Martin Luther lauded by East Germany

It's now official. After years of being reviled, Martin Luther has finally made it into the East German pantheon. Party and state chief Erich Honecker himself publicly praised Luther June 13 as "one of the great sons of the German people" and "one of the most important humanists."

To be sure, Mr. Honecker avoided any mention of Luther's religion in his inaugural speech as chairman of the new Martin Luther Committee for the 1983 celebration of 500th anniversary of the reformer's birth. But he praised Luther's translation of the Bible as "one of the greatest cultural achievements of our history." Luther was also the moving force behind the antifeudal "bourgeois revolution" of the 16th century, and his Reformation therefore brought "social progress."

If that's not quite the way the East German Lutheran Church sees its founder, it's still a vast improvement over the past communist damning of Luther as a "lackey of the prince" and a "traitor" to the peasantry. This negative portrayal still appears in East German school texts. But revision was foreshadowed last year, when teachers were warned to go easy on the Luther instruction until new guidelines were issued.

Luther still has his faults, of course. But Mr. Honecker treated these with some sympathy. Luther simply couldn't keep up when the people radicalized his ideas, and he opposed the peasant uprising that resulted. "Luther's tragedy lay in the contradiction between his role as initiator of a great revolutionary movement and his inability to recognize its social legitimacy."

Even after the cruel defeat of the peasants, continued Mr. Honecker, Luther struggled for university reform, the founding of schools, and better regulations for church and for the poor. These redeeming works should be the object of more intensive study by East German historians, Mr. Honecker added.

Unlike Mr. Honecker, Lutheran Bishop Werner Leich, an advisory member of the anniversary committee, focused his speech at the committee's opening session on Luther's religious accomplishments. And he expressed hopes that the state's current embrace of Luther will lead to equal rights for Christians in present-day East Germany.

"We wish for Christians in our state to experience in their own lives what is intimated in the Luther Committee of the GDR [the German Democratic Republic]," the Rev. Mr. Leich said. "They [the Christians] are citizens with equal rights and with equal respect in out state."

The Communist leadership in fact moved partway in the direction of equal rights in its 1978 truce with the East German Lutherans and its correction of a number of anti-Christian discriminatory practices. The official reconciliation signaled a move away from the earlier Communist attempts to destroy the church to an appreciation of the personal responsibility and integrity preached by the church.

The current Luther revision is part of this shift -- and is also an attempt to harness some of Luther's enduring moral authority for the present government. Mr. Honecker stated this explicitly in claiming East Germany as the legitimate heir of Luther -- "We may say that our fatherland, the GDR, has assimilated this previous heritage" of Luther's. "Our state of workers and peasants realizes the ideals of the best sons of the German people."

The Lutheran church, besides providing four advisers to the state Luther Committee, has been planning its 1983 celebrations in its own committee since 1978. Its anniversary keynote, taken from Luther's small catechism, will be "Fear God, love and trust him above all things." Its aim will be a spiritual rededication at religious gatherings of an estimated 10,000 to a 100,000 Christians each in Wittenberg, Dresden, and five other East German cities.

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