Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Meeting, 2012

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Meeting, Emden, Germany, November 8-10, 2012

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

On November 8-10, 2012, a conference took place under the title, “‘Befreier der Deutschen Seele:’ Politische Inszenierung und Instrumentalisierung von Reformationsjubiläen im 20. Jahrhundert.” Several preliminaries are important. First of all, this conference served as the annual meeting of the journal, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, and the papers will be published next year in the journal. Andrea Strübind, a Protestant professor of church history at Oldenburg, served as a prime organizer and will edit the subsequent volume. Johanna Rahner, a professor at the Institute for Catholic Theology at the University of Kassel, co-hosted this event, bringing a strong Catholic presence to this very Protestant topic of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Finally, this conference took place in a delightful setting of historical significance. Emden, a medieval town in the northwest corner of Germany, was home to a significant Reformed presence in the 16th century. Thus we were able to meet in the Johannes a Lasco Library, an institution of 160,000 volumes, including many books from Erasmus’s library, a Bible signed by Martin Luther as a gift to one of his sons, and a letter from Jean Calvin to the congregation in Emden.

The conference itself focused on celebrations of Martin Luther’s birthday and/or the Reformation. Three speakers looked back to the 19th century. Ralf Hennings and Hans-Georg Ulrichs compared anniversaries of the Reformation celebrated in 1817 and 1917, in Oldenburg and Heideberg respectively. Frederic Hartweg spoke on the 200th anniversary of the Edict of Nantes in 1885. It was celebrated quietly in France by small groups of Huguenots, frightened by the possibility of Catholic backlash, even though Michelet, for example, called Huguenots “the best French citizens.” Bismarck also praised Huguenots and Berlin celebrated the Edict of Nantes openly in 1885. By then a mythology of Huguenots gloriously escaping France to become good Prussians had veiled a harsher history of refugee status in previous times.

The rest of the conference focused on the 20th century, plus the 500th anniversary of the Reformation forthcoming in 2017. One theme emerged in the opening lecture, given by Professor Wolfgang Thönissen of Paderborn (just before he had to leave for Rome to fulfill his role as an ex officio member of the Vatican Council). Thönissen argued that Catholics in the twentieth century have begun to see the work of Martin Luther much less in terms of a “split” in the church and much more in terms of “reform.” Vatican II, for example, looked to Luther as it worked toward reforms of its own. John Paul II and Benedict XVI both studied Luther. Catholics began to focus on things like the Augsburg Confession and the doctrine of justification by faith. Thönissen argued that Catholics and Protestants can and should celebrate the “catholicity” they hold in common: 1) Salvation by faith, 2) a church standing under the Word of God, and 3) a church requiring a certain “Ordnung.” With these things in common, both Catholics and Protestants can celebrate Luther in 2017.

Additional Catholic speakers all followed variations on this theme. For example, Professor Barbara Henze from Freiburg spoke on “Die Katholische Entdeckung Luthers im Kontext des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils.” After Vatican II, in 1967, Freiburg hosted a conference on Luther. Speakers at this conference compared what Luther wanted with what Vatican II wanted. One participant even suggested that Luther finally achieved his goals at Vatican II, both in taking Scripture seriously and making the church accessible, as well as in certain reforms of monastic orders. Professor Johanna Rahner continued this theme, describing developments among Catholic theologians since Vatican II. In particular, she noted the Augsburg Confession as a statement now widely accepted among Catholics, and she pointed toward an increasingly ecumenical rather than a confessional hermeneutic of the Reformation. This approach stresses complementary rather than contradictory elements in the Catholic-Protestant relationship and it accepts a plural rather than a narrowly confessional ecclesiology.

This optimistic presentation on Catholics and the Reformation raised several questions during discussion. For example, each of the Catholic presenters mentioned the work of Joseph Lortz and his twentieth-century reassessment of Luther, though mostly in passing and without going into his Nazi enthusiasm. It was then acknowledged that his appreciation of Luther might have been rooted at least somewhat in his out-sized enthusiasm for the German Volk movement. One speaker also acknowledged that she does not assign Lortz, but has her students read Protestant studies of the Reformer instead. Another issue involved the present place of Vatican II and its advocates in today’s Catholic church. The optimistically ecumenical views presented here do come up against a conservative backlash against Vatican II, in Germany as elsewhere, so that the issues are not entirely decided. However, a broad stream of appreciation for Martin Luther certainly marked the Catholic Church in the twentieth century.

A second major theme at this conference involved attention paid to Luther celebrations outside Germany. Keith Robbins, speaking on British reactions to the Reformation Jubilee of 1917, noted that a warm and collegial reaction to German celebrations could hardly be expected in that fourth year of The Great War. In that sense, his assigned topic provided almost no content. He did describe, however, close ties and cordial relations in the decade preceding World War I. A delegation of 120 Germans visited England in 1908, for example. In 1909, a British group–funded by Quakers–visited Germany and was received by the Kaiser in Berlin. In June 1914, Oxford awarded seven honorary degrees, five of them to Germans. At that time, it would not have been difficult to imagine British participation in a great Reformation Jubilee in 1917. At the outbreak of war in August, however, theologians and historians began to sharpen their sense of difference rather than commonality. Soon they were making their own hard-edged contributions to the national sense of what was wrong with the other side.

