The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels
From the moment when Luther’s declaration of war against the Catholic hierarchy set into motion all the opposition elements of Germany, not a year passed without the peasants coming forth with their demands. Between 1518 and 1523, one local revolt followed another in the Black Forest and in upper Suabia. Beginning in the Spring of 1524, these revolts assumed a systematic character. In April of that year, the peasants of the Abbey of Marchthal refused serf labour and duties; in May of the same year, the peasants of St. Blasien refused serf payments; in June, the peasants of Steinheim near Memmingen declared they would pay neither the tithe nor other duties; in July and August, the peasants of Thurgau rebelled and were quieted partly through the mediation of Zurich, partly through the brutality of the confederacy which executed many of them. Finally, a decisive uprising took place in the Margraviate of Stuehlingen, which may be looked upon as the real beginning of the Peasant War.
The peasants of Stuehlingen suddenly refused deliveries to the Landgrave and assembled in strong numbers. On October 24, 1524, they moved towards Waldshut under Hans Mueller of Bulgenbach. Here they organised an evangelical fraternity, jointly with the city middle-class. The latter joined the organisation the more willingly since they were in conflict with the government of Upper Austria over the religious persecutions of their preacher, Balthaser Hubmaier, a friend and disciple of Thomas Muenzer’s. A Union tax of three kreutzer weekly was imposed. It was an enormous sum for the value of money of that time. Emissaries were sent out to Alsace, to the Moselle, to the entire Upper Rhine and to Franconia, to bring peasants everywhere into the Union. The aims of the Union were proclaimed as follows: abolition of feudal power; destruction of all castles and monasteries; elimination of all masters outside of the emperor. The German tricolour was the banner of the Union.
The uprising spread rapidly over the entire territory of present-day Baden. A panic seized the nobility of Upper Suabia, whose military forces were all engaged in Italy, in a war against Francis I of France. Nothing remained for it but to gain time by protracted negotiations, meanwhile collecting money and recruiting troops, pending the moment when it would feel strong enough to punish the peasants for their audacity by “burning and scorching, plundering and murdering.” From that moment there began that systematic betrayal, that consistent recourse to perfidiousness and secret malice, which distinguished the nobility and the princes throughout the entire Peasant War, and which was their strongest weapon against decentralised peasants. The Suabian Union, comprising the princes, the nobility, and the imperial cities of southwest Germany, tried conciliatory measures without guaranteeing the peasants real concessions. The latter continued their movement. Hans Mueller of Bulgenbach marched, from September 30 to the middle of October, through the Black Forest up to Urach and Furtwangen, increased his troops to 3,500 and took a position near Eratingen, not far from Stuehlingen. The nobility had no more than 1,700 men at their disposal, and even those were divided. It had to agree to an armistice, which was concluded in the camp at Eratingen. The peasants were promised a peaceful agreement, either directly between the interested parties, or by means of an arbitrator, and an investigation of complaints by the court at Stockach. The troops of both the nobility and the peasants were dispersed.
The peasants formulated sixteen articles, the acceptance of which was to be demanded of the court at Stockach. The articles were very moderate. They included abolition of the hunting right, of serf labour, of excessive taxes and master privileges in general, protection against willful arrests and against partisan courts. The peasants’ demands went no farther.
Nevertheless, immediately after the peasants went home, the nobility demanded continuation of all contested services pending the court decision. The peasants refused, advising the masters to go to the court. Thus the conflict was renewed, the peasants reassembled, and the princes and masters once again concentrated their troops. This time the movement spread far over the Breisgau and deep into Wuerttemberg. The troops under Georg Truchsess of Waldburg, the Alba of the Peasant War, observed the peasants’ movements, attacked individual reinforcements, but did not dare to attack the main force. Georg Truchsess negotiated with the peasant chiefs, and here and there he effected agreements.
By the end of December, proceedings began before the court at Stockach. The peasants protested against the court, composed entirely of nobles. In reply, an imperial edict to this effect was read. The proceedings lagged, while the nobility, the princes and the Suabian Union authorities were arming themselves. Archduke Ferdinand who dominated, besides hereditary lands then still belonging to Austria, also Wuerttemberg, the Black Forest and Southern Alsace, ordered the greatest severity against the rebellious peasants. They were to be captured, mercilessly tortured and killed; they were to be exterminated in the most expeditious manner; their possessions to be burned and devastated, and their wives and children driven from the land. It was in that way that the princes and masters kept the armistice, and this is what passed for amicable arbitration and investigation of grievances. Archduke Ferdinand, to whom the house of Welser of Augsburg advanced money, armed himself very carefully. The Suabian Union ordered a special tax, and a contingent of troops to be called in three installments.
The foregoing rebellions coincided with the five months’ presence of Thomas Muenzer in the Highland. Though there are no direct proofs of his influence over the outbreak and the course of the movement, it is, nevertheless, indirectly ascertained. The most outspoken revolutionaries among the peasants were mostly his disciples, defending his ideas. The Twelve Articles, as well as the Letter of Articles of the Highland peasants, were ascribed to him by all the contemporaries, although the first was certainly not composed by Muenzer. Already, on his way back to Thuringia, he issued a decisive revolutionary manifesto to the insurgent peasants.
Duke Ulrich, who, since 1519, had been an exile from Wuerttemberg, was now intriguing to regain his land with the aid of the peasants. Since the beginning of his exile he had been trying to utilise the revolutionary party, and had supported it continuously. In most of the local disturbances taking place between 1520 and 1524 in the Black Forest and in Wuerttemberg, his name appeared. Now he armed himself directly for an attack on Wuerttemberg to be launched out of his castle, Hohentweil. However, he was only utilised by the peasants without influencing them, and without enjoying their confidence.
The winter passed without anything decisive happening on either side. The princely masters were in hiding. The peasant revolt was gaining scope. In January, 1525, the entire country between the Danube, the Rhine and the Lech, was in a state of fermentation. In February, the storm broke. While the Black Forest Hegau troops, under Hans Mueller of Bulgenbach, were conspiring with Ulrich of Wuerttemberg, partly sharing his futile march on Stuttgart (February and March, 1525), the peasants arose on February 9 in Ried above Ulm, assembled in a camp near Baltringen which was protected by marshes, hoisted the red flag, and formed, under the leadership of Ulrich Schmid, the Baltringen Troop. They were 10,000 to 12,000 strong.
