“So what was this bloody conflict that claimed the lives of 100,000 German peasants?”
By Richard Anderton
THOUGH IT LASTED less than two years, the German Peasants’ War has had a lasting influence on history. The Twelve Articles, a document listing the rebels’ grievances and demands, has been described as a model for the American Bill of Rights and the inspiration for the French Revolution while Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s secretary and one of the founding fathers of Communism, tried to use the war to prove that ‘class struggle’ was part of an inevitable historical process that would lead to world socialism. So what was this bloody conflict that claimed the lives of 100,000 German peasants? Here are some details.
1. The war began with a row over snail shells
In the summer of 1524 the Countess of Lupfen ordered the 1,200 serfs who lived on her estates to stop tending their crops and collect snail shells to use as spools for her thread. Having suffered several bad harvests in previous years, the peasants faced starvation if they abandoned their fields so they took up arms. The rebels of Lupfen were quickly joined by serfs from neighbouring estates and by the end of the year most of southern and central Germany was in open revolt.
2. There was more to it than that
Though the shell story may be apocryphal, the peasants of Germany had plenty of legitimate grievances. By the late Middle Ages, the peasants’ ancient rights to bear arms and hunt, fish or chop wood on common land had been severely curtailed so serfs had to work for their increasingly powerful lords or starve. One list of demands circulated early in the rebellion called for the abolition of laws requiring serfs to carry dung for their lord.
3. The rebels banner was a shoe tied to a pole
The badge of the unlaced shoe was a popular symbol of revolt that predated the rebellion of 1524. The shoe symbolised the march of the peasantry towards a ‘New Eden’ free of cruel lords and corrupt clergy.
4. Martin Luther condemned the revolt
Though many of the rebels were inspired by Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church, the founder of Protestantism wanted nothing to do with the revolt. Later, after the massacre following the capture of Weinsberg Castle, Luther was so appalled at the wanton killing he penned his pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.
5. The war saw the debut of propaganda
The growth of printing made it much easier for both sides argue their case. Luther’s pamphlet was written as a riposte to the rebel manifesto The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union which, besides listing the peasants demands, tried to justify the rebellion through biblical scripture. Interestingly, The Twelve Articles was reprinted 25,000 times in two months, which suggests the rebels had a higher standard of literacy than might be expected.
6. One of the peasant leaders was a turncoat and real life ‘one-armed bandit’
Perhaps the most memorable character to emerge from the uprising was the mercenary knight and warlord Goetz von Berlichingen. Known as “Iron Hand,” von Berlichingen lost his right arm during a siege and had the fingers of his metal replacement limb equipped with an ingenious array of levers so that he could still hold a sword. This allowed the knight to continue his infamous career as a ‘robber baron.’ Though he was a nobleman, he led one of the largest rebel armies. Typically, after his defeat at Würzburg, Goetz abandoned his men and escaped execution by claiming he’d been forced to join the rebels.
7. The war was characterized by savage atrocities on both sides
After the bloodbath following the capture of Weinsberg Castle, the peasant leader ‘Little Jack’ Rohrbach executed his noble enemies by forcing them to the ‘run the gauntlet.’ This shameful military punishment, usually reserved for cowards and deserters, involved the high-born prisoners dashing between two lines of captors who beat them to death. When Little Jack was finally arrested he too was executed with extreme cruelty. Sentenced to be burned alive, Rohrbach was fastened to the stake by a short length of chain and the firewood arranged in a ring so he could move, but not escape, the flames that roasted him slowly to death.
8. Another rebel leader was a religious fanatic who believed the end of the world was nigh
In late 1524 a zealous protestant preacher named Thomas Muntzer founded ‘The Eternal League of God.’ The banner of this peasant militia was white flag emblazoned with both a rainbow and the slogan God‘s Word will endure forever. But at Frankenhausen, on the May 11, 1525, Muntzer and his men were slaughtered by an army of well-equipped landsknecht mercenaries who’d been hired by the nobles to crush the revolt. Muntzer was captured, tortured and beheaded. The landsknechts lost just four men killed and two wounded.
9. With no armoured cavalry, the peasants were doomed
While it’s true that most peasant bands consisted of farmers armed with nothing more lethal than agricultural implements, an exception was the Black Company led by a disillusioned, protestant nobleman named Florian Geyer. Geyer was rich, and had fought against Goetz of the Iron Hand in several feuds, but early in 1525 he recruited a company of knights to fight for Muntzer. Geyer led his men to some success early in the war but he too was captured and executed at Frankenhausen.
10. History is not always written by the winners
Though Goetz von Berlichingen, Florian Geyer and Thomas Muntzer were soundly beaten on the battlefield, these rebel leaders have become popular folk heroes. Both Goetz and Geyer have had numerous plays and songs written about them. Both enjoy the dubious distinction of having Nazi SS Panzer divisions named in their honour, while Muntzer was lionized by the East German Communist Party. In fact, the rulers of the former DDR commissioned a giant 360o mural to commemorate the Battle of Frankenhausen. The memorial was officially opened on Sept. 14, 1989 — just eight weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism.
Richard Anderton is the author of The Devilstone Chronicles, a new series of historical novels set during the blood soaked 16th Century. The aftermath of The German Peasants’ War forms the background for The Devil’s Lance, the second book in the series, in which the hero has to steal an ancient relic from the Imperial chapel in Nuremberg. The Devil’s Lance, and its prequel The Devil’s Band, are both available from Amazon in either paperback or eBook formats and there’s more information about the books on Richard’s website www.thedevilstonechronicles.com.