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sold for a few barrels of wine. It was the revolt of the peasants that transformed them into a
party,  and  even  then  they  were  almost  everywhere  dependent  upon  the  peasants,  both  in
demands and in action – a striking proof of the fact that the cities of that time were greatly
dependent  upon  the  country.  In  so  far  as  the  plebeian  opposition  acted  independently,  it
demanded extension of city trade privileges over the rural districts, and it did not like to see
the city revenues curtailed by abolition of feudal burdens in the rural area belonging to the
city, etc. In brief, in so far as it appeared independently, it was reactionary. It submitted to
its  own  middle-class  elements,  and  thus  formed  a  characteristic  prologue  to  the  tragic
comedy  staged  by  the  modern  petty-bourgeoisie  in  the  last  three  years  under  the  head  of
Only  in  Thuringia  and  in  a  few  other  localities  was  the  plebeian  faction  of  the  city
carried away by the general storm to such an extent that its embryo proletarian elements for
a  brief  time  gained  the  upper  hand  over  all  the  other  factors  of  the  movement.  This  took
place  under  the  direct  influence  of  Muenzer  in  Thuringia,  and  of  his  disciples  in  other
places. This episode, forming the climax of the entire peasant war, and grouped around the
magnificent figure of Thomas Muenzer, was of very brief duration. It is easily understood
why  these  elements  collapse  more  quickly  than  any  other,  why  their  movement  bears  an
outspoken, fantastic stamp, and why the expression of their demands must necessarily be
extremely  indefinite.  It  was  this  group  that  found  least  firm  ground  in  the  then  existing
At the bottom of all the classes, save the last one, was the huge exploited mass of the
nation,  the  peasants.  It  was  the  peasant  who  carried  the  burden  of  all  the  other  strata  of
society:  princes,  officialdom,  nobility,  clergy,  patricians  and  middle-class.  Whether  the
peasant was the subject of a prince, an imperial baron, a bishop, a monastery or a city, he
was everywhere treated as a beast of burden, and worse. If he was a serf, he was entirely at
the mercy of his master. If he was a bondsman, the legal deliveries stipulated by agreement
were  sufficient  to  crush  him;  even  they  were  being  daily  increased.  Most  of  his  time,  he
had to work on his master’s estate. Out of that which he earned in his few free hours, he
had  to  pay  tithes,  dues,  ground  rents,  war  taxes,  land  taxes,  imperial  taxes,  and  other
payments.  He  could  neither  marry  nor  die  without  paying  the  master.  Aside  from  his
regular  work  for  the  master,  he  had  to  gather  litter,  pick  strawberries,  pick  bilberries,
collect  snail-shells,  drive  the  game  for  the  hunting,  chop  wood,  and  so  on.  Fishing  and
hunting  belonged  to  the  master.  The  peasant  saw  his  crop  destroyed  by  wild  game.  The
community  meadows  and  woods  of  the  peasants  had  almost  everywhere  been  forcibly
taken  away  by  the  masters.  And  in  the  same  manner  as  the  master  reigned  over  the
peasant’s property, he extended his willfulness over his person, his wife and daughters. He
The Peasant War in Germany
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possessed the right of the first night. Whenever he pleased, he threw the peasant into the
tower, where the rack waited for him just as surely as the investigating attorney waits for
the  criminal  in  our  times.  Whenever  he  pleased,  he  killed  him  or  ordered  him  beheaded.
None  of  the  instructive  chapters  of  the  Carolina
 which  speaks  of  “cutting  of  ears,”
“cutting  of  noses,”  “blinding,”  “chopping  of  fingers,”  “beheading,”  “breaking  on  the
wheel,” “burning,” “pinching with burning tongs,” “quartering,” etc., was left unpractised
by the gracious lord and master at his pleasure. Who could defend the peasant? The courts
were  manned  by  barons,  clergymen,  patricians,  or  jurists,  who  knew  very  well  for  what
they  were  being  paid.  Not  in  vain  did  all  the  official  estates  of  the  empire  live  on  the
exploitation of the peasants.
Incensed  as  were  the  peasants  under  terrific  pressure,  it  was  still  difficult  to  arouse
them  to  revolt.  Being  spread  over  large  areas,  it  was  highly  difficult  for  them  to  come  to
common  understanding;  the  old  habit  of  submission  inherited  from  generation  to
generation, the lack of practise in the use of arms in many regions, the unequal degree of
exploitation depending on the personality of the master, all combined to keep the peasant
quiet. It is for these reasons that, although local insurrections of peasants can be found in
mediaeval  times  in  large  numbers,  not  one  general  national  peasant  revolt,  least  of  all  in
Germany,  can  be  observed  before  the  peasant  war.  Moreover,  the  peasants  alone  could
never  make  a  revolution  as  long  as  they  were  confronted  by  the  organised  power  of  the
princes,  nobility  and  the  cities.  Only  by  allying  themselves  with  other  classes  could  they
have  a  chance  of  victory,  but  how  could  they  have  allied  themselves  with  other  classes
when they were equally exploited by all?
At  the  beginning  of  the  Sixteenth  Century  the  various  groups  of  the  empire,  princes,
nobility,  clergy,  patricians,  middle-class,  plebeians  and  peasants  formed  a  highly
complicated  mass  with  the  most  varied  requirements  crossing  each  other  in  different
directions.  Every  group  was  in  the  way  of  the  other,  and  stood  continually  in  an  overt  or
covert  struggle  with  every  other  group.  A  splitting  of  the  entire  nation  into  two  major
camps,  as  witnessed  in  France  at  the  outbreak  of  the  first  revolution,  and  as  at  present
manifest  on  a  higher  stage  of  development  in  the  most  progressive  countries,  was  under
such conditions a rank impossibility. Something approaching such division took place only
when the lowest stratum of the population, the one exploited by all the rest, arose, namely,
the plebeians and the peasants. The tangle of interests, views and endeavours of that time
will be easily understood when one remembers what a confusion was manifested in the last
two  years  in  a  society  far  less  complicated  and  consisting  only  of  feudal  nobility,
bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie, peasants and proletariat.
The Peasant War in Germany
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