SO FAR I have attempted to show that Luther certainly did not represent that mythical, better Germanythat Germany which loves peace and tolerance, which really tries to fit into a truly Christian brotherhood of nations. I have tried to prove by many quotations from the mouth of the Reformer that he is more than contradictory, to say the least. I have never denied that he did say many very Christian things about love and peace, against war and persecution; for Christian virtues, and against human vices. All this, indeed, is true.
The only thing Germany needed to be really perfect wasa Fuehrer! Germany is like a beautiful horse that has everything it needs. But it needs a horseman. In the same way as a good horse runs occasionally astray without a good horseman who governs it, so Germany has enough strength and people, but it lacks a good leader. If Germany had only a real leader, then no enemy could ever be victorious.
But then came his sudden change. This terrible attitude towards the peasants, this desire to seek their blood and life, this unparalleled intolerance. Many, too many, historians do not look at it, ignore it. And yet it is here that the true Luther reveals himself. Ever since the Peasants' War the Reformer maintained the same brutal attitude. Take, to quote merely another case (but there are many more), the way in which he treated the Anabaptists.
Surely here was a movement which the Luther of 1520, the traditional Luther, should have welcomed and hailed. But in 1535 Luther was at the peak of his power and tolerated no other belief, no other religion, no other leadership, but his own. So he recommended the same treatment for the Anabaptists as he had previously urged should be applied to the peasants. The principal thing, he said, required to protect the people against the devils who were teaching through the mouths of the Anabaptist prophets was in the case of the common people compulsion by the sword and by the law . . . the law with its penalties rules over them in the same way that wild beasts are held in check by chains and bars, in order that outward peace may prevail amongst the people; for this purpose the temporal authorities are ordained and it is God's will that they be honoured and feared.
If we look at Luther until just before the Peasants' War, i.e.1525, then it might be true to say, as so many of his biographers have done, that The roots of religious freedom are to be found in Lutheranism. Luther repelled the use of violence in religion; he protested against propagating reforms by persecution, and with a wise moderation he maintained the sublime doctrine of freedom of conscience.
So much for the facts, and for Luther's change of attitude. What interests us here is not his personal psychology in this dark affair, but the change in his political theories. For the Reformer had become from the defender of liberty, freedom, and tolerance the preacher of the new doctrine of the unlimited authority of secular rulers over their subjectsa theory to which he consistently adhered, which was to become for over four centuries the new Gospel of the Reich, to the everlasting tragedy of mankind.
Perhaps the one and greatest chance in Germany's history to have a revolution of the people, to force the Junkers to give in, to have a democracy based on Christian principleswas squashed, by Martin Luther. The common people sank back into a pitiful stateat least those poor wretches who survived. Germany was a battlefield, disunited, more oppressed than ever by the ruling classes. At this moment the Reformer thought it appropriate to exclaim with pride: It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants in the insurrection, for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is upon my shoulders. But I cast it on our Lord God who commanded me to speak in this way (E59, 284).
Nor did the Reformer feel any sympathy of any kind for the victims of the atrocities committed by his orders. 'Why treat the peasants so cruelly?' I am asked,, wrote Luther in May, 1525; let them all be killed. In such circumstances is it not God Himself who by our hands, hangs, breaks on the wheel, blows to bits and decapitates.
The whole of Germany seemed to collapse. But Luther did not care. What I teach and write remains true though the whole world should fall to pieces over it (W18, 401).
Once more Luther encouraged the secular authorities to commit the worst atrocities. Many Anabaptists were beheaded with the express approbation of Luther, who regarded their heroism in the face of death as proof of diabolic possession.
The lot of the poor peasants was worse than horrible. Captains and overlords vied with each other in the ferocity of the punishments inflicted on the inhabitants of the conquered districts. The mildest way for the victims was to have their heads chopped off with an axe. Many, both men and women, had their tongues torn out; others had their fingers chopped off. The executions took place in public squares, the wives and children of the condemned being forced to witness the horrible spectacle at sight. Some of the princes made all their subjects who had taken part in the revolt kneel in groups, and then mowed them down with artillery. Others crowded them into the cellars under their castles, where they died of suffocation in the most terrible stench. Historians have estimated the number of poor wretches put to death in this way at about 100,000. The victorious landowners used to amuse themselves by playing bowls with their heads (Funck-Brentano).
The princes obeyed. A brutal revenge took place. Typical is the assertion of one of the princes: I hope we are now going to play with heads as the boys play with marbles.
No, Luther would not retract a single word of his pamphlet or apologise for it as the offspring of momentary passion. Instead, he began to elaborate his new political theory, a theory which was so readily accepted in Germany. Scripture speaking figuratively, wrote Luther in 1526, calls rulers drovers, taskmasters, and scourgers. Like the drivers of donkeys, who have to belabour the donkeys incessantly with rods and whips, or they will not obey, so must the ruler do with the people; they must drive, beat, throttle, hang, burn, behead and torture, so as to make themselves feared and to keep the people in check" (E15, 276).