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As the founder of Protestantism and modern written German – a side effect German society has equalled anyone’s. Yet Luther’s personality remains one of history’s more elusive, in part because both he and generations of historians ever since have sought to manipulate his image.

The Road to Wittenberg

Though born Martin Luder into the well-to-do family of Magarete and Hans Luder in Eisleben in 1483, Luther liked to talk of humble origins. He would talk of his father’s hard mining life and how his mother carried wood home on her back. In fact his father owned a mine and smelting business and so his mother would rarely have needed to collect wood herself. Certainly, though, his upbringing was hard: “My parents always punished me severely and in a frightening way. My mother beat me for the sake of a single nut until blood flowed.” His early life was governed by his father’s ambition that he should become a lawyer. Luther began to study at the University of Erfurt until 1505, when, after a near miss from a lightning bolt, he swore he would become a monk if he survived the thunderstorm. He followed this up and became a model Augustinian monk in Erfurt, following the order’s rules so strictly that he became a priest in just over eighteen months. He left to study in Wittenberg in 1508 and by 1512 had become a Doctor of Theology; by all accounts he was an excellent teacher and charismatic preacher.

Luther attacks the church

In 1517 he wrote his famous 95 theses, a document in which he attacked the issue of indulgences by the Church. These certificates could be bought from the papacy to give the purchaser less time in Purgatory, while the funds were used to raise revenues, to fund Vatican building projects, great cathedrals and, ironically, Wittenberg’s university. Martin Luther blew the whistle on all this and found widespread support, in part because the latest round of indulgence selling was part of a high-profile campaign to raise funds for rebuilding St Peter’s in Rome, which struck a nationalist chord against foreigners bleeding Germanic states of their wealth. This principled stand against authority and injustice has later been celebrated with vigorous embellishments: Luther probably didn’t nail his 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche but rather circulated them like a memorandum. Nor is there historical evidence that he boldly stated at the Diet of Worms “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” (Here I stand. I can’t do anything else.), a slogan now on souvenir socks and T-shirts. He did, however, change his name to Luther, inspired by a Greek word for liberated.

Understanding Luther

Luther was clearly pious and principled and courageously ventured into territory that had cost other would-be reformers, notably Jan Huss a century earlier, their lives. Yet his defiant and stubborn actions – such as openly burning the papal bull that called for his excommunication – were born out of a sort of academic pedantry, that the Bible and not the papacy was the only source of truth, rather than a desire for rebellion, as shown in his opposition to the Peasants’ War (1524–25), which made him a hard figure for the GDR to swallow. Certainly Luther should be seen more as a conservative whose aim was to return to the original Church values, rather than someone who wanted to create a revolutionary new order. However the same cannot always be said of those who adopted the Reformation, who often had self-interest in change: his protector Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, for one, must have been tired of emptying his coffers to the Catholic Church – he’d personally hoarded around five thousand indulgences to shorten his time in Purgatory by a reputed 1443 years.

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