Martin Luther and German Nationalism
Martin Luther was arguably one of the most influential Germans, or even people, in human history. The Reformation and Great Schism had effects that rippled throughout Europe at the time and reshaped the direction of history in ways that we still see today. However as people tend to focus on the wider reaching effect that Martin Luther had on the world his effect and influence on a micro level is often overlooked. That is why for this paper I will be exploring the impact that Martin Luther had on the creation of German nationalism. When people think of German nationalism many immediately go to the nationalism prominent in 1939-45 Germany, some may even go to the nationalism prominent in 1871 when William the First officially created the German nation-state. However, as will be discussed in this paper, the first real wave of German nationalism to emerge on a mainstream level was brought about by Martin Luther.
To begin with we’ll need to set the stage of the political and geographic landscape that Martin Luther was born into. During the 14th century what we now call Germany was a collection of hundreds of various small, centralized states sharing very little aside from a common language, all vying for power. Foreign influences were high with France along the Rhine, Italy exerting influence through the Catholic church and of course the power of the Holy Roman Empire with it’s blanket power over all the territories. The whole area was a rapidly increasing powder keg with regional powers such as Brandenburg and Saxony all looking to break away from the suffocation of the church and the emperor and assert their own authority. This desire was highlighted by the two Gravaminas created by the German prince estates, one in 1456 and another in 1522, detailing the various complaints of the princes and what they perceived as threats to their various estates. The overlaying sentiment was one of disapproval towards the expansion of power by the Emperor as well as the financial and political influence of the Church (Whaley 2012 pg 87). As this friction was growing in the complex geopolitical landscape so was the idea of a need for German identity. Yet this was a difficult identity to compose due to the segregation of the German people into these various states and territories. That is where Martin Luther came in. Luther was instrumental in disseminating nationalistic ideals to the wider ethnic German populations. That is not to say that Martin Luther created German nationalism from scratch. German nationalistic sentiments had been floating around since the 15th and early 16th century thanks to the printing press and educated german classes that made up the early humanist movement. Humanists had began using the printing press to mass produce old roman ethnographic studies of the germanic tribes, specifically Germania a study done by Tacitus that praised their war-like traditions and honorable cultural values (Haug-Moritz 2008). This effectively created the fledgling discourse on the German identity as the humanists began to appreciate their shared past that as this point they seemed so far removed from. They began to draw parallels between their ancestors struggles for independence from their roman overlords and their current struggle for independence from their italian overlords in the form of the Catholic church (Benario 1999).
Yet the humanist movement had a problem: they could not reach the masses. The rhetoric of the humanists was far reaching but mostly among the educated higher classes and the problem still remained that the church still held a spiritual grasp over the general public (Kistner 1976). This is where Luther comes in. Luther became the bridge, probably unwittingly, for humanist ideas when his 95 theses were translated into German. The nationalistic ideas of Luther matched with the nationalistic ideas of the humanists and were disseminated through the respective propaganda routes that the humanists had previously created yet Luther fulfilled something they couldn’t by tapping into the spiritual need by the underprivileged classes waiting for the arrival of a prophetic leader who would introduce a new age (Kistner 1976). Ironically, although the humanist had almost paved the way for the rise of Luther’s ideas, Luther himself did not agree with a majority of their interpretations on most everything else. Despite all this the relationship was symbiotic “The German humanists had helped by their writings to give Martin Luther a pan-Germanic publicity, Luther on his part by his writings certainly helped the German humanists to overcome the communication barrier between the more educated and the less educated classes of German society (Kistner 1976)”. After utilizing this widespread audience Luther also aimed for political support from the various German princes by incorporating the same worries that were put forth in the Gravaminas as he began to champion the idea of a German people by speaking out against their mistreatment by the various external powers that influenced their states.
This is seen overwhelmingly in his most directly political writing To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate. The writing is focused mainly on secular matters, something rare for Luther, listing out various social and economic reforms that he thought were necessary for the German people. Many of these reforms and issue were in line with what was presented in the Gravaminas and some of them where even taken directly from it and recognized by him. In doing so Luther “gave the traditional Gravamina a theological foundation they had not previously had (Whaley 2012 pg 169)”. The big reason that this writing caused a stir was that it centered around the idea that “Christian authorities must call to account a clergy and hierarchy that is no longer fulfilling its responsibilities, and must take the reform of the church into their own hands (Brecht 1993 pg 372)”. Essentially Luther was calling for the leaders of these states to lead the reform since the corrupt church was not going to do it, not only was he calling for the leaders to do this but he was calling for them to do it for the good of the German people. In this writing Luther espouses the desire to take the central authority of the German church out of the hands of the foreign catholic church and the foreign cardinals and place in the hands of the German princes of the German estates.
Luther had done this from the beginning, In his earlier works he always argued not just from the perspective of a Christian but a German Christian. A German Christian who couldn’t stand to see foreign powers exploit his country. In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate he decrys the state of Italy due to the church “Italy is almost a desert now: the convents are destroyed, the sees consumed, the revenues of the prelacies and of all the churches drawn to Rome; towns are decayed, the country and the people ruined, because there is no more any worship of God or preaching; why? Because the cardinals must have all the wealth”. He warns of a similar future for the german states if they allow the italians to continue to tighten their grasp saying “Now that Italy is sucked dry, they come to Germany and begin very quietly; but if we look on quietly Germany will soon be brought into the same state as Italy.” This serves the purpose of reframing the religious reform that Luther is trying to push as a patriotic, national duty. An attack by the evil church on the good pieous Germans. What good German would allow their homeland to be sucked dry by some corrupt foreign power?