On February 25, the Upper Allgaeu troops, 7,000 strong, assembled at Schussen, moved by the rumour that troops were marching against the dissatisfied elements who had appeared in this locality as everywhere else. The people of Kempten, who had conducted a fight against their archbishop throughout the winter, assembled on the 26th and joined the peasants. The cities of Memmingen and Kaufbeuren joined the movement on certain conditions. The ambiguity of the position of the cities in this movement was already apparent. On March 7, the twelve Memmingen articles were proclaimed in Memmingen for all the peasants of Upper Allgaeu.
A message from the Allgaeu peasants brought about the formation on Lake Constance of the Lake Troop under Eitel Hans. This troop also grew fast. Its headquarters were in Bermatingen.
The peasants also arose in Lower Allgaeu in the region of Ochsenbausen and Schellenberg, in the localities of Zeil and Waldburg, and in the estates of Truchsess. The movement started in the early days of March. This Lower Allgaeu Troop, which consisted of 7,000 men, camped near Wurzach.
All these troops adopted the Memmingen articles, which, it must be noted, were still more moderate than the Hegau articles, manifesting, as they did, a remarkable lack of determination in points relating to the attitude of the armed troops towards the nobility and the governments. Such determination, wherever manifested, appeared only in the later stages of the war, when the peasants learned to know from experience the mode of action of their enemies.
A sixth troop was formed on the Danube, simultaneously with the others. From the entire region, Ulm to Donauwoerth, from the valleys of the Iller, Roth and Biber, the peasants came to Leipheim, and opened camp there. From fifteen localities, every able-bodied man had come, while reinforcements were drawn from 117 places. The leader of the Leipheim Troop was Ulrich Schoen. Its preacher was Jakob Wehe, the priest of Leipheim.
Thus, at the beginning of March, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 insurgent peasants of Upper Suabia in six camps under arms. The peasant troops were a heterogeneous lot. Muenzer’s revolutionary party was everywhere in the minority but it formed the backbone of the peasant camps. The mass of the peasants were always ready to venture compacts with the masters wherever they were promised those concessions which they hoped to force upon their enemies by their menacing attitude. Moreover, as the uprising dragged on and the princes’ armies began to approach, the peasants became weary. Most of those who still had something to lose, went home. Added to all the difficulties was the fact that the vagabond masses of the low grade proletariat had joined the troops. This made discipline more difficult, and demoralised the peasants, as the vagabonds were an unreliable element, coming and going all the time. This, alone, is sufficient explanation why, at the beginning, the peasants remained everywhere on the defensive, why they were becoming demoralised in their camps, and why, aside from tactical shortcomings and the rarity of good leaders, they could not match the armies of the princes.
While the troops were assembling, Duke Ulrich invaded Wuerttemberg from Hohentweil with recruited troops and a number of Hegau peasants. Were the peasants now to proceed from the other side, from Waldburg against Truchsess’ troops, the Suabian Union would have been lost. But because of the defensive attitude of the peasant troops, Truchsess soon succeeded in concluding an armistice with those of Baltringen, Allgaeu, and the Lake, starting negotiations and fixing a date for terminating the whole undertaking, namely, Judica Sunday (April 2). In the meantime, he was able to proceed against Duke Ulrich, to besiege Stuttgart, compelling him to leave Wuerttemberg as early as March 17. Then he turned against the peasants, but the Lansquenets revolted in his own army and refused to proceed against the peasants. Truchsess succeeded in placating the disgruntled soldiers and moved towards Ulm, where new reinforcements were being gathered. He left an observation post at Kerchief under the supervision of Teck.
At last the Suabian Union, with free hands and in command of the first contingents, threw off its mask, declaring itself “to be ready, with arms in hand and with the aid of God, to change that which the peasants wilfully ventured.”
The peasants adhered strictly to the armistice. On Judica Sunday they submitted their demands, the famous Twelve Articles, for consideration. They demanded the election and removal of clergymen by the communities; the abolition of the small tithe and the utilisation of the large tithe, after subtraction of the priests’ salaries, for public purposes; the abolition of serfdom, of fishing and hunting rights, and of death tolls; the limitation of excessive bonded labour, taxes and ground rents; the restitution of the forests, meadows and privileges forcibly withdrawn from the communities and individuals, and the elimination of willfulness in the courts and the administration. It is obvious that the moderate conciliatory section still had the upper hand among the peasant troops. The revolutionary party had formulated its programme earlier, in the Letter of Articles. It was an open letter to all the peasantry, admonishing them to join “the Christian Alliance and Brotherhood” for the purpose of removing all burdens either by goodness, “which will hardly happen,” or by force, and threatening all those who refuse to join with the “lay anathema,” that is, with expulsion from the society and from any intercourse with the Union members. All castles, monasteries and priests’ endowments were also, according to the Letter, to be placed under lay anathema unless the nobility, the priests and the monks relinquished them of their own accord, moved into ordinary houses like other people, and joined the Christian Alliance. We see that this radical manifesto which obviously had been composed before the Spring insurrection of 1525, deals in the first place with the revolution, with complete victory over the ruling classes, and that the “lay anathema” only designates those oppressors and traitors that were to be killed, the castles that were to be burned, and the monasteries and endowments that were to be confiscated, their jewels to be turned into cash.
Before the peasants succeeded in presenting their Twelve Articles to the proper courts of arbitration, they learned that the agreement had been broken by the Suabian Union and that its troops were approaching. Steps were taken immediately by the peasants. A general meeting of all Allgaeu, Baltringen and Lake peasants was held at Geisbeuren. The four divisions were combined and reorganised into four columns. A decision was made to confiscate the church estates, to sell their jewels in favour of the war chest, and to burn the castles. Thus, aside from the official Twelve Articles, the Letter of the Articles became the rule of warfare, and Judica Sunday, designated for the conclusion of peace negotiations, became the date of general uprising.
The growing agitation everywhere, the continued local conflicts of the peasants with the nobility, the news of a growing revolt in the Black Forest for the preceding six months and of its spread up to the Danube and the Lech, are sufficient to explain the rapid succession of peasant revolts in two-thirds of Germany. The fact, however, that the partial revolts took place simultaneously, proves that there were men at the head of the movement who had organised it through Anabaptists and other emissaries. Already in the second half of March, disorders broke out in Wuerttemberg, in the lower regions of the Neckar and the Odenwald, and in Upper and Middle Franconia. April 2, Judica Sunday, however, had already been named everywhere as the day of the general uprising, and everywhere the decisive blow, the revolt of the masses, fell in the first week of April. The Allgaeu, Hegau and Lake peasants sounded the alarm bells on April 1, calling into the camp a mass meeting of all able-bodied men, and together with the Baltringen peasants, they immediately opened hostilities against the castles and monasteries.
