One Hundred Years of Turpitude

51ohFT5S8eLAs the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s Reformation draws closer, opponents are also preparing to defame the man, the denominations that carry his name, and Christianity in general.

Expect a lazy media narrative that makes Martin Luther responsible for single-handedly destroying the German character. They will imprint an unbroken line from 1517 to 1914, thence to Adolf Hitler, and concluding in the concentration camps. Lutherans today will be regarded with suspicion or simply branded ignorant anti-Semites.

Affection for the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden makes it inevitable that his hostility to Luther will be leveraged to make the point. To whit, after the 9/11 attacks, the media and elites enthused about Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” as a work of prescience and meaning; questionably so. They are likely to use this same poem as a starting point to trample Luther since it has a handy cliche in the second stanza:

“Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,..”

September 1, 1939, W.H. Auden, 1939

Verdict and sentence delivered — Luther perverted German culture which birthed Nazism.

Auden wrote quite a bit about Luther whom he criticized for unleashing reckless grace. Freud and Jung, both cherished by the poet, might have raised an eyebrow. After all, Auden was an open homosexual, suffered a possessive mother who presided over an Anglo-Catholic upbringing, and he later embraced high church Episcopalianism as a result of a reported conversion. The latter was apparently under the unhelpful influence of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. (1)

Auden wrote a sonnet expressing his anti-Luther prejudice and antipathy to the Law-Gospel dialectic:


With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder
He saw the Devil busy in the wind
Over the chimney steeples and then under
The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.
What apparatus could stave off disaster
Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?
Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,
World a still pond in which its children drown.
The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:
“Lord, smoke those honeyed insects from their hives;
All Works and all Societies are bad;
The Just shall live by Faith,” he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives.

Luther, W.H. Auden, 1940 (2)

Auden’s meaning is clear:  Luther was a superstitious man troubled in conscience by his sin. The salve for his torment was grace through faith alone, but it produced antinomianism in most people since their consciences were not troubled. It seems that Auden might have been indulging in some autobiographical license in the last line of the poem.

In 1983 Martin Marty quoted the poem approvingly, saying, “Lutheran churches often got things wrong by turning the cry “The Just shall live by Faith” into the doctrine “Justification by Faith.” This doctrine soon became a badge and a weapon.“ Rather dogmatic, if entirely unsurprising.

Auden also composed this piece of doggerel:

Luther & Zwingli
Should be treated singly:
L hated the Peasants,
Z the Real Presence.

Academic Graffiti, W.H. Auden, 1971 (3)

Lighting the fuse

What drove Auden’s views on Luther and Germany? There are several influences to be traced, both passive and active. The first was the Germanophobia that was widely seeded and cultivated in Britain in the wake of Germany’s support for the Boer Republics in the South African Civil Wars. Secondly, by the conclusion of the First World War anti-German sentiment was at fever pitch, and was stoked throughout the 1920s and 1930s as a means of deflecting domestic discontent with British and Russian leadership during the War. Thirdly, at the onset of WWII, British authorities raised the anti-German temperature with a deliberate hate campaign starting in 1940, and which was amplified via the colonies. It was orchestrated by the British Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, and executed by Sir Robert Vansittart who delivered many scurrilous radio addresses and speeches to the House of Lords.(4) Finally, and probably most importantly, Auden came into contact with German refugees to America who suffered self-loathing. Chief among these was the German intellectual, Thomas Mann, most famous for his remake of Faust with its Nazi allegories.

Auden was not merely a reader or acquaintance of Mann’s, but a close friend. He did a considerable favor for Mann’s daughter, Erika, by agreeing to a sham marriage in 1935 so that she could claim British citizenship to escape Germany. He also hosted Mann’s third child, Golo, as a guest in his Brooklyn home for a few months in 1941.(5)

In addition to Mann’s theological opinions, a fascination with psychoanalysis also seems to have rubbed off on Auden. Indeed, Auden’s circle of influence seems to have regarded psychoanalysis as an evolutionary improvement of theology.

Auden’s Luther writings strongly echo Mann’s views (as did Vansittart’s propaganda speeches which also quoted Mann approvingly). Indeed, in the clerihew above, “L hated the peasants” is a central theme for Mann’s German anthropology and his references to Luther as the “Lout of Wittenberg”. Mann consistently misrepresented Luther’s neutrality in the German Peasants’ War, blaming Luther for misunderstanding St. Paul’s admonition to submit to authority as eventually compelling a capitulation to the nobility, which ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion. This supposedly set the course for future Germany.

