The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "Social Justice":
Christ taught: “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill” [Matt 5:6,Cf. Matt 19:18, I John 3:15, Matt 26:52, Romans 12:21].
Luther teaches: “Peasants are no better than straw. They will not hear the word and they are without sense; therefore they must be compelled to hear the crack of the whip and the whiz of bullets and it is only what they deserve” [Erlangen Vol 24, Pg. 294]
It is important to keep in mind that these peasants were actually Protestants who favoured Luther and his views, yet in order to please the German princes Luther and gain influence Luther did not hesitate to have even his own followers put to death! As one writer put it “I know of no example in history ( with the exception of Hitler’s famous, or rather infamous, June 30, 1934) where a man turned in such an inhuman, brutal, low way against his own followers – merely in order to establish his own position, without any reason.” – Peter F. Winer, Martin Luther, Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor, Pg. 57
Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ taught one should thirst after justice, while Luther acted unjustly towards the peasants.
Luther Exposing the Myth cites "Erlangen Vol 24, Pg. 294." "Erlangen" refers to the Erlangen Edition of Luther's works. This out of print German / Latin edition of Luther's works was published in the 1800's. Here is page 294. It contains the closing paragraphs of Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern (Against the Robing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, 1525). There is no such quote on this page as Luther, Exposing the Myth purports. This particular reference is for this different quote.
An additional quote of commentary is provided from "Peter F. Winer, Martin Luther, Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor, Pg. 57." Here's the next blatant error to point out: it's "Wiener," not Winer. It is probable this was the source from which Luther Exposing the Myth snatched this Luther quote. Wiener states,
“Peasants”, Luther declared, “are no better than straw. They will not hear the Word and they are without sense; therefore they must be compelled to hear the crack of the whip and the whizz of bullets, and it is only what they deserve. We must pray for them that they may become obedient; but if they do not, pity is of no avail here; we must let the cannon-balls whistle among them, or they will only make things a thousand times worse."Wiener doesn't document this quote, but a few paragraphs later in reference to another quote he refers to "E24, 294," the same source Luther, Exposing the Myth refers to. It's quite possible that Wiener also didn't use a primary source for this quote. In this section of Martin Luther, Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor, Wiener heavily utilized M. Funck Bretano's biography of Luther, though this isn't the source he used for this quote (Bretano cites the quote on page 207 as " 'Give them straw and oats to eat,' he went on, referring to the wretched peasants. 'Since they are devoid of reason they must be made to understand their duties by means of the arquebus! There is no need to pity them, believe me! We must let the bullets whistle.' "). The secondary source used by Wiener therefore remains a mystery.
This Luther quote is actually from a letter to John Rühel. He was a councilor of Count Albrecht of Mansfeld in whose territory the peasant uprising was brewing. The German text can be found in WA BR 2:669. The quote can be found on pages 669-670,
p. 320 - 322. The quote under scrutiny can be found on page 321.
John Rühel was a councilor of Count Albrecht of Mansfeld in whose territory the peasant uprising was brewing. Previous to this letter, Luther had written his Admonition for Peace as a reply to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants (April 1525). At this point, he wasn't fully aware of all that was going on with the peasant's revolt and the atrocities they had committed. At the beginning of May, Luther wrote Rühel stating in part, "If there were thousands more of the peasants, they would still be altogether robbers and murderers, who take the sword simply because of their own insolence and wickedness, and who want to expel sovereigns [and] lords, and [to destroy] everything, and to establish a new order in this world. But for this they have neither God’s commandment, authority, right, or injunction, as the lords have it now" [LW 49:108]. By May 30, things had grown worse. Writing to Nicholas von Amsdorf, Luther stated:
In my opinion it is better that all of the peasants should be killed rather than that the sovereigns and magistrates should be destroyed, because the peasants take up the sword without God’s authorization. The consequence of this wickedness of Satan can only be the satanic devastation of the kingdom of God and of the world [LW 49:113].On the same day, Luther penned the letter in question to John Rühel:
687. LUTHER TO JOHN RUHEL. DeWette, ii, 669. German. (wittenberg), May 30, 1525.
Grace and peace in Christ. Many thanks for the latest news, dear doctor and brother-in-law. We must hope and pray that God will graciously put an end to this wretched state of affairs. That the people call me a hypocrite is good; I am glad to hear it; do not let it surprise you. For some years now you have been hearing me berated for many things, but in the course of time all these things have come to nothing and worse than nothing. I should need much leather to muzzle all the mouths. It is enough that my conscience is clear before God; He will judge what I have said and written; things will go as I have said, there is no help for it.
As for showing mercy to the peasants, there are innocent men among them, whom God will save and protect, as He did Lot and Jeremiah. If He does not save them, then they certainly are not innocent, but have at least kept silence and approved of the rebellion. Even though they may have done it from timidity or fear, nevertheless it is wrong and in God's eyes a sin that must be punished, like the sin of a man who denies Christ because he is afraid, and my writings against the peasants are all the harder because without ceasing they compel these fearful souls to do their will and incur God's punishment.
The wise man says, "Cibus, onus et virga asino;" "straw for the peasant." They have gone mad and will not hear the Word, and so they must bear the rod, that is, the guns; it serves them right. We ought to pray for them that they may be obedient; if not, then let the shot whistle, or they will make things a thousandfold worse.
