs in a book I have read twice. The time is during the religious convulsions that Martin Luther introduced into the discourse of Christianity. I will warn beforehand, even having now read several sources on this topic the history isn’t completely clear to me. It turns out this is also true for professional historians, as shall be seen shortly.
My “most likely” source is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence. There were men on all sides of the divide who attempted to bring reconciliation and peace. There were others who saw the opportunity to break the competition of rule from the Catholic Church. Luther eventually made peace with the latter. Such men quoted Luther: “One must fight for the truth.” And fight they did:
When possessions were at stake, whether simply threatened or taken over by Protestants, armed conflict was inevitable. Pulpits, churches, and other religious houses, town offices, and the privileges that went with all of these changed hands – and more than once. Local sentiment, coupled with power, decided ownership.
Emperor Charles V was busy dealing with Ottoman Muslims at the time – he was fighting in North Africa and Central Europe; Vienna was at perpetual risk. In his absence, civil war broke out when the imperial knights – led by Götz von Berlichingen – tried to recoup their fortunes under the cover of general unrest. The Free Imperial Knights were free nobles of the Holy Roman Empire. The knights were defeated.
Two years after the knights, the peasants rose up, with far better excuse. Luther at once approved their twelve demands, one of which was the right to choose their own ministers. The other articles begged for relief from the princes’ pitiless exploitation. When the petition was rebuffed, thousands under the lead of Thomas Münzer [as spelled by Barzun] took to pillage and killing. Luther backtracked and in his most vituperative vein called on the princes to destroy them. The end was massacre or exile for some 30,000 families.
There is some evidence that Luther changed sides when he saw the risk: supporting the peasants might cost him his power base – those who saw in Luther a way to reduce the alternate power structure offered by the Catholic Church.
Münzer had won their allegiance by proclaiming that all men were created equal and should remain so. An impossible idea, but how suggestive!
Plenty to chew on here…
Let’s start with the twelve demands:
The Twelve Articles were part of the peasants' demands of the Swabian League during the German Peasants' War of 1525.
On March 6 of that year, about 50 peasant representatives met to deliberate their common stand against the Swabian League. About two weeks later, they adopted the Twelve Articles. These were printed over 25,000 times in the next two months – a significant printing for the time.
In addition to the right to choose and dismiss their own ministers, the petition called for rights associated with hunting and the return of the common lands that were appropriated by the princes. Beyond this, the last two are quite interesting; first item 11:
The “Todfall” (a sort of inheritance tax) shall be abolished altogether and never again shall widows and orphans be robbed contrary to God and honour.
Consider this – it was peasants against the inheritance tax!
Item 12 is equally interesting:
It is our decision and final opinion that if one or several of the articles mentioned herein were not in accordance with the word of God, those we shall refrain from if it is explained to us on the basis of the scripture. If several articles were already granted to us and it emerged afterwards that they were ill, they shall be dead and null. Likewise, we want to have reserved that if even more articles are found in the writ that were against God and a grievance to though neighbour.
Next, on to Müntzer’s claim that all men are created equal. From Lew Rockwell:
What are we to understand by the word equality? The answer is, we don’t really know. Its proponents make precious little effort to disclose to us precisely what they have in mind. All we know is that we’d better believe it.
It is precisely this lack of clarity that makes the idea of equality so advantageous for the state. No one is entirely sure what the principle of equality commits him to. And keeping up with its ever-changing demands is more difficult still.
“Equality cannot be imagined outside of tyranny,” said Montalembert. It was, he said, “nothing but the canonization of envy, [and it] was never anything but a mask which could not become reality without the abolition of all merit and virtue.”
The idea of equality sounds so good in theory. It never really turns out this way in practice. I used to hold the view of equality under the law – that this (and only this) made any sense in this context. Yet even here I am no longer comfortable. For it to be true there must be universal law – global government (hint hint).
