The Peasant War in Germany
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (September 2012)|
The Peasant War in Germany by Friedrich Engels is a short account of the early 16th-century uprisings known as the German Peasants' War (1524-25). It was written by Engels in London during the summer of 1850, following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848-49, to which it frequently refers in a comparative fashion. "Three centuries have flown by since then," he writes, "and many a thing has changed; still the peasant war is not as far removed from our present-day struggles as it would seem, and the opponents we have to encounter remain essentially the same." 
Engels praises the historian Wilhelm Zimmermann's book The History of the Great Peasant War (1841-1843) as "the best compilation of factual data" regarding the Peasant War of 1525 and acknowledges that most of the material relating to the peasant revolts and to Thomas Müntzer has been taken from Zimmermann's book. The Peasant War in Germany originally appeared in the fifth and sixth issues of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung-Revue, a political economic review edited by Karl Marx in Hamburg, and was later reissued in book forms.
Drawing upon the aims and methods of historical materialism, Engels downplays the importance of political and religious causes for the war traditionally cited, focusing instead on material, economic factors. "This book," Engels writes in the preface to the second edition,
undertakes ... to prove that the political and religious theories were not the causes [of the conflict], but the result of that stage of development of agriculture, industry, land and waterways, commerce and finance, which then existed in Germany. This, the only materialistic conception of history, originates, not from myself but from Marx, and can be found in his works on the French Revolution of 1848-9...." 
Engels details the complex class structure of Germany in the era of the peasant war, and explores the ambiguous role in it of the knights, lesser noblemen whose commitment to preserving their feudal powers overrode their alliances with the peasants. Similarly, Engels offers a scathing critique of Martin Luther as an opportunistic "middle-class" reformer and a betrayer not just of the revolution but of some of his own best-known Christian tenets:
Luther had given the plebeian movement a powerful weapon--a translation of the Bible. Through the Bible, he contrasted feudal Christianity of his time with moderate Christianity of the first century. In opposition to decaying feudal society, he held up the picture of another society which knew nothing of the ramified and artificial feudal hierarchy. The peasants had made extensive use of this weapon against the forces of the princes, the nobility, and the clergy. Now Luther turned the same weapon against the peasants, extracting from the Bible a veritable hymn to the authorities ordained by God--a feat hardly exceeded by any lackey of absolute monarchy. Princedom by the grace of God, passive resistance, even serfdom, were being sanctioned by the Bible.
As a work of history The Peasant War in Germany contains some flaws. Expressing his belief that Thomas Müntzer, a radical supporter of the peasants' overthrow of all feudal structures, was ahead of his time and therefore doomed to defeat, Engels can use language that ignores subtle historical difference. (This would become an issue during debates about how to develop socialism in the Soviet Union.) Engels also errs in maintaining that the invention of gunpowder occurred in northern Germany after the Hanseatic monopoly of trade was established. Additionally, Engels seems to assume that capitalism and Protestantism are necessarily related.
- Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War in Germany" contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10 (New York: International Publishers: 1978) pp. 397-482.
- The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966) p. 33.
- Note 294 contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10, p. 686.
- "The Peasant War in Germany by Friedrich Engels".
- The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966) p. 12.
- The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966) p. 62.
- The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966) p. 65-66.
- Frederick Engels, "The Peasant War of Germany" contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 10, p. 400.