Article Note: Andrea Hofmann, “Martin Luther in First World War Sermons”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 1/2 (June 2020)

Article Note: Andrea Hofmann, “Martin Luther in First World War Sermons,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 31, no. 1, Glaube und der Erste Weltkrieg/Faith in the First World War (2018): 118-130.

By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis, University College

As I noted in my News Note in this issue, in 2017, Germans commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary of the German Protestant Reformation. Luther sites across the country, including Erfurt, Eisenach, and Wittenberg, played host to numerous events celebrating the anniversary. In the introduction to her analysis of the uses of Martin Luther in German Protestant sermons during the First World War, Andrea Hofmann notes that this anniversary provoked great academic interest as well. “In the academic discourse which accompanied the celebration,” Hofmann informs us, “Luther was not honoured as a solitary hero or lone fighter ….” Hofmann contrasts this with a “raft of popular academic publications and a flood of postcards which often depicted Luther as a hero” during the four-hundredth anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1917 (118-119).

In this rather brief but densely-footnoted article, Hofmann sets out to explore the image(s) of Luther portrayed by German Protestant clergy in their First World War sermons, especially those that were preached in 1917. The author’s aim is to “show the complexity of the image of Luther mediated through war sermons.” Yet, just as important to Hofmann is how, during the war (and after, during the “Luther Renaissance”), these preachers started to take Luther’s theology much more seriously (119-120, 129). The author ably details and analyzes Luther’s image(s) in the war sermons, offering the reader a considered approach to the topic that is based on substantial evidence.

Hofmann both frames the analysis and structures the article via three “analytical tropes,” providing evidence from some wartime sermons for all three (119). The first trope contributes to an image of Luther “in the context of the interpretation of history,” especially nineteenth-century German history. Here, according to Hofmann, pastors “placed the figure of Martin Luther in [the] narrative of a German nation-building” (120). Seen through this lens, Luther is portrayed as a national hero on par with Bismarck and even, as in the words of one pastor, a “powerful religious prophet” (121).

The second trope is that of “biographical and anecdotal references to Luther” (122-124). Here, the anecdotes and incidents from Luther’s life – e.g., his appearance before Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 – contribute to an image of the reformer grounded more on hero-worship than on instruction and nuanced biography. Courage, forceful energy, perseverance, defiance, and even a particularly encouraging variety of pastoral care are trotted out by pastors and chaplains as traits of Luther, the “ideal” German.

While the first two tropes are very helpful lenses through which to view these wartime sermons, the third and final trope, “themes from Luther’s theology and direct references to Luther’s writings,” may be the most substantive. This is implicit in the weight attached to it here: Hofmann spends as much time on it as she does the other two tropes combined. The most regularly cited topics in the sermons included Luther’s approach to just war, civic authority and the doctrine of justification (124-128). Here, Hofmann helpfully highlights sermon themes such as, e.g., Luther’s “two-kingdoms doctrine” and the differences between individual and state ethics during wartime.

The trope of Luther the national hero and “religious prophet” uncovered here by Hofmann ended up having a long and notorious life, as did the comparisons to German heroes and “prophets” such as Bismarck and Fichte. In this vein, the radical, pro-Nazi, antisemitic Stuttgart pastor Georg Schneider, in his 1934 book Völkische Reformation, included Luther together with Ernst Moritz Arndt, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Alfred Rosenberg in his list of “poets of the Redeemer.” He also described them as “representatives of a völkisch religion.”

Luther, Hofmann argues, was described in many wartime sermons as “a hero who, like Otto von Bismarck in 1871, had initiated a new epoch in German history …” (120). Over many decades, Hartmut Lehmann has traced the religious underpinnings of German nationalism in the nineteenth and centuries. In his incisive May 1991 German Studies Review article, “The Germans as a Chosen People: Old Testament Themes in German Nationalism,” Lehmann teases out a “chosen people” theme in German nationalism from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich.

Despite the breadth of themes discussed in the article, Hofmann does not mention Luther’s understanding of Jews and Judaism – including his antisemitic pronouncements – as addressed in wartime German Protestant sermons. Perhaps this might be due to such material not being prominent in the evidence tranche utilized by the author. Yet, as Doris Bergen noted in her review of a book on a closely related topic, Dietz Bering’s Luther im Fronteinsatz: Propagandastrategien im Ersten Weltkrieg, such an omission is conspicuous. Volker Leppin demonstrated, in a fastidious study titled “Luthers ‘Judenschriften’ im Spiegel der Editionen bis 1933” (part of an edited collection that I reviewed in 2017), that Luther’s writings about Jews and Judaism appeared as part of collected editions of the reformer’s broader work and in individual editions alike from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. This means that, at the very least, German Protestant pastors had access to Luther’s ruminations on the matter.

Despite this caveat, Hofmann’s examination of this narrow but very valuable topic offers helpful answers to questions surrounding the image of Luther in nineteenth and twentieth century German history. The author’s conclusions should be contemplated carefully. Hopefully, they will provoke others to further research on the reformer’s immense but ambivalent impact on German Protestantism – and German society altogether – from the Kaiserreich to the Third Reich.