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Germany and the Reformation: 1517-1648

The decline of the Holy Roman empire is closely connected with the great 16th-century upheaveal in central Europe - that of the Reformation. The German princes, in the many semi-independent territories of the empire, see the religious options suddenly on offer as political opportunities.

The pope is resented by many as a devious and distant intriguer, who drains away money from local church lands and regularly demands more. The emperor, lord of vast new Habsburg territories, is now also a distant figure with interests far beyond the traditional empire.


Once the turmoil of the Reformation begins, in the years after 1517, each German prince assesses his own best chance of securing or expanding his territory and his treasury. The resulting conflicts within German-speaking regions are frequent until the peace of Augsburg in 1555. They then erupt again in the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48.

The great dispute soon becomes a European event. But the original flare-up in 1517 is very much a German phenomenon.


Albert of Mainz: 1517

Germany provides a context in which materialism within the Roman Catholic church is offensively evident. Some of the principalities, which together make up the Holy Roman empire, are ruled by unscrupulous prelates living in the style of Renaissance princes. Foremost among them is Albert, archbishop of Mainz and one of the seven imperial electors.

By the age of twenty-four Albert holds a bishopric and a second archbishopric in addition to Mainz. Such plurality is against canon law. But the pope, Leo X, agrees to overlook the irregularity in return for a large donation to the building costs of the new St Peter's.


Both pope and archbishop are men of the world (the pope is a Medici). Leo makes it possible for Albert to recover his costs by granting him the concession for the sale of indulgences towards the building of St Peter's. Half the money for each indulgence is go to Rome; the other half will help to pay off Albert's debts (he has borrowed the money for the original donation from the Fuggers of Augsburg).

This secret arrangement might distress the faithful if they knew of it. But more immediately shocking to some is the behaviour of the friar Johann Tetzel, whom Albert employs to sell the indulgences.


Tetzel is a showman. When preaching to gullible crowds in German towns he goes far beyond the official doctrine of indulgences. He promises the immediate release of loved ones from the pain of Purgatory as soon as a purchase is made. He even has a catchy jingle to make the point: 'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.'

In October 1517 some parishioners return to Wittenberg with indulgences which they have bought from Tetzel - indulgences so powerful, some have been led to believe, that they could pardon a man who had raped the Virgin Mary. News of this travesty reaches the ears of a professor at the university of Wittenberg.


Luther's ninety-five theses: 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.


Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than Tetzel's impudent selling of God's grace. Luther has often argued against the sale of indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.


Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred which lasts in some Christian communities down to the present day. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther is as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which now engulfs him - slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two. Its violence derives from several unusual elements.


The papacy is determined to suppress this impertinence. Luther's writings are burnt in Rome in 1520; his excommunication follows in 1521. This is the predictable part. The unexpected elements are the groundswell of support in Germany, nourished by a deep resentment of papal interference; and the effect of the relatively new craft of printing.

Before Gutenberg, news of Luther's heresy would have circulated only slowly. But now copies of the ninety-five theses are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate develops, with pamphlets pouring from the presses - many of them from Luther's pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe's printers produce 1300 different editions of his tracts.


In these circumstances it is impossible for the issue to be swept under the carpet. Any action taken against Luther in person is certain to provoke a crisis - though in the early years his safety depends heavily on the protection of Frederick the Wise, proud of his university and reluctant to hand over to Rome its famous theologian, however controversial.

Support for the excommunicated monk is so strong among German knights that the young emperor, Charles V, is prevailed upon to hear his case at a diet held in 1521 in Worms. Luther is given a safe conduct for his journey to and from the diet. He is no doubt aware of the value of an imperial safe conduct to John Huss a century earlier, but he accepts the challenge.


The Diet of Worms: 1521

Where Huss had slipped into Constance in 1414 almost alone, Luther arrives at the diet at Worms supported by a large number of enthusiastic German knights. Nevertheless the purpose of the confrontation, from the emperor's point of view, is a demand that he should recant.

In a lengthy speech Luther explains that he will recant any of his views if they can be proved wrong by scripture or reason. Otherwise he must remain true to his conscience and to his understanding of God's word. The presses soon reduce this to the pithy statement which has been remembered ever since: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders., 'Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.'


The emperor and the diet declare Luther an outlaw in the Edict of Worms (using the violently Intemperate language of the time). Luther leaves Worms with his safe conduct guaranteed for a few days. Once it has expired, it becomes the duty of any of the emperor's loyal subjects to seize the heretic.

