The movie Luther (2003) lasts 1 hour and 55 minutes. Ten minutes of that (1:25 to 1:35) connects the unruly behavior in late 1521 in Wittenberg (spurred by Karlstadt) to the eruption and tragic culmination of the Peasants’ War in 1525. The dialogue leaves no doubt at all that Luther’s stand on the Bible is responsible for the chaos and slaughter of 100,000 peasants.
Bits of the dialogue flow as follows:
- As Luther returns to Wittenberg disguised as Junker Georg (young knight George) he sees two men dead from hanging. A blacksmith explains: “No reason…they got in the way of a mob of peasants looting a monastery. The whole world has been turned upside down by that madman Luther…his damned ideas have set the world on fire…”
- Later Luther, trudging among slaughtered peasants, mutters, “I have finally torn the world apart…The blood they shed is as nothing compared to the slaughter I have unleashed.”
- Luther says to Spalatin: “100,000 dead peasants.”
There are so many falsehoods in the movie’s ten minutes of chaos and disjointed history a blog is not adequate to address them all. What do recent historians say?
- Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 208: “The Peasants' War did not arise out of any immediate connection with the religious issues of the sixteenth century because agrarian unrest had been brewing for fully a century. Uprisings had occurred all over Europe, but especially in south Germany, where particularly the peasants suffered…” [Note that Saxony is in east central Germany].
- Hajo Holborn, The Reformation, 170: “The French Revolution was not caused by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, nor was the so-called Peasants’ War caused by Lutheranism…” and “social conditions…had promoted unrest and revolts among the peasantry of southern Germany before the Reformation.”
- Scott and Scribner, The German Peasants’ War, 2:“The peasant rebellion was undeniably an anti-feudal revolt…”
- Martin Brecht, Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 180: “…we must once again be clear about what Luther said. He accused the peasants of breaking faith, revolting, and abusing the evangelical name. It was the right and responsibility of the government to take action against this.”
That Luther disapproved of the Peasants’ War is true. That Luther caused the Peasants’ War is a falsehood. Still, don’t be surprised if a patron of the movie Luther (2003) sputters righteously in your face, “Luther himself admitted he caused the deaths of 100,000 innocent peasants!”
Q. How can one argue effectively against bumpersticker history?