Note, I wrote “good in theory.” In practice, it never works out this way anywhere – never under any entity claiming to be sovereign; we are never equal under the law as some are far more equal than others…always. In any case, such a proclamation opens the door to forced equality on and to my private property – baking wedding cakes and the like.
This same Montalembert brings clarity to my thinking, as it isn’t even the virtually impossible “equality under the law” that I am considering but something else entirely:
“To be sure, I am not speaking about Christian equality, whose real name is equity; but about this democratic and social equality….”
Equity: the quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality.
Finally, to the massacre of the peasants, the German Peasants' War:
The German Peasants' War, Great Peasants' War or Great Peasants' Revolt (German: Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was a widespread popular revolt in the German-speaking areas of Central Europe from 1524 to 1525. It failed because of the intense opposition of the aristocracy, who slaughtered up to 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers. The survivors were fined and achieved few if any of their goals.
In mounting their insurrection, peasants faced insurmountable hurdles. The democratic nature of their movement left them without a command structure and they lacked artillery and cavalry.
So much for equality! It didn’t do much for the “equal” peasants on the battlefield.
Luther took every opportunity to attack Müntzer's ideas. He declared against the moderate demands of the peasantry embodied in the twelve articles.
Remember, Luther was for the articles until he was against them.
[Luther’s] article Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, which appeared in May 1525, disoriented the rebels.
I guess you would be disoriented too if you thought you previously had Luther’s support.
What of Luther’s article?
Martin Luther is often considered to be the foundation for the Peasants' Revolt; however, he maintained allegiance to the Princes against the violence of the rebels. Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants typifies Luther's reaction to the Peasants' War, and alludes to Luther's concern that he might be seen to be responsible for their rebellion.
This would certainly not be good for Luther and his movement.
Luther goes so far as to justify the actions of the Princes against the peasants, even when it involves acts of violence. He feels that they can be punished by the lords on the basis that they have “become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish”. He even venerates those who fight against the peasants, stating that “anyone who is killed fighting on the side of the rulers may be a true martyr in the eyes of God”. He closes with a sort of disclaimer, “if anyone thinks this too harsh, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour”.
On what Scripture does Luther base his claims?
One of the reasons why Luther urged that the secular authorities crush the peasant rebellion was because of St. Paul's teaching of the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings in his epistle to the Romans 13:1–7, which says that all the authorities are appointed by God, and should not therefore be resisted.
Ugh. Another blasphemous interpretation of this passage of Scripture; an interpretation that requires Christian support of Hitler, Stalin, and many American presidents.
Returning to the article on Müntzer:
At length, on 11 May, Müntzer and what remained of his troops arrived outside the town of Frankenhausen, meeting up with rebels there who had been asking for help for some time. No sooner had they set up camp on a hill than the princes’ army arrived, having already crushed the rebellion in southern Thuringia. On 15 May, battle was joined. It lasted only a few minutes, and left the streams of the hill running with blood. 6000 rebels were killed, barely a single soldier. Many more rebels were executed in the following days. Müntzer fled, but was captured as he hid in a house in Frankenhausen. His identity was revealed by a sack of papers and letters which he was clutching. On 27 May, after torture and confession, he was executed alongside Pfeiffer, outside the walls of Mühlhausen, their heads being displayed prominently for years to come as a warning to others.
“It lasted only a few minutes….”
Müntzer is claimed by Engels to be a communist ahead of his time. Others offer different interpretations of the man and the uprisings – some religious, some economic. As with all revolutions, the roots and interpretations are rarely completely clear:
Historians have interpreted the economic aspects of the German Peasants' War differently, and social and cultural historians continue to disagree on its causes and nature.
I won’t pretend to be able to bring clarity to the interpretation of historical events where professionals have failed to do so – certainly not on a topic where I have read relatively little. Instead, I will offer the following:
First, revolutions rarely succeed at improving the condition of the masses.
Second, don’t count on the leaders of revolution for your salvation.
Third, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – the peasants never had a chance.
Finally, I am glad to have been made aware of this corner of history.