Interview with the historian Hartmut Lehmann about the celebrations of Reformation Day during history and in modern times

(Photo: epd-bild/Andrea Enderlein)

Those who want to learn about the history of the celebration of Reformation Day and the after-effetcs of Martin Luther will not be able to miss the research of Hartmut Lehmann. Until 2014, Lehmann was the director of the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. He recently published a much-noticed collection of essays, "Luthergedächtnis 1817 bis 2017" (“Luther remembrance from 1817 until 2017”). In this interview, the 76-year-old renowned historian talks about how Luther became instrumentalised by politics, suggests the idea of a “Luther Penny” for charitable purposes – and reveals how he himself would like to spend October 31st, 2017.

luther2017: Professor Lehmann, in your book "Luthergedächtnis 1817 bis 2017" you describe the remembrance of the Reformer as a history of political appropriations. Why has Luther always been such a strong projection surface?

Hartmut Lehmann: Over the course of the centuries, Luther has continuously been subject to a massive appropriation by politics of both the state and the church. Several different phases can be distinguished. During the early anniversaries, in 1617 and 1717, conflicts of church politics stood in the foreground, especially the denominational conflict in the old empire. Luther was celebrated as the founder of Protestantism, as the person who unveiled the weaknesses and faults of papacy. The later anniversaries, 1817, 1883 and 1917, were guided by nationalism. Luther's heroisation was mainly directed against Catholic France. Luther was depicted as the typical German, the one who had made possible the national unification and the rise of Germany to a superpower. In 1933, the National Socialists venerated Luther as Hitler's congenial predecessor. The Communists in the German Democratic Republic celebrated him in 1983 as the man who, like themselves, embodied the positive heritage of German history. All of these are grotesque contortions – the degree of appropriation knew no limitations.


(Photo: Verlag)

Could it be said that Luther has been increasingly politicised while the chronological distance from the age of the Reformation got larger?

Lehmann: No. The motivations have changed, but the degree of instrumentalisation has always been extraordinarily high. For example, in 1917, during the final phase of WW1, no phrase was too strong to exploit Luther's memory for the purpose of propaganda in order to make the Germans continue to believe in gaining victory over their enemies.

In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated. How can yet another abuse be avoided?

Lehmann: This is a great challenge; one could even say it is the fundamental underlying challenge. At first we should step back and think: what were the actual results of the denominational schism in Europe? It must be strongly emphasised that these results were by no means purely positive and did not simply create a one-way road leading to freedom and renewal. During the religious wars thousands of people lost their lives, thousands of others lost their home. This is why I believe it to be necessary that 2017 should remember the mutual hurts of the past. Theologically spoken: forgiving each other, even seeking repentance for the wrong developments of the past should be imperative in 2017. And when it has been recognised that the memory of 1517 is not only positive, it should be attempted, step by step, to recognise the reasons and consequences of the schism – with the hope that they can be overcome.

What kind of Martin Luther would be in the focus?

Lehmann: A deeply religious Luther, who offered a theological alternative to the Renaissance papacy of his time.

The history of the Reformation has also been influenced by heroisiations, by the emergence of myths and legends. Recently you accused Margot Käßmann, the ambassador of the Evangelical Church in Germany for the Reformation anniversary, of drawing from the “arsenal of Luther legends”. But does not every legend contain a kernel of truth?

Lehmann: I would like to share with you a few examples, beginning with the legend of the apple tree. Luther allegedly said: “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” This legend has been documented for the first time in 1944, when it was meant to comfort or perhaps to inspire the motivation to hold out during the last phase of WW II. The true core of this legend is therefore not Luther, but the mentality and the desperation of the last years of the war. Or the legend of Luther throwing the inkwell at the devil: it emerged for the first time in the 1580s. At that time, the circumstances of life in Germany were difficult, which caused a veritable devil hysteria at the end of the 16th century. Many books about the devil were published, more than ever before or afterwards. It was therefore obvious that some contemporaries began to muse about whether the devil had tried with all his might to hinder Luther's translation of the New Testament into the German vernacular. They believed that Luther fought the devil according to his own method, by throwing the inkwell at him. The true core of this legend is therefore the anxiety-dominated mentality of the German Protestants one generation after Luther's death.

