Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Lutheran Reformation, 1617–2017

AHA Session 119
American Society of Church History 17
Central European History Society 4
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
David M. Luebke, University of Oregon
The Audience

Session Abstract

2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses, an event that has become synonymous in popular and academic memory with the start of the Protestant Reformation. Numerous celebrations, exhibits, and conferences have been planned to mark the anniversary based on the notion that five hundred years represents a unique opportunity for reflection and memorialization. The majority of these celebrations associate the Reformation specifically with Luther and the lands that make up modern-day Germany. Such contemporary understandings of the sixteenth-century Reformation are themselves historical products of past Reformation commemorations, which have appropriated the memory of sixteenth-century reform in multiple ways. This session contributes to reevaluating the “Reformation at 500” by examining the shifting history of Reformation anniversary commemorations in Germany from the first centennial in 1617 through memorialization of the Reformation in atheist East Germany. Collectively, the session’s four papers chart how political and religious authorities have instrumentalized Luther’s Reformation to serve their own purposes. Each paper displays the ways in which the specific political circumstances in each time period shaped the message that organizing groups hoped to convey through their commemorations. In the process, the session’s papers show the remarkable flexibility of the Reformation as a tool for crafting communal identities and collective memories, thereby furthering our understanding of the political role memories of the Reformation have played over the long durée of German history. By bringing four different periods of commemoration into dialogue, these papers reveal how the goals of commemoration have changed over the last four centuries while simultaneously highlighting how the strategies authorities have employed to craft memorializations have remained remarkably similar. While the underlying goals behind official commemorations of Luther’s Reformation shifted from religious to political and social, the main purpose of using memories of the sixteenth-century Reformation to create common identities has remained present throughout the history of German Reformation commemorations. This realization, which can only come through comparison of different commemorations over time from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, recasts how we should understand the backdrop behind commemorations dedicated to the Lutheran Reformation in 2017. Ultimately, this session encourages us to view the festivities of 2017 through a historical lens that addresses the fraught relationship between Luther, the Reformation, and different actors within the German state. This session therefore speaks to a wide audience and will be particularly interesting to scholars focused on religious history, political history, memory history, and the place of the past in contemporary public discourse.
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