Martin Luther initially shows some sympathy for the peasants’ plight. He, himself, in his Admonition for Peace in 1525, criticised the “arrogant” attitude of the sovereigns. Only when troops of peasants slaughter a count and his escort, and this creates a furore as the “Bloody deed of Weinsberg”, does the reformer change sides. Now he radically distances himself from the insurgents. With his text “Against the Robbing Murderous Hordes of Peasants”, he urges the princes to take ruthless retaliation. “They must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog.” Luther chooses to apply the “freedom of a Christian” to the spiritual and not to the secular area.
The Peasants’ War is the earliest socio-political mass movement in German history. The peasants rise up: from the Tyrol and Switzerland, through Alsace and Upper Swabia, to Franconia and Thuringia. “God leads us, follow, follow! Don’t let your swords grow cold…!” The radical reformer Thomas Muentzer, as opposed to Luther, takes the side of the peasants. For him, the end of the world has come, when God shall punish the mighty and put a sword in the hands of the chosen, so they can establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Muentzer is parish priest in Thuringian Muehlhausen and stands for the violent liberation of the peasants. His attempt to unite various Thuringian peasant troops, however, fails. In May 1525, he is captured in the Battle of Frankenhausen and subsequently tortured and put to death.
The peasants don’t have a chance against the nobility who, with their knights and mercenaries, their armour, swords and cannon, are eminently superior to the insurgents, often only armed with flails and spikes. The battles end everywhere in appalling carnage. Over 70,000 dead on the side of the peasants. The vengeance against the rebels is brutal. The nobles have the leaders beheaded, or hung, drawn and quartered. For the peasants, it is a defeat all along the line.
In the long term, however, conditions do improve somewhat for the rural communities. The complaints of the peasants against their landlords are now taken more seriously by the courts, and ever more often even fairly mediated. Certain concessions (to the peasants) are made, the worst grievances eliminated, service and taxes reduced. Fear of new revolts runs deep.