Reversing the Charges

Robert Benne

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 52 (April 1995):48-51.

The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth. By Uwe Siemon-Netto. Concordia. 186 pp. $12.99.

"I've always felt fortunate that I didn't belong to a church tradition with a brilliant founder; that way I haven't had to spend my time defending him." Such was the icy response of John Bennett to a young Lutheran theologian defending Luther's two kingdoms doctrine against the negative judgments of Ernst Troeltsch and Reinhold Niebuhr. That was in the early 1960s, so this sort of jousting has been going on a long time. In a recent Christian Century symposium Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann responded to my criticism of their "Post-Communist Manifesto" by deciding not to respond too sharply. "It's hard enough being a Lutheran ethicist," they said, "if one always has a bad conscience for speaking of good works."

But this book is not just another effort by another Lutheran, Uwe Siemon-Netto, to clear the good name of Martin Luther and prove that the phrase "Lutheran social ethics" is not an oxymoron. Like many Lutherans, Siemon-Netto is outraged by scholars and journalists like William Shirer who draw a direct connection between Luther's alleged "quietism" and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Indeed, Shirer's viewpoint lives on at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (where visitors are shown a film that accuses Luther of being the progenitor of Germany's National Socialism) and in the remarks of an Alan Dershowitz: "It is shocking that Luther's ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches."

The author, who interrupted his career as a journalist for several major German newspapers and journals to study church history and theology, is passionately devoted to setting the record straight. But his intent is more than simply clearing the good name of a hero of the faith for millions of Christians. After all, the charge made against Luther is not that he made theological errors that led his followers astray in their private religious lives. On the contrary, the accusation is that Luther's beliefs and actions led to disastrous historical consequences, not only in the Germany of his time (with the Christian submission to the princes and the slaughter of the peasants), but in the Germany of the twentieth century, when Lutheran Christians failed to resist the rise of Adolf Hitler. These charges are extended to Lutheran communities in South Africa and Chile, for example, which allegedly identified themselves with an unjust status quo on the basis of their Lutheran convictions. Further, so the indictment goes, the Lutheran accommodation to the Communists in East Germany is a confirmation of Troeltsch's judgment that Lutheranism will comply with any political establishment. It has no social ethic on which to take a stand against worldly powers.

Not only does Siemon-Netto think these charges are false, but he believes that interpretations and actions based on stereotypical thinking about "The Fabricated Luther" have contributed to the real catastrophes of the twentieth century. Turning the tables on the stereotypes of Luther, he argues that the most serious historical calamities have been allowed not by "quietistic" Lutherans (who were not in fact quietistic), but rather by those who simplemindedly thought them so.

The author begins with a theoretical chapter on the role of "cliche" in modern communication. Cliches are false typifications of persons, movements, or events that are impervious to qualification by complicating knowledge. Somewhere along the way Luther's and Lutheranism's political ethic was typified in a cliche that has resisted historical falsification. Siemon-Netto thinks Troeltsch the main culprit, though he has been abetted by those like Reinhold Niebuhr who uncritically took over Troeltsch's dictums about Luther. But the cliche was immeasurably reinforced by the small band of "German Christian" theologians of the 1930s who perverted beyond all recognition Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The author mounts several major attacks to defeat this cliche-thinking. He delves into Luther's life. He shows that Luther was active in resisting, advising, and cajoling the political authorities of his day. He goes into Luther's teaching on the two ways that God reigns in the world (by Law and Gospel) and shows how it has real resources for judging and even resisting worldly powers. He shows how early Lutheranism elaborated grounds upon which the lower magistrates can and should resist the prince or king-an approach usually associated with Calvinism. He even indicates that Lutheranism articulated criteria for the people taking up arms against tyrants. These criteria were not merely theoretical. They became the basis, for example, "for one of the most celebrated events in the history of resistance: the fourth Huguenot war that . . . guaranteed the French Protestants the freedom to practice their religion."

All this is fairly standard fare. Lutheran scholars in many countries have made these points more fully and carefully than Siemon-Netto. Things get more interesting when he adds two further "relativizations" of the Luther cliche. One has to do with the fascinating story of Carl Goerdeler, the Lutheran mayor of Leipzig during the 1930s. The story is relatively unknown because, the author claims, it was suppressed by the Nazis (for obvious reasons), and by Communists and leftist historians because it represented serious resistance to the Nazis that came from orthodox Lutherans. Goerdeler was an early opponent of Nazism; he was outspoken in his defiance of the Nazis from 1933 on, and he finally resigned when the Nazis destroyed a statue of Mendelssohn that stood in the main square of Leipzig. He joined an opposition organization (primarily made up of aristocratic and military conservatives) that planned to arrest Hitler and thereby transfer power to others in an orderly, Lutheran way. He indefatigably travelled abroad to warn the allies that Hitler was no normal leader and that his maniacal tendencies would lead to the destruction of the Jews and attacks on both Russia and the West. He pleaded with Chamberlain to resist Hitler at Munich. He tried to get the allies to guarantee support for his resistance movement if it moved against Hitler.

All of this came to naught, Siemon-Netto argues, because both American and British authorities at the highest levels thought in cliches about Germans (militarists), Lutherans (quietists), and conservatives (Hitler sympathizers). They couldn't possibly be right about Hitler and they couldn't possibly be serious about their resistance to him. After all, weren't they German Lutheran conservatives? This way of thinking, the writer argues, prevented the West from acting decisively when such action could possibly have stopped Hitler in his tracks. (Goerdeler, by the way, was imprisoned and in early 1945 was executed by the Nazis.)

Another venture the author uses to destroy the "Luther cliche" is an account of the momentous events of 1989, when Communist hegemony in East Germany ended nonviolently. Siemon-Netto argues that the agitation for nonviolent change that finally brought the Communists down was led by Lutheran clergy and laity. He details their names, churches, and actions. They were, he avers, operating out of classical Lutheran theology that was decisively shaped by the orthodox Lutheran Franz Lau, who, at the crucial time of the church struggle with the state in 1952, wrote a book entitled Luther's Doctrine of the Two Realms. Again, the cliche about Luther and Lutheranism is at least dented, if not destroyed.

Peter Berger, in a fascinating preface to the book, asks not so much about the accuracy of Siemon-Netto's argument as about the reasons cliche-thinking about Luther and Lutheranism has continued in such an unchallenged way. He suggests that cliche-thinking had important political uses for the Communists and their left-leaning sympathizers in the West. The cliches were used to generate guilt among Lutherans for their alleged complicity with Hitler and to open the way for their accepting the utopian schemes of the Communists (something to which Lutherans are typically averse). To do this, the stories that Siemon- Netto now tells had to be suppressed.

The book is not elegantly written nor is it scholarly in a conventional way. It makes an argument based upon shining examples of resistance, but such examples cannot in themselves disprove that Lutheranism creates a general ethos of passivity among the broader population. There can be little doubt, however, that Siemon-Netto has made a robust attack on cliches that deserve to be destroyed. He deserves our appreciation.

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and the Director of its Center for Church and Society. His new book, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Fortress), elaborates a Lutheran social and political ethic.