Correction. In the review of The Fabricated Luther (posted on October 28, 2013), the Shepherd’s Study incorrectly reported that the work is a translation of an original German monograph. In actuality the work was based on the author’s 1992 doctoral dissertation (Boston University) that was written in English. Our apologies to Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto and our thanks to him for pointing out the error. – the editors of The Shepherd’s Study
The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths, 2nd Edition, by Uwe Siemon-Netto. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007. 196 pages.
(German original: Luther als Wegbereiter Hitlers?. Güttersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1993)
Uwe Siemon-Netto was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1936. After a colorful career as a journalist, in his 50s he took up the study of theology, eventually earning a doctorate from Boston University. A lifelong Lutheran, he served as Director of the Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation in St. Louis, and then helped found and direct its successor organization, the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life and League of Faithful Masks in Capistrano Beach, California. His work as a journalist — continued during and after his theological endeavors — has focused particularly on issues concerning religion and society, as well as international affairs. He has written and published four books in addition to The Fabricated Luther. He continues to write today and blogs at: uwesiemon.blogspot.com.
Uwe Siemon-Netto has done Lutheranism, the study of history, and, more generally, the practice of discussion and argumentation a great service with this book designed to both explore and explode the all-too-common myth that Martin Luther was in some way the spiritual or philosophical ancestor of Adolf Hitler and the excesses of the Nazi German state. This second edition — the original was subtitled “The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth” — makes use not only of significant scholarship but also many of Siemon-Netto’s personal experiences, interactions, and observations as a native German and as a journalist.
Siemon-Netto does not begin the book where one might expect — instead of dealing head-on with the issue of Luther’s reputation and “responsibility” for the rise and success of Nazism in Germany, after briefly setting some context, he gives the reader an extended lesson on the use and abuse of cliché in modern thought:
The word cliché is the French vocable for a stereotype printing plate. Its function is to reproduce the likeness of a given object over and over again. A cliché does not give an altogether truthful picture of that object. For one thing, a cliché is never more than two-dimensional; for another, it is not alive — once cast, it will never change. And even the best cliché is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. (22)
Siemon-Netto goes on to connect cliché thinking to the Zeitgeist, which certainly roots it in what is only contemporary and human, excluding “the theological option that God might interfere directly with history” (22). This attention to the cliché gives structure to the author’s argument — he explores next how this mental shorthand resulted first in an unsubstantiated and then an unthinking certainty in many circles that Luther was an ardent German nationalist and that he was a racist anti-Semite (along with a number of smaller but related clichés).
After presenting us with this picture of Luther as “villain” — and the various writers, thinkers, and propagandists who developed and promoted this stereotype — Siemon-Netto proceeds to systematically take apart cliché after cliché and refute charge after charge. In the process he does not shy away from admitting Luther’s errors and weaknesses, but by putting the Reformer’s words into the context of his times, his thoroughly evangelical, i.e. gospel-centered, theology, and the actual issues of his life (as opposed to the issues of the 20th century his critics have applied his writings to) Siemon-Netto gives the reader an education (or review) of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and a history lesson in how that understanding — distinguishing between the spiritual realm of the church and the secular realm of the state — played out in his dealings with peasants and princes, rebellions and resistance.
From Luther’s life, Siemon-Netto moves his arguments next to one Lutheran’s life during the rise of the Third Reich (one who sadly did not survive till its final fall), Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig. He would have been made chancellor of Germany if the 1944 coup attempt against Hitler had succeeded. He also worked with foreign contacts in the hope of finding a peaceful solution to the war (his attempts were unsuccessful largely because by that point Germany’s enemies were convinced that their enemy was not Nazism alone but the German people as a whole). Goerdeler’s life and words are used to counter the cliché that Lutheran theology and heritage necessarily led to acquiescence to authoritarianism and thus cooperation with or even support of Hitler and his regime.
More cliché-busting comes with a chapter set in Siemon-Netto’s hometown of Leipzig in 1989. Here he uses the events leading to and surrounding the collapse of the East German state to show again that Luther’s legacy leads not to unquestioning subservience to authority, but instead to the undermining of tyranny.
In an epilogue titled Kairos and Betrayal, Siemon-Netto moves from the past to the present and discusses the modern church’s continuing failure to treasure and teach (correctly) Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms:
At least in part, the emptiness of Europe’s Protestant churches every Sunday morning is the result of the ongoing betrayal of Luther’s doctrine. This seems to indicate that the lessons of World War II and the East German experiences have still not been sufficiently learned. (173)
As confessional Lutherans, we will cheer the author’s condemnation of the liberal theology and practice that has plagued the church, and we will be cheered by his optimism and encouragement for the cause of orthodox Lutheranism. We will also agree with him that “the pastor proclaiming political dogmas from the pulpit leads his congregation out of the spiritual realm” (180) and especially that, as Luther’s church stands at a crossroads, “it must rediscover its founder” (184).
Lutherans looking for a more polemic approach to various libels of Luther may not be entirely satisfied by Siemon-Netto’s work, but the author admirably achieves his aim of refuting the modern myths surrounding our church’s namesake. He does so with an approach and voice that is both academic and journalistic, introducing some rather advanced ideas (like the cliché) alongside both theological explanation and the real-life stories of people who illustrate the truth of the theology and the error of the aspersions. We meet along the way, for instance, the radical reformer Thomas Münzer, the writer Thomas Mann, Siemon-Netto’s devout Lutheran grandmother, and 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
My criticisms of the book are largely of the “I wish he had …” type, mostly a desire for even more of the material he included. Since this is the second edition, I also found myself trying to determine what material was new and what was not. It would have been valuable to see whether his conclusions and recommendations had changed since he first wrote the book, but the only obvious evidence of revisions was the inclusion of footnoted references dated after the publication of the first edition. It is also unclear to what extent this English edition is merely a translation of an original German monograph or a fresh treatment of the topic for an English-speaking audience — the focus on William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich suggests the latter might be the case).
I found the “cliché thinking” approach interesting, but I did feel it would have worked better as support to the main arguments, rather than as what gave structure to the arguments. (Those looking for another look at the power and danger of such thinking might be interested in a non-theological book published in 2012, Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Clichés; while it definitely has partisan political edge, it provides useful — and entertaining — practice in identifying how aphorisms and things “everybody knows” are often at odds with both reason and truth.)
The Fabricated Luther would be a valuable addition to any Lutheran pastor’s, teacher’s, or layperson’s library, not only for his education and ready reference, but also as something he can loan out to members and others who are confronted with or taken in by the monster-making modern myths about our theological forebearer. A good knowledge of Luther’s life and works, combined with deep knowledge of Lutheran theology, especially the doctrine of the two kingdoms will, of course, more fully equip you to more effectively refute those stereotypes when you encounter them. Siemon-Netto’s book is a very solid foundation on which to build, and he has given our church a great gift by providing it.