Luther and German Nationalism

William Castro

Recently, the Bible-believing world has celebrated the 500 year of Martin Luther's life and the Reformation. We remembered great qualities and the positive legacy of such a remarkable man of the sixteenth- century. Now that this celebration is over, it is wise to consider that Luther was not necessarily celebrated in the same way throughout history and in all places. Going back 100 years, Luther was celebrated in Germany as an example of faith and nationalism.

The impact of Luther's life and thought on German Nationalism is a highly complex but etremely important topic. We not only need to understand the more wholesome sides of the Reformer's story; we also need to evaluate the role of Christianity respecting the recent resurgence of nationalisms.

If by "nationalism" one means patriotism--the noble idea of loving your own country and people--then it is something we might welcome and encourage. However, if one means an identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations (as the Oxford dictionary defines "nationalism") then we must reject such an idea.

When we come to consider Luther and German Nationalism we come to a difficult discussion for a number of reasons. First, the nationalism of Luther's day has been tied (whether properly or improperly) to the twentieth century Holocaust; therefore, it has become a highly sensitive topic. Second, this subject has been manipulated to two extremes: some, such as Elvira Roca Barea, accuse Luther of promoting racist nationalism similar to the kind characterized by the Nazis; and others, such as Eric Metaxas, deny any connection at all between Luther and later German Nationalism. Heiko Oberman reached a more balanced, careful, and disciplined conclusion. He wrote:

"The National Socialists celebrated in Luther the national hero, but they did not create this image of him. Religious conviction and national pride had for centuries intertwined themselves around his image..."

It is important for us to understand Luther's legacy in light of the fact that he Reformation of the sixteenth century was primarily a German event. Even though Germany officially became a modern nation centuries after Luther--in 1871--his aspiration for the unity and the betterment of German people plays an important role in his history. Luther was thinking especially of Germany when he labored for Reformation; he considered himself to be something of a national prophet. Luther once said, "I, the German prophet seek salvation and blessedness not for myself but for the Germans." Luther and many of his contemporaries saw John Huss no only as a forerunner of religious reform but as a national hero.

This sort of consideration is foreign to most of us living in the United States in the 21st Century. Some American Christians celebrate October 31st with Scottish symbols, pipes and kilts. This is perhaps because we, as Presbyterians, are certain that the Reformation is something that reached maturity thanks to the work of certain notable Scots. Additionally, we tend to view Martin Luther and the Reformation through "Scottish-American" lenses because of the rich Scottish ancestry that lay behind many of the demographics of Presbyterianism.

Therefore, it is helpful for us to consider that Luther, who took a brave stand for the gospel, was also crucial for the birth of nationalism in Germany. Europe was in a terrible crisis, where many regions were starting to grow an attitude against foreign influence and tyranny. To be sure, Luther wasn't the most radical of the patriots of his time. Ulrich von Hutten had a far clearer political and even militaristic agenda for the betterment of Germany; however, it was Luther who brought lasting impact to this region.

Luther, in the sixteenth century, made use of the printing press to promote his discontent with Rome. Acting in his self-evaluated prophetic role, he was able to channel the bitterness of his people oppressed by foreign tyranny. He stated, ""Every German should on this account rue having been born a German and being called a German." The Pope was the enemy, not only because he opposed "justification by faith alone" but also because he was a symbol of oppression to Germany. Luther stated, "Just as we thought we had achieved independence, we became the slaves of the craftiest of tyrants; we have the name, title, and coats of arms of the empire, but the pope has the wealth, power, the courts, and the laws. Thus the pope devours the fruit and we play with the peels."

Among the craftiest devices employed by the Pope was his misuse of the ancient doctrines of the universality and catholicity of the church. Luther believed in the biblical aspects of this doctrine; but, he defend the liberty of Christians from the tyranny of Rome and, in that way, also the liberty and the rights of the German princes against the interference of Rome's internationalism (i.e. globalist domination).

The list of theologians, thinkers, and patriots following Luther's lead are long. It will be important to highlight Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the resurgence of nationalism during the Napoleonic times. For him, the Reformation could not be what it was without the impulse of the German spirit and the German language. Fichte celebrated in Luther, "a proof of German earnestness of soul...Behold in this a proof of the characteristic quality of the German people." Luther and the Reformation provided Germany with an identity of "a single body and its constitution as established by nature."