Anders Jarlert also noted, as had Keith Robbins, that his look at Reformation jubilees in Sweden during the twentieth century produced little of note. Swedes simply did not celebrate anniversaries of 1483 or 1517, as did Germans. Rather, Jarlert described a “Swedish Sonderweg.” During the 19th century, religious celebrations became bound up with Swedish nationalism. By the 20th century, this meant, for example, a 1941 celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first Swedish Bible, or a 1943 celebration of the Uppsala Synod of 1543. In the overall cause of national unity, a presence of Baptists and of Catholics in Sweden also complicated matters, so that the Lutheran presence became downplayed and compartmentalized.

My responsibility at this conference was to report on American reactions to the German celebration of Luther’s 450th birthday in November 1933. I too discovered very little to report, although Lutherans in the United States organized celebrations of their own, in some cases with thousands of participants. I broadened my approach by analyzing the response of half a dozen church newspapers to events in Germany throughout 1933. Most Lutheran weeklies, whether German, Norwegian, or Swedish in their ethnic background, indicated some attraction to Adolf Hitler and support for the changes he introduced in Germany. They liked Hitler’s attack on Bolsheviks and his campaign against vice. They often criticized the “secular press” in the United States, for its alleged exaggeration of the harshness of Nazi mistreatment of Jews. One column in the Lutheran Herald of the Norwegian Lutheran Church even exhibited its antisemitism, trying to explain the difference between “Kikes,” which it described as undesirable East-European Jews likely to be Bolsheviks, and “white Jews,” seen as more acceptable. (This did draw some critical reader response.) All of these papers, however (with the frequent exception of the Lutheran Witness of the Missouri Synod), expressed concern about political interference in the churches and criticized the excesses of the Deutsche Christen. I also read the more center-left Christian Century. In this publication, skepticism and criticism were handed out in larger portions. For example, Reinhold Niebuhr, reporting in August 1933 on his recent visit to Germany, wrote, “Evidences multiply that the German nazi effort to extirpate the Jews in Germany is proceeding with unexampled and primitive ferocity” (see “The Germans Must Be Told,” Christian Century, 9 Aug. 1933, 1014-15). He then described in detail the mistreatment of Jews, including arrests, torture, and beatings to death, asserting that only a “national neurosis” in Germany could cause Germans to complain that such reports were merely Jewish “atrocity propaganda.”

A final theme at this conference dealt with anticipation of the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation to be celebrated in 2017. Gerhard Besier placed this in the larger context of the instrumentalization of Luther. This mythology involved both nationalism and anti-Catholicism in some of its nineteenth-century manifestations, a fierce nationalism during World War I, and then a search for a new Luther myth after 1989. Besier suggested that the 2017 celebration could allow for a significant reworking and search into this tradition. Instead, however, he noted that the “Luther Decade” is now treated in FAZ on the business page. It seems to be a time for the selling of souvenirs and the sort of economic opportunities associated with hosting the Olympic Games or a World Cup. He also noted that Luther statues now available in souvenir shops have printed on the bottom, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” This is both an accurate physical statement for the object in question and. presumably, more of an ironic joke than a serious reflection on the Luther quotation.

Hartmut Lehmann also placed the present “Luther Decade” in historical context. He began by noting controversy over whether Luther actually nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, or whether he merely sent them around to a few friends. We have the former story from Melanchthon, but no eyewitnesses or contemporary testimony. Luther with a hammer is a heroic figure and a builder of the Lutheran church. In the alternative image he is a reformer within the church. This works best for ecumenical purposes, including a friendlier conversation with Catholics. What about the full range of Luther, however, including his attacks on the Pope, on Erasmus, on peasants, and on Jews? Some see Luther leading to the Enlightenment, to democracy, and to pluralism. Lehmann is skeptical, arguing that we need to view him in his own time and in his full complications. If we focus instead on the Reformation rather than Luther, we still have difficult questions. Why did Luther’s followers quarrel right after his death? Why did they turn quickly toward orthodoxy, rather than a further exploration of reform? Why have Lutherans in Germany twice been ready to accept dictatorship? Why have Lutherans elsewhere, in the United States and Australia, for example, also quarreled with each other? A careful look at these issues could be a part of the Luther Decade, but it would fit less comfortably into the plans already in place. Finally, Lehmann in an afterword suggested that historians in 2017 may actually give little attention to the Luther Jubilee. In recent years, an interpretation has developed that gives the year 1517 merely one place among many in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Renaissance that pointed toward the modern world.

This tightly-knit conference produced much to consider for those interested in contemporary church history.  It seems likely that the KZG volume which prints the papers in 2013 will be worthy of attention.