Peter Blickle's book was published after the 450th anniversary of events which saw a "ocean of published work". In many ways Blickle was revisionist, unafraid to take on established ideas and challenge them, whether they were from West or East. He deliberately attempted to emphasise the "interdependence" of social and ideological factors in driving the peasant rebellions, challenging those who saw events as simply being down to the Reformation. For Blickle what was important was the "complexity of rural society and the peasantry" and key for him was the importance of understanding events as a Revolution, even if his concept of this was far from the classical Marxist tradition.
He begins by emphasising the dramatic and far reaching importance of these events, which must have exploded on German society like a bomb:
The Peasants' War of 1525 was one of the most extraordinary and spectacular events in German history in the age of the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lay helpless as castles, palaces, princely residences and monasteries were put to the torch... Noble and ecclesiastical lords were forced to flee before their peasants and the imperial ruling powers had to struggle for survival.
Blickle highlights how these struggles from below were understood in religious terms by the peasants and their goals were determined by their reading of religious texts, something that comes clearly through in the demands and articles they produced.
Since the main purpose of the gospel as they [the peasantry] understood it was the promotion of peace, love, unity and tolerance, the new teaching [Luther's Reformation] could not be the cause of rebellion. The cause of rebellion was, rather, the destruction and suppression of love, peace and unity - in short, the suppression of the gospel and of God's will.... Liberation of the peasants was God's will and God's judgment.
It is this that was behind the startlingly successful "Twelve articles" produced by the peasantry and drove them to try to create a "godly" society our of the rebellion. But such religious belief is the outward manifestation of wider crises. Blickle quotes approvingly from the 20th century history David Sabean whose research concluded that "the PW simply cannot be grasped if socioeconomic factors are omitted".
Blickle then provides some fascinating examples of the crisis of agriculture in the Middle Ages in Germany. In this context the "Twelve Articles" stood against the "whole feudal social and political order". They were not simply "negative criticism" of the contemporary system, but "fully revolutionary in two respects: in practice, in the articles on serfdom, tithes and the election of pastors; and in principle, in adopting the gospel as the norm of society and politics".
Germany at the start of the 16th century was a cauldron of political, economic and social tension. "The opposition between peasant and lordship was superimposed upon the tensions among peasants" among whom "social stratification" was growing. Blickle develops an extremely nuanced understanding of how this played out during the revolutionary movement:
Although the villages of the nobility had more to complain of concerning services... nonetheless their complaints as a whole weighed less heavily than the huge mass of complaints levelled at monasteries.... The clergy became the main target of the revolutionary movement, not because peasants resented the mixture of spiritual claims and secular office, but because the burdens of monastic subjects were actually heavier. The first blow was also aimed at the nobility because relations between nobles and their peasants were only slightly less tense.
This nuance shouldn't hide the clarity of Blicke's arguments around the aims of the peasants. He insists, that "the urgency, determined spirit and passionate language leave no doubt that, at least during the early phase of the revolt, the abolition of serfdom was the peasants' main desire". It was a revolt that transcended traditional boundaries, "whole villages rose, not just the subjects of a single lord... never before had peasant revolts broken through the narrow political boundaries". Later he argues, "the enforcement of the godly law - whatever the peasants might have understood in detail by this phrase - became the goal of the revolution". But the revolutionaries were not able to drive through change.
The godly law, which sustained the Christian Association [a mass body of peasants covering almost all rural and urban communities in Upper Swabia] had had a liberating but not a revolutionary effect." Blickle argues, the law "lost its authority because it did not solve the crisis and it lost its explosive power because the military and political leaders... did not know how to exploit it to produce a new political order". Despite the mass revolutionary movement burning castles and driving the nobility and clergy off, they could not drive through change that created a new social order to satisfy the peasants. As the movement stalled the counter-revolution was able to strike back.
Blickle details the way that the peasants articulated their revolution, how they understood their rights and how they should be extended and the patterns of rebellion. There are fascinating sections on the interplay between rural and urban communities, the role of miners and other wage labourers etc. He depicts a rebellion that arises out of a deep crisis in medieval Germany, but as it develops goes deep into the lower classes of society. This he terms as a revolt of the "common man", who demanded "rights which had been reserved for nobles".
In many senses Blickle's book is much clearer on the revolutionary nature of the revolt than books produced by an earlier generation of revolutionary socialists. But Blickle's work is limited by his definition of the revolution itself. He sees, rightly, the Peasant War as a "revolution of the common man" and "an effort to overcome the crisis of feudalism through a revolutionary transformation of socio-political relations". But he rejects the analysis developed by the likes of Friedrich Engels, which placed the Peasants' War and the Reformation within the early development of new, capitalist, relations in the countryside. This weakens his explanation of the revolution itself and the conclusions he draws from it. Indeed his final pages struggle to define revolution, and he finishes by emphasising the "evolutionary process of European history" rejecting analogies or connections to 1848.
Students of 1525 will find a great deal of interest in Blickle's book. In fact I would go so far to suggest that it is required reading. His clarity on the interplaying factors that drove the rebellion and the importance of socioeconomic factors in addition to religious ideas means he sees the revolution as a truly shattering event, which even in defeat, radically transformed Germany: "the godly law, formerly rejected by the ruling classes as illegal, became a new legality."
But by arguing that European history was essentially evolutionary, and saying that 1525 highlights this, Blicke's misses the importance of later revolutionary change, driven by the bourgeois class, in making the modern capitalist world. Essentially Blickle's history of 1525 ignores capitalist development that had only just begun in that era. By 1848 the bourgeois class was demanding power, and that transformed the situation. Engels puts it well when he said that "the two revolutions... are , in spite of all analogies, essentially different.. .The Revolution of 1525 was a domestic German affair... the Revolution of 1848, on the other hand, was not a domestic German affair, and was an episode in a great European events".
Blickle's book, in many ways, demonstrates that his own conclusions are incorrect. 1525 was the beginning of a revolutionary process of European history. The contradictions that were core to the crisis of the Middle Ages that drove 1525 would only get worse.