The reception of Luther in central Europe has been influenced by the Counter-Reformation and re-Catholicization more than anywhere else. Protestantism was so widespread in this area throughout the 16th century that it largely reduced the Roman Catholic Church to a minority confession, but 500 years later it comprises a majority. The diaspora situation did not leave space for academic research in Luther’s theology. This article focuses on just two regions of central Europe that can serve as typical case studies: parts of the lands of the Bohemian crown, and of the kingdom of Hungary. Similarities could be found in other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, but particular historical complexities make it difficult to speak about central Europe as a whole.
In its early phase, Luther’s thought spread primarily in regions where the population was able to read Reformation texts in German: Silesia, North Bohemia, Moravia, Upper Hungary, west Hungary, and Transylvania. From about 1520, it was predominantly the cities along the routes of German traders that contributed to the spread of Luther’s writings in central Europe. In addition, the strong political position of the estates influenced the reception of Luther’s theology in certain areas more than in others. Moreover, the catechetical work done in schools under humanistic influence supported the idea of reformation and religious tolerance. Luther had a much more lasting impact on piety and spirituality through his Small Catechism and hymns than through theological reception, for example in Slovakia. In Bohemia, in contrast, Luther’s works were first translated into another national language, and there occurred theological reflection from various angles, yet no lasting tradition of Lutheranism was established.
Reformation in Slovakia, as in like in Hungary, Austria, and Poland, was dominated by Lutherans, whereas in Bohemia and Moravia the Hussite reformation and religious freedom allowed the development of various other confessions, such as Utraquism and the Unity of the Brethren. In central Europe, the Reformation started earlier but was broadly established later than in western Europe. In the first half of the 1520s, the impact of Luther was sporadic and not connected throughout larger areas. After the battle at Mohács and the Diet of Augsburg, the call for ecclesiastical reform was more broadly accepted, first in the cities with predominant German populations, then by the nobility, and by the 1540s by Hungarians, Slovaks. The Letter of Majesty in Bohemia (1609), and the Peace of Vienna and Diet of 1608 in Hungary constituted legal recognition of the evangelical communities. The Reformation in Bohemia and Hungary was more diverse than anywhere in western Europe. The confessionalization of the Reformation reflected and accentuated ethnic differences throughout the region.