Martin Luther and Me
Reckoning with Germany’s Dangerous Legacy
Dec 28, 2017
21 Min read time
Reckoning with Germany’s dangerous legacy.
I am a son of Martin Luther. As was my father. As was his father. But as a German man living through today’s German and European politics, what does it mean to be a son of Martin Luther?
It took me a while, more or less the first forty years of my life, to at least partially comprehend this heritage and to understand who I am: a member of a long line of Lutheran pastors. I had not seen myself like that. I had seen myself, in the narcissism so particular to my generation, as independent, a creation of my own.
And so when I eventually opened the Bible that my father gave me a few months before he died, I was shocked to see and read the year it was printed: 1546, the year Luther died. Opening this book, very heavy and clad in old brown leather with two iron bars at the side, was a like staring into a well. It was deep, it was dark, and I plunged right into it: the texture of the paper, the old German letters that I can read only with effort, the way the pages are adorned with drawings of biblical scenes, and most of all the small notations, some in German and some in Latin, that covered each page. The comments on specific lines or words—thoughts of my forefathers—were mostly illegible and hard to decipher, like a very loud chorus that I was unable to hear. It was my family history in a palimpsest.
As a German man living through today’s German and European politics, what does it mean to be a son of Martin Luther?
I was hopeful that this year, 2017, could help clarify some of the assumptions that I—and others–might have about Luther, a man who was at the beginning of one of the most massive and lasting changes in the history of the West. This year, after all, marked the five-hundredth anniversary of his most memorable and famous act: on October 31, 1517, he supposedly nailed his Ninety-five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, a small university town in Germany along the Elbe river. He was protesting against the papal practice of selling indulgences for higher and higher fees, thus turning sin and absolution into a sort of proto-capitalistic Ponzi scheme for the church in Rome. But in the process, he unleashed an energy that would turn the worldly and the heavenly order in Europe upside down. The Reformation, in many ways, shaped the continent and the globe beyond for the five hundred years to come.
But the problem, as I see it, is that there is a cliché version of Luther and real reluctance to look beyond the historic facts as to what the passion and the energy that drove Luther might mean today. Luther’s legacy is one of a revolutionary who sought to change the way the world works. He is often described as someone who broke with the order of the medieval or pre-modern order that he was part of. Some have even said that Islam needs a Luther-figure to reform itself, implying that the reform process that Luther started was rational or directed towards a more just, equal, and democratic society. They seem to think that the Luther who is being celebrated, or at least commemorated, this year was a figure that could serve as a model for today.
But the truth is much more complicated. Scratch the surface and you’ll find not a prophet of modernity, but a fear-driven fanatic. In reality, Luther was a deeply conservative person with strong authoritarian tendencies. He wanted, in the end, to reinstate the power of God over the freedom of Man. This kind of anti-democratic thinking resonates in today's world, and yet we are often still driven by the need to create a positive hero. It is the need of the present to form a coherent narrative, a trajectory for modernity, individualism, and even in some ways democracy that includes faith, religion, and the church. And in this case, it is the presentation of the Protestant church as a quintessential European gift to the world.
I would argue that this view of Luther and his legacy is not only wrong, but it does little to help us navigate today’s religious tensions and political challenges. Indeed, a more political and honest understanding of Luther could even offer a blueprint for how the reactionary mindset evolves. And shouldn't that be of profound interest? In the context of a world that is imploding or exploding, depending on the way you look at it, reading Luther offers new political insights, especially when you identify which strands of his ideology are still present, which have changed over time, and which are more, or less, beneficial.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find not a prophet of modernity, but a fear-driven fanatic.
It is no coincidence that Luther is most revered in conservative times like ours—times where an order is in danger or a fanatic force is on the rise or an upheaval of practice and thinking is shaking the foundations of the world people perceived as theirs. We are living, some would argue, in the twilight of the epoch that came into existence around the time of Luther's life: modernity with its eventual hallmarks of individual freedom, capitalism, and democracy.
