The Quincentennial Commemoration of the Protestant Reformation in Secularized Germany

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2015)

The Quincentennial Commemoration of the Protestant Reformation in Secularized Germany

By Hartmut Lehmann

Germany is one of the most secularized countries of Europe and in fact of the world. In particular in the Eastern part of Germany, that is the region of the former German Democratic Republic, the Christian churches hold very little influence. For our purposes, it is important to note that these regions were also the original sites of the Protestant Reformation, for example the cities of Eisenach, Erfurt and Wittenberg.

Of the roughly eighty million inhabitants of Germany, a little more than one-third are registered as members of the Roman Catholic Church, a little less than one-third as members of one of the Protestant churches, and the last third as non-church members. Of the Catholics, with some local variations, about ten percent are actively involved in church matters, while about three percent of Protestants can be considered as active church-members. In other words: the vast majority of Germans do not attend church regularly and are not interested in church life. The social and cultural value of attending church has been declining dramatically, in particular since the late 1960s. Today, cultural and sporting events often take place Sunday morning during the same time as church services. As the up-keep of churches is expensive, both established churches have begun to sell church buildings. [1]

In recent years, the number of people who decide to officially leave the church has remained high. Motives vary. Catholics who leave their church often claim that they do so because they are disturbed by cases of child molestation; Protestants who leave the church often cite financial reasons. I should add that the number of parents who decide to have their children baptized is also declining. Couples who still marry in church mostly do so not because of religious reasons, but because churches offer such an impressive atmosphere. The one indicator of church involvement that remains relatively strong is church burials with a pastor or priest.

In our context, we should also take into account that Germany has become a country of immigrants. Currently about ten percent of the adult population is of non-German background and between one-quarter and one-third of school children have immigrant parents. In some school districts, children who come from a household with a different cultural tradition make up the majority of students; in others they are a small minority. Approximately half of immigrants to Germany come from a Christian background; the other half are Muslim. Not all, however, actively practice their religion. When discussing the possibilities of commemorating the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, these statistics must be kept in mind.

The preparations for the quincentenary began in 2008 when the German federal government, several state governments, and several cities with a special connection to the history of the Reformation, together with the Evangelical Church of Germany, created an organizational framework for the upcoming event.[2] Moreover, the organizers proclaimed 2008-2017 the “Luther decade.” Each year a special aspect of the Protestant Reformation’s heritage, and of Martin Luther’s legacy, is highlighted.

During 2008, that is in the first half of the Luther decade, several motives characterized the collaborative actions of the state and church. First, the organizers of the quincentennial commemoration consider the Protestant Reformation a watershed event in the course of German history, indeed, as one speaker noted, of world history. For instance, the bill introduced in the German federal parliament for financing some of the preparations was called “Ein Ereignis von Weltrang”, that is, “an event of universal importance.”[3] The speakers who proposed the bill believed that the beginning of the Protestant Reformation was nothing less than a turning point in world history. They supported their view with arguments based on culture rather than with theological or religious considerations.

A second motive was somewhat more pragmatic: the organizers sought to support tourism in those regions in Eastern Germany where the Reformation had its roots. The argument that the Reformation could be used to generate tourism was not new. In 1983, when the East German government celebrated Luther’s five-hundredth birthday, it hoped to attract thousands of tourists from around the world. For representatives of the so-called Luther lands, this argument is still valid today. Politicians do not hesitate to emphasize the economic value of the commemorative events leading up to 2017. For representatives of the church, the tourists from abroad constitute a kind of international pilgrimage to the original sites of the Reformation. Both politicians and church representatives agree that these original sites should be preserved as best as possible. In fact, most of the money granted by the federal government is invested in preservation projects.[4]

In 2008, in addition to a board of trustees (Kuratorium), state and church officials also created an academic advisory council (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat zur Lutherdekade). This body, consisting with few exceptions of Protestant scholars from Germany, suggested that each year within the Luther decade should have a special focus with themes covering the arts, music and politics. The board advised that each theme should be understood broadly rather than by simply focusing on the events of October 1517. Doing so would highlight the contribution of Protestantism to the development of the modern world. In keeping with this goal, the advisory council also issued a number of theses, twenty-three in all, which expanded on this argument.[5] Readers of these theses were told that Protestantism had strongly influenced much of the progress within the Western world including civil political liberties and progress in the arts, economics, and social justice. For Catholics and other non-Protestants, the twenty-three theses intimated a strong message of Protestant triumphalism.

