"In the eyes of the German working-classes, Muntzer was and is the most brilliant embodiment of heretical communism".- Karl Kautsky
"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".
Wu Ming, the Italian authors collective have in this collection brought to a wider audience the work of the revolutionary pastor Thomas Muntzer. This Verso publication forms part of its revolution series.
The collective is best known for its excellent bestselling novel Q which was published under the pseudonym Luther Blissett. Wu Ming examines how Müntzer has continued despite the passage of years to be relevant for today's revolutionaries.
Thomas Müntzer was a radical pastor who had religious and political differences with the leaders of the Reformation. He was especially opposed to Martin Luther whom he called "brother soft life" it was one of the more polite phrases used against Luther by Mutnzer.
Mutnzer was critical of Luther's reforms believing they did not go far enough. Muntzer believed that the Kingdom of Heaven should be on Earth. To facilitate this end, he led the Peasants War in Germany. Muntzer and the war itself were a part of a wider movement of the Anabaptists. They constituted the revolutionary wing of the Protestant Reformation in Central Europe and were opposed to Luther's very limited reforms.
Muntzer was not only a powerful orator but a gifted writer. In his "Sermon To The Princes" Muntzer ransacked the bible in order to attack the greed and institutional corruption of the Vatican.
Muntzer was always a capable organiser, and many of his ideas for agitation and organising would find their echo in later political movements such as the 17th-century Levellers and Diggers and 19th and 20th-century political movements. As Engel's states "Just as Cromwell in England would be challenged from the left by the Levellers and the Jacobins in France likewise by the Enrages, Luther and his political patrons faced a revolt of the voiceless led by Thomas Muntzer.
While Peasants Revolt of 1525 took many by surprise, the discontent had been simmering in Germany for decades. Even the conservative historian G R Elton believed that the revolt was caused "by various landlords to re-impose feudal rights that had fallen into disuse".
Elton was hostile to both Muntzer and the Peasants Revolt in general. As Wu Ming points out "G. R. Elton, in his Reformation Europe 1517-1559, memorably introduces Muntzer as a 'youngish man full of violent hatred for all things other than they should have been, university-trained, an idealist of the kind familiar in all revolutions', dubs him 'the demonic genius of the early Reformation' and concludes, in terms wholly congruent with the tradition initiated by Luther and Melanchthon, that he was 'not so much a constructive revolutionary as an unrestrained fanatic, and in his preaching of violence a dangerous lunatic'.
Elton was also opposed to any Marxist understanding of history writing "history deals with the activities of men, not abstractions'. As Geoffrey Roberts points out "In Elton's concept of history as a story of human existence and activity there was little place for those large-scale forces, trends, structures, and patterns beloved by social scientists. Everything in history--the events of the past--happens to and through people. Sociological categories may be useful descriptive shorthands of movements and outcomes over the long-run, but they remained abstractions unable to explain specific actions and events--the details and particularities of past happenings created by real people doing something".
Real people in this struggle were dealing with a rapidly declining population after the Black Death had ravaged Europe. While some peasants and serfs had enjoyed both higher wages and better conditions, for the majority, it was a time of growing misery. On a broader note, serious economic changes had begun in the economy in Germany as it transitioned from a feudal based economy to a capitalistic one. These changes had brought about a series of local uprisings and peasant riots across Germany and all over Europe.
As Franz Mehring explains the early origins of capitalist development "World trade arose in a number of cities because of specially favourable historical and geographical conditions. It started in Lower Italy through the overseas trade with the Orient, with Constantinople and Egypt, but spread from there to the North. It brought into circulation great fortunes which seemed almost immeasurable at the time and aroused the greed of all the ruling classes of Europe. Here modern capital appears for the first time, and it appears still essentially as merchant capital. But it immediately exerted a disruptive effect on the feudal mode of production.
The more commodity exchange developed, the greater became the power of money, for which anybody could obtain anything, which everybody needed and everybody took. At the source of the capitalist mode of production stood not the craft guild master, who with his limited number of journeymen could only achieve moderate prosperity, but the merchant whose capital was capable of unlimited expansion and whose lust for profit was therefore boundless. With merchant capital – the revolutionary force of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries – new life came into medieval society, and new ways of viewing things were born".
