Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Here We Stand

Americans don't think of Germans as revolutionaries. Lenin once famously said, if Germans would stage a revolution at the train station, they would first buy tickets to get onto the platform. Of course, Lenin was smuggled into Russia in a German train to start a revolution, so this is rather ironic. Nevertheless, 500 years ago, one German started a revolution. It would trigger the Thirty Years' War that would take the lives of one third of the German people, turn Europe upside down, and bring down the remnants of the Roman Empire. This was the Reformation, brought to you by Martin Luther.

Five-hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed (or rather, posted) his ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. At first, this was less dramatic than it sounds; really more an invitation to debate Theology, not a declaration of war against the Pope. The actual stand-off occurred on April 18, 1521, after three and a half years of mounting hostilities up to the point of burning Papal decrees. In April, Luther spoke before the Diet of Worms, where the Dukes and Princes of the Holy Roman Empire congregated, presided by Charlemagne. Charles V. was the Emperor who ruled Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Luther was a monk with the sparse salary of a teacher. He defended his Theses in Latin, followed by a statement in German. "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me."

Today, it is in doubt whether he spoke those exact words, but his stance is undisputed: He refused to compromise. Quite knowingly, he was declared "vogelfrei", an outlaw whom everybody could kill. He to spent nearly a year in hiding in the Wartburg, while — to prove his point —translating the Bible. Subsequently, uprisings broke out, churches were plundered, peasants killed. The Dukes of Saxony and Hesse went to war against the Pope. Luther, who had only searched for the right way to approach God and not for a revolution, did not recant. Eventually, half of Germany became Protestant and the Holy Roman Empire split into three parts.

Luther was motivated partly by belief and partly by his desire for honesty, but deep down, he was basically driven by German stubbornness. He once (presumably) said: "If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today." This is one hundred percent German: The determination to stick to what feels right, no matter what. Not even if the world burns down around you, and your family with it. Because this is what we do. And this is how a German revolutionary looks like.

It is not just Luther. In the Nibelungensaga, which goes back 1500 years, everybody fights to the death in the castle of Attila the Hun for no reason at all. Michael Kohlhaas, a fictional character by Heinrich von Kleist based on real-life Hans Kohlhase, turned a legal battle about two seized horses into a feud against the state that only ended after half of Saxony was burned and plundered and he himself was executed. Kurt Tucholsky famously said: "Nothing is more difficult and nothing requires more character than to find oneself in open opposition to ones time and to say loudly: No!"

This stubborn determination has good sides and bad sides. Germans like Sophie Scholl, Arvid Harnack, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer said No to Hitler, full knowing they would not survive. Hitler refused to take a No from Stalin. Rather, he would sacrifice the entire Wehrmacht (and he was not even German). Other countries debate about the number of refugees they want to, or can, take in. Germany shrugs and opens its borders for millions. Because it is the right thing to do and we don't do compromise. Other leaders pretend to like Donald Trump. Angela Merkel does not. It all boils down to the inability or unwillingness to calculate whether it's worth it. Americans can be radical, outspoken, and beholden to the narrative, but at the end of the day, they are about compromise and making things work.

So, was the Reformation worth it? What did it achieve? A lot. It brought religion from a far-away Roman Pope to ordinary people who did not speak Latin. They could read the Bible for the first time. The Reformation turned religion from a shiny object in the sky to something in people's hearts and minds. It also opened the door to a multitude of churches. This was not what Luther had intended, because he was by no means a Liberal, but this is how life works. Even if it's not a very German thing to happen.

Your publisher, Eva C. Schweitzer

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