Precisely that disaster seems to happen. Luther is bumping along in his wagon when armed men gallop up and drag him off. He is not seen in public for almost a year, causing many to assume that he is dead. But the armed men belong to Frederick the Wise. They take Luther to safety in one of Frederick's castles, the Wartburg, where he is given new clothes and a new identity - as Junker Georg, or plain Squire George.



In the years following the Edict of Worms, and Luther's return to Wittenberg in 1522, the princes of German states and the councils of imperial cities engage in furious argument whether to accept the Edict's rejection of Luther's reforms. There is growing hostility to external interference in German affairs - from Rome and from the pope's committed ally, a Holy Roman emperor whose interests now seem as much Spanish as German. A large minority within the empire is in rebellious mood.

In 1526 the emperor, Charles V, attempts to calm the situation by appeasement.


An imperial diet held in Speyer in 1526 modifies the outright ban on Luther's teachings, imposed five years previously in the Edict of Worms. Now each German prince is to take his own decision on the matter, with the responsibility to answer for it 'to God and the emperor'.

Three years later, once again at Speyer, another diet take the opposite line. The concession of 1526 is withdrawn, and the Edict of Worms reinstated. A dissenting minority, consisting of five princes and fourteen imperial cities, publishes a 'Protestation' against the decision. As a result they become known as the Protestants.


Augsburg: 1530-1555

The need to settle religious unrest in Germany is made more urgent by the shock of the Turks besieging Vienna in September 1529. They withdraw unsuccessfully a month later. But the affront vividly suggests the possibility of greater dangers.

The emperor Charles V makes a new attempt to resolve the issue at a diet in Augsburg in June 1530. Luther, officially an outlaw under the terms of the Edict of Worms, is unable to attend. His place is taken by Melanchthon, who presents what is now known as the Augsburg Confession. Drawing various previous documents into one coherent whole, this becomes the standard statement of the Lutheran faith.


Melanchthon's purpose is to emphasize that the Lutheran reforms 'dissent in no article of faith from the Catholic church'. They merely strip away abuses which have been introduced in recent centuries. The diet refuses to accept this, decreeing instead that by April 1531 all Protestant princes and cities must recant from the Lutheran position and (an important element) restore all church and monastic property which has been seized.

The threat of military intervention by the emperor is implicit. In response, the Protestant princes and some of the imperial cities form a defensive pact for mutual defence, established in 1531 as the League of Schmalkalden.


Over the next two decades the League is often in action against its Catholic neighbours in Germany. In 1547 it suffers a severe reverse in the battle of Mühlberg, a victory for Charles V which results in the League's two main leaders - the elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse - spending five years as the emperor's prisoners.

But no military victory can resolve these deep religious divisions within the empire. When another imperial diet meets at Augsburg in 1555, presided over by Charles V's brother Ferdinand, all sides are weary and desperate for a solution.


The compromise eventually accepted, and known as the Peace of Augsburg, acknowledges the reality which has emerged in the years since Luther's ninety-five theses sparked off the conflict. Each prince and city is to be allowed to choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism (but all other sects, such as the Swiss reformed church and the Anabaptists, remain proscribed). The formula is later succinctly described in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio (whoever has the kingdom chooses the religion).

The principle of the ruler choosing the religion has effectively held sway for some time within the empire. And it has been far more starkly the case in the independent kingdoms of northwest Europe.


After Augsburg: 1555-1619

The Augsburg formula preserves for half a century an uneasy peace in the German lands, while princes use their religious freedom as a form of diplomacy.

Catholic rulers can be sure of strong support from a newly invigorated Rome after the Council of Trent; an energetic role is now played in their territories by the new order of Jesuits. Lutheran princes gain strength not only from each other but from Protestant kingdoms to the northwest, Denmark and Sweden. And the minority of Calvinist territories can expect friendship from France during the reign of Henry IV.


Early in the 17th century the two sides form up in opposing blocs, each headed by a branch of the Wittelsbach family. The Wittelsbachs of the Rhine Palatinate, in southwest Germany, are Calvinist; they lead the Protestant Union, formed in 1608. The Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, just to the east, form the Catholic League in the following year.

This confrontation does not immediately lead to armed conflict - until the Protestants of distant Bohemia elect as their king, in 1619, the Calvinist Wittelsbach, Frederick V. The response by the Catholic League, in alliance with pope and emperor, becomes one of the opening encounters of the Thirty Years' War.


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