From the April 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the last article we gave an outline of the English Peasants' Revolt and its consequences. In the meantime conditions in Germany had brought about a similar revolt there.
The break-up of the Roman Empire left Germany cut up into feudal territories with a feudal lord over each. Then came the growth of commerce which developed the wealth and importance of the city burghers. The luxuries of the East were brought West and enjoyed by the townsmen into whose hands gradually centred all the handicraft, art and luxuries of the times. This placed the feudal lord at a disadvantage and aroused his envy. He, who looked down from the superior height of traditional regality upon the lowbred townsman, found himself the townsman's inferior in wealth and splendour. He consequently looked around for means to increase his wealth.
In those days the nobility lived in fortified castles and surrounded themselves with trained bands of retainers and soldiery. Their usual method of increasing the worldly possessions was by issuing from their castles on marauding expeditions, and lying in wait and robbing the travellers that passed through their territories. Wm. Jacobs, in his "History of the Precious Metals," writes of the internal conditions of Germany at this time as follows: —
"Those countries under a rigid feudal system were divided into various independent and petty sovereignties, all jealous of their neighbours, and frequently embroiled with them. The roads and rivers were insecure, and the protection either to property or persons passing along them, dependent upon the interest, the caprice or the cupidity of the various princes or nobles who ruled the several minor dominions … No protection was afforded to intercourse, and commerce was consequently almost unknown." (Vol. II., pp. 23-24.)
As time went on, however, lying in wait for travelling merchants became less profitable, more dangerous, and but a slow and doubtful way of acquiring the necessary wealth to obtain the delicious luxuries enjoyed by the rich merchants. Consequently the feudal princes and lords had to cast about for other methods of raising the money to purchase the good things of the new life. Right at their hands lay the weapon of conquest—the further exploitation of the peasantry.
Karl Marx, in "Capital," Vol. 1., p. 220, says of these peasants :
"In the I5th Century the German peasant was nearly everywhere a man who, whilst subject to certain rents paid in produce and labour, was otherwise at least practically free. The German colonists, in Brandenbourg, Pomerania, and Silesia and Eastern Prussia, were even legally acknowledged as free men."
These peasants had not sunk to the same level of serfdom as the English peasants of this period, although the degradation was soon to be accomplished. They had stretches of common lands, and under the system of corvee (statute labour) they owed a comparatively small amount of labour and produce to the lords.
With the growth of the lords' appetite for luxury, however, the oppression of the peasantry and the seizure of their common lands developed into a system of bare-faced robbery. Their rents were steadily converted into money rents and increased. Documents were forged whereby the rights of the peasants were curtailed and their duties increased.
From the end of the 15th Century there were sporadic revolts on the part of the peasantry, but these were easily crushed. Eventually (1525) there was a general and extensive rising of the peasantry throughout Southern Germany.
The German Peasants' War was, unfortunately for the peasants, a disunited and badly organised affair. In spite of the fact that the rising was general throughout Germany, each territory fought out its own individual battles, and, although there were numerous peasant armies in the field, instead of forming a united plan of action, they all aspired to be self-sufficient and acted locally only. Not so the nobles. They formed a league (the Swabian League) to raise and equip an army for the purpose of putting down the rising everywhere. While they momentarily concluded peace with one army they fell upon and destroyed another. And in this manner, by bribery, chicanery, fraud, and force, they destroyed the peasant forces peacemeal.
Each group of peasants formulated their demands in the shape of a number of articles, but eventually the twelve articles adopted by the Swabian peasantry became generally accepted as the basis of the movement. The principal demands in these articles were
1. Right of Electing their own Ministers.
2. Reduction of Tithes.
3. Abolition of Villeinage.
4. Liberty to Fish and Kill Wild Game.
5. Restoration of Woods.
10. Restoration of Common Lands.
11. Abolition of Death Dues.
Here, as in England, the lords pursued their time-dishonoured methods of dodgery, promising redress until the simple peasants had been put off their guard, and then falling upon and slaughtering them unmercifully.
Throughout the war the peasants were remarkable for their forbearance, and the lords for their ferocity. In spite of extreme provocation only two cases of alleged barbarity could be quoted against the peasantry. In one case a Baron von Helfenstein, who had achieved notoriety by his cruelty, and who had massacred peasants by the dozen in cold blood, was captured at the town of Weinsberg. The leaders of the United Contingent (the peasant army that captured the place) gave orders that he was to be kept prisoner, but a section of the peasantry (some of whom had suffered personally at his hands) had resolved upon his death, and he was executed. This act was used as an excuse for the atrocities that followed.
The United Contingent, making the same mistake as the modern workers, appointed as commander a dissatisfied hanger-on of the ruling class, a knight Gotz von Berlichingen, and after his appointment the articles originally formulated were gradually watered down. Like the modern labour leader, he played the game of the ruling class, and his vaccilating and treacherous policy largely conduced to the early defeat of the peasants in the quarter where he commanded.
Eventually the lords succeeded, with the aid of mercenary soldiery and a quantity of artillery, in crushing the peasantry. Then the wholesale execution of men, women, and children became the order of the day.
The majority of the leaders of the insurrection were captured, tortured, and wasted to death, or died in prison. It is estimated that not less than 130,000 peasants were slaughtered during and immediately after the revolt. "At least 100,000 were killed," says the ultra-conservative "Harmsworth Encyclopoedia," p. 4623.
It is worth noting that Martin Luther, the apostle of revolt (for early capitalism) against Roman Catholicism, opposed the peasants' rising with all his power, and suggested that the best way to deal with the insurrection was to exterminate the peasantry! He is reported to have written the following sublime exhortation: "Crush them, strangle them, and pierce them, in secret places and in sight of men, he who can even as one would strike dead a mad dog." ("Encyclopedia Brittanica," 9th edition, article "Luther.")
The German Peasants' War, like the English Peasants' Revolt, was but a reactionary movement, an incident and an accompaniment of the gradual rise to a share in political control of the wealthy burghers of the towns.
The crushing of the peasantry in the war fixed the bonds of servitude still more securely upon their backs, and degraded them to the lowest depths of villeinage. Many decades elapsed ere they could rise from their prostrate position, and then it was only to be precipitated into a still worse servitude—the servitude of the wage slave.
In the evolution of society only movements that are logical sequences of social development can succeed. The writer recommends this point to the consideration of the Anarchist Communist, who mournfully moans for the return to peasant-proprietorship or small ownership, disregarding economic development and the results of the scientific examination of society. The conclusions of the Socialist are correct and safe because they are based on, and harmonise with, the normal development of society.