We can see even more of this nationalistic sentiment in earlier passages of To the Christian Nobility. Like many other nationalistic leaders he writes of his own people in contrast to other peoples. Of Germans he say “There is no greater scorned nation than the German. Italy calls us beasts. France, England, and all other lands mock us. Who knows, what God wishes to and will make out of the Germans.” he further rails against foreign opinions of Germans saying “they think the mad Germans shall remain unendingly dead-set fools”. He in turn uses this to place responsibility on the Nobles to act and declare no more german church appointments be allowed to the Pope saying “thus would they in Rome mark that the Germans are not for all time mad and drunk”.
We see another very strong example of nationalistic feelings is found in his criticism of the Diet of Augsburg, Warning of Martin Luther to His Dear Germans. In 1530 Emperor Charles V convened a diet in an attempt to smooth the rising tensions from protestantism and try to unite the states against a rising threat of invasion posed by the Turks by declaring the supremacy of the Catholic church yet he tried to accomplish this essentially through threats to squash the Lutherans with troops. This was rejected by a large portion of princes and Luther, an outlaw at the time, in turn wrote a scathing rebuttal to the Diet and the proposals (Marius 1999). This particular writing is important because Luther not only writes directly to the German people as his people but also begins to equate Christianity, true Christianity, to Germany. In a particularly fiery passage, as is usual for him, he writes “O the shameful Diet, the equal never beheld and never heard of, and never again shall be beheld nor heard of half such a shameful action , that it must be an eternal stigma of all the Princes and the entire Empire and make all us Germans red with shame before God and the entire world. What will the Turk and his entire Empire say, when they hear such an unheard of action from our Empire? What will the Tartars and Moscovites say to it? Who will henceforth under the heavens be fearful of us Germans or hold something from us as honest…Each and every German should justly rue that he was born a German and is called a German (Franklin 1971)”. This passage is noteworthy because he refers to all Germans as individuals, not only to a German nation in the sense of just the elite ruling class but every German individually.
This is further shown by him even writing this in German in the first place. Like most intellectuals of the time he was fluent in Latin and wrote many of his writings including his seminal piece, The 95 Theses, in Latin. Yet many of his social writings were in German such as To Christian Nobility and Warning of Martin Luther. This combined with the audience he was writing to highlights the fact that he was not aiming to reach a specific demographic like writers before him. He was not aiming for only the educated upper class or only for whatever population of Europe could read at the time. He was aiming specifically for those who spoke German to call them to action for the good of their homeland and their people. He is calling upon the German people, not just the princes but every German, to act as a people and for the good of themselves to rise against and resist the power of the Church and the Emperor. He is making it a matter of national honor by asking “Who will be fearful of the Germans?”, certainly not the Turks or the Tartars or the Moscovites. Luther was aware of the gravity of his statements as this Warning came at a tense time in the Holy Roman Empire after the Diet of Augsburg where the Emperor was threatening to end the Protestant uprising with force, calling into question the honor of all Germans and for all Germans to be ashamed was a very powerful statement and not one that was taken lightly.
At this point Luther had started something large than him and larger than he could have imagined. His movement has splintered into different factions and moved past the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. It would go on to split Europe into the Protestant north and Catholic south eventually leading to the 30 years war and the Treaty of Westphalia, arguably one of the most important events in political history. As stated before Martin Luther himself did not begin the nationalist ideas but what he did was arguably more important, he took those ideas a was able to help them transcend class barriers as well as taking the political power of the ideas already vested in them by the German princes and the upper class and not only giving them a religious validity that they needed to full convince the still spiritual masses but even shaping Christianity into a specific German value that need to be protected like any other value. It is unclear if Luther wanted a united Germany or simply freedom for the German people from foreign exploitation.
Whatever his personal goals he was without a doubt the loudest and fartherest reaching voice calling for nationalistic sentiments and became an icon for it. Over three centuries after his death in 1883, 12 years after Germany officially became a country, Martin Luther was given his own jubilee. He was celebrated by Prussian scholars calling him “the pioneer of the World Empire of the German Spirit (Brinks 1998 pg 3)”. He influenced many leaders of the Nazi party, his ideas and likeness appearing in many pamphlets. Hitler heralded him as one of the greatest reformers and champions for the German spirit in Mein Kampf (Paras 2008). In his quest to free his homeland from foreign influence he became something larger than he ever could have imagined, something that would not only change the world but changed his homeland he loved multiple times over.
- Paras, Emily (2008) “”The Darker Side of Martin Luther,”” Constructing the Past: Vol. 9 : Iss. 1 , Article 4. Available at: http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol9/iss1/4
- Luther, Martin. An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520. Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915.
- Whaley, Joachim. Germany and the Holy Roman Empire: Volume One: From Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993.
- Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999
- Sherman, Franklin. Introduction to Luther’s Works, Vol. 47. Edited by Franklin Sherman, Translated by Martin H. Bertram. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
- Brinks , Jan Herman. “Luther and the German State .” Heythrop Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1–17., doi:10.1111/1468-2265.00062.