In his introduction to the book, František Graus notes the importance of the 1525 rebellion as an example of a late medieval rebellion in response to the "agrarian crisis". A feature of these later revolts was that the peasantry began to understand that their "servile status was not... the result of 'divine will'," which meant the peasants' demands went "beyond fighting for the special grievances of their particular communities and start a struggle for a new order established according to God's will and justice".
Such demands are, of course, reflected in the famous "Twelve Articles" that were produced during the rebellion, which as Henry J. Cohn argues in his piece on the Peasants of Swabia, would have seen a "fundamental shift in economic power and social status in favour of the lower orders and at the expense of the lords" had they been won. But Cohn notes the way these, and similar, demands ran through the German Peasantry. Hundreds of local grievances were "generalised" as the Twelve Articles, but they were demanded from hundreds of local villages assemblies and meetings. The process by which these written demands were generated is shown in some of the documents that Cohn translates for this collection - reports that show the gathering of peasants in secret, their networking and their election of leaflets. Reading these brings a medieval peasant revolt to life, showing the process that took place and perhaps reminding one of how activists continue to organise today below the radar of management and oppressive regimes. These original documents are real gems, but as Cohn argues the problem was that these natural networks of rebellious peasants did not break out into the sort of organisation that could seriously win their demands:
The sense of class solidarity among peasants which these and similar documents exhibited did not usually extend beyond the province in which they originated; nor did peasant unity and organisation prove sufficient in the end to overcome the superior military resources and the greater degree of cooperation which prevailed among the members of the Swabian League and other German rulers.
Adolf Laube provides a fascinating study of "precursor" revolts to 1525, again arguing that with the start of the 16th century the "antifeudal movement became revolutionary". Peter Blickle's article on the background to the Twelve Articles shows how this manifested itself through specific demands. He emphasises how "revolutionary" demands like the abolition of serfdom were extremely popular and that "90 percent of peasants whose complaints are known to us singled it out", and he concludes with the revolutionary nature of the demands:
The Twelve Articles indicate a fundamental crisis in the system of reference between peasant and lord. Feudalism of this mould became obviously petrified, unresponsive, rigid; in brief, it was unable to solve the problems otherwise than at the expense of the peasants. The peasants believed that the Twelve Articles might at least defuse this crisis. They even expected to overcome feudalism with the help of the Gospel and Divine Justice, which promised them an entirely open, fresh start for building a new society and authority.
In marking the anniversary of the revolt in 1975/6 the Journal of Peasant Studies could not ignore two other aspects of the epoch. The first was the extensive debate that had taken place about the nature of the Peasants War, and its context. This was shaped fundamentally by the existence of the two German nations. In East Germany, in the Soviet sphere of influence and ideologically (if not socially and economically) committed to a "Communism" allegedly standing in the tradition of Marx and Engels, the understanding of 1525 was fundamentally shaped by a dogmatic adherence to the outline presented by Engels in his own work. Here, the idea that 1525 was an "early" bourgeois revolution dominated historiography. In the West, historians tended to completely dismiss this approach. Several essays are centred on this discussion and while the context is the antagonistic relationships between West and East, reading them today offers some insights. East German historian Ernst Engelberg's article is a bad-tempered and dogmatic response to criticism. Gunter Vogler's on the other hand is a more nuanced response to criticisms of a Marxist approach.
A second aspect to the studies are the exploration of how peasant revolts of the 20th century compared to those of the 16th century. Unfortunately I found these less useful, as they had dated a great deal, though the article exploring parallels between the driving forces of 1525, as explored by Engels, and "capitalist" developments in Iran was definitely interesting, showing how "land reform" was pushing revolt. These are probably articles for the more specialist historian, though they do demonstrate that Engels' approach to 1525 retains lasting value. The collection itself remains a insightful and indispensible book for those writing histories for the 500th anniversary.
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Stayer - The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods
Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents