Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the Seven Years' War

A Contemporary depiction of the 1760 siege

Dear Reader,

Today is popularly remembered as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If you are a rather austere historian like me, you might point out that November 11th, not October 31st, is really 500 years on from October 31st, 1517. On that day in October, Augustinian Friar Martin Luther circulated his 95 Theses, beginning a large and eventually successful movement to change theological understandings of Christianity. Luther, a professor of Theology at Wittenberg University, supposedly nailed this document to the doors of the local church, a common practice for sharing ideas. The doors of the schlosskirche, or Castle-Church (often referred to as All Saints Church in English) were much like a bulletin board, and Luther likely did not intend to start anything more than a local conversation. Despite that, he touched off a movement that would irrevocably change the world.

Luther's (rebuilt) church in Wittenberg, as it looks today

To this day, Luther's significance is widely debated. Many Catholics and some historians argue that Luther horribly divided European Christianity, and created the pluralistic society we live in today. Many Protestants, both Lutheran and otherwise, view Luther as a hero, who created the theological framework for their religious beliefs. Finally, there is the category I and others fall into: the belief that Luther was a deeply flawed individual, who greatly assisted created the modern Western World, with all of its flaws, foibles, triumphs, and achievements. It is possible to view Luther creator of much of the human freedom which has developed in the west since 1500: freedom of speech and religion being two of the largest consequences of his movement. It is important to note: as a late Medieval man, Luther would have been horrified at many of these developments, but he helped create them nonetheless.
Luther in 1520, by Lukas Cranach the Elder

After Luther's death in 1546, religious conflict devastated Europe for the next century. From 1546 to 1648, the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years' War, caused an intense amount of suffering, particularly in German Central Europe. After the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, European statesmen began to realize that wars fought to enforce religious belief were often less than successful. The desire creation of a universal Protestant or Catholic Europe faded, and religious toleration began to grow, in fits and starts. Wars were fought between princes and states, not between fanatic adherents of rival religious groups.  Soldiers could still be incredibly religious: indeed, Swedish troops in the Great Northern War were some of the most devout religious believers in European history. Religious differences as a cause of war, however, became less common.

Hans Karl von Winterfeldt:
A Protestant-Warrior in the Eighteenth Century
By the mid-eighteenth century, warfare began to stoke the tensions of the religious conflict, not the other way around. The British developed an anti-French and anti-Catholic identity, while in German Central Europe, the birthplace of Luther and the Reformation, religious tensions remained. Indeed, the Seven Years' War in Europe may have been caused by Protestant ambitions on the part of one man: Prussian General Hans Karl von Winderfeldt. Winterfeldt, one of Frederick II of Prussia's closest confidantes, dreamed of "the creation of a new Protestant German Empire."[1] Frederick's record of religious toleration was mixed; he certainly sponsored it at times in his life and built Catholic places of worship, even in Berlin. However, he also persecuted disloyal Catholics in the County of Glatz during the Seven Years' War, and executed a Catholic priest. The Prussian and British governments used religion as a weapon of propaganda in the Seven Years' War, in an attempt to represent the conflict as religious in nature. Frederick enjoyed a high reputation among Protestant and Catholic minor princes in the Holy Roman Empire, and Austrian Minister Kaunitz wrote that "favoured by fanaticism, the tempting prospect of the secularisations, and the strong solidarity which exists among Protestants ... the kings of England and Prussia could become effectively the masters of the whole of Europe."[2]

The remains of the fortifications of Wittenberg

For their part, the Austrians took steps to solidify their religious position. Fear of defections among Protestant troops within their own armed forces prevented them from using religious propaganda to full effect, and Maria Theresa was warned, "Your Majesty would run the risk of losing a considerable number of generals and officers from Your army, or at least be unable to rely on their loyalty."[3] The greatest event with a legacy to the reformation occurred on the 10th-13th of October 1760. Wittenberg, the sleepy town where Luther had ignited the Protestant Reformation, had been occupied by Prussian forces and was surrounded and besieged by an Austrian Army.  The Austrian bombardment ignited wooden buildings within the town, and fire quickly spread to the schlosskirche, the church where Luther had circulated the 95 Theses. In the course of the fire, the church, and Luther's tomb were burned. According to rumor, the Austrian commander, Grumbach, had wanted to destroy Luther's tomb. This moral victory, and the enterprising work of Austrian light troops who destroyed the locks with kept the wet ditch secure, quickly allowed the Austrian forces to capture the town.[4]

The rebuilt schlosskirche doors in Wittenberg

In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, the church was rebuilt, and in the nineteenth century, Frederick II's great-great-great nephew, Frederick William IV, had commemorative doors cast in bronze, to replace the original wooden doors lost to the bombardment. Eventually, a Protestant-led German nation-state was created, but by that time, the fire of Christian religious conflict had faded from Europe. Now, Luther's legacy is debated with words rather than musket shot. Even 500 years on, Luther remains a divisive figure.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life, 86.
[2] Quoted in Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 349.
[4] Christopher Duffy, By Force of Arms, 280.

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