The resurgence of German nationalism grew hand by hand with the resurgence of Luther's studies. In 1883 when Germany celebrated the 400th year of Luther's birth, several of Luther's work were published. Dr. Tim Klein portrayed Luther as an important symbol of German pride. He wrote, "Germany will be transformed in the name of the Lord. Who knows what God will do of us the German people?" Luther was seeing the symbol of fighter and the model of a man for Germany and described with exaltation, "every inch of you is a German man."

These celebrations had a powerful mixture of hope, pride, faith, and resentment. Extreme nationalism grows when people consider their own culture, nation, language, and history in peril. They see their country invaded by foreign people and foreign ways. Hence, filled with resentment, they seize the opportunity to go back to the glorious years. Germans who had a strong love for their county in the nineteenth century found echo of the frustration of the times of Martin Luther sixteenth century.

These and other factors helped pave the way for a radical nationalism in Germany. Over a number of years, political ideas were intertwined with theology and religious sentiments. This made it much more palatable for the Protestant church progressively to submit to the catastrophic plans of National Socialism. The church was trapped under the demagogy of a lunatic, Hitler, who used Luther and the German sentiment that had been brewing for many centuries throughout the territory.

Hitler and the Nazis not only used Luther's later anti-Semitic writings but also his German Nationalism. In his book Mein Kampf (My Fight), Hitler portrayed Luther as German hero and promised that the church will enjoy the 'committed protection' of his nationalist government." He called the church 'the basis of our entirely morality.' He called on Protestants and Catholics together to defend and work for the resurgence and German renaissance in an uncompromising manner, a nationalized Christianity that would stand up for Germany first.

German Nationalism, like others forms of nationalism in history, tended not only to despise other nations but also to despise some individuals who live, work, and interact in their cities on a daily basis. The nationalist soon starts to view those of other countries as those who are not of "our nation." Furthermore, they start to view foreigners as representatives, justified or no, of an obstacle to the national interest. Of course, there were several reasons why Nationalist Germans hated the Jews, but one was the idea that the Jews had a "denationalizing" tendency.

By mixing nationalism in with anti-Semitism, Hitler enjoyed the complicity, the silence, the votes, and the blessing of many well-intentioned Protestant people in Germany. Some representatives of the Confessing Church presented a courageous resistance. However, we should avoid a hard and fast distinction between German Christians (i.e. the Nazified church) and the Confessing Church (i.e. the anti-Nazi church). German Christians as well as members of the Confessing Church supported Hitler's nationalist measures to reduce Jewish influence in Germany. For instance, the Barmen Declaration (the doctrinal statement of the Confessing Church) did not condemn the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party. The most heated criticism of Karl Barth's protest against Hitler came from noted scholars who were not part of the German Christian extreme movement. Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch would by no means be considered conservatives by the Evangelical church of today; but, were not eccentric, isolated, or heretical. On the contrary, these scholars were well-respected and esteemed professors. Althaus wrote praises to Hitler calling this a miracle and a gift from God and called that moment the "German Hour of the Church." Hirsch called the Nazi revolution a "holy storm" and a "powerful blessing" in which God's work would be seen in the Weltanschauung (i.e. the comprehensive world and life view.)

In addition, Protestants felt attracted to Hitler and the Nazis because, in their estimation, it meant the defense of Christian values that were in danger under atheistic and communist thought. As Niemohler is reported saying, "I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me."

The cry of a patriot like Niemohler call us to reflect on the following question, "How will history see the evangelical church in American in regards to nationalism in 100 years? How does God view our sentiments, words, and action with respect to nationalism? To be sure, the United States is a far cry from Germany--and, we must avoid making fast, irresponsible, and fallacious parallels--but we also have the task to try, in the light of the Bible, to see where our shortcomings today. Do we consider foreign individuals who live, work, and even worship the same God in our city as part of our nation and our own interest? Is the communion of saints stronger than our identity in our nation? We need a clear review of history to evaluate and be able to overcome the limitations of our time as citizens of heaven and pilgrims in this land.