In Franconia, where the movement was grouped around six centres, the insurrection broke out everywhere in the first days of April. In Noerdlingen two peasant camps were formed about that time, and the revolutionary party of the city under Anton Forner, aided by the peasants, gained the upper hand, appointing Forner the Mayor, and completing a union between the city and the peasants. In the region of Anspach, the peasants revolted everywhere between April 1 and 7, and from here the revolts spread as far as Bavaria. In the region of Rottenburg, the peasants were already under arms on March 22. In the city of Rottenburg the rule of the honourables was overthrown by the lower middle-class and plebeians under Stephan of Menzingen, but since the peasant dues were the chief source of revenue for the city, the new government was able to maintain a vacillating and equivocal attitude towards the peasants. In the Grand Chapter of Wurzburg there was a general uprising, early in April, of the peasants and the small cities. In the bishopric of Bamberg, a general insurrection compelled the bishop to yield within five days. In the North, on the border of Thuringia, the strong Bildhausen Peasant Camp was organised.
In the Odenwald, where Wendel Hipler, a noble and former chancellor of the Count of Hohenlohe, and Georg Metzler, an innkeeper at Ballenberg near Krautheim, were at the head of the revolutionary party, the storm broke out on March 26. The peasants marched from all directions towards the Tauber. Two thousand men from the Rottenburg camp joined. Georg Metzler took command, and having received all reinforcements, marched on April 4 to the monastery of Schoenthal on the Jaxt, where he was joined by the peasants of the Neckar valley. The latter, led by Jaecklein Rohrbach, an innkeeper at Boeckingen near Heilbronn, had proclaimed, on Judica Sunday, the insurrection in Flein, Southeim, etc., while, simultaneously, Wendel Hipler, with a number of conspirators, took Oehringen by surprise and drew the surrounding peasants into the movement. In Schoenthal, the two peasant columns, combined into the Gay Troop, accepted the Twelve Articles, and organised expeditions against the castles and monasteries. The Gay Troop was about 8,000 strong, and possessed cannon, as well as 3,000 guns. Florian Geyer, a Franconian knight, also joined the troop and formed the Black Host, a select division which had been recruited mainly from the Rottenburg and Oehringen infantry.
The Wuerttemberg magistrate in Neckarsulm, Count Ludwig von Helfenstein, opened hostilities. Without much ado, he ordered all peasants that fell into his hands to be executed. The Gay Troop marched against him. The peasants were embittered by the massacres as well as by news of the defeat of the Leipheim Troop, of Jakob Wehe’s execution, and the Truchsess atrocities. Von Helfenstein, who had precipitously moved into Weinsberg, was there attacked. The castle was stormed by Florian Geyer. The city was won after a prolonged struggle, and Count Ludwig was taken prisoner, as were several knights. On the following day, April 17, Jaecklein Rohrbach, together with the most resolute members of the troop, held court over the prisoners, and ordered fourteen of them, with von Helfenstein at the head, to run the gauntlet, this being the most humiliating death he could invent for them. The capture of Weinsberg and the terroristic revenge of Jaecklein against von Helfenstein, did not fail to influence the nobility. Count von Loebenstein joined the Peasant Alliance. The Counts von Hohenlohe, who had joined previously without offering any aid, immediately sent the desired cannon and powder.
The chiefs debated among themselves whether they should not make Goetz von Berlichingen their commander “since he could bring to them the nobility.” The proposal found sympathy, but Florian Geyer, who saw in this mood of the peasants and their chiefs the beginning of reaction, seceded from the troop, and together with his Black Host, marched first through the Neckar Region, then the Wuerzburg territory, everywhere destroying castles and priests’ nests.
The remainder of the troop marched first towards Heilbronn. In this powerful and free imperial city, the patriciate was confronted, as almost everywhere, by a middle-class and revolutionary opposition. The latter, in secret agreement with the peasants, opened the gates before G. Metzler and Jaecklein Rohrbach, on April 17, in the course of a general disturbance. The peasant chiefs with their people took possession of the city. They accepted membership in the brotherhood, and delivered 12,000 guilders in money and a squad of volunteers. Only the possessions of the clergy and the Teutonic Order were pillaged. On the 22nd, the peasants moved away, leaving a small garrison. Heilbronn was designated as the centre of the various troops, the latter actually sending delegates and conferring over common actions and common demands of the peasantry. But the middle-class opposition and the honourables who had joined them after the peasant invasion, regained the upper hand in the city, preventing it from taking decisive steps and only waiting for the approach of the princes’ troops in order to betray the peasants definitely.
The peasants marched toward the Odenwald. Goetz von Berlichingen who, a few days previous, had offered himself to the Grand Elector Palatine, then to the peasantry, then again to the Grand Elector, was compelled on April 24 to join the Evangelist Fraternity, and to take over the supreme command of the Gay Bright Troop (in contrast to the Black Troop of Florian Geyer). At the same time, however, he was the prisoner of the peasants who mistrusted him and bound him to a council of chiefs without whom he could undertake nothing. Goetz and Metzler moved with a mass of peasants over Buchen to Armorbach, where they remained from April 30, until May 5, arousing the entire region of the Main. The nobility was everywhere compelled to join, and thus its castles were spared. Only the monasteries were burned and pillaged. The troops had obviously become demoralised. The most energetic men were away, either under Florian Geyer or under Jaecklein Rohrbach, who, after the capture of Heilbronn, also separated himself from the troops, apparently because he, judge of Count von Helfenstein, could no longer remain with a body which was in favour of reconciliation with the nobility. This insistence on an understanding with the nobility was in itself a sign of demoralisation. Later, Wendel Hipler proposed a very fitting reorganisation of the troops. He suggested that the Lansquenets, who offered themselves daily, should be drawn into the service, and that the troops should no longer be renewed monthly by assembling fresh contingents and dismissing old ones, but that those of them who had received more or less military training should be retained. The community assembly rejected both proposals. The peasants had become arrogant, viewing the entire war as nothing but a pillage. They wanted to be free to go home as soon as their pockets were full, but the competition of the Lansquenets promised them little. In Amorbach, it went so far that Hans Berlin, a member of the council of Heilbronn, induced the chiefs and the councils of the troops to accept the Declaration of the Twelve Articles, a document wherein the remaining sharp edges of the Twelve Articles were removed, and in which, a language of humble supplication was put into the mouths of the peasants. This was too much for the peasants, who rejected the Declaration under great tumult, and insisted on the retention of the original Articles.
