Major anniversaries under different political and social conditions

Remembering the Reformation with a matching ornamental cup
(Photo: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig)


500 years have gone by since Martin Luther's posting of his theses fundamentally changed the view on both church and society. During these 500 years there have also been many opportunities to celebrate the birth of the Reformation and to acknowledge its major anniversaries. The beginning was made by Luther himself, who said a toast on November 1st, 1527, while drinking with a good friend: “Ten years after the indulgences have been destroyed; in memory of this we both drink and are comforted at this hour”.

Anti-Catholic polemics and national tinges

Almost all of the following Reformation anniversaries were tainted by anti-Catholicism and nationalism: in 1617, the celebration of faith concentrated on Lutheran orthodoxy, and in 1717, too, the event focused on the liberation from the papal rule. Luther was celebrated as God's elected tool against the slavery of the new Roman Babylon.

In 1817, the victory over Napoleon influenced the celebrations and lead to the anniversary's national orientation: Luther became the German hero and the ideal role model for the bourgeoisie; he was depicted time and again in festive parades and popular prints. The “German Luther” also drew wide attention in 1917; at the same time, serious research of Luther's theology gained increasing importance.

Competition of anniversaries: Reformation versus October Revolution

When the Luther sites of Central Germany celebrated the last Reformation anniversary in 1967, 450 years after the posting of the theses, the event took place during an “ice age” in the relationship between the state and the church in the German Democratic Republic. This became clear through the attempt to secularise the Reformation with the concept of the “early bourgeois revolution” and through the pointed marginalisation of events organised by the church, for example by means of holding celebrations of the October Revolution  at exactly the same time. In the Federal Republic of Germany there were only local celebrations, organised by the churches of the respective states. A central church event in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1967, was held in order to keep up at least a pretence of an all-German Evangelical Church.

Also, the desire to celebrate the posting of the theses in 1967 was largely dampened by a debate about its authenticity that had begun in 1962, claiming that the 95 theses were never nailed to the door of the church but merely sent by mail. Thus, the Reformation seemed to have been robbed of its spectacular beginning, and Reformation Day to have lost its symbolic power.

Reformer with or without the hammer

The first edition of the magazine "Spiegel“ in 1966 had the title: “Luther's theses: Reformer without a hammer” and transformed the scientific debate that had been begun by Erwin Iserloh into a denominational conflict: “Protestants can now protest again: a Catholic wants to make them believe that Martin Luther never wielded the hammer to nail his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This Catholic claim shakes the heroic image of Luther.” The heat of the debate becomes visible in the large public response received by a document that was published in 2007, but had already been edited decades ago in the University and State Library of Thuringia in Jena. It claimed that, according to a note written by Luther's secretary Georg Rörer, “on the day before All Saints' Day in the Year of the Lord 1517, theses on the subject of indulgences were nailed by Dr. Martin Luther to the doors of the churches in Wittenberg.”

In the meantime, these conflicts are a thing of the past, and the wide range of scientific opinions on the issue has become a fact. But this does not call into question that there are good reasons for accepting the posting of the theses in 1517 and using it as an occasion to celebrate the 500th Reformation anniversary.