The Lutherjahr (‘Luther Year’) 2017 reached its climax on 31st October, 500 years after Martin Luther shared his 95 Theses. On our tours this year, we have encountered many visitors who have made a point of including Luther sites on their visit to Germany. Wittenberg, the adopted home of the reformer, is just an hour’s drive from Berlin, Erfurt, the pristine Thuringian university town where young Luther entered the Augustine Monastery and embarked on a singular career, not much further. There have been others who understandably felt an overdose on Luther. The sheer number of exhibitions, concerts and tours dedicated to Luther in the predominantly Protestant part of Germany can be overwhelming. One person remarked that she has no reason to go to Wittenberg as she is Catholic. It can therefore seem that one has to be Protestant to appreciate Luther.
And yet Luther is more than a question of faith alone. Back in the 1510s, the young monk and university professor of the Saxon town of Wittenberg had been incensed by the trade in indulgences. Originally introduced as a kind of monetary penance that could be performed instead of, for instance, a pilgrimage, the public at large regarded it as a means to cancel years due in Purgatory, a notion a Church keen to reap the profits did nothing to dispel. In his letter to his superior, the powerful Archbishop of Magdeburg, Luther added a manuscript of 95 points of discussion, or theses, on the use of indulgences. Little did this professor know that, with his plea for an academic discussion, he was in fact causing an upheaval that would change Europe’s religious and political landscape, and helped shape modern German identity.
Theses Doors' commemorating Luther's 95 Theses on the Palace Church in Wittenberg
Luther’s theological insights had ramifications for the Church as an institution in this world. We do not know exactly when Luther came to the conclusion that man was saved by faith alone and not by good works. (He himself explained that he had his epiphany while on the toilet!) We do know, however, that he found corroboration for this in Holy Scripture, the authority Luther subscribed to strictly. Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:17 states, ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith’. No longer was the relationship between the sinful individual and God a distant, but a personal one that did not require the mediation of a third party. Apart from fundamentally changing one’s understandings of God, this simple but powerful insight threatened to put priests, especially those involved in the trade of indulgences, out of business.
The Reformation owed many of its dynamics to circumstances. The Saxon city of Wittenberg was through no coincidence the epicentre of the Lutheran earthquake. After the Partition of Leipzig in 1485, Saxony was divided into two realms, each ruled by a member of the Wettin dynasty. Ducal Saxony was ruled from Dresden by Albert, whose territories included the university town of Leipzig. His brother Ernest governed over Electoral Saxony. Being a Prince-Elector, or Kurfürst, was an important title. Ernest was one of seven princes who had the privilege of assembling in Frankfurt to elect the Roman-German King, who in turn was set to be crowned Emperor over a loose collection of about 200 German-speaking states, the so-called ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’. Coming to power in 1486, Ernest’s son Frederick (known as the Frederick the Wise) made Wittenberg his residence and founded a new university there in 1502. It had accumulated its wealth through mining, a business all too familiar to Luther. Born a miner’s son, it was to the patron saint of miners, St. Anne (who like the mountains bore a unique treasure in her womb as the mother of Mary), that Luther allegedly made a vow to become a monk during a storm on 2 July 1505.
Luther kicked up a political storm of his own in 1517. His superior, the Archbishop of Magdeburg, was none other than Albert of Brandenburg, who had managed to secure for himself the title of Kurfürst as Archbishop of Mainz. The title had been secured through funds from the famous banking family Fugger. In order to pay the debts he had incurred with the Fuggers, Albert resorted to issuing indulgences on the pretext of helping to complete St. Peter’s in Rome. He did not reply to Luther’s letter, but forwarded it to the Pope, who stood to lose even more if Luther’s insights were shared. And shared they could be, owing to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz in the mid-fifteenth century.
Martin Luther now pitted himself against the Pope and the future Emperor. First, Pope Leo X sent a cardinal to hear Martin Luther in Augsburg in 1518. Luther proved a stubborn opponent who had distanced himself from the Pope, insisting on the authority of Holy Scripture alone. The following year, Luther was to face an academic colleague, a professor of theology from the University of Ingolstadt, Johann Eck, in Leipzig. As gifted an orator as Luther, Eck turned the discussion away from the question of indulgences to the role of the Pope in order to present his adversary as a heretic. A man of conviction, Luther was not going to back down. At the end of 1520, he would burn the Papal Bull threatening his excommunication.
Having alienated himself from the Church he had hoped to reform, Luther now faced Charles V. The elected (though not yet crowned) Emperor ruled at the height of the Habsburgs’ power. Not only did he preside over the Holy Roman Empire, but as King of Spain he was sovereign in the bulk of the Americas. His empire was one on which the sun literally never set, and a Catholic one at that. He summoned Luther to the Imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521 and asked the rebellious monk to recant. Having expected an opportunity to present his point of view, Luther asked for a day to reflect. It was then, on 18th April, that he famously declared, ‘Since my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, for to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me, God. Amen’. Big words were followed by big actions and Luther’s writings were banned, the man himself banned.
It was under those circumstances, as a fugitive from the Empire, that Luther began to shape a modern German identity. Condemned by the Pope and banned by the Emperor, Luther could be captured, harmed or killed with impunity. His benefactor Frederick the Wise could not afford to protect him officially. Thus a kidnapping was staged on the way back from Worms. Adopting the alias of Junker Jörg (Knight George), Luther hid out at the Frederick the Wise’s Wartburg, a castle at Eisenach, where Luther had been schooled as a teenager.
Forced to hide out and cursed with an insatiable appetite for work, it was at the Wartburg that Luther shaped the German language of today. His colleague and friend at Wittenberg, Philip Melanchthon, encouraged Luther to use his time to translate the New Testament from Greek into German. In a situation comparable to being locked in the Library of Congress today, Luther completed the task in less than three months. Luther wanted to strike a balance, preserving the sophistication of the spirit of the text while using a language that everyone could understand. The result speaks for itself in that his language of the sixteenth century still is in common use today. Did you know that, in its linguistic form, there would be no Sündenbock (‘scapegoat’) had it not been for Luther? Proverbial phrases from Luther’s translation of the Bible (the Old Testament would be completed in the 1530s) include Der Geist ist willig, aber das Fleisch ist schwach (‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’) and Richtet nicht, damit Ihr nicht gerichtet werdet (‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’).
This translation had a democratising and unifying effect when Germany was formed as a nation-state in the nineteenth century. The Lutheran German was a language that all members of parish communities could speak and, beyond these, that Germans could understand regardless of denomination. As a sense of German identity grew after Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and occupied the remaining German states after 1806, Luther was one common denominator all Germans could relate to. This was not lost upon the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled over the Kingdom of Prussia and which later would rule over all of Germany. After Wittenberg was incorporated into Prussia, they redesigned the Palace Church, where Luther is buried, in a neo-Gothic style (in the nineteenth century ‘Gothic’ was seen as essentially German, although it actually came from France), and sponsored a new door with the 95 theses enshrined in it. Luther and his language became a symbol of what it meant to be German.