So it is true that we in the West have inherited a lot from Luther—but it is not always the things people acknowledge. One thing seems clear, however: he was a great man in the sense that greatness marks the impact not the intention. All of this is, of course, a very German story and naturally a very contradictory one. Dialectic is at the heart of this nation. It was invented here, and it has torn a continent apart, at least once or twice. There is a tendency in Germans to go to certain extremes, and Luther was no exception. He had the moral certitude of an angry young man combined with the mindset of a religious fanatic. The contradictions of his faith, theology, and actions run deep in German history and in the history of Europe and the West in general. They also run through the history of my family and right to the present.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben—in the part of Germany called Saxony—and he died there while visiting on February 18, 1546. He was the son of a member of the ascending bourgeois merchant class, even though he often talked about himself as being descendent from a modest peasant family. His father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters, a stern man who wanted his son to complete his own rise in the social hierarchy by studying law. Young Martin went to Latin school, an elite education of sorts, then university in Erfurt, but he dropped out of law school after he had a conversion event similar to Paul’s: while traveling on horseback on July 2, 1505, he was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm and, fearing for his life, he pledged himself to God if he were to survive. “Help! Saint Anna,” Luther later recounted, “I will become a monk!” Two weeks later, he entered St. Augustine's Monastery in Erfurt, after having sold all his books. Even at a young age, as this example shows, Luther was driven by fears and anxieties.
Luther talked a lot about his anfechtungen (spiritual crises), his temptations, and he even described himself as “the most miserable person on earth, day and night [I] was pure howling and despair . . .” The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson famously diagnosed a deep depression in Luther, speculating that Luther’s difficult relationship with his father contributed to it. Yet despite Luther’s own proclamations—he felt “like a dead corpse,” and described sweating profusely, stuck in what he called his “anxiety bath”—this level of Luther analysis is more or less shunned in Germany. It seems to go against the view of Luther as a man with a higher mission—a singular figure ruled by more than instincts.
But Luther's manifold anxieties translated into anger—and it was an anger that needed enemies, conspiracy, and a higher order of good and bad to sustain itself. The Pope was the obvious outlet, and his early treatises rest on theological concepts that democratized faith, such as sola scripture—the idea that only the Bible can be the guide for the believer—and sola fide—that only faith is necessary to obtain forgiveness for transgressions and sins. In 1517, Luther argued against the elites in the name of the people; he fought the power of the clergy who controlled the message; and he wanted to hand the word directly to the ordinary man so he could interpret it by himself and, in the process, be closer to God. His was a populist uprising, and Luther tapped into this political energy as it served him.
Luther produced the metaphysical foundation for an oppressive social hierarchy and the very close relationship between the state and the church that defines Europe up to the present.
But while the radicalism of Luther's rage is key to understanding how he launched the Reformation, it is also a key element in his fight against his own inner demons. For Luther was both fearless and fearful, both old and new. He wanted to make progress by going back in time, and in the process, he broke the Church in two—something he had not planned and did not want.
By the early 1520s, things had gone too far, Luther felt, and he turned conservative or reactionary in his positions, politically as well as philosophically and theologically. He had initiated the revolt in Germany, but in the following years, he turned against it. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people were killed—slaughtered, really—in a bloody and cruel war, and it was the last real uprising in Europe before the French Revolution more than 250 years later. The chaos set the stage for a reconstruction of oppressive regimes, only now in the name of God, and Luther helped lay this foundation by dismissing the individual rights of man and instead advocating for a religion that is closely connected to the power of the state.
In the upheaval, he looked for allies among the rulers of the smaller German states. He argued with other protagonists of the Reformation such as the Swiss Huldrych Zwingli, and he had a feud with Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the first public intellectuals of Europe, about the question of human freedom—a battle, as Lyndal Roper qualifies it in Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016), that “marked the final parting of the ways between the Reformation and humanism.” While Erasmus insisted on free will, Luther replied with an essay programmatically called “On the Bondage of the Will.” “I would not wish to be given free will,” he stated clearly, because “in the midst of so many adversities and dangers and also so many assaults by devils, I would not be able to stand firm and keep hold of it.” His fear was that “I would still be forced to struggle continually towards an uncertainty and beat the air with my fists.”
And there were plenty of devils around, as Luther saw it. It was no longer just the Pope, but the peasants, the Turks, and the Jews. When the moment came to take sides and fight for the peasants and other groups who had placed their hope in him, Luther not only turned away and betrayed those who had been inspired to act by his words, he used the power of the pen to justify their murder. “Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel,” he wrote in 1525 in his horrible text “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.” “For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul . . . Our peasants . . . want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.”
Anger and anxiety, it turns out, are mutually re-enforcing elements. Luther’s anti-Semitism, for instance, evolved at a rapid pace. In two texts, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” from 1523 and “On the Jews and Their Lies” from 1543, his hatred deepened from the thought of converting Jews to Christianity to the call to chase them from the cities, burn their synagogues, and take their belongings. “Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak,” he wrote in “On the Jews and Their Lies,” “nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames.”