Mehring believed that the social and political position of the clergy began to be seriously undermined by the development of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into German. The clergy's feudal based ideology rapidly came into conflict with the development of commerce, and the rising of a new capitalist class. When the clergy's Intellectual positions were taken from it, they became lazy and ignorant which in turn was reflected in the intimate relationship between the higher clergy and the princes so much, so they became indistinguishable.
Muntzer was scathing towards the clergy saying "What a pretty spectacle we have before us now – all the eels and snakes coupling together immorally in one great heap. The priests and all the evil clerics are the snakes...and the secular lords and rulers are the eels... My revered rulers of Saxony...seek without delay the righteousness of God and take up the cause of the gospel boldly".
The number of riots and revolts increased when the Reformation reached large parts of Germany and then spread to the rest of the empire. The revolt was feared and hated not only by the German princes and knights but also the leaders of the Reformation itself. The peasant revolt was entirely progressive. The twelve articles of Memmingen issued by the peasants, although religious in content were highly democratic. They came out of the "ecclesiastical shell of which inside the more profound growing political and class differences amongst the different sections of the Ruling elites were to be fought out".
The 12 articles which were demanded from the Swabian League were one of the early examples of the "sighs of the oppressed". Unfortunately what the German peasants wanted in 1525 was only by the achieved by the French Revolution in 1789.
As Mehring states their demands were for "electing and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labour services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration".
In the beginning, the peasants were able to keep their revolt largely peaceful. While this remained, it won support from the leaders of the Reformation. When the Peasant's revolt started to become violent, it caused considerable anger and violence amongst the princes. While the revolt was relatively peaceful, it also won the support of Luther who put forward that there should be a settlement based on the 12 articles. He said 'Not the peasants, but God himself was in revolt against the bloodthirsty tyranny of the princes'.
Once the princes saw that the peasants were not going to be peaceful, they moved to drown the revolt in blood. They were spurred on by Luther who saw like the Princes that the revolt would be violent quickly changed his tune.
He gave the Princes his full support in the form of a pamphlet published on May 6th entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants'. Luther in this pamphlet blamed the Peasants for the violence "Since the peasants, then, have brought both God and man down upon them and are already so many times guilty of death in body and soul, since they submit to no court and wait for no verdict, but only rage on, I must instruct the worldly governors how they are to act in the matter with a clear conscience".
He then cleared the way for the brutal crackdown saying "The rulers, then, should go on unconcerned, and with a good conscience lay about them as long as their hearts still beat. It is to their advantage that the peasants have a bad conscience and an unjust cause, and that any peasant who is killed is lost in body and soul and is eternally the devil's. But the rulers have a good conscience and a just cause; and can, therefore, say to God with all assurance of heart, 'Behold, my God, thou hast appointed me Prince or lord, of this I can have no doubt; and though hast committed to me the sword over the evildoers (Romans XIII). It is thy Word, and cannot lie. I must fulfill my office, or forfeit thy grace. It is also plain that these peasants have deserved death many times over, in thine eyes and the eyes of the world, and have been committed to me for punishment. If it be thy will that I be slain by them and that my rulership be taken from me and destroyed, so be it: thy will be done. So shall I die and be destroyed fulfilling thy commandment and thy Word, and shall be found obedient to thy commandment and my office. Therefore will I punish and smite as long as my heart bears. Thou wilt judge and make things right.' From then on the princes needed no extra encouragement.
The leader of the Peasants revolt, and for that matter, one of the leaders of the Reformation was Thomas Munzer, who was the embodiment of all that was courageous and progressive in the revolt. He was a secular priest who called for social equality and did not hold back in ordering violence against all those who opposed change.
In Mulhausen, he laid the basis for a commune which was only able to last barely two months. He and his army of peasants were defeated in a battle by superior armed soldiers with access to significantly larger volumes of armaments.