In the meantime, a decisive change had taken place in the region of Wuerzburg. The bishop who, after the first uprising early in April, had withdrawn to the fortified Frauenberg near Wuerzburg, from there to send unsuccessful letters in all directions asking for aid, was finally compelled to make temporary concessions. On May 2, a Diet was opened with the peasants represented, but before any results could be achieved, letters were intercepted which proved the bishop’s traitorous machinations. The Diet immediately dispersed, and hostilities broke out anew between the insurgent city inhabitants and the peasants on one hand, and the bishop’s forces on the other. The bishop fled to Heidelberg on May 5, and on the following day Florian Geyer, with the Black Troop, appeared in Wuerzburg and with him the Franconian Tauber Troop which consisted of the peasants of Mergentheim, Rottenburg and Anspach. On May 7, Goetz von Berlichingen with his Gay Bright Troop came, and the siege of Frauenberg began.
In the vicinity of Limpurg and in the region of Ellwangen and Hall, another contingent was formed by the end of March and the beginning of April, that of Gaildorf or the Common Gay Troop. Its actions were very violent. It aroused the entire region, burned many monasteries and castles, including the castle of Hohenstaufen, compelled all the peasants to join it, and compelled all nobles, even the cup-bearers of Limpurg, to enter the Christian Alliance. Early in May it invaded Wuerttemberg, but was persuaded to withdraw. The separatism of the German system of small states stood then, as in 1848, in the way of a common action of the revolutionaries of the various state territories. The Gaildorf Troop, limited to a small area, was naturally bound to disperse when all resistance within that area was broken. The members of this troop concluded an agreement with the city of Gmuend, and leaving only 500 under arms, they went home.
In the Palatinate, peasant troops were formed on either bank of the Rhine by the end of April. They destroyed many castles and monasteries, and on May 1 they took Neustadt on the Hardt. The Bruchrain peasants, who appeared in this region, had on the previous day forced Speyer to conclude an agreement. The Marshal of Zabern, with the few troops of the Elector, was powerless against them, and on May 10 the Elector was compelled to conclude an agreement with the peasants, guaranteeing them a redress of their grievances, to be effected by a Diet.
In Wuerttemberg the revolt had occurred early in separate localities. As early as February, the peasants of the Urach Alp formed a union against the priests and masters, and by the end of March the peasants of Blaubeuer, Urach, Muensingen, Balingen and Rosenfeld revolted. The Wuerttemberg region was invaded by the Gaildorf Troop at Goeppingen, by Jaecklein Rohrbach at Brackenheim, and by the remnants of the vanquished Leipheim Troop at Pfuelingen. All these newcomers aroused the rural population. There were also serious disturbances in other localities. On April 6, Pfuelingen capitulated before the peasants. The government of the Austrian Archduke was in a very difficult situation. It had no money and but few troops. The cities and castles were in a bad condition, lacking garrisons or munitions, and even Asperg was practically defenseless. The attempt of the government to call out city reserves against the peasants, decided its temporary defeat. On April 16 the reserves of the city of Bottwar refused to obey orders, marching, instead of to Stuttgart, to Wunnenstein near Bottwar, where they formed the nucleus of a camp of middle-class people and peasants, and added other numbers rapidly. On the same day the rebellion broke out in Zabergau. The monastery of Maulbronn was pillaged, and a number of monasteries and castles were ruined. The Gaeu peasants received reinforcements from the neighbouring Bruchrain.
The command of the Wunnenstein Troop was taken by Matern Feuerbacher, a councillor of the city of Bottwar, one of the leaders of the middle-class opposition compromised enough to be compelled to join the peasants. In spite of his new affiliations, however, he remained very moderate, prohibiting the application of the Letter of Articles to the castles, and seeking everywhere to reconcile the peasants with the moderate middle-class. He prevented the amalgamation of the Wuerttemberg peasants with the Gay Bright Troop, and afterwards he also persuaded the Gaildorf Troop to withdraw from Wuerttemberg. On April 19 he was deposed in consequence of his middle-class tendencies, but the next day he was again made commander. He was indispensable, and even when Jaecklein Rohrbach came, on April 22, with 200 of his associates to join the Wuerttemberg peasants, he could do nothing but leave Feuerbacher in his place of commander, confining himself to rigid supervision of his actions.
On April 18, the government attempted to negotiate with the peasants stationed at Wunnenstein. The peasants insisted upon acceptance of the Twelve Articles, but this the government’s representatives refused to do. The troop now proceeded to act. On April 20, it reached Laufen, where, for the last time, it rejected the offers of the government delegates. On April 22, the troops, numbering 6,000, appeared in Bietighein, threatening Stuttgart. Most of the city council had fled, and a citizens’ committee was placed at the head of the administration. The citizenry here was divided, as elsewhere, between the parties of the honourables, the middle-class opposition, and the revolutionary plebeians. On April 25, the latter opened the gates for the peasants, and Stuttgart was immediately garrisoned by them. Here the organisation of the Gay Christian Troop (as the Wuerttemberg insurgents called themselves) was perfected, and rules and regulations were established for remuneration, division of booty and alimentation. A detachment of Stuttgarters, under Theus Gerber, joined the troops.
On April 29, Feuerbacher with all his men marched against the Gaildorf troops, which had entered the Wuerttemberg region at Schorndorf. He drew the entire region into his alliance and thus persuaded the Gaildorf troops to withdraw. In this way, he prevented the revolutionary elements of his men under Rohrbach from combining with the reckless troops of Gaildorf and thus receiving a dangerous reinforcement. Having been informed of Truchsess’ approach, he left Schorndorf to meet him, and on May 1 encamped near Kerchief under Teck.
