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Engels's 'The Peasant War in Germany.'

The Materialist Conception of History and Class

The defeat of the German revolution of 1848-9 by the conservative aristocracy prompted Engels to write THE PEASANT WAR IN GERMANY. The book was written by Engels in London during the summer of 1850, following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848-1849. In the book Engels compares the failures of both uprisings and the lessons to be learnt. In drawing this comparison Engels wrote:

"Three centuries have flown by since then, and many a thing has changed; still the peasant war is not as far removed from our present-day struggles as it would seem, and the opponents we have to encounter remain essentially the same"
(THE PEASANT WAR IN GERMANY, George Allen 1927 Chapter 1 p. 33).

This short work forms an important part of Engels's contribution to Marxist history writing and the use of the political concept of the class struggle. For as Marx and Engels had written in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles"


"every class struggle is a political struggle".

Class, class interest and class struggle were central political factors in the movement of social systems from one to the other: chattel slavery to feudalism, and feudalism to capitalism. And revolution was the rupture.

"Revolution" wrote Marx in the GERMAN IDEOLOGY is the "motive of history".

Men and women make history. History by itself does nothing.

Drawing upon Marx's materialist conception of history, which had been famously stated in the Preface to A CONTRIBUTION TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1859), Engels looked at the material and economic forces behind the events in 16th century Germany. In the preface to the second edition, Engels wrote:

"This book, while giving the historic course of the struggle only in its outlines, undertakes to explain the origin of the peasant wars, the attitude of the various parties which appear in the war, the political and religious theories through which those parties strove to make clear to themselves their position; and finally, the result of the struggle as determined by the historical-social conditions of life, to show the political constitution of Germany of that time, the revolt against it; and to prove that the political and religious theories were not the causes, but the result of that stage of development of agriculture, industry, land and waterways, commerce and finance, which then existed in Germany. This, the only materialistic conception of history, originates, not from myself but from Marx, and can be found in his works on the French Revolution of 1848-9...and his EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE

Engels drew much of his material from Wilheim Zimmermann's book THE HISTORY OF THE GREAT PEASANT WAR (1841-1843) which was the "best presentation of the facts" (p.11). All the material relating to the peasant revolts and to Thomas Muntzer were taken from Zimmermann's book. Nevertheless Engels thought that Zimmermann's representation lack "internal coherence" (p. 11) by failing to show the political and religious conflict of the time as "a reflection of class struggles" (p.11).

Class Interests

Engels explained that the failure of the revolution of 1848 lay in Germany's economic and political backwardness. In contrast to Britain and France, which were seeing the rise of "commerce and industry" with its centralisation of political power, Germany had not yet got any further than grouping interests by provinces. Germany was lagging behind the economic development of Britain and France. He remarked: that this fragmentation:

"... meant political decentralisation which later gained momentum through the exclusion of Germany from world commerce..bonds of unity were becoming weakened...The imperial power,...,vacillated between the various elements opposing the empire...Under these conditions the situation of the classes emerging from mediaeval times had considerably changed. New classes had been formed beside the old ones (p36 and 37).

These new classes being formed in Germany were beginning to struggle for the imposition of their own interests. Although they were not industrial capitalists struggling for political representation and power they nevertheless represented a cluster of commercial interests. This faction was represented by traders, merchants and guild masters who were getting wealthy from the "growth of commerce and the handicrafts". They wanted more control over their ability to keep the profits they made, and put an end to taxes and tithes they were forced to hand over to the aristocracy and Church. These demands "did not overstep purely constitutional limits" but they did reflect a demand for a larger share of power.

At the same time there was a growing "plebeian opposition" (p. 44) which:

"...combined the ruined elements of the old feudal and guild societies with the budding proletarian elements of a coming bourgeois society..."(page 44)

Discontent ran through society, particularly with the peasants who struggled under the oppression and exploitation of aristocratic society. The peasants were desperate to have control over the land they worked and put an end to their poverty. Nevertheless the Peasants were hampered by geography and tradition. As Engels wrote:

"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 a 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" (p. 48).

The peasants may have had their own particular interests but like the peasantry elsewhere in Europe, defeat showed that these interests could never be realised in face of changing material conditions which were eventually see the emergence of new classes, new class interests and new class struggles.

Class Struggle

The dominant ideology in 16th century Germany was religion, and so the arguments and struggles played out through religious language, were about much more than interpretations of the Bible or arguments about religious practice. Religious dissent and conflict were the consequence of the revolutionary transformation of Europe from feudalism to capitalism. Religion and religious ideas was a conduit through which the class struggle took place. Engels remarked:

"In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century very positive material class interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time" (page51).

