For a Communist country, the celebration of Luther’s 500th birthday is exuberant—and significant

On May 4. the verse “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Ps. 118:9) rang out not just on West German, but also on East German television. It was the first live broadcast of a church event in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The occasion was the inauguration of festivities held at Wartburg Castle to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth.

On a sweltering July 10, more than 100,000 Christians swarmed to Dresden for the closing of the GDR’s biggest of seven regional “Kirchentag” (Church Day) conventions. It was the largest church convention held on East German soil since 1954. State officials and police were barely visible, and the church texts that were used were not censored. How can all this be explained in a Marxist state? “Luther makes everything possible,” is the church’s usual reply.

The East German government’s about-face on Luther is a puzzle to many. But the abrupt reversal has apparently alarmed some of the party’s rank-and-file. Three years ago East Germans began referring to 1983 as “Luther Year.” But suddenly, in December of 1982, the party rechristened 1983 “Karl Marx Year.” (Marx died 100 years ago.) At the same time, the official state jargon was reduced from “Luther Year” to “Luther Commemoration.” But today, the primary Marx event has run its course, and it is Luther who still draws hundreds of thousands of Western tourists to the GDR.

The first indication of a more favorable view of Luther came in a paper published in September 1981. Its opening paragraph states that “everything progressive within German history” is a part of socialist-Marxist ...

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