Martin Luther

The Schlosskirche is one of those rather embarrassing turn-of-the-century neo-Gothic ''reconstructions.'' The original door on which Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 burned down with the church in one of Wittenberg's innumerable sieges. The Schlosskirche was then partly rebuilt, only to be used as an ammunition dump by Napoleon's troops until the Prussians routed the French. It was thus not until the calmer mid- and late-19th century that a new bronze version of the famous door, complete with Latin theses, was installed and the two bulky bell towers finished.

And yet - despite all the kitsch, despite the Soviet military convoys driving through town from nearby bases, despite the streets' bustle of bicycle traffic, lines at shops, and women shoveling coal into buckets - a palpable historical presence remains in Wittenberg.

A visitor can still picture the outraged Augustinian confessor affixing his theses to the side door of the Schlosskirche. The visitor can reconstruct, too, the various other events in Martin Luther's life from the museum about the great reformer that is just opening now in that half-timber house seven months in advance of November's 500th anniversary of Luther's birth.

Indeed, neither East nor West Germany is losing any time in celebrating this quinquecentennial. Wittenberg is only one of a spate of cities on both sides of the Elbe River that is commemorating in this ''Luther year'' the man who brought the Bible into every household - and brought the Middle Ages to an end.

In East Germany, the state has set up its own Luther ''Committee from the Society'' chaired by government and party head Erich Honecker himself. This Communist state, having already rehabilitated Luther from villain to hero in 1981, is now making a major project out of the anniversary.

It is renovating not only the Wittenberg church and house and practically the entire Collegien Street in between (for some 3 million marks, or $1.25 million), but also the houses in which Luther was born and died in Eisleben, the Erfurt student dormitory Luther is thought to have lived in, the Barefoot Church he preached in, and the towering Wartburg Castle in Thuringia where Luther hid while he began translating the Bible into German.

In addition to its own efforts, the state has even stopped blocking the East German Lutheran Church from rebuilding Luther's first Augustinian cloister in Erfurt - with the help of $1.8 million in contributions from Lutherans around the world - as a seminary, library, and general religious center.

Besides all this, there will be official conferences and exhibits galore, including an Academy of Sciences' international colloquium in Halle; the library union's ''Martin Luther in Literature,'' the Old Museum's ''Art of the Reformation Period,'' the German Historical Museum's ''Martin Luther and his Times'' in East Berlin; and the UNESCO colloquium on ''Art and the Reformation'' in Eisenach. And these will be crowned with a Luther ceremony in November in East Berlin in which the Socialist Unity (communist) Party Central Committee, the State Council, the Council of Ministers, and the National Council of the National Front will all participate.

There will be a new Marxist biography of Luther this summer and more than 100 other Luther-related books this year. There will be a television series on Luther.

An attractive Luther calendar, Luther stamps, and recordings of readings from Luther's Bible and of Luther's music have already been issued.

Furthermore, sixth-grade textbooks that are to come out in the fall will no longer vilify Luther as the ''traitor to the revolutionary peasants'' and the ''servant of princes.'' Instead, if the latest East German characterizations are followed, he will be lionized as the struggler against the 16th-century amassers of big capital ''that were the incarnation of early capitalism.'' He will be portrayed as progressive objectively, even though reactionary subjectively.

For its part, West Germany may not have on its territory as many historical monuments to the father of Protestantism as East Germany does. But it, too, will have a TV series on Luther. The West Berlin radio station Sender Freies Berlin will broadcast three minutes of readings from the Lutheran Bible every day.

A scholarly 10 volumes on ''Luther German'' have just been published, as have several new biographies of Luther - with some of the most interesting studies being written by sympathetic Roman Catholic theologians. In addition, the Mainz Museum is organizing a competition in which sculptors, painters, and graphic artists are invited to present their contemporary views of Luther.

