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From Luther to Merkel

Germany’s long-abandoned Reformational past could offer hope for its future

From Luther to Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Five hundred years after Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, the cold creep of atheism has frozen much of Europe—but the continent’s longest-serving and most powerful Western leader still holds a candle of faith. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor for the past 12 years and likely the next four as well, has said, “I believe in God, and religion is also my constant companion, and has been for the whole of my life. We as Christians should above all not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs.” Merkel, now 63, was a preacher’s kid: Her father was a Lutheran pastor. She does not attend church regularly but calls her Lutheran faith an “inner compass” and referred to Christian humanitarian ideals as a driving force in her decision to let into Germany a million Syrian refugees: “We feel bound to the Christian image of humanity—that is what defines us.” Merkel didn’t lead the charge to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage in Germany, but she ultimately chose not to fight on those issues. Her reluctant accommodation to political pressures suggests that although Lutheranism still has some influence on her thinking, it isn’t always decisive.

Theological shifts inevitably impact the temporal. Luther’s stance for a direct, Biblical understanding of the gospel influenced education and government in Germany, driving it into the modern age. His translation of the Bible into everyday German was transformative: A vast region of loosely connected principalities and city-states became linguistically unified, and the idea of a German state came into being. To this day Germans refer to the “Luthertext”—his translation—with the respect anglophones use for Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Version Bible. As the innovation of the printing press made the Luthertext available to ordinary citizens, desire for literacy increased.

Education became more accessible and widespread in the century after 1517, and the literacy rate in Germanic lands quadrupled. Meanwhile Luther’s theological teaching on the priesthood of all believers introduced a new, intrinsically egalitarian concept. The notion of equality before God’s law was a premise for equality before man’s law—an idea that fully worked itself out into society centuries later. Literacy and equality by themselves don’t make a democracy, but a democracy cannot be made or maintained without them: As Thomas Jefferson said, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” For centuries, faith was the engine that drove German culture, politics, and art.

So what happened to Germany? Roughly 150 years after Luther posted the 95 Theses, pietism became the dominant force in the German Lutheran church. Because of its emphasis on personal transformation and individual devotion, some called it the logical continuation of the Reformation movement. Later, however, pietism emphasized a faith so internalized and individualistic it became possible to detach faith from daily life, and tangible care for neighbors became much less important. In the mid-1800s, Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck could be known as a devout pietist while at the same time espousing social Darwinism and plunging Europe into wars for German unification and dominance.

This toxic blend of empty pietism and nationalism later enabled the Nazi Party to manipulate and control German churches in the 1930s. Luther distinguished between theologians of glory—those who make God in their own image—and theologians of the cross—those who preach God as revealed through Jesus Christ on the cross. In Germany’s darkest hour, as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed Nazi ascendance, he made a parallel distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer added, “We are fighting today for costly grace.”

Many Germans saw Angela Merkel’s decision to open German gates to so many refugees in 2015 as an act of national repentance for the Hitler years. That secularized grace was politically costly: Merkel faced unprecedented criticism, and her poll numbers dropped. The Sept. 24 German federal elections confirmed her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party as Germany’s largest, but the CDU had its worst showing since World War II, and the success of the far-right nationalist group Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany—AfD) tempered the victory and leaves Germans feeling unsettled.  

Omer Messinger/Sipa via AP

Merkel shakes hands with Joachim Herrmann of the CSU during an election night event on Sept. 24 in Berlin. (Omer Messinger/Sipa via AP)

The CDU plurality was attained more easily than seemed likely earlier in 2017. Socialist Martin Schultz seemed a dynamic opponent, but he failed to gain traction in debates and ended with a record low showing for his party. With little difference between the two main candidates, centrist-voting Germans chose the known quantity: “Mutti”—Mommy—as Germans affectionately call Merkel. The big winner, though, was the anti-immigrant AfD party, which surged in the last weeks of the campaign to gain 13 percent of the vote, translating to 94 seats, the third-largest party in the 709-member parliament.

This will be the first time since World War II a far-right party holds seats in the Bundestag. Analysts had predicted Germany—mostly satisfied with a strong economy and low unemployment—would reject a populist upheaval of the Brexit-Trump variety. They were mostly right, but Germany’s election echoes France’s earlier this year: A centrist candidate won leadership, but extreme-right groups expanded their representation and legitimacy in government. On election night Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung called the vote “a historical setback for German society” and predicted that AfD’s rise “means that the notion of civility in politics has been defeated.”  

