BERLIN — The world’s 900 million-plus Protestants are preparing to commemorate a major milestone next week: the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the failings of the Catholic Church.
But in Germany, the land of Luther’s birth, the country where his rebellion took root, and a place where divisions over the onetime Augustinian monk’s legacy linger to this day, the quincentennial commemoration has taken on a more complicated significance.
Germans have been gearing up for a decade to commemorate the anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses.
The past two years alone have been packed with commemorative concerts and historical events, including a visit by former President Barack Obama to Berlin in May during the Protestant church’s summer festivities. For the first time in German history, Oct. 31 will be deemed a national holiday.
But the anniversary is also training a spotlight on lingering, sometimes painful divisions in modern Germany.
The celebrations illustrate how modern German culture has steeped itself in the liberal values of the Reformation — even amid historic contention between Catholics and Protestants, the nation’s division into Eastern and Western states during the Cold War, and the challenges faced today in accommodating more than 1 million mostly Muslim refugees who have been allowed into the country in recent years.
“The legacy of the 500 years is that Germany was among those countries where the one and the other were living in the same cultural space, in the same linguistic space, and later on, in the same nation-state,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “We have been living with a truce in our country, and that truce had to be maintained in a rather careful balance.”
On Oct. 31, 1517, the rebellious priest and theologian nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg to protest the practice of indulgences — the papal practice of letting the faithful absolve their sins by donating to the church.
His defiance sparked a latent nationalism among Germans seeking spiritual and political independence from Rome. A few years later, after Luther translated the Bible into German, downtrodden farmers in the multitude of kingdoms and principalities that comprised Germany rose up against their Catholic lords in the bloody Peasants’ War of 1524.
“The notion appeared that this understanding of liberty could also be applied politically,” said Christoph Heil, a pastor with the Evangelical Congregation of Kreuzberg-Mitte in Berlin. “Luther himself was expressly opposed to this, but regardless, the idea of liberty as a rejection of subservience yielded huge effects.”
The theological arguments Luther sparked have never entirely died out, though the bloody clashes between competing Christian faiths is largely a thing of the past. Just this week, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who was the chief theological adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, took exception to what he said were the too-positive comments of some fellow Catholic leaders toward Luther and his rebellion.
He noted that Luther, in addition to pointing out abuses, came to challenge some fundamental tenets of the Roman faith, including the legitimacy of the clergy.
“That is why we cannot accept Luther’s reform being called a reform of the Church in a Catholic sense,” the cardinal wrote in an essay for a Milan-based newspaper. “Catholic reform is a renewal of faith lived in grace, in the renewal of customs, of ethics, a spiritual and moral renewal of Christians; not a new foundation, not a new Church.”
Some 42 percent of Germans are Catholic and 28 percent are Protestant, according to a Pew Research Center study. Sectarian conflicts have largely subsided and, like many other Western European countries, less than 1 in 5 Germans attend church on a weekly basis, but the country’s religious tradition is strong. Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in nominally atheistic, communist East Germany as the daughter of a Protestant pastor, for example.
Ms. Merkel has cited her upbringing and the country’s experience with East German refugees seeking to escape oppression as reasons for Germans to work harder to integrate Muslim newcomers.
“We don’t have too much Islam; we have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” she told members of her Christian Democratic Union political party in 2010 during a debate about integrating Muslims into the country.
Germany needs more public discussion “about the values that guide us [and] about our Judeo-Christian tradition,” she said. “We have to stress this again with confidence, then we will also be able to bring about cohesion in our society.”
Those values were put to the test in 2015 when the chancellor, who recently won a fourth term in office, opened her nation’s borders to about 1 million mostly Muslim refugees fleeing violence from the Arab world and elsewhere.
Many Germans embraced the newcomers, but others in the nation’s economically weak, culturally homogenous East feared the influx of Muslims would strike at the heart of the German identity. It was a paradox: Many feared a too-Christian attitude toward the stranger and the refugee could put into question Germany’s very identity as a Christian nation.
The Reformation preached solidarity and acceptance, but many believe that “those values that have been cherished here for centuries will be lost to a Muslim society in which those values are largely nonexistent,” said Ursula, 82, a parishioner at the Melanchthon Protestant Church in Berlin, who requested that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.
Such fears gave rise to the right-wing, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany, or AfD, whose campaign based on German identity politics hit home for many voters.
The party surged in popularity in the years after the so-called refugee crisis by using anti-Muslim rhetoric and campaign posters that criticized traditional Muslim garb and promoted German procreation. At the nation’s Sept. 24 national vote, the AfD placed third with 12.6 percent of the vote, putting a right-wing nationalist party in the German parliament for the first time since the 1950s.
While the party preaches the sanctity of Christendom in German society, the nation’s churches have banded together in opposition of the AfD, lambasting the party for promulgating what they define as hate speech and polarizing the nation.
At the AfD’s party convention in April in the German city of Cologne, thousands of Catholic and Protestant clergy protested the party under the motto “Unsere Kreuzen haben keine Haken,” or “Our crosses don’t have hooks,” an allusion to the infamous symbol of the Nazi Party, the swastika.
“It’s the AfD that is betraying the liberal democratic values we hold dear in Germany, not the other way around,” said Mr. Heil, referring to claims by the AfD that Muslim newcomers are muddying German values. “They say they want to save the German identity, but in effect they’re doing quite the opposite.”
That’s because the AfD’s platform contradicts a tenet of the Reformation that believes that people shouldn’t fear change, said Doris, 65, a parishioner at the Melanchthon Protestant Church in Berlin, who also requested that her last name be omitted.
“They feel threatened, but with so much fear they’re not able to fully live,” she said. “We shouldn’t be generalizing these people and spinning things to confirm our own fears.”
Such thoughtfulness in combating one’s fears is exactly why the values of the Reformation will persist, said Mr. Heil.
“The Reformation means to dare to change even under circumstances of insurmountable resistance,” he said. “The memory of the earth-shattering results of 500 years ago emboldens us to have less fear of change — whether in society or politics.”