From the beginning, representatives placed the life and work of Martin Luther into the very centre of the campaign. Politicians and church officials followed the advice of experts in the advertising field who argued that a successful campaign needed a distinct personal face. Everyone agreed that there was no alternative to Luther’s face.

To whom did these actions appeal?[6] By 2013, if I am not mistaken, when half of the Luther decade was over, the various regional and local actions had reached primarily two groups: tourists who visited Wittenberg, among them many devout Protestants, and educated middle-class Protestants. The Wittenberg tourists enjoyed local guided tours and local events. The most popular event was a public meal similar to Luther’s 1525 wedding dinner. Members of the educated Protestant middle-class (the typical “Bildungsbürger”) enjoyed superb concerts and exquisite art exhibitions. Many of the concerts played the impressive music of Johann Sebastian Bach; many of the art exhibitions included paintings by Luther’s contemporary, Lukas Cranach.

In other words, after five years of preparing for the 2017 event, the activities arranged by the quincentennial commemoration organizers only appealed to non-Protestants and non-church members if they were attracted by music or art. In addition, if I am not mistaken, no special effort was made to communicate the heritage of the Protestant Reformation to groups of non-German origin. No doubt, this would not have been an easy task. What I deplore, however, is that neither the state nor the church officials in charge of preparing for the big event in 2017 developed a concept and program to reach the members of those groups who are not well acquainted with the German Protestant tradition. Moreover, organizers made no effort to address the members of Free Churches in Germany and elsewhere.

Since 2013 – halfway through the Luther decade — some changes and new motives are emerging. For reasons yet to be clarified, church officials among the organizers of the quincentennial commemoration are making an even stronger effort to strengthen the profile and the identity of their own flock: that is of those Protestants for whom Protestant church life is still important.

For example, church officials decided to hold a Protestant church congress (Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag) in 2017, together with the festivities of the quincentenary. With this decision, they ensure that a sizable crowd of faithful Protestants will attend the commemorative events. I should add that there was also the possibility to stage an ecumenical church congress (Ökumenischer Kirchentag). Such an ecumenical church congress would have given a completely different focus to 2017. Obviously, this possibility was exactly what the Protestant church did not favour, making it seem as if they wanted to claim Luther as their exclusive property.

In this same spirit, in 2014 the Protestant Church published a small book titled Rechtfertigung und Freiheit (Justification and Liberty).[8] The title is indicative of the content: It suggests that only Lutherans possess the correct understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and that only Protestants can claim to have contributed substantially to modern civil liberties. In contrast, the progress in ecumenical activities since the Second Vatican Council is not mentioned.[9] A few months earlier, a commission consisting of members of the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity had published a treatise with the title From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.[10] While the Protestant church representatives in Germany distribute their own booklet in large numbers, they completely ignore the joint Catholic-Lutheran statement.

Let me add that leading members of the Protestant church in Germany regularly stress their intention to celebrate the quincentenary from an ecumenical perspective (“ökumenische Perspektive“). Two leading bishops have travelled to Rome and invited Pope Francis to come to Germany in 2017. It is not known whether he will accept the invitation. Moreover, Protestant and Catholic church officials organize an ecumenical service as part of the festivities in 2017. Both churches have announced that this service will take place on March 11, 2017, in Hildesheim and will be devoted to the “Healing of Memories”. Local churches are encouraged to organize ecumenical services of their own. Also, Protestant and Catholic bishops intend to undertake a joint trip, a kind of ecumenical pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Details of all of these events have yet to be made public, and this at a time when the complete program for 2017 has already been printed on high-gloss paper and distributed.

Before concluding, let me turn to a specific problem. Although it is certainly correct to characterize the Germany of today as a highly secularized country, one should also note that religious sensibilities still play a critical role in German society. There are widespread feelings of xenophobia, of which religious prejudice seems to be a strong element.

Two groups are targeted more than any other: Jews and Muslims. Antisemitism has a long tradition in Germany just as in many other countries. After Nazi atrocities that culminated in the Holocaust, Germans with political or cultural responsibilities have attempted to ensure that antisemitism never again plays a role within German public life. But, as some antisemitic incidents demonstrate, their efforts have not been completely successful. In recent years, as the number of immigrants with a Muslim background has increased, islamophobia has also captured the minds of some Germans, especially in the former East. In turn, some young Muslims living in Germany have become particularly antisemitic.

