history, Political Ideologies, Religion

Lessons from the Past: When the Peasants Struck Back

Being a peasant myself, and sometimes feeling the urge to revolt, I am interested in how peasant uprisings have fared in the past.

German Peasant War

German Peasant War

The events of 1524-1525 described here are not a peasant uprising-this was a Peasant WAR. It is extremely interesting that the history/spin of the Peasant War depends entirely on the source. The peasants, as always, have no voice. Here are views from the Protestant, the Catholic, the German secular and the Communist camps on the Peasant War in Germany.

From the Protestant viewpoint, it all started when Martin Luther enabled the peasants to read the Scriptures, which gave them the marvelous notion that all men are equal before God. In 1524 “Hans Müller gathered a few…peasants around him. Calling themselves the “Evangelical Brotherhood,” these men swore to emancipate the peasants of Germany…demands were the right for local congregations to choose and dismiss their pastors,” tithes to be just and used for poor relief and the end of serfdom

“what right did men have to hold other members of the Body of Christ in thrall and work them like animals? The oppressive rents charged the peasants must be eased. Death taxes must be eliminated, for they robbed widows and orphans.”

Luther at first took a middle ground between the nobility and peasants, acknowledging that many of their demands were just. However, little was done to remedy the peasants’ complaints. The violence which followed might have been avoided if the masters had been willing to redress the serfs’ grievances in good faith. Led by men such as Thomas Muntzer, who wanted to “destroy the godless,” the peasants revolted.

Luther became frightened by the spreading rebellion and urged in violent terms that the revolt be put down. The war-skilled rulers crushed the revolt everywhere with great cruelty. Over 100,000 peasants died and the misery of those who remained worsened.

Note: The Protestant worldview wants to exalt Luther, who is depicted in Protestant history as a heroic leader while ignoring the fact that he was also used as a tool by squabbling, partisan German princes. Hero or tool? Both are partly true.

From the Catholic viewpoint  “the opinion prevails that the revolt was brought about mainly by economic distress.” The article goes on to list these unbearable distresses as if they were accidental, as if humans had nothing to do with their existence. It then goes on to justify the looting of the peasantry on the grounds that those in charge need money.

Note: The Catholic version leaves out the huge part the Catholic Church played in all this exploitation. It owned lands and held serfs and its higher-ups were often corrupt and heartless. The peasants hated the princes of the church who robbed them and lived in luxury; that’s why monasteries were on their hit list. The peasants did not hate their local priests, nuns, etc, who lived in modest circumstances and actually did good.

The Catholic article goes on to blame the disastrous, bloody Peasant War on…Martin Luther! For a denomination that emphasizes confession and repentance, they aren’t very good at it.

This was no protest-it was a war.

This was no protest-it was a war.

German (secular) history It was “the largest insurrection in European history before the French Revolution. The revolution’s ultimate causes reach far back to the later Middle Ages…The widespread movement for village self-government (communalism) was a hallmark of rural life… Where the movement for local self-government had already largely fulfilled its aims, as in Switzerland, the peasants did not revolt in 1524-26.

…the movement engulfed the Empire’s southern and central tiers, spilling over language barriers into French-speaking Lorraine and Italian-speaking South Tyrol.

Note: This history mentions in passing that “some” blamed the whole mess on religion, while admitting the hardships of the peasants and emphasizing the political reforms they wanted. They opine (I think correctly) that Luther’s ideas were just a spark hitting a two mile-high pile of kindling wood that had been accumulating for hundreds of years.

An extremely comprehensive history is Fredrich “It’s the economy, stupid” Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany. He has his viewpoint as well, of course. It was a class war, plebians, peasants, the nasty bourgeoisie, and the nobility all duking it out for economic reasons. That being said, he presents lots of original writings, sermons and body counts in a very thorough manner.

Note: Good stuff, if you bear in mind the author’s worldview.

But that is something you should bear in mind when you read ANY history.

Lesson: Human beings will not stand oppression forever. They will rise up, their anger and violence in proportion to the length and severity of the abuse. Their abusers are aware that they will rise up and instead of fixing the oppression (!) they will build up their armed might to protect their privileges. When the explosion comes, much bloodshed will ensue and the oppressed will (almost always) be crushed…BUT…have they failed? Not really, because:

The idea that humans are equal in rights and one group cannot forever exploit another group, the idea of fairness, of justice-THAT idea will never go away.



About Je' Czaja aka Granny Savage

Je' is a writer, artist, and stand up philosopher. She founded and directed two non-profit organizations for disadvantaged children and their families, served as a missionary for three years and is the author of several books. Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00IU4RWKE


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