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Interview with the pastor and politician Antje Vollmer (Bündnis 90/Green Party)

Martin Luther and Edward Snowden
(Collage:, photo: epd-bild/Steffen Schellhorn)

Edward Snowden exposed the secret surveillance activities of the USA. An individual has antagonized a superpower. This calls to mind Martin Luther and his struggle with the church about the Reformation. Snowden and Luther are separated by 500 years, and yet there are many things that connect them. An interview with Antje Vollmer, former vice president of the German Bundestag.

Martin Luther was born in 1483, Edward Snowden exactly 500 years later. There are numerous parallels between their lives.

Antje Vollmer: At first, both aspired to a career “within the system”. Luther saw his future as a monk and studied theology, the most eminent science of his time. Snowden volunteered for the highly controversial war in Iraq when he was 20. Two years later he signed on with the CIA. Luther was theologically brilliant, Snowden possesses extraordinary technological intelligence. Both aimed to reach the centre of the greatest public powers of their times – while they were still very young.

But then both of them wanted to transform the system from the inside.

Vollmer: Since they both “figured out” the system and had access to inside knowledge, they became increasingly dissatisfied and conflicted within themselves.

"Both perceived the enormous potential of the new means

of communications – the positive as well as the negative

At the beginning there was the wish to belong ...

Vollmer: … and then there followed the moment of shock: Luther went to Rome and experienced the cynical abuse of power. The bishops in Rome lived in luxury and with appalling double moral standards, off the money of the small people, whom they made pay for their small sins, selling them lots of indulgences. This empire of the church did not have much in common any more with its own foundation legend and the Sermon of the Mount. And Snowden had to realise that the USA even spied on allies and “friends” during the G20 summit.

Snowden said about his motifs: “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.” He added that he could not square it with his conscience that the US government destroyed freedom all over the world with its surveillance system. That is reminiscent of Luther's “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Vollmer: It is interesting that both men witnessed the climax of a technological turning point. For Luther it was letterpress printing, for Snowden the internet. Both perceived the enormous potential of the new means of communication. The positive, their ability to promote freedom and knowledge; the negative, their possible utilisation for the abuse of power and for social control.

Even the “antagonists” are similar.

Vollmer: The USA are the only remaining superpower today that incessantly wages (or commissions) war, in order to get rid of foreign rulers or to initiate changes of systems. During Luther's time, the Catholic church was the largest, all-dominant world power. There was no war without its blessing! Emperors needed to be crowned by the pope.

"Catholic church, ancient Rome, the Commonwealth:
In the long run, the world does not tolerate any mega-empires.”

Both incurred displeasure and rebellion.

Vollmer: It seems to be a law of history that, in the long run, the world does not tolerate any mega-empires: ancient Rome fell, the British Commonwealth is a thing of the past, and the Catholic church is not any more the largest owner of land and assets, as it was in the Middle Ages.

Will the same happen to the USA?

Vollmer: Since 1990, when its only antagonist, the Soviet Union, has disappeared from major world politics, the USA had the opportunity - which was accepted by most states of the world - to deal responsibly with this enormous power. Then there came the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Until today, the USA use them to justify their secret surveillance that exceeds all dimensions, and they believe to be in the right. This is totally out of proportion. It can not go on for ever. The ability of large empires to survive begins with them learning to restrain themselves.

Snowden does not want to accept the rationale that less freedom creates more security.

Vollmer: He could not prevent it from happening, he was just able to make the methods publicly known and thus to force the Obama government to make a statement: You need to answer to the world for your deeds!

"Iceland should have been Snowden's
self-chosen 'Wartburg'”

Luther looked for protection and received it from the sovereigns, the antagonists of the superpower of the church.

Vollmer: It was the other way round: the regional rulers sought him out and needed him to justify their efforts to get away from the Roman supremacy. After all, they had got rich themselves through the revolutionary developments in trade, production technology and banking. Also, Luther had the peasants on his side. They had to pay duties to both the church and the rulers. This double burden almost suffocated them. It was especially the prince of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, who supported Luther. He had an inkling of his potential.