In the end, Luther’s revolt against the order of the world was really a revolt in the name of the order of God. It was a betrayal to the humanistic, democratic movement he initiated in 1517. He freed the believer from the submission to the church in Rome and created a new dependency, a new structure of submission lacking the essential freedom for the individual. By turning against those who were stirred by his words, Luther produced the metaphysical foundation for an oppressive social hierarchy and the very close relationship between the state and the church that went on to define Europe for the next three hundred years and, in a way, up to the present. As Roper describes deftly, “Luther set about turning the clock back.”
For me, this is still the most fascinating aspect of meeting this man who so dominated the history of my family and my country: this ambivalence of rebellion and reaction, the dynamics of tearing things apart and stabilizing the system, the forces of chaos and order, the constant struggle between concepts of freedom and authority. It is there, in the person Luther and his turmoil, and it is there, in me. My quest to understand Luther was always an attempt to understand myself, the certain mix of passion, idealism and energy that keeps me alive.
In Germany, and in my family, there is both an adherence to worldly power and authoritarian tendencies and an opposition to that power that is grounded in the personal conscience of the individual.
And so when I immersed myself in the family Bible, I tried to decipher what my forefathers had written and tried to imagine who they might have been and what they might have thought and felt. I imagined their parishes in the old, heavy Germany, those medieval towns nestled in valleys and surrounded by hills and forests. And I even went there, to Cadolzburg, the small town in Franconia where as a child my father lived during the war. His father, my grandfather, was away, stationed as a military pastor with the German troops on the Western front in France. But the house where the five siblings lived with my grandmother was the traditional home of the pastor in this community, a two-story building with a large garden. When my father told me about his childhood, this garden seemed to be a place of freedom and exploration. But what struck me most was the town's castle, which is built on a large mountain right next to this house, looming over the town and the garden. This childhood paradise of my father was really a symbol for the strong connection between worldly and heavenly power in Germany.
My grandmother was a very early supporter of Adolf Hitler. When she heard about some of the crimes in the years 1933 and 1934, her first reaction was disbelief. As she told my grandfather, “The Führer must know. If he only know, he would not allow these things to happen.” There was a contradictory logic in that: her longings were clearly authoritarian, maybe even anti-Semitic, but her ethics were still pastoral. They withdrew from politics after that. They watched what happened, and it is unclear how much they knew.
As the oldest of five children and the only boy, my father had no choice but to continue the family tradition when his father died. My grandmother, a very strong-willed person, made it clear to him that the Diez dynasty had to carry the Lutheran legacy forward. But I am not sure that my father was unhappy about that. He was a sometimes quiet and mostly curious man. He did not rebel, and he did what was expected of him. He settled in, married my mother, had me, and they moved to Munich to form a parish. They got divorced when I was seven, and somewhere along the way something was lost.
My father did not try to teach me much about what it means to be a Lutheran pastor. He left me alone with questions about faith and religion. When he gave me the Bible, he said it was probably the most valuable object that our family owned, but it wasn’t entirely clear what he meant. He could have told me about this constant back and forth in Germany, in its history, culture, and people. He could have explained the unruliness, the constant itchiness. In Germany, and in my family, there is both an adherence to worldly power and authoritarian tendencies and an opposition to that power that is grounded in the personal conscience of the individual. And, in a complex way, all of this is connected to the Reformation and its legacy.
Nazi Germany, for example, illustrates both sides. Michael Haneke's masterful film The White Ribbon (2009) describes the authoritarian tradition of Lutherism. It tells the story of how the strict and sometimes almost terroristic reign of a pastor in a small village leads to a fear-driven and anti-democratic sentiment that was wide-spread and helped pave the way for the overthrow of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s. At the same time, a very strong part of the resistance against Hitler came from men and women—such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who were motivated by the ideals of their faith.
It is not difficult to discern an element of extremism in the words and deeds of Luther that could justify calling him a terrorist.
But today, in such a secular country, morality is a complicated and often negative term. Max Weber, the German sociologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century whose writing and thinking still resonates, argued, in “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), that there is a fundamental difference between an ethics of the “ultimate end” and an “ethics of responsibility.” The former is the Christian and moral based approach while the later is the pragmatic approach. Both can be traced back to Luther who remains the prime intellectual force shaping this country. Germans sometimes have a hard time understanding that politics and pragmatism are aligned. They also have a hard time, contradictory as they are, accepting that politics without morality is dangerous.
In this way, Luther’s highly destructive energy has been channeled through the centuries through generations of pastors and children of pastors who formed the functional and literary elite of this country. The preacher in his pulpit is a singular figure, the moral guide, and such a strong image has inevitably provoked confrontation. Indeed, the argument is still voiced against Angela Merkel, herself the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. When Merkel welcomed refugees into the country in 2015, for example, her conservative critics said the policy was based on her faith or the morals that come with being a Protestant. And in today’s Germany, an ethics based on religious morals is seen as somewhat dubious and potentially detrimental to society as a whole.