As Engels went on to explain:

"It is obvious that under such conditions, all general and overt attacks on feudalism, in the first place attacks on the church, all revolutionary, social and political doctrines, necessarily became theological heresies. In order to be attacked, existing social conditions had to be stripped of their aureole sanctity" (page 52).

Engels was able to show the interconnection between ideas and class struggle generated by the changing material and economic forces within feudal society. And the principle ideas were reflected in the proclamations of two men, Martin Luther and Thomas Muntzer.

Luther and Muntzer

The two key figures in this struggle were Martin Luther and Thomas Muntzer. Engels argued that both of these men were shaped by the political and economic circumstances of the time. Luther, he argued, rebelled within a safe set of boundaries. Engels observed:

"When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic Church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further...The lightning thrust by Luther caused conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection" (p. 58).

Luther initially received widespread support from the population in general resulting in dissent, and rebellion. Luther also identified the Jews as the enemy. However, Luther was very careful in choosing where his support lay, and that was with the powerful. As a consequence, according to Engels:

"He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to a war of extermination against Rome were heard no more" (p. 59).

Engels wrote about Luther becoming more and more the "vassal" of the princes who had the most to gain from the struggle against the status quo. Muntzer on the other hand was the voice of those at the bottom of society. Engels portrayed him as anticipating much later political movements; "his political programme approached communism" he wrote. Certainly Muntzer did have a Utopian Communist approach to his political programme, along the lines of the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley a century or so later.

In his political programme Muntzer referred to "The Kingdom of God" (p.67). By this he meant a society:

"...without class differences, without private property, and without superimposed state powers opposed to the members of society. All existing authorities, as far as they did not submit and join the revolution, he taught, must be overthrown, all work and all property must be shared in common, and complete equality must be introduced" (p 67).

Muntzer set out to create this vision of a new society. He preached, wrote tracts and travelled to the areas of greatest unrest organising and mobilising the poor against their lords and masters.

Unfortunately, though they had some initial victories, the peasant armies could not win out against the more superior organisation and military equipment of the ruling class. Tens of thousands were killed, or executed or lost their lands for their rebellion. Muntzer himself was tortured and executed for his leading role in the rebellion.

Engels wrote his series of articles in the background of the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany. He tried to explain why the bourgeoisie was unwilling to carry through its revolution. Engels concluded that it was the same reason why the dissenting princes of Germany would not support the Peasants risings in 1525 - they were not willing to lose their own wealth and privilege and preferred instead to join the suppression of the rebels.

The Reformation can be taken, on the surface, for a dense forest of shifting alliances and religious currents. In the PEASANT WARS, Engels cuts through all of the complexity of religious doctrine and highlights the real economic and political changes which were taking place within society.

Engels also puts the religious wars in the context of wider economic and political events. There are also parallels between this and other peasant risings which took place at the time; such as the peasants' revolt of Gyorgy Dozsa in Hungary and the Armur Zawarte Hop revolt in of 1515-1523 in Friesland. And looking at the "Twelve Articles" produced by the German Peasantry there are close similarities with demands associated with contemporary risings in places like England - in particular the demands made at Mousehold Heath in Norfolk during Kett's Rebellion of 1549.


Engels's conclusion centred on the long-term effects of the Peasant Wars. The peasantry were crushed, The Catholic Church lost lands, clerics were killed, and monasteries were burnt to the ground. The Princes had seen their castles breached, raising issues of security of their property, while the burgher opposition was defeated. In this ravaged landscape only the Princes came out as the "winners", but that meant territorial fragmentation and not the concentration and centralisation of economic and political power found in France and Britain.

What of the peasantry of Europe? They had no historical future. In 1848, Marx and Engels published the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO at a time where the European peasantry were still in a majority and there was no integrated world market. In Germany, for instance, the working class in 1848 comprised a fraction of the population. However, Marx and Engels dismissed the peasantry as a positive historical force for revolutionary change. Instead, they wrote:

"Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes who directly face each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat".

The class struggle was now between a minority capitalist class and a working class majority. The revolutionary force in capitalism was the working class. It was the working class who were to establish socialism through conscious and democratic political action.

THE PEASANT WARS IN GERMANY is a useful example of someone using "the guiding thread" of Marx's theory of history to show how the political concept of class struggle can be applied to historical events. We are now living through a reactionary period where the primacy of the class struggle in history is being replaced by conservative narratives of "kings and queens" and "important statesman" and the imposition of left-wing identity politics and "cultural history" which splinters the working class around power structures of gender, sexuality and race.

THE PEASANT WAR IN GERMANY should be read in conjunction with Marx's THE EITHEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE and THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE. This is how history should be written. Few other authors have come close to Engels in their accounts of the period and this book should be required reading for those who want to change society in a revolutionary way.


Frederick Engels book, THE PEASANT WAR IN GERMANY (1850) can be accessed at

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