East Germans busy 'rehabilitating' Luther for his 500th anniversary

Martin Luther is changing from a villain into a tentative hero in East Germany. The occasion: In 1983 East Germany will stage a grand celebration to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther's birth.

The old East German image of the Protestant reformer was a pejorative "servant of the prince" who "betrayed" the peasant revolt of his followers at the bidding of his master. In this interpretation, the Reformation was simply a political tool in the princely feuding. The real hero and innovator of the age was Thomas Muentzer, who led the doomed Muelhausen peasant uprising.

The first hint of change in this version of history came two years ago, when a new book on the period declared "Martin Luther did not become a [mere] 'servant of the prince.'" The text continued, "although he held fast to the principle of the divine right of authority, he upbraided the rules more and more strongly. Still, all his warnings were issued in the framework of Christian repentance and did not jolt the foundations of the princes' power."

To be sure, Luther "became alienated" from the struggling masses, and Luther did not stop his Reformation from taking on an increasingly "bourgeois character" after 1525. But this was a substantial upgrading from "betrayal" of the revolt. And Western historians, too, say the Reformation lost its spontaneous mass character after 1525 and turned to strengthening the princes instead.

The next sign of revision came a year ago, when a youth magazine described Luther as a "progressive" revolutionary and preparer of the way for Karl Marx. At the same time, schoolteachers were instructed to be "restrained" in presenting Luther until the Socialist Unity (communist) Party could work out new guidelines.

Restraint was understandable, since schoolbooks had not yet caught up with the softening line. The 12th-grade history text, for example, dismisses Luther's "betrayal" and goes on singing the praises of Muentzer, the representative of the "radical wing of the antifeudal camp."

For emphasis, the text poses as a study question, "Compare the views of Thomas Muentzer that power should be given to the people with Article 2 of the Constitution of our Republic: All power in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] is exercised by the workers in city and country."

The most recent sign of Luther's refurbishing is the assumption of the honorary chairmanship of the 100-man Luther Committee of the GDR for the 1983 celebrations by East German state and party chief Erich Honecker himself.

Several pastors of the East German Lutheran Church are also members of the committee, and although there is some wariness about this participation in the churches, Lutherans clearly expect their founder to be portrayed officially in a positive light. In a less favorable period, several pastors did step down from the similar official Luther Committee for the 450th aniversary (in 1967) of the posting of Luther's theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg (a city that is now in East Germany).

The East German Evangelical Church Association does have its own committee to prepare for the 1983 celebration as well. Among other plans, the association intends to publish five- and six-volume editions of Luther's works.

There is no expectation that the East German government will approve or publicize Luthers religious teachings for the 5000th anniversary. But it clearly is going to add him to the Prussian generals who have recently joined the East German historical pantheon.

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