Quincentenary: Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Peasant War in Germany

Editors' note:  2017 marks the 500th anniversary  of the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Below, a German Marxist author reflects on the significance of 1517.

By Jenny Farrell

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses against the widespread practice of selling indulgences and clerical corruption. He challenged the Church’s claim to be the sole interpreter of the word and intentions of God and defended ordinary human entitlement to God’s grace without the intermediacy of the Church.

The Roman Church was the greatest landowner and represented the central force of European feudalism. Its increasing greed for money, extorted ruthlessly from everybody including the very poor, caused discontent. Monies were extracted through the sale of indulgences claiming to ensure clear passage to heaven. They were used to finance the upper clergy’s affluent lifestyle and ever more splendid Church buildings. Such plundering deprived all territories of their financial resources became an obstacle to early capitalist development.

Throughout the late middle ages, opposition to feudalism took the shape of open heresy and armed rebellion from the 14th century. These were class wars despite their religious guise.

One of the most effective heresies that took hold in the rising middle classes was the revival of early Christian teachings, and the demand to eliminate Church hierarchy, including the papacy. Such radical anti-feudal sentiment could only be expressed in theological terms at the time. From this time stem early translations of the Bible into the native languages of the  people empowering them significantly.

Plebeian demands went further: They called for the restoration of early Christian equality of all members of the community – to include civil equality, equity of property of all, and the abolition of ground rents, taxes and privileges. They articulated the interests of a separate new class in the 14th and 15th centuries, which led to the first major peasant uprisings under the leadership of preachers. John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw are examples in Britain, Jan Hus in Bohemia and Luther’s contemporary, Thomas Müntzer, in Germany. Ball, Tyler and Straw were executed; Hus was burnt at the stake. Müntzer was decapitated. 

Luther’s contemporaries understood his Theses as a break with the Pope and the Church at a time when Germany was ripe for upheaval. He set fire to a powder keg, as is were. He became the protagonist of heresy against the Roman Church and for a short time in history, all oppositional forces rallied around him. His Theses, therefore, mark the Reformation of the Roman Church and constitute historically the first stage of the early bourgeois revolution in Germany.

Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German in 1522 meant that ordinary people no longer had to rely on the interpretations of the clergy. Now, they could read and understand the message of the Bible themselves and reformed preachers held church services in the vernacular. This translation was one of Luther’s lasting contributions. Luther’s writings on usury, his equation of usurer and merchant even earned him the praise of Karl Marx.

Increasingly in 1522/23, conflict arose between the interests of the propertied patricians, and the dispossessed, marking a second phase in the bourgeois revolution. Peasant and plebeian demands became the most far-reaching of the time. And so the two classes that had momentarily identified the same historic opportunity of breaking with feudal control, polarized in the early years of the Reformation, and separated. 

Each party needed a representative. Luther had to take sides. He claimed he never intended his Reformation of the Church to ignite civil unrest. As the reformed lesser nobility and the urban middle classes gained power, they rallied around Luther.

Luther dropped those elements of his position that were open to radical interpretation and instead emphasized Bible passages referring to God-ordained authorities and obedience, acceptance of social inequality.

His adversary Thomas Müntzer, on the other hand, attacked all central tenants of Christianity, preaching a kind of pantheism approaching atheism. He repudiated the Bible as the only and infallible revelation and stated that reason is the revelation, existing among all peoples at all times. He concluded that heaven is not of another world, but to be sought in this life, and that it is the task of believers to establish heaven on earth. As Müntzer’s religious philosophy approached atheism, so his political programme approached communism.

Müntzer became a leader of the German peasant war of 1524/25, the third stage of the bourgeois revolution. He is Germany’s most outstanding leader of the people’s Reformation, which went far beyond Luther’s ‘moderate’ bourgeois Reformation, and aimed at the complete abolition of feudal power and exploitation.

The peasants were defeated and killed in enormous numbers as they were betrayed by the propertied classes who no longer felt they needed them to achieve power. This goal, however, was not realised as Germany remained a splintered political entity for over three hundred years more, hemming the evolution of a nation state and a nation.

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