All of this is related to the fundamental questions of the Reformation. Namely, what is the most important authority: the rationality and authority of the state, the religious institution, the spiritual powers that be, or the individual conscience?
After my year of study, I came to see Luther as a man driven by fear, faith, and anger. I’ve come to see the biblical rage that permeates societies and comes up with enemies when they are needed. And I see the ink of ideology and a guidebook for reactionary thinking that helps to understand the present.
There is a deep anti-modernism in Luther that cannot be explained by the times he lived in because those times saw the emergence of a modernism, an individualism, a humanistic world-view that put man in the middle and center of everything—something Luther abhorred. He constructed a national German identity that was connected to Christianity, a cultural identity that was stronger than the rights and the freedom of the individual. He fought against reason and for an authoritarian order; he used fear of the Turks and Muslims and anti-Semitism to create a sense of threat from without and within. His anti-Western rhetoric and his very crude anti-capitalism reappear today in the pamphlets of the “Wutbürger”—the “citizens of rage,” as they are called in Germany—that call for a revolt against democracy not from the fringes but from the center.
It is the other side of his insistence on the intimate relationship of the Christian believer to his God, circumventing the institution of the Church and in the process creating a new institution. It is the contradiction in his thinking—a way of thinking that should be studied and understood in today's context because it links the anti-liberal movements in Europe such as the anti-Islam movement Pegida in Germany, the National Front in France, or the UK Independence Party in Great Britain to the rhetoric and ideology of Trumpism. Their fight against reason and individual freedom and for an authoritarian order and a strong cultural identity is deeply connected to the attempt to integrate Christian beliefs into secular politics. It is a pattern, something that can be observed in the right-wing and Identitarian movements in Europe and in the alt-right ideology of the United States. There is an inherent aggression in Luther that can be connected to the way Christianity works as a political force.
One day, my editor yelled at me: ‘You children of pastors are all the same! You are all terrorists!’
Indeed, it is not difficult to discern an element of extremism in the words and deeds of Luther that could justify calling him a terrorist. From the point of view of the church in Rome, he certainly was a terrorist, much in the same way that some writers, such as Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013), have called “the Son of God” a terrorist. Jesus Christ, after all, threatened the worldly foundations of power that Rome exerted over one of its provinces, a political threat that eventually lead to his execution. This just goes to show how subjective the term terrorist really is, how relative the definition of who is the enemy of the state.
Luther’s legacy shows us how fuzzy these labels really are. Because really, what does it mean if you call Luther a “rebel” like the German historian Heinz Schilling does in his ambitious new biography, Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval? What does it mean if you call him a “renegade” like Roper does? What is the meaning of these words in the historic context and what is the meaning today?
There is no revolution or rebellion without violence, and any reading or legacy of Luther should take this into account. Instead, however, there is—in the books and exhibitions reflecting this five-hundred-year-earthquake—a tendency to civilize or minimize Luther, to describe him in terms of cultural change or religious divergence, to keep him either in a safe historical distance or to treat him like a contemporary. But in that process, we end up missing the point of why Luther is interesting to study today, in a time of massive upheaval not unlike the one that Luther lived through himself.
From the Renaissance ideals of Leonardo Da Vinci to the nautical explorations of Christopher Columbus, from the insights of Nicolaus Copernicus to Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther lived during an economic, social, and media revolution that was frightening to a lot. He is part of a tradition of anti-rationalism or irrationalism that is present throughout the last five-hundred years in German thinking and beyond—one that has clear political connotations and consequences. He developed a proto-reactionary mindset that serves as a blueprint for reactionaries to this day. The revolt against reason, for example, that is Trump's revolt—against climate change, against science, against experts, knowledge, and truth—can be traced back to Luther, the “grand hater,” as Roper calls him.
But if I am being honest, despite these larger implications, it was actually a very specific and personal event that triggered my interest in Luther. I am a cultural critic at a weekly magazine, and my relationship to my former editor was cordial, but mostly charged. One day, when he was exasperated by the stubborn insistence that I was right in a political argument and he was wrong, he yelled at me: “You children of pastors are all the same! You are all terrorists!”
And somewhere deep down, I knew what he was talking about. I felt that my editor had said something that I had known for a long time. It is a very long and loaded history that got me to this point, but right then and there was when I started to think of myself as a son of Martin Luther.
December 28, 2017
21 Min read time