A somber Merkel called her party’s losses “disappointing” and pledged to win back AfD voters. Having vowed not to work with the party because of its racist rhetoric, and with Socialists refusing to continue partnership, Merkel’s next challenge is forming a coalition with the parties that remain—the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens. In early October Merkel accepted limits on future migration in order to keep the Christian Social Union, a mainstream conservative party in Bavaria, in her coalition. The way ahead will be complicated, for both Merkel and Germany, and there are already whispers in the CDU of replacing her.

Still, Merkel has faced threats before and survived. During the final campaign week, the CDU released an ad of Merkel as a smiling 3-year-old with the caption: “For a Germany where anybody can become anything.” Growing up in East Germany, Merkel’s most likely path was to become an accomplice of the Stasi, the secret police. Her pastor-father cooperated with Communist authorities: That shielded his children from discrimination and allowed higher education—and Merkel chose to study science because there it was “more difficult to bend the truth.” While working toward her doctorate in physics, the Stasi secret police tried to recruit Merkel. She turned the job down with a pre-rehearsed excuse that she was a blabbermouth.

‘The only thing the East German system taught us was that we should never do it that way again.’ —Merkel

“The only thing the East German system taught us,” Merkel has said, “was that we should never do it that way again.” On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and while most East Germans spent all night partying, diligent Merkel went home early so she wouldn’t be late to work the next day. A month later, Merkel joined the new East German democracy movement, and that work led to a seat in parliament after unification.

Chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel has been a strong proponent of the European Union. Building the EU has been one of post-war Germany’s greatest challenges. Originally designed to bring France and Germany into such close economic interdependence that another war would be impossible, the EU’s expansion to 28 members stretched its original mandate. As its scope has grown to meet new members’ needs, citizens of wealthier nations like Germany feel resentment at having to pull more than their own weight. Germany is the economic powerhouse behind the euro common currency and as such led in bailing out member nation Greece in the debt crisis of 2011. “We have no alternative,” Merkel said then.

Stefan Sauer/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

AfD supporters rally on Sept. 16. (Stefan Sauer/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

In response, economists formed the Alternative for Germany party to protest the eurozone crisis. In the run-up to the latest election, however, the AfD morphed into an anti-immigrant party, protesting Merkel’s push to open Europe’s borders to millions of refugees. After the 2016 Berlin Christmas market terrorist attack that killed 12 people and injured 56, some Germans felt the establishment parties ignored their concerns over security and the cost of refugee resettlement. They used their vote to send a message and were willing to overlook the AfD’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Merkel’s open-door policy highlights the dilemma for Germany and other developed nations: How and when should a nation open its doors? How should a government regulate immigration? What is a compassionate Christian response? Bonhoeffer understood that Luther’s theology of the cross worked culturally in the 1500s, and he sought to deliver a message of repentance and hope for his own time.

But many Germans—now with Bundestag representation—are calling for the nation to leave the past behind. Last January, AfD leader Björn Höcke labeled Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” and said the country needs to stop atoning for Nazi crimes. But a nation trying to find its own forgiveness without tending its soul will remain unsatisfied and repeat its mistakes. While the world watches, Germany is asking itself what kind of nation it will be. The way forward, for Merkel and the nation, is not to forget its past but to go further back into its rich history of faith. The transformative truths of the Reformation could transform Germany, and Europe, again.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Mid-Career Course.


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  •  Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Sun, 10/15/2017 05:29 pm

    A united Germany might be a threat.  So, hopefully with our prayers, Merkel's Germany will remember Luther, leave the EU and embrace a more humane future.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Tue, 10/17/2017 06:59 am

    Very nice article and one that helped me understand a little more about Germany and how it approaches cultural challenges.

    "Merkel’s open-door policy highlights the dilemma for Germany and other developed nations: How and when should a nation open its doors?"

    Germany and others should not become patsies for tyrants in other places. Refugees have become tools, more than ever, in cultural warfare and democracies without a solid anchor are easy targets.

    You have hinted at what it means to be a nation, or a "people," and implied that there is a solution to mistakes and failures in governance. 

    "But a nation trying to find its own forgiveness without tending its soul will remain unsatisfied and repeat its mistakes."

    This is a high-sounding sentence but without sound governance based on fundamental characteristics of man and God, i.e. principles of truth, it's not very practical. Germany, and even more the EU, has squandered the truth and won't prevail, except perhaps on a materialistic level temporarily, without its people humbling themselves to the Almighty.

    BTW, it's a lesson we are not forthrightly facing well in the US either but what little legacy we have left from the past may be a small beacon of light going forward.