We have thus traced the origin and the development of the insurrection in that portion of Germany which must be considered the territory of the first group of peasant armies. Before we proceed to the other groups (Thuringia and Hesse, Alsace, Austria and the Alps) we must give an account of the military operations of Truchsess, in which he, alone at the beginning, later supported by various princes and cities, annihilated the first group of insurgents. We left Truchsess near Ulm, where he came by the end of March, having left an observation corps under Teck, under the command of Dietrich Spaet. Truchsess’ corps which together with the Union reinforcements concentrated in Ulm counted hardly 10,000, among them 7,200 infantrymen, was the only army at his disposal capable of an offensive against the peasants. Reinforcements came to Ulm very slowly, due in part to the difficulties of recruiting in insurgent localities, in part to the lack of money in the hands of the government, and also to the fact that the few available troops were everywhere indispensable for garrisoning the fortresses and the castles. We have already observed what a small number of troops were at the disposal of the princes and cities that did not belong to the Suabian Union. Everything depended upon the successes which Georg Truchsess with his union army would score.
Truchsess turned first against the Baltringen troops which, in the meantime, had begun to destroy castles and monasteries in the vicinity of Ried. The peasants who, with the approach of the Union troops withdrew into Ried, were driven out of the marshes by an enveloping movement, crossed the Danube and ran into the ravines and forests of the Suabian Alps. In this region, where cannon and cavalry, the main source of strength of the Union army, were of little avail, Truchsess did not pursue them further. He marched instead against the Leipheim troops which numbered 5,000 men stationed at Leipheim, 4,000 in the valley of Mindel, and 6,000 at Illertissen, and was arousing the entire region, destroying monasteries and castles, and preparing to march against Ulm with its three columns. It seems that a certain demoralisation had set in among the peasants of this division, which had undermined their military morale, for Jakob Wehe tried at the very beginning to negotiate with Truchsess. The latter, however, now backed by sufficient military power, declined negotiations, and on April 4 attacked the main troops at Leipheim and entirely disrupted them. Jakob Wehe and Ulrich Schoen, together with two other peasant leaders, were captured and beheaded. Leipheim capitulated, and after a few marches through the surrounding country, the entire region was subdued.
A new rebellion of the Lansquenets, caused by a demand for plunder and additional remuneration, again stopped Truchsess’ activities until April 10, when he marched southwest against the Baltringen Troop which in the meantime had invaded his estates, Waldburg, Zeil and Wolfegg, and besieged his castles. Here, also, he found the peasants disunited, and defeated them, on April 11 and 12, one after the other, in various encounters which completely disrupted the Baltringen troops. Its remnants withdrew under the command of the priest Florian, and joined the Lake troops. Truchsess now turned against the latter. The Lake troops which in the meantime had made not only military marches but had also drawn the cities Buchhorn (Friedrichshafen) and Wollmatingen into the fraternity, held, on April 13, a big military council in the monastery of Salem, and decided to move against Truchsess. Alarm bells were sounded and 10,000 men, joined by the defeated remnants of the Baltringen troops, assembled in the camp of Bermatingen. On April 15 they stood their own in a combat with Truchsess, who did not wish to risk his army in a decisive battle, preferring to negotiate, the more so since he received news of the approach of the Allgaeu and Hegau troops. On April 17, in Weingarten, he concluded an agreement with the Lake and Baltringen peasants which seemed quite favourable to them, and which they accepted without suspicion. He also induced the delegates of the Upper and Lower Allgaeu peasants to accept the agreement, and then moved towards Wuerttemberg.
Truchsess’ cunning saved him here from certain ruin. Had he not succeeded in fooling the weak, limited, for the most part demoralised peasants and their usually incapable, timid and venal leaders, he would have been closed in with his small army between four columns numbering at least from 25,000 to 30,000 men, and would have perished. It was the narrow-mindedness of his enemies, always inevitable among the peasant masses, that made it possible for him to dispose of them at the very moment when, with one blow, they could have ended the entire war, at least as far as Suabia and Franconia were concerned. The Lake peasants adhered to the agreement, which finally turned out to be their undoing, so rigidly that they later took up arms against their allies, the Hegau peasants. And although the Allgaeu peasants, involved in the betrayal by their leaders, soon renounced the agreement, Truchsess was then out of danger.
The Hegau peasants, though not included in the Weingarten agreement, gave a new example of the appalling narrow-mindedness and the stubborn provincialism which ruined the entire Peasant War. When, after unsuccessful negotiations with them, Truchsess, moved towards Wuerttemberg, they followed him, continually pressing his flank, but it did not occur to them to unite with the Wuerttemberg Gay Christian Troop, because previously the peasants of Wuerttemberg and the Neckar valley refused to come to their assistance. When Truchsess had moved far enough from their home country, they returned peacefully and marched to Freiburg.
We left the Wuerttemberg peasants under the command of Matern Feuerbacher at Kerchief below Teck, from where the observation corps left by Truchsess had withdrawn towards Urach under the command of Dietrich Spaet. After an unsuccessful attempt to take Urach, Feuerbacher turned towards Nuertingen, sending letters to all neighbouring insurgent troops, calling reinforcements for the decisive battle. Considerable reinforcements actually came from the Wuerttemberg lowlands as well as from Gaeu. The Gaeu peasants had grouped themselves around the remnants of the Leipheim Troop which had withdrawn to West Wuerttemberg, and they aroused the entire valleys of Neckar and Nagoldt up to Boetlingen and Leonberg. Those Gaeu peasants, on May 5, came in two strong columns to join Feuerbacher at Nuertingen. Truchsess met the united troops at Boetlingen. Their number, their cannon and their position perplexed him. As usual, he started negotiations and concluded an armistice with the peasants. But as soon as he had thus secured his position, he attacked them on May 12 during the armistice, and forced a decisive battle upon them. The peasants offered a long and brave resistance until finally Boetlingen was surrendered to Truchsess owing to the betrayal of the middle-class. The left wing of the peasants, deprived of its base of support, was forced back and encompassed. This decided the battle. The undisciplined peasants were thrown into disorder and, later, into a wild flight, those that were not killed or captured by the horsemen of the Union threw away their weapons and went home. The Bright Christian Troop, and with it the entire Wuerttemberg insurrection was gone. Theus Gerber fled to Esslingen, Feuerbacher fled to Switzerland, Jaecklein Rohrbach was captured and dragged in chains to Neckargartach, where Truchsess ordered him chained to a post, surrounded by firewood and roasted to death on a slow fire, while he, feasting with horsemen, gloated over this noble spectacle.
