“To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!” – “If they say that I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs”[Erlangen Vol 24, Pg. 294].
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 wrote unjustly towards the peasants.
Luther, Exposing the Myth cites "Erlangen Vol 24, Pg. 294." Before evaluating this reference, recall that Luther, Exposing the Myth has stated, "...when not having quoted from the original sources I have quoted from those authors who have draw from the original sources." We will see this quote demonstrates this is not a true statement. The quote is taken from secondary sources, and, not only that, it's three different quotes from two different treatises.
Luther, Exposing the Myth also cited this same reference for another quote. This is an indication this quote was probably taken from this secondary source, Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor by Peter Wiener. The quote was put together from an extended section from Wiener:
But once Luther had made up his mind which side he was going to back, which side it was more profitable to back, his violence knew no limits. On May 6 of this fatal year Luther published his pamphlet, “Against the Peasant Bands of Robbers and Murderers”, which Funck-Brentano has described as a “horrible document which it is impossible to read, not only without disapproval but without disgust. The Reformer, who always had the Gospel on his lips, now talked of nothing but killing, torturing, burning and murdering the very people whom his work had driven to rebel.” Let us listen to the Reformer, the so-called champion of Christian freedom.
To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them! Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!. . . Our princes must in the circumstances regard themselves as the officers of the divine wrath which bids them chastise such scoundrels. A prince who failed to do so would be sinning against God very badly. He would be failing in his mission. A prince who in such circumstances avoided bloodshed would become responsible for the murders and all the further crimes which these low swine might commit. It is no longer a question of tolerance, patience, pity. It is the hour of wrath and for the sword; the hour for mercy is past.”
Luther is full of similar advice. “It is a trifle for God to massacre a lot of peasants, when He drowned the whole world with a flood and wiped out Sodom with fire. He is an almighty and frightful God.” “If there are innocent men amongst the peasants, God will certainly prepare and keep them, as He did with Lot and Jeremiah." “will not forbid such rulers as are able, to chastise and slay the peasants without previously them offering terms, even though the Gospel does not permit it."” Once more, the Devil is brought into it." “he peasants serve the Devil. . . . I believe that there are no devils left in hell, but all of them have entered into peasants." And Luther surpasses himself when he exclaims: “what strange times are these when a prince can enter heaven by the shedding of blood more certainly than others by means of prayer!"” And he ends with the peroration: "Come, dearly-beloved lords and nobles, strike them, transfix them, and cut their throats with might and main. Should you find death in so doing, you could not wish for one more divine, for you would fall in obedience to God and in defending your like against the hordes of Satan."” I know of no example in history (with the exception of Hitler'' 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. Treason of any kind is, in my opinion, honourable compared to Luther's change of colours.
The effect of Luther's pamphlet was terrible. It was exactly what the princes had hoped for. “It was due to Luther's pamphlet against the peasants, so said the Strasburg preacher Capito, that the country had passed from the turmoil of insurrection to the horrors of retaliation and revenge.” The princes translated the Reformer's inhuman orders into practice with a terrifying speed.
Even Luther's own followers got frightened. They reproached him, they tried to explain that the irrational, quick-tempered Luther had acted on the spur of the moment, that he did not mean what he said. In cold blood Luther replied: “An insurgent is not worthy of being answered with reason, for he cannot understand it; such mouths must be stopped with fisticuffs till their noses bleed. The peasants would not hear, would not listen to reason, therefore it was necessary to startle their ears with bullets, and send their heads flying in the air. . . .If they say I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs” (E24, 294). “The intention of the Devil was to lay Germany waste, because he was unable in any other way to prevent the spread of the Evangel.”One can see how Luther, Exposing the Myth selectively cited Wiener, making one quote from five paragraphs! Wiener did not rely on a primary source, but rather sifted some of these quotes from another secondary source, Luther by M. Funck-Brentano (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1939). Funck-Bretano's work was originally in French, Wiener quotes the English edition. So, through Wiener one gets an English version of a French translation of Luther's German. Luther, Exposing the Myth cited a secondary source that relied on a secondary source. This is hardly drawing from the original sources as they claim was their process in putting their web-page together.
