By STEVEN OZMENT
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, voilà! — 2,000 years of gripping, complex history vanishes.
Since the beginning of the euro crisis, this reductionism, which can be found inside Germany as much as outside it, 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 World War I and ended with the Nazi takeover in 1933.
On the one hand, we’re told, the 1920s legacy of destabilizing 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 well-being.
But rather than scour tarnished Weimar, 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 summarized 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 organized, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; rather than skimp along with the traditional practice of almsgiving to the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed that they receive grants, or loans, 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 neighbors and himself. This was love of one’s neighbor through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans still call “faith begetting charity.”
How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptized 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 unmistakably from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.
If Ms. 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 neighbors. 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 neighbors, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.
For this point of view Ms. 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 Ms. 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. They know that money is a scarce commodity that has to be systematically processed, recorded and safeguarded before being put out to new borrowers and petitioners.
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 programs designed for a fair, shared recovery.
But if their Lutheran heritage of sacrificing for their neighbors makes Germans choose austerity, it also leads them to social engagement. In classic Lutheran teaching, the salvation of the believer “by faith alone” does not curtail the need for constant charitable good works, as ill-informed critics allege. Faith, rather, empowers the believer to act in the world by taking the worry out of his present and future religious life.
It is true that Lutheranism, as a faith, 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 of all backgrounds 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 millenniums of history, filled as it is with redemptive self-sacrifice and bootstrapping. In the fourth century A.D., German warriors controlled virtually every senior military post in the Roman army. Later, Germans turned the wilds of northern Central Europe into a bountiful breadbasket — and, most recently, an industrial machine.
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 last two decades and in the face of unrelenting economic pressure from their neighbors, 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.