From Neckargartach, Truchsess gave aid to the operations of the Elector Palatine by invading Kraichgau. Having received word of Truchsess’ successes, the Elector, who meanwhile had gathered troops, immediately broke his agreement with the peasants, attacked Bruchrain on May 23, captured and burned Malsch after vigorous resistance, pillaged a number of villages, and garrisoned Bruchsal. At the same time Truchsess attacked Eppingen and captured the chief of the local movement, Anton Eisenhut, whom the Elector immediately executed with a dozen other peasant leaders. Bruchrain and Kraichgau were thus subjugated and compelled to pay an indemnity of about 40,000 guilders. Both armies, that of Truchsess now reduced to 6,000 men in consequence of the preceding battles, and that of the Elector (6,500 men), united and moved towards the Odenwald.
Word of the Boetlingen defeat spread terror everywhere among the insurgents. The free imperial cities which had come under the heavy hand of the peasants, sighed in relief. The city of Heilbronn was the first to take steps towards reconciliation with the Suabian Union. Heilbronn was the seat of the peasants’ main office and that of the delegates of the various troops who deliberated over the proposals to be made to the emperor and the empire in the name of all the insurgent peasants. In these negotiations which were to lay down general rules for all of Germany, it again became apparent that none of the existing estates, including the peasants, was developed sufficiently to be able to reconstruct the whole of Germany according to its own viewpoint. It became obvious that to accomplish this, the support of the peasantry and particularly of the middle-class must be gained. In consequence, Wendel Hipler took over the conduct of the negotiations. Of all the leaders of the movement, Wendel Hipler had the best understanding of the existing conditions. He was not a far-seeing revolutionary of Muenzer’s type; he was not a representative of the peasants as were Metzler or Rohrbach; his many-sided experiences, his practical knowledge of the position of the various estates towards each other prevented him from representing one of the estates engaged in the movement in opposition to the other. Just as Muenzer, a representative of the beginnings of the proletariat then outside of the existing official organisation of society, was driven to the anticipation of communism, Wendel Hipler, the representative, as it were, of the average of all progressive elements of the nation, anticipated modern bourgeois society. The principles that he defended, the demands that he formulated, though not immediately possible, were the somewhat idealised, logical result of the dissolution of feudal society. In so far as the peasants agreed to propose laws for the whole empire, they were compelled to accept Hipler’s principles and demands. Centralisation demanded by the peasants thus assumed, in Heilbronn, a definite form, which, however, was worlds away from the ideas of the peasants themselves on the subject. Centralisation, for instance, was more clearly defined in the demands for the establishment of uniform coins, measures and weights, for the abolition of internal customs, etc., in demands, that is to say, which were much more in the interests of the city middle-class than in the interests of the peasants. Concessions made to the nobility were a certain approach to the modern system of redemption and aimed, finally, to transform feudal land ownership into bourgeois ownership. In a word, so far as the demands of the peasants were combined into a system of “imperial reform,” they did not express the temporary demands of the peasants but became subordinate to the general interests of the middle-class as a whole.
While this reform of the empire was still being debated in Heilbronn, the author of the Declaration of the Twelve Articles, Hans Berlin, was already on his way to meet Truchsess, to negotiate in the name of the honourables, the middle-class and the citizenry on the surrender of the city. Reactionary movements within the city supported this betrayal, and Wendel Hipler was obliged to flee, as were the peasants. He went to Weinsberg where he attempted to assemble the remnants of the Wuerttemberg peasants and those few of the Gaildorf troops which could be mobilised. The approach of the Elector Palatine and of Truchsess, however, drove him out of there and he was compelled to go to Wuerzburg to cause the Gay Bright Troop to resume operations. In the meantime, the armies of the Union and the Elector subdued the Neckar region, compelled the peasants to take a new oath, burned many villages, and stabbed or hanged all fleeing peasants that fell into their hands. To avenge the execution of Helfenstein, Weinsberg was burned.
The troops that were assembled in front of Wuerzburg had in the meantime besieged Frauenberg. On May 15, before a gap was made by their fusillade, they bravely but unsuccessfully attempted to storm the fortress. Four hundred of the best men, mostly of Florian Geyser’s host, remained in the ditches, dead or wounded. Two days later, May 17, Wendel Hipler appeared and ordered a military council. He proposed to leave at Frauenberg only 4,000 men and to place the main force, about 20,000 men, in a camp at Krautheim on the Jaxt, before the very eyes of Truchsess, so that all reinforcements might be assembled there. The plan was excellent. Only by keeping the masses together, and by a numerical superiority, could one hope to defeat the army of the princes which now numbered about 13,000 men. The demoralisation and discouragement of the peasants, however, had gone too far to make any energetic action possible. Goetz von Berlichingen, who soon afterwards openly appeared as a traitor, may have helped to hold the troop back. Thus Hipler’s plan was never put into action; the troops were divided as ever, and only on May 23 did the Gay Bright Troop start action after the Franconians had promised to follow quickly. On May 26, the detachments of the Margrave of Anspach, located in Wuerzburg, were called, due to the word that the Margrave had opened hostilities against the peasants. The rest of the besieging army, with Florian Geyer’s Black Troop, took position at Heidingsfeld not far from Wuerzburg.
The Gay Bright Troop arrived on May 24 in Krautheim in a condition far from good. Many peasants learned that in their absence their villages had taken the oath at Truchsess’ behest, and this they used as a pretext to go home. The troops moved further to Neckarsulm, and on May 28 started negotiations with Truchsess. At the same time messengers were sent to the peasants of Franconia, Alsace and Black Forest–Hegau, with the demand to hurry reinforcements. From Neckarsulm Goetz marched towards Oehringen. The troops melted from day to day. Goetz von Berlichingen also disappeared during the march. He rode home, having previously negotiated with Truchsess through his old brother-in-arms, Dietrich Spaet, concerning his going over to the other side. In Oehringen, a false rumour of the enemy approaching threw the helpless and discouraged mass into a panic. The troop was rapidly disintegrating, and it was with difficulty that Metzler and Wendel Hipler succeeded in keeping together about 2,000 men, whom they again led towards Krautheim. In the meantime, the Franconian army, 5,000 strong, had come, but in consequence of a side march over Loewenstein towards Oehringen, ordered by Goetz apparently with treacherous intentions, it missed the Gay Troop and moved towards Neckarsulm. This small town, defended by a detachment of the Gay Bright Troop, was besieged by Truchsess. The Franconians arrived at night and saw the fires of the Union army, but their leaders had not the courage to brave an attack. They retreated to Krautheim, where they at last found the remainder of the Gay Bright Troop. Receiving no aid, Neckarsulm surrendered on the 29th to the Union troops. Truchsess immediately ordered 13 peasants executed, and went to meet the troop, burning, pillaging and murdering all along the way through the valleys of Neckar, Kocher and Jaxt. Heaps of ruins and bodies of peasants hanging on trees marked his march.