Gordon Rupp points out about Funck Bretano's work, "M. Bretano has a pleasant habit of garbling whole paragraphs into one sentence without any warning, and then giving his own very free translations the appearance of being the actual words of Luther." Here is what Rupp means. The following is a breakdown of Funck-Bretano's / Wiener translation of the quote Wiener used compared to a direct German to English translation from an actual edition of Luther's works:
This comparison text shows the context says a bit more than Luther, Exposing the Myth, Peter Wiener, and M. Funck Bretano allow the reader to see.
With this tedium out of the way, let's look at the reference provided, "Erlangen Vol 24, Pg. 294." This page can be found here. From a cursory look, the German original indicates this documentation only refers to some of this quote (it's actually three quotes from two different treatises!). Quote #1: "To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!" This can be found at Erl. 24: 289-290. Quote #2: "If they say that I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned." This can be found at Erl. 24:298 (in a different treatise!). Quote #3: "Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs." This is the only quote located at Erl. 24:294.
Most of the quote (#1, #3) is from Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern (Against the Robing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, 1525). Quote #2 is from Ein Sendbrief von dem barten Büchlein wider die Bauern (An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants, 1525). Both of these treatises have been translated into English. Against the Robing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants can be found in LW 46:53-57. An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants can be found in LW 46:57-87.
In Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther begins by pointing out the peasants had ignored his earlier Admonition to Peace, even though they had vowed to heed his admonition. He finds them guilty and worthy of death on three counts: 1) treason against established authority 2) they are in rebellion: "they are starting a rebellion, and are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castes which are not theirs; by this they have doubly deserved death in body and soul as highwaymen and murderers" (LW 46:49) Here we find the second half of the quote used by Luther, Exposing the Myth. In context, the admonition is for rulers to stop societal anarchy by suppressing seditious peasants:
Furthermore, anyone who can be proved to be a seditious person is an outlaw before God and the emperor; and whoever is the first to put him to death does right and well. For if a man is in open rebellion, everyone is both his judge and his executioner; just as when a fire starts, the first man who can put it out is the best man to do the job. For rebellion is not just simple murder; it is like a great fire, which attacks and devastates a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land filled with murder and bloodshed; it makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the worst disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you [LW 46:50].The third violation according to Luther is that seditious peasants consider themselves Christians, which is nothing other than blasphemy, and they attempt to spread their blasphemy by inducing others to join them. Luther then advises the temporal authorities:
Now since the peasants have brought [the wrath of] both God and man down upon themselves and are already many times guilty of death in body and soul, and since they submit to no court and wait for no verdict, but only rage on, I must instruct the temporal authorities on how they may act with a clear conscience in this matter.
First, I will not oppose a ruler who, even though he does not tolerate the gospel, will smite and punish these peasants without first offering to submit the case to judgment. He is within his rights, since the peasants are not contending any longer for the gospel, but have become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish. Indeed, it is his duty to punish such scoundrels, for this is why he bears the sword and is “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer,” Romans 13 [:4] [LW 46:51].Luther then instructs temporal authorities who may be Christians. They should "go beyond our duty, and offer the mad peasants an opportunity to come to terms, even though they are not worthy of it. Finally, if that does not help, then swiftly take to the sword" (LW 46:52). Luther concludes the treatise with the section including the third quote,
Finally, there is another thing that ought to motivate the rulers. The peasants are not content with belonging to the devil themselves; they force and compel many good people to join their devilish league against their wills, and so make them partakers of all of their own wickedness and damnation. Anyone who consorts with them goes to the devil with them and is guilty of all the evil deeds that they commit, even though he has to do this because he is so weak in faith that he could not resist them. A pious Christian ought to suffer a hundred deaths rather than give a hairsbreadth of consent to the peasants’ cause. O how many martyrs could now be made by the bloodthirsty peasants and the prophets of murder! Now the rulers ought to have mercy on these prisoners of the peasants, and if they had no other reason to use the sword with a good conscience against the peasants, and to risk their own lives and property in fighting them, this would be reason enough, and more than enough: they would be rescuing and helping these souls whom the peasants have forced into their devilish league and who, without willing it, are sinning so horribly and must be damned. For truly these souls are in purgatory; indeed, they are in the bonds of hell and the devil.
