I grew up hearing and watching stories of heroes and villains in which a common theme was the necessity of keeping certain powers or weapons out of the wrong hands. The heroes knew that “with great power comes great responsibility” and it was their job to keep the villains from gaining access to this power.
The hero of today’s story forever changed the Christian faith and religious landscape forever. Martin Luther took a bold stand against the wayward practices of the Catholic Church at the time seeking to explain the idea of salvation by grace to the German populace. His tenacity and unwillingness to recant his words guided the Protestant Reformation to completion.
However, Luther could not have known the consequences of his words 400 years later in the hands of history’s most power hungry individual. Luther, the pride of Germany, became the poster boy (literally) for why the Nazi movement and a Germany-first mindset came to dominate the 1930’s.
Luther and Hitler were compared by Reich leaders as both being “German leaders who knew they were called upon for the salvation of their people.” Hitler himself said that the National Government would take “under its firm protection Christianity as the basis of [its] morality.” I was previously aware that the Nazi machine orchestrated by Adolf Hitler utilized fear, economics, and powerful speech to rise to power, but I did not know that the speech of the Nazi Reich so heavily incorporated the founder of Protestantism’s words to its malicious advantage.
The Reich Bishop, newspapers, and the Chancellor himself cited Luther’s writings regularly calling him the “greatest German,” but also a “great anti-semite,” a “fighter against the Jewish spirit in the Christian church.” These appeals to nationality and ethnocentrism were food for a starving German populace trying to rise from its self-created ashes. Eventually, the Nazis bombed synagogues on the eve of Luther’s birthday. Luther may have written against Judaism from an ideological standpoint, but the Reich warped his words as justification for persecution of an entire ethnic group.
In this case, Luther’s speech was the powerful weapon that the bad guys could wield to literally bring destruction upon the Earth. If history is written by the victors, then the past is interpreted by those in power.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian who was imprisoned and executed in a concentration camp, commented: “One wonders why Luther’s action had to be followed by consequences that were the exact opposite of what he intended.” I teared up at the thought of such a noble crusade of explaining grace for all being used to not only exclude and persecute, but to mass murder.
I find myself examining a bird’s eye view of the memory of the Reich’s tailored memory of Luther. This exemplifies the crucial importance of an educated populace in preventing the reoccurrence of such a disaster. Education with facts and truth that allows individuals to formulate their own conclusions prevents the compilation of momentum towards radical action. If Marx was correct in saying that religion is the opioid of the masses, then the Nazi Reich truly manipulated that drug to justify its motives, while satisfying the people’s hopes for a better Germany.
I step back and think of our modern world, and the capacity of leaders to twist and warp words out of context. Who knows what the North Korean state uses to convince its populace that their way is the only way?
The belief in God and the belief in leaders can be forces for good, but can also be misleading and utilized for evil. United States citizens once had a Biblical justification for slavery, and the Nazi Reich once used Luther’s figure to attempt to exterminate an ethnicity. Perhaps church and state, both freedom backed institutions, are separated in the United States to prevent religion, a powerful influence, from being used to back government oppression.
History’s impact extends beyond the years in which it takes place and the arena in which it occurs. Martin Luther was no perfect man, but his stand for grace became a rallying point for nationalism and separation, things he never could have foreseen.
The pen is mightier than the sword, and though sticks and stones can break one’s bones, words can alter history.
*Written using information from the “Luther’s Words are Everywhere” exhibit in the Terrors of Topography, Berlin, Germany.