At Krautheim the Union army met the peasants who, forced by a flank movement of Truchsess, had withdrawn towards Koenigshofen on the Tauber. Here they took their position, 8,000 in number, with 32 cannon. Truchsess approached them, hidden behind hills and forests. He sent out columns to envelop them, and on June 2, he attacked them with such a superiority of forces and energy that in spite of the stubborn resistance of several columns lasting into the night, they were defeated and dispersed. As everywhere, the horsemen of the Union, “the peasants’ death,” were mainly instrumental in annihilating the insurgent army, throwing themselves on the peasants, who were shaken by artillery gun fire and lance attacks, disrupting their ranks completely, and killing individual fighters. The kind of warfare conducted by Truchsess and his horsemen is manifested in the fate of 300 Koenigshof middle-class men united with the peasant army. During the battle, all but fifteen were killed, and of these remaining fifteen, four were subsequently decapitated.
Having thus completed his victory over the peasants of Odenwald, the Neckar valley and lower Franconia, Truchsess subdued the entire region by means of punitive expeditions, burning entire villages and causing numberless executions. From there he moved towards Wuerzburg. On his way he learned that the second Franconian troop under the command of Florian Geyer and Gregor von Burg-Bernsheim was stationed at Sulzdorf. He immediately moved against them.
Florian Geyer, who, after the unsuccessful attempt at storming Frauenberg, had devoted himself mainly to negotiations with the princes and the cities, especially with Rottenburg and Margrave Casimir of Anspach, urging them to join the peasant fraternity, was suddenly recalled in consequence of word of the Koenigshofen defeat. His troops were joined by those of Anspach under the command of Gregor von Burg-Bernsheim. The latter troops had been only recently formed. Margrave Casimir had managed, in true Hohenzollern style, to keep in check the peasant revolt in his region, partly by promises and partly by the threat of amassing troops. He maintained complete neutrality towards all outside troops as long as they did not include Anspach subjects. He tried to direct the hatred of the peasants mainly towards the church endowments, through the ultimate confiscation of which he hoped to enrich himself. As soon as he received word of the Boetlingen battle, he opened hostilities against his rebellious peasants, pillaging and burning their villages, and hanging or otherwise killing many of them. The peasants, however, quickly assembled, and under the command of Gregor von Burg-Bernsheim defeated him at Windsheim, May 29. While they were still pursuing him, the call of the hard-pressed Odenwald peasants reached them, and they turned towards Heidingsfeld and from there with Florian Geyer, again towards Wuerzburg (June 2). Still without word from the Odenwald, they left 5,000 peasants there, and with the remaining 4,000 – many had run away – they followed the others. Reassured by false rumours of the outcome of the Koenigshofen battle, they were attacked by Truchsess at Sulzdorf and completely defeated. The horsemen and servants of Truchsess perpetrated, as usual, a terrible massacre. Florian Geyer kept the remainder of his Black Troop, 600 in number, and battled his way through the village of Ingolstadt. He placed 200 men in the church and cemetery and 400 in the castle. He had been pursued by the Elector Palatine’s forces, of whom a column of 1,200 men captured the village and set fire to the church. Those who did not perish in the flames were slaughtered. The Elector’s troops then fired on the castle, made a gap in the ancient wall, and attempted to storm it. Twice beaten back by the peasants who stood hidden behind an internal wall, they shot the wall to pieces, and attempted a third storming, which was successful. Half of Geyser’s men were massacred; with the other 200 he managed to escape. Their hiding place, however, was discovered the following day (Whit-Monday). The Elector Palatine’s soldiers surrounded the woods in which they lay hidden, and slaughtered all the men. Only seventeen prisoners were taken during those two days. Florian Geyer again fought his way through with a few of his most intrepid fighters and turned towards the Gaildorf peasants, who had again assembled in a body of about 7,000 men. Upon his arrival, he found them mostly dispersed, in consequence of crushing news from every side. He made a last attempt to assemble the dispersed peasants in the woods on June 9, but was attacked by the troops, and fell fighting.
Truchsess, who, immediately after the Koenigshofen victory, had sent word to the besieged Frauenberg, now marched towards Wuerzburg. The council came to a secret understanding with him so that, on the night of June 7, the Union army was in a position to surround the city where 5,000 peasants were stationed, and the following morning to march through the gates opened by the council, without even lifting a sword. By this betrayal of the Wuerzburg “honourables” the last troops of the Franconian peasants were disarmed and all the leaders arrested. Truchsess immediately ordered 81 of them decapitated. Here in Wuerzburg the various Franconian princes appeared, one after the other, among them the Bishop of Wuerzburg himself, the Bishop of Bamberg and the Margrave of Brandenburg-Anspach. The gracious lords distributed the roles among themselves. Truchsess marched with the Bishop of Bamberg, who presently broke the agreement concluded with his peasants and offered his territory to the raging hordes of the Union army, who pillaged, massacred and burned. Margrave Casimir devastated his own land. Teiningen was burned, numerous villages were pillaged or made fuel for the flames. In every city the Margrave held a bloody court. In Neustadt, on the Aisch, he ordered eighteen rebels beheaded, in the Buergel March, forty-three suffered a similar fate. From there he went to Rottenburg where the honourables, in the meantime, had made a counter revolution and arrested Stephan von Menzingen. The Rottenburg lower middle-class and plebeians were now compelled to pay heavily for the fact that they behaved towards the peasants in such an equivocal way, refusing to help them to the very last moment and in their local narrow-minded egotism insisting on the suppression of the countryside crafts in favour of the city guilds, and only unwillingly renouncing the city revenues flowing from the feudal services of the peasants. The Margrave ordered sixteen of them executed, Menzingen among them. In a similar manner the Bishop of Wuerzburg marched through his region, pillaging, devastating and burning everywhere. On his triumphal march he ordered 256 rebels to be decapitated, and upon his return to Wuerzburg he crowned his work by decapitating thirteen more from among the Wuerzburg rebels.
