Are Germans Reliving Their 16th Century Lutheran Past?


I’m always fascinated by how the Reformation is portrayed in the popular media and the press. Almost everyone gets it half-right, and usually it’s the wrong half.

This article is three years old, but it was still enlightening on a few fronts. For example, I did not know that Angela Merkel was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, or that she was a “Lutheran believer” or the “most powerful woman in the world.” (Does Beyonce know about this?)

And given the anxieties that Greece’s massive debt is causing the EU, and especially the Germans, I thought it still somewhat relevant — at least in terms of the north-south tensions.

Exactly 500 years ago, one of Europe’s greatest thinkers was getting increasingly worried that good German money was being wasted.

Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.

The 16th Century German thinker was Martin Luther and he was desperate to stay part of that great European project known as the Roman Catholic Church, but equally desperate not to support those who were ripping off German believers to pay to build St Peter’s in Rome.

The unfairness of the abuses fed popular resentment until German patience finally snapped. Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, “protesting” in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestantism, the Reformation.

This is a daft interpretation of the Reformation, one I believe deliberately distorts in order to make the parallels the author is reaching for.

Nowadays, Germans — even those who are Catholic or non-Christian — cannot escape the Lutheran past.

It’s also the Lutheran present. The most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, is a Lutheran believer, the daughter of a pastor. The new German president, Joachim Gauck, is a former Lutheran pastor.

And that cliche of “the Protestant work ethic” – hardworking German taxpayers, even if they are not actually Protestant, continue to bail out the euro while being caught in a squeeze as acute as Luther in the 16th Century.

In their hearts, from Merkel to the car worker on the Volkswagen assembly line, the German people are desperate to be good Europeans, just as Luther was desperate to be a good Catholic.

But in their heads, most Germans suspect there may be something wrong — something morally wrong as well as economically dangerous — about giving money to those who, in the German view, have been at best reckless and at worst dishonest.

It goes without saying that nothing happens in a vacuum, that there is always a socio-political context in which great movements in history occur. In terms of the broader political and social context of the Reformation era, yes, northerners were definitely sick of sending southerners (in short, Rome) money to be spent on who knows what pet papal project. In fact, the 16th century saw the beginning of a massive shift of power, wealth, and cultural influence from south to north, from vibrant trading Italian city-states and Spain, the world’s first truly global empire, to Germany, the Lowlands, and England. And yes, a growing nationalism provided patronage and protection for reformers like Luther, who in an earlier age would almost certainly have been executed.

And yet these considerations are too often seen as the true motivation behind the Reformation, with the theology as a kind of clever rationale for a radical reorientation of political and economic authority. The Reformation is spun such that scholars and theologians were merely feeding princes with rhetorical fuel for escaping old alliances and dependencies, as if justification by faith through grace were merely a secret handshake within court circles.* (That the political and the religious were inextricably bound also escape so many modern commentators. See the excerpt from Oberman’s biography of Luther below.)

The journalist who wrote this BBC article interviewed Merkel — but strangely merely comments on her, without giving “the most powerful woman in the world” a voice of her own:

Our businesslike conversation reminded me of all those virtuous adjectives – pure Luther – that I learned in my first German lesson – sparsam, treu, ehrlich, ernst, streng – thrifty, straight, honest, serious, strict.

In fact, the pastor’s daughter from Hamburg sitting in front of me sounds exactly like the grocer’s daughter from Grantham – Margaret Thatcher. Their values — and their view of home economics — could almost be interchangeable.

I suggested to her that when she talks of thriftiness and responsibility (which she does a lot) then many British people will agree with her, which is why so many Britons are sceptical about the euro and suspect it might fail. …

Despite the legacy of the war, the divisions of the euro, and the cliches in British and German tabloid newspapers, I left the Chancellery thinking how much Britain and Germany really have in common.

As if Henry VIII and Luther were really on the same side all along.


* I feel the same bafflement when people argue that what Islam needs is its own Martin Luther, its own Reformation — which, of course, is meaningless. Islam doesn’t have a centralized institutional authority analogous to Rome it needs to revolt against. And most important, this line of reasoning simply refuses to take seriously that the doctrine of justification was at the heart of the Great Reform, its impact felt in every area of the church’s life. What would be the “article” by which Islam either stands or falls? And by the way, wasn’t Wahhabism a “great reform” of sorts? How did that work out?

From Heiko A. Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devilon the confrontation between Cajetan and Luther in 1518 and all that was at stake, especially from the German side (boldfaced emphasis mine):

Frederick the Wise, sovereign of Saxony, was at the forefront when it came to throwing off the yoke of ecclesiastical power. This meant more than a battle against continual curial infringements on the sovereign rights of princes; it also included the local bishops who were vying with the sovereigns for power. Princes were still compelled to fight for what many free imperial cities already had: independence from the temporal supremacy of the Church. In 1518, the Luther issue, which had thus far attracted little attention outside Germany, was only one of the many ecclesiastical conflicts to arise in Augsburg. At stake was the status of the Church in the German territories.

It fell to the Roman legate, Cardinal Cajetan, to find a solution to the Luther problem that would safeguard the ecclesiastical supremacy of Rome without provoking the Saxon elector. And so between October 12 and 15, 1518—after the diet had ended—Martin Luther underwent the first and only interrogation to which he was ever subjected. Cajetan had promised the elector to proceed as a “father” and not like a “judge,” but all his efforts were in vain: reasoning with Luther was as ineffective as harsh commands. In the end the legate could only conclude that the monk must be regarded as a heretic unwilling to recant and bow to the Church.

For Cajetan that was the end of the matter. Despite the monk’s intractability, the legate, as promised, had not had the man arrested, but as ordered by the pope, he did pronounce judgment. He emphatically urged Frederick: “I exhort and beg Your Highness to consider Your honor and Your conscience and either to have the monk Martin sent to Rome or to chase him from your lands. Your Highness should not let one little friar (unum fraterculum) bring such ignominy over You and Your house.”

The Venetian ambassador and the papal legate were equally astonished that a German diet could allow itself to be influenced by such trivialities, or that an elector could let himself become so distracted by a monk’s ludicrous chatter that the necessities of politics were forgotten. Typically German—inconceivable anywhere else!

“Typically Roman”—thus the response from the German side, venting its irritation: here come those wily Latins, trying again to take advantage of us naive Germans for their own purposes. Like every individual elector, the diet as a whole bore responsibility for the political interests of Germany, not those of Rome. As the imperial estates saw it, emancipation from the curia was among the essential national grievances that had to be met.

The reigning princes, especially Frederick, understood politics in a wider sense than we do today. Politics was not restricted to temporal welfare; it was also concerned with the prerequisites and conditions for the eternal salvation of the citizenry in town and country. That is why Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (August 1520) could become his most effective political treatise. Here the worldly authorities could find the biblical justification for their long-practiced commitment to the well-being of the region and the regional Church. He who submissively left the welfare of the Church to the “courtiers” of the Roman curia was violating the obligations of a Christian prince.



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