Germany will shortly enjoy a national holiday to celebrate a moment that tore Europe apart. In Wittenberg, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt, politicians and church leaders will gather to take part in a commemorative service at the Castle Church. There, 500 years ago, Martin Luther supposedly nailed up his 95 theses against indulgences, challenging the pope’s authority to grant remission from punishment for sin.
Whether or not Luther actually nailed anything to the church door remains a matter of debate. But his list of objections to the practices of the Roman Church, alongside his subsequent writings, without doubt set in train a series of events that led to the splintering of western Christendom.
Luther’s Reformation has always played a prominent part in German commemorative culture. Already in 1617, the anniversary of the 95 theses was marked with great solemnity in Lutheran areas of the Holy Roman Empire, against a backdrop of religious and political tensions that led, less than a year later, to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Each subsequent centenary has been given a particular flavour by its immediate historical context.
Through the centuries
In 1817, Luther provided a focal point for the aspirations of a German nation in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1917, during World War I, numerous festivities and a flood of images and texts celebrated Luther as the embodiment of the German spirit. He was paired with Bismarck, and held up as an inspiration for every German during the nation’s ongoing struggle for honour and power.
Commemorations of Luther’s birthday augmented these Reformation centenaries. In 1983, for example, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) celebrated Luther as a socialist champion, a progressive force who contributed, in the words of the East German leader, Erich Honecker: “To progress, to the development of world culture.”
In 2017, October 31 will mark the culmination of a whole decade of quincentenary festivities. There have been around 10,000 individual events, ranging from three major national exhibitions in Berlin, Wittenberg and Eisenach to numerous smaller commemorations organised by individual states, towns and local communities.
These have provided an opportunity to attract tourists, in particular to Luther sites such as Wittenberg and Eisleben (where the reformer was born and died) that languished in obscurity under the GDR. They have also offered an important chance to explain to a broad public not only the Reformation’s historical outlines but also its contemporary relevance.
Yet the 2017 anniversary has attracted its fair share of criticism. Sceptics have spoken of “Luther veneration” and of “Luther hype”. Federal and state subsidies – taxpayers’ euros – have flowed into a commemoration in which the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has played a central role. That has seemed, to some, inappropriate. The co-financing of the EKD’s 2017 ecumenical Kirchentag (Church Assembly) has proved particularly controversial.
From a historian’s perspective, much of the anniversary rhetoric has reanimated outdated narratives about how “one great man transformed the world” and about the Reformation as the birthplace of modernity. In the US, for example, the public broadcaster PBS anachronistically attributed to Luther’s Reformation a drive towards freedom of religion and women’s rights.
In 2017, the “dark side” of the Reformation, in particular Luther’s anti-Semitism, has been discussed more thoroughly than ever before, but still, a primary focus on Luther as the harbinger of individual freedom has left relatively little space for public discussion of his social conservatism.
Immortalised in plastic
What, then, will remain from the 2017 centenary? The best answer is probably the rejuvenation of Wittenberg, and the costly but necessary renovation and restoration of Reformation sites throughout eastern Germany.
The EKD’s extensive programme of outreach, its determination to facilitate reflection and discussion though workshops, exhibitions and less formal events, will certainly have touched many individuals, both Christian and non-Christian.
For public consumption, Luther’s relatively uncontroversial role as a translator of scripture has been highlighted: the first thing to greet the visitor to Wittenberg is a 27-meter tower in the form of a bible. Luther was himself a gifted musician, and the hymns that he wrote played an important part in spreading the evangelical message. The musical heritage of the Reformation, with Johann Sebastian Bach as its apogee, has proved to have particular appeal.
For Reformation historians, the catalogues from the three national exhibitions alone comprise 1,500 pages of excellent images and analysis. There are numerous new Luther biographies, the best of which neither idolise nor vilify the reformer, but give a rounded picture of him as a thinker and as an individual: an exceptional figure, but also a product of his time.
With a little distance, we will have another Reformation anniversary to analyse, another milestone of German commemorative culture to mine for what it tells us about Protestant identity. And perhaps best of all, thanks to Playmobil, many of us who study the period now have at least one little plastic Luther, complete with quill pen and Bible, on our desks.