Mann was the wind on which the seeds of anti-Luther sentiment were dispersed throughout the world.

On May 29, 1945, less than a month after V.E. Day, Mann gave a lecture at the Library of Congress, entitled “Germany and the Germans” wherein he made plain his disdain for Luther, and set the modern tone for secular and religious responses to Lutheranism:

“Martin Luther, a gigantic incarnation of the German spirit,was exceptionally musical.I frankly confess that I do not love him. Germanism in its unalloyed state, the Separatist, Anti-Roman, Anti-European shocks me and frightens me, even when it appears in the guise of evangelical freedom and spiritual emancipation; and the specifically Lutheran, the choleric coarseness, the invective,the fuming and raging, the extravagant rudeness coupled with tender depth of feeling and with the most clumsy superstition and belief in demons, incubi,and changelings, arouses my instinctive antipathy.” (6)

Mann was furious at Luther for a perceived failure to twin his spiritual insights with political ones. Mann wanted a revolution, not a reformation. Bizarrely, Mann asserts that, “… the Reformation, like the later uprising against Napoleon, was a nationalistic movement for liberty” (italics are Mann’s emphasis). That is surely news to Holland, France, Switzerland, England and the Nordic countries, but it is consistent with Mann’s imbibing Goethe as “occasionally [representing] Protestantism as a kind of reconciliation of primitive Germanic paganism and sovereign individualism with Christianity.”(7)

Mann condemns Luther for failing to pair spiritual liberty with political liberty. It is ignorance of the latter that is supposedly the bacillus that turned all Germans into either monsters or subservient accomplices.

“And no one can deny that Luther was a tremendously great man, great in the most German manner, great and German even in his duality as the liberating and the once reactionary force, a conservative revolutionary. He not only reconstituted the Church; he actually saved Christianity”. From the individual’s perspective, Luther was a great liberator: he encouraged a direct encounter between man and God, freeing him from the power of the priesthood. He translated the Bible so every believer could read it himself. Yet from the perspective of society as a whole, he supported the darkest forces oppressing the evolvement of a free society. He was liberator of the inner experience, but fiercely rejected the idea of political liberty. Germans were encouraged to nurture their feelings, artistic drives, religious beliefs – yet political freedom was denounced.”(8)

Whilst vilifying Luther, Mann was careful to preserve the reputations of some favored Germans, namely Goethe and, especially, Nietzsche. Arguably, and ironically, Mann did more than anyone else to make Nietzsche the monument of the American academy that he has become:

By the establishment of the direct relationship of man to his God he advanced the cause of European democracy; for “every man his own priest,” that is democracy. German idealistic philosophy, the refinement of psychology by pietistic examination of the individual conscience, finally the self-conquest of Christian morality for reasons of morality — for that was Nietzsche’s deed or misdeed —a lot of that comes from Luther. He was a liberating hero, but in the German style, for he  knew nothing of liberty. I am not speaking now of the liberty of the Christian, but often political liberty, this liberty of the citizen this liberty not only left him cold, but its impulses and demands were deeply repugnant to him.(9)

In shielding Nietzsche it is telling that Mann’s address makes not one mention of, or reference to, Martin Niemöller or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Just a short time before Mann’s speech the anti-Nazi agent Carl Goerdeler had been hanged. Yet Mann’s conclusions were so impervious to the idea of “good Germans” that he had to disappear even Goerdeler, Niemöller and Bonhoeffer among many others. Yet it was Mann who published Niemöller’s sermons in America, and was amazed at the pastor’s ability to bring people to their knees even on the sidewalk outside his church.(10) Likewise, Mann’s confirmation bias was so strong that he was incapable of seeing National Socialism’s twins in the Soviet Union and Franco’s Spain. Most cynically, we might regard Mann’s 1945 lecture as a long-range project to secure a legacy for Doctor Faust in both literature and anthropology.

In The Fabricated Luther, author Uwe Siemon-Netto does a masterful job unpacking the circumstances that moulded Mann’s antipathy to Luther, primarily sourced to German theologian Ernst Troeltsch. Reinhold Niebuhr, a friend of Mann and Auden, was the American disciple of Troeltsch.