In our context, these observations are important because Martin Luther – and please remember he is the person who has been put into the very center of the campaign for 2017 — wrote some strident and highly controversial tracts both against Jews and against Muslims. We cannot deny that these writings are an inseparable part of Luther’s heritage and we should not attempt to ignore or suppress them as we approach 2017. As one can easily understand, within the Germany of the post-Holocaust era, Luther’s writings against the Jews are extremely disturbing, in particular because the Nazis used Luther as a voice of authority in their policy of racial extermination.[11] If one considers the Holocaust as a fundamental rupture in modern civilization (“elementarer Zivilisationsbruch“), Luther’s standing and Luther’s reputation are deeply affected.

It is therefore not surprising that the board of trustees of the Luther decade has asked the academic advisory council to prepare a memorandum discussing the context and the background of Luther’s diatribes against the Jews. For two reasons, this memorandum, published in 2014, is a remarkable statement. On the one hand, the authors make crystal-clear that they distance themselves from Luther’s antisemitic writings. On the other hand, they claim that Luther’s anti-Jewish resentments were not at the very center of his theological teachings, adding that Luther respected other views and that the secular authorities within the new Protestant states did not follow Luther’s advice.[12] Most recently, however, this view has been revised. In a long article about Luther’s perception of Jews in context of his theology, Dorothea Wendebourg demonstrates that Luther’s hostile attitude towards Jews was an integral part of his theology.[13] More importantly, the members of the synod of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, in their meeting on November 11, 2015, unanimously passed a proclamation in which they distanced themselves most strongly from Luther’s anti-Jewish writings. They state that Luther connected central elements of his theology with anti-Jewish paradigms; that German Protestants followed Luther’s antisemitic arguments for many centuries; that they are ashamed and deeply deplore this failure; and that out of this failure they feel a special responsibility to confront any kind of hostility against Jews.[14]

By contrast, as of now, Luther’s writings against the Turks with their horrendous statements about Islam and the prophet Muhammed have not become part of the public debate in Germany.[15] The academic advisory council has not been asked to discuss this issue. I should like to add that Luther has also written about other topics in a way that cannot be reconciled with the political and ethical opinions in Western societies at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Let me just call to your attention Luther’s most disturbing statements about people with disabilities, his verdict of humanist scholars like Erasmus, his condemnation of the peasants who did not want to live as slaves, or his sharp rejection of those Protestants who believed in baptizing adults. From today’s perspective, these writings are obviously politically incorrect.

In conclusion, let me say the following: It is, no doubt, an enormous challenge to commemorate the beginnings of the Reformation and the legacy of Martin Luther in a secularized society shaped by widespread religious prejudice. As of now, neither the state representatives nor the church officials engaged in preparing the festivities in 2017 have been able to meet this challenge fully. One may deplore this situation, as I do, or one may see it as a pragmatic answer to a challenge which may be almost impossible to meet.

Yet there is another possibility: We could try not to look back but to look at the political and moral challenges of our time. Recently, a group of American Lutheran pastors and bishops, following a proclamation by the Lutheran World Federation, have demanded that eco-justice, that is the ecological preservation of God’s creation, be placed in the very center of all activities in 2017. For the Christians of Europe, helping refugees from developing countries could be an action of similar magnitude. Luther wanted to reform flagrant grievances in the Christianity of his time (not only in his 95 theses against the misuse of indulgences of 1517 but, for example, also in his “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation“ of 1520). Christians today should not try to imitate the reforms that he proposed some 500 years ago but attempt to do away with the flagrant deficiencies, and intolerable injustice, in today’s societies. The quincentennial commemoration of the Protestant Reformation would be a unique opportunity to do exactly that.


[1] For a recent analysis and assessment see Detlef Pollack, “Wie steht es um die christlichen Kirchen in Deutschland? Eine Einschätzung aus soziologischer Sicht,” Forum Loccum 33, Nr. 4, 2014, pp. 9 – 15. For the political and social context see Hartmut Lehmann, Das Christentum im 20. Jahrhundert. Fragen, Probleme, Perspektiven. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt 2012, pp. 175 – 181; id., “Ein europäischer Sonderweg in Sachen Religion,” in: Hans G. Kippenberg, Jörg Rüpke, Kocku von Stuckrad, eds., Europäische Religionsgeschichte. Ein mehrfacher Pluralismus. Vol. 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009, pp. 39 – 59.