The Reformation itself has been adorned with legends, too ...

Lehmann: I can not tell you in detail what is likely to have happened in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. Meanwhile it seems to be clear that Luther sent the 95 theses by mail to his superiors, including them in letters, and that he did not nail them to the door of the Castle Church. He sent the theses to others people only after receiving no response from the church hierarchy. His friends translated and printed them. The real core of the legend of Luther with the hammer is therefore the militant, anti-Catholic Protestantism of a later period that believed in a Luther who ostentatiously turned away from his church as early as on October 31st. This is not the Luther of the autumn of 1517.

(Picture: Chrismon Spezial "Reformationstag" / Klaas Neumann)

Was Luther more a Reformed Catholic than a Reformer on this October 31st?

Lehmann: Yes, exactly. But after November 1517, a complicated conflict emerged between Luther and the representatives of his church. It took three to five years afterwards for Luther to grow into the theological stature of the great Reformer. The year of 1521 is important in this context. The popular quote “Here I stand and can do no other”, which Luther allegedly spoke before the Emperor during the Imperial Diet of Worms, has never been said like this. It was attributed to Luther only a few years after the event. Here, the time between the event and the legend is not very long. What Luther really said in Worms sounds differently: “My conscience is caught in God's word, I can not, and do not want to, revoke anything, because it is dangerous to do anything against one's conscience.” The person talking here is a reflective, faithful man, not a defiant lansquenet. Here, too, the legend does not grasp the actual historical fact.

When the legends are approached critically, one should also question the terms themselves. Does the term “Reformation anniversary”, which describes the event of 2017, already include a valuation?

Lehmann: The valuation only becomes problematic if one only looks exclusively at Protestantism and applies to it the notion of “jubilee” as in “jubilation”. But if you remember that Luther at first intended to reform a specific issue – the selling of indulgences – in his own church, and if you also remember that the Catholic church, too, entered a prolonged process of reformation during the following period of time, the term “Reformation anniversary” can be expanded inter-denominationally towards covering a century of church reforms. If you interpret it this way, I think that it is not problematic any more.

The churches today are also in need to be reformed, especially in view of an increasing tendency towards secularisation. In Germany, on third of the population are Catholics, one third are Protestants, and almost the whole remaining third are alienated from the churches or are atheists. What kind of opportunities does 2017 offer in view of this situation?

Lehmann: I would expand your analysis of church sociology even further. Only five percent of the Protestants in Germany are still active, and only ten percent of the Catholics. The situation is dramatic. If you look at the degree of secularisation and believe and hope that the Luther anniversary might alter the situation of the church in Germany, I believe this is a fairly hopeless case. As far as I can see, the activities that were launched by the Luther Decade until now have only reached those who remain faithful to the church, and nobody else. I am afraid that this will not be any different in 2017. I therefore believe that it is necessary to look beyond Germany and Europe. In many countries all over the world, for example in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Brazil, Chile and in the U.S.A., there are many active Lutheran communities, as well as active, expanding Protestant churches. I hope that, until 2017, every German Catholic and Protestant parish will have a partner parish in a non-European country, in addition to their already existing partnerships, and that there will be as many direct meetings between members of these parishes as possible. Perhaps this will spark the fire, perhaps new life will re-awaken again in some German parishes, too.

What else could be done to give the remembrance of the Reformation a stronger international direction? Currently, the anniversary in 2017 is mainly perceived as a German event.