I shall write to the Bishop' and send you a copy. Munzer has not had the right sort of an examination; I should have asked him very different questions. His confession is nothing else than a devilish, hardened persistence in his opinion. He says in his confession that he has done no wrong. That is terrible. I should not have thought a human heart could be so hardened.
Well, anyone who has seen Munzer can say that he has seen the very devil, and at his worst. O God! If this is the spirit that is in the peasants it is high time that they were killed like mad dogs. It may be that the devil feels the nearness of the last day, and so decides to stir up all the dregs and show all his hellish power at once. Haec sunt tempora, but God still lives and reigns and will not forsake us. His goodness is nearer, mightier and wiser than the ragings and the ravings of Satan.
A report has reached here that the collector of Allstedt has been put to death, but we hope it is a lie. The same report is circulated about Dr. Strauss. Greet my sister-in-law, your dear vine, and her grapes. God have you in His keeping. The two sermons preached at the Elector's funeral are in press.- Martin Luther
One can see the differences between Wiener's translation versus a direct translation. One can also view what Luther, Exposing the Myth left out: "We ought to pray for them that they may be obedient" along with other similar statements from the surrounding context. Luther believed seditious peasants should be killed, and held that the governing authorities had the right to do so. It is against those peasants that were using the gospel to cause rebellion that Luther opposed. To put it bluntly, they were the devil’s agents, leading people away from the gospel. I've written more on this here: Luther and the Peasants Revolt and Luther and the Peasant's War.
Are the words of Christ and Luther in direct opposition? It's ironic that a Roman Catholic would think so since the papacy has used force throughout the last 2000 years. Luther, Exposing the Myth should have given stronger consideration to Matthew 26:47-56. Those who live by the sword (as the seditious peasants did) will die by the sword. None of the other verses they refer to have anything to do with a segment of the population revolting against established authority. Luther, Exposing the Myth refers to Romans 12:21 "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." What they should have done was continue reading Romans 13:
Submission to the Authorities1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.It's a bit naive to think somehow a person living in a peaceful country, hundreds of years later, actually can meaningfully chastise Luther's writings against the peasants revolt. I would love to have the ability to stick these people back in 1524-1525, to see what they would think of the peasants while the peasants ransacked their house, or killed their family members, and threatened the stability of the land.
Luther, Exposing the Myth states "It is important to keep in mind that these peasants were actually Protestants who favoured Luther." Luther did not approve of societal revolt against secular authority, even previous to the peasants revolt of 1525. True, some of the peasants read Luther's writings, but they read what they wanted to in them, and ignored what they needed to from those same writings. When Luther, Exposing the Myth says the peasants were Protestants who favored Luther, in actuality they were societal rebels that favored those parts of Luther's writings that favored their cause. When Luther, Exposing the Myth states "Luther did not hesitate to have even his own followers put to death," this is grossly inaccurate. These people were not his followers. In actuality, the revolts began in a part of Germany that was remote from Luther's direct influence. Even those rebels nearer to Luther were not in direct contact with him. Luther was not their leader, nor did he create their movement. In fact, he continually spoke out against fanatical leaders previous to 1525. The peasants had their own fanatical leaders Luther did speak out against. At one point, Luther attempted to visit some of the peasant areas and barely made it out alive.
In regard to the secondary quote from Wiener given by Luther, Exposing the Myth, Gordon Rupp responded long ago. Wiener held that Luther changed his opinion on a government using force against rebels:
Finally, Mr. Wiener's most memorable utterance to date (p. 47). "I know", he says, "of no example in history (with the exception of Hitler's famous or rather infamous June 30, 1934) where a man turned in such an inhuman, brutal, low way against his own followers ... merely to establish his own position, without any reason. Treason of any kind is, in my opinion, honourable compared to Luther's change of colours." There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to suggest any connection between Luther and the rebels such as existed between Hitler and the "purged", or any other members of the Nazi party, though if it be true that the Nazis claimed Thomas Munzer as the first Nazi, there was more to it than to some of their claims. The charge that Luther "went over" in 1525 to the other side and for opportunist reasons can be completely refuted, and if it could not, it would still contradict Mr. Wiener's statement that he changed his side "without any reason", since to save his own skin would be quite a good reason, or a lot of people have been diving into air-raid shelters in this part of the world for no reason at all.
I do not know what the reader has made of all this. It is not easy to deal with methods like those of Mr. Wiener without overstating the other side, but I imagine that few readers will feel the comparison with Hitler and the purge of 1934 to be anything but forced and unreal. What, then, will they make of what follows? "Treason of any kind is in my opinion honourable compared with Luther's change of colours." Will anybody seriously consider Vidkun Quisling, Richard III, and Judas Iscariot and believe them honourable in comparison with Luther and the peasants? Well, well, well. We must make allowances. Evidently Mr. Wiener is one of those who feel very deeply the cause of the oppressed. He himself is doubtless living in some garret, having given up all to labour for the coming Revolution. But his pamphlet bears the address of one of our more elegant public schools. Gentlemen, let us clear our minds of cant! [Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther- Hitler's Cause or Cure? (London: Lutterworth Press, 1945) pp. 49-50].
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.