Just as Putin supports Snowden today.

Vollmer: Putin certainly is not as wise as Frederick the Wise was, but his motif might be similar: a seemingly inferior antagonist recognises the symbolical power, and especially the advertising effectiveness, of having at his disposal a rebel against a superpower. Fredrick, too, had reasons to not extradite Luther to Rome, of all places.

"They are no martyrs.
They are concerned about their strong message.”

Does Snowden now end up to be hopelessly dependent on a dictator?

Vollmer: It is remarkable how far-sighted this young man has been in planning his coup. He doubly safe-guarded his documents, he has confidants like the journalist Glenn Greenwald from the “Guardian” and the documentary film maker Laura Poitras, who are able to continue his work, should something happen to him. For Luther, there were Philipp Melanchthon and Huldrych Zwingli who played this role. Snowden chose Hong Kong as the first destination of his escape, because it has no extradition agreement with the United States. He accurately calculated where he might find a platform for making the scandal public. This is why, originally, he wanted to go to Iceland: the only Western democracy without an extradition agreement with the USA. Iceland should have become Snowden's self-chosen 'Wartburg'.

But then he claimed asylum in Russia, a country that is not exactly famous for its freedom of press.

Vollmer: This is exactly how he signals that he still has something to tell us. In Russia, he can at least feel more secure than in Latin America. In my opinion, this is a justified, matter-of-fact concern in times where the US military attack people with drones, even outside of war zones. At least this danger should be averted in Russia.

One might call it cowardice that Snowden does not face trial in the USA.

Vollmer: Luther did not go to Rome either. He did not even consider it; instead he sought the controversy in Augsburg and Worms, on German soil. This is because both, Snowden and Luther, are not suicidal. They are not after spectacular martyrdom. They seek a platform to present their causes. They are concerned about the issue, their strong message! This is why both of them were careful and prudent while making sure to stay capable of acting as long as possible.

"Snowden gives courage.
An individual can set something in motion!”

Snowden also asked for asylum in Germany – to no avail.

Vollmer: It is shameful that he is not allowed to come to Germany. Angela Merkel does not dare to antagonize the USA, and neither does France. During Luther's time, the phalanx of the regional rulers stood more firmly against the superpower in Rome – this is where the parallels end. It is a disgrace that none of the Western democracies, not even Norway or Sweden, helped out to give Snowden the protective space he needs for his justified dispute. Especially politicians who come from Eastern Germany, like Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck, should have a motif for becoming active against the furor of government surveillance. But they have not the slightest interest; they are content with having reached their highest level of power.

Back to Luther. He inspired the Reformation, which led to a schism of the Church. Snowden is now accused of endangering the security of the USA.

Vollmer: This is utter nonsense! Luther anticipated an opportunity for a fundamental spiritual liberation and wanted to reform the church from the inside. And Snowden, too, wants nothing else but the USA to become again a country that is truly free. He fights much more strongly for the “Western values” than his critics.

“Snowden versus the USA” calls to mind the biblical story: “David versus Goliath”.

Vollmer: Indeed! Snowden gives courage. An individual is able to set something in motion, he or she merely needs to be smart and bold, and should trust in finding people somewhere in the world who realise what it is all about, and who take up the cause. Then it is even possible to afflict a superpower like the USA – without violence! Resignation, cynicism and feelings of powerlessness, the severe afflictions of our era, no longer apply.


Antje Vollmer
(Photo: epd-Bild/Friedrich Stark)

Antje Vollmer is a Lutheran pastor and member of Bündnis 90/Green Party. From 1994 until 2005 she was the Vice President of the German Bundestag.

The interview was first published at


Author:Antje Vollmer im Gespräch mit Manon Priebe Date:01-09-13
95 theses, USA, Antje Vollmer, Edward Snowden, Whistleblower