Friday, 13 November 2015

Martin Luther and German nationalism

The father of the protestant reformation has been used as a propaganda tool by many governments over the years, but today he attracts considerably less attention.

Today I took a day trip to Wittenberg, where the protestant reformation began in 1517 after the theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. That act of rebellion kicked off a Europe-wide revolt against the corruption in the Catholic church that would eventually lead to the wars of religion in the 16th century, killing thousands upon thousands of people. During all this time, Wittenberg became the center of reformation effort, known as the "Protestant Rome".

Just 30 minutes away from Berlin by high-speed train, today Wittenberg is a small town in the state of Saxony-Anhalt that is almost completely dedicated to Luther tourism. But 500 years ago the town was the capital of the powerful Electorate of Saxony, and its university was an intellectual powerhouse. When Luther, studying as a monk in the city, became disillusioned with the Roman Catholic Church and lashed out, it triggered a series of events which threw the entire Holy Roman Empire, and later all of Europe, into turmoil.

Today you can visit the Schlosskirche church where Luther is supposed to have nailed up the theses, as well as the church which celebrated the first Lutheran mass. You can also visit the monastery where Luther studied, which was later given to Luther for him to live in after it was confiscated from the Catholic church. In the 19th century, as German unification efforts were under way, it was turned into a museum. Throughout the town, the homes of the prominent early Lutheran leaders are preserved as museums. It's like a city locked in time since the 16th century.

The Lutherhaus museum traces the history of the city, Luther's life, and his fight with the Catholic Church. But I found the most interesting part of the museum to be the top floor, which examines how Luther's image has been used by the powerful over the years for propaganda purposes. 

In addition to being the father of the German church and, arguable, protestantism at large, politicians have long sought to portray him as a national secular hero, freeing the German people from foreign domination.

Though the layout of Wittenberg preserves its medieval grid, the main buildings are largely the result of a Victorian-era deification of Luther by the Hohenzollerns, the Prussian royal family who united the German lands into one country in 1867. They rebuilt the Schlosskirche, adding a whimsical tower turret, and replaced the wooden door (the original having been long ago destroyed by fire) with a metal one onto which all 95 theses were engraved. Throughout the 1800s statues to Luther were erected all over the place, and he was portrayed as a father to the German nation. 

At a time when Germany's efforts to unify was being met by huge Catholic resistance (from France, Austria and the Papacy), Luther became a natural hero for the new state. The museum does a great job of documenting all the efforts by the Prussians to deify him, particularly with a series of romantic 19th century paintings.

Later, when the Nazis came to power, they continued this deification of Luther. They promulgated 'Luther Day' (a 1930s sign for which is pictured), held rallies in Wittenberg and erected even more statues. 

After the war, the East German government continued the veneration. Given that Luther was a religious leader, the veneration seems quite odd in hindsight. But the museum shows how the Communists tried to make Luther out to be a revolutionary, connecting him with contemporaneous peasant rebellions. 

This is of course nonsense. Luther was a very conservative figure who condemned the peasant rebellions and believed that religion should govern all aspects of daily life. He led Wittenburg through a rapid social transformation which saw the church reorganise the way people lived. 

With the 'Protestant Rome' locked away behind the iron curtain, Luther's legend faded over the subsequent decades in West Germany. After communism fell, the 'Luther veneration' has effectively halted. Generally speaking, he is no longer thought of as a national figure, but instead as a religious figure. It would be odd for a mainstream politician in Germany today to invoke his name in a political discussion.

This was evident to me as I toured Wittenberg today. The town was virtually empty - I didn't see one other tourist there. I was the only person in the entire Lutherhaus museum for the two hours I was there. Perhaps it's more crowded in the summer. But it appears enthusiasm for Luther these days does not trump the cold weather (and it wasn't even that cold today).

But this could all change in 2017, which will mark the 500-year anniversary of the 95 theses. Given the different ways that Luther has been portrayed over the years, and the relative lack of interest in him today, it will be interesting to see how a united Germany chooses to mark this occasion. 

Will he be portrayed as a national hero, a father of the country? Or will the celebrations be limited to the Lutheran church, with him being portrayed as a religious leader without significance for non-Lutherans?

The one person who doesn't get a say in any of this is Martin Luther. One wonders what he would have thought of the way he has been portrayed over all these years.

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