Stealing Luther

Stealing Luther October 27, 2017

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation offers plenty of opportunity to commemorate, but also to consider the uses and misuses of history. In my 2014 book The Great and Holy War, I discussed the “last time around,” namely the 400-year commemoration of Luther’s Reformation in October 1917, at the height of the First World War. My fellow blogger Tal Howard has also discussed the various Luther commemorations in his Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford University Press, 2016).

1917 marked a very fraught time in German affairs, with clear signs of likely war-weariness, starvation, and defeat. For the first time, even some formerly hard-line conservatives were making noises about possible negotiation and peace terms, without annexations. That was especially true among some Protestant leaders who had been strong advocates of militarist policies in 1914.

Other Christians, especially Lutherans, remained firmly committed to the full agenda of August 1914, and they were appalled at such apparent weakness. Militarists found their ultimate symbol in Martin Luther himself, who in this era achieved a messianic reputation. (And I would defend the term “messianic”). German churches had long venerated Luther, but adulation reached new heights with the rise of intense nationalism following the creation of the new empire in 1871.

In this age, too, some of Germany’s greatest scholars undertook what has become known as the “Luther Renaissance.” One was historian Karl Holl, a direct link from the brilliant Tübingen school of biblical criticism in the previous century. Holl’s pupils at the University of Berlin included Emanuel Hirsch. Among Hirsch’s other achievements, he was a pioneering advocate of the work of Søren Kierkegaard, but he was best known as the intellectual genius of the new Luther movement. Both Holl and Hirsch became standard-bearers of an emerging church-based extreme Right.

By 1914, Luther had become the centerpiece of a religious-nationalist vision in which his Reformation marked almost a re- founding of Christianity itself. Luther, in this vision, became the German savior, who offered a special revelation to and for the German people. When combined with the Lutheran vision of the state as an entity that fulfilled its historical destiny by relentlessly pursuing its own interests, Luther became a wonderful figurehead for aggressive nationalism at its most ruthless.

For patriotic Germans, Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God) became a second national anthem, and a history of that particular song could also serve as a history of modern German nationalism. The hymn is saturated with military imagery, about standing firm in the battlefield and resisting diabolical forces, and it translates easily from spiritual warfare to secular conflicts. Particularly cherished was the closing line, “das Reich muss uns doch bleiben,” a declaration that the “Kingdom” must remain with us. In the post-1871 context, though, “das Reich” frequently came to refer to the Imperial German state. (The phrase has a whole later history, and one of the most notorious Waffen SS units in the Second World War was the Das Reich division).

Lutheran theologians became strident voices for expansionist militarism. One of the most celebrated was Reinhold Seeberg, an intellectual superstar whose Fundamental Truths of the Christian Religion made its mark on Anglo-American theology. In 1915, he organized the so-called Intellektuelleneingabe, the “petition of the intellectuals,” which demanded far-reaching territorial annexations in both eastern and western Europe as Germany’s right and proper war aims. He was assuredly not prepared to relax his position in the controversies of 1917, and he did not stand alone. During 1917, hard-liners like Holl were appalled at the moderation of other church leaders over matters like the submarine campaign, and they aligned themselves with the super-patriotic Rightist groups. Holl himself joined the pro-war and pro-annexation German Fatherland Party (DVP, Deutsche Vaterlandspartei).

Luther also had an anniversary approaching. His most famous single act was the posting of his Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, a date that Protestants commonly commemorated as Reformation Day. Inevitably, the four hundredth anniversary of so momentous an occasion was going to be treated specially, but in the context of domestic and international politics at this time, the Luther celebration, Reformationsfeier, became a messianic hymning of the German spirit. Through the year, the Reformation pioneer was celebrated by cultural events and lectures, culminating in a weeklong festival centered on Wittenberg. By the time the event began, the slaughter at the third battle of Ypres was ending its third month, and German forces were under deadly pressure.

Going far beyond the expected formal gathering of church leaders and academics, the occasion gave the opportunity for an outpouring of super-patriotic speeches, of nationalism at its most high-flown. Preachers celebrated the exalted spirit of August 1914, that “New Pentecost” time when earth had been so close to heaven, and the world of holy struggle and sacrifice that it had initiated. Speakers praised the German army, which was well represented in bands, choirs, and parades, and they proudly noted news of victories in Italy and Galicia. Throughout, the emphasis was on German Christian youth and the mighty new Germany they would build. Pastor Theodor Knolle published his sermon under the title Luther Unser Mitkämpfer—Luther, our comrade in arms, our fellow warrior. The event naturally caused serious tensions with German Catholics, who were otherwise thoroughly devoted to the national cause.

The Wittenberg event became a paean to last-ditch resistance. Speakers recalled as uniquely German symbols the memories of Wittenberg, but also of Worms, where Luther famously confronted the emperor, declaring “Here I stand: I can do no other.” For participants, that was the Savior’s message that modern-day Germans should take to heart when hearing the slightest talk of compromise, whether it stemmed from a pope or an American president. The German Evangelical League used the event as an excuse to restate some of Luther’s harsher and more authoritarian sayings (which are never too hard to locate). They rejected any American-derived exaltation of democratic government as a good or necessary component of human happiness. Read thus, Luther was urging the imperial Germany of 1918 to fight to the last.

For all the tributes to Luther as Savior or Messiah, no German presumably expected him to return to earth in the clouds as many still expected the coming of Christ. But we can still legitimately speak of the vision of Luther in religious terms, as the human symbol of a nation with a divine mission. For religious nationalists, not only did Germany have its own Christ, Germany was its own Christ.

The Luther commemoration was also a milestone in the growth of anti-Semitism. From the late nineteenth century, a number of cranky pastors and scholars had mounted fringe campaigns to purge Christianity of its Jewish roots, even to the point of removing the Old Testament from the Christian Bible. The 1917 festivities offered these activists an ideal opportunity to present their views to a national audience, and they offered a new set of Ninety-Five Theses intended to free Christianity of its “unnatural connection” with Judaism, to create a Deutschchristentum on “pure Protestant foundations.” Just as racial science had conclusively shown the deadly dangers of mixing Germanic and non-Germanic blood, they argued, so cultural intermingling was no less pernicious. For them, Jesus himself was certainly an Aryan, not a Jew. Seeberg himself favored this view.

After 1918, these Rightist Protestants became the main advocates of the idea that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by domestic traitors. Reinhold Seeberg composed an epitaph for a war monument that is at once a perfect example of Latin at its most precise and concise, and a chilling manifesto for the generation of 1940. Seeberg addressed the graduates of the University of Berlin killed in the war as Invictis Victi Victuri—to the unconquered, from the conquered, who will themselves conquer.

Seeberg’s most celebrated pupil was the later anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also studied under Karl Holl. But that is another story.


In a recent Christian Century, Rabbi Noam E. Morans returns forcefully to the disturbing theme of Luther’s anti-Semitism.


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