This year's first big West German Luther exhibit, which has just opened in West Berlin, includes previously unknown correspondence between Luther and Prussia's first duke, Albrecht. The Coburg Castle, where Luther resided for half a year, will exhibit leaflets of the 16th and 17th centuries. The site of the former Episcopal Palace of Worms, where Luther refused to recant - now the Heylshof Art Museum - will show glass painting, bronzes, and furniture of the 16 th century. The Stuttgart Library, which possesses the largest Bible collection in Europe, will trace the development of Luther's Bible.

Then the West German Lutheran church, like its East German sister, will hold prayer meetings and discussions throughout the year. The West German church hopes in the process to restore some of the close cross-border contacts the two churches maintained until the East German government broke them off forcibly in the 1960s. The churches' motto (in clear distinction to official East Germany's exclusive focus on the political and social Luther) will be Luther's injunction to ''fear, love, and trust God above all things.'' The churches will endeavor, in the words of Thuringian Bishop Werner Leich, to ''let Luther himself speak!''

Pastors from all over East Germany met this March to cope with Luther's attitude toward Jews (and with the church's failure as an institution to protest Hitler's Holocaust). The Lutherans will hold an international church service on May 4 at the reopened Wartburg Castle and will sponsor the sixth International Congress for Luther Research in Wartburg this summer, plus an ecumenical meeting in Leipzig in November. It will also hold its usual seven regional conferences on various topics, with the Wittenberg one devoted to ''talking with Luther.''

In the course of all this activity, neither the East nor the West German Lutheran church will evade the difficult questions about their founder.

Those difficult questions abound - and not only for an East German government that clearly would prefer all its citizens to be atheists. Luther was a man of paradox, and those who celebrate one aspect of his character and accomplishments are often less than comfortable with other aspects.

Official East Germany, of course, had to make an ideological somersault to convert Luther from a regressive to a progressive historical figure. It had to decide as well that embracing Luther was worth the political risk of enhancing still more the prestige of the church - an institution that already enjoys more popular legitimacy than the state, and that inadvertently offers a moral identity that a number of younger East Germans view as an alternative to the state-prescribed political identity.

In the end, for the East German authorities, the benefits of Luther evidently outweighed the costs. In general terms, the state can now claim Luther's heritage as its own, in the same way that it has recently reclaimed the Prussian heritage. The state can, in a struggling economy in which Communist exhortation to discipline gets little response, appeal to the Protestant work ethic. It can preach a somewhat lopsided separation of church and state that bars the church from meddling in state affairs (by forming a spontaneous peace movement, for example), but allows the state to penalize private religious worship by blocking practicing Christians from educational and career advancement.

By actively helping to shape contemporary historical perceptions, it can hope to reduce the Lutheran church from a spiritual to a merely moral force - one the state could coexist with more or less easily.

And if in the process a post-medieval Lutheranism that still influences today's East Germany is viewed as more progressive than the medieval Catholicism that influences today's Poland, that is only to be applauded by a government that strongly disapproved of official Polish permissiveness toward the Solidarity trade union in 1980-81.

All of these deeper goals are stated or implied in the ''theses'' elaborated by the East German Academy of Sciences' working group in September 1981. There it is proclaimed that Luther's ''progressive heritage (is) preserved in Socialist (East) German national culture.'' Only in East Germany, the new Luther theses read, have the ''social preconditions (been) created to evaluate Martin Luther impartially and in a well-rounded, scientifically based way.''

The theses continue (implicitly discouraging dissidence of the sort practiced by Christian East German would-be conscientious objectors), ''In all questions not touching faith the Christian should subject himself to 'natural reason' and worldly authority.''

And in urging citizens' contribution of hard work to their socialist society, the ninth thesis reads, ''Luther gave a many-sided impetus for the development of a social ethic serving men. He communicated to many generations the commitment to duty to one's neighbor, the encouragement to creative, meaningful work, the rejection of misuse of human work for profit, protection of the family , and respect for diligence, hard work, fulfillment of duty, and thrift as essential virtues.''