[2] My comment at the time: Hartmut Lehmann, “Die Deutschen und ihr Luther. Im Jahr 2017 jährt sich zum fünfhundertsten Mal der Beginn der Reformation. Jubiliert wurde schon oft,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26. August 2008, Nr. 199, p. 7. Also in: id., Luthergedächtnis 1817 bis 2017. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2012, pp. 297 – 304.

[3] “Das Reformationsjubiläum im Jahre 2017 – Ein Ereignis von Weltrang. Antrag der CDU/CSU-, der SPD-, der FDP-Bundestagsfraktionen und der Bundestagsfraktion von Bündnis 90/Die Grünen,” Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 17/6465 vom 6. Juli 2011.

[4] Arguments can be found in: “Reformationsjubiläum 2017 als welthistorisches Ereignis würdigen. Antrag der CDU/CSU und der SPD-Bundestagsfraktion.” Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 16/9830, 26. Juni 2008.

[5] Perspektiven für das Reformationsjubiläum 2017. Published in Wittenberg by the office of the church and the office of the state in charge of “Luther 2017 – 500 Jahre Reformation,” undated.

[6] Hartmut Lehmann, “Fragen zur Halbzeit der Lutherdekade,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History 26/2. 2013, pp. 447 – 454; id., “Unterschiedliche Erwartungen an das Reformationsjubiläum 2017,” Berliner Theologische Zeitung 28/1, 2011, pp. 16 – 27.

[7] See Hartmut Lehmann, “Vom Helden zur Null? Die Fünfhundertjahrfeier der Entdeckung Amerikas im Jahr 1992 wurde jenseits des Atlantiks ein Reinfall. Ob es hierzulande mit der Fünfhundertjahrfeier der Reformation im Jahr 2017 wohl ein besseres Ende nimmt?” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 27. Oktober 2014, Nr. 249, S. 6.

[8] Rechtfertigung und Freiheit. 500 Jahre Reformation 2017. Ein Grundlagentext des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2014.

[9] For example the Catholic-Lutheran declaration concerning justification (Erklärung zur Rechtfertigung) issued in 1999.

[10] Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt and Paderborn: Bonifatius 2013. In German: Vom Konflikt zur Gemeinschaft. Gemeinsames lutherisch-katholisches Reformationsgedenken im Jahr 2017.

[11] Thomas Kaufmann, “Luther unter den Antisemiten. Den Wittenberger Reformator zum Zweck des Judenhasses zu vereinnahmen war möglich. Bei ihm finden sich Wendungen, die das zulassen. In Deutschland wie in vielen anderen Ländern stellen sich die protestantischen Kirchen diesem Erbe.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29. Dezember 2014, Nr. 301, S. 8. See also id., Luthers ‘Judenschriften’ in ihren historischen Kontexten. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2005; id., Luthers ‘Judenschriften’. Ein Beitrag zu ihrer historischen Kontextualisierung. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2011.

[12] Die Reformation und die Juden. Eine Orientierung. Erstellt im Auftrag des wissenschaftlichen Beirates für das Reformationsjubiläum 2017. Wittenberg 2014. See paragraph 17 about the relative importance of Luther’s anti-Jewish statements. This paragraph represented the majority opinion within the academic advisory council; a minority did not agree. For the minority, Luther’s antisemitism had deep roots within his theology.

[13] Dorothea Wendebourg, “Ein Lehrer, der Unterscheidung verlangt. Martin Luthers Haltung zu den Juden im Zusammenhang seiner Theologie,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 140, 2015, pp. 1035 – 1059.

[14] Kundgebung der 12. Synode der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland auf ihrer 2. Tagung: “Martin Luther und die Juden – Notwendige Erinnerung zum Reformationsjubiläum.” Bremen, 11. November 2015. Signed by the Präses of the synod, Dr. Irmgard Schwaetzer. In my view, this statement was long overdue. One sentence in this text which I quote in German: “Die Tatsache, dass die judenfeindlichen Ratschläge des späten Luther für den nationalsozialistischen Antisemitismus in Anspruch genommen wurden, stellt eine weitere Belastung für die evangelische Kirche dar” should have been supplemented by the remark that many Protestant pastors and many Protestant professors of theology strongly supported Hitler and the Nazi Party’s antisemitism. See Manfred Gailus, ed., Täter und Komplizen in Theologie und Kirchen 1933 – 1945. Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag, 2015.

[15] Hartmut Lehmann, “Martin Luther and the Turks”: Studies in Church History VI. Christians and the Non-Christian Other. Vilnius: LKMA 2013, pp. 71 – 75.