Lehmann: The approach during the preparation was almost exclusively directed to the inside. This is not enough. In view of 2017, an active co-operation with Christians all over the world should be achieved, and this should be done by remembering the actual topic of a Christian existence in our world. The fundamental question is: What doest religion mean, what does Christian life mean in the age of globalisation? It is not about getting as many tourists as possible to visit the renovated Luther memorial sites. Rather it is all about the responsibility we have for each other, global justice, hope for a shared Christian life. For 2017, I envision a paradigm shift towards a responsible Christian life in a globalised world.

(Photo: epd-bild/Norbert Neetz)

You mentioned tourism – of course it will play an important role in 2017. How can it be connected in a meaningful way to the remembrance of Luther? Or is it fundamentally difficult to connect theology and tourism?

Lehmann: This is an exciting question. Nothing can be said against tourism, I sometimes am a tourist myself. And nothing can be said against good theology. But how could a connection between the two look like? My proposal would be the introduction of a “Luther Penny” - as a contribution of all travel agencies, restaurants and hotels who make a profit from the Luther business. Donations from the “Luther tourists” could be added as well. This money should be used worldwide for charitable purposes. This project could have the motto “Christian solidarity 2017”. In view of a connection between theology and tourism I believe that this might be a practical suggestion that makes sense. It is not sufficient to get as many tourists as possible to visit the country. In addition, something meaningful should happen as well.

Four and a half years before the big day, the main focus of the debate about the Reformation anniversary lies on the issues of ecumenism – between Lutherans and Reformed Christians, between Protestants and Catholics. Is it possible at all to intend to celebrate 2017 ecumenically?

Lehmann: For me this does not seem to be extremely complicated if one takes the trouble to look at Luther's situation and his concerns during the autumn of 1517. As you said before, Luther was a reformation-orientated Catholic at that time. This Luther of the autumn of 1517 is a shared property of all Protestants and of the Catholics as well. The reformatory ideas of Martin Luther from the year 1517 can still inspire the large churches today. Many of them were taken up by the Second Vatican Council. I already said that it is important to remember the mistakes and faults. If the ecumenical dimension of the remembrance of Luther from the year 1517 is elaborated more strongly, thanksgiving would be added to penitence – thanksgiving for the fact that reformers have emerged continuously in Christianity – Luther in 1517, or the Catholic theologians during the Second Vatican Council. Thanksgiving and penitence could forge a strong ecumenical link. If one perceives 1517 like this, one could even celebrate 2017 together.

Occasionally the expectation is expressed that, in 2017, the Catholic church could revoke Martin Luther's excommunication. Do you think that the new pope is capable to take such an important step?

Lehmann: When I read this for the first time, I got in touch with colleagues who are experts of canon law and asked them about it. They explained that only an excommunication of a living person can be revoked. However, it would be possible and desirable that the Catholic faction appropriately acknowledges Luther's reformatory intentions and also apologises for its lapses and its demonisation of Luther. It would also be possible and desirable that the Protestant faction apologises for its immoderate demonisation of the pope and the Catholic church by Luther himself, and during the time after Luther. I think that these steps are long overdue and also constructive with regards to 2017.

Do you already have an idea about what exactly you would like to do on October 31st, 2017?

Lehmann: In my age one should not make too many plans for the future, but I can tell you how I would love to celebrate October 31st, 2017: together with my wife, attending an ecumenical church service of the large churches, including the free churches, which also belong to Christian history of the modern age. The purport of the event should be mutual forgiveness and gratitude for all reformers who, over the course of the centuries, aspired to a renewal of Christian life in the parishes.

Professor Hartmut Lehmann, born in1936 in Reutlingen, was director of the Max-Planck-Institute for history in Göttingen until 2004. He works as a honorary professor for church history at the Christian Albrecht University in Kiel. Lehmann has published numerous books on topics of history and church history, the last ones being “Das Christentum im 20. Jahrhundert” (“Christianity in the 20th century”) (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 2012), and “Luthergedächtnis 1817 bis 2017” (“Luther remembrance from 1817 until 2017”) (Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, Göttingen 2012).