In the theses, as West German observer Rudolf von Thadden pointed out in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, there is no reference whatsoever to that other Protestant tradition of immanent social criticism.

West German (and other) Protestants have their own problems in confronting Luther five centuries later. As a historical issue, how can any Protestant today justify, for instance, Luther's savage counsel to his prince to slay the rebel peasants like beasts? All the peasants wanted, after all, was the logical implementation of Luther's rejection of hierarchy, in the establishment of congregational churches and elected pastors.

On this issue modern Western sympathies, too, incline not toward Luther, but toward Thomas Muntzer, the supporter of the peasants whom the East Germans used to praise as the real hero of the Reformation's ''early bourgeois revolution.''

Instead of the democratically inclined church the peasants longed for, they got from Luther a state church that repeated some of the very intolerance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy - and that even enabled a stronger state to arise. Instead of getting an end to orthodoxy, the peasants got a new orthodoxy, as the persecuted Anabaptists and Zwinglians would discover in Wittenberg. Instead of getting a church that withdrew itself from politics, they again got - despite all of Luther's teaching about the two kingdoms - a church embroiled in politics.

Was the real Luther, then, the man who cleansed a corrupt and cynical church and liberated the individual to find his own relation to God? The mighty wrestler whose agonized, importunate prayers won through to a new/old revelation of Christianity? The early Luther of 1523 who regarded Jews as ''our blood relatives, cousins and brothers of our Lord''? The pioneer who guided Northern Europe out of exterior religiosity and ritual to an inner spiritual renewal based on reason rather than emotion? The stimulator, eventually, of such diverse developments as pietism, the enlightenment, 19th-century German ''cultural Protestantism,'' secular Marxist and other utopias, and scientific curiosity? Or was the real Luther the publicist who wrote ''against the robbing and murderous gangs of peasants'' and formulated a new/old divine justification for temporal authority? The religious tyrant who forbade his followers to share their bread with anyone who did not accept his catechism? The Luther of the 1540 s who branded the Jews as ritual murderers and parasites who should be driven out, and whose synagogues should be burned?

How can one square Luther's contradictory strains of wrath vs. reconciliation , his belief in conscience vs. proselytizing through legal compulsion and even violence, his rebellion as a monk vs. organizational rigidity as a church father?How does one dispose not only of the Nazi exploitation of Luther's anti-Semitic tirades, but also of the whole nationalist encrustation that late 19th-century Germany laid on Luther? Or (more remotely) the whole aura of German separation from the Western world that such nationalism saw in Luther's break with Rome?

Conversely, how does one dispose of the tendency to view Luther in hindsight as an inexorable forerunner of Hitler? And how does one evaluate a figure who has been so idolized (in the West) or demonized (in East Germany, before recent historical reinterpretation; and in the West, in the revisionist backlash to Luther hagiography)?

Amid all the controversy, what must remain undisputed are Luther's irrevocable breakup of medieval unity and his ushering in of the modern pluralistic world; his magnificent translation of the Bible that laid the basis both for today's Protestant worship and today's German language; his reform of children's education; and the glorious sacred music that the Reformation inspired.

Without Luther it is impossible to conceive of Bach or even Goethe. Without ''Ein' Feste Burg ist Unser Gott'' (''A Mighty Fortress is Our God''), it is hard to conceive of modern Protestant hymnody. Without Wittenberg, it is difficult to conceive of the primacy of individual conscience and one's direct relation to God that would be the cornerstone of all Protestant faith long after Luther's church had multiplied into a myriad of denominations.

In the end the real Luther is best sought not in the earthshaking changes he brought to the Western world, nor in the 500th-anniversary commemorations this year, nor in the grand bronze doors of the Schlosskirche.

His heritage is best symbolized perhaps by the modest handwritten notice near the bronze doors reading ''divine service of the Schlosskirche congregation Sundays at 9:30'' - and in the quiet reading by the Christian of his own Bible at home.

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