Every century has a Martin Luther of its own

Today’s version is a harbinger of populist anger and insurrection

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It is that time of the century again for Wittenberg, a small town about an hour’s drive south-west of Berlin. Once every hundred years, things go into overdrive as the life and work of the town’s most famous citizen are commemorated: Martin Luther who reputedly nailed his 95 theses attacking the selling of papal indulgences to the door of the church of the local castle, unleashing the Reformation and subsequent schism in Christendom.

Over the 500 years since then, arguments have raged about what to make of Luther. As with so many figures in German history, the answer is rarely clear-cut. From an inspirational, gifted thinker and radical to harbinger of conflict and tyranny, Luther pretty much gets to cover all the bases. In the eyes of some he is even highly relevant today, someone who in troubled and confusing times stands up and speaks out against elites and the established way of doing things. Or as the news magazine Der Spiegel neatly had it in a recent cover story: “Luther: the original angry citizen.”

There is little evidence of that in Wittenberg — superficially at least. Ahead of the anniversary of 1517 the town has undergone comprehensive renovation in anticipation of increased visitor numbers. The slightly twee, brightly painted centre has been given a makeover. Visitors will be able to amble through a pedestrianised zone — from the church at one end to the great man’s house at the other end, passing along the way buildings with plaques commemorating the many luminaries who lived, studied or simply visited the town that once boasted one of Europe’s great universities.

While it seems clear what Luther means to Wittenberg, elsewhere debate about his legacy is rife. He is the radical who took on a corrupt and distant church establishment, yet also the authoritarian enemy of rebellious peasants; the writer who helped shape the modern German language, and thus unite a nation, yet also the theologian whose writings would split a church and a continent that would later turn on itself in bitter and bloody conflict. To some he remains a symbol of freedom and emancipation, the thinker who prized the importance, and responsibility of the individual, to others a virulent anti-Semite whose thinking helped lay the groundwork for a culture of authority and obedience.

In a keynote speech last week coinciding with the start of “Reformation year”, Joachim Gauck, German president and a former Protestant pastor, said how every centenary of 1517 has been marked in different and revealing ways. In 1617 it was cause for Protestant triumphalism, an ominous prelude to the Thirty Years War which erupted a year later. Two centuries on, in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon, Luther was celebrated as a herald of national self-determination. Against the backdrop of the charnel house of the trenches, the 1917 commemorations carried a heavily nationalist and aggressive emphasis.

In communist East Germany, where Mr Gauck lived and worked, Luther was subject to a “breathtaking” change of image around the time of the 475th anniversary. From the lackey of nobility and class traitor who sold out the peasantry emerged the revolutionary whose acts were the “germ of socialism”.

Every age, it seems, has its own Luther. So which one do we get? To listen to Mr Gauck and the church itself the accent is all towards “one world” reconciliation and the essential characteristic of grace, a central concept of Luther’s thinking and writing. This was something even highlighted by Pope Francis in a remarkable recent act of reconciliation when he joined leaders of the Lutheran church in Sweden for a joint prayer service in which he praised Luther.

In his speech Mr Gauck underscored the importance of the Reformation in shaping modern Germany — a country where now there are more non-Christians and atheists than ever before. But the view in the media and on the bookshelves suggests a different, more worldly point of focus: the angry man who unleashed forces of populism, aided by the modern media of the printing press, from which he later recoiled.

frederick.studemann@ft.com

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