In the region of Mainz the viceroy, Bishop Wilhelm von Strassburg, restored order without resistance. He ordered only four men executed. Rheingau, where the peasants had also been restless, but where, nevertheless, everybody had long before gone home, was subsequently invaded by Frowen von Hutten, a cousin of Ulrich, and finally “pacified” by the execution of twelve ringleaders. Frankfurt, which also had witnessed revolutionary movements of a considerable size, was held in check first by the conciliatory attitude of the council, then by recruited troops in the Rhenish Palatinate. Eight thousand peasants had assembled anew after the breach of agreement by the Elector, and had again burned monasteries and castles, but the Archbishop of Trier came to the aid of the Marshal of Zabern, and defeated them as early as May 23 at Pfedersheim. A series of atrocities (in Pfedersheim alone eighty-two were executed) and the capture of Weissenburg on July 7 terminated the insurrection here.
Of all the divisions of troops there remained only two to be vanquished, those of Hegau–Black Forest and of Allgaeu. Archduke Ferdinand had tried intrigues with both. In the same way as Margrave Casimir and other princes tried to utilise the insurrection to annex the church territories and principalities, so Ferdinand wished to utilise it to strengthen the power of the House of Austria. He had negotiated with the Allgaeu commander, Walter Bach, and with the Hegau commander, Hans Mueller, with the aim of inducing the peasants to declare their adherence to Austria, but, both chiefs being venal, their influence with the troops went only so far that the Allgaeu troop concluded an armistice with the Archbishop and observed neutrality towards Austria.
Retreating from the Wuerttemberg region, the peasants of Hegau destroyed a number of castles, and received reinforcements from the provinces of the Margraviate of Baden. On May 13 they marched towards Freiburg; on May 18 they bombarded it, and on May 23, the city having capitulated, they entered it with flying colours. From there they moved towards Stockach and Radolfzell, and waged a prolonged petty war against the garrisons of those cities. The latter, together with the nobility and other surrounding cities, appealed to the Lake peasants for help in accordance with the Weingarten agreement. The former rebels of the Lake Troop rose, 5,000 strong, against their former allies. So potent was the narrow-mindedness of the peasants who were confined to their local horizon, that only 600 refused to fight and expressed a desire to join the Hegau peasants, for which they were slaughtered. The Hegau peasants, themselves, persuaded by Hans Mueller of Bulgenbach, who had sold himself to the enemy, lifted their siege, and Hans Mueller having run away, most of them dispersed forthwith. The remaining ones entrenched themselves on the Hilzingen Steep, where, on July 16, they were beaten and annihilated by the troops that had in the meantime become free of other engagements. The Swiss cities negotiated an agreement with the Hegau peasants, which, however, did not prevent the other side from capturing and murdering Hans Mueller, his Laufenburg betrayal notwithstanding. In Breisgau, the city of Freiburg also deserted the peasant Union (July 17) and sent troops against it, but because of the weakness of the fighting forces of the princes, here as elsewhere, an agreement was reached (September 18), which also included Sundgau. The eight groups of the Black Forest and the Klettgau peasants, who were not yet disarmed, were again driven to an uprising by the tyranny of Count von Sulz, and were repulsed in October. On November 13, the Black Forest peasants were forced into an agreement, and on December 6, Walzhut, the last bulwark of the insurrection in the Upper Rhine, fell.
The Allgaeu peasants had, after the departure of Truchsess, renewed their campaign against the monasteries and castles and were using repressive measures in retaliation for the devastations caused by the Union army. They were confronted by few troops which braved only insignificant skirmishes, not being able to follow them into the woods. In June, a movement against the honourables started in Memmingen which had hitherto remained more or less neutral, and only the accidental nearness of some Union troops which came in time to the rescue of the nobility, made its suppression possible. Schapelar, the preacher and leader of the plebeian movement, fled to St. Gallen. The peasants appeared before the city and were about to start firing to break a gap, when they learned of the approach of Truchsess on his way from Wuerzburg. On June 27 they started against him, in two columns, over Babenhausen and Oberguenzburg. Archduke Ferdinand again attempted to win over the peasants to the House of Austria. Citing the armistice concluded with the peasants, he demanded of Truchsess to march no further against them. The Suabian Union, however, ordered Truchsess to attack them, but to refrain from pillaging and burning. Truchsess, however, was too clever to relinquish his primary and most effective means of battle, even were he in a position to keep in order the Lansquenets whom he had led between Lake Constance and the Main from one excess to another. The peasants took a stand behind the Iller and the Luibas, about 23,000 in number. Truchsess opposed them with 11,000. The positions of both armies were formidable. The cavalry could not operate on the territory that lay ahead, and if the Truchsess Lansquenets were superior to the peasants in organisation, military resources and discipline, the Allgaeu peasants counted in their ranks a host of former soldiers and experienced commanders and possessed numerous well-manned cannon. On July 19, the armies of the Suabian Union opened a cannonade which was continued on every side on the 20th, but without result. On July 21, Georg von Frundsberg joined Truchsess with 300 Lansquenets. He knew many of the peasant commanders who had served under him in the Italian military expeditions and he entered into negotiations with them. Where military resources were insufficient, treason succeeded. Walter Bach and several other commanders and artillerymen sold themselves. They set fire to the powder store of the peasants and persuaded the troops to make an enveloping movement, but as soon as the peasants left their strong position they fell into the ambush placed by Truchsess in collusion with Bach and the other traitors. They were less capable of defending themselves since their traitorous commanders had left them under the pretext of reconnoitering and were already on their way to Switzerland. Thus two of the peasant camps were entirely disrupted. The third, under Knopf of Luibas, was still in a position to withdraw in order. It again took its position on the mountain of Kollen near Kampten, where it was surrounded by Truchsess. The latter did not dare to attack these peasants, but he cut them off from all supplies, and tried to demoralise them by burning about 200 villages in the vicinity. Hunger, and the sight of their burning homes, finally brought the peasants to surrender (July 25). More than twenty were immediately executed. Knopf of Luibas, the only leader of this troop who did not betray his banner, fled to Bregenz. There he was captured, however, and hanged, after a long imprisonment.
With this, the Peasant War in Suabia and Franconia came to an end.
Last updated on 15 July 2020