Summary and Keywords
What does Martin Luther mean for Germany? Formulated in such a way, this is an impossible question, due in no small measure to the existence of many “Luthers” and many “Germanys.” But it also invites historical investigation. Luther has long held a privileged position in the writing of German history, stretching back to his own lifetime, even if the exact nature of that position has hardly remained static or uncontested. Luther’s position in the annals of German historiography testifies to the influence of social and political upheavals on the way in which historians understand the past—and vice versa. Each era’s critical events have encouraged certain aspects of Luther’s person and work to be remembered and others to be forgotten.
Like swapping between telephoto and wide-angle lenses, historical perspectives have moved between a narrow concentration on the German reformer’s biography and theology and a broader focus on the Protestant movement he launched in Germany. Historians have regularly enlisted Luther in an expansive, sweeping vision of the German Reformation and the emergence of the modern German nation-state with Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, contemporary ideas of nation and nationalism have had a determining influence on interpretations of Luther. This is true as much for German historians like Leopold von Ranke, writing toward the beginning of history’s professionalization as a full-fledged, independent academic discipline in the first half of the 19th century, as it is for those surveying Luther in the midst of the First World War, in the aftermath of Hitler and the Nazi era, in the postwar German Democratic Republic in the East and Federal Republic of Germany in the West, on the cusp Germany’s “turning point” (die Wende) of 1989–1990—and even for historians now situated in the 21st century.
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