Therefore, dear lords, here is a place where you can release, rescue, help. Have mercy on these poor people!Let whoever can stab, smite, slay. If you die in doing it, good for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die while obeying the divine word and commandment in Romans 13 [:1, 2], and in loving service of your neighbor, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and of the devil. And so I beg everyone who can to flee from the peasants as from the devil himself; those who do not flee, I pray that God will enlighten and convert. As for those who are not to be converted, God grant that they may have neither fortune nor success. To this let every pious Christian say, “Amen!” For this prayer is right and good, and pleases God; this I know. If anyone thinks this too harsh, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour [LW 46:54].Quote #2 can be found in another treatise, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants, 1525. Luther wrote this to further explain the position he took in Against the Robing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants and the Admonition to Peace. Luther's Works explain,
In this treatise Luther defends at length the views he had advanced in Admonition to Peace and Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. The peasants should not have rebelled, for the duty of a Christian is to suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence. His opponents, Luther says, can criticize him as they will, but they cannot change the fact that in the light of God’s word the rebellious peasants deserved to be put to death and to have their insurrection suppressed by the full force of the governing authorities. Force was the only language the rebels understood. Furthermore, Luther argues, his critics’ sudden surge of sympathy for the defeated peasants marks them as secret rebels against God and state. But if there was no excuse for the peasants to rebel, neither was there any excuse for the rulers to indulge their lust for rebel blood. Here, however, Luther is not moved by any sense of “fair play.” He disclaims responsibility for the wanton cruelty of the rulers, which, he says, is nothing but the flagrant abuse by the princes of their God-given office. Such cruelty is as reprehensible and sinful as insurrection. The princes, he says, will surely reap God’s wrath for such conduct. (LW 46:61)The quote in question can be found early in the treatise:
First of all, then, I must warn those who criticize my book to hold their tongues and to be careful not to make a mistake and lose their own heads; for they are certainly rebels at heart, and Solomon says, “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not be a fellow-traveler with the rebels for their disaster will come suddenly and who can know what the ruin of both you and them will be?” Proverbs 24 [:21–22]. Thus we see that both rebels and those who join them are condemned. God does not want us to make a joke out of this but to fear the king and the government. Those who are fellow-travelers with rebels sympathize with them, feel sorry for them, justify them, and show mercy to those on whom God has no mercy, but whom he wishes to have punished and destroyed. For the man who thus sympathizes with the rebels makes it perfectly clear that he has decided in his heart that he will also cause disaster if he has the opportunity. The rulers, therefore, ought to shake these people up until they keep their mouths shut and realize that the rulers are serious.
If they think this answer is too harsh, and that this is talking violence and only shutting men’s mouths, I reply, “That is right.” A rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses. The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders. Such pupils need such a rod. He who will not hear God’s word when it is spoken with kindness,12 must listen to the headsman, when he comes with Iris are. If anyone says that I am being uncharitable and unmerciful about this, my reply is: This is not a question of mercy; we are talking of God’s word. It is God’s will that the king be honored and the rebels destroyed; and he is as merciful as we are (LW 46:65-66).
Martin Luther's book, Against The Robbing And Murdering Mobs of Peasants is sometimes cited as evidence that Luther had the peasants killed. That is, his writing directed the princes to slay the peasants, so on his order, they did. This common caricature views Luther as somehow in charge of Germany. The princes simply waited for Luther's command and then followed this advise he gave.
Not quite. Luther's Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants was actually published after the peasants war began. The treatise was delayed, and did not have an immediate role during the war. The German nobility were not spurred by Luther's words. They were spurred by the peasants who strove towards anarchy and civil unrest.
In regards to this period of history, Luther wrote more than simply Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. Luther earlier published The Admonition to Peace. In this treatise, Luther also blames the princes and rulers for the unstable state of affairs. After Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther actually went on to chastise the Princes for being too harsh on the peasants.
For those who want to charge Luther of gross injustice toward the peasants, no amount of history or research will convince them otherwise. Roland Bainton points out, "Catholic princes held Luther responsible for the whole outbreak" of the Peasants War. Nothing has changed, except we're not dealing with princes anymore, but rather Rome's cyber-denfenders.
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.