Troeltsch regarded Lutheranism as a feudal vestige in contrast with the modernity of Calvinism which he held to be better suited to tolerance and democracy. Troeltsch blamed Lutheranism for Germany’s negative traits: absolutism, patriarchy, submission to authority, and social classes.(11) The great sin of Lutheranism was, supposedly, its disinclination to resist authority.  Yet, during WWI, Troeltsch was a propagandist who promoted an “organic nationalism” that subsumed individuals. His problem was not with authority per se, only authority that did not match his preferences.

In a 1916 essay, Troeltsch described “German freedom” thus, “individuals do not constitute the totality; rather they identify themselves with it… the state is not a product of human individuals and their interests; it is preimposed upon individuals as a historical product, whereby freedom consists of their conscious and duty-bound submission”.(12) There are obvious parallels with Peter Drucker’s conception of the individual as an expression and function of his community.

The common pedestal for Troeltsch, Mann, and Auden might be narrowed down to an aversion to the simul and especially the Two Kingdoms doctrine. As the popular Scottish heretic William Barclay said:

Luther’s ethic of church and state was the greatest disaster in the history of ethics… it allowed Hitler to come to power and begat Belsen and Dachau.(13)

The preference of Luther detractors is for progressive sanctification in some manner, be it in the linear Romanist view or a secular, statist tradition. The preference was to take hold of your faith and make something of it. They resented Luther’s recovery of a personal liberty that was independent of human authority, and which refused to acknowledge more than Christ for its salvation. They all revealed in some form the idea that authentic Christianity is an expression of moral progression from less sinner to more saint, or a developmental progression from inequality to egalitarianism (to the point of universalism).

Siemon-Netto puts it this way:

“this malady [secularism in the pulpit] is rooted in the theological crisis caused by nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, which allowed secular creeds to infiltrate doctrine, thus blurring the distinction between the two realms. This is how anti-Semitic, Marxist, liberationist, feminist, and homosexual agendas managed to replace biblical and confessional truths in the kerygma of mainline Protestant churches in the Western world, sending them into a tailspin. This tendency to place man’s desires, ideologies, biases, and saccharine political correctness above the Word of God has caused far too much damage during the Nazi era to be glossed over today by responsible intellectuals on the right or the left of the political divide. (14)

As late as 1962, Auden remain fixated on the idea that, “We cannot have any liberty without license to abuse it”, echoing the conclusions of his sonnet, Luther(15). However, there is a hint of a break with Mann’s ideas: “As soon, however, as materialism comes to be regarded as sacred truth, the distinction between the things of God and the things of Caesar are abolished. ”(16) That is a terribly Lutheran thing to say, but it is not one the media narrative will recognize, and it was too late for Mann to follow those thoughts across the Missouri River.

  1. Gilbertson, Carol; Gregg Muilenburg (2004).Translucence: Religion, the Arts, and Imagination. Fortress Press.
  2. Mendelson, Edward (1991). Collected Poems: Auden. Vintage.
  3. Auden, W.H. (Author), Filipo Sanjust (Illustrator) (1972). Academic Graffiti. Random House.
  4. Siemon-Netto, Uwe (2007). The Fabricated Luther. Concordia Publishing House.
  5. Izzo, David Garrett (2011). W.H. Auden Encyclopedia. McFarland. Page 164
  6. Mann, Thomas (1945). “Germany and the Germans”, Presented at the Library of Congress May 29,1945.
  7. Mann, Thomas (1949). “Goethe and Democracy”, Presented at the Library of Congress May 2, 1949.
  8. Germany and the Germans, op.cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Henley, Grant (2007). Cultural Confessionalism: Literary Resistance and the Bekennende Kirche. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.
  11. Kolb, Robert ed. (2008) Lutheran Ecclesiastical Culture, 1550-1675. Brill. Page 324.
  12. Mitrović, Branko. (2015) Rage and Denials: Collectivist Philosophy, Politics, and Art Historiography 1890-1947. Penn State University Press. Page
  13. Barclay, William (1971). Ethics in a Permissive Society. Collins. Page 187.
  14. Siemon-Netto, op.cit. Kindle Location 3329.
  15. Auden, W.H. (1962). “Postscript: Christianity and Artin The Dyer’s Hand. Vintage Books / Random House.
  16. Ibid.


One Hundred Years of Turpitude — 1 Comment

  1. It could go that way, it could also go: “Martin Luther is the revolutionary who freed the individual conscience from its medieval bondage to imposed dogmas.” (yeah postmodernism rocks!)

    Scylla and Charybdis if you ask me.

    Christmas Blessings+,
    -Matt Mills

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