Germany's austerity bears the mark of Luther

Tue, Aug 14, 2012, 01:00

BUSINESS OPINION:IF THERE’S one nationality the rest of the world thinks it readily and totally understands, it is the Germans. Combine their deep involvement with Nazism and anti-Semitism and, voila! – 2,000 years of complex history vanishes.

Since the beginning of the euro crisis, this reductionism has come in the form of sifting through the fatal legacy of the Weimar era, the years of promising democracy that began in the defeat and humiliation of the first World War and ended with the Nazi takeover in 1933.

On the one hand, we’re told, the 1920s legacy of destabilising inflation explains Germany’s staunch aversion to expansionary monetary and fiscal policies today; on the other hand, the Nazi taint on the interwar years seems to prove for some that, even in 2012, the intentions of democratic Germany can’t be trusted when it comes to Europe’s wellbeing.

But we should read much deeper into Germany’s incomparably rich history, and in particular the indelible mark left by Martin Luther and the “mighty fortress” he built with his strain of Protestantism. Even today Germany, though religiously diverse and politically secular, defines itself and its mission through the writings and actions of the 16th-century reformer, who left a succinct definition of Lutheran society in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian, which he summarised in two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

Consider Luther’s view on charity and the poor. He made the care of the poor an organised, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed, would receive grants from the chest. Each recipient would pledge to repay the borrowed amount after a timely recovery and return to self-sufficiency, thereby taking responsibility for both his neighbours and himself. This was love of one’s neighbour through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans call “faith begetting charity.”

How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptised daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a secular ideology, let alone an institutional religious faith, on her country, but her politics draws from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.

If Dr Merkel refuses to support so-called euro bonds, it is not because it would be like giving free money to the undeserving poor but because it would not help the redeemed poor take responsibility for their own houses and grow strong for both themselves and their needy neighbours. He who receives, recovers and profits from society in a time of need has a moral responsibility to pay society back by acting in turn as a strong citizen who can help fill the common chests and sacrifice for his now needy neighbours, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.

For this point of view Dr Merkel has been derided as the “austerity queen”, and worse. But she is undeterred. She admits that austerity is the toughest road home but hastens to add that it is also the surest and quickest way to recover the economy and gain full emancipation from the crisis. Luther would agree.

According to polls, so do Dr Merkel’s fellow Germans. They hold tight to their belief, born of staunch Lutheran teachings, that human life cannot thrive in deadbeat towns and profligate lands. And they take comfort in the fact that, unlike what they consider the disenchanted, spendthrift countries of Greece and Italy, those living in model German lands have obeyed the chancellor’s austerity laws and other survival programmes designed for a fair, shared recovery.

It is true that Lutheranism has declined in Germany in recent decades, as the forces of multiculturalism and secularism have washed over the country. And yet witness the warmth with which Germans embraced their new president, Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor.

And it is true that Lutheranism is hardly the only social force alive in Germany today. Yet it is of a piece with the country’s two millennia of history.

What’s more, Lutheranism survived both right-wing Nazism and left-wing communism, both of which tried to replace its values with their own. If anything, its resilience comes to the fore when challenged by change.

With the steady advance of Islam into Europe over the past two decades and in the face of unrelenting economic pressure from their neighbours, it is no surprise that Germans of all backgrounds have now again quietly found “a mighty fortress” for themselves in their own Judeo-Christian heritage.

Steven Ozment is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation


Paul Krugman is away

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.