Despite fighting with much bravery, the one-sided nature of the battles was evident. Some historians have said that the revolt failed because the demands put forward by the peasants were out of date, on the contrary, they were far ahead of the time and were an anticipation of future communist movements.
The revolt had support from a few towns, and some workers such as miners gave support to the rebellion, but the urban centres were still too far underdeveloped to lend the support needed to defeat the knights and princes.
Also, in general, the movement was beset by internal disputes and problems. Battles remained local and provincial in their character. Many peasants refused to come to the aid of their sisters and brothers fighting in other parts of Germany.
The princes utilised trickery and outright deception against the Peasantry, which they had through years of serfdom had grown accustomed to trusting their so-called betters. On many occasions, the princes made promises to them, and when the peasants laid down their arms, they were slaughtered by the Princes' armies. It has been said upwards of 100,000 peasants was killed during the entire conflict.
When the rebellion was over, it would be fair to say that apart from escaping with their lives, not much had changed for the peasants. Although they lost some of their self-government in many respects, they had been so poor at the start of the war that after it, their life had not been made worse. Many richer middling sort peasants had been ruined. For the Princes the war was a financial bonanza, it had allowed them to seize vast tracks of the clergy's land, and they levied huge fines on the towns which had supported the uprising.
The persecution after the war did not just stop at the general Peasantry, the Anabaptists which took their name from the fact that they opposed the baptism the church carried out on newborn children were treated no less harshly and were virtually killed off as a movement.
The Anabaptists were considered a religious peculiarity and were seen by the Princes to be a dangerous enemy and in some quarters were correctly considered revolutionaries. They were driven out of most parts of Germany and were finally pushed to Holland. To survive the movement took up arms. In the old town of Munster, the movement albeit for a short while had done what the Peasant's revolt had failed to do in setting up and controlling a complete town. It had, however, taken the whole might of the German empire to drown the Peasants revolt in blood.
While the Peasant's revolt took place at the time of the Reformation, its political inspiration was more of a democratic nature. In other words, an embryonic form communism. The war had significant social consequences. An important part of late medieval Germany disappeared overnight.
In the merchant dominated areas, you saw the beginnings of the capitalist nation-state. A National language began to replace Latin. The power of gold and money began to change social and economic relationships, and even agriculture began to be organised along capitalist lines. The knights and general aristocracy felt threatened by these developments.
The church was the most to be affected by these changes and had to adapt. Agricultural lands were developed to make profits. To increase its wealth, it seized common lands and attacked the Peasantry. The new capitalist mode of economic development had little need for the clergy except to keep the masses in their place. The rising bourgeoisie began to take responsibility for science and education. Monasteries increasingly became obsolete and served no function. Priests became lazier, and baseness and vice became commonplace.
As David North writes "Religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world".
Much of the current Reformation historiography is dominated by a collection of conservative revisionist historians who downplay the revolutions which were a by-product of the Protestant Reformation. They certainly oppose the concept that the Reformation can be seen in the context of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.
Whether you agree with a Marxist interpretation of the Reformation as Karl Marx said "Germany's revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation. As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher. But if Protestantism was not the true solution, it was at least the true setting of the problem". On his death bed while being tortured Muntzer stayed true to the revolution saying "Omnia sunt communia" – "all things are to be held in common and distribution should be to each according to his need". While there is no reason idealise Wu Ming's or Verso's politics, this collection of Thomas Muntzer's sermons and letters can still inspire today's revolutionaries.
 The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966), p. 62.
 Quoted in https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19289-thomas-muntzer-from-reformation-to-revolution
 Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes / Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99
 Defender of the Faith: Geoffrey Elton and the Philosophy of History. http://xml.ucc.ie/chronicon/elton.htm
 Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany
1525–1848 Part One -The German Reformation and its consequences
 Müntzer, Thomas (1988). Matheson, Peter (ed.). The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer.
 Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany
 Taken From-Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532
By Martin Brecht
 Quoted in Martin Luther: A Christian between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017)
edited by Alberto Melloni